OPERATION CAST LEAD: MILITARISM AGAINST HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE RULE OF LAW
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 10 January 2009
“Israel is America’s unsinkable battleship in the Middle East”. So said Caspar Weinberger, US Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan. And, as the imprisoned population of Gaza is pounded by F-16 jets, M109 self-propelled Howitzers and the latest American-made white phosphorous artillery shells, it’s difficult to miss the proxy character of the offensive against Hamas. Look at a map of the Middle East, screw your eyes up and the outline of Israel even looks a bit like the deck of a US aircraft carrier.
The ‘lead’ may have been ‘cast’ in December, but it’s often been noted, in media coverage, that the mould was formed six months earlier, when planning for the operation got underway. What’s been less widely reported, however, is the sequence of events in June, 2008, which sent the key political signals for war. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was suddenly summoned to Washington for talks with President Bush. The beleaguered premier was “an honest man”, Bush enthused, in their joint news conference – a boost in Olmert’s efforts to resist calls for him to resign over corruption allegations. But on his return to Tel Aviv, the real purpose of the meeting became clear. News crews waited on the tarmac at the bottom of the steps leading down from Olmert’s plane, and literally as he stepped back on to Israeli soil he warned that “based on the data as I see it now, the pendulum is closer to a decision for a serious operation”.
Later that month, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, made his own surprise visit, to Israel, for talks with IDF Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. This followed a statement by Shaul Mofaz, the former army chief appointed to Olmert’s cabinet to take charge of transport policy, that Israel “would attack” Iran if it carried on with its nuclear program, and a large-scale military exercise centred on the Negev desert which seemed to be a dress rehearsal for just such a strike. The manoeuvres remained hush-hush, until they were described in detail to a rapt audience of journalists, not by the Israelis but by officials of the Bush White House. It was the Americans who wanted the world to know about them.
From Washington, Hamas and the territory it controls are seen in wider context as a threat, a rare sliver of resistance to the hegemonic project articulated by Weinberger and elaborated in the National Security Strategy published by the Bush Administration in 2002. This is the one that talks about the need to deter the emergence of potential strategic rivals, if necessary by pre-emptive strikes. Hence the sabre-rattling aimed at Iran, the rising power in the Middle East. Thanks to its US-supplied weaponry, Israel traditionally enjoys ‘unchallengeable military superiority’, but the problem with that logic is that it invites challenges. And, just as the impenetrable castle keeps of the Middle Ages gave rise to the invention of the cannon, to penetrate them, so Iran can deploy increasingly effective asymmetric warfare against the Israelis – Hezbollah, in Lebanon, which emerged bloodied, but unbowed from the war of 2006, and now perhaps Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
In strategic terms, this calculus blows away any niceties about democracy, human rights or international law. The Palestinians elected Hamas to govern them, but from that moment the US and its allies set out to suborn the result, sponsoring an attempted coup then, when that failed, imposing a state of isolation including punitive economic sanctions as a form of collective punishment.
The Independent, my old paper in London, is running a useful feature called ‘mapping Gaza’. You can roll your mouse over bits of it and it will explain components of just war theory, for instance, against which Israel’s military action can be assessed. It’s clear that the action is neither proportionate nor discriminatory, given that – as both the UN and Amnesty International have pointed out – it’s impossible to attack such a densely populated area from the air and avoid inflicting civilian casualties. The killing of 40 people who’d obeyed the instructions in Israeli leaflets and left their homes to shelter in a UN school only emphasised the grotesque and cynical lack of concern for human life.
The point is, this is what we should expect. If a country sets out to dominate the rest of the world by force of arms, that is not compatible with the concept of international law, it is an alternative to it. If there is one political stance most comprehensively undermined and exposed by the events of recent years, it’s what I still think of – from a European point of view – as soggy Atlanticism. I guess from here in Australia we should call it ‘Pacificism’. We should be clear-eyed about what military alliance with the United States entails, and for that, let us set the propaganda to one side and recall instances when the mask has slipped. Weinberger’s doctrine is one of a few choice examples, including a tour d’horizon from one of the original Atlanticists, George Kennan, who headed the US State Department planning staff until 1950 and died just a couple of years ago. In a secret briefing, Policy Planning Study 23, Kennan observed:
“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford the luxury of altruism and world benefaction. We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better”.
In a later version, updated for a post-Cold War world, Pentagon planner Major Ralph Peters, thus characterized the function of US armed forces in the US Army War College Quarterly, Parameters, of Summer 1997:
“There will be no peace. At any given moment for the rest of our lifetimes, there will be multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe. Violent conflict will dominate the headlines, but cultural and economic struggles will be steadier and ultimately more decisive. The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing”.
This is against the interests of Israel and the Israelis. Earlier this year, an opinion poll conducted by Tel Aviv University showed a substantial majority of them were in favour of direct talks with Hamas. That would suit Israel, since it will, ultimately, have to talk meaningfully with the Palestinians, but not the US, which wants Israel for its regional battleship, and to use the conflict with the Palestinians to keep the Arabs weak and divided.
A couple of years ago, two US academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, came out with the claim that, in US-Israel relations, the tail was wagging the dog, and that Washington was being forced into positions against its own interests by the American Israeli lobby. But the pattern of recent events supports the opposite view, expounded notably by another professor, Stephen Zunes, of the University of San Francisco, that it is the US that is leading Israel into war when it would be more helpful to pursue options for peace. It also means that for the rest of us, the highest priority, to register our disgust at the treatment meted out to the inhabitants of Gaza, is to seek opportunities to apportion blame where it really belongs, and oppose our countries’ continuing military alliance with the United States.
Here in Australia, an important opportunity is just around the corner, with this year’s running of the biennial Operation Talisman Sabre, a joint training exercise in which thousands of Australian troops will rehearse for the invasion of another country, alongside their US counterparts. This is despite the fact that no Australian government, for a long time to come, will be able to convince a majority of Australians that this represents a sensible policy. The problem is not winning the argument. The problem is the sheer unresponsiveness of the institutional framework. And to tackle that, we need to begin by joining the dots.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 January 2009.
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