The Dangers of Overconfidence
Oct. 6, 2003, marks the 30th anniversary of what the Israelis call the Yom Kippur War and the Arabs call the Ramadan War. That war represented the end of the first phase of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which we might call the era of conventional warfare. It opened up the second phase, which we might call the era of unconventional warfare. In one sense, the 1973 war changed everything by precluding the resumption of conventional warfare. In another sense, it changed nothing, leaving the fundamental issues unresolved. For 30 years the world has lived with the results of the 1973 war. As evidenced by the Israeli strike against a training camp in Syria on Oct. 5, the permanence of the post-1973 situation remains intact.
Everything in the Middle East must be understood in terms of what went before, but it's an infinite regression that always returns to the starting point: a deadlock. The same is true for the 1973 war. Israel carried out a full peripheral attack in June 1967. Whether the war was triggered by Egypt's expulsion of U.N. advisers, closing the Straits of Tirana and mobilization in the Sinai — or whether it was hardwired into Israeli strategy from the beginning — is one of those infinite regressions. Suffice that it did happen, and that Israel occupied the Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
Israel assumed that its victory in 1967 had improved its national security. First, it provided Israel with strategic depth, which it never had before. An attack by its neighbors, particularly Egypt and Syria, would first be fought outside of Israel. That gave the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) room to retreat and maneuver. Second, the Israeli defeat of the Egyptian army was so devastating that analysts assumed it would take a generation for the Egyptians to recover. Israel came out of 1967 feeling that it had pushed the boundaries of space and time sufficiently to give Israel a generation of peace. Israel also believed, sincerely in our view, that 1967 would set the stage for negotiations that would trade land for peace — how much land and how much peace were left undetermined.
The Arab perception of the defeat paralleled that of the Israelis. They understood that they had suffered a humiliating defeat, but they concluded that the humiliation made peace impossible. For the Arabs, any peace built on the 1967 foundation would represent a permanent capitulation to helplessness. Therefore, when Arab leaders met in Khartoum shortly after the war, they did two things. First, they issued their famous "three no's" — no negotiation, no recognition, no peace. Second, they formally acknowledged the existence of a Palestinian nation independent of Jordan or Syria and outside the conceptual confines of the Arab nation. Palestine became a nation in its own right.
Thus, the Palestine Liberation Organization, under Yasser Arafat, became the effective government of the Palestinian national movement, and that movement came to be seen in the Arab world as ultimately autonomous. The Arabs effectively decided that there had to be another war, the purpose of which would not be so much to reverse the geographical outcome of the 1967 war as to reverse its psychological outcome. The decision was to validate a Palestinian national movement — the same that dominates the landscape today — coupled with another conventional war.
The Israelis were driven by a basic view of the Arabs as incapable of mounting modern military operations. There was no question about the bravery of individual Arab soldiers; the only ones who sneered at their courage had never fought them. But the complexities of mastering advanced technologies, and more important, the difficulties of mastering the enormous organizational challenges involved in mobile warfare, undermined the Arabs' ability to fight a conventional war. The IDF and most observers thought this was a permanent condition. Therefore, the decisions made in Khartoum were viewed as unfortunate, but subcritical. If the Arabs did not want to make peace in 1967, then the Israelis would occupy the conquered territories until they changed their mind. There was no question for the Israelis about whether the Arabs could reverse 1967 by force of arms.
The issue was this: No matter how dominant Israel was on the battlefield, geography and demography precluded a definitive defeat like the United States had dealt Japan. Israel could extend its borders, but it could not render the Arabs permanently incapable of resistance. Arab states did not have a problem obtaining weapons — the Soviets were happy to provide them. Nor did they lack manpower. Their problem was cultural: training a largely peasant army to use modern technology within a contemporary military organization. Since the Israelis thought the latter impossible, the former did not bother them too much.
For the Arabs, therefore, demonstrating an ability to transform their military culture became the center of gravity of the problem. No political evolution was conceivable — or permissible — while the Arabs were militarily helpless. Therefore, the Egyptians in particular began a program not only to rearm their military, but also to reorganize it culturally, intellectually and morally. The goal was the regeneration of the Egyptian army and, therefore, the resurrection of Egyptian foreign policy.
From the Israeli point of view, the Egyptians were the only real issue. If the Egyptians did not or could not fight, the Israelis easily could manage Syria and Jordan, either militarily or politically. However, if Egypt did fight, and if Syria for example joined the fight, then Israeli forces, on the defensive, would be in danger of being drawn into the one kind of war they could not win: a war of attrition. Israel's strategic doctrine was built around one thing: fighting pre-emptive wars to avoid having to fight simultaneously on multiple fronts at the time and choosing of their enemies.
The Egyptians understood the Israeli strategic problem and defined a strategy to take advantage of it. Under superb security arrangements, they did not hide their preparations. They simply allowed Israeli intelligence to draw the wrong conclusions. Knowing that Israel had reached the conclusion that Egypt and Syria were incapable of mounting a complex, multidivision assault that involved multinational coordination, they took advantage of Israeli preconceptions to organize, practice and finally launch simultaneous assaults across the Suez Canal into the Sinai and on the Golan Heights.
In the end, the Israelis were able to contain the assaults, although during the initial 24 hours it appeared that Israel was facing military catastrophe. It readied a nuclear option. After containment, Israel carried out counterattacks on both fronts that defeated Egypt and Syria militarily.
The military defeat, however, was coupled with a psychological triumph. First, Egypt and Syria had demonstrated that they were capable of modern warfare. Israel realized that it could not take Arab military incompetence for granted any longer. Israel retained military superiority, but could no longer assume that that superiority would be a permanent condition. More important, the Israelis realized that the foundation of their pre-emptive strategy depended on strategic intelligence. Pre-emption cannot exist without foreknowledge of enemy intentions. The intelligence failure stunned the Israelis more than their military difficulties. If their intelligence could not recognize the threat posed by hundreds of thousands of troops massed a few miles away, then Israel's first line of defense was an illusion, and Israeli national strategy was in jeopardy. The next time, the Egyptians might not halt under their SAM umbrella, but move forward.
It is at this point that Egyptian and Israeli grand strategy converged. The Israelis could not reach a settlement over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The emergence of the PLO and other related groups had created a situation in which Israeli withdrawal became more difficult to imagine. Nor could Israel maintain the occupation while also preparing for and fighting high-intensity conflicts along its frontiers. If Egypt remained hostile, Israel's security problem became nearly unmanageable. Israel needed to take Egypt out of the equation, and it did not have an easy military option to do so. Israel needed a political solution.
Egypt also had reached the conclusion that it needed to revise its political situation. Its relationship with the Soviet Union had led to disaster. First, it had been excluded from the U.S.-dominated trading system, with devastating effects on its economy. Second, the abyss between Israel and the Soviet Union meant that the Soviets could not broker a settlement with Israel, leaving Egypt in a permanent state of war. Third, the 1973 oil embargo had shifted the balance of power in the Arab world away from the radicals and toward the oil-rich conservatives. The wind was blowing from the right, and Egypt wanted to tack with the wind.
The net result was the Camp David peace accords, which ended the state of war between Egypt and Israel and neutralized the Sinai desert, leaving a symbolic contingent of American peacekeepers in the center and creating a large buffer zone between the two armies. Most important, in taking Egypt out of the military equation, it ended the possibility of an Arab-initiated conventional war against Israel. That was no longer a possibility. Therefore, it ended any hope on the part of the Palestinians that conventional force from other Arab countries might liberate them. The Israeli-Egyptian treaty in essence abandoned the Palestinians to their fate.
The Palestinians at that point had two choices. One was to accept Israeli political terms, which over the years of Arab rejection had shifted from a simple land-for-peace formula to a more aggressive plan to retain the West Bank in particular while making limited autonomy possible for the Palestinians. In effect, the Israelis felt they were under no pressure to yield to Palestinian demands for an independent state — nor did they want to yield. The creation of a Palestinian state was conceivable only if the Israeli-Egyptian peace was irreversible. Otherwise, a Palestinian state coupled with an Egyptian reversal would recreate the pre-1967 reality.
Worse, it would create the geographical reality in a new military context. The Israelis had discovered that easy assumptions about Arab military capabilities were not reasonable. The evolution of the Egyptian army from 1967 to 1973 was stunning; the assumption that it would evolve no further had no basis. Therefore, a Palestinian state followed by a new Egyptian policy could threaten Israel's survival. Since no one could guarantee the future, Israeli policy was to oppose a Palestinian state.
Since the Palestinians could not accept permanent domination by the Israelis, particularly one in which Israeli land policy in the territories became increasingly oriented toward settlements, the Palestinians chose a path of resistance, both on Israel's periphery, in the occupied territories and, ultimately, inside Israel itself. This was not a new strategy, but until Camp David, it was only one strand of a broader strategy. The 1978 agreement made resistance the Palestinians' only strategy.
The Palestinians had two problems with their only available option. The first was how to escalate violence to the point that it would become intolerable to the Israelis, forcing them to make political accommodations. The second, which followed the first, was to master the arts of security, counterintelligence and intelligence to keep the Israelis from destroying their war-making capabilities. The Palestinians knew that whatever the Israelis could see, they could destroy. The foundation of their war was not the suicide bombers, but the ability to organize suicide bombing without Israeli intelligence knowing how it was organized.
This is the point at which the lessons of 1973 and the lessons of 2003 come together. Intelligence is the foundation of all warfare. However, in modern warfare — both in 1973 and 2003 — intelligence reaches a transcendent point. In 1973, the very survival of Israel was brought into question because of the failure of the Israeli intelligence community to recognize the threat. In 2003, the sanity, if not the survival, of Israel was put in jeopardy by its inability to overcome Palestinian defenses against Israeli intelligence.
The 1973 war taught the Arabs the value of security and the limits of intelligence. The lessons of 1973 were indelibly marked on the Palestinian mind. They knew that Egyptian success depended on counterintelligence. They knew that their success depended on counterintelligence. They learned that military weakness can be compensated for by blinding the enemy.
This lesson was not lost on al Qaeda. Like the Egyptians and Palestinians, it understood that its military force was a fraction of the United States'. It understood that it had to develop that force, but al Qaeda also knew that the real force multiplier was in blinding the Americans — in cloaking al Qaeda's actions from the eyes of the United States. This lesson has been continually pounded home ever since 1973 in the Arab world. It is the ability to blind the enemy's intelligence services that is the precondition for any operational capability. What the enemy can see, he can destroy. Therefore, in operating from a position of weakness, blinding the enemy is the key.
The teaching of Anwar Sadat was simple: The best way to blind the Israelis is to allow them to blind themselves. He used Israel's inability to take Egypt seriously as a military power to blind the Israelis to what was right in front of them. Israel's greatest weakness was contempt for its enemy and an overestimation of its ability to know what the enemy was thinking. The Palestinians learned this lesson from the Egyptians, and al Qaeda has learned from the Palestinians.
The greatest danger in war is underestimating the enemy and overestimating oneself.