Monday, January 21, 2008

The two Bush-visit "announcements": No more pretense of civil-combatant distinction in Gaza, and more, not less, bombing of Iraq

Bush visited the Mideast region from January 9 to the 16th, and a very productive trip it was: On January 10, US forces dumped 40,000 pounds of bombs on an area south of Baghdad in a 10-minute attack that was described as one of the biggest single air attacks since 2003 (in an area to which residents had been invited back only four weeks before that). Colin Kahl, a "political scientist" who had "just returned from a trip to the air operations center", told a WaPo reporter that psychological effect is very important. "Part of this is announcing our presence to the adversary," he said, referring to the Arab Jabour bombing. Suggesting that after almost five years of military occupation, the US forces have something new to "announce" to those who would expel them.

It wasn't the only "announcement" made in connection with Bush's trip. On Thursday January 18, right after he left, Ehud Barak announced the complete closure of all entry points into the Gaza Strip, naturally including fuel shipments, and this led, as expected, to the shut-down on January 20 of the only electric-generating station in the Gaza Strip, which as it happens serves Gaza City, and this in turn, via effects on water-pumping and -purification, refrigeration, and power to hospitals, brought the area to the brink of what the UN politely calls a humanitarian catastrophe, but which in the Arab world is seen as a declaration of war by Israel on the entire population of the Gaza Strip.

Here is what Ehud Barak said Israel was announcing:

On Sunday, Barak told the cabinet that the army was "weakening the daily life in Gaza."

"We are targeting the terror elements and we are trying to show the international community that we are exhausting all possible options before Israel decides on a broad (military) operation," a senior government official quoted him as saying.

In other words, bringing the place to the brink of mass starvation is the last, non-military, stop before launch of a "broad military operation"--"broad" because it will be as neglectful of the combatant-civilian distinction as is the starvation program. Interestingly, the Israeli elite explains this to itself in the following way: The requirement in international law to distinguish between combatants and civilians only applies to military activities. But the blockade and starvation aren't military operations, so the rule doesn't apply. (This is explained in an article by Yossi Wolfson called Economic Warfare in Gaza in which he explains the Israeli government position in a court challenge). As for activities in wartime, the Israeli authorities have come up with this additional theory:
The state turns international law on its head. Various provisions regulate civilian supplies in wartime, with the aim of keeping the situation from reaching the threshold of a humanitarian crisis. Israel cites these provisions but interprets them as allowing it to harm civilians as long as it stops short of that threshold, defined by it.
This is the mirror image of the waterboarding argument only on a vast scale: Okay as long as the purpose of the operation, in the mind of the perpetrator, isn't death.

In any event, the closings and resulting power-cuts are clearly an Israeli "announcement", presumably connected to the Bush visit, with ominous implications for the future.

And the Iraqi strategy? What was the "announcement" there, that Colin Kahl was talking about? Recall that the huge Jan 10 Arab Jabour bombing raid came the day after six American soldiers were killed while searching a booby-trapped house north of Baghdad, supposedly to clear the Arab Jabour area of that kind of risk, making it safe for the occupation forces to search. That was the "announcement": If we take losses, you, people of Iraq, will take bombing attacks of a size you haven't seen before.

In fact, we don't have to speculate, because Kahl's colleague Andrew Krepinevich spelled out the situation in the NYT just yesterday. The context was a Michael Gordon piece complaining about the fact politicians are for withdrawal, while military success is going to depend on the perception that the forces will stay as long as it takes. In this context Krepinevich said: "Unless you are suppressing insurgents the way the Romans did--creating a desert and calling it peace--it typically can take the better part of a decade or more [to successfully fight a counterinsurgency]." In other words, the alternatives are: A decade or more of occupation, or if not, then "creating a desert and calling it peace".

So there were two major announcements made in connection with the Bush visit: (1) Israel has dropped any pretense of combatant-civilian distinction, so if the blockade and threatened starvation doesn't do the trick, expect a "broad military operation". And (2) in Iraq, if there are to be troop-withdrawals, bombings will escalate, and you can interpret that in the words of the good-cop Colin Kahl about the clinical precision of these, or you can listen to the words of the bad-cop Krepinevich about creating a desert. But in either case, the point is that the US has announced that it is dropping its aversion to a policy of more and more bombing attacks, as a corollary to troop-withdrawal, take it whichever way you will.