During Israel’s recent war with Hamas, which took place at the same time as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was conducing its barbaric campaign in Mesopotamia and the Levant, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped to score a few points with Americans and other Westerners by equating the Palestinian Islamist movement ruling the Gaza Strip with the radical Sunni forces leading a Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
But if the communist regimes and movements didn’t constitute a monolithic bloc during the Cold War, the West isn’t facing a unified Islamist force today. There are various shades of green, ranging from the quasi-medieval ISIS terrorists to the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites.
Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that promotes a nationalist and Islamist Palestinian agenda, and while it’s not exactly “like” ISIS, it does represent the way Islam is being utilized now an identity and as a political-military force: Arab Sunnis fighting Shi’ites and Westerners in Iraq and Syria; Arab Sunnis combating Jews in Israel/Palestine.
And in both cases, these Islamist groups, reflecting the religious fanaticism of their members, including a willingness to die as suicide bombers for their cause, pose a major challenge to Western leaders and publics in an age dominated by the secular and non-ideological middle-class consumer who wants to live—not to die—for his or her country.
To put it differently, Western leaders are reluctant to send their citizens to fight individuals and groups who subscribe to a set of values and a code of behavior that seem to originate in an atavistically pre-modern age. Deploying ground troops to occupy Arab lands is not only costly in terms of blood and treasure directly expended, it’s also not cost-effective if you conclude that it would be close to impossible to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Muhammad (in his many sectarian and tribal shapes) will always beat Locke in the war of ideas.
To employ the terms President Barack Obama used in his televised address on Wednesday, we may have the power to “crush” these guys, but you probably don’t the capability and will to entirely “destroy” them.
In a way, the decisions of then-Prime Minister Israel Ariel Sharon to withdraw Israeli troops unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and of President Obama to end the American occupation of Iraq in 2011—and to refrain from re-invading these areas again—reflect similar calculations.
Both Israel in the Gaza Strip and the United States in Iraq had the military resources to continue occupying these respective Arab territories. But the Israeli and American publics were not willing to pay the costs in terms of human lives of maintaining a military presence in the midst of a hostile Arab population (which in Gaza had elected Hamas and in Baghdad brought to power an Islamist Shi’ite leader).
When one considers the angry reactions by the Israelis to the launching of missiles by Hamas into Israel and by the Americans to the beheading of the two U.S. journalists by ISIS, it’s important to recall that both decisions—to pull out from Gaza and from Iraq—enjoyed wide public support. The assumption was that military power would serve as a deterrent against potential aggressors in the future and that the Israelis and the Americans could control the situation on the ground through some sort of remote control.
One of the most astounding turning points in the recent Israel-Hamas war was the decision by the Israeli government—the most nationalist in the country’s history—not to fully re-invade the Gaza Strip despite repeated pledges by Prime Minister Netanyahu to destroy Hamas’s “terrorist infrastructure.”
The reason that there was no Israeli version of Sherman’s March to the Sea in Gaza—or for that matter, no World War II-like calls for Hamas’s “unconditional surrender”—was due not only to the high costs of such a campaign but also the conclusion by Israeli leaders and generals that in the Gaza Strip—unlike in the post-Civil War South or in post-WWII Germany—the defeated and conquered population would not be ready under any conditions to be co-opted into some Israeli post-war settlement, even one that included outside financial reconstruction assistance.
Why? For the same reason that the population of Gaza would probably re-elect Hamas if elections were held there today. For the same reason that the American invasion of Iraq and the Freedom Agenda resulted in the rise to power of sectarian forces and not liberal groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. For the same reason that the Muslim Brotherhood and not the young Facebook revolutionaries ended up winning the first free elections in Egypt—and that the military eventually returned to power in Cairo.
East is East, and West is West, and there is no reason to believe that the twain shall meet anytime soon. Much of the Arab World is moving in the Islamist direction and rejects the notion of Western hegemony both as a value system and as a set of political goals. Arabs are willing to cooperate with the United States when it comes to advancing their military and economic interests. But that’s about it.
Most Israelis have given up by now on the notion that they will be able to reach a Kantian “peace” with the Palestinians—like the one that exists between Germany and France or the United States—in the near future, especially as Islamist groups like Hamas, which at best are willing to accept the idea of short-term coexistence with Israel, are gaining the upper hand in Palestine and elsewhere.
And now the Israeli modus operandi that became obvious during the war in Gaza—using Israel’s technological edge and superior air power to “crush” Hamas (a term that Netanyahu used quite frequently during the military campaign) while cooperating with local partners (Egypt, in the case of Israel) to pressure and isolate the enemy and create a more favorable balance of power—may become the model for American military operations on Iraq and Syria in the coming years.
So if you cannot—or are not willing to—defeat them, then “crush” them with drones, missiles, and air power, and try through ad-hoc cooperation with the occasional partner (the Jordanians), proxy (the Kurds), and even rival (Iran) to put pressure on the enemy du jour (al-Qaeda; ISIS). In the make-believe world of spin and media, in the meantime, try to market the outcome of your policies as military wins and pretend that all of this will create the conditions for a diplomatic solution. At best, it will tilt the balance of power in your favor; at a minimum, it will help maintain the status quo and contain the perceived threat.
Notwithstanding all the fancy rhetoric, this is the Obama “strategy” to fight ISIS: no grand designs for democracy-promotion or nation-building, not even the expectation that the Middle East is entering into an age of freedom, prosperity, and peace under American leadership. Just a lot of “crushing” to do: the defeating is being left to the Iraqis, the Kurds, the Turks, and the Saudis.
But as Israel’s war against Hamas has demonstrated, such a policy carries a lot of risks, ranging from the inevitable collateral damage to innocent civilians to the possibility of a soldier or pilot falling into enemy hands or terrorist attacks against your military or civilians, possibly even the homeland.
And when that happens, the pressure grows to do more “somethings,” including the deployment of ground troops with the aim of forcing the enemy to surrender. And before you know it, a war that wasn’t supposed to be a war becomes real.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.