Friday, January 16, 2009

Questioning Israel's (And Tom Friedman's) Theory Of Success In Gaza

So a couple of days ago, I wrote a post thinking aloud about what Israel's goals could be in its war in Gaza. The following day, Tom Friedman wrote a column in the NYT wondering about the same thing, and referenced Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah:
Israel’s counterstrategy was to use its Air Force to pummel Hezbollah and, while not directly targeting the Lebanese civilians with whom Hezbollah was intertwined, to inflict substantial property damage and collateral casualties on Lebanon at large. It was not pretty, but it was logical. Israel basically said that when dealing with a nonstate actor, Hezbollah, nested among civilians, the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians — the families and employers of the militants — to restrain Hezbollah in the future.

Israel’s military was not focused on the morning after the war in Lebanon — when Hezbollah declared victory and the Israeli press declared defeat. It was focused on the morning after the morning after, when all the real business happens in the Middle East. That’s when Lebanese civilians, in anguish, said to Hezbollah: “What were you thinking? Look what destruction you have visited on your own community! For what? For whom?”

Friedman then goes on to argue for and countenance a military strategy that explicitly targets Gazan civilians. I will leave the question of the morality of this argument to people like Glenn Greenwald and Matthew Yglesias. What I want to tackle instead is the intellectual and strategic basis of the argument: namely, that targeting civilians works in war.

The argument goes thusly: we want you to change your behavior. We will therefore punish your civilians in the hope that (a) the high punishment costs either drive you to change your behavior or (b) that your civilians turn on you for supporting policies that lead to us punishing them, or (c) both of the above.

The strategy above can be broadly construed as"punishment" and has been employed by states both against other great powers (the U.S. against Japan in World War II) and non-state actors (the Soviet Union against the mujahideen in the 1980s). Another possible strategy in war is "denial" - a strategy which changes the opposition's calculations of victory on the battlefield by making them realize that they cannot win. The distinction, I hope, is clear: punishment is aimed primarily at civilians, denial primarily at military forces.

The question is: which is more efficacious in war? As it turns out, denial is significantly more useful in making a state or group accepting that it has lost. I will quote Robert Pape - a professor here at U of C - who wrote a book (some would say, the book) on denial and punishment by studying thirty three strategic bombing campaigns from 1917 to 1991. This is his central argument on the basis of the evidence:
The evidence shows that it is the threat of military failure, which I call denial, and not threats to civilians, which we may call punishment, which provides the critical leverage in conventional coercion...governments are often willing to countenance considerable civilian punishment to achieve important territorial aims. Consequently, coercion based on punishing civilians rarely succeeds.

The key to success in conventional coercion is not punishment but denial, that is, the ability to thwart the target state's military strategy for controlling the objectives in the dispute. To succeed, the coercer must undermine the target state's confidence in its own military strategy.

So, to conclude: Tom Friedman does not know what he is talking about. When Israel bombs the hell out of Lebanon or Gaza, Lebanese and Gazans do not blame Hezbollah and Hamas for the destruction that is wrought. They blame Israel. Any strategy premised on Tom Friedmanesque ideas about civilian punishment and war is doomed to fail.

UPDATE: Shimon Peres echoes the Friedman logic:
Israel's aim, he said, was to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel.


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. Thanks for posting such a terrific analysis.

AKS said...

I googled: Thomas Friedman idiot; and it's made my day. Top picks:

Thomas Friedman's Moustache is Curved by Daniel Drezner (

The Repugnance of Friedman by Matthew Beck

Thomas Friedman Is A Doo-Doo Face by Brown Sludge

Thomas Friedman: Barstool Blowhard by Tony Parson (

Ray Lightning said...

Friedman article is filled with Orwellian speak.

What is the goal? Is it the education of Hamas or the eradication of Hamas? I hope that it’s the education of Hamas.

So from now on, terrorizing civilian population can be termed as "education" of a country.

No wonder Palastenians are p*$$ed off !

Anonymous said...

We seem to have forgotten a very significant fact that Mr. Thomas Friedman is a Jew and the New York Times ( newspaper is owned by Jews). We all know that how much American Jews strongly support Israel.In fact , they undergo one year military training to serve Israel during wars.So, it is perfectly natural to see Friedman praising the Israeli attack on Gaza and advocating strategy of inflicting pain on Palestinian civilians in order to change their behavior and thinking.Therefore, it is not surprising to see Shimon Peres, President of Israel echoing Friedman's strategy of educating Gaza civilians that Israel's aim, is to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel in a interview with Andrew Sullivan. All this fury against Friedman's new definition of terrorism is unwarranted as he was just voicing support for his community.

MYK said...

I really don't see why Friedman's view is being dismissed as outright ludicrous. While I don't agree with it, I think some of the specific criticism leveled at him in this post and the comments section is really unjustified.

Its not too far-fetched to believe that SOME civilians might start to feel that the provocateurs in their midst are to blame for the attacks or incursions by those they've taunted in the past (or continue to do so).

Take the NWFP example (and i admit, this is based on limited, FIRST HAND accounts). I spoke to three drivers hailing from different villages in the NWFP area. In one guy's case, the village had been reduced to rubble by an airstrike and the other two also complained about how their villages were constantly subjected to attacks by Pakistani or foreign (or what they believed to be as foreign) troops.

All three villagers were really bitter about the Taliban/Afghan element in their villages and acknowledged the fact that this probably wouldnt have happened if the intelligence didnt suspect terrorists were hiding amongst the civilian population. In one case, a villager was convinced that his hometown harbored no such terrorist elements but could understand why, in the present climate, his home still had to suffer such a violation.

I use the term "understand" cautiously. They werent in anyway cool with what was going on. They just werent as pissed at the US or the Pakistan government as you might think. Make no bones about it, they despise the US. BUT, at least these guys, were more resentful towards these fucking Afghanis who just bring their baggage with them into their towns and end up screwing up things royally for the locals.

So I don't think Friedman is completely off in his hypothesis. Im sure in many (if not most) cases, civilians dont blame Hamas or Hezbollah for Israeli air strikes. They blame Israel. But i think its not too out there for Friedman to submit that in certain instances, the civilians might just resent such organizations. Especially in those areas where the locals aren't as sympathetic to the cause of such organizations.

Also, the end of the post really bothered me. Basically, it was: "Robert Pape said this. Friedman said the opposite of this. Therefore Friedman is wrong." Come ON.

Ahsan said...


I take your point to be that there can be exceptions to the rule, which I agree with.

As far as Pape vs. Friedman goes, I think you misunderstood. I am not saying you should agree with Pape because he is Pape and disagree with Friedman because he is Friedman. I am saying you should agree with Pape because he actually did research on this question, investigated 33 different strategic air campaigns that targeted civilians spread over almost a century, and found on the basis of evidence that they don't work. Friedman, on the other hand, went with his oversized gut. I know which I have more confidence in.

Desi Italiana said...

"So, to conclude: Tom Friedman does not know what he is talking about."

When did he ever?

karachi khatmal said...

i think you are failing to contextualize this. for friedman, and most of the western world, hamas and the palestinians are a demonized, non-human breed of creatures that are equivalent to pests. they do not see the point in any sort of logical arguments or political solutions, because the ideas that the "pests" hold onto are completely beyond what they find acceptable.

i am not trying to be funny. i think the perfect parallel is to be found with the taliban. i am sure none of us who frequent this blog will ever want to see a pakistan bereft of girls schools, polio vaccinations and use of limb and ear chopping as crime deterrents. for us, the taliban are the same as hamas and the palestinians are for friedman, israel etc. you really can never see hamas/taliban adopting a stance we can find acceptable - they're just too fucking crazy.

if you don't agree with the analogy, consider why none of us will ever stand up to defend the taliban with the passion we have defended the palestinians.

friedman is an idiot for trying to rationalise his argument, but hey it makes sense to his readers, and thats what journalism's rules are - you can't really say the truth.

on a side note, younis khan is commenting on this blog!!!! who else could MYK be?

Ray Lightning said...

It is amusing that not one but two bloggers have pointed out the analogy between the Taliban and Hamas. Looking at the coin from the other side, the analogy is between Pakistan and Israel : two nation-states found on the basis of religious seperatism.

Israelis are doing everything they can to encourage Hamas and such fundamentalists in Palastine. All this bombing will only inflame the sentiments. Whatever mandate that Fatah had earlier in Palastenian politics is reduced even further today.

May be, Israel fears very much the rise of a secular and democratic nationalist movement in Palastine ?

And may be, Pakistan fears very much the rise of a secular and democratic nationalist movement in NWFP ?

That may explain the desire to forever look at Palastenians/Pashtuns as fundamentalist crazies who don't value civilization. The military leaders of Israel/Pakistan very conveniently use the words terrorist-Palastenian or Taliban-Pashtun interchangeably. When repeated million times, they get accepted in the subconscious of the world including the oppressed people themselves.

Sarah said...

"That’s when Lebanese civilians, in anguish, said to Hezbollah: “What were you thinking? Look what destruction you have visited on your own community! For what? For whom?”"

I should note that this is completely false. Maybe that's what certain members of the March 14 movement said--but many of them still attended the Hizb Allah victory rally. Most Lebanese thought that Israel responded in a completely incongruous way to Hizb Allah's actions, and blamed Israel (not Hizb Allah) for the destruction and emotional damage that they suffered.

While they may not agree with Hizb Allah's ideology, many Lebanese will still support the group's resistance to Israel. Israel basically proved to many Lebanese that it was still a threat, and that their owned armed forces couldn't stand up to it. It gave people who didn't have ties to Hizb Allah a reason to support it.

I'm pretty sure the same will happen in Gaza. It's not a hard equation.

Jon said...

I don't think denial can be applied to a group like Hamas in this context. They don't have military ambitions for Israel and they define victory as surviving when Israel attacks them. How do you deny that militarily?

Since punishment doesn't work and denial is not applicable the only other military option for Israel is occupation. In essence that's what they're doing now since they surround Gaza, control its imports and exports, and control key portions of their infrastructure and economy. They're just not doing it well.