Friday, October 27, 2006

On Force, Clarity and the Cleanliness of Breaks

I've had a peculiar thought concerning the seemingly interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict kicking around in my head for the past couple of months, but I haven't quite felt the time was right to put that thought to paper (ether?). This, despite receiving ample inspiration from this Greg Djerejian post, and this thought provoking article by friend-of-TIA Ronald Bruce St John.

For one, wading into the mire of these emotionally charged waters is normally a risky endeavor. The backlash from each side can, at times, be furious and unrelenting - with reasonable debate drowned out by so much ad hominem and other baseless accusations. The risks associated with such a rhetorical foray are not lessened by the controversial nature of the thesis I am about to propose. Nevertheless, this article in Foreign Affairs by Edward Djerejian (evidence of apples and their proximity to trees) has sufficiently motivated me to throw my hat into the lion's den.

First, though, some background via a passage in Ron Suskind's One Percent Doctrine (pp. 104-105): became clear at the start of 2001 that [the Bush] administration was to alter the long-standing U.S. role of honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to something less than that. The President, in fact, had said in the first NSC principals meeting of his administration that Clinton had overreached at the end of his second term, bending too much toward Yasser Arafat -- who then broke off productive Camp David negotiations at the final moment -- and that "We're going to tilt back ward Israel." Powell, a chair away in the Situation Room that day, said such a move would reverse thirty years of U.S. policy, and that it could unleash the new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Israeli army in ways that could be dire for the Palestinians. Bush's response: "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." [emphasis mine throughout]
While I strongly disagree with the strategic tack taken by the Bush administration during this period, in a sense, Bush is right about the effect that the use of force can have on the ambiguities and open questions associated with a given conflict. Of course, as Iraq has proven, sometimes it's better not to "clarify" certain "things" - such as the limits of our military and nation building capacity.

As I wrote at the time, Israel, in many ways, imitated this form of self-inflicted wound by "clarifying" its own weaknesses through its rash engagement with Lebanon in the waning months of this past summer. But here's the interesting - and controversial - part: did the bloody nose suffered by Israel's military forces actually create a situation in which forging a lasting peace in the region is more, not less, possible? In that sense, could Israel's putative "loss" end up being its long term "gain"? While this ostensible praise of Israel's military frustration may seem blasphemous to ardent supporters of Israel, allow me to explain. Actually, allow the elder Djerejian:

The recent fighting in the Levant presents a fundamental challenge for U.S. policy toward the Middle East -- but also an opportunity to move from conflict management to conflict resolution. The United States should seize this moment to transform the cease-fire in the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict into a step toward a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Doing so would facilitate the marginalization of the forces of Islamic radicalism and enhance the prospects for regional security and political, economic, and social progress.

The Hezbollah-Israeli confrontation has further proved what should already have been painfully clear to all: there is no viable military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even with its military superiority, Israel cannot achieve security by force alone or by unilateral withdrawal from occupied territories. Nor can Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and similar groups destroy Israel. Peace can come only from negotiated agreements that bind both sides.
I think that to a large extent, the Likud and other hawkish factions in Israel have taken their nation's military superiority as a given. This has led to, in my opinion, some lazy thinking, short-sighted policies and general over-reaching. The incentives have been skewed. Similar to the Bush administration's own approach to conflict resolution (or lack thereof!), some influential leaders in Israel have seemed to prefer sabotaging efforts to bring peaceful settlement (see, ie, manner of Gaza withdrawal), in an effort to make the most bellicose courses of action inevitable. The underlying assumption behind these parellel strategic maneuvers being the belief that, when the military conflict is made irresistible, Israel (or America in the case of the Bush administration) could simply assert its will, militarily, on its stubborn adversaries. No compromise necessary. No giveaways at the negotiation table. Clean, tidy and satisfying in the extreme.

Just as the invasion of Iraq has forced some in the Bush administration to reconsider the viability of a World War IV-like series of invasions in Syria, Iran and elsewhere (as advocated by most in the pathologically bellicose neoconservative camp), perhaps the recent display of force in Lebanon also "clarified" the viability of certain strategies for Israel's body politic.

Don't get me wrong, I am obviously not hoping for a tilt in the balance of military power such that Israel comes under an imminent existential threat through the mobilization of neighboring armies. We should be willing to intervene, with gusto, should this eventuality come about. But, like Edward Djerejian, I don't see that eventuality anywhere on the horizon. Yet I acknowledge that Hezbollah and others might read too much into that group's ability to conduct a successful defensive action against the IDF, such that they begin to adopt their own version of hubristic of over-reach.

Nevertheless, I am suggesting that a dynamic of acknowledged military stalemate might create a sense of urgency to revisit alternative political solutions that, ultimately, offer the only realistic route to peaceful co-existence. For the particulars of such solutions, I recommend the Djerejian and St John pieces linked-to above.

Any such political outreach will, ultimately, require that the Palestinian leadership recognize and take advantage of the openings that might present themselves. And that is far from a certainty - or even likelihood. Still, the ability of the Palestinian leadership to function properly might be aided, in part, by strategies designed to buttress such ability, and bolster their control, rather than to sow chaos in hopes that they fail - thus requiring the faux "solution" of military engagement.

I get the impression that Israel's lack of total military dominance in the region might just trigger a series of events that leads us down the right path. At the very least, it should tone down the influence of the excessively hawkish Israeli political factions. Much as our own misguided ubder-hawks have been marginalized - relegated to spin their wheels in frustation within the quarantined echo chambers of the AEI and the Weekly Standard.

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