By any means necessary: What Ehud Olmert can teach Obama about Syria

The fight with IS is requiring more and more manpower and airpower – and these demands will not let up anytime soon.

October 29, 2014 21:41
syria nuclear

THIS UNDATED image released by the US government shows a suspected nuclear reactor plant under construction in Syria.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The great paradox of America’s military action against Islamic State is playing out over the skies of the Syrian city of Kobani today: the reluctant and war-weary American-led coalition must employ ever greater and stronger force if the Kurdish forces are to repel the Islamists and secure the critically located city.

The fight with IS is requiring more and more manpower and airpower – and these demands will not let up anytime soon.

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But this is not the moment for America and her allies to fear escalation and to act hesitantly; now is the time for the anti-IS coalition to employ decisive and strategic military action. And America and her allies can learn much about the value of direct and decisive military engagement from an unlikely source: former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s secret bombing of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s nuclear program, which has been reported by foreign news sources such as The New Yorker.

According to Der Spiegel, on September 6, 2007, the IDF, on the orders of prime minister Olmert, launched Operation Orchard in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria. According to the report, as many as eight Israel Air Force jets took part in the operation, leveling the al-Kabir nuclear facility in the Syrian desert. According to The New Yorker, Olmert’s decision to bomb took place without either the express approval of the United States government or a clear assessment that this nuclear facility posed an immediate security threat. In the months after the attack, the threat of a Syrian counter-attack waned, and the shroud of secrecy surrounding the operation gradually lifted, revealing the positive effects that this military action had for the Middle East’s regional stability.

Yet another Middle Eastern regime was prevented from setting off an arms race in the most unstable part of the world.

Back in 2007, Olmert’s military move was not considered to be such a strategically prescient action, nor should it have been.

Today, though, in the wake of fighting in Syria that has claimed roughly 200,000 lives, Olmert’s decision, as reported in foreign sources, should be viewed in a new light. The former Israeli prime minister, who stands today convicted of corruption, is said to have ordered a clairvoyant military action that kept apocalyptic weapons out of the hands of a madman and made a war-torn region a little less explosive.

Though this military action has not prevented countless atrocities against Syrian civilians, it is clear today that it has surely saved lives and prevented Syria’s strife from provoking utter chaos on a global stage.

Indeed, it is truly nightmarish to consider an alternate world in which Olmert had chosen the path of being dovish. Last year, Assad shamelessly used chemical weapons on his own people, breaking a century-old taboo; armed with weapons of mass destruction, Assad might have attacked Western targets or used the specter of nuclear war to deter foreign investigation of his butchery. The US and the rest of the world would have been less capable of influencing the civil war in that country – Obama’s August 2013 threat of military force would have looked even less credible if Syria had a nuclear deterrent.

Alternatively, if the Assad regime falls, a power vacuum might have led to nuclear weapons falling into the hands of jihadist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front or the seemingly inexorable IS. It is difficult to conceive of how greatly global security would have been threatened had the Syrian civil war gone nuclear.

Based on the New Yorker and Spiegel reports, Olmert’s strike against Syria reveals provides a crucial lesson for policymakers today: bold, forward-thinking military action can play a positive – indeed, essential – role in global affairs.

There is good reason for the American public to fear becoming entrenched in long-term commitments overseas, or disrupting delicate political balances, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Still, the risk Israel faced in bombing a neighboring state with which it is technically at war was greater than any threat the West faces today in the Middle East. Perhaps Olmert might have not have ordered this airstrike if the political atmosphere in Israel was similar to that of America today, where “boots on the ground” and non-traditional military maneuvers are considered taboo or even politically suicidal.

The alleged strike reveals that military power, when harnessed correctly, can do more to prevent the wider spread of conflict than a hundred John Kerry outings to the Middle East or a thousand social media campaigns. If President Barack Obama and his generals are to effectively roll back the threat that IS poses, they must take a page from Olmert’s handbook: regardless of domestic appetite, there are major strategic and humanitarian rewards for doing what is necessary to stop an international threat. As Olmert knew, no option can be removed from the table.

Bold military action does not, of course, mean reckless military action. At the end of the day, that is the most concrete lesson of the Israeli strike: the kind of force that is most useful is that which is ingeniously planned and expertly executed.

This kind of unconventional thinking has been missing in recent years from Western military campaigns, and the US and her allies would be wise to consider innovative military maneuvers to quickly, effectively and humanely end the IS threat. Because he has offered the West a model of successful military intervention, the convicted and condemned Ehud Olmert deserves a morsel of gratitude from a thankless world.

Bryan Schonfeld is a junior at Columbia University majoring in Economics-Political Science. A Huffington Post contributor, Bryan’s work has also been featured in The Columbia Current, The Columbia Political Review, and The Jerusalem Post.

Joshua R. Fattal is a senior at Columbia University majoring in History. He is editor- in-chief of The Current, a journal of contemporary politics, culture and Jewish affairs, and managing editor of The Columbia Political Review.

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