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Foreign Policy

Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu’’s The Art of War, written about 500 B.C.E., is the oldest military treatise in the world. Even now, after twenty-five centuries, the basic principles of that treatise remain a valuable guide for the conduct of war, including the Arab terrorist war presently being waged against Israel.

Perhaps Sun Tzu may be of interest to the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, especially in view of Ariel’s Sharon’’s bizarre behavior since becoming Israel’s prime minister in February 2001. Since then. more than 900 Jews have been murdered and many thousands have been wounded and maimed by Arab terrorists.

Referring to the IDF’s limited response this Arab terrorism, Mr. Sharon has said, “self-restraint is strength”! At first glance one might suspect that Mr. Sharon had been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount. It may well be, however, that he derived that dictum from Sun Tzu’’s The Art of War—or rather, from a misreading of that treatise. Sun Tzu would have a general exhibit, at first, “the coyness of a maiden”—to draw out the enemy—but thereafter he would have him emulate the fierceness of a lion.

Of course, when the forces of the enemy exceed your own or occupy superior ground, then self-restraint is strength—or perhaps one should say prudent. But when this situation is reversed, self-restraint is weakness. In fact, Sun Tzu goes so far as to say, “If fighting is reasonably sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbids it.”

Moreover, “if the enemy is inactive, give him no rest.” Therefore, contrary to Sharon’s policy of engaging in cease fires or “hudnas,” which allow Arab terrorists to regroup and accumulate more and deadlier weapons, Sun Tzu calls for the uninterrupted attack. He unequivocally opposes a protracted war: “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

Furthermore, “in order to kill the enemy, men must be roused to anger.” Carl von Clausewitz put it this way in his classic treatise On War: “in such dangerous things as war, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst.”

In referring to various ways in which “a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army,” hence on his people, Sun Tzu cautions a ruler against “attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom.” Although “In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign,” “he will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.” There are even occasions, Sun Tzu reiterates, when the “commands of the sovereign must not be obeyed.”

This teaching must have been taken very seriously by George S. Patton in World War II, the military maverick whom the Germans feared as America’s greatest general. Clearly, that teaching had no impact on the Israel Defense Forces in “Operation Defensive Shield,” which refrained from bombing from the air terrorist havens in Jenin. At least thirteen Jewish solders paid with their lives for that military “self-restraint.”

Ponder, however, the Yom Kippur War, in which 3,000 Jewish soldiers perished. Certain general officers of the IDF obeyed the “commands of the sovereign” by not launching a pre-emptive attack. Later, the Agranat Commission of Inquiry virtually blamed them for the disaster. Sun Tsu would have agreed with that conclusion—but of course for different reasons. He would have faulted them for “self-restraint,” that is, for heeding the commands of Israel’’s Government!

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