In a time of warmongering, saber rattling and incitement, the argument to use force always sounds more convincing than the one calling for restraint.

This fact has often been deeply disturbing to my students in college-level classes in peace studies. Over the course of a semester, they would reluctantly have to accept that to understand how to avoid war and make peace one must first understand war.

International relations theory explains that during the escalating rhetoric preceding an outbreak of actual violence, hawks tend to bolster their arguments in favor of war by exaggerating the potential rewards while minimizing the costs. Because they overestimate their own strength, and underestimate that of their opponents, those advocating war often have no exit plan.

One needn’t look too far back in history to find a textbook example: US Operation Iraqi Freedom was an ill-conceived, poorly planned and, despite legitimate warnings, lacked an exit strategy. While evident at the time, these inconvenient facts were simply ignored.

I will never forget how, as a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in January 2001, my dean and the future deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz told a group of admiring students that the US should invade Iraq in order to create a democratic base in the Arab world.

The operation would easily pay for itself, he asserted, by ramping up the production of Iraqi oil, which at the time was operating under capacity. Since Iraqis hated their leader, he argued, they would welcome the overthrow of the government and easily transition to democracy. The entire invasion would last only a short time, with virtually no cost to the US.

I listened in alarm and dutifully raised my voice to protest with tidbits of arguments about ethnic groups, Shia’s and Sunnis, Ba’athists and the Arab street, but as a mere insignificant PhD student, my arguments failed to make a dent in the naïve logic of the soon-to-be secretary of defense.

I walked away from that meeting with a heavy heart, knowing that this was one of the men who would be responsible for US defense policy in the years to come. Little did I know that this moment would come back and haunt me over the years that followed and how, based on that exchange, I would be able to predict US policy following September 11, 2001.

Israel currently seems to be at a similar strategic juncture, and I can’t help but feel a sense of déjà-vu. However, the current Israeli situation is also acutely different from that of the US prior to the Iraq war; the threat to Israel is real and much more tangible.

Israeli leaders cannot afford not to be hawks; they have to prepare themselves and their public for the worst-case scenario, even if the chance of the threat actually materializing eventually turns out to be minuscule. They also need to trumpet their doomsday warnings to the world and raise the sense of urgency in the United States.

The New York Times Magazine article on January 25 by senior Yediot Aharonot correspondent Ronen Bergman was perfectly timed. While the Israeli media has largely been discouraged (or self-censored) from discussing the issue and Israeli top-level officials have been mum, Bergman was given what seemed like free access to a number of high-ranking leaders, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Berman’s description of Barak gave a statesman-like depiction of the defense minister; the most decorated soldier in the country’s history, pacing the living room of his Tel Aviv apartment while reflecting on the most serious decision of his life: whether or not to authorize a pre-emptive attack on Iran.

Since the three conditions that Barak has laid out for such an attack; “Israel’s ability to act,” “international legitimacy” and “necessity,” appear to have been satisfactorily met (at least in the minds of Barak and Netanyahu), Bergman concluded that Israel would attack sometime in 2012, most likely before the US elections in November.

However, it is increasingly clear that Israeli leaders are still far from having reached a consensus. The decision they face is especially difficult given that a few high-ranking military leaders, including former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, have voiced strong and legitimate opposition to the use of force. Dagan’s reasoning is based on a simple but realistic assessment of the potential costs should Iran retaliate, and on conservative estimates of the effect of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear developments. In other words, Dagan possesses the “chutzpah” needed to refrain from inflating the chances of an Israeli triumph; he can afford to be a dove as he is no longer in office.

The Wolfowitz story perfectly illustrates the power of hawkish ideologies; 9/11, the militant rhetoric, the invented threat, the exaggerated future gains and the underestimated costs, and the resulting lack of an exit strategy. But perhaps most of all, it underscores the failure of those with level heads to provide an equally convincing argument for restraint, because restraint when under threat can always be accused of disloyalty and treason.

This is why, in the end, realism always wins and pacifism loses. After all, what if the enemy indeed lives up to the threat and decides to destroy us? Nobody wants to be a pacifist when that happens.

While Netanyahu and Barak are required to play the role of hawks, one can only hope that there are enough doves around to ensure that the threats are as real as they can be, that the chances of an easy victory are not exaggerated, and that the costs (both military and civilian) are not underestimated. With the best intelligence in the world, one would hope that Israel has learned from the mistakes of others and evaluates the costs more prudently.

The writer is a postdoctoral fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris, working on issues relating to international security, Middle East/Israel, conflict management and US foreign policy.

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