The Thrasybulus Syndrome: Israel’s War on Gaza

"In Israel, hawks have found a welcome abode; doves are an endangered species."

Francesco Guicciardini, the Florentine historian and diplomat, was the contemporary and friend of Niccolò Machiavelli. The latter now enjoys an everlasting fame (or infamy, as you please), having gotten an adjective named after him, but his friend Francesco, now forgotten, often had the better of Niccolò in argument. After Machiavelli’s death, Guicciardini read his Discourses on Livy’s Roman history in manuscript and wrote a lengthy analysis of it. Discussing Machiavelli’s observation that “a new prince in a city or province taken by him, must make everything new,” Guicciardini insisted on the weaknesses invariably incurred by force: “Violent remedies, though they make one safe from one aspect, yet from another . . . involve all kinds of weaknesses. Hence the prince must take courage to use these extraordinary means when necessary, and should yet take care not to miss any chance which offers of establishing his cause with humanity, kindness, and rewards, not taking as an absolute rule what [Machiavelli] says, who was always extremely partial to extraordinary and violent methods.”

The difference of opinion between Machiavelli and Guicciardini over the utility of force echoes down the ages. Every age presents some variation of it. But the old argument is displayed with a ferocious intensity in the ongoing controversy over Israel’s approach to Hamas and to the Palestinians. In dealing with its neighbors, there is no contemporary state more partial to extraordinary and violent methods than Israel. Israel has fought four major wars in the last eight years, including the Lebanon War of 2006 against Hezbollah and three devastating wars against Hamas in Gaza from late 2008 to the present (not counting several smaller operations from 2006 to 2008). It has assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists and bombed sites in Syria, Lebanon, and Sudan over the same time period, just as it has continually agitated for U.S. military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In Israel, hawks have found a welcome abode; doves are an endangered species.

The regularity of Israel’s perceived need to use force is illustrated by the notorious expression, “mowing the lawn,” that one of its military officers used to describe strategy toward Gaza. It is reminiscent of the advice that Thrasybulus gave Periander of Corinth, recounted in Herodotus. Walking through a field, Thrasybulus broke off the tallest ears of grain by way of showing Periander’s envoy the best way to rule violently. The envoy couldn’t figure out his meaning, but Periander, the prototype of the ancient tyrant, understood immediately on hearing the envoy’s report. The analogy showed that violence could not be a one-time affair. New stalks would grow up. It would remain necessary to keep lopping off the top ones—i.e. mowing the lawn.

Machiavelli offers a view different from Thrasybulus. It is unfortunately all too true that Machiavelli did have a penchant for extraordinary and violent methods, as Guicciardini alleged, but his thought also reflected an appreciation of “the economy of violence.” “The indiscriminate exercise of force and the constant revival of fear,” as Sheldon Wolin observed of Machiavelli’s teaching, “could provoke the greatest of all dangers for any government, the kind of widespread apprehension and hatred which drove men to desperation.” This sense of the limits of force, even among one of its greatest partisans, was given expression in another of Machiavelli’s famous sayings, in which he advised, “One must be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this.” Israel’s strategy toward Hamas—seeking peace by periodically pummeling the Palestinians, shedding the blood of numerous innocents—violates Machiavelli’s injunction. It generates hatred as well as fear. It produces desperate men.

The counterproductive and useless character of Israel’s uses of force has always seemed to me the best argument against them, the one most likely to gain some kind of purchase in officialdom. But the sad state of affairs is that the Israelis think they are succeeding. They also believe they are using force in a limited and proportionate way, and no exhibition of “telegenically dead Palestinians” will convince them otherwise.

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