Hope Is Not A Strategy

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Bradley Burston, via Jeffrey Goldberg:

In recent days, however, Israeli moderates and the center-left have been faced a new and bizarrely troubling thought: What if this most denounced of wars actually does some good?

Lurking at the margins, are signs that this war may have positive downstream effects for Israel, and for Palestinian peace prospects as well. Much of this hinges on the effect it may ultimately have on Iran and its satraps. In fact, viewed against the report that the Bush administration forbade an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, the war, as horrible as many of its direct results have been, may actually serve to break the momentum of the Iranian juggernaut. What can safely be assumed, is that if Iranian influence continues to grow in the Holy Land, peace prospects will be extinguished for years to come.

As if to emphasize the ambivalence that Israelis feel, polls have shown a large majority supporting the war, but only a tiny percentage believing that the offensive will achieve even the limited goal of ending Palestinian rocket fire into Israel.

A week ago I remarked on the inevitable murkiness of just-war theory, but this strikes me as a case where the murk isn't that murky after all: If you think that a given military operation has a lousy chance of achieving its most immediate and tangible objective, you shouldn't support it based on the hope that it might achieve "positive downstream effects" on regional politics. Military force is a blunt instrument, and as such it's well-suited to the pursuit of goals - turning back aggression, preventing genocide, destroying weapons programs, etc. - in which effectiveness tends to be correlated with the amount of force employed, and the success or failure of a given operation can be judged, within reasonable limits, in the short run. But if you move beyond short-term objectives - which is to say, beyond strictly military objectives - thinks get very dicey very quickly: The future is wildly unpredictable, warfare inevitably multiplies unintended consequences, and the difficulty involved assessing whether, say, the curbing of Iranian influence is worth the risk of Somalia-by-the-Sea ought to strongly tip the scales against going to war with the former objective in mind. The Gaza incursion has moral legitimacy, to my mind, if and only if it's approached primarily as an operation aimed at protecting the inhabitants of southern Israel against attacks from the terrorist-run statelet next door; once you start using hypothetical "downstream" consequences as your main justification for war, you're entering a realm in which war almost certainly shouldn't be justified at all.

This is, like so many things, a lesson that I take from the conflict in Iraq. As many war supporters pointed out, then and now, there were all sorts of positive developments that could have flowed from Saddam Hussein's ouster. And over the long haul, some of them still might come to pass, despite the toll the war has taken. But the pre-war debate revolved around weapons of mass destruction for a reason: It was "the one reason everyone could agree on," as Paul Wolfowitz famously put it, because it was the one reason for war that was premised on an immediate and tangible military objective - disarm a bad guy before he uses his weapons against you - and that didn't depend on long-range hypotheticals about Arab democratization, an Iran-Syria domino effect, a weak horse/strong horse dynamic, and so forth. Strip away Saddam's (supposed) rearmament and the imminent threat it (supposedly) posed, and the fact that you had nine other "here's why this might be a good idea" reasons for war did not a strong-enough justication for war make. Military conflict is simultaneously too grave and too unpredictable to be entered into if your primary objective depends upon a chain of hypothetical second-order consequences stretching across months and years.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't consider the long run as well as the short run, and political as well as strictly military objectives, when you're making the decision for or against the use of force. In the case of Gaza, as many people have pointed out, it's easy to imagine a scenario in which Israel attains its short-term security objectives at the expense of the chances for a long-term peace, and the war ends up being judged a failure on long-term grounds even if it seems to succeed in the shorter run. But while plausible short-term military objectives aren't always a sufficient condition for going to war, I do think they're a necessary one - and if you think, as the Israeli people apparently do, that those objectives can't be attained, then you probably shouldn't be supporting the war in the first place.

Update: Though to be fair to the Israelis in the poll, it's possible that they believe that completely "ending Palestinian rocket fire" is impossible, but that dramatically limiting such fire (which would be a legitimate, short-term military objective as well) is possible, and they support the war more on those grounds than because they have high hopes for "positive downstream effects" where Iran and the peace process are concerned.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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