Grumpy old man: Beware the ‘conceptzia’

This time of year has a way of making us smarter, if only by making us suffer for our mistakes.

Yom Kippur war (photo credit: Menashe Azuri / La'am)
Yom Kippur war
(photo credit: Menashe Azuri / La'am)
According to the Hebrew calendar, tomorrow marks 40 years since modern-day Israel learned what was probably its greatest lesson: Don’t overestimate yourself.
As warfare goes, military historians everywhere agree that the execution of the 1973 Yom Kippur War was in most cases excellent (and in many cases brilliant) once the shock and fog of surprise wore off, far outshining the conduct of even the Six Day War. But Military Intelligence had been caught clinging to what since has been deridingly referred to as the conceptzia, the concept, an exercise in rank hubris that viewed the Arabs as being too timid to tangle with mighty Israel after what happened to them in 1967.
This conceptzia was so ingrained that even with clear signs war would break out within hours, the head of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Eli Zeira, blithely continued to insist it would not.
Four decades on, as we gird ourselves to commemorate yet again the tremendous cost of that war, someone somewhere else is wrestling with an ill-conceived conceptzia of his own.
IN MY CAREER as a journalist, one axiom has always stood out: Never ask an Israeli leader to answer a hypothetical question. Yitzhak Rabin would roll his eyes and say that even in this land of the prophets, it was unwise to paint yourself into a corner. Yitzhak Shamir, the old Mossad spook, would just pucker his lips into an impish smile and wait for the next question. Even Shimon Peres, that man of dreamy platitudes who can sound astoundingly erudite when answering a query requiring no more than a simple yes or no, made sure not to go there.
Binyamin Netanyahu, an acknowledged master of PR, allows himself some leeway and generally can go out on a limb without making it snap off. Israel will know what to do if and when such-and-such takes place, he’ll sternly tell you. He might even venture to define the point in time at which suchand- such will be deemed to have taken place. This is because so many of the such-and-suches around here are both existential in nature and geographically close. Therefore, they can and even should be broached, if not semi-defined.
Take Bibi’s UN General Assembly red line, charts and all, concerning the possibility of Iranian nukes. The graphic looked silly, even Wile E. Coyote-ish.
But hardly anyone around here said the matter should not be addressed, even with a time line demarcated by a thick and bright red marker. That’s how frightening the subject was and still is.
And things that go on just across one of our borders? Ditto. Go ahead and say we will not allow Syria to transfer “game-changing” arms to Hezbollah.
That’s because Israel, even if it won’t admit to it afterward, will probably back up its stance with an air strike. When you follow such words with actions, the words are worth so much more.
But when the subject at hand is not an existential matter (at least for you); when it is nowhere near your neighborhood; and when your citizenry is exhausted from two long wars in far-off lands that they have come to believe, correctly or incorrectly, were needless, you can be excused if you use your words with caution.
US President Barack Obama’s problem lies not in identifying the side that used chemical weapons in Syria. It lies in his conceptzia that somehow the teleprompted words that slide along his gilded tongue can bring a crazy world to its senses.
PEOPLE TALK about the 99,000 or so people who have been killed in Syria with conventional weapons, and wonder why everyone cares only about the 1,400 who were killed with unconventional weapons on the morning of August 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. They have a valid point. It proves that many of us are capable of turning our backs on at least some forms of violence. Left unsaid, though, is that it took well over two years to kill the 99,000. The 1,400 who died in Ghouta expired in minutes after one relatively localized attack. That is what rattles so many about the use of poison gas and other modes of unconventional weapons. It is how horrifyingly effective they can be.
Beyond that, leave for a moment the fact that Syria is one of those cases where you lose no matter what you do. Teach President Bashar Assad a lesson for having used poison gas, but do so without aiming for regime change? He’ll just show up before an adoring parliament in Damascus and unleash that bizarre Bashar giggle, before dropping a clear hint that acts of revenge are under way as he speaks. Aim for regime change? First make sure your plan will work. Then get ready to confront new leaders who have proven that despite those finely tailored suits and elegant silk ties, they can be just as backward and cruel as Assad – and just as impervious to the finest minds our think tanks can offer.
Leave for a moment the fact that in Obama’s haste to do the decent thing, he is being deserted by allies who either lack the heart to stand tall or know a few things the president doesn’t. The worst part about this, though, is not that Britain’s parliament ended up reading the riot act to Prime Minister David Cameron.
It’s that seeing this and realizing his international support was dwindling, the US president suddenly discovered he had legislators of his own who were less than keen on intervention in Syria.
Whether or not it was an altruistic bow to the American constitution and the will of the people, what counts is how it looked. It was like that classic vaudevillian skit in which the protagonist, full of hyperbole, piss and vinegar but suddenly grasping the implications of following through, dramatically calls out to his underlings: “Hold me back, I say! Hold me back!” SOMETHING TELLS me that Obama should attend a synagogue this weekend.
It’s not necessarily because he has sinned – although hubris should probably rate somewhere up there between dishonesty and idolatry – but because Yom Kippur has a way of making even the most secular among us realize how truly tiny we are not just in the scheme of what’s decided up above, but in the scheme of what transpires here around us.
I know that a lot of people, including readers of this newspaper, believe some and even all of the gamut of accusations that have been leveled against Obama, ranging from being an illegal president owing to a “foreign birth,” all the way up to being in an Islamist sleeper cell. I don’t subscribe to any of that. In general, I just think he’s incredibly naïve about major swaths of the world. In particular I think he’s woefully undereducated as to the ways of the Middle East.
He thinks he knows, but he doesn’t.
It’s another conceptzia that should be viewed alongside the way Israel’s defense community more or less allowed itself to be lulled to sleep regarding the true intentions and abilities of the Arab armies. That way of thinking led us into a costly war, the same way Obama’s way of thinking might lead to severe unintended consequences. And that would truly be a sin.
Will we see you in synagogue, sir?