June 03, 2010

Two Thoughts on Israel

I know I usually steer clear of Israeli and Palestinian stuff -- for reasons most sane human beings will understand. But this recent flotilla nonsense forces me to get two things off my chest. I write this in the spirit Max Boot describes whereby Israel's friends have an obligation to constructively criticize it when things go off the rails.

1. A few days ago, I linked via my Twitter account to George Packer's excellent take on this fiasco at sea. Packer noted, comparing the Israeli and U.S. militaries, the following divide:

At one time, Israelis understood counterinsurgency much better than Americans, which is why U.S. officers looked to their Israeli counterparts for advice in the early years of the Iraq war. At one time, the Israelis understood that self-interest demanded subtlety, restraint, and attention to perception. As others have pointed out, these qualities have been disappearing from Israeli strategy and tactics, and the current right-wing government seems determined to isolate and destroy itself with the unbending principle of self-defense.

This paragraph especially struck me, because I know how true it is. In the early years of the GWOT, I remember reading Israeli after action reports from combat actions in the Second Intifada, paying especially close attention to what tactics they felt were working and which ones the Israelis felt were ineffective. Other guys in my unit at the time described exchanges they had made to Israel and how they had always learned something from their peer units over there.

I still think the U.S. military has a lot to learn from the IDF in terms of tactics, techniques and procedures. But since I left the active duty army in 2004, I have interacted quite a bit with Israeli military officers both through formal interviews and informal discussions over beer or coffee. I still learn a lot whenever I talk to them, but I am increasingly struck by the very real differences that have emerged between them and their U.S. military peers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. One difference concerns the atittude toward the population within which they operate. Last fall, I was in Israel for a two-week visit and conducted a few formal interviews with various Israeli officers, journalists and scholars. I met for coffee one morning with a retired Israeli general officer to discuss the fighting in southern Lebanon during the 1990s, and before too long, the two of us were engrossed in conversation about guerrilla warfare, Lebanon, the learning process that militaries go through in combat, and a host of related subjects. One hour became two, and two hours became three. The two of us must have downed three cups of coffee apiece, and my hand cramped from all the notes I was taking. At the end of the conversation, though, this retired officer took my hand, squeezed it hard, and said, "Andrew, just remember one thing: the Muslims are like shit. They stink, and there are plenty of them for all of us."

Now in 3+ years of living in the Arabic-speaking world, I have to admit I have heard some pretty horrifically anti-Semitic things said in both polite and not-so-polite conversation. But pardon me if I was a little struck by hearing this language from a retired, educated military officer rather than from, say, a taxi driver in Beirut or some 16-year old Palestinian kid who grew up in Bourj al-Barajneh. Anyway, I shook the man's hand, thanked him for his time, and went on my way shaking my head. Could I imagine a senior U.S. military officer, post-Iraq, saying something like that to a guy with a notebook at the end of a formal interview? I could not. (Though I know quite a few military officers who may have made an Iraqi friend or two while deployed but left the country with little affection for its people or culture.) Fast forward two days to another formal interview, this one at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv. I was meeting with a colonel there, again discussing southern Lebanon, and with us was a young PAO from the IDF. The PAO, I discovered, was of Iraqi Jewish descent. I had my notebook open, and the PAO had a tape recorder as well as a notebook. Again, the conversation was going great, and I was learning a lot about the learning process the IDF went through in southern Lebanon in the 1990s. But halfway through the conversation, with two notebooks open and tape recorder running, this officer then started on an off-color riff about why the Jews had managed to win so many Nobel Prizes and the Arabs and Muslims, despite their numbers, had won so very few. I was shocked -- not because someone might say such things but because someone might say such things to a visiting researcher with an open notebook. I looked at the PAO to my right, and this Iraqi-Israeli was obviously growing uncomfortable. (I went back into my notebooks as I was writing this post and discovered, to my amusement, that I had written "this guy is an idiot" in Greek script during the interview. If you are ever in a meeting with me and I start writing something in Greek or Arabic, it's because I am writing something I do not want you to be able to read. I have notes from a meeting with a senior staff officer in Afghanistan from last summer that are, sadly, literally half written in Greek. I have a friend who does the same thing in Russian.)

This flip side to these stories would be the many conversations I have had with Israeli officers -- including some very impressive public affairs and combat arms officers -- who managed not to go off on anti-Muslim or anti-Arab riffs during their conversations with me, even after several rounds of beer or wine. I left my most recent research trip to Israel, though, openly wondering a) whether or not anti-Arab or anti-Muslim sentiment was widespread within the officer corps and whether that might have an effect on Israeli operations in the territories and b) whether or not a) was true, whether or not Israel would ever be able to effectively carry out information operations with officers so willing to say crazy stuff to a researcher with an open notebook and a tape recorder.

2. It sometimes upsets my many Arab friends when I write things like this, but I really like Israel and most Israelis. Tel Aviv reminds me a little of Beirut, and I have often thought that when peace breaks out (in the year 2300?) they would make great sister cities. A buddy and I are even planning to start a Beirut-to-Tel Aviv party shuttle for bachelor parties, which I think is a genius idea. But I have often wondered if the nature of Israel's coalition politics forces its government to make short-sighted politically expedient decisions that are not thought out from within a strategic context. Whatever you may think of the QDR or NSS, at least the U.S. government articulates a strategic vision for its security. By contrast, a journalist friend of mine was in a roundtable discussion with three ministers in the Israeli government during Operation Cast Lead. He asked these ministers what their five-to-ten year strategy was to protect their people, i.e. ensure the state. "They stared at me as if I were a unicorn."

What is so shocking about this most recent fiasco, though, is not just the lack of any coherent strategy. (If you're trying to ensure Iran does not become nuclear-armed, might you not want to ensure strong relations with the United States and other key allies -- Europe, Turkey -- in pursuit of that goal? Wouldn't you avoid anything that got in the way of that existential challenge?) What is most shocking is the tactical and operational incompetence of the Israelis. Check out the comments in this post and read the reactions -- many of them from U.S. and allied officers, who make up a large portion of this blog's readership -- chuckling at the expense of the Israelis. When did the IDF -- the elite units in the IDF, even -- become such a laughingstock?

I'll be happy when this storyline fades to the background, but I do not think the dynamic Packer describes -- the new way in which the U.S. military views its Israeli peers -- will. Your guess is as good as mine as to how that might affect U.S. strategy and operations in the region. But when even Meir Dagan starts wondering if Israeli and U.S. interests and attitudes are divergent, we have a crisis in the relationship. And I think most Israelis would concede it matters a lot more for them than it does for us.