Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Problem with Joe Biden’s Middle East Cease-fire: Lessons from Clausewitz

Israel and the Biden Administration’s “New Ideas”

The Main Stream Media has been admiring of the Biden administration’s decision to broker—some would say impose—a cease-fire on the state of Israel and the terror group Hamas.  

For instance, on May 21, shortly after the cease-fire, the Associated Press ran a story headlined, “Hour-by-hour: Biden’s behind-the-scenes push for cease-fire.”  The reporter, Aamer Madhani, was obviously well briefed by Biden aides, and so in addition to describing phone calls between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the AP story added such nuggets as, “The president and senior aides had over 80 engagements, by phone or in person, in search of an endgame to the fighting.”

That same upbeat assessment—Biden and his team, hard at work—was manifest in a May 21 opinion piece by The Washington Post’s well-connected columnist, David Ignatius.  He, too, was amply backgrounded by Biden aides, and so he could faithfully describe how the president operated “slowly, quietly, in personal conversations.”  Ignatius’ admiring take was that Biden’s approach “probably saved lives.”  

Venturing further, from play-by-play to prescription, the Post man added that Gaza now needed “humanitarian assistance” in the short term, as well as, in the longer term, some sort of new political configuration: “Perhaps the trickiest part will be strengthening the Palestinian Authority, ideally through a unity government with a Hamas that agrees to accept Israel and renounce violence.”  

Some would say that it will be, er, tricky to persuade Hamas to accept Israel’s right to exist—as the rejection of that right is the essence of the Hamas worldview.  And as for unity with the Palestinian Authority, it’s worth recalling that Hamas split off, violently, from that same PA in 2007; that’s how Hamas ended up ruling the Gaza Strip.  

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in MSM breasts; ah, for the fond dream of fresh  diplomacy.  Thus on May 21, The New York Times editorial page pronounced itself pleased with the cease-fire, adding that it “didn’t come a second too soon.”  Then the editorial added that “new ideas” for the region were needed.  

And what might those “new ideas” be?  From the editorial: “The Biden administration should appoint an envoy to the Palestinian people, tasked with restoring relations with Palestinian officials and building ties with civil society groups and the new generation of leaders who have been shut out of power with the lack of elections.  The portfolio should include Palestinian people, broadly speaking, including their vital ties to brethren in Israel and throughout the diaspora.”

There’s plenty to unpack there, but we can see, at minimum, the Times envisions an ambitious role for the U.S., bidding it to become much more deeply involved on the Palestinian side.  That’s a change, of course, from the policy of the Trump administration, which was strongly pro-Israel and mostly ignored Palestinian demands.  

Indeed, we might speculate that one reason the Times is so in love with the idea of a new direction in the Middle East is precisely because of the contrast it makes with the ideas of the Dreaded Trump.   And of course, the major media, joined by the Biden administration and many Democrats, are not at all fond of Netanyahu.  

So any new American activism, as advocated by Ignatius, the Times, and many other leading voices, would amount to a mandate to the Biden administration to play a more activist role in the region, bringing new energy, and new empathy, to the Palestinian cause.  Not surprisingly, the Palestinians would welcome such a démarche, while unsurprisingly, most Israelis would not. 

In fact, the Biden administration is already bringing its different perspective to the Middle East.  One vivid indicator of the change came on May 20, when Biden spent eight minutes talking with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the radical Democrat from Michigan.  The conversation was held outdoors, on an airport tarmac, in full view of reporters and their cameras.  Such extended “photo ops” with presidents do not happen by chance.  In other words, Biden was sending a strong signal: He is listening to pro-Palestinian voices.  

Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser under Barack Obama, has also noted the change.  Singling out the pro-Palestinian efforts of another Democrat in the House, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rhodes said, “The Overton window [is] shifting before your eyes.”  That is, the window of possible policy options.  

Continuing, Rhodes said, “It’s just simply a fact that there was never this kind of pressure vocally from the left on issues related to Israel during the Obama years.”  And he concluded, “It’s going to be harder to just stick to the old line of essentially unquestioning support for the policies of the Israeli government.” 

Yet if the predominantly center-left American foreign policy establishment is pleased with Biden’s shift, many Israelis are not.   

That displeasure was made clear in another Times story, datelined, Ashkelon, Israel, and headlined, “‘The Mission Wasn’t Completed.’ Cease-Fire Prompts Israelis’ Disappointment.”  As the two reporters, Isabel Kershner and Adam Rasgon, explained, “Here, and across Israel, there were other common sentiments: a nagging sense of disappointment that nothing had been resolved by the fighting, and concern that the truce was fragile and premature.  Instead, many Israelis said that the military should have carried on pounding Hamas for another week or two.”  

Moroever, the reporters noted that “shared dissatisfaction throughout the country signaled Israelis’ growing impatience with what they see as hastily arranged, unconditional cease-fires.  Each successive, inconclusive round of conflict has only added to the sense of futility, with no decisive victory or conclusion in sight.”  And the article pointed to a May 20 poll, showing that 72 percent of Israelis thought the air campaign in Gaza should continue, whereas 24 percent said Israel should agree to a cease-fire.  In other words, by a 3:1 margin, Israelis opposed the cease-fire. 

So we can see: The gulf between the D.C. establishment and the Israeli public is wide.  And it seems reasonable to assume that any Israeli government is going to reflect the nation’s public opinion.  

What Would Clausewitz Say?

As we wait to see what happens next on the ground, we might, in the meantime, consult a classic work.

And that work is On War, written by the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831).  Clausewitz never opined on Israel and the Middle East, but he did have a lot to say about how nations and groups fight one another, and how they might expect to prevail.  And despite all the changes in war tactics and technology over the last two centuries, Clausewitz endures, because his ultimate wisdom is psychological and political, as opposed to tactical and technological.

Clausewitz’s most famous dictum is, “War is only a continuation of State policy by other means.” 

To put that another way, War exists within politics.  Wars are started by political figures, and they are fought so long as political figures wish to keep fighting.  

To put that another way, victories on the battlefield, while certainly important, are not decisive in winning a war.  What is decisive is the moment, if it comes, when one side loses the will to fight.   

And as of now, it doesn’t appear that Hamas has lost its will to fight.  Hence this headline in Al Jazeera: “Hamas claims victory as Gaza celebrates cease-fire.”  The point here is not to suggest that Hamas won the 11-day battle in any military sense; clearly, it did not.  Instead, we see that Hamas does not feel defeated.  

In the defiant words of Hamas spokesperson Abdel-Latif al-Qanou, “Israel has withdrawn in the face of the armed resistance, and did not obtain any of its objectives it said it would when it launched its offensive.”  By these words, in the Clausewitzian sense, Hamas definitely has not been defeated.   

To be sure, if Hamas had been totally annihilated, a continued fighting spirit might be seen as delusional, or even, in a grim way, mirthful, as in the bloody confrontation with the Black Knight in the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  And yet Hamas was not annihilated—the May 21 cease-fire made sure of that.  

Yes, Hamas has been bloodied, maybe even devastated, but it is still a force.  As The Washington Post reported, “For Hamas, Israel may have once again inflicted heavy losses—both on the movement and on civilians in Gaza—but the group remains in control of the territory of some 2 million people and little has fundamentally changed.”

By this reckoning, those citizens of Israel who told the Times reporters that their military needed more time to finish the job were making a good point.  Hamas is still in charge in Gaza, and still has the will to fight.  We can note that such is often the case with guerrilla wars and asymmetric combats: One sides wins big, but not big enough, and so the fighting continues.  [Update: a May 23 poll asked Israelis, Who won the cross-border fighting?  And the answer: 28 percent said Israel, 16 percent said Hamas, and 52 percent said neither side.  Not a result sure to dishearten Hamas.] 

So perhaps this is the lens—the Clausewitizian lens—through which we should see the May 21 cease-fire. 

That is, Hamas has plenty of fighting spirit, and still rules Gaza.  And now, we might presume, humanitarian aid will come flowing into that territory, much of it, no doubt, to be skimmed off by Hamas.  And quite likely, too, more armaments will flow in, most of them, apparently, from Iran.

So in such a context, we can ask: How long until the next violent eruption?  How long till the next Hamas rocket attack? 

In the meantime, Israel is in a difficult position.  Having been flailed by much of the Western media during the recent fighting, and criticized by the Biden administration, the Israelis will likely find themselves having to abide, strictly, to the terms of the cease-fire.  Which is to say, it will likely take a significant provocation by Hamas to embolden Israel to even think about suspending the cease-fire and launching a pre-emptive strike—assuming, of course, that the IDF can detect the danger.  

Yet Hamas, operating under few, if any, of those political constraints, can pick and choose its next time to strike. 

Thus we something that’s familiar to Middle East observers: a double standard.  That is, if Israel breaks the cease-fire, it is in trouble with the Biden administration, as well as the United Nations, noisy NGOs, and all the other usual critics.  And yet if Hamas breaks the cease-fire, the Biden administration, joined by the others, will likely rush in to seek a new cease-fire, and then, after that, come rushing in with humanitarian aid—and that aid is, of course, fungible.  

So we are now seeing a new kind of asymmetry: Hamas plots and ponders the timing of its next attack, while the Israelis must live with the constant threat of that next attack. 

To be sure, Israel has its Iron Dome defense system, and it worked well these past few weeks—and yet not quite well enough, as twelve Israelis died in the bombardment, and considerable property damage was done.  It’s hard to enjoy the fruits of high-tech prosperity while staying mindful of the location of the nearest bomb shelter.

No doubt, Israel is further refining Iron Dome and perhaps considering other kinds of defensive shields.  And no doubt, too, Hamas and its backers are refining their offensive capabilities.  (And we can be sure that to Israel's north, in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which has its own rocket arsenal, is paying close attention to Israeli capabilities.)  So who will have the upper hand?  We’ll likely find out in the next round of fighting.  

Strategic Depth

Another problem for Israel is that Hamas has strategic depth.  That is, Hamas has a big ally, Iran, that offers it a source of support and supply, if not quite actual refuge.  (To a lesser extent, Hamas can also count on support from Qatar, which does provide a physical refuge to Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.)

And so long as Hamas has the Islamic Republic for strategic depth, then Israel has a problem.  That is, Israel can “mow the lawn,” as some say, of Hamas in Gaza, and yet it must be resigned to the reality that the “grass”—more like a deadly weed—keeps growing back. 

This challenging situation is contingent, of course, upon the Iranians’ willingness to keep supplying Hamas, and if no effective way can be found to quarantine Gaza from new weapons shipments.  

And at this point, some might find parallels between the Israeli confrontation with Hamas and the U.S. confrontation with Vietnam, from 1965-1975.  That war, of course, ended in disappointment for the side that won all the battles during the actual fighting—and in victory for the side that lost all the battles.  

Yes, without a doubt, during the Vietnam fighting, the U.S. was routinely victorious on the battlefield, albeit not without cost to itself.  And yet the North Vietnamese could receive supplies from, and gain diplomatic support from, the adjacent People’s Republic of China (in addition, another patron, the Soviet Union, was adjacent to China).  And that help was enough to sustain North Vietnam to ultimate victory, battlefield defeats notwithstanding.  

To be sure, there are enormous differences between the U.S. then and Israel today: Most obviously, a) Israel is much more committed to its border security than the U.S. ever was to combating the “domino theory” a half-century ago; b) Israeli public opinion is solidly supportive of the Gaza effort, seeing it an an existential issue for the nation; that’s something no American ever thought about Vietnam; and c) Gaza and Iran, and Qatar, are not adjacent. 

Yet nevertheless, some similarities present themselves: Iran is an ally of Hamas, and it does provide it with strategic depth.  

So now, what can Israel do?  If it can’t find a way to shut down the direct threat from Hamas—and the Biden administration seems to be the chief obstacle now to further attempts to shut it down—then Israel will have to consider what it can do to take away Hamas’s strategic depth, mostly, as we have seen, Iran. 

We might recall that such strategic-depth neutralization was the tack taken by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972, as he sought to secure “peace with honor” in Vietnam.  Realizing that the North Vietnamese were never going to give up—and thus, never going to lose, no matter how painful their losses—so long as they had the depth of China and Russia, Nixon traveled to the capitals of both of those countries and made a deal: The U.S. would have free rein to cut off, finally, North Vietnam’s northward supply chain, and, while it did so, the Chinese and Russians would do nothing, militarily or diplomatically, to get in Uncle Sam’s way. 

As a result, Nixon was able to launch the Christmas bombing of 1972, and that onslaught against the suddenly isolated North Vietnamese finally persuaded the country to agree to end the war on terms acceptable to the U.S.—at least for a “decent interval.”  

Of course, at this moment today, it’s impossible to imagine the Israelis and Iranians reaching any sort of bargain that would isolate Hamas, in the way that Nixon isolated North Vietnam.  

And so, barring some miraculous change of heart in Tehran—or some crafty calculation that we can’t now foresee—that leaves another option, which is some strong Israeli action (kinetic, cyber, whatever) that would be so devastating as to force the Iranians to reconsider their patronage of Hamas.  (Or, perhaps, on Haniyeh in Qatar.)  Admittedly, it’s hard—although not impossible—to imagine such strikes.  

So perhaps what’s needed is to look to Iran’s strategic depth, which consists, of course, of the countries of Russia and China. Yes, it’s the looming presence of those two powers that has made Israel—and, in the past, the U.S.—shy away from overt military action against Iran. 

Yes, these are mega grand-strategic questions: Could the cord between Russia/China and Iran be broken?  Or could the connection between Hamas and Iran/Qatar be broken?  If so, by sticks?  Or even, somehow, by carrots?  

In the meantime, this much is easy to see: The Israels are in a quandary.  As Clausewitz would say if he were following Mideast news, unless and until Hamas’ psychological and political thinking changes, mere military defeat will not change the terror group’s current course.  

And of course, the Biden administration isn’t helping—at least, it’s not helping Israel.  Instead, this administration seems more attuned to the bad optics of internationally televised violence, and how to switch it off.  And if, along the way, Netanyahu gets switched off, all the better.  

Thus we can see: Biden administration policies will likely have no affect on Hamas’ thinking.  Indeed, post-cease-fire, Hamas now stands to be rewarded by the “international community” with billions in new aid pouring into Gaza, as well as, perhaps, by new diplomatic initiatives that would likely raise Hamas' stature.  

We might add that renewed diplomatic efforts might include some new effort at international mediation, including, perhaps, the presence of U.N. peacekeepers.  But the U.N. has been attempting to keep the peace in the area since 1948, and the results speak for themselves.  History shows that at best, the peacekeepers are spectators, and at worst, they end up collaborating with the anti-Israel side; that is, the side with the most member-countries in the U.N.

No wonder, in Clausewitzian terms, Hamas feels that it’s doing just fine.  

Israel has proven it can win the fighting, and yet, given the current correlation of international forces, it can’t win the long struggle.   

Victory in that long struggle—to find a secure place among the nations—will require some Clausewitzian mojo, applied sternly to foes, and gently to friends.