Israel in 2008 and America in 2011
In the summer of 2006, Israel sent forces into Lebanon. The strike, while tactically successful, failed on two terms: on the diplomatic level, where Israel began to turn a number of lukewarm friends into skeptics, and—more importantly, I would say—on that of its military reputation. The IDF, though not stopped, suddenly looked vulnerable. For Israel, this was a new and disturbing development.
Fast-forward to late December 2008, when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. In hindsight, the strike looks more and more inexplicable: a tactical draw and diplomatic disaster that did nothing to restore the former “mystique” of the IDF. Among the more cynical reasons floated (by onlookers and commentators, not the Israeli government) for this operation were a restoration of Ehud Olmert’s political reputation—but also a restoration of what the IDF had lost in Lebanon. The opposite occurred. The IDF, again, looked rusty; the gap between it and its non-professional opponents was smaller than expected; its generals spent (and still spend) their time publicly arguing politics and throwing and deflecting blame. There was no Amir Peretz trying to look through closed binoculars this time around.
Today, we can hear a chorus demanding intervention in Libya. Many of the reasons are those we’ve grown used to; we heard them all in the long lead-up to Iraq and we’ve been hearing them all over again since uprisings began to spread in the Arab world. But, added to the mix is something new: America must intervene in order to restore its reputation and moral standing. We are A Very Serious Nation, and Very Serious Nations that are not taken seriously, on a moral/military level, do not long retain their status. We must do something, somewhere, but soon—for the sake of our reputation.
George Will, Daniel Larison, and Ross Douthat have already called out the logic behind this thinking, but I do think it deserves consideration in juxtaposition with the most recent case of a Western(ish) military power attempted to do precisely what some are calling for. Our international/military reputation and moral standing are already rather dented, thanks to our decade-long imperial adventure in the Near East—and the thought that a high-risk, low-reward military operation will magically restore them seems, frankly, quite rash. These are not qualities that ought to be squandered in a situation where it is not at all clear that we could have any significant impact. As Douthat succinctly notes concludes:
We’ll demonstrate that we’re capable of going halfway to war, but no further, and Libya’s tyrant will be able to claim that he fought America and won.
This sentence, slightly altered, is the precise reason time increasingly shows that Israel’s operations in Lebanon and then Gaza were tremendous mistakes. They are mistakes we ought to be quite wary of making ourselves.