Fifty years is a long enough time to dissipate the impact of war.
In the United States, the Vietnam War is no longer much discussed. Scholars still plow the field, but the war that tore America apart, spurred a counterculture movement, killed 57,000 Americans (and vastly more Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians), led to a restructuring of the U.S. military and the all-volunteer force, and was an impetus to Desert Storm no longer shapes the discourse.
My students were born in 2002 or 2003; they’re voting age. Even those with living grandparents who served in Vietnam don’t know much if anything about the conflict. Of course, there have been intervening failures that proved costly, although not on the same scale. But proximity bias — the hard-wired human tendency to accord greater importance to things that are closer than others in time or distance — ensured that the mayhem generated by the Iraq and Afghan Wars would eclipse the awfulness of Vietnam.
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 has likewise receded in the Israeli imagination. But its specter is more complex. The 2,500 Israeli soldiers killed (a fraction of the 15,000 Arabs who perished) was three times the per capita human cost of the Vietnam War to the United States. I was in Israel during that time, and everyone knew someone who’d been killed. The war was also far shorter, about 10 days, so the casualty list had an outsized emotional impact. It was not the long slog of Vietnam, but rather an avalanche.
Early in the war, Syrian armor destroyed the Israeli tank brigade deployed to the Golan Heights and reached Gesher B’not Yaakov (Jisr Banat Yaqub). Just beyond it was the Jezreel Valley. The prospect of a large Syrian armored formation penetrating the Israeli heartland was as ghastly for Israelis as it must have been thrilling for the Syrians. The United States has never experienced anything like this, including 9/11.
In the space of this instant, violence burgeoned. The largest tank battle since World War II, when German and Soviet armored juggernauts collided at Kursk, unfolded on the Golan. Fierce battles developed in the Sinai and then on the left bank of Suez, where Israeli forces encircled an entire Egyptian army. A week into the war, the U.S. launched its largest-ever intra-war arms transfer. For days, U.S. C-5 cargo aircraft touched down at Israeli airfields every six minutes. The airlift, however, occurred after Israel had regained its balance and counterattacked, halting an hour outside of Damascus and holding Egyptian territory — in addition to the Sinai, where Israel stopped the main thrust of Egyptian armor toward the mountains passes and destroyed the advancing units.
The war also included other dramatic moments. Apparently believing that the Soviets were preparing to intervene militarily on Syria’s behalf, the Nixon administration raised the United States’ nuclear readiness level, an extraordinary step. Saudi Arabia led an OPEC oil embargo against the United States that carried profound implications for its economic and political stability for the ensuing decade, bringing the so-called long summer of postwar economic growth to an end and guaranteeing an era of sluggish economic growth and high inflation.
The long-term effects of the war on Israel were profound as well. The outcome, despite the phenomenal recovery of Israeli forces under the much maligned but in fact highly competent IDF chief of staff, was traumatically dislocating for an Israeli public accustomed to thinking that its victory in the 1967 war rendered the state immune to Arab military challenge.
Within four years, the Labor Party that had dominated Israeli politics in one form or another since 1948 was dislodged. Trust in the old elites was shattered. The intelligence community failed to credit the Egyptian and Syrian commitment to waging war. Across the board there was a conviction that the conditions under which the Arabs would launch an offensive simply did not exist. And Military Intelligence disregarded Mossad’s success in recruiting a senior member of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s entourage who underscored that a war was in the cards. Moreover, the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, who had presided over the disaster, had heeded stern guidance from Nixon and Kissinger not to preempt Arab war preparations when these were finally acknowledged 24 hours before the start of hostilities.
Whether or not this was a wise call on Washington’s part, it certainly increased the butcher’s bill Israel was to pay and undermined the Labor government. Meir would come under attack later for having ignored Sadat’s peace feelers following the 1969 War of Attrition along the Suez Canal. Sadat, however, tended to frame his overtures as demands for an upfront Israeli withdrawal from all of the Sinai Peninsula, which the Israeli government could not meet. There was plenty of blame to go around. In any case, combined with serious ethnic tensions generated by the political mobilization of Mizrahim — Jews who had immigrated from the Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa — the cratering of Labor credibility enabled the ascendance of the Likud Party.
Half a century later, what lingering significance does the war have? Israel and Saudi Arabia are negotiating normalization, which will entail a civilian Saudi nuclear capability that is inherently dual-purpose. The Abraham Accords have already normalized Israel’s relations with Bahrain, the UAE, Sudan, and Morocco. Egypt and Jordan have longstanding peace treaties with Israel. Syria has been neutered by a long, destructive civil war. Lebanon has ceased to exist as a functioning state and has not engaged Israel in hostilities since 2006. Two eviscerating wars with the United States removed Iraq as a potential combatant of the old rejectionist front.
A cataclysmic ground war between Israel and its neighbors has been inconceivable during this veritable Age of Aquarius. But if the Yom Kippur War is no longer relevant, the present irenic reality — excluding the West Bank and Gaza — is largely due to the instrumentalization of that conflict by the Nixon administration for the purpose of peacemaking. One really can’t contemplate these developments without implicitly thinking about the 1973 war.
Another potent outcome of the war was the diplomatic process that surrounded the ceasefire and the years that followed. Kissinger gets credit for this, not unfairly. He was not one to waste a crisis. He seized the opportunity the war presented to use Sadat’s evident interest in joining the Western camp and Israel’s reliance on American support to bind each closer to Washington while crowding out the Soviet Union. Although his diplomatic strategy yielded disengagement agreements on both fronts, the fact remains that Egypt and Israel had embarked on a quiet bilateral process even as the guns were still cooling.
Sadat had waged the war to shatter the status quo by drawing Israeli blood and bringing the U.S. into the conflict. His goal was the negotiated return of Sinai to Egyptian control. The war, for him, had a clear and well-defined political purpose. Although the seven years that preceded the Camp David Accords were at times touch and go — down to the climactic talks themselves — the so-called peace process would be difficult to imagine without the bloody impetus of 1973. Kissinger’s key insight, regrettably abandoned by his successors but seemingly grasped now by Beijing, is that it pays to maintain ties with both sides in a conflict.
As the Arab-Israeli conflict has devolved to Israel and the Palestinians, this lesson of the 1973 war has faded for Israel as well. Israel’s use of force now has no political objective. Its purpose is solely conflict management and deterrence. To borrow from Lord Carrington’s verdict on NATO, it is to keep the Palestinians down, the U.S. out, and wealthy Persian Gulf states in.
Yet, perversely, the possibility of change is in the air. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners are less interested in managing the level of violence on the West Bank than in informally annexing it. Their commitment to Israeli settlement of the West Bank is greater than their interest in grand geopolitical deals that might boost the Tel Aviv stock exchange but defer redemption of biblical lands. One could construe the hard right’s agenda as restoring a true political objective to Israel’s fight with the Palestinians.
The 1973 war also altered Israeli military doctrine. Planners have recognized that — beginning with that war — Israel has not won any major ones. (Neither has the United States.) The reasons for this are legion, but one stands out: the losers do not concede defeat. They take a licking but keep on ticking. Hence the most recent development in Israel’s military doctrine, accorded the acronym Mabam, meaning “the battles between the wars.”
The idea is that major wars are no longer decisive and will therefore recur periodically. The best course is to delay these wars and weaken adversaries’ ability to wage them by fighting draining low-level battles in the interim. This makes some sense, naturally, but militates against any attempt to leverage the fighting to achieve durable peace. This applies to the Palestinians as well. Their violence is expressive, perhaps reflecting their view that there is no conceivable political objective.
There’s a larger theme here, though. The international system was vastly different in 1973. The Cold War framework in which the United States and Soviet Union conducted their foreign policies and made it possible for Sadat to conduct a war with such a bold but cogent purpose is long gone. We will see whether the U.S.-China in the Middle East recreates it.
The leftist post-colonial Arab states that fought Israel are scarcely even remembered. The Israeli state and society that fought the Yom Kippur War, like the America that waged war in Vietnam, no longer exists. The values that animated it no longer shape the nation’s thoughts and actions.
Fifty years after the war, this should come as no surprise. In the ongoing demonstrations against judicial reform in Israel, one can see veterans of 1973 claiming that their wartime sacrifice would be betrayed by the triumph of the hard right. They are correct, but they’re old duffers and out of touch with young Israeli mainstream voters, who, if they dwell on the 1973 war at all, likely see the left as the guilty party. Thus, policy makers, mostly in the West, can noodle about the war’s lessons for diplomacy and statecraft, but for Israel — and the Arabs — it’s ancient history.
Steven Simon is the visiting professor of practice in Middle Eastern studies at the Jackson School of International Relations, University of Washington, and Senior Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Previously, he was the Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow in International Affairs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served as the National Security Council senior director for counterterrorism in the Clinton White House and for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama White House. He is the author of "Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East" (2023).
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?