Since the time of the Greeks a hallmark of Western military practice has been the tendency to seek out an enemy, and then through superior discipline, shock, and technology, to smash him — thus obtaining victory through the destruction of his forces on the field of battle. From Alexander the Great to Napoleon, the idea was that head-on victories, in daylight and without guile, would alone lead to strategic resolution.
Sometimes, of course, critics objected that such hammer blows were too costly a method of defeating an enemy. In rare cases, especially against less traditional foes, shock attacks merely achieved tactical victory without ensuring the strategic defeat of the enemy and with it the end of his will to resist.
In short, unimaginative slugging-it-out with other Western armies often could lead to something like Antietam or Verdun, while sending massed columns against non-traditional nomads, skirmishers, or infiltrators could end in ambush, attrition, or exhaustion, as Crassus, General Westmoreland, or Ariel Sharon (in Lebanon)would attest.
In response to the butcher’s bill of face-to-face battle, a number of innovative generals — including Epaminondas, Frederick the Great, Sherman, or Patton — sought speed, ruse, or maneuver to avoid or at least augment decisive battle. They preferred instead either to outflank the enemy or to attack him at his rear to erode support at the front. For all the brilliance of Ulysses S. Grant, his death grip on Lee’s army of Northern Virginia did not quite win the Civil War — until a grim Sherman romped through Georgia and the Carolinas and caused economic disruption, troop desertion, and general despair among Confederates, who sensed that a massive army of the West was on the loose at the rear. Freeing the helots in the Laconian heartland, not simply defeating the Spartans at Leuctra, finished Sparta.
In some sense, what we are just now witnessing in the Middle East is the emergence of a strategic version of what the military historian B. H. Liddell Hart once labeled “the indirect approach.” After five bloody wars (1947,1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982), no Arab army dares any more to confront the Israeli Defense Forces head-on. In the past half-century, too many Arab conscripts have died trying. There is no longer a Soviet Union to bail out failed offensives as they were about to degenerate into abject routs. The technological revolution of the last 20 years — drones, GPS-guided bombs, new breakthroughs in armor and smart rockets — has only widened the gulf between Israel and its opponents. I wish I could attribute the absence of any conventional Arab offensive in the last 20 years to a change of political climate or a willingness to abide by past accords. But unfortunately it is more likely that the Egyptians or Syrians concluded that the next time their tanks headed to Tel Aviv, there was nothing stopping the counterassaults from ending up in downtown Cairo or Damascus.
Nevertheless, tactical victory and military dominance have not yet led to strategic victory. Israel, it is true, is relatively safe from conventional enemies, but not from suicide bombers, assorted terrorists, and the exhausting Intifada. Its enemies wisely turned to an asymmetrical, postmodern struggle in which the Arab world and Europe — thanks to the global media, political calculation, Western postcolonial guilt, fear of terror, oil worries, and old-fashioned anti-Semitism — would reinvent killers into freedom fighters. Meanwhile, the Palestinian street adopted a sort of nihilism that their own ongoing wretchedness was worth it if at least a modicum of the same misery might be imparted to the Jews.
In this new rope-a-dope strategy, what good are some of the worlds’ best pilots and tankers when their enemies do not attack in armored columns or aircraft sorties, but as killers shooting from the sanctuary of houses and women with bombs strapped inside their shawls?
In short, while the war will not be lost along the West Bank, it still will not quite be won there either, since neither armed action nor peace processes will restrain all the Palestinian terrorists and killers. Under any agreement, a no-nonsense Sharon can do his part by controlling Israeli extremists in a manner impossible for any present Palestinian leader.
For all the crocodile tears about mayhem emanating from Palestinian “moderates,” there is private satisfaction that there are at least a few hundred fanatics around whose brains and bomb belts make them projectiles as accurate as the latest GPS bomb. Again, Israel cannot achieve strategic victory — given world opinion and its own moral code, which prevents permanent annexation on the lines of a Tibet, Cyprus, eastern Germany, or Soviet-controlled Japanese Islands — by daily defeating just the forces Hamas, Hezbollah, or Mr. Arafat’s stealthy cadres send at them.
Yet Israel can still achieve stalemate with the militants, as was proved in the latest round of sniping in the alleys of the West Bank, even as it seeks alternate methods of weakening its enemy. While pessimists lament the intractable forces that prevent resolution, the position of the Islamic and Palestinian radicals has in fact already markedly weakened — and from the rear.
The withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia, coupled with its devastating victories over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, give the United States new flexibility in chasing down the abettors of terror. The suicide attacks on Russians in Chechnya and Arabs in Saudi Arabia has eroded support of such tactics in these countries, which formerly sponsored the Palestinian cause. And if terrorists in the past calculated that the United States either could not or would not strike at their sanctuaries, they now accept that neither premise is tenable.
If we continue to get tough with Syria and Iran, and if we stay the course in Iraq, we can turn generic terrorism in the Middle East into a sort of Potemkin existence — snarly, ugly, loud marchers, who when the cameras cut out skulk home in fear that either American arms or a suddenly hostile host government are waiting at the door. Even as bombers strap on their munitions and head for Israel, an entire avalanche of events, both military and cultural, is undermining their entire bankrupt ideology — whether it be pan-Arabism, theocracy, or international jihad.
The strategic balance is tipping ever so gradually away from the terrorists and toward the realists, who grasp that the end is coming for Hamas or Hezbollah, and for the safe houses of Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank from which they unleash their terror. Yasser Arafat is no longer welcome at the White House; he sees that some of his old cronies, such as Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas, and Saddam Hussein, are no longer on the loose.
Extremists are beginning to look around. What they see cannot give them comfort: No more Islamist government in Afghanistan; no more terrorist subsidy from Saddam Hussein; no more Saudi telethons raising cash to pay for nails, ball bearings, and suicide belts. Syria and Iran are both worried that a not-quite-predictable United States might find proof of al Qaeda, WMD, or Baathists in their suburbs. Democracy of sorts is working in Turkey, and symptoms of such a strange Western disease now appear in the Gulf. Add to that a seductive American popular culture that has gone global, and the ensuing political and social calculus does not favor lunatics in smocks and bombs mouthing Koranic incantations. Even the most cynical American critic knows that we — so unlike past occupying Soviets in Kabul or Iraqis in Kuwait — are offering hope for Afghanistan and Iraq, extending the honorable and humane choice to cease the terror and enjoy liberal government in its place.
If Israel can hold on, forces larger than Mr. Arafat are already at work. These forces will soon convince the most diehard rejectionists that if they don’t make peace now, there is a General Sherman of sorts loose in the hinterland, with Reconstruction in his wake. The next time a Hamas mouthpiece brags about all the mayhem and death to come, he should remember the fate of Baghdad Bob, who, before he became a pop icon, shrieked the same threats to a bought world press — even as his audience heard Abrams tanks pulling up to his rear.
The key to all of this is the resolve of the United States. Now more than ever we must press on and give to the terrorists and their abettors no quarter — and to the reformers help, protection, and hope. President Bush has announced that players in the Middle East must now decide whether they are with or against the terrorists. Let them choose and let us act accordingly, as unyielding to our enemies as we are magnanimous to our friends.