Classical explanations of conventional wars run something like this: An aggressor state seeks political advantage through military force. It has a hunch that the threatened target will likely either make concessions to avoid losing a war, or, if war breaks out, the resulting political gains will be worth the military costs to achieve victory.
Wars then are prevented only by a balance of power and military deterrence: Aggressors have to be warned that it would be stupid to start a war they will likely lose. If there are miscalculations or if emotions run high and logic is ignored, then the resulting conflicts only end when one side loses and has no choice but to accept the imposed terms of the winner.
That being said, the modern therapeutic West has either forgotten such rules or ignored them. In today’s globally televised wars, a novel doctrine of proportionality reigns. It is sort of like T-ball, in which scoring and winning don’t matter. Instead both the stronger and weaker sides end up the same. Little attention is paid to who started the conflict, how it was conducted, or how it should be ended.
In terms of the Middle East, contemporary T-ball war works out like this: A far weaker Gaza sends a shower of missiles into Israel, hiding its launchers among civilians to ensure collateral damage and favorable propaganda during Israeli retaliation.
Israel, with its technological savvy, knocks down most of the incoming rockets, but then responds by killing far more Palestinians in Gaza than it lost inside Israel. That is considered unsportsmanlike play. In a fair T-ball fight, Israel should have stopped the war when the losses were equal and not tried to run up the score.
Apparently Israel was supposed to shut down its Iron Dome anti-missile system so that the Hamas missiles could kill enough Israelis to match those killed in Gaza. Then it should have accepted a cease-fire to the no-win/no-lose game, until Hamas chose to play the next “proportional” inning of this perpetual ball game.
However, just as one side in T-ball can be more skilled than the other, and parents secretly keep score in supposedly scoreless games, so too do the age-old rules of war not change just because we think they must.
Hamas went to war against Israel by shooting hundreds of rockets into the Jewish state. It thought such aggression made sense. The attack was timed just after the U.S. election. Hamas guessed that the Obama administration would be largely neutral without reelection worries over pro-Israel voters in swing states.
Hamas also hoped that it would have more success against Israel than during its last war in 2008. After all, it had plenty of new, longer-range Iranian rockets that could reach most cities in Israel.
Iran also egged Hamas on. It believed that its client’s rocket barrages would give Israel a very public taste of what it should expect if it ever dared to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities — while Hamas’s new rockets would outshine those of its rival, the Palestine Authority on the West Bank.
More important, Hamas figured it had two new friends nearby in Recep Erdogan’s Islamist government in Turkey and the newly ascendant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt under Mohamed Morsi.
By going to war, Hamas reminded the world that American allies such as Turkey and Egypt are now firmly in the new Iranian-backed Islamist and anti-Israel orbit. Like Hamas, both regimes came to power through elections, and then almost immediately tried to silence the opposition to ensure their permanent authoritarian rule. In Morsi’s case, the new Gaza war gave him cover for almost immediately trying to suspend the constitution.
In short, Hamas and its friends felt the advantages of war outweighed the risks. And even if things went badly, they counted on their patrons’ imposing a T-ball truce on Israel that would save Hamas from taking too much damage, while allowing it to brag about its supposed success, its new rockets, its new allies, and its new American support.
For now, all that may have worked.
But just as the fantasies of T-ball give way when kids grow up and start keeping score in the real world of baseball, so too will the T-ball war in the Middle East come to an end. To avoid unending rocket barrages and serial on-and-off wars, Israel will have to convince Hamas and its allies that, collectively, they all have a lot to lose by starting more T-ball wars — ones that in the future no longer will end with a no-score truce.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing email@example.com. © 2012 Tribune Media Services