Here’s a statistic from an official Pentagon presentation, recently revealed at a security industry conference in Augusta, Georgia. The subject was American military interventions since the end of World War II. The figures: 44 interventions – one a year – between 1945 and 1989; and another 100 – three to four a year – since the end of the Cold War.
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The world has become wilder, with more American raids and invasions, since the disintegration of the bipolar American-Soviet structure. The trend is toward longer interventions, which require maintenance of ground forces – that is, a long, costly investment from a cavernous-bottomed barrel.
That is the backdrop for an important and frank statement made by a senior American official, in the current context of the dispute between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the emerging agreement between the six world powers and Iran. Last Thursday, speaking at another security conference, this time in Washington, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel summed up the American public’s position as it is reflected in opinion polls: “No more wars, no more Middle East.” They don’t want to spill any more blood or money into the quicksand of countries in the same region as Afghanistan and Iraq.
The public, said former senator Hagel, is at the foundation of democracy. The public decides because Congress – a partner as strong as the president – must constantly heed the desires of the voters. Especially the House of Representatives, which stands for election every two years. None of its members is so invulnerable as to buck the spirit of the times.
Without willingness to put boots on the ground – not a commando force to kill Osama bin Laden that performs its task and takes quickly to the air, but divisions that get bogged down and bloodied – no regime can be toppled. Prudent planners don’t talk about air operations before they have the general outlines of the boots on the ground operation.
That is why the threats against the Iranian regime heard in the Kirya defense headquarters in Tel Aviv are so ridiculous. Israel has never managed to bring down a foreign regime, not even when it reached Beirut and Ramallah, and certainly not when it got within threatening distance of Damascus and Cairo.
Its one dubious success came from withdrawal and not conquest: in Gaza, with the fall of Fatah and rise of Hamas following Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from the region in 2005.
In most cases, the government that fell in the next election was the Israeli one. Even when there were successes on the ground, they were translated into the failure of the government’s declared policy – whether good or bad. May 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield in the territories began as an effort to stop Palestinian terror, but led to its biggest diplomatic achievement - because the Israeli army’s entry into the cities of the West Bank extracted from President George W. Bush the first support by an American president for a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu, who had tried to topple Obama with his support for Mitt Romney, now hypocritically laments Obama’s weakness. In fact, they share the same constraints. Netanyahu wanted to attack Iran, but for four years failed to garner domestic and foreign support. Obama cannot embark on an adventure without an alliance with other powers, and also without the public’s willingness to sacrifice. Today, Netanyahu’s “new deal” sounds as old-fashioned as Roosevelt’s from the 1930s, and even Roosevelt got the public and Congress to support war only after a direct and treacherous attack on American soil.
Every time Israel has opposed an interim accord as the first phase in a more general agreement, it has turned out to be a mistake. That was the case in the Suez Canal in 1971, and in the Mitla and Gidi passes in 1975. The deal between the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany) and Iran is important because of the existence of a channel of negotiations. The precise formula is less important – after all, the moment that formula is reached, Netanyahu will warn of deception and breach of trust by the devious Iranians.
The American voters, who have had it with wars in the Middle East, are prepared to give diplomatic dialogue a chance. And if Netanyahu insists on standing in the way of the steamroller, he will find himself underneath it.