"Survivre, c’est vaincre" (R. Aron)

In his seminal book, Paix et guerres entre les nations, Raymond Aron chose  to take a particular stance vis à vis the Cold War: he stated that, in order to survive, the West had to win. By that, he did not mean achieving a clear victory in the traditional sense, that is by compelling the Soviet bloc to accept a peace that would end the global confrontation of his time. On the contrary, that sentence, widely discussed and debated at the time, meant that the West had to manage the threat. Put otherwise, he thought that winning could be equated to not losing or, more accurately, to preventing the adversary to achieve a decisive victory. Of course, during the Cold War, any confrontation would certainly have led to a global nuclear struggle, with no winner in sight.

That assessment remains true today, where western countries and the international liberal order they managed to build is put at risk by extremists movements threatening to either destabilize a given area or to wage a campaign of attacks against western or western-supported societies. Furthermore, the rise of the "rest" – while not a threat – is giving birth to a world in which we have to recognize the plurality of cultures, norms and values.

An important caution is needed before outlining my main argument. I was raised in a country mostly secure in the sense that no external state threatens it (to be fair, I remember having been scared by the risk of a nuclear armaggedon when I was a child). I’m aware of the fact that today’s threats are also a matter of perception. But I would not discard them, since the actors behind those threats are real, and have the capabilities to strike. But, make no mistakes: I’m not an alarmist and I despise those so-called "pundits" who raise the specter of catastrophic attacks in order to gain more audience. I despise them just as those who demonstrate constant blindness and indulgence toward the risk of real attacks.

Deterrence: Managing threats

In the April issue of Contemporary Security Policy, Thomas Rid wrote a highly scholarly and insightful piece about the way deterrence functions in Israel’s security strategy. Basically, deterrence is a way for Israel to manage "current security" threats, i.e. bomb attacks or rockets lobbed by the Hezbollah, Hamas or other non-state organizations. Thomas explains that Israel is experiencing for a long time a kind of ‘postmodern’ deterrence, relying on punishment and reprisals designed to enforce several norms. By making its action both more predictable and more unreasonable (or, more accurately, by shaping perceptions toward those conclusions), Israel is able to establish and enforce "rules of the game" which guarantee that threats to its security remain relatively low and manageable. Of course, that strategy is not free from contradictions. But the whole strategic realm is made of contradictions which strategists and policymakers  alike are tasked to balance.

The main problem of that particular approach is its interference with the mainstream western strategic culture which values decisive victory and a subsequent strategy of annihilation. There are many reasons which could explain that preference. I do not aim to explore here its many historical, societal, cultural and political roots. Suffice to say that it is deeply internalized and plays a great role in shaping strategic choices.

Nevertheless, the US is experiencing a shift toward a more coherent and comprehensive approach to deal with "extremists" threat. The very notion of deterrence itself has been used by strategists and policymakers since 9/11. In the war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, a strategy of attrition has been progressively adopted and implemented. In a sense, the so-called "shadow wars", their other political opportunities notwithstanding, are a first step toward the perception that threats can only be managed and not totally and decisively defeated.

Values?: 

In that context, it is important and critical to emphasize the discrepancy between values and actions in France’s strategy to counter "extremists" in the Sahel (and mostly  in Mali). Values are certainly a good point of departure to make political choices. Unfortunately, they often conceal the lack of political will or, worse, poor strategic thinking. Of course, I consider France to have a particular ability to pursue its own national interests on the international stage. But I’d like to underline the importance of the way we perceive threats and the way to manage them. In a sense, we are still locked to an old fashion view of deterrence as mainly a characteristic of the nuclear threat. We conceive the use of force in a sophisticated way, but we avoid to consider that coercion still plays a role in order to prevent further threat. Put otherwise: we consider that, if force is used, deterrence failed.

Of course, context and the way it is perceived matters: neither France nor the US have stakes higher than those raised by the Israeli government. But that doesn’t invalidate the opportunities set up by deterrence. On the contrary, given our perceived interests to remain an influential actor in West Africa, and given our means, such a strategy would be well suited.

 

In short, Aron remains relevant precisely because he underlines the importance to recognize that a realist alternative is not between winning and losing, but between winning and preventing the other to achieve its political goals (when those goals are opposed to ours). Maybe it is worth remembering that being aware of that is not cynicism. On the contrary, Aron never gave up his hope in a more peaceful world. But that world could not emerge either through the temptation of Empire or through complete abdication. That’s why deterrence, either through attrition, reprisal or interdiction has still a future. Aron once wrote that one of the main way to demonstrate power and to remain in peace is for an actor to honor his bill or to keep his promises.

Israel and Hamas: a strategic analysis

The recent military operations between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas at Gaza triggered a flow of comments and analysis. Of course, given the fact that that conflict is highly politicized even in western audiences, many skirmishes between pros- and cons- occured, sometimes leading to  blur the question even further.

Whereas many could argue about what they think is "objective reality" (is Hamas an existential threat to Israel? Is Israel a colonial state willing to oppress the Palestinian people?), I deem it more enlightening to focus on a more nuanced approach that could take into account actors’ logic and perceptions. In addition to be more accurate in dealing with the strategic and political issues, it is also more relevant as it is really analytic and neither descriptive nor normative. Furthermore, such an analysis would have to gain a better understanding of the way those logic act in a dialectical way toward each other.

Hamas:

After "Cast Lead", it is highly plausible that the Hamas leadership understood that is was in its own interest to avoid any provocation toward Israel. Since it has become the ruling party in Gaza after the 2006 elections, Hamas had to navigate a very narrow line. On the one hand, avoiding any reprisal from Israel, fearing that the latter would be able to devastate the strip and endanger Hamas’ capability to provide public services and to act as an effective government. That explains why the number of rockets fired on Israel decreased significantly. At the same time, Hamas struggled to prevent the rise of more extremist groups (like the Islamic Jihad) and even cracked down on Salafis. On the other hand, those groups openly challenged Hamas whose legitimacy relies on its status as the representative of the Palestinian people’s resistance to Israel.

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, the hypothesis would be that Hamas attempted to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in neighboring Egypt. In addition, the demise of ruling powers in that very area meant that it became a path for funneling weapons and cash to Gazan Salafis. Thus, they were able to strike Israel and put Hamas in front of an alternative: relying on coercion in order to suppress the rising and competing Salafis groups (but with the risk of losing its credibility as a "resistance movement"), or tolerating the attacks in the hope that Israel would not retaliate (but with the risk of being held accountable by the latter).

Thus when Israel zeroed in on Hamas, the rank and file in the organization pressured the leadership to give up restraint and to resume attacks. If president Morsi officially condemned and criticized Israel, his support to Hamas did not go further. At the end of the day, the changing internal and regional environment was perceived by Hamas leadership as an incentive to act. Internal contest and regional changes seemed to provide the organization with new opportunities to exploit in order to gain a better position in the confrontation with Israel. The goal was not to break the siege of Gaza, since in many ways that siege is useful for the organization’s political aims and financial interests. But it was certainly to force regional actors to act in order to demonstrate to the Israeli leadership that it would not be able to break Hamas’ rule on Gaza.

Israel

To some political elites, Hamas’ political goals pose an existential threat. In addition, if the size of Gaza makes it vulnerable, that is also true for Israel, whose territory can be hit by rockets launched from the coastal strip.

Facing such a threat, strategic calculus coupled with strategic culture led to a strategy of attrition. That strategy aimed to further pressure Hamas as well as more radical groups in order to disrupt those groups’ capabilities to hit Israel with medium-to-short range missiles. At the same time, that strategy was coupled with an information campaign designed to frame the narrative of the conflict for both domestic and international audiences. Showing its willingness and its determination to act, Netenyahu’s government proved able to manage the threat posed by Hamas. Lastly, even if that system is not totally perfect, the Iron Dome deflected the threats posed by rockets and missiles on the Israeli population.

There’s an important point here: that strategy is not aimed to win "decisively’ against the Palestinian organization. That is nearly impossible, since there’s only two courses of action that could lead to that outcome: either Israel would prove capable to cut Hamas’ support among the Gazans (which would necessitate an "hearts and minds" campaign directed toward the Palestinians , which doesn’t seem possible given the growing gap and cleavage between the IDF and the population and which is also not deemed desirable nor achievable by the Israeli government), or Israel would decide to cut a deal with the organization (which is highly improbable given the fact that the latter’s legitimacy relies on its rejection of any long-term deal with Israel). Put otherwise: there’s little hope for Israel to achieve any decisive political objective against  Hamas, or at least this is the main perception.

In short, Israel’s strategy consists in dealing with Hamas thus opening the question of what to do on the long run. There’s a lesson to draw from that short (and sometimes questionable) analysis. The alternative in war is not necessarily between winning and losing. Sometimes, it is more reasonable and more rational to deal with a threat or with an adversary by preventing him to reach his political objectives. Attrition is particularly well suited for that kind of strategic attitude. It can either lead to the adversary’s exhaustion (or isolation) or to its complete annihilation. More probably, it is able to maintain a high level of pressure against him, thus preventing him to hit and to harm. It is also truer when combined with deterrence, both by reprisals and by interdiction. Of course, that cannot replace a long-term reflection on how to put an end to the conflict. In that particular case, and given the role played by mutual perceptions, it is unlikely to see that outcome before minds are able to change in a deep way.

Stéphane Taillat

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