Victor Davis Hanson on Israel-Hamas, and the Obama team’s view of the region.
HH: Joined now by Victor Davis Hanson, eminent military historian and classicist. All of his writings available at www.victorhanson.com, Professor, a Happy New Year to you.
VDH: Happy New Year to you, too, Hugh.
HH: Now Professor Hanson, Time Magazine has an essay on its website today, “Can Israel Survive Its Assault On Gaza.” It’s a uniformly negative on Israel assault on their attack on Hamas. But I’m confused. Where’s the moral clarity? Hamas dumped 7,000 rockets on Israel. Isn’t it up to Israel to defend itself?
VDH: Yes, it is, but remember that every one of those rockets is intended to kill an Israeli civilian, and every rocket that an Israeli plane retaliates with is intended to kill a Hamas terrorist. And the world interprets that as disproportionate to the criticism of Israel. So we’re now in an Orwellian situation, and it’s hard to know outside of the United States who’s sane anymore in the world.
HH: Do you think it’s possible to defeat Hamas militarily, Professor Hanson?
VDH: I do in the sense that I know that the 2006 war was considered an Israeli defeat, and there’s much to argue for that. But they did an incredible amount of damage to Hezbollah. Notice that Hezbollah did cease the rockets, and the suicide bombing from the West Bank after the attack on Arafat’s headquarters, we haven’t seen a lot of people renew that. And if Israel can establish that in a matter of ten days, eleven days, it can cause so much material and manpower damage to Hamas in retaliation to rockets without losing much of its own resources, then it creates this equation that Hamas might not want to repeat. In other words, Israel can do a lot of damage, and Hamas can’t do Israel damage. And Israel, as long as they suggest that they’re willing to do this at any time, at any given day, then Hamas may wake up.
HH: Now it’s the thirteenth day since the offensive into Gaza began. How long do you expect it to go?
VDH: I would imagine it would be anywhere from 48 to 72 more hours, because I think that at some point, the Israelis enter this law of diminishing returns in the sense that for the additional Hamas terrorists that they can find and locate, and the fewer and fewer rockets that are harder and harder to find, they’re getting an increase in world outrage. And the key, they don’t really worry about world outrage, but they do worry about United States public opinion. And as you know, in a poll of the Democratic Party now, it’s about 62% were opposed to Israel going into Gaza, and that’s the ruling party. So they’ve got to be careful about U.S. public support, because that’s who supplies them with the arms and foreign aid.
HH: Do you think they might, however, be setting this up as an early test of President Obama’s resolve vis-à-vis Israel? That is if they are conducting active operations in Gaza when he takes office on the 20th, he’ll be obliged to say something at that point, and to in essence drop the veil on his rather opaque pronouncements on the Middle East. Is that part of the calculation?
VDH: He’s, he had this pronouncement that Bush is president and there’s only one president at one time, but then he pronounces on all the economic issues, and he makes policy, and he makes declarations about the stimulus package and everything. And then suddenly when it comes up to Gaza, he’s not president anymore, Bush is still president. So you can see it already that he’s got a dilemma that he’s wrestling with, and the dilemma is that at least half of his supporters are pro-Israeli in the Democratic Party and half aren’t. And if the war should be going on when he’s president, he’s going to have to offend a lot of people. His fringe group, the ANSWER, MoveOn.org, the Chicago political circle, they’re all pro-Hamas. And yet the mainstream Democratic Party and fundraising apparatus that he tapped into is pro-Israel. So he’s never had to do this. He’s always voted present in the past, and you can’t really vote present on this issue. You either support Israel or you don’t.
HH: And do you think Israel wants to force him to declare?
VDH: Yes, I think so, but again, Israel’s got to be very careful, because on the one hand, they might get some moral clarity out of him and get him to commit, but on the other hand, they’re dealing with a ruling party now that has elements in it that wants us to be neutral in this dispute. And neutral in this dispute is pro-Hamas.
HH: Professor Hanson, looking at the appointments that we have seen, including the three special envoys, Ross, Haass and Holbrooke to scatter to the winds to Iran, the Middle East and to Southwest Asia respectively, what do you make of these appointments?
VDH: Oh, I think, you know, everybody agrees that they’re mainstream guys, they’re a little bit more sober and judicious than Samantha Power and these other people, but they’re people who for eight years have given doctrinaire denunciations of Bush, and the shredding of the Constitution involved in the anti-terror packages, and we need more engagement, more soft power, more multilateralism, and that’s fine and dandy. And then when they were in power during Clinton, and when they were in power during the Obama administration, they’ll learn that there’s not a lot of choices Bush had. He could have better articulated them, and bitten his lip and wrinkled his brow and been more sympathetic looking, and cut out the lingo of smoke them out, but the policies will remain the same. The differences will be that they will call it soft power when Bush was called preemption or unilateralism. I don’t see much difference. After all, imagine if Obama had run last January in the primaries, and he would have said elect me and I’ll get Hillary as secretary of state, Gates and Jones at security and Defense, and I’ll bring in the entire Clinton team from Panetta to Holbrooke, I don’t think anybody would have believed that.
HH: When you mention Panetta, what’s your assessment of his appropriateness as a CIA director?
VDH: I debated him not long ago on Hamas. In the debate we had, he was very adamantly for talking to Hamas. I thought that was terrible. But he’s a very sober guy, and he’s got political experience. And the funny thing about that is Obama seems to have learned something from Bush where he was on the side of the CIA, really, the Democratic liberal wing was of undermining the president. And they did almost wage a counterinsurgency operation against the Iraq War as you know. And suddenly, Obama said gee whiz, if I’m in there, I don’t want him doing that to me, so I’m going to put my political operative in there in a way Bush really didn’t, and I’m going to control those guys.
HH: I’m curious, when did you debate Panetta about Hamas?
VDH: It was last autumn up at Tenaya Lodge. It was for, Congressman Jim Costa had Lee Hamilton and I, and Panetta on, talking about the Middle East. And both of them, Lee Hamilton and Panetta said the surge would not work, was not working, we needed to get out of Iraq, Obama had the right, and Clinton both had the right attitude, and we had to engage Hamas as a legitimate interrogatory. And I said that was absolutely ridiculous. These are terrorists, and the surge is working, and there will be a cessation of violence. And I had a very unsympathetic audience. I think most people agreed with both of them.
HH: It would be interesting if there’s a tape of that. I’d love to hear that. But let me conclude by asking, Victor Davis Hanson, in terms of the path ahead in Afghanistan, it appears as though we’re about to deploy a significant number of troops there. Are you an optimist that Petraeus can work the same sort of calm again as he did in Iraq?
VDH: Yeah, I am. As long as people realize that for five years, we’ve said where’s the Iraqi Karzai, and now all of a sudden we’re saying where’s the Afghan Maliki. And to be frank, Iraq was always easier in the sense that it had a port, it had oil reserves, it had a secular population, it had a higher literacy rate. And Afghanistan was always the more difficult, I thought, country to fashion into a consensual society. So I think we have to be really patient there.
HH: Victor Davis Hanson, always a pleasure, Happy New Year to you, www.victorhanson.com for all the private papers of Victor Davis Hanson.
End of interview.