Foreign Policy

The Strategy of Defeat – Lessons for Israel in Gaza

What happens when the alternatives fail? What happens when all the negotiations, sanctions and compromises fail to dissuade an aggressor? What happens when a nation is forced into war as a last resort? When is “victory” over an aggressor truly achieved? The answer can be found in an analysis of American strategic war doctrine in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The late David Halberstam, in his 1972 angry epic The Best and the Brightest detailed how, in 1961, President Kennedy and his cadre of social theorists including Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, George Ball and others ignored the historical lessons of war strategy and, in so doing, set the course for American military defeats that would plague the U.S. military for the next forty years. Transposing the American experience onto Israel holds some valuable lessons in its current conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

Historically, the term “total (or general) war” – examples of which include the American Civil War and World War II – was based on the assumption that there were only two options in existential conflicts – total victory or total defeat (hence the term “unconditional surrender”). For the victor, it meant the achievement of most or all its strategic objectives and the collapse of the enemy. For the defeated, it meant the end of its ability to wage war, the futility of continuing the conflict and, as in the case of the Nazis, the end of their dream of a thousand year Reich. Nazi Germany was not merely defeated, it was psychologically vanquished.

What distinguished the American Civil War and World War II experiences from other major American conflicts fought over the past 150 years (notably the Korean War, Vietnam and possibly Iraq in the post-U.S. era) was that both the Union Army during the American Civil War and the Allied Forces during World War II understood that for a decisive victory to be achieved over Germany, Japan and their allies, the enemy – not just its army or militias or its regime, but the society that supported them – had to recognize that they had been defeated and that continuing the war was futile.

FDR, Churchill and Generals Eisenhower and Patton – like Lincoln, Grant, Sherman and Sheridan before them – understood that if wars had to be fought, if blood and treasure had to be expended, if sacrifice had to be demanded of the nation (including setting the economy on a war footing, re-instituting the draft, selling war bonds, instituting food rationing, and bringing the nation with you by seeking a Congressional declaration of war), then the American people had the right to demand that wars be prosecuted to insure absolute victory so the issues over which they were being fought and for which they were being asked to sacrifice their children would never again have to be “revisited.”1

In the case of the Civil War, Sherman, put it rather bluntly: “We are not fighting armies, but a hostile people, and we must make young and old, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war…. I would make this war as severe as possible, and show no symptom of tiring until the South begs for mercy.”2 Sherman, by all accounts, was a decent man who hated war, but he understood that to end it, he not only had to crush the Confederate army, but the society in whose name and with whose support it fought. The South, he said, had to be convinced that a return to the status quo ante was impossible – that the dream of a Southern Confederacy based on slavery was gone. He understood that sometimes nations had to act inhumanely; that war was a dirty business, and he acknowledged that his “scorched earth” policy had inflicted unbearable pain and suffering on the Southern population. But he also understood that doing so was the only way to end the war decisively.

At the end of World War II, no Nazi official could stand in the ruins of Berlin in April 1945 and urge his fellow Germans to “stay the course” until a Nazi victory was assured. Nor, for that matter, could General Hideki Tojo of the Imperial Japanese Army convince his people that the destruction wrought by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 were just a “temporary setback”. It was clear to the German and Japanese peoples that the European and Japanese wars were over; that the dreams of a greater Japanese empire and a thousand-year Reich were gone, and that the humiliation of “unconditional surrender” – the ultimate acceptance of national defeat – was the only alternative to end the suffering.

In the final stages of World War II, the business of living in Germany and Japan had become so unbearable that what the German and Japanese people wanted more than anything else was for the war to end and for their daily lives to return to normal. As Herbert E. Meyer (former Reagan Administration Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and the man who predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union a full decade before it happened) wrote in late November 2005: “In the minds of their populations, no matter how terrifying the post-war future might prove to be, it had to be better than their present condition. While both nations honored their soldiers, they would no longer support them.”

All this changed in the post-World War II era. With the advent of nuclear weapons, warfare theorists came to believe that a total war between the two superpowers could lead to mutual annihilation. It was this deterrent concept, applied across the board, that led post-war American military strategists to modify the historical rules of war by resurrecting the seemingly more logical and humane concept of warfare that came to be known as “limited war.”

That concept assumed that our enemies would pursue their war objectives in much the same manner and according to the same rules of engagement that we pursue ours. It assumed that all war objectives are subject, at some point, to compromise. But strategists of “limited war” failed to consider the consequences of what would happen when we confront religiously-inspired enemies like jihadists who refuse to play by our “limited war” rules, who do not accept international treaties governing the rules of engagement or the treatment of prisoners, who use civilians as human shields, children as human grenades, “martyrdom” as a tactical weapon, come from an entirely different culture and value system, and seek nothing less than the destruction of our way of life.

The fallacy of conducting a “limited war” in an existential conflict surfaced during the Truman administration in its confrontation with communist North Korea. When Mao Zedong informed Joseph Stalin that he was ordering Chinese troops into Korea in October 1950, he was concerned that the U.S. would bomb China’s major cities and industrial centers and use its navy to assault China’s coastal regions. That is because, in the aftermath of World War II, the perception was that American military strategy was still based on “total war” against an enemy. But when the Chinese drove the UN army out of North Korea, Truman failed to escalate the conflict. Instead, he adopted the limited objective of fighting the war in South Korea rather than destroying the enemy in the north. As a result, American forces quickly became bogged down with no clear end to the war in sight.

When Eisenhower became President, he recognized that the North Koreans were committed to the conquest of the South. He therefore communicated to the North Koreans his intention to escalate the war by using nuclear weapons if they persisted in their aggressive objectives – and he meant it – and they knew it. Eisenhower was convinced that a limited, defensive war was useless against an ideological adversary committed to the conquest of South Korea. From his perspective and based on his experiences in World War II with the Nazis, he understood that the challenge of the North Korean Communists had to be met just as America had met the challenge of an expansionist Nazi Germany bent on conquest. Eisenhower believed that the only response to total war was total war – or at least the enemy’s realistic expectation of it. As a warrior, he opted for the historically-based doctrine of “massive retaliation” which promised an all-out war on the North Koreans if their aggression continued.

That all changed with the advent of the Kennedy administration. In 1961, Kennedy institutionalized the limited military war doctrine into what he termed “flexible response.” This doctrine assumed that an enemy would more or less conduct war according to our rules of engagement and would “get the message” if we gradually escalated the conflict in response to their aggression. Most often associated with the Harvard political scientist Thomas Schelling, the “flexible response” doctrine emphasized using military force as a “signal” to one’s opponent. The central idea was that both sides would limit the steps they took in order to avoid an escalation of a conflict. It assumed that an enemy’s war objectives were, at some point, subject to compromise. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (a proponent of Schelling’s theory) saw the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as validation of the new doctrine. Unfortunately, the attempt to use “flexible response” to shape U.S. policy and strategy in Vietnam proved counterproductive because the desire of the North Vietnamese communists to conquer South Vietnam was far greater than any ambitions the Soviets may have had in Cuba.

By introducing “flexible response”, both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson departed from the military doctrine that had led to a decisive victory in World War II – massive retaliation (or the expectation of it) – and adopted what amounted to a defensive posture in South Vietnam to counter the Communist threat from the North. As a result, five hundred thousand American troops were confined to a strategically defensive stance in South Vietnam with no serious thought of bringing down the Communist government of North Vietnam. Because of that defensive strategy (according to a 1995 Wall Street Journal interview with Bui Tin, a former colonel on the General Staff of the North Vietnamese Army), North Vietnamese leaders felt confident enough even after their tremendous losses during the Tet Offensive to drag out the war until America’s will to fight was broken by the American anti-war movement. The U.S. had replaced the historically-sound military strategy of massive retaliation in existential conflicts with a military strategy that was defensive and limited in nature and could not possibly have led to victory in Vietnam.

This same failed limited war strategy has dogged American strategic war doctrine ever since. During the Iranian embassy crisis, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini disclosed that he had no fear of America. “Our youth should be confident that America cannot do a damn thing,” Khomeini told his followers three days after the embassy takeover. “America is far too impotent to interfere in a military way here. If they could have interfered, they would have saved the Shah.” Referring to America as behaving like “a headless chicken”, Khomeini ordered that the slogan “Death to America” be inscribed in all official buildings and vehicles. The US flag was painted at the entrance of airports, railway stations, ministries, factories, schools, hotels and bazaars so that the faithful could trample it under their feet every day. Carter contented himself with imposing ineffectual diplomatic and economic sanctions that included an embargo on Iranian oil, a break in diplomatic relations and a rescue mission that ended in disaster. He rejected suggestions to invade Iran, topple the regime, or bomb Iran’s major military assets or its main government buildings or even capture its oil facilities. His dithering would result in the deaths of thousands of Americans in the coming decades.

President Clinton fared no better. He followed the “limited war” doctrine even as Americans were being harvested by terrorists from New York to Khobar to Dar-as-Salaam. He sent cruise missiles to blow up empty tents in the Afghan desert and pharmaceutical factories in the Sudan, signed agreements with dictators based on the belief that America would somehow be “safe”, hamstrung American intelligence services in the name of civil liberties and a supposed “peace dividend” arising from the fall of the Soviet Union, shrunk the American military in the name of economy, and chose to use the courts as his battleground, rather than engaging with the terrorists and taking the war to them and their sponsors.

This same failed defensive war doctrine reigns today in Iraq. Despite the rhetoric, U.S. military strategy is not geared to vanquishing its enemies (Iran and its terror surrogates in the Middle East) who are committed to the conquest of Iraq and the spread of radical Islamic dawa throughout the region. Iraqi terrorism is funded and supported by Iran which has engaged us in a conflict of global proportions, but unlike the time-tested strategy that led the Allies to victory in World War II, we have limited our war objectives to stabilizing, democratizing and reconstructing Iraq before we have vanquished those who are determined to see the American effort fail there.

During World War II, it would have been unthinkable to stop at the German border after the liberation of France and begin reconstruction, leaving Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in power. Had the U.S. done so, it is a fair bet that the Nazis would have sapped the strength and spirit of the Allies in France just as the Iranian mullahs are doing today in Iraq, and the Palestinians are seeking to do in Israel. In failing to recognize the necessity of vanquishing existential enemies first, the U.S. has guaranteed another defeat in Iraq after it departs and no amount of “surge” can or will alter Iraq’s future in the post-American era so long as Iran is controlled by the mullahs.

On October 4, 2007, tens of thousands of Iranians marched through the streets of Tehran chanting “Death to Israel” and “Death to United States” and demonstrations such as this are being echoed throughout the country. For nearly thirty years, the Iranian mullahs and their well-entrenched Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have literally been getting away with murder and have exported their revolution throughout the Middle East and the world on the backs of terrorists – and America has failed at every attempt to stop them. Now, the Iranians are on the verge of developing a nuclear shield under which they will export their global Islamic crusade. Problem is – most Americans still do not understand the mindset of this enemy. We tend to think it’s all rhetoric – that the Iranians couldn’t possibly mean all this nonsense about global caliphates, restoring Andalusia, Hidden Imams and creating the nuclear chaos necessary to bring on Armageddon – and that’s why we’re losing the war against them.

Quite simply, we believe what we see, while our Islamic adversaries (Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and al Qaeda in particular) see what they believe – and they believe that we are weak and they are invincible. And because Paradise is attractive to them, they are even more dangerous because while we value the sanctity of life; they value the “rewards” of Paradise and have no fear of death (as we know it). In fact, they welcome it. That makes them a formidable enemy. It also gives them a psychological and tactical advantage over us and they know it…which is why a confrontation is inevitable. The late Samuel Huntington was not far wrong when he referred to it as a “clash of civilizations.”

Ahmadinejad may be a psychopath, but he’s a psychopath with a vision. The U.S. has always assumed that it is the only nation with grand visions like peace, democratization, free enterprise and globalization. But Iran and its Palestinian and Lebanese Islamic surrogates have their own “grand vision” and the grandest of all tells them that both America and Israel will never be anything but enemies of their regime, culture and religion, and that victory over both is assured because it has been pre-ordained by Allah. Their vision is to humiliate the “Great Satan”, annihilate the “Little Satan” – Israel, and drive Western culture, values and influence from the Middle East.

For Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ishmail Haniyeh and Hassan Nasrallah, the dominance of the West is over and Islam is set to win the coming war. Since Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is done in the name of Islam and Allah, it is deemed inherently legitimate. As far as Ahmadinejad is concerned, refusing to allow Iran to pursue nuclear weapons is tantamount to an assault on God. There is nothing to discuss here because it is this grand vision that propels his jihad against us. In effect, every move Iran makes is designed to expel American influence from the region, and every time America and Israel are humiliated, attacked or forced to withdraw, concede or accept a ceasefire, that vision is reinforced.

In short, neither the Iranians nor their Palestinian and Lebanese proxies are interested in our vision for “a new Middle East.” They have their own. It is to defeat and replace us. That vision (as was the vision of the Nazis and Confederates before them) will end only when their societies have been forced to conclude that their vision of Islamic conquest has lost favor in the eyes of Allah. Quite simply, if we are to win what we call “the global war on Islamic terrorism,” our mission must be to destroy and thereby discredit the Islamic vision of the future posited by the jihadists before it destroys ours. That is the only circumstance that will permit the emergence of an Islamic Renaissance and the rise of a humanistic interpretation of Islam capable of adapting to life in the 21st century.

If the American people have grown weary of the Iraqi war, it is because the average American can no longer accept a national debate on how to win a war based on a flawed defensive military strategy. Americans want victory and like it or not, the road to that victory leads through Tehran. Destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities, bringing down the Islamic regime and vanquishing all aspects of the Islamic Revolution are absolutely critical if the greater war against Islamic jihadism is to be won.

America’s enemies must be convinced that the price of pursuing global conquest is simply too high a price for them to pay. Iran continues to provide money, support, and deadly munitions to Shiite and radical Sunni groups throughout the Middle East. Its growing regional power is threatening regional stability. It is training thousands of “volunteers for martyrdom” in Iran, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and even in sub-Saharan Africa to spread its Islamic crusade across the globe, and its success is based upon the belief that both America and Israel are in strategic retreat.


No one seeking a decisive victory in World War II spoke of a “ceasefire” or “accommodation” with Japan or Germany as we do today with Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran. No one thought it made any sense to merely “disarm” or “degrade” the German army or to liberate France and stop at the French-German border while leaving the Nazis in power in Germany to spread their subversive war into other countries as the Iranians are doing today through their proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories. Perhaps that’s why Americans refer to the veterans of World War II as “The Greatest Generation”. World War II was the last major war that America won decisively. Unfortunately, so long as the U.S. continues to define its war against jihadism in terms other than vanquishing the enemy and discrediting its ideology; so long as we continue to prosecute existential wars in limited, defensive terms without recognizing that we are engaged in an existential conflict with enemies dedicated to total war, we are destined to lose.

The Middle East will never be stabilized unless and until jihadism has been vanquished and it begins with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. In Israel, the “aura of invincibility” lost in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War must be restored. If the United States and Israel send a message that they think absolute and total victory is too costly to pursue, can supporters of Islamic jihadism be blamed for concluding that Washington and Jerusalem may be unwilling to pay the costs of avoiding defeat? Winston Churchill once quipped that America will always do the right thing, but only after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives (i.e.: dialogue, negotiations, engagement, accommodations, ceasefires, appeasement, inspections, withdrawals, peace plans, diplomacy, concessions, sanctions, containment and international peace conferences). It seems to me that we’ve run out of alternatives.

It is a sad statement on our time that the U.S. will soon be forced into an unwanted war with Iran where vanquishing its enemy will be the final, least pleasant, but only effective alternative to restoring peace and stability to this region of the world – at least for the foreseeable future. And as for Hamas, Israel had best learn from past and present U.S mistakes, if only because the consequences of anything less than total victory will be meaningless.


  1. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institute has written: “Sixteen years ago (1991) on the cessation of hostilities (after the first Gulf War), Saddam Hussein’s supposedly ‘defeated’ army used its gun ships to butcher Kurds and Shiites while Americans looked on. And because we never achieved the war’s proper aim – ensuring that Iraq would never again use its petro-wealth to destroy the peace of the region – we have had to fight a second war of no-fly zones, and then a third war to remove Saddam, and now a fourth war of counterinsurgency to protect the fledgling Iraqi democracy” and the war still rages on.
  2. …which makes it all the more amazing that the Israeli Government has made an open-ended commitment to the care and feeding of the Gaza population. Morris Amitay, former head of AIPAC recently wrote: “Sustaining Gaza’s standard of living seems to have become a solemn Israeli obligation. On an almost daily basis, the IDF releases ‘a summary of humanitarian activity'”. One recent example: “Throughout the day, the following humanitarian aid was transferred from Israel into Gaza through the Sufa and Kerem Shalom crossings with the coordination of the Gaza District Coordination and Liaison Office – 569 tons of animal feed; 269 tons and additional 7 truckloads of flour; 22 tons of straw; 187 tons of sugar; 143 tons of bananas and additional 9 truckloads of fruits; 98 tons of salt; 78 tons of cooking oil; 28 tons of humus; 12 tons of milk powder and additional 300,000 liters of milk; 300,000 kg of seedlings (not to mention regular supplies of fuel and electricity). In addition, 480 tons of wheat seeds were transferred through a conveyor belt near the Karni crossing.” He continues: “It is hard to think of any precedent in history where a sovereign nation undertakes to provide funding, food, water, electricity, and fuel to an area whose people have ‘democratically elected’ a leadership explicitly committed to war with that nation. In World War II, we didn’t drop wiener schnitzels on Berlin, we dropped incendiaries.”

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