History’s handcuffs: The Iraq and Lebanon wars feed skepticism about attacking Iran

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-11-12

As the debate rages over Iran’s nuclear intentions – and Israel’s options, both military and otherwise – we need to acknowledge three recent moments that are making many people doubt the wisdom of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Both Israeli and American policymakers need to be aware of the dark, nearly blinding, shadow of recent history, because in our 24/7 media world, responding to those fears is an essential part of telling the right story. And getting it right is not just spin. It is of strategic value in democracies like the United States and Israel.

Those supporting a military option against Iraq have invoked Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler, Jimmy Carter’s indulgence of the Ayatollahs, and the West’s tendency to tolerate dictators as negative examples. They have mentioned the fight against Nazism, the resistance that ultimately defeated the Soviets in the Cold War, and Israel’s super-successful, surprise-strikes against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities as positive examples.  Bullies crumble, the optimistic chorus suggests, and democracies rise to the challenge, when necessary.  Having done it successfully before, the reasoning goes, Israel, and the United States can and should do it again.

Many Americans, however, are doubly traumatized by the Iraq war, which began in March, 2003 but was triggered by the September 11th terrorist attacks.  Most important, many continue to believe that George W. Bush lied America into the conflict. The absence of WMDs – Weapons of Mass Destruction — suggests to them that Bush manipulated the data and imagined a Saddam Hussein weapons program where none existed, to drag America into war.

The sorry spectacle of the most credible member of the Bush Administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, making the case for war and WMDs before the United Nations Security Council, seemingly confirms the impression that the whole buildup to the war was a farce. The WMD story seems to be a cover for a VMA – a Very Mad America after the 9/11 trauma – and, unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu is closer to George W. Bush in the public credibility scale than he is to where Colin Powell was in public trust and esteem before the unfound weapons debacle.

There are two alternative scenarios. First, that there were WMDs and they were hidden, perhaps in Syria, which is what Israeli intelligence seemed to believe. And second, the fact that British intelligence, Israeli intelligence, and Colin Powell himself believed Saddam Hussein’s WMD posturing, suggests to me – and to others – that the liar was Saddam not Bush.  Saddam Hussein overdid his con, convincing credible people that he was further ahead in his weapons development than he was, and paid for it with his regime and his life.  That interpretation treats Bush and company as themselves gullible not venal. Still, whatever your interpretation, the Iraq war first teaches skepticism regarding claims that one regime or another is “close” to nuclear capability.

The second lesson of the Iraq War is even more sobering. Historians have long taught that even though many nations frequently go to war to preserve the status quo – the status quo is every war’s one guaranteed victim.  The Iraq War reinforced that lesson dramatically, resulting in chaos and shaking Americans’ own faith in their military might. Americans learned that we could defeat Saddam, but we lacked the power to impose the kind of peace we wanted at the kind of pace we could accept.

Israelis learned a similar lesson from the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Israel crushed Lebanese infrastructure – and wiped out many Hezbollah strongholds, especially when the war began. But Israel could not crush Hezbollah, stop the missiles raining on the north, or even capture Hassan Nasrallah, who continues to manipulate Lebanese politics today, six years later, even as he remains in hiding.

The Second Lebanon War ultimately ended the nearly four-decade old Six Day War heroic hangover for many. If the Yom Kippur War of 1973 buried the myth of Israeli invulnerability, the Second Lebanon War of 2006 buried the myth of Israeli invincibility. The Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack made Israel bleed – but Israel’s army revived and conquered. The Lebanon War made Israel doubt, for Israel’s army flailed away at the Hezbollah rocket launches without solving the problem.

Leaders cannot be handcuffed by history, but they should heed its lessons. There are political and operational warnings aplenty. Neither the Israeli nor American public has much appetite for failure, for prolonged conflict, or for ambiguity in the precipitating factors or the ultimate results.

In this case, both Israeli and American policy makers must figure out how to convince a skeptical public that Iran is rushing to go nuclear, they have to reassure millions that there are no other alternatives to war, and they have to deliver a decisive blow with minimal fallout or blowback.  The kind of sloppiness that had the United States unprepared to govern Iraq, the day after Saddam fell, is not acceptable now.  After all this talk, after all this preparation, Israel and the United States will have to justify the move – and the wait.

I do not feel competent to judge whether or not a military attack is now justified. The papers seem full of cover stories, political postures, military feints, and misdirection. But if Israel and/or the United States enter into a war with Iran, the PR challenge is to explain, to spin, but ultimately to sell. The military challenge is to win – and win big.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.

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Nearing toward foreign policy consensus

JPost, July 20, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

Barack Obama and John McCain clashed over foreign policy last week – or did they? While some headlines emphasized the two candidates’ differences, proclaiming “McCain Slams Obama on Iraq Surge,” the two also agreed on many important fundamentals – as well as key policies.

Their points of overlap demonstrate that both are patriots, both are “anti-terror,” both seek an American victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fact that the previous sentence needs to be written, of course, illustrates the absurd extremes to which so many partisan critics take the polarizing discourse about the candidates.

Appropriately, Israel was not a central thrust of either speech. But the fundamental equation remains operative – what is good for America in this election will be good for Israel. And if the winning candidate sticks to the vision articulated in either of the two speeches, America, and Israel, will be all right.

Characteristically – and in fairness, due to the setting – Obama’s speech at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building in Washington was more sweeping, more visionary, more programmatic. McCain’s response at a town hall meeting was more focused, more hands-on, more strategic.

Obama built his speech by remembering America’s Cold War containment policy, embracing George Marshall’s faith in “judgment,” mixing what we now call “hard” and “soft” power.

Before finishing with an inspirational return to his history lesson, Obama demonstrated his commitment to righting the wrongs of the Bush years with a deft combination of self-sacrifice, selflessness, muscle-flexing and nation-building – in the United States and abroad. He sees foreign policy – like domestic policy – as a vehicle for national renewal, for encouraging Americans to work together and build a national sense of mission and community, while defending their nation and improving the world.

Less loftily, Obama proclaimed “five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Obviously, the rhetoric of a campaign speech does not necessarily anticipate a president’s track record in the Oval Office. But the bulk of Obama’s speech would be thoroughly acceptable to most Ronald Reagan Republicans. In particular, both Obama and McCain agreed about the need to beef up the American troop presence in Afghanistan.

In response, John McCain focused part of his stump speech in New Mexico on Obama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, rather than delivering a more formal foreign policy address.

Highlighting the contrast between the young, eloquent, intellectual visionary and the wizened warrior, McCain came out swinging, “I know how to win wars. I know how to win wars,” McCain told his Albuquerque audience. “And if I’m elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory, I know how to do that.”

Sharpening his elbows, McCain said: “In wartime, judgment and experience matter. In a time of war, the commander in chief doesn’t get a learning curve.”

And more directly, he mocked his opponent, reading two Obama quotations, one back in January 2007 doubting the surge would work, and a second one a year later, acknowledging that more troops in Iraq led to more stability. “My friends, flip-floppers all over the world are enraged,” McCain chuckled.

In fact, both candidates are converging, not only about Afghanistan. Both understand that in the wake of the Bush presidency, America needs to experience an economic, diplomatic, and ideological renewal. Obama is more explicit about that – but McCain rides heavily on the fact that he was calling for what became the “surge” while George W. Bush was still blindly defending “Rummy” – Donald Rumsfeld – and pooh-poohing reports of chaos in Baghdad.

And even on Iraq, Obama is cautiously, cleverly, and responsibly, narrowing the gap between his policies and McCain’s. Obama still talks about giving the military “a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war” – an interesting choice of words considering that the traditional goal of most militaries is to win the war not just end it.

Still, analysts noted that Obama’s sixteen month timetable, now is set to begin on Inauguration Day – six months from now, and he spoke about a “residual” force remaining. Clearly, as the possibility that he just might become Commander-in-Chief grows, Obama is realizing that his rhetoric and his postures may have serious life-and-death implications.

This convergence in a campaign is good. It is not just the gravitational pull to the center we often see after primaries. It is not just the “oh, boy, I might be president” flight from irresponsibility. It is also precisely what the American people want. A Washington Post poll this week found that 78 percent of those surveyed, “said it is more important for a candidate to adjust positions to changing circumstances than to stick to his original stands (18 percent prioritize consistency).”

By this poll, more than three-quarters of the American people are more mature than most reporters and bloggers, partisans and pols. The challenge is for the candidates to show they can campaign vigorously, disagree passionately on some issues, while still reassuring the American people they understand that they both share many common values, common dreams, and common-sense policies.

Support for Israel remains a part of this consensus. Judging by this week’s exchange, as well as the more Israel-focused AIPAC speeches, the hysterical claims that Obama is going to abandon the Jewish State, or that McCain is going to so blindly support Israel there will be no constraints are both overstated.