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Wars of Necessity, and Wars of Choice
Why Israel faces a tragic decision
Over the last few centuries, powerful states have been getting worse at winning wars against weaker adversaries. The chart below presents one such analysis demonstrating this development in international politics.
Almost all statistical work in international relations should be taken with a grain of salt, but the results here are almost certainly correct. At one point, Western nations ruled over the vast majority of the world’s surface area. Today, the US can struggle for decades to impose its will on one poor nation on the other side of the globe and end up leaving in disgrace.
It seems unlikely that there’s a technological reason for this change. If anything, strong countries should be getting better at accomplishing their objectives. Sure, insurgents now have things like cellphones and IEDs, but that’s unlikely to be as important as new tools primarily available to rich states like nuclear weapons, precision bombs, and advanced satellite and surveillance technology.
The mention of nuclear weapons in the last sentence should provide a clue as to where I’m going with this. The use of nukes in a conflict like Afghanistan or Iraq is unthinkable. This provides a clear example of how new humanitarian ideas make it more difficult to fight and win wars.
Looking at the US and Israeli wars in the Middle East of the last several decades, it’s remarkable how few people have been directly killed by the stronger side. I’ve gathered numbers for eight conflicts below.
Let’s put these numbers in some historical perspective. Only looking at civilians who died due to direct military action, in WWII Germany lost 1.5-3 million and Japan lost up to 800,000. Even after the Second World War, millions of civilians died in Korea. These are all interstate conflicts, but that’s not the point, as Western countries used to be a lot more willing to commit atrocities when putting down insurgencies too.
It would be nice to believe that there isn’t a tradeoff between protecting innocent life and winning wars. My theory of the origins of counterinsurgency doctrine is that it emerged in the late 2000s as a way to tell policymakers what they wanted to hear, which is that you defeat an enemy and develop a stable state primarily by winning civilians over to your side, and you win civilians to your side by looking out for their objective interests. Yet this would be quite amazing if it were true. Given that insurgents hide among civilians and live off the local economy and infrastructure, there will often be times when killing them or otherwise hindering their operations will require risking harm being done to the broader public. How much harm one is willing to inflict on noncombatants is a political and moral question.
The basic idea behind COIN was that third world populations will like you if you’re nice to them and hate you if you’re mean to them, and you need to do things to make them like you. This isn’t completely crazy, as all else being equal it is much better to have the people on your side. But insurgents usually have few qualms about killing collaborators, and sometimes even their families, which shapes the incentive structure that civilians face when deciding which side to support. A better model is that some places produce movements that dislike invaders and occupiers no matter what, and the only question is whether you frighten or kill enough of them to get them to do what you want, or otherwise neutralize the threat that they pose. Conflict is generally caused by opportunity, not grievance, which is why I’ve been saying for years that people predicting an American civil war don’t know what they’re talking about.
Of course, just because Western wars kill very few individuals directly doesn’t mean that they’re no big deal, as many more people may die as a result of the chaos and disorder they unleash. While fewer than 20,000 civilians were killed by coalition forces in Iraq between 2003-2011, total casualties of the war run into the hundreds of thousands. In Libya, the coalition bombing campaign took very few lives, but it has unleashed a bloody civil war that has been on and off ever since. Bringing enough force to overthrow a government but not enough to create order can give you the worst of all worlds.
The US can of course afford to fight with one hand tied behind its back. None of these places actually matter to us, and terrorism has always been such a small risk that one can treat it as a completely fake problem. It is actually an interesting moral question whether it would be worth forcing third world nations to accept Western institutions at the point of a gun, which would clearly be better for them in the long run, but the point is moot if we’re not willing to use the means to do so. The delusion of neocons and COIN types was that this could be accomplished just by spending a lot of money rather than utilizing the kinds of tactics that Western leaders deployed when they used to actually win their wars.
Israel is a different story though. Its opponents pose an existential threat to its way of life. Despite this, the country has been remarkably restrained. All of the Palestinian civilians killed in the last fifty years don’t even come close to the number of lives lost in the US war on ISIS, much less the Second World War. This is primarily due to Israel facing a lot more scrutiny than most other nations would under similar circumstances.
That being said, Israel does not strike me as suicidal. The recent attack by Hamas has shocked the current conflict out of the now default war of choice framework and made it clearly a war of necessity. I expect Israel to do whatever it takes to at the very least either dismantle Hamas or establish a buffer zone between itself and the people of Gaza. If it does not, the problem will fester, and the Israelis will find themselves in the exact same position a few years down the line. It would be nice to believe that the Palestinian conflict could be solved by the stronger side being more accommodating towards its enemy. But there is little in the history of warfare, and certainly nothing in the doctrine of Hamas, to suggest this is a viable path forward. The choice faced by Israel is a tragic one, no matter how much in denial those currently calling for restraint are about this fact.
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