War: What Is It Good For?

Yesterday, Matt Yglesias offered a thoughtful attempt to put his skepticism about Israel's Gaza incursion in the context of the lessons he's drawn from the Iraq War:

I've been thinking back on some of the online disputes I've been having about Israel's attack on Gaza, and it occurred to me that what's missing from a lot of this is context. Not further context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but further context on the use of force in general ... over the past five years I've changed a lot of my thinking about national security policy and war and peace in general. I was skeptical of the merits of Israel's attack on Lebanon, skeptical about Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia, skeptical about Georgia's attack on South Ossetia, and skeptical about Russia's furious counter-attack on Georgia. Long story short, I'm strongly inclined to believe that political actors are much too eager to believe that the aggressive use of military force will accomplish their objectives, and also inclined to believe that political actors are much too eager to believe that bloodshed is morally justifiable.

These are lessons I've drawn from recent history as well, which is one reason why I'm skeptical about Israel's Gaza incursion. (Sharpening my skepticism is the fact that Max Boot, whose enthusiasm for the use of military force seems largely undiminished by the events of the last five years, is waxing skeptical as well.) Certainly, almost everything I've read suggests that this post, from Noah Millman, gets the likely consequences more or less correct:

If I had to predict, I'd say the invasion will be a mixed success in tactical terms, with Israel successfully liquidating a number of Hamas leaders and much physical infrastructure. Whether the Qassams stop falling entirely or not, Hamas will be operationally weakened for some time. I would not bet on Hamas losing control of the territory - and Israel had better hope Hamas does not lose control, lest she find Somalia on her doorstep. Nor would I bet on Kadima's political gambit working; it didn't work for Labor in 1996, after all. As for the more extravagant rationales being floated - this will strengthen Fatah in the West Bank? Or will strike a blow against Iranian prestige? Or is actually a dry run for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities - the less said the better. The tangible achievements from this war, and the great loss of life among the Palestinians may, at best, be a short respite from Qassam fire.

See Rich Lowry, as well, on a similar theme. It's important to note, though, that this sobering calculus still leaves Noah as a lukewarm supporter of the incursion. The rest of his analysis is very much worth reading: Essentially, he argues that military operations that improve Israeli security in the short term (and only in the short term) are a necessary part of Israel's only plausible long-term strategy: "A fighting retreat from the bulk of the territories won in 1967." Operation Cast Lead, in his view, "is intended to provide cover for the reelection of a center-left coalition that will stage a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank ... That's what the war is about, strategically: providing Israel's government with domestic and international cover for the next phase of unilateral retreat from its post-1967 positions to more defensible ones."

Well, here's hoping. One core problem facing Israel, obviously, is that short-term attempts to increase its security tend to undercut long-term hopes of a negotiated settlement. The other core problem is that the hope of a negotiated settlement seems further out of reach than ever. Consider how Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, neither of them exactly given to support for Israeli intransigence, characterize the current situation:

... The graver problem today is on the Palestinian side. If one strips away the institutional veneer--Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization, various secular political groupings, the Palestinian Authority--what is left is largely empty shells with neither an agreed-upon program nor recognized leadership. The national movement, once embodied by Fatah and Arafat, is adrift. From its vestiges, the Islamist movement Hamas has flourished and, amid the flurry of negotiations between Abbas and Olmert over a putative albeit wholly theoretical deal, it cannot have escaped notice that the more practical and meaningful negotiations have been between Israel and Hamas--over a cease-fire, for example. Still, the Islamist movement cannot, any more than Fatah, claim to represent the Palestinian people or to be empowered to negotiate on their behalf. The rift between the two organizations, most visibly manifested in the increasingly deep split between the West Bank and Gaza, makes a two-state solution harder to achieve. Israel long complained it had no Palestinian partner and, at the outset, the complaint had the feel of a pretext. Increasingly, it has the ring of truth.

Among Palestinians, moreover, the prize of statehood is losing its luster. The two-state solution today matters most to those who matter least, the political and economic elite whose positions, attained thanks to the malpractices of the Palestinian Authority, would be enhanced by acquiring a state. To many others, the dividends of such a solution--a state in Gaza and much of the West Bank--risk being outweighed by the sacrifices: forsaking any self-defense capacity, tolerating Israeli security intrusion, renouncing the refugees' right of return, and compromising on Jerusalem.

Arafat embraced the two-state solution and sold it to his people. It took him fifteen years--from 1973 to 1988--to turn it from an act of betrayal and high treason to what most of his people saw as the culmination of the Palestinian national movement. He did so with a militancy his successors lack and which seemed to both defy and negate the concessions such a solution entailed. He exhibited perpetual defiance, which was one of the many reasons why the US and Israel distrusted him even in the best of times, and why Palestinians continued to be drawn to him even at the worst of them. With his passing, it is hard to see who among his heirs can acquiesce in the necessary compromises and still pull off a solution.

A certain amount of left-of-center commentary at the moment seems to proceed from the premise distilled by Ezra Klein as follows: "What comes now is the long wait until Israel recognizes that it must negotiate with Hamas, just as it did with Arafat." Presumably Malley and Agha have sympathy with this view. But look at the world through the lens suggested by their own analysis: Even if Israel were willing to negotiate seriously with Hamas, and Hamas were simultaneously strong enough and sufficiently open to compromise to be a plausible negotiating partner for Israel, how strong is the broader Palestinian incentive to work toward a negotiated two-state solution? Israel is already engaged in a "fighting retreat," as Noah puts it, and a great many Israelis - the current Prime Minister included - argue that the Zionist project cannot survive in a long term, for political and demographic reasons, without a viable, independent Palestine next door. If I were a Palestinian, I'd be inclined to see time as being on my people's side: Not because I'd necessarily prefer the quixotic quest for Israel's destruction to the goal of "peace and prosperity" through compromise, but because I'd have reason to think that with time, patience and endurance I might be able to achieve either a two-state compromise on still better terms than what's on the table at the moment (and let's face it, a state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza is never going to be the most viable entity in world history, whether economically or politically), or a one-state settlement that destroys Israel's identity as a Jewish state, even if it doesn't destroy Israel outright. Yes, waiting things out comes at a heavy short-term cost to the Palestinian people, but if you've waited sixty years and you feel like your enemy is finally in retreat, there's a not-irrational case for waiting longer still.

In the face of such a calculus, what's Israel to do? The answer is simultaneously simple and impossible: In the midst of a hotly-contested domestic political scene, they need to balance their short-term security concerns (all those rockets flying out of Gaza, in this case) against a twofold long-term goal - the need to incentivize Palestinians to stay within hailing distance of the negotiating table (which is awfully hard to do when you're smashing through their cities in pursuit of Hamas rocketeers), and the need to act unilaterally, in the absence of a plausible negotiating partner, to preserve their state's long-term viability in the face of the looming demographic time bomb (which is awfully hard to do, as Israel has discovered in the wake of the Gaza pull-out, without compromising your short-term security). And it's the Kobayashi Maru-style impossibility of all this that makes something like the Gaza incursion so hard to analyze: It seems like a bad idea, but within the constraints that Israeli leaders operate under it's possible that it's the worst option except for all the others.