Hawks, doves and Israeli politicians
Because they overestimate their own strength, and underestimate that of their opponents, those advocating war often have no exit plan.
IAF F-15s refueling midflight [file] Photo: Baz Ratner / Reuters
In a time of warmongering, saber rattling and incitement, the argument to use
force always sounds more convincing than the one calling for
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.