Realists and Moderates and Gaza

This is a guest post by Ben Cohen of Z Word

The above photograph is not from Gaza. More about that at the end, though. I want to begin with Anthony H. Cordesman, who is one of the leading thinkers on military strategy in the US. Consequently, his views on the Gaza conflict will be taken seriously, even when they are found to be analytically suspect, as is the case with this article.

Cordesman savages the Israeli leadership for what he regards as their failure to articulate a grand strategic objective. “To paraphrase a comment about the British government’s management of the British Army in World War I,” he says, “lions seem to be led by donkeys.” (As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that Cordesman’s analogy will hardly endear him to those pushing the line about a genocide in Gaza; for them, Israelis are neither lions nor donkeys, but monsters to a man, woman and child.)

But back to Cordesman. It simply isn’t true that Israel hasn’t stated its objective. In essence, its aim is to humble Hamas psychologically and weaken it structurally: to decisively show the Islamists that they miscalculated horribly when they surmised that Israel would not substantively retaliate to intensified rocket attacks; to prevent them from rearming; and to achieve greater security in the south of the country (rocket attacks have decreased by 50 per cent since the operation began.)

True, it’s hard to foresee, in the immediate future, a complete end to the rocket attacks, but the Israeli leadership seems to understand that. “We are in midst of a struggle against terrorism, and it is not a one-time conflict,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said. “This is not a conflict that will end with an agreement. We embarked on this campaign with the intent of achieving military goals and in order to clarify that we will not put up with this situation any longer. We set out to change the equation. Israel is responding with force, and considerable force at that.”

Cordesman, however, is drawing conclusions that are based more on political rather than straight military calculations. An old-school realist, he’s perturbed at the alienating effect which the Gaza operation is having on that strand of Arab opinion which is allied with US power and US dominance. By way of example, he cites the following:

One strong warning of the level of anger in the region comes from Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Prince Turki has been the Saudi ambassador in both London and Washington. He has always been a leading voice of moderation. For years he has been a supporter of the Saudi peace process and an advocate of Jewish-Christian-Islamic dialog. Few Arab voices deserve more to be taken seriously, and Prince Turki described the conflict as follows in a speech at the opening of the 6th Gulf Forum on January 6th, “The Bush administration has left you (with) a disgusting legacy and a reckless position towards the massacres and bloodshed of innocents in Gaza…Enough is enough, today we are all Palestinians and we seek martyrdom for God and for Palestine, following those who died in Gaza.” Neither Israel nor the US can gain from a war that produces this reaction from one of the wisest and most moderate voices in the Arab world.

Does it really need to be restated that Arab leaders have always been given to these flights of rhetoric? It is the Palestinians, first and foremost, who will tell you that Arab leaders, particularly the princes and kings among them, are all talk and no action. Prince Turki’s righteous anger doesn’t change the strategic balance one jot. The Arab regimes fear Iran and Islamist radicalism much more than they fear Israel. Privately – and in the case of the Egyptians, not so privately – they are furious with Hamas for provoking this war. And frankly, the Arab states have never much cared for the Palestinians. With all the talk of Israeli “ethnic cleansing,” it’s easy to forget that Kuwait booted out more than 400,000 of its Palestinian population after the Gulf war of 1991 and that Qaddafi’s Libya expelled 30,000 Palestinians in 1995. So much for Arab unity.

Additionally, in his interpretation of Prince Turki’s remark, Cordesman falls into the orientalist trap, more commonly associated with the anti-imperialist left, of arguing that if someone who happens to be an Arab is also angry and despairing, then he is absolved of responsibility for his words. According to Cordesman’s logic, if Israel bombs, then Arabs are entitled to say and do whatever they want, and only Israel and the US are to blame for whatever grief follows. Nor does it seem to occur to him that if an apparently moderate leader can so easily start ranting about martyrdom, we must doubt whether he was really a “moderate” – whatever that may mean – in the first place.

Finally, in indulging Prince Turki’s outburst, Cordesman is buying into the widespread notion that what Israel is doing in Gaza amounts to a total war – what the Nazi analogists would gleefully call a blitzkrieg. Again, that is not a point which can be conceded because it is a malicious falsehood. In actuality, there’s another long war that was reignited around the same time that the Gaza operation began – one that has claimed 70,000 lives over a twenty-five year period, in which 230,000 refugees are currently suffering horribly with little food or shelter – that gives a much better insight into how ugly armed conflict can be. But the solidarity activists aren’t going to demonstrate about it (most of them probably couldn’t find the country in question on a map) and the policy wonks will never assign it the same geostrategic significance as they do Gaza.

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