November 21, 2012
The Commander in Chief's Lack of Military Awareness
Israelis should be pleased that President Obama offered Hamas no comfort in his press conference in Thailand. "There's no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. We are fully supportive of Israel's right to defend itself. Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory."
But Americans should be concerned that their commander in chief so profoundly misunderstands what soldiers do and why they do it. President Obama suggested a Hamas-Israel ceasefire in part to protect Israeli troops. "Its not just preferable for the people of Gaza; it's also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they are much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded."
The point of being a soldier is not not to be wounded. The point and the seriousness of a soldier's commitment are to be prepared to do battle, to be wounded -- in fact, to die to protect your citizens, your homeland, and your way of life. We, as Americans, have drifted away from the concept in recent years as we use the military less as a blunt instrument and more as an adjunct to political activity. President Obama called Afghanistan a war of necessity, sending tens of thousands of American men and women tens of thousands of miles on the grounds that they are protecting American citizens in Des Moines and Santa Barbara until the day he takes them out. The link between their presence and our security is tenuous.
The link between the Israel Defense Forces and the defense of the people of Israel is not tenuous.
Soldiers used to be on the "front lines" so that the civilian population could be safe "behind the lines"1. Israel's enemies have neither the ability nor the courage to fight the IDF, so they configured their Iranian assets to rain missiles across a large swath of territory that is home to more than one million civilians. The radius of most of the Hamas rockets superimposed on New York would cover all of Superstorm Sandy-land, as well as north and west to Yonkers and White Plaines, NY and Elizabeth and the Oranges, NJ. This is not a single hurricane to flee, survive, and dig out of, but rather ongoing random fire, with fifteen seconds to find shelter -- and shelter your children or your elderly mother -- when the siren calls. Not for 24 hours, but for days and weeks and months. The Red Cross and Bruce Springsteen don't come in when it's over -- because it isn't over. Ever.
Any ceasefire that leaves in place the declaration of war by Hamas against the people of Israel just gives Hamas time to regroup, rearm, and retrain for the next time.
A word here about President Obama's belief that preventing an IDF ground incursion would be "preferable for the people of Gaza." What would be preferable for the people of Gaza is a government that doesn't use them as hostages and human shields. Hamas ensures not only that Israelis live on the battlefield, but that their own people do as well. See Anderson Cooper's Twitter feed for a picture of Hamas rockets being launched from the middle of a city neighborhood.
Hamas claims that it has nowhere else from which to launch. It does -- I've driven through it -- but to locate missile launchers away from the population would ensure that a) the Israel Air Force could get a good shot at them and b) there would be no civilian casualties to blame on Israel. Putting military assets in the middle of civilians to protect the military from retaliation is the definition of using human shields. It is the definition of a war crime.
So, to the president's point, Israel does have a right to defend itself from rockets from Gaza and doesn't need his permission, although it is very nice to have his support. He no doubt also supports Israel's decision to narrowly target Hamas leadership, much as the U.S. targets al-Qaeda. But Israel has a better picture than the president does of the total military problem and the moral requirements of both offense and defense. The president's proposal to protect Israeli troops and Gaza civilians would protect Hamas terrorists and fail to protect Israeli civilians -- who would know quiet only until Hamas imports more and better weapons from Iran through the Sinai, whether with or without Egyptian acquiescence.
An IDF ground incursion might actually be less damaging for the people of Gaza than air strikes at greater risk to the ground soldier -- something the American Commander in Chief may not have calculated, but which, no doubt, the IDF has. Israel is, as the president acknowledges, the aggrieved party. When the IDF goes to war -- by air and, if necessary, on the ground -- to stop the criminal targeting of civilians by Hamas, Israel is entitled to determine the strategy and the time and terms of any ceasing of fire.
There is nothing wrong with being a president of the United States without military experience -- on the other hand, we have elected twelve generals2 as president, and most of our presidents until recently did spend time as soldiers. But it is a mistake to be commander in chief without understanding the fundamental military equation that pits terrorists against a civilian population (its own and that of its enemy) and the requirement of a moral army to destroy the terrorists and free the people. On both sides.
Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.
1 An Israeli general told the story of his visit to Tel Aviv from the Suez Canal during the bitter 1970 Israel-Egypt War of Attrition. He said, "My wife and I sat in a café. I got SO angry watching people laugh and drink coffee while my soldiers were being bombarded on the Canal. Then I realized that my soldiers are on the Canal PRECISELY so the people can laugh and drink coffee in Tel Aviv."
2 Washington, Jackson, W. Harrison, Taylor, Pierce, A. Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, B. Harrison, and Eisenhower. Extra points if you got this right.