November 2, 2005
How far should Israel Go to defend its national survival?By Rachel Neuwirth
Israel faces unique security problems, having powerful enemies openly intent on her destruction. The President of Iran calls for it to be 'wiped off the map' and could soon have the nuclear weapons to accomplish his publicly—stated goal.
Israel cannot afford to ever lose a war. National extinction is a distinct possibility. The American government claims to stand for freedom, democracy, and justice and it posits itself as the model of such to other nations. Should Israel therefore look to the example of America's successful war strategies in deciding her defense policy?
The United States has been deeply involved in Israeli affairs for decades. Although the U.S. has never experienced Israel's proportionate loses or her vulnerability, American officials freely advise Israel on her defense policy, often pressuring Israel to exercise 'restraint' in response to constant Arab attacks. Israel is therefore justified in examining America's own conduct in war as a possible model for her own defense.
America has fought many wars in her 229—year history. Some were major ones involving an all—out effort while others were more limited. Some of them produced clear victories while others were less conclusive. The question is: which American wars should serve as models for Israel?
This question can be decided by selecting as exemplary two wars for survival that remain enduringly popular with the majority of Americans: World War II and the Civil War. Other wars, such as those in Korea and Vietnam, do not rate as popular wars, nor are they widely regarded as highly successful.
In her two most popular wars, America's casualties were the highest of all her wars, and in Korea and Vietnam they were far lower. Therefore casualty figures alone do not determine how Americans view the rightness or success of a particular war. Most Americans, most historians, and many people in other countries hold highly positive views of WWII and the Civil War, so it seems reasonable for Israel to look at how these two wars were prosecuted to guide her own defense policies.
In WWII America fought an all—out war with only two restraints: no first use of poison gas, and prisoners who surrendered would not be killed. But once the American military machine was rolling, it delivered total hell to the enemy. Even when victory was finally assured, our military ferocity was undiminished in the effort to spare further military casualties of our own. German and Japanese cities were subjected to destruction by 1,000 bombers in a single raid. Civilian targets as well as military ones were destroyed. It was total war, with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in non—military cities (to break their will to resist) who were hapless citizens under the control of totalitarian governments.
At home America put Japanese, Italian and German citizens into internment camps as a precaution and with no evidence of disloyalty on their part. The U.S. did not hesitate to rain nuclear destruction on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki even after Japan no longer posed a direct threat to America, though a continued mortal threat to our troops. The stated justification and purpose was to save both American and Japanese lives by ending the conflict sooner than it would have ended otherwise.
America would accept nothing less from its enemies than unconditional surrender followed by total disarmament and years of military occupation with a total change of government, from dictatorship to democracy. Today America's former Axis enemies — Germany, Japan, and Italy — are free, democratic and prosperous allies of America.
Of all the wars fought by America over the past 100 years, this was by far the most brutal in terms of lives lost—about fifty million worldwide. And yet it is widely considered both necessary and just, considering the evil it vanquished and the liberation and rehabilitation of the captive peoples who were forced to fight against the free world.
And when compared to some other conflicts, it was mercifully short, at just three years and nine months from start to finish. Despite the extreme losses and suffering, there was healing both at home and abroad, in contrast to other parts of the globe where unresolved conflicts continue to fester for decades or even centuries. Given the political conditions at the time, could war have been avoided entirely or decisively won at a lower cost in human lives? It is hard to argue that negotiations alone, or a less brutal war, would have yielded results as quickly or as decisively.
The American Civil War preserved the Union and ended slavery in America. Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded as among the greatest of U.S. presidents. But this was America's most costly war in terms of our own lives. About 618,000 Civil War dead out of 31 million Americans vs. about 405,000 dead in WWII out of 130 million Americans. In addition, the Union Army looted, destroyed, and burned down entire Southern cities including Atlanta, Georgia. This was a war of choice, because Lincoln could have allowed the South to secede without war. America's bloodiest war was a fratricidal struggle with brother killing brother, but over time even those wounds have largely healed.
In contrast we can consider the limited wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. The war with North Korea ended in a stalemate in 1953, and today that regime is an even greater threat than it was then with its nuclear weapons, long—range missiles, and unstable leadership. At least a million North Koreans have starved to death in recent years, due to the defects of communism and the unwillingness of the regime to open itself.
Vietnam ended with a U.S. military retreat and a loss of national confidence. The communist Vietcong and Khmer Rouge next door slaughtered millions in revenge, and America's enemies at home and abroad became emboldened.
The first war with Iraq in 1991 left Saddam Hussein in power to cause further trouble in that region. America's measured second response in Iraq is dividing its citizenry and bleeding its revenue, and it has yet to yield certain success.
This is not to suggest that there were no good reasons to limit military action in those wars, but rather to point out that limited wars have their own downside and are not necessarily a safe middle ground between an all—or—nothing response. Unfinished conflicts may fester and smolder, resurfacing later to pose an even greater danger. A limited response may actually encourage enemy regimes to engage in aggression, while the prospect of an immediate and brutal response may actually deter the first act of an aggressor.
In defending against Arab aggression, Israel never sought to inflict the amount of punishment on Arabs that America inflicted on Germans or Japanese. No mass killings were carried out, but instead attempts were made to minimize enemy casualties. No demands for unconditional surrender or regime change were expressed, but a negotiated peace was sought with the existing enemy regime.
In each of Israel's wars, America restrained Israel's freedom of action and prevented a decisive victory. American intervention enabled Israel's enemies to avoid making a lasting peace with Israel and, in fact, enabled them to rearm in preparation for the next war. Even the so—called peace with Egypt remains cold and hostile, with Egypt arming for offensive capability against Israel in violation of the peace treaty it signed.
Israel's failure to achieve a decisive victory worked against a permanent peace settlement, just as America's unfinished business in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq created future problems. Half measures always fail when dealing with evil regimes. There must be a lesson here for both Israel and America.
In the past, both Israel and America have experienced surprise attacks but have always been able to recover and go on to defeat the enemy. But today, neither country can afford to tolerate any more surprise attacks which could now come in the form of a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Al Qaeda, Iran, and others are actively seeking nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and the means to deliver them.
With both America and Israel targeted by Islamist enemies, the question is what restraints apply in the face of possible nuclear attacks?
If Israel is only one nuclear bomb away from defeat, then America is at most a few nuclear bombs on a few major cities away from defeat as well. The recent book Osama's Revenge by Paul Williams argues that al Qaeda agents may already have smuggled nuclear weapons into selected U.S. cities. Therefore Israel's dilemma is becoming an American dilemma as well. The unthinkable is now possible.
If the choices during WWII were agonizing, they are even more agonizing now. Simply put: should Israel and America wait and allow their implacable enemies to possibly deliver a nuclear first strike that could kill a huge number of people, possibly destroying the nation? Or should America and Israel pre—empt against likely enemies and inflict immense damage in the process? And given American conduct of WWII, does America now have the right to demand that Israel not pre—empt without U.S. permission?
Civilized people are extremely reluctant to attack another country, especially when many civilian casualties are certain. The mind recoils at being forced to choose between two certain conflagrations in which it comes down to 'it's either them or us.' And so we play for time and drift along, hoping and praying that sanity will prevail, but knowing all the while that time is working against us.
Between these two terrible choices there may be a third alternative—certainly not ideal, but perhaps better than the other two. Iran's open threat to wipe Israel off the map amounts to an "act of war," in the words of Canadian journalist David Warren. The world via the U.N. Security Council must act decisively, or else Israel will have no choice but to respond. A worldwide embargo on Iran, and a demand that the government resign and hold open elections should be demanded as the price for pledging the utter destruction of another nation. Given the history of the U.N. and the likely veto of any such resolution by China, Russia, and maybe France, this step is likely to be merely a prelude to stronger action.
Perhaps Israel or America, or hopefully both acting together, should issue an ultimatum to potential enemies, with Iran and Syria as logical first candidates. The ultimatum would demand that both governments capitulate and immediately dismantle all weapons of mass destruction and all terror facilities, thereby avoiding a massive pre—emptive strike. This alternative would at least "give peace a chance," even if the odds are slim. Rejection of this ultimatum would mean that further delay would work against the free world but at least an attempt to avoid war would have been made.
Perhaps both Israel and America need to review their defense doctrines in the light of their past experience and today's hard realities. They may have to choose between some grim alternatives. If they fail to choose, then the enemies of liberty will almost certainly choose for all of us.
Comments are welcome at rachterry@MiddleEastSolutions.com