Your morning readings from Martin van Creveld, superlative insights into our changing world

Martin van Creveld is IMO the finest military historian of our time.  But more than that his vision integrates military science and theory into a larger social context — the only context in which the military arts can provide value to a society.  This makes his works uniquely valuable to us.

  1. Interview on Mideast with Martin van Creveld by William deB. Mills, posted at his website Shadowed Forest of World Politics, 23 April 2009
  2. Waiting for Netanyahu“, op-ed in the New York Times, 16 May 2009

For an almost complete listing of his online works see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.


(1)  Interview on Mideast with Martin van Creveld by William deB. Mills, posted at his website Shadowed Forest of World Politics, 23 April 2009 — Excerpt:

2. If Israel were to launch an attack on Iran, what are the chances of that “success” being achieved?

It depends on what you mean. Certainly there is no way Israel can cause Iran to give up its nuclear program forever. Whether we can delay it by a few years is a question I cannot answer on the basis of the information at my disposal.

4. How would you evaluate the nature of that “success” if it were achieved, e.g., considering “side-effects,” long-term consequences?

Personally I agree with Defense Secretary Gates, who recently said that the long term consequences, both for Israel and for much of the rest of the world, would be disastrous. In case Israel uses mini-nukes, as some sources claim it is planning to do, they will be simply unimaginable.

6. US-Iranian relations cannot be separated from US-Israeli and US-Palestinian relations. They are all part of the broader issue of how to distribute power among various Mideast actors. How do you assess this argument?

I think that Israel has much less to fear from Iran than is usually thought. Of course it would be nice if we could solve all problems at once, but personally I would be in favor of getting out of the West Bank almost regardless of what Tehran and Washington do. After all, this is not about them; it is about safeguarding Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

(2)  Waiting for Netanyahu“, op-ed in the New York Times, 16 May 2009 — Excerpt:

The U.S. president who did most for Israel was not Harry Truman, who recognized the Jewish state almost immediately after it had been founded. Nor was it John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. Or Gerald Ford, or Ronald Reagan, or the two George Bushes, or Bill Clinton.

All of these provided America’s ally with economic assistance, supplied it with arms and stood at its side at critical moments, from the 1967 Six-Day War to the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The president who did most for Israel was Jimmy Carter – the same Carter who has sometimes been described as an Israel-hater. In numerous appearances around the world, he has never shrunk from criticizing Israel for its faults, real and imaginary; the dislike is mutual.

Back in 1977-78, the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks, which had been started a year earlier by Prime Minister Menahem Begin and President Anwar Sadat, got stuck. At issue were such questions as how much land Israel was to return, the fate of the settlements in the Sinai, etc.

Meeting now here, now there, in what increasingly looked like a traveling circus, the leaders and their advisers vainly circled each other in an attempt to reach an agreement both sides could accept.

Enter Moshe Dayan, the crafty one-eyed former general and minister of defense who was serving as Begin’s foreign minister. When holding the first meetings with Egyptian representatives in the summer of 1977, he had acted in great secrecy, even putting on a disguise and using an alias. Now that shipwreck was staring him in the face, he called on Begin to bring in the Americans.

Though he could never say so, the reason why Dayan wanted the Americans was to put pressure on Begin. The prime minister had come to power promising to preserve Israeli rule over the occupied territories.

Changing his mind could very well cause the members of his own party, Likud, to leave the coalition; the outcome, Dayan knew, would be the fall of the government and the end of any hope for peace.

In the end, Dayan prevailed. With President Carter personally committed to the peace process, Begin found himself in a position in which he had to turn to his followers and ask them, quite literally: “Do you really want to quarrel with the United States?” The majority saw his point, and when the time to make a decision came they voted in the right direction.

… As President Barack Obama prepares to receive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for their first meeting, the situation is very similar to what it was in 1978.

Now as then, Israel is ruled by a rightwing coalition. Now as then, some of its elements, specifically the party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are more hawkish than the prime minister and his Likud Party is.

Now as then, talks with the other side – this time it’s the Palestinians – are ongoing but leading nowhere. Now as then, while some members of Israel’s ruling coalition are strongly opposed to any concessions to the Palestinians, the Knesset also contains a strong opposition party. Its name is Kadima, its platform is peace with the Palestinians, and, like Labor in its time, it will provide the necessary votes if called upon to do so.

… Preparing to meet him {Benjamin Netanyahu}, President Obama should keep the precedent presented by the Israeli-Egyptian agreement in mind. Whatever they may say in public, for many years now both sides in the Middle East have been secretly waiting for a second Carter. His task is to bang their heads together and force them to do what they themselves are unable to do: namely, give up their more extreme claims and reach some kind of agreement.

The outcome may not be, almost certainly will not be, quite to the liking of either of the parties. Surely, though, it will extinguish many sparks that could set up another conflagration; with some luck, it may even yield a lasting peace for the Middle East and, for the U.S., one headache less.


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For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:

This page provides links to archives of links to online works of major players in modern military theory and practice.  Needless to say, this is a work in progress, as there are so many excellent people in these fields. 

  1. The Essential 4GW reading list: Donald Vandergriff
  2. The Essential 4GW reading list: David Kilcullen
  3. Writings of Andrew Bacevich; they deserve your attention
  4. The Essential 4GW reading list: John Nagl

3 thoughts on “Your morning readings from Martin van Creveld, superlative insights into our changing world

  1. To repeat a snarky point I have made elsewhere. The Israeli and Palestinian mafias actually do get along. So perhaps this is a model for Mideast peace? Following this logic, perhaps we ought to identify the Iranian mafia.

  2. There seem to be three games playing at the moment , over the heads of us tax paying proles ,
    1.Mainstream Politics
    2.Aid to Needy Countries
    3.Mafias ( the definition could be very wide )
    We discuss and vote on (1) , but most of us know very little about (2) and (3 ), and certainly have no voting rights .

  3. “Van Creveld:
    Palestine: knock the heads of Palestinians and Israelis together, forcing them to accept a settlement based on the “two states for two people” principle. Iran: try to improve relations, but keep a wary eye on the Mullas and make sure you have strong armed forces in the Gulf. Iraq: get the hell out. Afghanistan: ditto. In both cases, tell them that, in case they permit another 9-11 to be prepared on their territory, their principal cities will be wiped off the map.”

    The problem with this strategy and the general quasi-isolationist, “rubble doesn’t make trouble” sensibility, in light of reality, is that the guarantor of the strategy articulated in the final sentence is completely incredible – not least because it is not military defeat so much as domestic and international political pressure which has induced our own government to impose the restraint visible every day since April 9, 2003. All an enemy has to do is cultivate enough deniability in its agents and methods to enable the media and politicians to counsel patience, engagement, anti-Republican conspiracy, whatever, even in the case of a spectacular attack. This is a huge gaping hole in the attitude Van Creveld counsels. I realize that it would be nice if we could credibly project a doctrine of conventional deterrence that might be as effective as MAD, but really it just sounds like solipsism in light of how the world has actually experienced the War on Terror this far.

    Unfortunately I think we are stuck with this active shaping of the geopolitical environment, and ultimately – whether our enemies are enabled to prosper under a unrealistic but rhetorically satisfying doctrine or the necessarily imperfect or sometimes evil attempts to reshape the geopolitical environment in favor of the post-WW2 security consensus enables the political and media opposition to completely destroy American credibility and with it faith in its institutions – it probably will just lead to our undoing anyway.

    Someone might respond, then: well, let’s get the hell out of everywhere then – at least we can save ourselves or buy ourselves some time. But in my opinion that is entirely too dangerous as it ignores truly aggressive threats organized from Moscow and Beijing to reshape the security environment in ITS image – the ones no media talks about, no politician publicly acknowledges (excpet very briefly, occasionally, sotto voce), and no sitting Administration can even apparently begin to acknowledge.

    It seems that “the hidden history” will be our undoing. It never should have been hidden, at least by our side.

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