Time to end the dangerous 'enemy addiction' policy

Mon, Jan 19, 2009, 00:00

Allowing our policies to be driven by our enemies inevitably leads to ghastly and grisly failures, writes Tony Kinsella

BARACK OBAMA takes over as president of the United States tomorrow. The guns falling silent in Gaza will, hopefully, be the first impact of the new US foreign and security policy of which we caught a glimpse at Hillary Clinton’s expedited confirmation hearings. As we scrutinise Obama’s foreign policy approach over the coming months we need to remember that the mammoth US military, foreign policy and intelligence communities are junkies, addicted to, and therefore fatally driven by, perceived enemies.

An enemy provides a useful stimulus. You need to counter them, to outmanoeuvre them. Their very existence pushes you into making extra efforts. To be taken seriously, an enemy must however pose a real threat. The neighbours’ two-year-old may glower at you from his buggy, but hardly threatens you.

The US and Israel both forged themselves as powers in response to existential threats. Their recent security failures are partly explicable by their obsolete and dangerous “enemy addiction”.

The US is surrounded by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and by two large, friendly and not overly powerful neighbours, Canada and Mexico. This strategic reality was reflected in its 1939 defence posture. Although it had the world’s most powerful navy, its air force did not exist as a separate branch, its army was small and poorly equipped, and it had no professional intelligence service.

The Japanese pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbour and Nazi Germany’s declaration of war changed all that. The US had, by 1945, become the planet’s premier military superpower, and its only nuclear one. Germany and Japan lay in ruins. The British and French empires were both bankrupt, and their days numbered – although London and Paris have yet to digest this reality fully.

Over the next four decades the expansion of US military and intelligence power, and of the executive branch of its government, was driven by fear of the Soviet enemy. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 was seen by many of Washington’s political artificers as their final victory.

Those artificers, instinctively and/or malevolently, set about identifying a replacement enemy – one that would justify the maintenance of the same structures, programmes, expenditures and positions as the now defunct rival superpower had.

The recreation of a Jewish state in Palestine almost 2,000 years after the destruction of its predecessor was a fantastic story in the literal sense of that term. Israel’s largely Arab neighbours vowed its destruction and attacked. The infant state survived their onslaught in its successful War of Independence in 1948. In 1956 Israel joined Anglo-French machinations to unseat Egypt’s Nasser. While the coyly-named “Suez Crisis” revealed just how threadbare the declining European empires had become, Israel emerged reinforced, rearmed, and with the French nuclear assistance that would help it become a nuclear power.

The brilliantly executed 1967 pre-emptive strike saw Israel smash the massed armies of her neighbouring enemies in the Six-day War. In 1973 she was almost caught napping, but finally snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. That victory laid the basis for successful bilateral peace negotiations with Egypt, and later Jordan.

It is now widely accepted that the recent Turkish-arbitrated discussions between Israel and Syria have also produced the basis of a treaty. The Palestinian Arabs, lacking a state, were the great absentees from all these discussions, although they were the primary victims.

A not unimportant element of modern Israeli identity was forged in the battlefield successes and sacrifices or her armed forces. This process worryingly served, like its US equivalent, to define Israeli priorities and reactions in terms of responses to threats.

Faced with existential threats both Israel and the US reached the conclusion that their survival depended on their ability to respond to, or deter, such threats through the possession and use of overwhelming military force. One per cent of the US federal budget goes on diplomacy, 22 per cent on defence.

The most bizarre US expression of this was Ronald Reagan’s 1983 invasion of the Caribbean nation of Grenada (pop 110,000). The most tragic? Bush’s demented 2003 attack on Iraq.

It is more understandable that Israel cleaves to the use of military force, a response that worked so well against the existential threat posed by its nation-state enemies. But it is potentially lethal that it continues to rely on an instrument which patently does not work against non-existential threats from non-state actors.

Palestinian groups threaten the lives of Israeli citizens in pursuit of what they see as legitimate objectives but they are incapable of threatening the actual existence of Israel. Their tactics have varied from raids on isolated kibbutzim, to hijackings, suicide bombers and copies of primitive second World War Soviet rockets.

The numbers reveal this asymmetric reality. The thousands of rockets fired from Gaza since 2002 have killed 16 Israelis while over 1,300 Palestinians have perished during Israel’s current Gaza misadventure, a weekend of ceasefires (amid continued fighting) notwithstanding.

Some inflate the power of Hamas to suggest it could one day, maybe, pose an existential threat to the state of Israel. Others would have us believe in a Shia conspiracy linking Teheran, Damascus, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the awkwardly Sunni Hamas.

The irony is that many who peddle these “beware the coming enemy” warnings are exactly those who flogged the fantasy that Saddam Hussein’s crumbling Iraq posed a “clear and present danger” from which only a war of “shock and awe” could save us.

America’s Iraq war is drawing to a close and Iran and its Iraqi Shia allies are as close as you can get to victors in that sorry mess.

Allowing our policies to be driven by our enemies inevitably leads to ghastly and grisly failures. Washington can now set a different, more humane, positive, constructive and sustainable orientation – one which Jerusalem might follow.

It’s time we stopped letting our policies be driven by enemies, real or imagined.