Gaza and Asymmetrical Warfare

A ceasefire has been announced in Gaza. For the moment, it seems to be holding. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is leaving, and the Gazans are sifting through the ruins, predictably finding more bodies. Has anybody really won anything in all this. Probably not, if one projects the outcome very far into the future.

Gaza is a clear example of modern warfare in action: a powerful, frustrated, conventional power facing an unconventional, rules-defying, but much weaker opponent. It is the classic scenario of what is called, since Donald Rumsfeld popularized the term, asymmetrical warfare. The essence of this approach to the ancient problem that an inferior force faces when confronting an overwhelmingly more powerful opponent is how to avoid defeat. For the superior force, it is how to achieve victory. For the inferior force, the first rule is to avoid fighting the way the more powerful opponent wants you to, because the more powerful force is assured success if you do. On the other hand, if you can change the rules, you may prevail by simply outlasting the opponent. The United States first learned this in Vietnam, and arguably should have learned it in Iraq and may eventually learn it in Afghanistan. The Israelis seem intent on not learning this lesson at all.

Although the dynamics of asymmetrical warfare (which I discuss in some length in When America Fights and National Security for a New Era) are complex, two lessons stand out that bear directly on the fighting over Gaza. One is a variation of Mohammed Ali’s “rope a dope” strategy; the other is the dilemma of success.

Ali’s rope a dope strategy involved allowing the opponent to pummel his arms and torso until his foe either thought he had weakened Ali or had worn himself out, at which point Ali would attack and put him away. The “rope” part of the analogy derived from the fact that Ali bounced off the ropes while the pummeling occurred; the “dope” of course was the opponent’s belief he was accomplishing something.

The analogy with Hamas in Gaza is not perfect, of course. Hamas and the Gazans absiorbed a pounding not because they wanted to, but because they had no choice. The Israeli military machine was much too powerful for Hamas to confront, and doing so would have been suicidal. Instead, they melted into the general population (another characteristic of modern asymmetrical war) and let the Israelis pound away, as the world looked on with increasing horror at the toll in civilian dead. When the Israelis finally stopped punching, Hamas was still standing. Outside the United States, the Israelis end up looking like blood-thirsty, baby-killing barbarians and Hamas manages almost looks better. Who is the “dope” here?

Being lured into this kind of situation illustrates the frustration of being the strong power. Israel has been the victim of deadly harassment by Hamas for some time and had become very frustrated by it. According to a New York Times analysis today (1/19/09), Israelis had adopted the Hebrew phrase “baal habayit hishtageya,” whic translates as “the boss has lost it” to describe their frustration. As one official explained, “The phrase means that our civilians are attacked by you, we are not going to respond in proportion but will use all means we have to cause you such damage that you will think twice in the future.”

The problem is that this punishment may cause the attacked state to think twice in different ways than the attacker intends. As one Palestinian Gazan, described as a member of Fatah, put it, “But a guy whose child has just been killed doesn’t want peace. He wants war.” In this case, he wants Hamas.

This leads to the second problem, which is measuring success. For the opponents in asymmetrical warfare, one of the asymmetries is that success–or victory–has different meanings for the two sides. For Israel, the only real sense of victory meant  destroying Hamas and thus its continued attacks on Israel. Nothing short of ending those attacks constitutes victory–the Israelis could only win by winning. Hamas, on the other hand, could not possibly defeat the Israelis, but it could survive their onslaught and return to fight another day–Hamas won by not losing.

So who won? In the very short run, Israel can probably argue success, because Hamas attacks will probably not resume in earnest for awhile. The Israelis expect a few token rocket attacks so Hamas can demonstrate its resilience, but not much more. At the same time, Hamas has survived, and the victims of the attacks will undoubtedly provide it with new recruits who hate Israel at least as much as their fallen comrades did. In the end, nothing will have changed much.

All this suggests the enormous frustrations of modern asymmetrical warfare. The Israelis reaction to Hamas was understandable, but in terms of accomplishing any meaningful long-term goals, it was arguably stupid as well. While I do not pretend to know the secret to creating a lasting peace between Hamas and the Israelis, I am pretty sure that beating Hamas to death will not work for the Israelis. Maybe they should try something else, like honest negotiations and reversing the Israeli populating ot the West Bank. Just a thought.

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