Posted by Joshua on Sunday, January 11th, 2009
The War in Gaza: Tactical Gains, Strategic Defeat?
By Anthony Cordesman
January 9, 2009
[After summarizing Israel’s significant tactical achievements in Gaza during the two weeks since its invasion, Cordesman puts the whole situation in proper strategic perspective:]
. . . . . the growing human tragedy in Gaza is steadily raising more serious questions as to whether the kind of tactical gains that Israel now reports are worth the suffering involved. As of the 14th day of the war, nearly 800 Palestinian have died and over 3,000 have been wounded. Fewer and fewer have been Hamas fighters, while more and more have been civilians.
These direct costs are also only part of the story. Gaza’s economy had already collapsed long before the current fighting began and now has far greater problems. Its infrastructure is crippled in critical areas like power and water. This war has compounded the impact of a struggle that has gone on since 2000. It has reduced living standards in basic ways like food, education, as well as medical supplies and services. It has also left most Gazans without a productive form of employment. The current war has consequences more far-reaching than casualties. It involves a legacy of greatly increased suffering for the 1.5 million people who will survive this current conflict.
It is also far from clear that the tactical gains are worth the political and strategic cost to Israel. At least to date, the reporting from within Gaza indicates that each new Israeli air strike or advance on the ground has increased popular support for Hamas and anger against Israel in Gaza. The same is true in the West Bank and the Islamic world. Iran and Hezbollah are capitalizing on the conflict. Anti-American demonstrations over the fighting have taken place in areas as “remote” as Kabul. Even friends of Israel like Turkey see the war as unjust. The Egyptian government comes under greater pressure with every casualty. The US is seen as having done virtually nothing, focusing only on the threat from Hamas, and the President elect is getting as much blame as the President who still serves.
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 (the incoming Obama administration) 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.
This raises a question that every Israeli and its supporters now needs to ask. What is the strategic purpose behind the present fighting? After two weeks of combat Olmert, Livni, and Barak have still not said a word that indicates that Israel will gain any grand strategic benefits, or tactical benefits much larger than the gains it made from selectively striking key Hamas facilities early in the war. In fact, their silence raises haunting questions about whether they will repeat the same massive failures made by Israel’s top political leadership during the Israeli-Hezbollah War in 2006. Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal or at least one it can credibly achieve? Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel’s actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process?
To be blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes. To paraphrase a comment about the British government’s management of the British Army in World War I, lions seem to be led by donkeys. If Israel has a credible ceasefire plan that could really secure Gaza, it is not apparent. If Israel has a plan that could credibly destroy and replace Hamas, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to help the Gazans and move them back towards peace, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to use US or other friendly influence productively, it is not apparent.
As we have seen all too clearly from US mistakes, any leader can take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains are a meaningful victory. If this is all that Olmert, Livni, and Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced themselves and damaged their country and their friends. If there is more, it is time to make such goals public and demonstrate how they can be achieved. The question is not whether the IDF learned the tactical lessons of the fighting in 2006. It is whether Israel’s top political leadership has even minimal competence to lead them.