israel and hezbollah: round three
One of the bad (or perhaps good) things about going on vacation is that one has to follow world events primarily through CNN, which tends to treat everything as a form of entertainment, and prefers to emphasize the "morality play" aspect of foreign policy rather than in-depth analysis. It was thus rather a shock, on my return, to see Israeli and (to some degree) American newspaper coverage of the same events. CNN left me feeling that the Israelis were both (i) right and (ii) winning. The Israeli press didn't change my mind about the former, but left me rather less sure on the second count.
Two principal criticisms are being made of the Israeli strategy, one moral and the other military or political in nature. The moral criticism, which primarily originates outside of Israel, relates to the use of air power and the consequently large number of civilian casualties and damage to Lebanese infrastructure. The criticism is likely to become more intense after today's attack on the town of Qada, which resulted in a record number of civilian casualities including many children. But Israel has been under a deliberate and intense assault on its civilians for more than two weeks now, using weapons intentionally located in populated areas; it is doubtful that many other countries would have responded differently.
The military criticism relates to the slowness of the Israeli response and its reliance (arguably overreliance) on air power rather than a ground invasion. This criticism, which comes mostly from within Israel, accelerated sharply following the battle at Bint Jabeil last week, which saw an elite unit take high casualties in a battle relatively close to the Israeli border. One Israeli commentator wondered if today's soldiers, whose prior experience is mostly in Gaza and on the West Bank, were physically and psychologically prepared for a war against a professionaly armed and trained enemy. Others have grown even more gloomy, predicting dire consequences if Hezbollah is not thoroughly defeated and others (Iran, Syria, the Palestinians) decide to follow its example.
As someone who has been following the Middle East for forty years, I find these critiques pognant but somewhat exaggerated. It is not unusual for democracies to have difficulty in the early stages of a war against a determined, militaristic enemy, particularly when fighting on the enemy's territory in a war that caught the country largely by surprise. Far worse things happened to Israel in the early stages of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and we now know that the defenses against Iraqi missiles in 1990--hightly touted at the time--were by and large ineffecutal in nature. The Israeli strategy reflects less weakness than conflicting policy goals, wanting to deter Hezbollah without being lured into a broader war: arguably a mistake, but an understandable one in the circumstances, and not necessarily a sign of long-term vulnerability.
Moreover the balance of fighting is heavily in Israel's advantage, a fact obscured by CNN-style reporting which gives the impression of equal damage on both sides. At the cost of a few dozen casualties, the Israelis have destroyed a substantial portion of Lebanon and effectively expelled the better part of the offending Lebanese population. The longer-range Iranian missiles, which are the only ones capable of causing serious damage (as well as the only ones that could possibly reach Israel from Iran itself), have proved wildly inaccurate and easily targeted by the Israeli Air Force once they are fired. Does anyone seriously believe that a neighboring country--Egypt, Jordan, Syria--would look at the Lebanese experience and say, "why don't we try that, too?"
Much will be made of the political side of the equation, viz., that Hezbollah, even in defeat, will emerge politically strengthened and provide the impetus for even more anti-Israeli, anti-American activity throughout the region. It is probably true that the organization, and its Iranian sponsors, will gain some prestige at the expense of traditional Arab regimes and (ironically enough) the Al Qaeda, Sunni radicals, who have killed far more people but without the high profile of the Hezbollah missiles. But their success is likely to frighten the Sunni Arabs at least as much as Israel or the U.S.: the lack of support among Arab states has been palpable.
Much depends on what happens next. Should a cease-fire be accompanied by anything less than a full-scale disarmament by Hezbollah--or at very least the surrender of the organization's missile arsenal--it is likely to be highly unstable and may not even take effect. In this respect the proposal for an entirely French peacekeeping force, which sounds more like a recolonization than a long-term peace plan, is not especially encouraging. But Israel and the U.S. still hold most of the cards in the negotations, and the plan is by no means finalized yet.
In the longer term, I suspect that the Iranian stragegy--trying to sow chaos and distract attention from the country's nuclear program--will have precisely the opposite effect. No one seriously doubts anymore that Iran both has a nuclear program and that it will either make use of its most advanced technology or share it with people who will. Moreover the Iranian deterrent has been seriously compromised, directly by the neutralizing of at least a portion of the Hezbollah missile force, and indirectly by the rather unimpressive technical peformance displayed by its longer-range weapons. The West thus faces an enemy that is revealed to be both extremely dangerous in the long-run and highly vulnerable in the short run, together with the near certainty that peace cannot be achieved without first dealing with the Iranian threat. People in such sitatuations don't usually wait.