No-Win Situation

A week ago the author and military historian Max Boot published in the Wall Street Journal an insightful, if morose, essay on the difficulty Israel faces in the situation in Gaza. I neglected to link to it at the time, but it has lost none of its currency and relevance. I reproduce it below in its entirety.

Mr. Boot begins:

There is little doubt that Israel is morally justified in its offensive against Hamas. No nation can sit by and allow its territory to be rocketed with impunity. Not if it wants to remain a nation for long. But to say that Israel has the right, indeed the obligation, to act is not the same thing as saying that it is acting wisely.

It is too early to know whether its actions are well-advised. All will depend on how the offensive turns out. But even as Israeli troops push into Gaza following a week of air strikes, it seems highly unlikely that they will be able to decisively defeat the terrorist organization on their southern border.

Achieving total victory would require waging war in the way that America fought Germany and Japan — all out and on many fronts until the enemy has no more capacity to resist. Then it would have to occupy the ruined land, imposing a peace at gunpoint to ensure that Gaza could never again be a launching point for attacks on Israel.

None of this is beyond the Israelis’ military capacity (and Israel could do it without using nuclear weapons). They could also impose a peace at gunpoint. That is, essentially, what they did between 1967, when the Gaza Strip was won from Egypt, and 1994, when the Palestinian Authority was created. They could do it again if necessary. Yet the odds are they won’t.

Israel’s problem is that, as a Western democracy, it simply isn’t willing to be as ruthless as it would have to be to ensure its safety by military means; our culture tends to hold itself to a rather lofty moral standard when it comes to these matters. (Indeed, even our enemies, who would never dream of encumbering themselves with such moral restraints, have learned to use this as a defensive weapon, and go out of their way to incur casualties amongst their own civilians so as to discomfit Western governments.)

Mr. Boot continues:

To understand the improbability of the total war scenario sketched above, all you have to do is recall how many people perished in Israel’s last major military operation, the war against Hezbollah in 2006. The generally accepted estimate is that no more than 1,200 Lebanese died, half of them Hezbollah fighters. Even that relatively minuscule toll of 0.03% of Lebanon’s population of 3.9 million — probably comparable to the damage now being inflicted on Gaza — evoked world-wide condemnation and accusations that Israel was committing war crimes.

Such denunciations by themselves do not have the capacity to stop a determined military machine. The Russians have inflicted World War II-level carnage in Chechnya since the mid-1990s, and they don’t care what anybody else says.

But Israel is not Russia — or Algeria or Burma or Syria or any other state that has taken a scorched-earth approach to counterinsurgency in recent decades. Israel is a liberal democracy in the modern age whose military operations are conducted under the intense scrutiny of lawyers, judges, opposition politicians, reporters and human-rights activists. And those are just its own internal watchdogs. To these must be added the “international community,” which monitors Israeli actions with a degree of interest and antipathy reserved for no other state in the world.

For all the accusations of brutality that are routinely flung at Israel’s armed forces, their conduct has been exemplary by historical standards. They have shown far less propensity for indiscriminate killing or torture than did European states in the 1950s when confronting insurgencies in such places as Kenya, Cyprus, Vietnam and Algeria, where the stakes for them were considerably less. The only comparable example of restraint is the conduct of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States, too, earns world-wide opprobrium for alleged brutality rather than approbation for its humanity.

Whether it gets credit or not, however, the U.S. has been right to use very limited firepower because in the kind of war it is fighting — a classic counterinsurgency — brutality can be counterproductive. Killing too many people, especially if they are the wrong people, risks jeopardizing popular support for elected governments that are likely to be important American allies in the future.

What, then, can Israel do? Not much, argues Mr. Boot; the situation is depressingly unpromising, and the prospect for the future is bleak. His article concludes:

The tragedy for Israel is that a strategy of bolstering indigenous allies is not an option in Gaza. Hamas is, for all of the flaws of the electoral process, the choice of the people. No matter how much of a beating it suffers, there is little reason to think that Fatah could or would come in and effectively administer the territory in a way that would safeguard Israel’s security. In the current, feverish atmosphere of Palestinian politics, those who would act with restraint toward the “Zionist entity” are branded as “collaborators” and liable to be killed.

That leaves only one option if Israel wants a friendly, or at least nonhostile, administration in Gaza: It would have to provide that governance itself. Before the first intifada broke out in 1987, Israel was able to administer both the Gaza Strip and West Bank at astonishingly low cost. But the intifada effectively made Israelis feel ashamed of themselves and ended their willingness to bear the costs of “occupation.” In 2005, Israel evacuated its settlers from the Gaza Strip in no small part to wipe clean its moral slate.

We now know the settlers’ departure did not mollify the extremists. It only emboldened them. So the Israeli armed forces are forced to re-enter the Gaza Strip on a mission without a clear exit strategy or even an obvious definition of victory. That is far from ideal, but it may also be unavoidable.

The essential dilemma Israel faces is this: It can’t ignore Hamas’s attacks, not only because of the damage they inflict, but also because of the terrible precedent they set. Israel has always been a state that is one battle away from destruction, and it cannot allow its enemies to think that it can be attacked with impunity. But at the same time Israel cannot do what it takes to wipe out the enemy, because of the constraints imposed by its own public, which is far less willing than in the past to suffer or inflict bloodletting.

So the Jewish state is forced to fight an unsatisfying war of attrition with Hamas, Hezbollah and other entities bent on its destruction. The current incursions are only one stage of this lengthy struggle. The odds are that once Israeli troops leave, Hamas will rebuild its infrastructure, forcing the Israelis to go back in the future.

This is the definition of a quagmire, yet Israel has no choice but to keep doing what it’s doing. Unlike the French in Algeria or the Americans in Vietnam, it cannot simply pack its bags and go home. If Israel is to continue to exist, it will have to continue to wage low-intensity war for a long time to come — definitely years, probably decades, possibly centuries.

Israelis have to discard Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous maxim: “War’s objective is victory — not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory.” They will have to settle for a substitute because from their standpoint “prolonged indecision” is better than the alternatives — the annihilation of themselves, which would be unthinkable, or of their enemies, which would be unconscionable.


  1. Charles says

    How utterly depressing.

    I was talking to some of my wife’s cousins the other day, and the subject of the current conflict in Gaza came up. Without fail, every one of my relatives thought Israel was in the wrong in invading Gaza. I was surprised, to say the least, not to mention a little dismayed.

    Now I think I understand why Americans have such a fascination with World War II–it was the last time that everyone agreed the U.S. was doing the right thing.

    Posted January 11, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Peter Lupu says


    Interesting article. Much of what it says I have pointed out in some of my previous posts.
    The only thing I have to reiterated is this: the first principle of survival is “the will to survive”. Without it life itself is a quagmire. With it, the options display themselves in a relatively clear ranking.
    While humanitarian considerations must be balanced against what must be done in order for Israel to survive, they cannot trump that which must be done: they can only modify it and shape it somewhat.
    Israel lost its will for a long time, especially under the Olmert government, the worst Israeli government in Israel’s history.
    What must be made clear is this: In that part of the world (and I would argue in other parts as well) the only thing that really counts and that shapes behavior is force and victory. The rest is nothing but means used to shape western opinion. I have made this point at length before. Therefore, Israel’s goal in this war must be the complete annihilation of Hamas as well as total guarantees that there is not even one bullet smuggled into Gaza, no matter who rules it, without a massive Israeli military response.
    This goal is important as a way of shaping the future of Gaza, its relationship with Israel, the nature of a future Palestinian state, deterrent against Hezballah-Syria-Iran, etc.
    The 2006 Lebanon war, which many cite as an example of the no-win scenario for Israel, was mismanaged to a criminal degree by this Israeli government. This mismanagement cost Israel this war, many more to come, and a costly weakening of their deterrent capabilities. The current Gaza war, provided it achieves the complete annihilation of Hamas, might restore some measure of the deterrent lost.
    Many argue that Hamas cannot be annihilated. They are wrong. If there is a will to do, then it can be done.


    Posted January 12, 2009 at 9:32 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Yes, Charles, the situation is not promising at all.

    Posted January 12, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Interesting comment, Peter. I would make your statement more inclusive, and suggest that it applies not just to the management of a nation’s affairs, but to the life of man in general: that without a clear aim in light of which options can be judged, there is nothing but drift and confusion. (“Aimlessness”, in other words.) But truly facing, and answering, the question “what do I really want?” is very, very, hard.

    So you disagree, then, with Boot when he says:

    Israel has always been a state that is one battle away from destruction, and it cannot allow its enemies to think that it can be attacked with impunity. But at the same time Israel cannot do what it takes to wipe out the enemy, because of the constraints imposed by its own public, which is far less willing than in the past to suffer or inflict bloodletting.

    So the Jewish state is forced to fight an unsatisfying war of attrition with Hamas, Hezbollah and other entities bent on its destruction.

    Posted January 12, 2009 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  5. In martial arts a death blow is sometimes difficult to justify after the fact or even make amends for- when a trap can be used to disuade an adversary, or a lesser blow delivered… But In a fight for one’s life which has been the on-going situation for Israel since its very begining- any such attempt at taking the enemy out is justifiable- in my humble opinion…

    Posted January 12, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  6. Peter Lupu says


    I disagree with the first statement in your quoted passage.

    Israel can “do what it takes to wipe out the enemy” provided it sees matters clearly and has the will to execute what needs to be done fully and with complete disregard to anyone else’s opinions.
    All world bodies and countries and people who criticize Israel, as I noted in my earlier posts, are either corrupt, have their own agenda, are morally blind, or are infected by the virus of Islamic Fascism and do not even know it (including many of Israel’s own citizens).

    I do not have, of course, even one iota of respect toward the most corrupt of all international bodies, the UN. This institution is bankrupt and has no longer any useful purpose to serve other than perhaps distributing some aid to Africa etc. It should be either terminated or restricted to administer such aid: Period! And most importantly of all, the US ought to immediately stop paying the UN the huge sums of money they do out of proportion to its stature of membership in this institution.

    Israel must now finish Hamas off completely. Everyone is waiting for it to do so. However, as I have repeatedly said, it is unlikely that the Olmert government is capable of completing any task required by the survival of Israel. I hope I am wrong this time, but I doubt it.


    Posted January 12, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

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