Tuesday, August 20, 2002
On the other hand, a small dissent from Joe's post on why Arab armies lose wars. My dissent takes the following form:
Of the 6 Arab-Israeli wars (Israeli Independence, Sinai Campaign, Six Day War, Yom Kippur War, Lebanon War, Oslo War), the Arabs arguably won two and are still engaged in a third. The Israelis won their first three wars, and DeAtkine's analysis of why they won dramatically in '48 and '67 is extremely on-point. The Arab armies were fighting wars of aggression with terrible command-and-control problems and demoralized and poorly-trained troops. Israel won in '48 against absurd odds and won in a rout in '67 against less absurd but still lopsided odds.
But the record since then is considerably more equivocal. The superior performance of Israeli troops is still manifest. They've got one of the best-trained, best-led, most highly-motivated armies in the world. But have these advantages resulted in victory? In 1973, Egypt and Syria successfully surprised Israel and won clear battlefield victories in the first hours of the war. Egypt's army in particular performed in a well-coordinated and efficient manner. They then lost the initiative due to political factors, and Israel was able to counter-attack decisively; the surrounded Arab armies were, then, saved by the same kind of political factors (Soviet intervention) that slowed their advance at the outset of the war. The lesson of 1973 was that Arab armies (or the Egyptian army specifically) were capable of success on the battlefield, but that the U.S. and the Soviet Union were not going to allow a decisive victory by either Egypt or Israel, and therefore Egyptian national interest dictated abandoning the overt war against Israel and siding with the United States. Which Sadat, a great Egyptian patriot, promptly did.
The Yom Kippur War was a very close thing, and people shouldn't forget that. They also shouldn't forget the lessons of Lebanon, a war that Hezbollah won. Let's not equivocate: they won, as surely as the North Vietnamese won their war against South Vietnam and America. The fact that Israel could have held out indefinitely is as irrelevant as the fact that America could have done so: the fact is, neither they nor we did. Hezbollah drove out the Israelis after an 18 year occupation of South Lebanon, and they are now the effective masters not only of Lebanon but, arguably, of Syria, given the "hypnotic" power Sheik Nasrallah holds over Bashar "the kid" Assad. What this proves is that, in a defensive, guerilla war, Arab forces can be quite effective.
The current Oslo war is being modeled very consciously on the Lebanon war, but the Israelis are (I believe) decisively winning the current war, where they lost in Lebanon. Why? Because in Lebanon Israel was fighting a war for purposes it no longer understood. The original objective - annihilation of the PLO - was not achieved, thanks to Soviet intervention, and Israel got bogged down with no end in sight. In the current war, however, Israel understands that it is fighting for its existence, and it has no intention of losing. (Unfortunately for Israel, that Palestinians also understand that they are fighting for their national existence, and while they are losing they show only equivocal signs of desire to surrender.)
Why do I run through all this? Because the key question with Iraq is not whether Arab armies perform well in the abstract but whether they will perform well when fighting to defend their country and its political independence. The answer is far from clear. I do not expect the Iraqi people to behave like Hezballah or Hamas, hunkered down for a long guerilla war against an occupying army. I do not expect this because (a) I think America will be less fastidious than Israel was, and obliterate much of the Republican Guard; (b) America will have internal allies, as in Afghanistan, who will command at least as much allegiance as Saddam Hussein; and (c) America is not fighting an existential battle with the Iraqi people but a battle to remove the Iraqi regime, and the people of Iraq understand this. But I do expect them to behave better than the Egyptian army in 1967, or the Iraqi army in 1991.
In the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein removed all of his best assets from the front lines, and left only the cannon fodder. He knew he was going to lose the battle, and was focused on winning the spin war afterward, and preserving as much of his strength for the internal battle to come. He played his cards very well and, arguably, won. This time, he knows we're playing for keeps, and we should expect his loyal troops to perform more effectively. Anyone who assumes that they will simply cut off his head and display it on the city walls as they open the gate to American troops is forgetting that much the same was expected of the Wehrmacht in 1944, and all plots against Hitler failed. All plots against Saddam have similarly failed, and we should expect them to continue to fail.
This is not in any way an argument against war with Iraq. Better now than later, better decisively than equivocally. We have every moral justification for war, and every reason of interest to want to pursue that war, and quickly. Moreover, I think it is certain that we can emerge victorious if we wish to. But it doesn't do us any good to engage in triumphalist thumping about the superiority of our culture. Let's assume, as Joe suggests, that the bad guys are as smart and well-organized as we could imagine, and let's make sure we can beat them if they are. Then, if it's a turkey shoot, we can all have a very happy Thanksgiving.