According to an Iraqi transcript, Tariq Aziz declared to James Baker on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, "Never has a (Middle-East) political regime entered into a war with Israel or the United States and lost politically." Although an exaggeration, his observation applies to most wars with Great Britain, France, Iran and India. In the Middle East, military loss does not necessarily hurt a ruler. Indeed, as the following examples suggest, defeat often brings benefits:
The Suez Crisis, 1956. Gamel Abdel Nasser turned a humiliating rout at the hands of the British, French and Israelis into political victory and went on to become the dominant figure in Arab politics.
The Indo-Pakistan War, 1965. Although Zulfikar Ali Bhutto pushed Pakistan into this disastrous war against India, he came out of the fiasco more popular than ever. As his biographer puts it, "The more outrageous his rhetoric became ... the more heroic Zulfi Bhutto appeared to Pakistani audiences."
The clash between Syrian and Israeli planes, April 1967. The Syrians lost six MiG-2ls, and the Israelis lost none, but the battle caused no consternation in Damascus. Indeed, President Nur ad-Din al-Attasi 10 days later called the loss of planes "very useful to us."
The Six-Day War, June 1967. The greatest military defeat in history prompted Nasser to apologize and offer his resignation while the war was still on. This gesture prompted massive street demonstrations calling on him to stay in power, which he did. In some ways, he emerged more powerful than ever.
The Battle of Karama, 1968. Although Yassir Arafat's Fatah lost its first major armed confrontation with the Israelis, it claimed victory, starting a long-term pattern. Even Gen. Aharon Yariv, of Israel, conceded, "Although it was a military defeat for them, it was a moral victory."
The Yom Kippur War, 1973. The Israelis stumbled at first but recovered to score a brilliant military victory against the Syrian and Egyptian armies. Nonetheless,
Anwar Sadat, of Egypt, portrayed the war as an Egyptian triumph and used it to legitimate subsequent diplomacy with Israel.
The siege of Beirut, 1982. Through verbal magic, Arafat transformed a humiliating retreat from Beirut into a political victory. He emphasized that it took the
Israelis 88 days to defeat him, far longer than it took them to defeat conventional Arab armies; and this he considered a victory for the PLO.
PLO withdrawal from Tripoli, 1983. Syrian forces compelled the PLO to leave its last stronghold in Lebanon. The impact on Arafat? According to his biographers, "The PLO leader, in the midst of yet another historic setback, was still intent on milking the occasion for all its theatrical worth."
Operation Desert Storm, 1991. Saddam Hussein's media warned, "The desert plants will be irrigated with the blood of the Americans," while Radio Baghdad threatened either to make "their rotten bodies food for ravens" or to push the allies out in "endless convoys of coffins." When overwhelming defeat came, Saddam blithely insisted he had won the "mother of all battles." He remains solidly in power.
This pattern of failure-turned-into-victory has clear implications for United States policy. If weakening a Middle Eastern opponent is the goal, then defeating him on the battlefield probably won't do the trick. In that case, the enemy must be physically eliminated. There's no middle ground.
In today's terms, should the Iranians make so much trouble that the Bill Clinton administration decides it's had enough, thrashing the Iranian forces probably will have little effect on the leadership in Tehran. There's really no way to get at the leadership, short of driving it out of the country or killing it. History suggests this unhappy choice is the only realistic strategy for dealing with Middle Eastern aggressors.