On war and politics



One of the best known and most useful lines in the analysis of things political and military comes from Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian General who died in 1831. His treatise On War contains the phrase that still guides realists, "War is the continuation of Politik by other means" Politik can be be translated as "policy" or "politics". The terms may be close cousins, but they have different implications.

Americans and others schooled by images of overwhelming power, enormous numbers of military and civilian casualties, and demands for unconditional surrender may have trouble with von Clausewitz. However,,the historical record is that disasters like the US Civil War and World Wars I and II belong in their own category. Most wars have been limited, and end with mixtures of victory and loss. Think of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and US diddling about Syria.

Israelis have no trouble with von Clauswitz. The trade off between war and politics or policy has been a constant feature of the country''s history, with hardly any time between relevant calculations having to be updated in the inner circles of government and the military, in media commentaries, and family conversations.

Among the issues always on--or close to--the agendas are

  • Are there concessions appropriate to reaching an accord with neighbors or greater powers that will end the threat of violence, or at least postpone the next wave of violence?
  • How much military force to employ when that appears the only course currently relevant?
  • What targets to hit? How many casualties would be tolerable without causing an escalation that would be more costly in terms of Israeli lives, property, and the IDF''s budget?
  • How much care should be employed to avoid civilian casualties, when the enemy is likely to be operating in close proximity to civilians, is using civilian neighborhoods for the stockpile of missiles and other munitions, and will use civilian casualties against Israel in an international propaganda campaign?
  • When to pre-empt, either to deal with an anticipated attack, or the import of weapons by adversaries that will threaten considerable damage if used eventually?
  • How to explain what is chosen as Israel''s military option, or its proposals for agreements in Israel''s own campaign to garner international support?

The most recent surge of missiles and mortars coming out of Gaza and the IDF''s response provide as good an illustration of the process as we are likely to get.

More than 60 missile and mortar firings were recorded in a barrage traced to one of the Islamic organizations in competition with Hamas for leadership of the Palestinian struggle. Their spokesmen explained it as a response to what they called Israel''s violation of the "cease fire," represented by the killing of three of the organization''s comrades who had been involved in their own violation of the cease fire.

There had been no physical casualties in Israel from the bombardment, and limited property damage. There were incidents of severe anxiety, some of which required treatment..
IDF''s response came in a bit more than 30 attacks involving tanks, aircraft both manned and drones. However, the attacks came at night, after it was likely that Hamas and its Islamic rivals had sent their personnel home or into the bunkers. There were no reports of casualties from the Palestinian side.
While the Prime Minister made one of his customary hyperbolic threats about the certain retaliation against any threat to Israelis, and the Foreign Minister proposed a total conquest of Gaza and ending its problems once and for all time, media commentators had their feet on the ground. While I did not hear any mention of von Clausewitz, a footnote would have been appropriate. One commentator on things military compared it to signals sent to each side''s real estate, with both sides hoping its message of minimal damage got through without causing any unwanted upping of the conflict to something more serious.
Complicating the assessment are questions about the intentions and capacity of the Gazans. There is no assurance that their capacity to aim missiles and mortars is all that great. They appear to point and fire toward Israel, which is a broad swath on their horizon. Many of their missiles and mortars never make it out of Gaza. They may actually cause more harm to Palestinian civilians than anything done by the IDF. Whether they land in empty Israeli fields (which most of them getting to Israel do) or on a crowded bus or kindergarten seems to be a matter of luck.
So far the luck has not been bad. The betting is that should a catastrophe occur, Israel''s response will be appropriate, whatever that means.
Another incident occurred alongside the Lebanese border, in the form of a roadside bomb that exploded near an IDF patrol. The blast caused something short of serious physical injury to personnel. IDF''s response was similar to that directed at Gaza. There was an artillery barrage, and some dispute whether there were casualties on the Lebanese side, or only a fire set in a field.
Prominent in Israel''s calculations is that in both Gaza and Lebanon, the groups recently trying to cause trouble are not Israel''s major adversaries. They are contenders for internal power, who seem intent on advancing their status by provoking Israel, embarrassing and causing some damage to their rivals, and producing a widening of the conflict in the hope of emerging with more status..
Israel''s delicacy may be special, insofar as it is a small country, dependent on commercial and other associations with greater powers that have their own interests with Israel''s problematic neighbors. 
On account of its own perspectives about casualties, property damage, and budgetary outlays, as well as its relations with friends who might become nasty, Israel''s governing policy is not to make waves.
The world greatest power has also moved in  the direction of moderation and withdrawal from locations of possible conflict, against the background of some disastrous rides with a Texas cowboy who became President and ruled for eight costly years. 
Saying that von Clausewitz is the best guide to Israeli and other countries'' actions on the borders of war, politics and policy is easy. Actually managing the balance is something else. It takes political skill as well as a military capacity, which is, after all, part of politics and policy. Always in the audience, and perhaps among the decision-makers, are those who want to end the uncertainty and use whatever power exists or can be imagined to destroy the enemy. 
What to do with a conquered population? and What to do if one''s own calculations go bad? are only two of the questions generally left hanging. 
Better that they stay there, as matters of worry, rather than actually having to be dealt with.