Thursday, April 12, 2007

Israel Wins in Iraq? Hardly

The latest issue of Foreign Policy devotes a large section, promoted by a rather dramatic piece of cover art, to trying to tease out what ideas, nations and actors are likely to derive some benefit from the aftermath of the war in Iraq. Some, like ‘Motaqa al-Sadr’ and ‘the price of oil’ clearly belong on the list. The inclusion of others, like ‘Old Europe’ and ‘Iran,’ I believe is more debatable. The inclusion of one “winner,” though, left me flabbergasted: Israel. The University of Haifa’s Amatzia Baram spends about six paragraphs trying to argue that Israel’s security has been improved by the American invasion.

He brings up several points, but his argument basically boils down to the notion that by eliminating Saddam, the United States removed a key financial backer of anti-Israeli terror (Saddam’s regime was reputed to have provided financial compensation to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, as well as to have financed terrorist organizations more generally), as well as a larger, more existential threat to Israel as a state. He notes that before the war Saddam was ever-so-slowly wiggling his way out of the international sanctions regime that had left Iraq isolated and crippled its military base. Baram posits that an re-invigorated Ba’athist regime in Iraq could have posed a strategic threat through a re-constituted WMD program or through providing front-line states with an arms reserve in the event of large-scale hostilities (Iraq proved instrumental in replenishing the Syrian army during the Yom Kippur war). Baram also argues that the American invasion was a key factor in intimidating the Libyan government into giving up its nuclear program and beginning to normalize relations with the international community.

His points are intriguing. No doubt many of the American war planners who dreamt up the current Mesopotamian adventure had some of them in mind. Still, Mr. Baram’s arguments would be far more credible in the context of an American victory. If Saddam’s Iraq had been replaced by even a rough approximation of the liberal democratic utopian paradise that Douglas Feith et al. envisioned, Israel would indeed be in a somewhat more favorable position, perhaps better able to convince its people to countenance a withdrawal from West Bank settlements (which, in addition to their religious significance, act as a bulwark against Iraqi tanks) and make a final peace deal.

The current situation, though, can only be viewed as problematic for Israel. Thomas Ricks’ excellent book Fiasco takes pains to demonstrate how very flimsy a paper tiger Saddam’s Iraq really was on the eve of the invasion. The nation’s economy was in ruins, its military was degraded, it was internationally isolated and it lacked the respect or support of even those Arab neighbors that in theory ought to have treated the country with some sympathy. Iraq was, though, under the reasonably firm control of Saddam’s administration. In short, it was precisely the kind of international actor that a country like Israel knows how to deal with.

If the sixty-year history of the Israeli state has any lessons to impart to us today, it is that malignant ideologies, given the proper breeding environment, can prove far more threatening to modern states’ security than the armies of other states. Israel spent its first thirty years of existence fighting wars with its neighbors in order to secure its position in the region, but after several defeats that ranged from bad to catastrophic, the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Syria basically gave up on the notion that their tanks could drive the Jewish state into the Mediterranean. It has been Lebanon and the Palestinian territories – the two areas intractably caught in the space between occupation, civil war, poverty and outright anarchy – that have provided Israel with a much more challenging security dilemma. One can sign a peace treaty with Sadat’s Egypt and achieve a tacit understanding with Assad’s Syria, but how does one establish peace with an ever-shifting constellation of terrorist networks, political parties and mass-movements, many of which often exist under the same banner?

This is the problem with which Israel is now presented. With Saddam’s fall, Iraq has ceased to be a decrepit lion only to become a pit of snakes. Like Afghanistan during the 1980s, but on a much larger scale, the conflict in Iraq provides the international Jihadist movement with recruits, training, organizational capacity and experience. The now-inevitable departure of the United States will likely leave a far more intractable, slippery and dangerous group of enemies in its wake than Saddam ever was, and Israel remains a prime target.

Those truly concerned with the long-term safety of Israel need to stop fighting the bogeymen of yesteryear. Aging Arab dictators like Saddam and Qadaffi long ago ceased to be Israel’s primary concern. Israel, like most status-quo powers in this day and age, has far more to fear from instability and chaos – even among the ranks of its enemies – than it does from state power. The anarchy in Iraq may indeed produce some winners, but with due respect to Mr. Baram, Israel will not be counted among them.


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