The careers of the greatest warriors often remind us of the importance of statesmen with political principles and strategies. It may be Ariel Sharon’s fate to serve, in part, as such a reminder. But if we do not learn to know the world through the prism of his career, we will be shortchanging not only him, but ourselves.
Sharon was, as Caroline Glick says, larger than life. Jeff Dunetz calls him “an enigma wrapped in a paradox,” which in some ways he was. He was a leader whose maneuvers sometimes alarmed, even angered, his military superiors and his own people. It is a serious question whether Israel would have survived to this day on her current, sustainable geopolitical basis, if she had not had Ariel Sharon fighting for her in 1956, 1967, and 1973. It is an equally serious question whether his leadership helped or harmed Israel in 1982 and 2005.
To briefly survey his military-operational genius, one cannot do better than Edward Luttwak’s summary. Luttwak brings to life one of the simplest reasons why the wars from ’56 to ’73 were short and sharp: Ariel Sharon. Sharon’s crossing of the Suez in the 1973 war, between a narrow gap in the Egyptian line, is a maneuver that modern armies study for its brilliance, but few – then or since – would ever be authorized to attempt. Sharon, in fact, wasn’t authorized to attempt it:
Egyptian commanders believed that their forces could capture all of [Sharon’s force] by converging toward one another, thus closing the two-mile gap that Sharon had exploited.
Sharon’s superiors agreed with their Egyptian counterparts. They ordered Sharon to stop sending forces across the canal, and instead to widen the gap on the Israeli side. Sharon did not obey, pleading communications difficulties while sending as many of his forces as possible across the canal. He calculated that attacking the Egyptians from their own rear – destroying the missile batteries that impeded the Israeli air force, ambushing reinforcements and supplies, and simply causing massive confusion across the entire front – would induce organizational collapse in the Egyptian army.
That is exactly what happened. But Sharon’s fellow generals were furious at him, as was often the case.
If Sharon’s record of operational audacity is reminiscent of anyone, it is the young Napoleon. Bonaparte’s crossing of the Apennines in 1796, with an inferior force which split and neutralized the forces of the Austrian alliance in northern Italy, is also studied today for its brilliance. But if Napoleon’s superiors had known he was about to do it, they would have ordered him most straitly not to. His official task in Italy was merely to establish a presence and draw off Austrian forces from the Rhine.
This is the heady company in which Sharon may be judged as a military leader. His political instincts were of course nothing like Napoleon’s. A natural democrat, Sharon respected the judgments and discipline of politics. Unlike many lifelong warriors, he managed to engage in politics without seeming painfully out of place, or always as if his collar was too tight. In spite of this aptitude of character, however, Sharon was missing a key ingredient of the successful statesman: a high tolerance for navigating perpetually through a sea of unresolved tensions and conflicting interests.
Sharon’s most fundamental instinct, I think, was for securing decisive resolutions. The “world” had one perception of that model of action in 1948; by 1982, it was the world’s perspective that had changed. This change didn’t occur so much because of a decline of faith in decisive victory in the Cold War West, although that did figure into it. The shift was more the product of a sense of complacency about the international “order,” which by the early 1980s had been in place for 35 years.
Iran and the PLO, on their separate courses, had begun perfecting the art of sniping against the order without threatening – just at the moment – to decisively perturb it. The post-1945 career of the Arab nations in openly, straightforwardly perturbing the order had been halted, with the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979. Under these changed conditions, what Sharon was best at – securing decision – might not look as much like bringing order as like breaching it.
Sharon was also operating on a different stage as defense minister, and later prime minister. Under the spotlight of politics, the mode of action of military audacity rarely works very well. There is no political equivalent of driving through the Egyptian line across the Suez Canal and attacking from the enemy’s rear. Indeed, the very idea of “decision” in politics can be overrated. It is, at any rate, almost always overestimated.
Conditions of peace and order are always overestimated too, however. The perceived permissiveness – and the constraints – of an unstable peace often lead us astray, and that is one of the allegations made against Sharon’s decision in 2005 to evacuate Gaza. But few if any foresaw in 2005 that the peace that would fall apart in the next decade was the general one: the U.S.-backed global order.
The pendulum of human life is swinging back toward the conditions in which Ariel Sharon excelled. We will need his kind again. We will need to study his military tactics; more than that, we will need to remember, and inspire ourselves with, his courage, audacity, and commitment to a patriotic idea of his nation.
Israelis have their special right to bury or praise Sharon, according to preference. For them and all of us, his legacy must stand or fall on what he was, as a man and a leader. America’s World War II naval hero, Arleigh Burke, who rose to the rank of four-star admiral and served as Chief of Naval Operations for three terms, wanted only one word on his headstone in the cemetery of the U.S. Naval Academy: “Sailor.” Like Burke, Ariel Sharon had a long and varied career in the service of his nation, fighting battles both military and political. And, like Burke’s, his life and legacy are best characterized by a single word: “Warrior.”