There has been a qualitative leap in military technology that makes all inherited conventional wisdom, and war as an instrument of political policy, utterly irrelevant, not just to the United States but also to any other state that embarks upon it. Nations should have realized this a century ago but they did not. But there have been decisive changes in balances of power, and more accurate and destructive weapons–and soon nuclear bombs and the missiles to deliver them-are becoming more and more available to the poorer countries. Technology is moving much more rapidly than the diplomatic and political resources or will to control its inevitable consequences.
The United States should have learned its lesson in Vietnam, and its public is aware of it to a far greater extent than its politicians. The war in Iraq has reaffirmed the decisive limits of technology when fighting against enemies who are decentralized and determined. It has been extraordinarily expensive but militarily ineffective, and America is ineluctably losing its vast undertaking. Rivals are much more equal, and wars more protracted and expensive for those who persist in fighting them. America’s ambitions for hegemony throughout the globe can now be more and more successfully challenged. Nowhere is this truer than the Middle East, where the U.S.’ long-standing alliance with Israel, which shares its fascination with military power, has produced colossal political failures for both nations.
The ultra-modern Israel Defense Force finally learned this in Lebanon last July, when Hezbollah rockets destroyed or seriously damaged at least 20 of its best tanks and they were fought to a draw-abandoning the field of battle and losing their precious myth of invincibility. Growing demoralization well before the Lebanon war plagued Israel, and the percentage of Jews with higher academic degrees that migrated grew steadily after 2002. Israel exports brainpower to a extent very high by world standards. The Lebanon war and talk-both from Israeli and Iranian leaders– of “existential” threats to the state’s very existence only gravely aggravated this defeatism and the desire to leave. At the end of January, 78 percent of the Israeli public was “unhappy” with their leaders for a variety of reasons.
Israeli politics has always been highly unstable by any standard but the corruption and other scandals that are now plaguing it exceed any in its history, paralleling its loss of confidence in its military power. Alienation from the political class in Israel has never been greater and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his cronies hope that spreading fear of the Iranian bomb will help them ride out a political storm that has seen his poll rating plummet to a record low. But fear works both ways, frightening the people who can migrate most easily and keeping out tourists and foreign investors.
Moreover, the Israeli public’s anxiety has not been lessened by reports of the efficacy of anti-missile systems that Israel has installed at great expense. The Iranians have mastered all of the technical bases of missile technology, according to Israeli experts, and although the quality and precision of its missiles may leave something to be desired they can inflict immense damage. Israeli specialists also argue that the missile defense shield that Israel possesses-in common with those of all other nations–is not sufficient to protect it. Syria has missiles also-not so effective as the Iranian but much closer and capable of inflicting much damage if used.
Notwithstanding the apocalyptic proclamations on Iran’s imminent nuclear power by Olmert’s major rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, or by the prime minister himself and some of his cabinet on occasion, this hysteria is politically motivated and intended to garner public support.
Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, told the Israeli Knesset last December that diplomatic efforts were “far from being over”–and that an Iranian nuclear bomb was at least two years or more off. Many Israeli strategists, including Yuval Diskin, head of Shin Bet, now regard Bush’s war in Iraq as a highly destabilizing disaster for the entire region and a major boon to Iran’s power, and they regret having endorsed it. A war would Iran would be far more dangerous. Worse yet, efforts to demonize Iran have failed. Only 36 percent of the Jewish population of Israel polled last month thought an Iranian nuclear attack the “biggest threat” to Israel.
Serious Israeli strategists overwhelmingly believe, to cite Reuven Pedatzur in Ha’aretz last November, that “mutual assured deterrence, can be forged, with high degree of success, between Israel and Iran.” Israeli strategic thinking is highly realistic. Early this February a study released at a conference by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University predicted that Iran would behave rationally with nuclear weapons and “that the elimination of Israel is not considered to be an essential national interest” for it. Iran “will act logically, evaluating the price and risks involved.” A preemptive attack on Iran nuclear research sites would “be a strategic mistake,” Pedatzur warned the conference, and the use of tactical nuclear weapons against them sheer folly. “Our best option is open nuclear deterrence.”
Israeli experts have come to the realization that American policy in the Middle East is not merely an immense failure but also a decisive inhibition to Israel reorienting its foreign policy to confront the realities of the region that the Jews have chosen to live in. It has ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein from Iraq and created an overwhelming Iranian presence. In Palestine its campaign for democracy has brought Hamas to power. Troop escalation in Iraq is deemed futile. “It’s a total misreading of reality,” one Israeli expert is quoted when discussing America’s role in the region. Israeli interests were no longer being served. American policies have failed and Israel has given a carte blanche to a strategy that leaves it more isolated than ever.
Peace or War?
The only security Israel can have will be a result of its signing peace accords with the Palestinians and the neighboring countries. It is no more likely than the U. S. to defeat its enemies on the field of battle and its arms have been neutralized. The war in Lebanon was only an augury of the decisive limits of its military power. It is this context that secret Israeli talks with Syria have enormous significance. They began in January 2004 in Turkey with the approval of Sharon, moving on to Switzerland, where the Swiss Foreign Office played the role of intermediary. By August 2005 they had reached a very advanced form and covered territorial, water, border and political questions. Details remained to be ironed out but they were a quantum leap in solving one of the region’s crucial problems.
When the Baker-Hamilton Study Group filed its recommendations last December, negotiations with Syria were especially stressed-a point Baker reiterated when he testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last January 30th. Baker undoubtedly knew about the secret talks and Syria’s explicit statements it wished to break with radical Islamic movements and was ready to discuss its ties with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
These nominally secret talks were made public on January 8, 2007 when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak accused the United States in an interview with an Israeli paper of obstructing peace between Israel and Syria.
Ha’aretz’ Akiva Eldar then published a series of extremely detailed accounts, including the draft accord, confirming that Syria ‘offered a far reaching and equitable peace treaty that would provide for Israel’s security and is comprehensive-and divorce Syria from Iran and even create a crucial distance between it and Hezbollah and Hamas. The Bush Administration’s role in scuttling any peace accord was decisive. C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, sat in at the final meeting, two former senior CIA officials were present in all of these meetings and sent regular reports to Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. The press has been full of details on how the American role was decisive, because it has war, not peace, at the top of its agenda.
Most of the Israeli Establishment favors it. On January 28 important Israelis met publicly in Jaffa and called the Israeli response “an irresponsible gamble with the State of Israel” since it made Cheney arbiter of Israeli national interests. They included former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak, former Shin Bet chief Ya’akov Perry, former directors of the Foreign Ministry David Kimche and Alon Liel (who negotiated the deal and believes it is very serious), and the like. Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Foreign Minister, has since supported their position and argued that it is “too important” for Israel to endorse yet “another failure in the U.S. strategy.”
But Olmert has explicitly said that the Bush Administration opposes a negotiated peace with Syria. Therefore he is opposed to it also. Olmert’s contradiction is that he wants to remain closely allied to the U.S., whatever its policies, yet he is now one of the most unpopular prime ministers in Israel’s history and in power only because of Sharon’s stroke. Israel is a crucial pillar of American policy in the entire region but this policy is failing. An alliance with America is Olmert’s recipe for political defeat when the inevitable election is called. That is his problem.
Israel’s power after 1947 was based on its military supremacy over its weaker neighbors. It is in the process of losing it-if it has not already. Lesser problems, mainly demographic, will only be aggravated if tension persists. It simply cannot survive allied with the United States, because the Americans will either leave the region or embark on a war that risks Israel’s very existence. It is time for it to become “normal” and make peace with its neighbors, and that will require it to make major concessions. It can do that if it embarks upon an independent foreign policy, and it can start immediately to do so with Syria.
GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, Another Century of War? and The Age of War. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book is After Socialism.