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The Cult of the Offensive

By Ivan Eland
August 24, 2006

Editor's Note: U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appear to be in denial about the strategic disasters they have encountered in Iraq and Lebanon, respectively. Oddly, both leaders blundered into their bloody reversals using remarkably similar war plans that relied heavily on air power and ignored age-old lessons about counterinsurgency warfare.

In this guest essay, the Independent Institute's Ivan Eland examines the lessons that these failures hold for the future:

Although last weekend’s Israeli commando raid into Lebanon was billed by the Israeli government as an effort to prevent the rearming of Hezbollah, many suspect it was designed to grab a high-level Hezbollah leader to exchange for the Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah.

Why then, wasn’t this type of raid Israel’s initial response to the soldiers’ capture, rather than the leveling of southern Lebanon and the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians?

Clearly, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert is using the recent commando raid as a desperate attempt to salvage something from his disastrous offensive into Lebanon. Unfortunately, the unsuccessful raid, coupled with the reluctance of European nations to send their forces into southern Lebanon as peacekeepers, threatens to collapse the fragile ceasefire there.

Israel suffers from the cult of the offensive, which also afflicts the U.S. military. Believing that grabbing the initiative and taking the fight to the enemy wins wars, both of these militaries have stumbled into the tar pit of fighting wars that only guerrillas could love.

Both Israel and the U.S. militaries should have known the potency of defensive guerrilla warfare tactics from their prior experiences in Lebanon and Vietnam. But both were arrogant in thinking that their forces should not “slum” by training to fight against such ragtag enemies—even though it was fairly clear that politicians with no military training would be oblivious to the internal contradictions of counterinsurgency warfare and would once again order them to undertake it.

The esteemed Israeli military has always been expected to wipe the floor with its Arab enemies. Yet the only way Israel could have won the fight in Lebanon was to completely exterminate Hezbollah, something that was unlikely to happen, given the Israeli army’s reluctance to have another quagmire on the ground—as it did during its 18-year occupation of Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. This occupation was Israel’s Vietnam, and Israelis, much like Americans, have become casualty averse.

Instead, to reduce casualties in the current conflict, the Israeli military decided to degrade Hezbollah’s strength using only air power and a minimal army presence on the ground. But, just like the American experience in Iraq, to fight guerillas, one needs sufficient forces on the ground that can be more selective than air firepower in distinguishing between insurgents and civilians.

In counterinsurgency warfare, killing large numbers of civilians turns the all-important popular opinion in the target country away from the occupiers toward the guerillas. But both the Israeli and U.S. militaries have used massive firepower because it holds down their casualties and thus maintains support longer at home for the foreign adventure.

So adventure-seeking government officials are caught in the unenviable trade-off of alienating the target country’s population or their own at home, the two key groups to win support from during a counterinsurgency war.

Although foreign policy elites detest casualty aversion in democracies, it is actually a good thing—or would be if overly adventurous political officials would see this inherent, abysmal trade-off in fighting against guerillas and avoid it.

Guerilla tactics are the most successful type of warfare in human history, and the aforementioned contradiction is one of the reasons why. The other is that the guerillas are on the defensive and are usually fighting on their own terrain, which they know far better than the occupying power. They also have a better intelligence network on their home soil than does the occupier, who probably has a deficiency in speakers of the native language. Such has been the case in both Lebanon and Iraq.

In the future, both Israeli and U.S. politicians should worry about defending their own countries rather than going on foreign adventures that make the security of their citizens at home ever more tenuous.

Just as Americans have been made less secure by all the new jihadists created around the world by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, citizens of northern Israel faced the needless threat of destruction by Hezbollah rockets that their own government helped generate.

Instead of conducting belated raids to salvage something—anything—from their calamitous Lebanon offensive and rekindle the fighting, the Israeli government should let sleeping dogs lie and learn something from its defeat in Lebanon.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.


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