The Only Thing Worse Than Going to War Is Losing

Swift victories with minimal casualties help a war to be portrayed positively, while a prolonged, bloody entanglement retroactively erodes the rationale for ordering the operation.

As I took a peek yesterday at Sky News before perusing the headlines in the British newspapers on the war in Libya, I felt as if I were watching Channel 2 during Operation Cast Lead. The British reporters sounded a lot like Roni Daniel, proclaiming that "our pilots" had gone to battle, Muammar Gadhafi's air defenses had been "neutralized," and the enemy had resorted to using civilians as "human shields."

Even the political argument in London sounded familiar, with the prime minister said to be eager to overthrow the Gadhafi regime while his military was adhering to the more modest goals of Operation Odyssey Dawn. This argument sounded exactly like the dispute between Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak over whether to overthrow the Hamas regime in Gaza.

gadhafi - AP - March 18 2011

In the United States, the picture is more complex. Left-wing columnists who assailed George W. Bush over the war in Iraq are now praising Barack Obama for his war in Libya. On the right, it's the opposite. The headlines there are declaring that the mission has been accomplished and Libya has been declared a no-fly zone. Leaders have taken to using the customary newspeak reserved for situations like this. "This isn't a war, but a brief humanitarian mission," said a senior U.S. official who was visiting Jerusalem yesterday.

For an Israeli listening to these statements, it's easy to get angry over the West's attitude toward the war, particularly British hypocrisy. While the British mount legal battles against Israeli leaders and IDF commanders over the bombardments of Gaza, they boast about their own bombings of Tripoli. But this is too simplistic an approach. The justness of a war is in the eye of the beholder, and it depends on its final outcome.

Swift victories with minimal casualties help a war to be portrayed positively, while a prolonged, bloody entanglement retroactively erodes the rationale for ordering the operation. If Olmert had defeated Hezbollah after two days of fighting, he would have been praised for his boldness. Since he didn't achieve victory after five weeks, the decision to embark on war was in the eyes of the Winograd Committee a "grave error," staining his reputation forever.

All wars look the same on television. There are images of fighter jets, sounds of gunfire, footage of smoke rising above destroyed buildings, pictures of civilians seeking refuge, and scenes of dead and wounded bodies. Neither Obama nor British Prime Minister David Cameron possess any new gimmicks that Bush didn't have in Iraq or Olmert in Gaza. Public opinion will determine whether the killing and destruction constitute "humanitarian aid" or "war crimes."

Regarding the Gaza war, most of the world leaned toward the opinion that the operation was a criminal act. In Libya, opinion is more divided. While the developing world is condemning the operation, the West is firmly in support. This shows Gadhafi's popularity relative to Israel's. We are hated more. Whether fought in modern or ancient times, whether they are world wars or regional skirmishes from Europe to the Middle East, all wars share one iron rule: The launching of war invariably stems from domestic considerations. Leaders embark on war only when they feel that the political price to be paid from refraining is higher.

The reasons vary: the need for domestic legitimacy (Olmert in Lebanon), public pressure on the leaders (the Romans in the war against Hannibal, Levi Eshkol in the Six-Day War), and limited room to maneuver because of an adherence to an ideology (Adolf Hitler in World War II, Gamal Abdel Nasser in the Six-Day War and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam ). Usually, though not always, the decision to fight is influenced by the belief that the enemy is weak and will be quickly cut down to size (the Kaiser in World War I, King Farouk in 1948).

Obama is abiding by the iron rule of war, just as every leader does. He didn't want a war, but Gadhafi portrayed him as a dishrag, while his supporters demanded that he respect his ideological support for bridge-building diplomacy and human rights, as well as his call to remove the colonel from power. That was how he was dragged to war. He is also certain to have been enticed into believing that Libya is a "one-man regime" and the leader's removal would spark an easy victory. This was also what Bush was told about Saddam Hussein before the war in Iraq.

Obama is not the first leader to launch a war after snaring a Nobel Peace Prize. He was preceded by Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat. He is no more hypocritical or dishonest than the others. He's just more like them than he expected to be once he gained power. The same paradigms that have dictated the human race's behavior since the dawn of history also apply to him.

Now it is important for Obama to remember the second rule: The only thing worse than going to war is not winning a war.