Angered at the meager results of their latest Lebanon war, Israelis are furiously debating a host of piercing questions this month to understand what went wrong. Was it poor military planning? Inept political leadership? Erosion of their famed army reserve system? A deeper culture of shortcuts and buck-passing? All of these? Why, they ask insistently, did this war not look like their past triumphs, such as the Six Day War, the Sinai Campaign or even the come-from-behind victory of the Yom Kippur War? Why was this war different from all other Israeli wars?
Important queries all, but they miss the most critical question. Israelis should not be asking why this war didn’t resemble the Six Day War. Rather, they should ask why it looked so much like America’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, or like Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan, or France’s wars in Algeria and Vietnam. Why do generals insist on believing in the fantasy that guerrilla insurgencies can be wiped out by jets and tanks?
For generations, strong nations have tried to impose their presence and their will on smaller nations through blunt force, believing that they could bludgeon conquered populations into accepting occupation and rule by the stronger nation. One by one, they have been forced to withdraw. Nowhere have the occupied come to accept the rule of the powerful, even with the passage of decades.
In most modern cases, the stronger nation first entered the weaker nation not to impose itself as a ruler but to eliminate some threat to its own security. The intention usually was to root out a threatening element, impose order and then leave. Frequently, the occupier was welcomed at first by local residents eager to be rid of their homegrown bullies and fanatics. Time after time, however, the occupier discovered that all the force in the world could not root out the terrorists. The local militants simply became more fanatical, more ruthless and more ingenious in their tactics. And as time went on, the force brought against the fanatics turned them into local heroes, uniting the population against the occupier. In the end, the occupier was forced to turn tail and run.
The answer to guerrilla insurgency is neither brute force nor abject surrender and flight. There are moments in the ebb and flow of each insurgency when militants are at their weakest and most isolated, when the surrounding population is most willing to follow its own moderates toward a compromise. Nations that emerge from a guerrilla war with their honor and stature intact are those that learn to seize those moments, wielding a supple combination of military determination, smart diplomacy and deft timing. It was that combination of brawn and brain that allowed Great Britain to transform itself from ruler of an empire to leader of a commonwealth of nations. It was that subtle combination that Yitzhak Rabin sought to apply in the Middle East by reaching out to Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization in hopes of isolating Iran.
Had Rabin not been assassinated, but rather permitted to carry out his plans, things might look very different today in the Middle East and, perhaps, beyond. Too many lives have been lost, too many homes destroyed, too much hope extinguished in the decade since he and his vision were cut down. Yet the truths remain the same. Wisdom lies, as always, in knowing when to shoot and when to talk. Now is the time to talk.