How We Became Israel
Peace means different things to different governments and different countries. To some it suggests harmony based on tolerance and mutual respect. To others it serves as a euphemism for dominance, peace defining the relationship between the strong and the supine.
In the absence of actually existing peace, a nation’s reigning definition of peace shapes its proclivity to use force. A nation committed to peace-as-harmony will tend to employ force as a last resort. The United States once subscribed to this view. Or beyond the confines of the Western Hemisphere, it at least pretended to do so.
A nation seeking peace-as-dominion will use force more freely. This has long been an Israeli predilection. Since the end of the Cold War and especially since 9/11, however, it has become America’s as well. As a consequence, U.S. national-security policy increasingly conforms to patterns of behavior pioneered by the Jewish state. This “Israelification” of U.S. policy may prove beneficial for Israel. Based on the available evidence, it’s not likely to be good for the United States.
Here is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describing what he calls his “vision of peace” in June 2009: “If we get a guarantee of demilitarization … we are ready to agree to a real peace agreement, a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state.” The inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank, if armed and sufficiently angry, can certainly annoy Israel. But they cannot destroy it or do it serious harm. By any measure, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) wield vastly greater power than the Palestinians can possibly muster. Still, from Netanyahu’s perspective, “real peace” becomes possible only if Palestinians guarantee that their putative state will forego even the most meager military capabilities. Your side disarms, our side stays armed to the teeth: that’s Netanyahu’s vision of peace in a nutshell.
Netanyahu asks a lot of Palestinians. Yet however baldly stated, his demands reflect longstanding Israeli thinking. For Israel, peace derives from security, which must be absolute and assured. Security thus defined requires not simply military advantage but military supremacy.
From Israel’s perspective, threats to supremacy require anticipatory action, the earlier the better. The IDF attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 provides one especially instructive example. Israel’s destruction of a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 provides a second.
Yet alongside perceived threat, perceived opportunity can provide sufficient motive for anticipatory action. In 1956 and again in 1967, Israel attacked Egypt not because the blustering Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser possessed the capability (even if he proclaimed the intention) of destroying the hated Zionists, but because preventive war seemingly promised a big Israeli pay-off. In the first instance, the Israelis came away empty-handed. In the second, they hit the jackpot operationally, albeit with problematic strategic consequences.
For decades, Israel relied on a powerful combination of tanks and fighter-bombers as its preferred instrument of preemption. In more recent times, however, it has deemphasized its swift sword in favor of the shiv between the ribs. Why deploy lumbering armored columns when a missile launched from an Apache attack helicopter or a bomb fixed to an Iranian scientist’s car can do the job more cheaply and with less risk? Thus has targeted assassination eclipsed conventional military methods as the hallmark of the Israeli way of war.
Whether using tanks to conquer or assassins to liquidate, adherence to this knee-to-the-groin paradigm has won Israel few friends in the region and few admirers around the world (Americans notably excepted). The likelihood of this approach eliminating or even diminishing Arab or Iranian hostility toward Israel appears less than promising. That said, the approach has thus far succeeded in preserving and even expanding the Jewish state: more than 60 years after its founding, Israel persists and even prospers. By this rough but not inconsequential measure, the Israeli security concept has succeeded. Okay, it’s nasty: but so far at least, it’s worked.
What’s hard to figure out is why the United States would choose to follow Israel’s path. Yet over the course of the Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama quarter-century, that’s precisely what we’ve done. The pursuit of global military dominance, a proclivity for preemption, a growing taste for assassination—all justified as essential to self-defense. That pretty much describes our present-day MO.
Israel is a small country with a small population and no shortage of hostile neighbors. Ours is a huge country with an enormous population and no enemy, unless you count the Cuban-Venezuelan Axis of Ailing Dictators, within several thousand miles. We have choices that Israel does not. Yet in disregarding those choices the United States has stumbled willy-nilly into an Israeli-like condition of perpetual war, with peace increasingly tied to unrealistic expectations of adversaries and would-be adversaries acquiescing in Washington’s will.
Israelification got its kick-start with George H.W. Bush’s Operation Desert Storm, a triumphal Hundred-Hour War likened at the time to Israel’s triumphal Six-Day War. Victory over the “fourth largest army in the world” fostered illusions of the United States exercising perpetually and on a global scale military primacy akin to what Israel has exercised regionally. Soon thereafter, the Pentagon announced that henceforth it would settle for nothing less than “Full Spectrum Dominance.”
Bill Clinton’s contribution to the process was to normalize the use of force. During the several decades of the Cold War, the U.S. had resorted to overt armed intervention only occasionally. Although difficult today to recall, back then whole years might pass without U.S. troops being sent into harm’s way. Over the course of Clinton’s two terms in office, however, intervention became commonplace.
The average Israeli had long since become inured to reports of IDF incursions into southern Lebanon or Gaza. Now the average American has become accustomed to reports of U.S. troops battling Somali warlords, supervising regime change in Haiti, or occupying the Balkans. Yet the real signature of the Clinton years came in the form of airstrikes. Blasting targets in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia, and Sudan, but above all in Iraq, became the functional equivalent of Israel’s reliance on airpower to punish “terrorists” from standoff ranges.
In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush, a true believer in Full Spectrum Dominance, set out to liberate or pacify (take your pick) the Islamic world. The United States followed Israel in assigning itself the prerogative of waging preventive war. Although it depicted Saddam Hussein as an existential threat, the Bush administration also viewed Iraq as an opportunity: here the United States would signal to other recalcitrants the fate awaiting them should they mess with Uncle Sam.
More subtly, in going after Saddam, Bush was tacitly embracing a longstanding Israeli conception of deterrence. During the Cold War, deterrence had meant conveying a credible threat to dissuade your opponent from hostile action. Israel had never subscribed to that view. Influencing the behavior of potential adversaries required more than signaling what Israel might do if sufficiently aggravated; influence was exerted by punitive action, ideally delivered on a disproportionate scale. Hit the other guy first, if possible; failing that, whack him several times harder than he hit you: not the biblical injunction of an eye for an eye, but both eyes, an ear, and several teeth, with a kick in the nuts thrown in for good measure. The aim was to send a message: screw with us and this will happen to you. This is the message Bush intended to convey when he ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Unfortunately, Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched with all the confidence that had informed Operation Peace for Galilee, Israel’s equally ill-advised 1982 incursion into Lebanon, landed the United States in an equivalent mess. Or perhaps a different comparison applies: the U.S. occupation of Iraq triggered violent resistance akin to what the IDF faced as a consequence of Israel occupying the West Bank. Two successive Intifadas had given the Israeli army fits. The insurgency in Iraq (along with its Afghan sibling) gave the American army fits. Neither the Israeli nor the American reputation for martial invincibility survived the encounter.
By the time Barack Obama succeeded Bush in 2009, most Americans—like most Israelis—had lost their appetite for invading and occupying countries. Obama’s response? Hew ever more closely to the evolving Israeli way of doing things. “Obama wants to be known for winding down long wars,” writes Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. “But he has shown no hesitance when it comes to shorter, Israel-style operations. He is a special ops hawk, a drone militarist.”
Just so: with his affinity for missile-firing drones, Obama has established targeted assassination as the very centerpiece of U.S. national-security policy. With his affinity for commandos, he has expanded the size and mandate of U.S. Special Operations Command, which now maintains an active presence in more than 70 countries. In Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, and the frontier regions of Pakistan—and who knows how many other far-flung places—Obama seemingly shares Prime Minister Netanyahu’s expectations: keep whacking and a positive outcome will eventually ensue.
The government of Israel, along with ardently pro-Israel Americans like Michael Gerson, may view the convergence of U.S. and Israeli national-security practices with some satisfaction. The prevailing U.S. definition of self-defense—a self-assigned mandate to target anyone anywhere thought to endanger U.S. security—is exceedingly elastic. As such, it provides a certain cover for equivalent Israeli inclinations. And to the extent that our roster of enemies overlaps with theirs—did someone say Iran?—military action ordered by Washington just might shorten Jerusalem’s “to do” list.
Yet where does this all lead? “We don’t have enough drones,” writes the columnist David Ignatius, “to kill all the enemies we will make if we turn the world into a free-fire zone.” And if Delta Force, the Green Berets, army rangers, Navy SEALs, and the like constitute (in the words of one SEAL) “the dark matter … the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen,” we probably don’t have enough of them either. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems willing to test both propositions.
The process of aligning U.S. national-security practice with Israeli precedents is now essentially complete. Their habits are ours. Reversing that process would require stores of courage and imagination that may no longer exist in Washington. Given the reigning domestic political climate, those holding or seeking positions of power find it easier—and less risky—to stay the course, vainly nursing the hope that by killing enough “terrorists” peace on terms of our choosing will result. Here too the United States has succumbed to Israeli illusions.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame.