What Does It Take to Win?

I’ve stated before that I’m not adverse to use of massive force:

I think reasonable people can disagree as to whether the Israeli response is “disproportionate”. I myself have no qualms about destroying an enemy’s infrastructure if civilian deaths can be kept to a minimum and the payoff in psychological damage to the enemy is great enough (think about General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea).

I went a little deeper into this in response recently to a comment from someone:

I don’t want to sound like a “make love not war” type of guy, but come on, dropping bombs with that might … is a bit of an “over kill” literally …. It’s like a little kid goes to a football player (Defense) and kicks him in the knee, which makes the football player rip him apart

My response:

Without supporting or protesting any specific Israeli tactics, I would pose the following question: What does it take to win? In your analogy, the stakes aren’t very high; probably a bruised ego at best. But in the actual war between Israel and Hezbollah, the stakes are the very survival of Israel. Sure, Hezbollah does not currently have the wherewithal to wipe Israel off the map, as long as there’s a little more than token resistance on the part of Israel. But asking Israel to do no more than that is essentially to say to Israel to grab her ankles.

Personally I’m in favor of General Sherman’s idea of total war: Destroy the infrastructure. I grant that General Sherman’s methods may not entirely apply here, because unlike the Union occupation of the South after the American Civil War, Israel’s not likely to occupy even just southern Lebanon after the conflict, with an eye toward annexation.

So, back to the question: What does it take to win? Israel has nuclear weapons. If all it wanted was to be rid of Hezbollah, why not just nuke the frontier areas? Goodbye south Lebanon, goodbye Gaza. But the international relations repercussions of such an activity, to say nothing of the moral repercussions, argue against such a tactic.

Thus I think I have established that merely putting up token resistance, or nuking Hezbollah, are extreme solutions that are non-starters. What does it take to win?

The kind of power politics we’re used to seeing, which has developed over the Cold War era, is that the international system does not want any party to a conflict to win outright. While it’s easy for remote adversaries to come to a ceasefire agreement (North Korea/United States), or even to declare a winner (United States > North Vietnam, United Kingdom > Argentina, etc.), it is far more difficult for neighbors to live with the sense that one side or another has “won” (Iraq v. Iran, Iraq v. Kuwait, Somalia v. Somalia, Ethiopia v. Eritrea), much less a convincing victory (Israel > Egypt + Jordan + Iraq + Syria + Saudi Arabia). More times than often, one neighbor complete absorbs the other (North Vietnam > South Vietnam). In fact, outside of the Americas and most of Europe, neighbors often exist alongside each other with some unease (North Korea v. South Korea, Japan v. North Korea + South Korea + China, Vietnam v. China, China v. India, Cambodia v. Vietnam, Indonesia v. East Timor, India v. Pakistan, Iran v. Iraq, Serbia v. Croatia, to list just a few outside the Middle East).

In fact, the international system as it currently exists tends to support the underdog blindly. In some case, this may be good, if the underdog was attacked (Bosnia, Kuwait, and Egypt in 1956); in others, it’s probably not good, if the underdog is the aggressor (the occasional incursions by Pakistan). The only exception to this rule is that when Israel is the underdog but not the aggressor, it is not supported (1967, 1973).

A system which applies pressure for war to cease before a workable peace is possible merely buys time for the side that was about to lose. This is not to say whether that’s good or bad, but at least in the case of post-1967 Israel, we’re not talking any longer about states rubbing up against each other, jostling for land and/or resources. No, we’re talking now about an enemy that intends for the complete and irrevocable eradication, not only of the Jewish state, but of any Jewish blood in the Middle East. Against that backdrop, a system that does not allow one side or the other to win is actually a way to lengthen the conflict, not to ameliorate it.

We go to great lengths to say that we want the war to stop because innocents are getting killed. But what we end up doing is forcing the parties to refight the same war every few years. When you add it up, the civilian casualties turn out greater than if we were to let the parties have a free-for-all, last man standing.

If you don’t mind keeping the conflict simmering, then Israel is “overreacting”. But keep in mind that essentially what you’re supporting in this conflict by limiting Israeli options is the continued existence of Hezbollah.

If you want a real end, let Israel do what it must, and punish it later for its excesses.

I’m sure some of the dates can be cleaned up, but overall I think this is a pretty good representation of the current international system, which is in fact a rather “reactionary” one, a truly “conservative” system.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

5 thoughts on “What Does It Take to Win?”

  1. What would it take to win?

    What would we like to impose — I mean what would we like to see happen for the good of the people who live in these autocratic nation states?

    Sherman made his march to the sea, and Bush made his march to Baghdad. We can definitely take down infrastructure and destroy nation-states. Does that move people toward democracy?

    The non-state organizations seem to be more slippery than nation-states. I’m not sure what the answers are, but it’s not clear to me that wholesale destruction is necessarily working in our best interests.

  2. My first concern is the good of the people who live in the democracies, particularly the USA, that are under attack.

    Big-time terrorism doesn’t happen in a political vacuum. It is sponsored by governments that provide money, weapons and refuge. By punishing the people who run those governments we make terrorism a much less attractive tactic than it previously was.

    By promoting democracy in erstwhile dictatorships that sponsored terrorism and/or other attacks against us we help to give ordinary people in those countries both a stake in reasonable government and the means to create such government. That helps them as a byproduct, but mainly it helps us because democratic governments generally have little incentive to fight us. It is therefore a reasonable strategy for us to follow.

    If anyone has a plan that would work better I’d like to hear it.

  3. I’m not getting the connection between destroying infrastructure and promoting democracy.

    We cheered the cedars revolution, but now we’re taking a chainsaw to the trees.

    Seems like there must be a cheaper way to promote democracy. Iraq’s standing at what – a half trillion?

    I’d feel a lot better about this if our social engineering on other countries at the point of a gun were producing more than blood and rubble in the sand. I’m worried that karma stuff is going to come back around and kick our grandkids in the butt.

  4. I suppose that we (or the Israelis) could simply kill them all. I prefer the military defeat + social engineering method. I sure hope it works.

    Too bad about the infrastructure and the setback to Lebanese democracy. However, infrastructure can be replaced. And given what the war has revealed about the extent of Hezbollah’s power, it may be that the imminence of Lebanese democracy was an illusion.

    Defeating these enemies and husbanding the growth of democratic governments is going to take many years and will not be cheap.

  5. “Sherman made his march to the sea, and Bush made his march to Baghdad. We can definitely take down infrastructure and destroy nation-states. Does that move people toward democracy?”

    Yes. Although it was slower than we like, Sherman’s march to the sea did much to move the Confederacy toward democracy with participation from all the people. Terrorists, and discouragement on the part of the Americans back home, slowed the effort, but it ultimately bore fruit.

    Now here we are again. Let’s not take a hundred years to do this job.

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