Lessons from Machiavelli and Clausewitz for the US and Israel

The world, and some of our friends in the peace movement, has an enormous double standard directed against Israel. Palestinians attack and their attacks are coordinated and serve as the avatars of foreign governments. For more than half a century they have inflicted seemingly random and unpredictable death and destruction on Israeli civilians. Most of the world ignores the damage. The Israelis strike back and suddenly everything is wrong. As George Orwell pointed out the world would choose sides based on perceptions of race.

But history cares not at all about justice. History marches to the beat of the stronger. And if people’s perceptions of justice figure in who will be stronger, history ratifies their judgment, And by that standard, it is all over. Israel is doomed. Every step it takes only further seals that doom. It doesn’t matter at all that I am saddened or find it unfair and unreasonable. Stuff happens.

Machievelli wrote many centuries ago that the wise ruler does his most oppressive acts quickly and soon and then puts it behind so people begin to forget. Israel is not the only nation to have ignored Machievelli. George Bush put us on that path in Iraq and Afghanistan. A thousand cuts each making more life dangerous, more painful, for the people we claim to want to help, confronting them with life or death choices – back the Americans or this or that other group. It has dragged out now for nearly a decade. I’m sure they are thanking us.

War changed forever when citizen armies took the field in the 18th century. It led to an arms race. And it turned the people into an object of war-making. In this world of mass warfare, victory, if it is possible at all, demands rivers of blood, sweat and tears. Globalization has changed it still more. Neither Israel nor the US can win our conflicts without substantial support both locally and worldwide. The Palestinians, al Qaeda and the Taliban have too many places to go and both we and Israel face too many limitations on our actions.

Carl von Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military theorist, wrote that war is a continuation of politics by other means. The reverse is also true. Politics is also a continuation of war by other means. And the failure of politics may make war unwinnable.

I know it is hard for the war hawks and the people who pride themselves on their toughness to understand that lesson. But misreading politics is weakness, not strength, like a bad bid in a poker game.

Refusal to read the politics accurately is a characteristic weakness of democracy. The politician who says this war should not be fought seems weak to the voters. The politician who advocates a restrained and focused response to international terrorism will often be hounded out of office. Few had the courage to risk Bush’s call to arms. Less than a quarter of the Senate voted against the War in Iraq.

But if Israel is to survive and if the US is to remain strong, we need to mature in our reactions to world politics, threats and even to terrorism – not because we surrender to it, but to have any hope of defeating it.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 15, 2010


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