In the wake of UN Security Council resolution 1402, which demanded Israeli withdrawal, US President George W Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull the Israeli army from recently occupied Palestinian territories — immediately. When Sharon paid no heed, US Secretary of State Colin Powell acted — not to change the situation on the ground, but to change the administration’s rhetoric. He switched from demanding Israeli withdrawal to merely offering to negotiate such a withdrawal with President Arafat on Sharon’s behalf. In so doing, Powell diminished his chances for manoeuvre and ensured his mission’s utter failure from the very beginning.
For those of us in the rest of the world, Israel’s war in the territories seems to be putting an international damp on America’s war on terrorism. Not so in Washington.
Israel’s failure to finish its war in Palestine in a clean and sterile fashion, leading instead to hundreds more dead and thousands injured, has forced the Bush administration back to the region to calm mounting European, Arab and international pressure. But after receiving this international quartet’s support for his mission, Powell did anything but enforce the planned “immediate withdrawal” from recently occupied territories, let alone from previously occupied ones.
Israel, America’s junior ally, said no to Powell’s demands. Israel has, however, answered in the affirmative to Rumsfeld. The US Defence Secretary’s alternative rhetoric, of “fighting terrorism,” was heeded enthusiastically by Sharon.
Since 11 September, Washington’s diplomacy has been defined by increasingly conservative politics and new regional strategy in the context of the war on terrorism and its “axes of evil.” Violations of Palestinian human rights do not figure high on such agenda, but these violations are causing a regional and international uproar that is affecting the wider American strategy in the region, especially regarding Iraq. So why is it that everyone seems concerned about Powell’s failure except the Bush administration itself?
The large degree of the Israelisation of America and the Americanisation of Israel in recent years — particularly since 11 September — went far beyond most observers’ expectations. As the two countries’ cultural affinity and military alliance converged to new strategic cult, the nightmare scenario is unravelling as the re-invasion of Palestine.
American diplomacy is defined by local politics and strategic goals. Successful Israeli lobby pressure on the administration through both houses of Congress has helped paralyse American mediation. The alliance between the fundamentalist (and at times Christian) Right and the hawkish Zionist trend has dominated Washington’s politics since 11 September. Following the latest round of visits by the leaders of all these propaganda power houses in Washington to the White House, Bush’s spokesman went so far as to declare Sharon as a man of peace! (Even in Israel itself, not even hawkish Israelis would go as far as associating Sharon directly with peace.)
More importantly, Secretary Rumsfeld and his powerful companions at the Pentagon and in the National Security Council, including Condaleezza Rice, do not care for diplomacy in the Middle East or even in the context of their own “war on terrorism.” They see Sharon’s war in the West Bank, dirty as it is, as a continuation of their own war on terrorism. The White House would like to see tranquillity in the eastern Mediterranean region, preferably by Israeli force or, if necessary, by American diplomacy. Note: they seek tranquillity, not peace or justice. A mere long term cease-fire is satisfactory for both Sharon and Washington for the time being.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is keeping its eyes on Iraq and on finishing up the last touches on a new doctrine that will deal with all new threats facing America in the new century. This last point has been the focus of American policy in the region and around the world.
Before 11 September, the Pentagon had already defined America’s new enemy as “asymmetrical.” It was seen as mobile, trans-national, or sub-national. But now that the curtains have closed on the 20th century and its Cold-hot wars, a whole new era of asymmetric conflicts has begun in New York/Afghanistan and Israel/ Palestine, according to US military experts.
The last symmetrical war took place against the Iraqi army in Kuwait and Iraq. Today, regardless of the vast differences between the Taliban and Al-Qa’eda in Afghanistan and the PLO and Hamas in Palestine, the new generation of military experts in the United States are watching the convergence between the US and Israel military outlooks and doctrines in confronting their enemies. In the media both are referred to as the “war against terrorism,” and in the Pentagon and military establishment both are part of the “era of asymmetric conflicts.” So decision-makers in Washington are not making any distinction between the acts and the actors.
The asymmetric war scenario is one that certain American strategists have warned against in the last decade. When it came, it hit where it hurt most, the pride of America’s might, the Pentagon and Wall Street. Now, as Washington tries to adapt to an evolving, globalised world, it has also been introducing a revolution in military affairs (RMA).
There were two distinct concepts in asymmetric conflict theory. The first was fourth generation warfare, stateless or asymmetric, to be fought by an opponent who might have a non-nation-state base, such as an ideology or religion. In February 2001, standing before a Senate committee on world threats, CIA director George Tenet said what struck him most forcefully was the accelerating pace of change in so many arenas that affect US national interests. To the US, asymmetry means Osama Bin Laden and other international terrorists, Mafiosi and drug dealers. But the idea also covers other non- state actors like those the US has already encountered in Somalia, Kosovo, Colombia and Lebanon in 1983, when a bomb killed 239 US Marines.
Those analysts who think the future will be asymmetrical propose a rethink of the usefulness of billion-dollar fighter planes and advanced frigates if two men and a boat could kill 17 men and damage the USS Cole ( as happened on 12 October 2000 in Aden).
The second concept has been the anti- missile defence shield, or “son of Star Wars,” to protect America from incoming ballistic missiles carrying chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, with Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has concentrated its efforts on this project — which, of course, has the added merit of subsidising the military- industrial complex. There was international condemnation of this return to policies of proliferation, so Bush explained that his shield was not intended against other nuclear powers, but against rogue states or, worse, groups capable of launching missiles against American soil or interests abroad.
Asymmetry must be distinguished from di-symmetry, which means a quantitative difference in firepower and force, a strong state against a weak one (such as the US against Iraq). The Pentagon says their mighty response is justified because the new enemies don’t fight fair; their strategy, based in a globalised world, uses all possible sophisticated modern means: communication, transportation, information, psychological terror, international media and the Internet.
If you put together all the characteristics that the American strategists attribute to the new model asymmetric enemy, they really add up to a profile of Osama Bin Laden — who is, paradoxically, an ex-ally of theirs. If he didn’t exist, of course, it would be necessary to invent him. As we all now know, he was groomed by the CIA in the 1980s, only to turn against his creators after the Gulf war.
What about the rogue or failed states? The US intervention in Somalia taught the US a hard lesson. When, in October 1993, Hussein Adeed humiliated the US, killing 17 American soldiers, the Clinton administration became convinced that it could not manage, let alone win, a war against militias not accountable to the conventions of a state.
Operation Just Cause in Panama in December 1989 was also an asymmetric war, even though it was the largest American operation since Vietnam. The same methods used by America around the convent where Noriega took refuge in order to force him to surrender are being used, as I write these words, in Bethlehem against Palestinians who took refuge in the Church of the Nativity.
Washington’s new apparent target is non other than Saddam Hussein. The US PR machine is learning a lot from Arab reaction to what’s happening in Palestine today in preparation for conducting its war to topple Saddam. If a new chaos emerged in Baghdad, the war around Ramallah and other Palestinian cities could also be a good information gathering ground for how to contain people or opposition in Iraq.
Learning from Israeli strategies against a “new” enemy has centred on the need for a new type of precision weaponry designed for maximum deadliness. Intelligence services must be reinforced with software reconnaissance and satellite spies, and also human spies.
Police work, including racial profiling, is recommended. The strategists want to spy on potential sources of support for the new enemy, including NGOs and charities, expatriate communities and Internet sites. (A US senator complained recently that the CIA was replacing the State Department in diplomacy). Today, Israel is teaching America new tactics to deal with these
threats. Itself, it is using them against a people under military occupation.
The US has also been working with Israel for a long time on Research and Development (R&D) projects including the Arrow anti-missile missile. Israel’s fighting style, especially in the West Bank and Gaza, is of special interest to US experts, who detect asymmetry in Israel’s wars.
Under the headline “How to Fight an Asymmetric War,” General Wesley Clark, commander of NATO’s forces in Kosovo, explained to Time magazine on 23 October 2000, only few days after the present Intifada broke out, that the Palestinians inside Israel (he had obviously not realised that the West Bank and Gaza are not in Israel) had learned how to resist Israel’s non-lethal force. It was a tactic aimed at exploiting world sensitivities and forcing Israeli security forces to overreact.
“Occasionally non-lethal force was supplemented with armed men among the rock throwers or terror bombings. Responding with fighter planes, tanks and artillery was impossible; responding with troops on the ground risked casualties. No society is more reluctant than Israel to accept losses, so the country developed new equipment, forces and tactics. To secure its borders, Israel deployed more heavily armoured tanks and troop-carrying vehicles and procured Apache helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and very long- range optics. To protect itself internally, Israel issued its infantrymen with plastic bullets and riot-control gear. Special security forces were organised to help relieve the conventional Israeli units of responsibility for keeping order,” said Clark.
Clark’s admiration for Israel’s skills is deeply worrying: this policy has led to perhaps 2000 Palestinian dead, and tens of thousands injured. And in the absence of an Israeli political or diplomatic option, other than Sharon’s stalling for time like his mentor Yitzak Shamir, Israel’s excessive use of force has not improved its security situation.
Anthony Cordesman, a leading defence analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that Israel was forcing the Palestinian Authority to suppress Palestinians and curb democratic freedoms to attain stability. When the Intifada continued, he said, the Palestinians
had two options: “peace with violence” or war. Cordesman described a situation in which Israel would do the dirty work both for the PA and against it.
That is also asymmetric warfare. It means more social control, more assassinations and crippling of the economy. That’s what happened in the last several weeks and months in Jenin as well as in Bethlehem and other towns and camps.
Listening to President Bush and Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, the US strategy might be heading towards Israeli-style asymmetric warfare, even though it failed in Palestine. This choice would be nothing short of a catastrophe.
The world’s grey areas created by war, globalisation and impoverishment, are now seen as danger zones. Public institutions and development and democracy are more necessary in grey areas than are military interventions. Like in Palestine, independence and freedom from military occupation through political negotiations are the best — and perhaps the only — way out.
The new asymmetric enemy cannot be beaten by force, even less by technology, without a political project. In Palestine, the newly designated enemy is the Palestinian people with all their political organisations and most of their NGOs. In other words, Israel’s new enemy is Palestinian civil society and its social and economic infrastructure. If this is the new conflict and the style of the new war, everybody must run for shelter. This is the new “permanent war” of the 21st century and no one is safe.
Marwan Bishara is a journalist and author.