Giving Mideast War a Chance?

Today’s WaPo fronts an analysis piece from Michael Abramowitz entitled “In Mideast Strife, Bush Sees a Step To Peace.”

resident Bush’s unwillingness to pressure Israel to halt its military campaign in Lebanon is rooted in a view of the Middle East conflict that is sharply different from that of his predecessors. When hostilities have broken out in the past, the usual U.S. response has been an immediate and public bout of diplomacy aimed at a cease-fire, in the hopes of ensuring that the crisis would not escalate. This week, however, even in the face of growing international demands, the White House has studiously avoided any hint of impatience with Israel. While making it plain it wants civilian casualties limited, the administration is also content to see the Israelis inflict the maximum damage possible on Hezbollah.

As the president’s position is described by White House officials, Bush associates and outside Middle East experts, Bush believes that the status quo — the presence in a sovereign country of a militant group with missiles capable of hitting a U.S. ally — is unacceptable.

The U.S. position also reflects Bush’s deepening belief that Israel is central to the broader campaign against terrorists and represents a shift away from a more traditional view that the United States plays an “honest broker’s” role in the Middle East. In the administration’s view, the new conflict is not just a crisis to be managed. It is also an opportunity to seriously degrade a big threat in the region, just as Bush believes he is doing in Iraq. Israel’s crippling of Hezbollah, officials also hope, would complete the work of building a functioning democracy in Lebanon and send a strong message to the Syrian and Iranian backers of Hezbollah. “The president believes that unless you address the root causes of the violence that has afflicted the Middle East, you cannot forge a lasting peace,” said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. “He mourns the loss of every life. Yet out of this tragic development, he believes a moment of clarity has arrived.”

This is essentially the thesis of “Give War a Chance,” Edward N. Luttwak’s controversial 1999 essay in Foreign Affairs.

An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached. War brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence. Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat.


But a cease-fire tends to arrest war-induced exhaustion and lets belligerents reconstitute and rearm their forces. It intensifies and prolongs the struggle once the cease-fire ends — and it does usually end. This was true of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49, which might have come to closure in a matter of weeks if two cease-fires ordained by the Security Council had not let the combatants recuperate. It has recently been true in the Balkans. Imposed cease-fires frequently interrupted the fighting between Serbs and Croats in Krajina, between the forces of the rump Yugoslav federation and the Croat army, and between the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in Bosnia. Each time, the opponents used the pause to recruit, train, and equip additional forces for further combat, prolonging the war and widening the scope of its killing and destruction. Imposed armistices, meanwhile — again, unless followed by negotiated peace accords — artificially freeze conflict and perpetuate a state of war indefinitely by shielding the weaker side from the consequences of refusing to make concessions for peace.

So it has been in the Arab-Israeli conflict for generations. Of course, as I’ve written many times now, it’s unclear that there’s anyone on the Arab side able to do what Emperor Hirohito did for Japan in 1945: surrender and be obeyed by his followers.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Middle East, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael says:

    That is perhaps the greatest irony of all.

    These terrorist organizations only have authority so long as they have the mandate of their members. If the leader of Hezbollah surrenders, the members of Hezbollah would reject it, and select a new leader in his place.

    Don’t believe me? Look at Hamas. The top Hamas leaders took control of the Palestinian Authority because of a mandate from the population. Now, when they call for restraint and talks of a truce, the militant members of Hamas reject their authority.

    That is what makes this enemy so very different from any we have faced before. We can’t kill them all, because they recruit faster than we can kill them. We can’t decapitate the organization, because the body moves the head, and will simply find a replacement head to move.

    So who controls this enemy? Not a person, but an ideology. This militant Islamist ideology is what they follow, the people in charge are just those popular today. Each person takes their orders from their personal interpretation of this ideology, then they select leaders who have the same interpretation as they do.

    Now, we are currently involved in killing terrorists, and killing terrorist leaders, but what are we doing to kill the terrorist ideology? Are we doing anything? Is what we are doing weakening the ideology, or only making it stronger and more widespread?

  2. Ryan says:

    The neocons never saw a war they didn’t like, as long as it was against a weak and vulnerable opponent.

  3. madmatt says:

    I agree with Michael….unless you kill them ALL, a popular position with some of those over at powerline, all we are doing is driving more and more people into a situation where acting out thru terrorism is their only chance…does anybody believe that the rubble that lebanon has been reduced to is going to foster peace and understanding towards israel and by association the US.

  4. Herb says:

    Ryan and Madmatt:

    Then tell everyone the solution.

    Do the Israeli es go for a “Cease Fire” and contend with the Homicide Bombings, The Kidnappings, and the always present threats from those who openly preach for the complete distruction and annihilation of Israel.

    OR, Go after the “Un Civilized’ bastards that started The whole thing in the first place.

    You guys remind me of Chamberlain prior to WW11 who thought “appeasement” was the answer to Hitler.

    The “Pacifist and Contentious Objectors” who always want appeasement and have been at the root of the worlds greatest conflicts and caused “Millions” to die.

    Hey guys, “Don’t criticize unless you have the answer” or keep you overloaded mouths shut.

  5. Anderson says:

    Then tell everyone the solution.

    Herb sits at his computer, looking for solutions …

  6. Ralph says:

    Hirohito? 1948? How about 1945?

  7. James Joyner says:

    Ralph: Yep. Just a typo–fixed.

  8. Herb says:

    That may be, but I sure as hell don’t “Plagiarize” like Anderson does.

  9. Michael says:

    Why do you think the only options are what is currently happening and doing nothing at all? This is a popular meme I’ve noticed in people who support the Iraq war still, they either think we have to do things the way we currently do them, or not at all. Have you ever thought that maybe there are more options than just “stupid” and “nothing”?

    But, you asked for a solution, so I’ll give my best suggestion and let others work out the possible outcomes.

    1.) Israel officially declares war on Lebanon, and begins a campaign to destroy the Lebanese government and military. Right now the Lebanese military won’t interfere with Hezbollah for fear of civil war, but an international war for their very survival would give them political cover to take up positions in southern Lebanon.

    2.) Israel aggravates Syria and Syrian interests in Lebanon. Not just Hezbollah, but economic interests of the Syrian government, and more importantly Syrian businesses. The goal would be to make Syrians suffer for their governments support of Hezbollah, while not making them an official party to the conflict, which would give Iran an excuse not to get involved. Even if Syria declares war on Israel, Iran will probably decline to do the same if Syria is voluntarily joining the fight.

    3.) Israel needs to make some kind of public concession to the Palestinians. It doesn’t have to be much, and it doesn’t have to happen soon either. The idea is to wait until Lebanon and Syria have suffered enough that any concession would be spun as a win for the Muslim world so they can sue for peace. Politicians don’t like to admit they were wrong or defeated in any way, so the only possibility for a negotiated peace would be to have something they can tout as a victory.

    Now keep in mind this is just a way to end the currently conflict without killing millions of people. It won’t solve the long term problems Israel will continue to face because of it’s very existence. But, as I’ve stated already in this thread, they can’t win that through their military. Israel’s only chance for safety and stability is to make themselves a valued partner of the Arab and Muslim populations. Look at Jordan and Egypt, both of which once sought Israel’s destruction.

  10. Michael says:

    One last thought:

    4.) Any aid Israel allows into Lebanon should have to come into Lebanon through Israel, passing through Hezbollah territory before it can get to Beirut. Israeli military would escort the UN convoys to the border, but no further. Could Hezbollah refrain from attacking of diverting these supplies? I doubt it. Let the suffering Lebanese know that Israel sent aid, but Hezbollah stopped it, or worse, stole it from them. More likely the UN won’t do it, citing fear of a Hezbollah attack. That kind of makes it hard for the UN to press Israel to make peace with the terrorists if they themselves don’t trust Hezbollah not to attack their humanitarian workers. Either way, they get no aid because of Hezbollah, that makes Hezbollah their immediate enemy.

  11. Herb says:


    In your last comment entitled “One Last Thought”

    I hope it is, but then again, who ever accused you of “Thinking”.

  12. Michael says:

    Herb: “Then tell everyone the solution.”

    So, I offered a solution. I rather lengthy thought out solution I believed could actually solve the current conflict. Then I sat back, and waited for the detailed analysis of the pros and cons of my proposition, along with possible historic examples, and a counter-proposal.

    Herb: “In your last comment entitled ‘One Last Thought’, I hope it is”

    Sigh, is this all I can expect from you?

  13. Anderson says:

    Sigh, is this all I can expect from you?

    You don’t know Herb–the answer is “yes.” (Unfortunately, I think he’s actually Dick Cheney in disguise.)

    Your proposed solution is clever, but seems difficult to orchestrate in practice: Trying to “eradicate” the Lebanese army in order to “give it cover” to occupy south Lebanon, i.e., *closer* to the forces trying to eradicate it, is the first part I have trouble with.

    The sad truth appears to be that Israel, with an uncertain gov’t after Sharon, is losing its collective mind & lashing out, with no real regard for what actually might work. I’ll be happy if events prove me wrong.

    The *most* I can come up with is that Israel is *deliberately* crashing any hopes of peace for the next 20 years, just to get that off the table. But I’m not sure anyone’s that Machiavellian in real life.

  14. Michael says:


    Perhaps I wasn’t very clear about my inent on the first item. Right now, the official Lebanese army cannot occupy southern Lebanon without having to fight Hezbollah, who wants them to stay out of the fight. So far, they have chosen the option of not getting involved. My suggestion is for Israel to remove that option, and to force their involvement. And, when some force is trying to eradicate you, you have only 2 choices: fight of flight. While flight may actually be something the Lebanese army would chose, fight would require that they meet the enemy where they are, in this case southern Lebanon. So yes, if the Lebanese army does become involved, it will take up positions along the front line, it would have to.