| Contest of wills
Two processes are simultaneously underway, currently, which throw light on the relationship between military force and the society it is protecting. American military power is visibly in use in Iraq since the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime. The range of challenges to be met in Iraq is a daunting one. It includes reconstruction, constitutional, economic and societal tasks, which at the best of times would need a few decades to fructify. Israel is forcefully following a military option with a view to securing its people against suicide attacks and to hastening a resolution of the Palestinian issue. In neither of these processes is there a worthwhile military opposition. Yet in both processes, overwhelming military force is unable to create conditions in which peace can prevail. The two ongoing examples point towards the future of military force as an instrument of policy in peace processes.
On Iraq, the United States of America has obtained a mandate of appro- val from the United Nations for its military presence and that of its coalition partners. Despite that, UN offices and agencies have become targets of Iraqi terrorist attacks. These attacks have been devastating enough to force UN offices to be vacated and moved out of Iraq. The whole edifice of US attempts to rebuild Iraq and its society is underwritten by the presence of its troops and large aid programs. Notwithstanding this, the US military presence is seen by Iraqis and in the Arab world as one of forced and unwelcome occupation. It is seen as a variant of imperial and colonial hegemony as also thr- ough the prisms of a civilization conflict. The negative spiral of more terrorist attacks followed by greater military responses has already been set in motion. One would supplement the other, and de-linking the two would become more difficult by the week.
Israel has been in the military response mode since long against Palestinian suicide attacks. It has attempted to defend its people from the trauma of suicide attacks in public places, in which innocent civilians bear the maximum costs and suffer the most. Ariel Sharon’s government has used every means at its disposal to impose costs on the Palestinian Authority. It has demonstrated great intelligence and military competence in taking out Hamas leaders responsible for terrorist attacks. It has shut off power and water. It has closed employment avenues at will. It has prevented Palestinians from working in the olive farms. It has confined Yasser Arafat to a compound. It has threatened regime change by planning to have him removed from Palestine.
Israel’s ability to take punitive military action is unchallenged. There is also some justification in an elected government having to take action in retaliation, even if it is a poor substitute for policy. The fact, however, remains that military attacks and other Israeli measures harm the Palestinian people directly and extensively. They are affected more than the Palestinian leaders. This fuels hatred and sustains the rosters of volunteers for suicide bombing. Israeli claims of having kill- ed those responsible for terrorist acts are juxtaposed in the international media with occasions of national sorrow and calls for revenge at the Palestinian funerals.
Pressures on the Israeli high command of manning the front-line security in the face of unending terror attacks in the tightly packed hinterland has been immense. There have been intense internal debates in the Israeli military of the counter-productive nature of indiscriminate use of force against civilians. Military leaders of democratic and liberal society states abhor indiscriminate use of military force. Israel is no exception to this worthy tradition, even if it has in the past used questionable means to put down hostile groups.
The realization of the diminishing returns of using military force against civilians has recently boiled over in Israel. The chief of staff of Israeli armed forces, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, went public with his views that Israeli military tactics were threatening its own interests. The crippling of lives of innocent Palestinians through curfews, road-blocks and crackdowns are “tactics that operate against our own strategic interests.” According to the general, it increases hatred for Israel and strengthens terrorist organizations. He was blunt in stating that the “war is taking place on the backs of civilians”. One of the most decorated fighter pilots in Israel’s history, Brigadier General Yiftah Spector, recently signed a letter with two dozen reserve pilots, to say that Israeli military policies in Palestinian territories are against “everything I was raised on” during his career in the air force. He was promptly grounded as a flight instructor.
It is not a coincidence that the US and Israeli military operations are taking place in the same region. The two states have for long believed in preponderant military power as the means of obtaining security. The American Way of War, a military theology which places a premium on military victory with overwhelming force, had been absorbed by Israeli leaders.
The war in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein was predicated on that assumption. Israeli emphasis on decisive military victory was led in no small measure, by its initial years of vulnerability to Arab threats. The dramatic victories of the 1967 war and the ones which followed were decisive military outcomes. Even in the Yom Kippur war, Israeli generals wanted to destroy the Egyptian army corps which had been cut off on the wrong side of the Suez Canal. International pressures prevented that from happening. It not only saved Arab pride but prepared the way for Camp David. However, the sea- rch for decisive victory still continues.
What is unique is the shared strategic belief in the role of military victory. A decisive military victory is assured to the US and Israeli military in the Arab region. But that does not ensure that peace can be embedded after a humiliating military defeat. That the purpose of war is not victory but peace, is a lesson often overlooked in the pursuit of decisive military victories. Consequently, military victories become the dominant discourse. This was and still continues to be highlighted in the administration’s defence of events in Iraq. The Israeli situation is no different. The response of the Sharon government to its chief of staff’s position on the conduct of military operations also aims to highlight military efficiency rather than the political dilemmas facing the country.
The essential question which arises is about the use of military power to find political solutions to threats and conflicts. What post-Cold-War conflicts have shown up is the reality of asymmetric wars being capable of staving off capitulation in the face of overwhelming military imbalance. As Colin Powell responded not long ago, no amount of tanks and helicopter gun-ships will stop the suicide-bomber. This reality has led to a substantive shift in strategic balance. A conflict can be kept going indefinitely by the weaker side, despite the military superiority of the dominant power. It is no surprise that Israeli analysts have been claiming that Yasser Arafat’s strategy is to perpetuate the conflict rather than resolve it through negotiations.
What we see, therefore, is the contest of wills being waged through dissimilar means. One side uses technology and superior weaponry while the other uses low technology and high motivation to produce suicide-bombers and other terrorist means. The negative impact on the minds of people and society is becoming apparent in states with preponderant military power. The impact on societies with low levels of military capabilities is marked by religious and civilizational fervour. International television coverage and other information technology means also make it difficult to influence public mood beyond a threshold. The end result of this form of conflict with extended time zones and indeterminate societal stamina is completely uncertain.
When, in this volatile and uncertain situation, the political needs of individual leaders and parties get added, the uncertainty factor is further compounded. In Israel, Sharon is facing daunting inquiries on financial matters. In the US, George W. Bush will face increasing pressure both on the handling of the intelligence and on the consequences of war. The economy will also figure high in the public mind. The link between economy and the uncertain outcome in Iraq will not be long in coalescing. Political leaderships facing challenges of political economy in the midst of a military campaign have traditionally chosen to reinforce the military option. The consequence of that in Palestine and Iraq can only be of greater turbulence. The two wars being waged simultaneously in west Asia will offer important lessons in statecraft and military strategy.