In the Arena

Kristol Blue Extrapolation

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Leave it to Bill Kristol to take the situation in Gaza–a necessary corrective action on Israel’s part, I believe (with a few caveats)–and transform it into a call for war with Iran. But here he is, in today’s Times:

The huge challenge for the Obama administration is going to be Iran. If Israel had yielded to Hamas and refrained from using force to stop terror attacks, it would have been a victory for Iran. If Israel were now to withdraw under pressure without accomplishing the objectives of severely weakening Hamas and preventing the reconstitution of a terror-exporting state in Gaza, it would be a triumph for Iran. In either case, the Iranian regime would be emboldened, and less susceptible to the pressure from the Obama administration to stop its nuclear program.

But a defeat of Hamas in Gaza — following on the heels of our success in Iraq — would be a real setback for Iran. It would make it easier to assemble regional and international coalitions to pressure Iran. It might positively affect the Iranian elections in June. It might make the Iranian regime more amenable to dealing.

With respect to Iran, Obama may well face — as the Israeli government did with Hamas — a moment when the use of force seems to be the only responsible option.

Kristol is doing several dreadful things here. First, he is defining Israel’s operation in the starkest possible terms–victory or defeat–without defining either. To my mind, a clear-cut Israeli victory would be the end of rocket attacks from Gaza (as was accomplished on Israel’s northern border, a little-noticed victory in the 2006 war with Hezbollah) and the cessation on weapons-smuggling through the tunnels on Gaza’s border with Egypt. It will not be the elimination of Hamas or the end of Hamas rule in Gaza. That’s not going to happen. And so the clearest path to an Israeli victory is a negotiated cease fire of the sort offered by France and rejected by Israel last week–which was Israel’s first major mistake in what has been a well-planned campaign.

The more I think about it, the ground assault has the potential to be a second big mistake. It has made a symbolic defeat more possible, if still unlikely. If the IDF gets hung up in alley-fighting in Gaza City, with significant casualties–that will be seen as a defeat. If Hamas guerrilllas can kidnap or use suicide bombers to attack the IDF positions outside Gaza, that will also be seen as an indication of Israeli vulnerability. The problem is that the expectations for Hamas–which already has had its military capability smashed decisively, if truth be told–are so low. Any symbolic victory has disproportionate effect.

I’m not sure that Kristol consciously understands that by raising the stakes–by seeking a comprehensive World War II style Israeli victory, by positing Iran as the real enemy–he is creating a standard that makes victory for Israel impossible… and makes Iran seem a more potent foe. Then again, Kristol is a cagey guy. He benefits from the delusion of Iranian potency. The more menacing and evil Iran seems, the stronger the arguments for the war that Kristol and many other Jewish neoconservatives really want: a U.S. attack on Iran to make the world safe for Israel (as if such a war could or would accomplish that). He comes very close to endorsing that in his last paragraph.

But it’s not going to happen. The Iranians are likely to find themselves in a different world when Obama becomes President–a world in which the U.S. is not seen as a unilateral aggressor, a world that will be more easy to unite against Iran’s nuclear program (especially if a rapprochment with Russia can be accomplished–which is not impossible, if Obama abandons the fantasy of an anti-ballistic missile system in return for Russian cooperation on Iran), a world where the U.S. no longer provides the mullahs with an overseas satan to divert attention from their disastrous domestic failures.

In the end, Kristol’s saber-rattling is the death rattle of a simplistic, extremist ideology that has caused the U.S. great damage. A more sensible, centrist approach to international affairs won’t have the bang or melodrama of military kinetics. It will take time to work, if it works. But it also won’t have the bloodshed and torture that have stained our nation’s history these past eight years.