Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

War Isn’t What It Used to Be

Throughout history, at least until our post-modernist times, war was regarded as the highest of human pursuits, one that enlisted other pursuits such as politics, industry, and even literature in its service. Aristotle gave war a thumbs up because it was “the key to peace.” Neo-Platonics regarded war as the ultimate organizer and guardian of hierarchies within the “polis” (state) and among various states.

Over time, however, war, like some other human pursuits has lost part of what the French would call its “authenticity”, leaving us with ersatz wars motivated by folie de grandeur, racial and religious hatred, and mercenary interests.

The old war was regarded as a continuation of politics by other means. In other words, it was resorted to when all other means including politics, diplomacy, trade, and propaganda had failed to preserve the hierarchy needed to sustain a stable status quo.

Nowadays, however, war is often used as the opening gambit in many confrontations with those who start it indicating their unwillingness to stay the course. This leads to a sort of Dutch auction in which, instead of bidding above the price quoted, the bidder offers a lower figure.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is one example.

Vladimir Putin launched the war by stating its goal to be “wiping the Nazi state off the map.”

When it became clear that the stated goal was too ambitious, he reduced it to annexing certain chunks of Ukrainian territory plus Crimea.

Last month he bid even lower by saying all he was interested in was protecting the ethnic Russian communities in the areas he already holds. Interestingly, Putin’s Dutch auction attracted little attention if only because Ukraine’s supporters now had their own higher goal of cutting Russia down to size. How long will they stay the course before they, too, go for Dutch auction remains to be seen.

As a result, this strange war is morphing into a pointless struggle that ignores the first rule of war which is the setting of a final objective, in other words, a clear-cut victory.

Wars do not end with one protagonist declaring victory; they end when one protagonist admits defeat. In our postmodern era, however, a loser is not always allowed to accept his loss.

Israel fought several wars with Arab states and, in classical terms, emerged as victor. But then what is called “the international community” intervened to declare a draw and pass resolutions that put winner and loser on equal footing with an invitation to negotiate a peace accord.

In Vietnam, after the Tet Offensive, it was clear that the US had achieved complete military victory.

But, there, too Washington was forced to not claim victory but to give in to domestic and international opinion and hand over the country to the losing side.

Sometimes, the winner falls victim to hubris or missionary dreams. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US won the war against its stated enemies but was drawn into the nation-building trap that diluted the initial victory beyond recognition.

In both instances, a case could be made for using war as a means of removing hurdles to democratization. But it was naïve to believe that democracy could be built by war. What Afghans and Iraqis did after hurdles to democracy had been removed had to be left to them; they did what the most active, not say violent, elements among them decided to do.

Over time, all wars acquire a global aspect and, in a sense, could be regarded as world wars. The current war between Israel and Hamas has seen demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in more than 60 countries, and divided members of the United Nations into pro-Israel or pro-Hamas camps. It has caused a rise in the price of petrol, nudging inflation higher, and a fall in the value of the Israeli currency (shekel). It has also put a stop to investment by those who had been helping Hamas build its war-making capabilities.

Always an important factor in waging war, propaganda has assumed a role never imagined before. What is called information war is now able to transform the aggressor into the victim and vice versa. The difference between what adversaries should and could do or not do is effaced.

For example, the fact that had Hamas not attacked Israel there would have been no war if only because Israel had no interest in invading Gaza which Ariel Sharon had evacuated..

What Israel wanted from Hamas was not to launch an attack, something that Hamas could have easily offered. But what Hamas wanted, the elimination of Israel as a nation-state, was and remains impossible for Israel to contemplate let alone deliver.

Despite Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s rhetorical outbursts the current struggle, presented as a war, may end up as a trompe l’oeil version of war. Even if possible, a return to the status quo that was shattered by the Hamas attack is undesirable if only because of its conceptual fragility. A new status quo based on full reoccupation of the enclave is equally undesirable because, tested for decades, it provided no security for Israel.

Israel would need to review other elements in the previous status quo. The Iron Dome and the ultra-technological Gaza fence have proved to be as fragile as Troy’s fortifications though they had been built by Poseidon himself.

Hours after the attack, Netanyahu, impacted by the heat of the moment, declared “the total elimination of Hamas” as his war objective. Three weeks later, he must have had time to realize that what matters beyond the physical elimination of Hamas is to build a new status quo that could turn Gaza from a base for attack on Israel into a glacis protecting it.

That means finding Palestinian partners who, while not sharing Hamas’s unrealistic “wipe Israel off the map” narrative, enjoy a modicum of credibility among Gazavis.

We have little information about what Gazavis really think. But there is anecdotal evidence as well as some direct information, albeit limited, showing that Hamas ruled Gaza more through oppression, propaganda, and corruption than genuine popular appeal.

Even if they share the dream of seeing Israel disappear, many Gazavis might have realized that Hamas has failed to deliver and, even worse, shattered the living-and-half-living life that the enclave had built since Israeli occupation ended in 2005.

Unless Israel finds a way to translate its military victory, if such is the outcome, into a new status quo that makes enduring peace possible, it would look like one who wins a heap of chips in a casino only to find out he cannot cash them at the counter.