Arthur S. Obermayer is a member of the executive committee of Meretz USA.
For over a half century, the U.S. has not been involved in a war with clearly demarcated battle lines. In World War II and the Korean War, we had advancing and retreating armies, and taking ground was a measure of achieving victory. Since then, victory has been more elusive. Other considerations have been involved in winning or losing. We can expect that to continue through the 21st century.
Throughout the ages, defenders have eventually learned how to counter new offensive weapons. Then the attackers developed better weapons which are effective until appropriate defensive measures are found. Furthermore, large hide-bound military organizations take longer to learn and adapt than smaller, more nimble groups.
Today, the U.S. has by far the strongest and most sophisticated military might in the world. Our arsenals range from laser-guided missiles to nuclear weapons. No one in the world can defeat us on the battlefield, and they know it. Within the Middle East our ally, Israel, also has overwhelming military strength.
In order to counter this overwhelming superiority of the U.S. and Israel, a new kind of response has evolved. It can be called terrorism, insurgency, guerilla or asymmetric warfare, but under any name, it represents the most effective reaction to an army that is unbeatable on the battlefield. Individuals with limited resources can wreck havoc and communicate with each other by mobile phone and internet. Terrorists do not wear uniforms and are indistinguishable from civilians until they act. They work in the same locations and live in the same buildings as innocent residents. American and Israeli bombs and missiles, even the most sophisticated ones, cannot distinguish friend from foe. We are unable to target our weapons based on the state of mind of individuals. We end up destroying large amounts of property and infrastructure and killing many innocent inhabitants in attempts, too often unsuccessful, to destroy the enemy terrorists.
We are disturbed and frustrated by the tactics they use, but they are wiser than we are prepared to admit. Their goal is not only to protect themselves, but also to win the hearts and minds of people. Collective punishment for the acts of a few creates fear and hatred among the innocent victims. When their way of life is destroyed and friends and family killed, they view the remote and callous Americans and Israelis as causing wanton devastation. New enemies are created as the rest of the world sees it through TV. Many people then align with the terrorists with whom they are culturally connected in fighting the common enemy.
Recent history has repeatedly demonstrated this failure. Does anyone think that there are not now more Al Qaeda supporters than there were right after 9/11? One of Osama Bin Laden’s goals was to encourage a military response from us that would generate more support for his organization. The past growth of the military components of Hamas and Hezbollah resulted from the rage and hatred by civilians who could see no other way of resisting what they consider Israeli aggression. Lebanese support for Hezbollah has more than tripled since Israel tried to eliminate it. We had the military power to conquer Iraq, but at what cost to them? Today their lives have become extremely insecure and chaotic. Neither have our actions won the hearts and minds of other people throughout the world, especially among the one billion Muslims.
There are no quick fixes, but there are opportunities missed. For example, the U.S. used to have a very positive image in the world. Under the Marshall Plan after World War II, we provided aid and support to help reconstruct a devastated Europe and generated friendship and respect from the people of Europe and their governments. When Europe became self-sufficient, we provided food, health care, economic aid and technical support to third world countries through organizations like the Peace Corps. Foreign aid was a significant component of our national budget until 1982, when our government decided to discontinue almost all of it, except for Israel and Egypt. Now, our foreign aid props up friendly governments and supports U.S. contractors who compete with indigenous workers. It is not seen by the people in need. On the other hand, Hamas and Hezbollah have gained strength by providing impoverished Arab village residents with free essential social services. Today, Iran, through Hezbollah, is providing major funding to reconstruct Lebanon, whereas the U.S. has committed very little.
Until we learn that 21st century warfare is for the hearts and minds of people, all of our victories on the battlefield will be illusionary.