A war of escalating errors

CALEB CARR is a visiting professor of military studies at Bard College and the author of "The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians."

'Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake," runs Napoleon's famous dictum, and were either the Israeli government or the groups that are leading the Palestinian people (Hamas and Fatah and international organizations such as Hezbollah) capable of assimilating this basic piece of military sense, we should have already seen a sudden outbreak of peace, or, at least, cautious inactivity, in the border areas of Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and Lebanon.

Both sides have made fundamentally foolish moves in recent weeks, yet each side has consistently been rescued from its mistakes by the errors of the other. And, following this pattern, they have worked themselves and the world to the edge of a crisis that is ominous even by Middle Eastern standards.

Who initiated this sequence of errors? As with all crises in the region, this question is almost impossible to answer. The specific trigger is often said to be the June incursion into Israel by Palestinians from Gaza, which resulted in the seizure of Cpl. Gilad Shalit of the Israel Defense Forces and the death of two other IDF soldiers. But the Palestinians have explained that their commandos were carrying out a reprisal raid after the IDF seized two Palestinian brothers, Osama and Mustafa Muamar, who, they claimed, are innocent of anything save being sons of a known Hamas activist, Ali Muamar.

Viewed in this light, the Palestinian action seems uncharacteristically legitimate, proportionate and even daring. For, unlike the Israeli seizure of the Muamars, the whole of the Palestinian operation was aimed at strictly military targets. Yet the Israelis answered with a sadly predictable full-scale military incursion into Gaza. The Palestinians, meanwhile, abandoned proportionality once again by stating that the release not simply of the Muamars but of hundreds of their people imprisoned in Israel would be the condition of Shalit's release.

More important, perhaps, the Israeli incursion into Gaza gave Hezbollah (or so it felt) the green light to launch its rocket attacks from southern Lebanon. President Bush and Israeli leaders might try to represent the two events -- the action in Gaza and that in south Lebanon -- as unconnected, but it is an assertion that has failed to gain traction in most of the Muslim world, as well as in many other countries.

Israel's reaction in Gaza had been especially foolish. Although the original Palestinian attack on the IDF post was carried out against a purely military target, the quick demand for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israel showed the Palestinians' true lack of diplomatic deftness. Had the Israelis limited themselves to the threat of an incursion, while carrying out the kind of special-forces search-and-rescue operations of which they are capable, the Palestinians would have lost their advantage.

Not to fear, however: The Palestinian mistake was indeed interrupted, and grotesquely, by the sight of massively armed IDF conventional forces crossing into one of the poorest and smallest regions on the planet, all to rescue what Israel claimed was a "kidnapped" soldier -- an assertion that was absurd because a uniformed, front-line noncommissioned officer can no more be "kidnapped" by the enemy than an innocent, unarmed child can "die in battle." Already, the language of the conflict was taking on the dimensions of events occurring on the other side of Alice's looking glass, and things would only get worse.

The Palestinians' allies, in their turn, soon rescued Israel from this terrible error in judgment. After a border skirmish -- the true origins of which may never be known -- Hezbollah initiated a rocket offensive against Israeli towns and cities in the north of the country, causing a certain number of civilian casualties but far more widespread civilian panic. So great was the panic that Israel felt the need to once again take its turn at rescuing its enemies from error. It bombarded and finally invaded southern Lebanon in a barrage that would turn out to be, by orders of magnitude, the most savage step in the spiral of horror, miscalculation and interruption of miscalculation.

And now? Now, scarcely anyone on either side of the conflict knows or cares who was the first to break the "rules of war." Civilians on both sides only want relief from the constant anxiety of indiscriminate attacks and revenge for those noncombatants who -- whether because they happened to live where a Katyusha rocket landed inside Israel, or because they lived too close to where Hezbollah had parked a launcher of such rockets inside southern Lebanon, or because they simply have nowhere to go to escape the narrow confines of the Gaza corridor or West Bank refugee camps -- have met hideous deaths or suffered equally hideous wounds.

IS THERE AN alternative to this pattern of mistakes and countermistakes? There is, but it involves a quality that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have ever come close to mastering: tactical restraint in order to achieve strategic advantage. Simply put, this involves looking past immediate and all-out retaliation as the best method of countering threat. It is not a call for turning the other cheek; rather, it suggests that savagely swinging back every time one's cheek is dealt so much as a brushing blow does not amount to effective boxing, much less enlightened belligerent behavior.

Imagine, for example, that either Israel (in the case of the initial Palestinian and Hezbollah attacks) or the Palestinians and Hezbollah (in the case of the original Israeli reprisals) had decided: "Patience; we will absorb this assault, and wait to focus our attacks until we can strike at what we know to be -- and can prove to the rest of the world are -- the enemy military or paramilitary units responsible. That will get us our principal objective: the certain backing of global public opinion. We will refuse throughout to engage in disproportionate assaults on indiscriminate targets, and if for a period we risk suffering more losses than our opponent, we will nonetheless profit in the long run. When we have netted the world's sympathy, we will receive more backing, even as our enemies' support dwindles, and what had seemed to be tactical peril will in fact prove to be strategic advantage."

This notion -- absorbing smaller blows in order to deliver decisive later strikes -- has important historical precedents. It forms a central tenet of the philosophy of ancient China's Sun Tzu, arguably the world's greatest military thinker. But even during modern American history, we can find the idea at work: For it decisively influenced the pre-World War II steps taken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1937, when imperial Japanese aircraft "mistakenly" attacked and sank the U.S. gunboat Panay and several other vessels on China's Yangtze River, some in the U.S. called for war; but FDR realized that the U.S. was in fact neither politically nor militarily ready for such a conflict. And so he (rather unhappily) bided his time, accepting what seemed to his enemies a craven reparations deal and awaiting an event that would allow the overwhelming majority of the American public to appreciate the dangers of Japanese medievalist militarism. The wait also gave the American Navy extra years to prepare.

Similarly, when Roosevelt later tried, after the outbreak of the European war in 1939, to engineer American entrance into the conflict through elaborate trickery centered on luring Nazi subs into attacking U.S. warships in the North Atlantic, he quickly found that, much as the Allies might match his own desire to get the U.S. into the war, his own people were still not ready. And so he did not act, convincing Adolf Hitler of his own degeneracy, as well as that of the people he led.

BUT ROOSEVELT WAS, of course, waiting for a precise set of conditions that would allow him not simply to be the just party in the war but to appear to be as much, at home and abroad. And, of course, by the time the U.S. entered the European and the Pacific wars, there was no doubt about our moral rectitude or our increased military and naval strength.

Lives had been lost, shipping endangered, prestige -- personal and otherwise -- sullied, but FDR had, by bending with the early blows and waiting for what turned out to be the disaster of Pearl Harbor, pulled off the stroke that would garner the United States, over the course of World War II, so much moral authority that even his less internationally adept successors -- from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush -- have not been able to drain it; not quite yet, at any rate.

Unlike FDR, however, the current Palestinian, Hezbollah and Israeli leaderships have been unable to embody anything like military or diplomatic restraint. They have instead displayed ever-increasing and more self-defeating impatience, a wholehearted willingness to bail each other out of their respective worst mistakes and a mutually callous attitude toward civilian death.

Nearly identical mistakes and miscues, interlocked in a sickeningly seamless and seemingly unstoppable pattern: In this as in so many things, these enemies have displayed what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences." Those differences seem far less small, however, when one realizes that the narcissism extends to the belief that their causes are worth not only the lives of the most innocent on both sides of every border, but the risk of a regional -- or even a global -- conflagration.

Clearly, the combatants can no longer be trusted to make sound judgments, and the time has come for the world to insert that rarest of phenomena, a multinational force with both bullets and a brief: to keep the sides apart, to allow humanitarian relief to be administered and to demonstrate that the rest of the world's patience with their repeated errors, and interruptions of each others' errors, will no longer be tolerated.

Will Friday's United Nations Resolution accomplish this? When one reads the fine print, it seems unlikely. And even if it can, it will not begin to go into effect for days -- and days, in this conflict, can narrow possibilities for success dramatically by allowing the terrible error of reciprocal civilian death to go on.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°