By Andrew J. Bacevich, from the September issue of The American Conservative. Bacevich’s article “Glory Days” appeared in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine.
Peace means different things to different governments and countries. To some it suggests harmony based on tolerance and mutual respect. To others it serves as a euphemism for dominance, defining the relationship between the strong and the supine.
In the absence of an existing peace, a nation’s reigning definition of the word 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, at least pretended to.
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. Consequently, 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 to Israel. But it’s not likely to be good for the United States.
In June 2009, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu described what he calls his “vision of peace”: “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.” Now the inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank, if sufficiently armed and sufficiently angry, can certainly annoy Israel. But they cannot destroy it or do it serious harm. The Israel Defense Forces wield vastly greater power than the Palestinians can possibly muster. Still, from Netanyahu’s perspective, “real peace” becomes possible only when Palestinians guarantee that their putative state will forgo 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’s demands, however baldly stated, reflect long-standing Israeli thinking. For Israel, peace derives from security, which must be absolute and assured. Defined this way, security requires not simply military advantage but military supremacy, and 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 another.
But along with 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) to destroy the hated Zionists, but because preventive war seemed to promise a big Israeli payoff. In 1956, the Israelis came away empty-handed. In 1967, they hit the jackpot operationally, albeit with problematic strategic consequences, to wit, an irreconcilable dispute between a growing population of Israeli settlers and an even more rapidly growing population of Palestinians, both claiming ownership of the same land.
For decades, Israel relied on a powerful combination of tanks and fighter-bombers as its preferred instrument of preemption. More recently, however, it has laid down its 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? Targeted assassination has eclipsed conventional military methods as the hallmark of the Israeli way of war.
Whether using tanks to conquer or assassins to liquidate, Israel’s vision of peace has won it 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 sixty years after its founding, Israel persists and even prospers. By this rough 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. A partial explanation may lie with the rightward tilt of American politics that began in the late 1970s, affecting the way both Republicans and Democrats have approached national security ever since. Among hawks in both parties, Israeli pugnacity strikes a chord. As a political posture, it can also win votes. Back in 1980, it certainly did for Ronald Reagan. As a presidential candidate, Reagan not only promised unstinting support for Israel; he also projected a “take no guff” attitude that came right out of the Israeli political playbook. The contrast with Jimmy Carter, who was seemingly taking a lot of guff from abroad, could hardly have been greater.
The lesson was not lost on candidates in later elections. Over the course of the Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama quarter century, following in Israel’s path is 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 sums up our current m.o.
Israel is a small country with no shortage of hostile neighbors. Ours is a huge country with no enemy within several thousand miles (unless you count the Cuban-Venezuelan Axis of Ailing Dictators). We have choices that Israel does not. In disregarding those choices the United States has stumbled into an Israel-like condition of perpetual war, with peace increasingly tied to the unrealistic expectation that adversaries and would-be adversaries will acquiesce to Washington’s will.
Israelification got its practical 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 global and perpetual military supremacy 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 our Israelification was to normalize the use of force. During the several decades of the Cold War, the United States had resorted to overt armed intervention only occasionally. 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 Gaza or southern Lebanon. Now the average American became accustomed to reports of U.S. troops battling Somali warlords, supervising regime change in Haiti, or occupying the Balkans. But the real signature of the Clinton years came in the form of air strikes. 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 extended ranges.
After 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 an enduring Israeli notion 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 provoked; influence was exerted through 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 proportionality 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 was 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 preceded 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’s occupation of the West Bank. Two successive intifadas gave the Israeli army fits. The insurgency in Iraq (along with its Afghan sibling) gave the U.S. army fits. Neither the Israeli nor the American reputation for martial invincibility survived.
By the time Barack Obama succeeded George W. Bush in 2009, most Americans—like most Israelis—had lost their appetite for invading and occupying. Obama’s response? Hew ever closer to the evolving Israeli way of doing things. “Obama wants to be known for winding down long wars,” wrote Michael Gerson in a February 2012 Washington Post column. “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 centerpiece of U.S. national-security policy. With his affinity for commandos, he has sought to expand the size and mandate of U.S. Special Operations Command, which has had an active presence in more than seventy countries in the past decade. In Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, and the frontier regions of Pakistan, Obama seems to share 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 American 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—as in the case of 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,” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius notes, “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 precedent 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. With the political climate that reigns here today, those holding or seeking positions of power find it easier—and less risky—to stay the course than to change it, vainly nursing the hope that if we kill enough terrorists we will have peace on terms of our choosing. Here, too, the United States has succumbed to Israeli illusions.