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[MIDDLE EAST] Commentary on "A War of Escalating Errors"

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  • madchinaman
    A War of Escalating Errors Israelis and their foes are swinging wildly -- and missing their targets. By Caleb Carr, CALEB CARR is a visiting professor of
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 24, 2006
      A War of Escalating Errors
      Israelis and their foes are swinging wildly -- and missing their
      By Caleb Carr, CALEB CARR is a visiting professor of military
      studies at Bard College and the author of "The Lessons of Terror: A
      History of Warfare Against Civilians."


      This notion — absorbing smaller blows in order to deliver decisive
      later strikes — has important historical precedents. . . In 1937,
      when imperial Japanese aircraft "mistakenly" attacked and sank the
      U.S. gunboat Panay and several other vessels on China's Yangtze
      River, some in the U.S. called for war; but FDR realized that the
      U.S. was in fact neither politically nor militarily ready for such a


      'Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake," runs
      Napoleon's famous dictum, and were either the Israeli government or
      the groups that are leading the Palestinian people (Hamas and Fatah
      and international organizations such as Hezbollah) capable of
      assimilating this basic piece of military sense, we should have
      already seen a sudden outbreak of peace, or, at least, cautious
      inactivity, in the border areas of Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and

      Both sides have made fundamentally foolish moves in recent weeks,
      yet each side has consistently been rescued from its mistakes by the
      errors of the other. And, following this pattern, they have worked
      themselves and the world to the edge of a crisis that is ominous
      even by Middle Eastern standards.

      Who initiated this sequence of errors? As with all crises in the
      region, this question is almost impossible to answer. The specific
      trigger is often said to be the June incursion into Israel by
      Palestinians from Gaza, which resulted in the seizure of Cpl. Gilad
      Shalit of the Israel Defense Forces and the death of two other IDF
      soldiers. But the Palestinians have explained that their commandos
      were carrying out a reprisal raid after the IDF seized two
      Palestinian brothers, Osama and Mustafa Muamar, who, they claimed,
      are innocent of anything save being sons of a known Hamas activist,
      Ali Muamar.

      Viewed in this light, the Palestinian action seems
      uncharacteristically legitimate, proportionate and even daring. For,
      unlike the Israeli seizure of the Muamars, the whole of the
      Palestinian operation was aimed at strictly military targets. Yet
      the Israelis answered with a sadly predictable full-scale military
      incursion into Gaza. The Palestinians, meanwhile, abandoned
      proportionality once again by stating that the release not simply of
      the Muamars but of hundreds of their people imprisoned in Israel
      would be the condition of Shalit's release.

      More important, perhaps, the Israeli incursion into Gaza gave
      Hezbollah (or so it felt) the green light to launch its rocket
      attacks from southern Lebanon. President Bush and Israeli leaders
      might try to represent the two events — the action in Gaza and that
      in south Lebanon — as unconnected, but it is an assertion that has
      failed to gain traction in most of the Muslim world, as well as in
      many other countries.

      Israel's reaction in Gaza had been especially foolish. Although the
      original Palestinian attack on the IDF post was carried out against
      a purely military target, the quick demand for the release of
      hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israel showed the Palestinians'
      true lack of diplomatic deftness. Had the Israelis limited
      themselves to the threat of an incursion, while carrying out the
      kind of special-forces search-and-rescue operations of which they
      are capable, the Palestinians would have lost their advantage.

      Not to fear, however: The Palestinian mistake was indeed
      interrupted, and grotesquely, by the sight of massively armed IDF
      conventional forces crossing into one of the poorest and smallest
      regions on the planet, all to rescue what Israel claimed was
      a "kidnapped" soldier — an assertion that was absurd because a
      uniformed, front-line noncommissioned officer can no more
      be "kidnapped" by the enemy than an innocent, unarmed child can "die
      in battle." Already, the language of the conflict was taking on the
      dimensions of events occurring on the other side of Alice's looking
      glass, and things would only get worse.

      The Palestinians' allies, in their turn, soon rescued Israel from
      this terrible error in judgment. After a border skirmish — the true
      origins of which may never be known — Hezbollah initiated a rocket
      offensive against Israeli towns and cities in the north of the
      country, causing a certain number of civilian casualties but far
      more widespread civilian panic. So great was the panic that Israel
      felt the need to once again take its turn at rescuing its enemies
      from error. It bombarded and finally invaded southern Lebanon in a
      barrage that would turn out to be, by orders of magnitude, the most
      savage step in the spiral of horror, miscalculation and interruption
      of miscalculation.

      And now? Now, scarcely anyone on either side of the conflict knows
      or cares who was the first to break the "rules of war." Civilians on
      both sides only want relief from the constant anxiety of
      indiscriminate attacks and revenge for those noncombatants who —
      whether because they happened to live where a Katyusha rocket landed
      inside Israel, or because they lived too close to where Hezbollah
      had parked a launcher of such rockets inside southern Lebanon, or
      because they simply have nowhere to go to escape the narrow confines
      of the Gaza corridor or West Bank refugee camps — have met hideous
      deaths or suffered equally hideous wounds.

      IS THERE AN alternative to this pattern of mistakes and
      countermistakes? There is, but it involves a quality that neither
      the Israelis nor the Palestinians have ever come close to mastering:
      tactical restraint in order to achieve strategic advantage. Simply
      put, this involves looking past immediate and all-out retaliation as
      the best method of countering threat. It is not a call for turning
      the other cheek; rather, it suggests that savagely swinging back
      every time one's cheek is dealt so much as a brushing blow does not
      amount to effective boxing, much less enlightened belligerent

      Imagine, for example, that either Israel (in the case of the initial
      Palestinian and Hezbollah attacks) or the Palestinians and Hezbollah
      (in the case of the original Israeli reprisals) had
      decided: "Patience; we will absorb this assault, and wait to focus
      our attacks until we can strike at what we know to be — and can
      prove to the rest of the world are — the enemy military or
      paramilitary units responsible. That will get us our principal
      objective: the certain backing of global public opinion. We will
      refuse throughout to engage in disproportionate assaults on
      indiscriminate targets, and if for a period we risk suffering more
      losses than our opponent, we will nonetheless profit in the long
      run. When we have netted the world's sympathy, we will receive more
      backing, even as our enemies' support dwindles, and what had seemed
      to be tactical peril will in fact prove to be strategic advantage."

      This notion — absorbing smaller blows in order to deliver decisive
      later strikes — has important historical precedents. It forms a
      central tenet of the philosophy of ancient China's Sun Tzu, arguably
      the world's greatest military thinker. But even during modern
      American history, we can find the idea at work: For it decisively
      influenced the pre-World War II steps taken by President Franklin D.

      In 1937, when imperial Japanese aircraft "mistakenly" attacked and
      sank the U.S. gunboat Panay and several other vessels on China's
      Yangtze River, some in the U.S. called for war; but FDR realized
      that the U.S. was in fact neither politically nor militarily ready
      for such a conflict. And so he (rather unhappily) bided his time,
      accepting what seemed to his enemies a craven reparations deal and
      awaiting an event that would allow the overwhelming majority of the
      American public to appreciate the dangers of Japanese medievalist
      militarism. The wait also gave the American Navy extra years to

      Similarly, when Roosevelt later tried, after the outbreak of the
      European war in 1939, to engineer American entrance into the
      conflict through elaborate trickery centered on luring Nazi subs
      into attacking U.S. warships in the North Atlantic, he quickly found
      that, much as the Allies might match his own desire to get the U.S.
      into the war, his own people were still not ready. And so he did not
      act, convincing Adolf Hitler of his own degeneracy, as well as that
      of the people he led.

      BUT ROOSEVELT WAS, of course, waiting for a precise set of
      conditions that would allow him not simply to be the just party in
      the war but to appear to be as much, at home and abroad. And, of
      course, by the time the U.S. entered the European and the Pacific
      wars, there was no doubt about our moral rectitude or our increased
      military and naval strength.

      Lives had been lost, shipping endangered, prestige — personal and
      otherwise — sullied, but FDR had, by bending with the early blows
      and waiting for what turned out to be the disaster of Pearl Harbor,
      pulled off the stroke that would garner the United States, over the
      course of World War II, so much moral authority that even his less
      internationally adept successors — from Lyndon Johnson to George W.
      Bush — have not been able to drain it; not quite yet, at any rate.

      Unlike FDR, however, the current Palestinian, Hezbollah and Israeli
      leaderships have been unable to embody anything like military or
      diplomatic restraint. They have instead displayed ever-increasing
      and more self-defeating impatience, a wholehearted willingness to
      bail each other out of their respective worst mistakes and a
      mutually callous attitude toward civilian death.

      Nearly identical mistakes and miscues, interlocked in a sickeningly
      seamless and seemingly unstoppable pattern: In this as in so many
      things, these enemies have displayed what Freud called "the
      narcissism of small differences." Those differences seem far less
      small, however, when one realizes that the narcissism extends to the
      belief that their causes are worth not only the lives of the most
      innocent on both sides of every border, but the risk of a regional —
      or even a global — conflagration.

      Clearly, the combatants can no longer be trusted to make sound
      judgments, and the time has come for the world to insert that rarest
      of phenomena, a multinational force with both bullets and a brief:
      to keep the sides apart, to allow humanitarian relief to be
      administered and to demonstrate that the rest of the world's
      patience with their repeated errors, and interruptions of each
      others' errors, will no longer be tolerated.

      Will Friday's United Nations Resolution accomplish this? When one
      reads the fine print, it seems unlikely. And even if it can, it will
      not begin to go into effect for days — and days, in this conflict,
      can narrow possibilities for success dramatically by allowing the
      terrible error of reciprocal civilian death to go on.
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