It’s been a little over a week since Israeli commando stormed the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, that attempted to break the blockade of Gaza. World reaction has followed a now predictable formula: government leaders denouncing Israel for its “lawlessness disproportionate use of force,” daily street demonstrations erupt in Muslim nations and, of course, “activists” call for an “impartial” UN investigation. Though the commando operation was a clear military success—the ship was intercepted and nine “militants” were killed with no Israeli loss of life, the emerging verdict seems to be that this was actually a defeat. A Wall Street Journal (June 3, 2010) headline summed it up:”Israel’s Isolation Deepens.” In other words, Israel may have won a skirmish but this is yet another step in losing the larger war.
This unwelcome interpretation may be gaining traction, but it is profoundly wrong. Israel is winning the war but victory is hardly self-evident. In a nutshell, the definition of “victory” has almost invisibly sifted in recent decades so what was once a “victory” now may be “defeat” and vice versa. The culprit in this linguistic transformation is how the mass media, skillfully abetted by chronic losers, now substitutes political image—PR– for tangible outcomes. While victory was once measured by enemy casualties and territory captured, in today’s upside down, if not Orwellian, vocabulary, “victory” goes to those most skilled at fabricating political reality. What kind of war is it when one side exaggerates its casualties and happily provides guided tours to demonstrate the enemy’s military prowess?
Some background, and while we’ll discuss Middle East politics, our analysis applies generally. The war against Israel has gone through varied stages and Israel has won each one, usually decisively. There were traditional military campaigns (particularly 1948, 1967, 1973, and 2006), paralleled by state-sanctioned economic boycotts (off and on since 1948), which were then followed by intifada terrorism within Israel itself (1987-93, 2000-05). Now, after sixty years, Israel is stronger both militarily and economically; its Arab enemies are even weaker, so what’s next in the “resistance” repertory? The answer, as is plain to see: mount a political assault as if lobbying for Security Council will accomplish what Arab armies, homemade rockets or suicide bombers failed to achieve.
“Going political” is typically a sign of weakness, a strategy that appeals only after exhausting all other alternatives. Most obviously, political engagement is simple and comes with an almost zero entry fee. Politics is also dishonesty friendly while inconvenient facts are readily disguised with rhetorical trickery. For a dictator worried over local unrest, compare the burden of promoting a modern, job-creating economy versus mobilizing thousand to demand death to Uncle Sam. The former requires years of painful effort, transparency, delayed gratification and risks failure; political actions, however, no matter how grandiose the aim requires only minimal organizational and intellectual talent and can be infused with lies. And who can resist the therapeutic fun of burning Uncle Sam in effigy? Political gesturing is perfect for nations going nowhere economically.
This combat is also relatively uncomplicated to orchestrate versus winning a shooting war. No need to worry about positioning thousands of troops and their supplies, or devising a sound strategy let alone incurring horrific casualties. Real wars also risk national humiliation. Winning the battle of public opinion, as certified by today’s mass media, typically entails only making sure about a dozen civilians are “mistakenly” killed with cameras rolling to record the dead bodies, the wailing relatives plus some bogus official explanation that the target lacked any military value. Even if nobody died, an adroit video editor can compile a montage of stock combat footage that conclusively demonstrates the enemy’s barbarism and by the time the crude fakery is exposed, even more “horrific” footage is on the way. In this media-centered war, brilliant strategists are those able to stage war-like events, dishonest film editors and PR specialist with cozy contacts among sympathetic Western media outlets like the BBC. Thanks to technology, Photoshop can out-perform laser guided munitions to inflict damage on one’s foes. The high ground to be captured is the 6:00PM news.
Actually, if a prize were awarded for those who embrace image-as-reality politics while avoiding personal risk, academics would retire the trophy. As an academic lifer I know of what I speak. Getting elected to the proclamation-issuing faculty Senate is a snap since few seek this obligation while the Senate typically meets only once a month. It is a perfect setting for sedentary but vocal activists. Now, together with a few fellow schemers, one can effortlessly “show solidarity with the oppressed Palestinian People” by passing endless wacky anti-Israeli resolution, all before dinner. If that fails to demonize the enemy, create an ad hoc committee of “concerned professors” and circulate a petition to boycott Haifa oranges and ban visiting Israeli professors since they work for an apartheid regime. Who said war is hell? Not so for professors, so it’s no wonder they are so politically engaged.
The lure of politics is extraordinarily seductive for nations like Syria who know from hard experience that its dilapidated military is helpless against Israel. After all, a modern army demands arduous training, mastering technical skills and perhaps most distressing, promoting soldiers according to merit not family connections. It is no wonder then, that these nations “fight” their “wars” by summoning the US ambassador to explain that “Jewish intransigence” is an insurmountable roadblock to a lasting comprehensive Middle East peace. And to drive this point home, they stage a boisterous rally with the usual burning of US flags and “homemade” signs in English to greet the anxious-to-please Ambassador. Street demonstrations easily outshine learning to fly a Mig 29.
These theatrical “attacks” can soon become a drug-like addiction. So, when an Israeli Apache helicopter with great skill and concern for collateral civilian life destroys a Hamas bomb factory, round up the usual enraged marchers, shoot the AK-47s into the air (and kill bystanders), issue blistering diplomatic communiqués and demand an emergency UN Security Council session. Again, such histrionics are far more enticing than, say, converting the bomb factory to produce plowshares (recall how when Israeli settlers departed Gaza they left behind fully functioning high-tech greenhouses which were promptly vandalized). And, to continue the addiction parallel, the urge to “do something” soon becomes a manic search for a daily fix, a dysfunctional behavior akin to an alcoholic polishing off little bottles of vanilla extract to sustain the buzz. Now even the most reasonable Israeli act of self-defense becomes a provocation so ending hostilities becomes psychologically impossible.
Here’s the bottom line for those increasingly despondent by an apparent irreversible tide of anti-Israeli outrage: take heart, revving up the publicity machine confirms that traditional, and far deadlier, options have been abandoned. Though it may not appear so, the enemies have surrendered. In the final analysis, all the raving and ranting, whether from Turkish Prime Ministers or left-loony Professors of Oppression Studies, are nuisances compared to what previously transpired. Arab armies once killed thousands of Jews though they lost the war. Today, these same enemies annoy millions with their duplicitous political machinations and given a choice, I’ll take the latter—having one’s blood boil is better than having it spilled. Moreover, with time and repeated failure, these largely harmless but seriously annoying political tactics will become even more aggravating. What’s next—a boatload of crippled children and senile old folk trying to run the blockade? The dynamic is simple: futility generates exasperation and among the weak, this breeds escalating hysteria.
So, next time you witness the Arab street going wild on the BBC demanding that Israel be punished for terrorism, don’t fret. This is a sign of weakness, a tacit admission that wars, boycotts, and suicide attacks have failed. To update a familiar adage, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but cockeyed special reports from the UN Council on Human Rights can never harm me.”
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana and currently an adjunct instructor at New York University Department of Politics (graduate). He has written many books, the most recent being Bad Students, Not Bad Schools: How both the Right and the Left have American education wrong. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs.