August 4, 2006
According to the Mainstream Media, Israel has invaded "Lebanon" -- a putatively sovereign nation-state -- in clear violation of international law. It is true that Israeli forces have crossed the line on the map where Lebanon is supposed to begin, but the southern part of that country has not been under effective control of the government in Beirut for years. It is no secret that Hezbollah -- the "Party of God" which consists of Shiite muslims -- is the true supreme authority in much of southern Lebanon. What is striking is that the Lebanese government is objecting to the entry of Israeli forces into an area where its own forces are not even permitted to go! Why hasn't anyone pointed out that no soldiers from the Lebanese army have been killed or wounded in this conflict? Because it is so obvious that Lebanon is not an effective nation-state in any meaningful sense of the word. You may not find it in any world atlas, but the de facto reality is that Hezbollah is a virtual state unto itself, with a territory it controls on an exclusive basis; call it "Hezbolland."
Austin Bay wrote that this conflict shows that the Westphalian system of nation-states has "failed." That system assumes that each sovereign country has control over its own territory, unchallenged by armed groups. Strictly speaking, however, systems cannot "fail," because they are not deliberately constructed by anyone. They simply evolve from the interaction of their component parts. The Westphalian system was more of an idealized abstract than an accurate depiction of international reality, and in any case was superseded to a large extent by the United Nations in 1945. Still, Col. Bay is correct to point out that the transnational nature of terrorism, especially the modern Islamo-fascist variety, renders obsolete our traditional notions of national security.
Semantics aside, what is taking place in Lebanon is an awful tragedy, not just in the popular sense of great sadness and pity, but in the deeper, classical sense of an unavoidable clash of human wills thwarting each others' purposes, leaving everyone worse off. At first glance, the widespread criticism of Israel for the disproportionate use of force, responding to the abduction of two of its soldiers, seems quite valid.
Indeed, one of the biggest moral issues in this war is civilian casualties, and who is to blame for them. Red State notes that U.N. official Jan Egelund called the Hezbollah fighters "cowards" after he learned first hand that they were actually proud of avoiding losses to their own forces by blending in with Lebanese civilians. Belmont Club deals with asymmetric warfare, in which there are vast disparities in the physical capabilities of the two adversaries, who therefore operate under radically different moral and tactical guidelines. It's an extension of the old quandary about whether "guerrilla" forces should be held to the same rules of war as regular soldiers. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (via C-SPAN) alternated between voicing outrage at the "massacre" in the town of Qana and sneering at the Israelis' inability to find all his rockets. Doesn't he know that it is obvious to everyone that his forces have been concealing their arsenal in civilian homes, using innocent Lebanese people as "human shields"?
The artillery attack by Israel that wounded several U.N. peacekeepers is believed by some people to have been deliberate, but there is an easy explanation for it: Hezbollah fighters were stationed right next door, as Andrew Bolt notes. Beyond that, many people are inclined not to believe a fundamental truism about war, which is fought in a "fog" of incomplete knowledge and deception: Mistakes are made, all the time.
A unique combination of weapons and tactics being used in this war, reminding us that war constantly evolves in unpredictable directions, as opposing sides keep innovating to outwit each other. Israel's initial response to the kidnapping of its soldiers, bombing Beirut and various towns in southern Lebanon, seemed quite inappropriate to me. What is (or was) their strategy behind such a massive retaliation? Philip Gordon (Brookings Institution) argued that Israel's frustrated campaign against Hezbollah shows, once again, that "strategic bombing almost never worked." He cites World War II and Vietnam, to which I would add Bosnia and Kosovo, when Clinton tried to win "on the cheap" with air strikes so as to minimize friendly losses. Actually, I don't think Israel's bombing campaign qualifies as a "strategic" endeavor; I think it is a combination of targetted attacks on suspected Hezbollah bases and semi-random punitive raids.
The novel but truly awful aspect of this war is the constant, intensive use of rockets to rain terror upon Israeli civilians. It's a lot like the V-1/V-2 missile campaign of Germany against England in 1944 and 1945: then as now, little was accomplished militarily, but it did paralyze Londoners with fear, and it forced Churchill's government to divert resources toward defending against the V-1 "buzz bombs." (Nothing could stop the V-2s.) Strategy Page summarizes the Hezbollah arsenal of rockets, most of which are Russian Katyushas, or derivatives thereof. Iran has been sending thousands of these rockets, and some bigger, longer-range ones for ten years or more. I would expect the Israeli people to hold up at least as well as did their counterparts in England 60-odd years ago, but one cannot discount the possibility of escalation by Hezbollah in terms of the type of warhead -- as in WMDs. From an apocalyptic, jihadist point of view, why not go for broke?
It was an encouraging sign when the Israelis shifted from reliance upon bombs to sending their commandos (via helicopters) on a bold strike deep into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Bill Roggio has been following that operation. We don't know what they accomplished, but without "boots on the ground," they will never neutralize Hezbollah's rocket-firing capability, much less their command infrastructure. Western intelligence agencies apparently underestimated Hezbollah's military forces.
Donald Sensing reviewed the four military-political objectives set by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on June 17, and thinks that none of those goals are likely to be met any time soon. He concludes on a pessimistic note:
The only way Israel can recoup the diplomatic setbacks it has suffered in the last several days, of which the Qana deaths were the capstone, is to impose political conditions through military successes on the ground. Let's hope Israel's renewed seriousness is not too little, too late.
The question of "who wins," ultimately, lies in the realm of mass psychology more than physical reality. War is a clash of wills, and Israel's difficulty in southern Lebanon thus far seems to have raised confidence among the Hezbollah militiamen. The Washington Post interviewed several of them who are beaming with pride at having withstood a direct frontal assault by Israeli mechanized forces. Aside from the first few days of the Yom Kippur War (October 1973), no Arab army had ever held its own against the Israeli Defense Forces. Times have changed.
Paradoxically, increased confidence among Arabs may just be the key to striking an eventual peace bargain between the Israelis and their bitterly resentful, marginalized neighbors. In almost every war since 1948, Israel has outwitted or overwhelmed Arab forces, leaving them utterly humiliated and craving revenge. It also has instilled in them a tendency to blame outsiders for their failures -- hence the hatred of the United States which led to the 9/11 attacks. The longing for power is never satisfied, however, and it is just as likely that making a gesture of respectful concession to Hezbollah at this point would only encourage further aggression and acts of terror. As with most things human, which course they take simply cannot be predicted with any reliability. In the Washington Post, David Ignatius develops this line of thinking:
Yet in the long lens of history, the importance of the 1973 war is that it opened the door to peace. The Arabs, humiliated by earlier wars with Israel, could now claim a measure of dignity because of Anwar Sadat's bold attack across the canal. The Israelis learned that their Arab adversaries wouldn't run from battle as they had in the 1967 war. That gave them a stake in making peace, too.
The idea that Hezbollah could quickly reform itself and mature into a responsible political organization capable of making compromises with its adversaries is far-fetched, but that may be one of the long-term solutions. Scholars who study the history of state formation in Europe know that the royal families that came to dominate during the early Modern Era were often former thugs. It's like the hordes of Visigoths settling down to rule in Spain during the Dark Ages, or retired Mafia goons deciding to make an "honest" living in Las Vegas. Stranger things have happened.
The worst part about this war is that, only one year ago, there were high hopes for the spread of democracy in Lebanon. The forced exit of Syrian troops had many of us thinking (see May 26, 2005) that Lebanon would be the next "domino" to fall in a democratizing Middle East. Unlike the Neocons, I never saw that process as being swift or sure, but it must be admitted that democracy in that part of the world has stalled, at least for the moment.
Finally, as the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, and as North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela escalate their haughty, bellicose rhetoric, the near-term prospects for world peace are about as lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Some evangelical Christians are even talking about Armageddon as a serious, imminent possibility. The United States probably can't do much to influence the course of events in Lebanon for the time being, but there will no doubt be some serious revisions in U.S. foreign policy. To me there is no doubt that Israel deserves or full moral support in this conflict, even if many of us have reservations about how it is conducting the war. That is why this might be an opportune time to consider -- just to consider -- reducing the annual multi-billion dollar subsidy Israel has been getting from Washington since the 1970s. It would undercut the argument of paranoid Arabs and Islamicists that Israel is a client state of the United States, which makes us look responsible for their actions. This would also be a good time for President Bush to read some of Winston Churchill's memoirs from World War II, especially the speech where he could promise nothing but "blood, toil, sweat, and tears."
UPDATE: Hezbollah fired at least 230 rockets into Israel yesterday, the biggest total yet for one day. Donald Sensing has a thorough rundown on Israel's military strategy and the latest news on unit deployments, complete with a map. Eight Israeli brigades are now inside Lebanon,
at least 30,000 men. Sensing sounds more encouraged that Israel is prepared to wage a serious war against Hezbollah, but he admits that Israeli forces have barely penetrated across the border, making very little net progress on the ground.