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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A moment of moral clarity

As Lebanese leaders cheer return of a child-murderer, Israel mourns its two soldiers

Montreal Gazette, July 18, 2008
 
GIL TROY
Getty Images

 

Lebanese citizens cheer the release of five prisoners and the return of the bodies of 199 Lebanese.
CREDIT: Paula Bronstein, Getty Images
Lebanese citizens cheer the release of five prisoners and the return of the bodies of 199 Lebanese.

How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?

Depending on the tone, this question becomes an attempt to clarify, or an expression of outrage. Stated calmly, “How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?” can be a factual question – such as the one that faced Lebanese leaders this week as they proceeded to celebrate the freeing of Samir Kuntar from an Israeli prison, where he had been held since 1979 for murdering 4-year-old Einat Haran, her father Danny Haran, and a policeman.

Stated angrily, “How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?” is the question Israelis are asking – and the rest of the civilized world should be asking, too.

On the night of April 22, 1979, Kuntar, working with three other terrorists, took Danny and Einat hostage, marching them to the Mediterranean beach after seizing them in their home in the coastal city of Nahariya. After shooting Danny in front of his daughter, then drowning him to make sure he was dead, Kuntar turned on Einat. Swinging his rifle butt, he smashed the 4-year-old’s head against the rocks, until she too died.

Adding to the horror, Einat’s mother, Smadar, hiding in a crawl space, accidentally smothered 2-year-old Yael Haran while trying to stifle her whimpering.

Any civilized court of law would hold the attackers responsible for the toddler’s death, too. Judging by the euphoria in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories this week, by the terrorists’ barbaric, topsy-turvy immoral logic, the additional carnage enhances Kuntar’s heroic status.

Of course, this kind of language is terribly impolite. We Westerners are not supposed to call ourselves “civilized” and deem others “barbaric.” For decades now we have been told that such terms are too judgmental, too culturally-determined, too imperialistic, too arrogant.

We have been so sensitized and issues have become so relativized many of us have lost our moral bearings. We have to call Kuntar a “militant,” a “fighter” but not a “terrorist.” We are supposed to explore Kuntar’s motivations.

And besides, whatever his motives, we are expected to excuse his crimes by pointing to equally heinous Western sins, or the religious-cultural-nationalist foundations for his actions.

And yet, occasionally, illuminating moments of moral clarity shine through the haze of amoral theorizing that emanates from our finest campuses, that is disseminated by our most technologically sophisticated media. We all witnessed such a moment this week with Israel’s heart-breaking prisoner exchange.

As the two coffins bearing the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser arrived in Israel from Lebanon, the nation of Israel plunged into mourning. These two young men became the entire country’s collective children. Strangers who had never met either of them wept bitterly, sharing the pain of the family and the friends, remembering other losses, fearing more tragedies in the future.

By contrast, the massive celebrations in Lebanon for Kuntar and four other terrorists revealed not only the thuggery of Hezbollah but the descent of Lebanon itself. Rolling out the red carpet for a murderer, dispatching the country’s top leaders to greet someone who crushed a 4-year-old’s skull, declaring a national day of celebration, revealed just how thoroughly the Lebanese leadership had succumbed to the brutal sensibilities of Hassan Nasrallah and his Hezbollah terrorists.

At first glance, it is easy to conclude that the country that is mourning lost this week and the country celebrating won. In fact, Israel won a great moral victory. Israel showed why Westerners should and will support the Jewish state, empathize with the Jewish state, identify with the Jewish state.

We want to side with the country that moves heaven and Earth to bring its boys home, to protect its citizens; not with the country of bloodthirsty mobs deifying cowards who smashed the skull of a 4-year-old girl with a rifle butt on a lovely Mediterranean beach. We learn about a people by observing whom they love and whom they hate. Joy is fleeting and often triggered by base instincts. Sometimes collective anguish is a sign of moral strength, not national weakness.

“I’m proud to belong to those who love and not to those who hate,” Ofer Regev said while eulogizing his brother Eldad. Israelis should be proud of this moment of moral clarity – and wary of enemies with such distorted value systems. Israel’s – and the West’s – enemies are wrong.

A nation that risks so much even just to bring two corpses home, a country that celebrates life not death, is not only a worthy ally – but a dangerous adversary when provoked.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008