"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Two Way Street

Mr. Furious: Rage... taking over...
Casanova Frankenstein: Yes, yes, we've heard that before.
Mr. Furious: No. Rage... REALLY taking over...

- from Mystery Men


Among the more useless ideas that we’ve had to endure over the past five years has been the notion of the monolithic Arab “street”, poised to explode at any moment over any slight that might come their way. That said “street” has been more prone to erupt over cartoonist musings than during infidel invasions has done little to diminish such thinking. This is not to say that they are impotent or irrelevant – far from it. But insurgent movements and the “street” are not the same thing, and the past has shown that not all Arabs are ready to accept that their destiny as jihadi cannon fodder.

And yet the “street” remains ever at the forefront. At the onset of the Israel’s decision to enter Lebanon, many questioned whether such a move was prudent. The difficulty of fighting guerrillas was well known, and many feared that the political costs of the collateral damage associated with pursuing Hizbollah would be too high. World, and perhaps more importantly Lebanese, opinion – the vaunted “street” – might dramatically turn against Israel.

So it should not have been a surprise to anyone that Israel looked a little unsure of itself during the initial phase of the invasion. One certainly gets the sense that it was not a surprise to Hizbollah. Consider the following statement by Hassan Nasrallah made shortly after the hostilities began:

It (Israel) has a nuclear weapon and the strongest air force in the region, but in truth, it is weaker than a spider web.

Hizbollah had calculated that Israel was not in a position to seriously threaten its position within Lebanon and welcomed the fight. They were prepared to do what was necessary in a heads we win, tails you lose quagmire in which Israel would be handcuffed by humanitarian concerns. All they had to do was hold out long enough for a draw, and they would be able to claim victory over Israel.

And they got their victory. Despite claims by the Israelis that their strategic goals were achieved through the cease-fire, the reality is that Nasrallah & Co withstood the Israelis and are now legends throughout the Arab world. Its popularity has never been higher, receiving praise from both Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Yet despite all of this, their success may be short lived. Lost in the celebration is the fact that Hizbollah was dealt several blows from which it may never recover.

From a tactical standpoint, they have lost the element of surprise. Whether you believe the Israeli Defense Force was held back by political uncertainty or was hampered by a lack of military intelligence, the size and scope of Hizbollah’s operation in southern Lebanon has now been exposed. The IDF will be able to review everything from Hizbollah support structures to the proper integration of ground and air power. The Home Front Command, which did quite well in shielding civilians from thousands of surface-to-surface rockets, will become even more adept at countering such future bombardments. All in all, the Israelis have gained far more information regarding its enemy than Hizbollah did, and can be counted on to put that knowledge into practice much sooner.

But the real loss is more strategic in nature. For starters, the world is coming to see them for the fundamentalist threat that they really are. Paradoxically, their cause has been hurt by their very strength. They are no longer viewed as the darling resistance movement relative to a powerful IDF. World leaders have begun to realize that Hizbollah success against Israel could be easily exported around the globe. Never has the world been so quick to condemn the actions of Hizbollah (granted that it equivocated some later), and they showed unprecedented understanding of Israel’s invasion into Lebanon.

Most significantly, however, may be the part that this resistance has played (along with the ineptness of the Olmert government) in the rebuilding of an Israeli consensus. The Israeli “street” – earlier referred to as weaker than a spider web – has regained its conviction and has supported actions that heretofore would have torn the country apart. The invasion into Lebanon itself was a rather bold maneuver, considering that Israel had withdrawn for that territory only a few years earlier. Perhaps more tellingly, Israel has overcome much of its reluctance to target civilian locations that shield terrorists. They will no longer allow their concern for human life to be abused by such tactics. And the trend here is more, not less, likely to continue in that direction. The cease-fire agreement, whatever you may think of it, will have the effect of making the Lebanese government responsible for actions committed from within its territory. This will make Israel less likely to hold back in any future confrontations.

So congratulations, Hassan. Your brilliant exploitation of western fear, guilt and doubt has earned you a historic victory, and you have gained unprecedented favor among the Arab “street”. But I hope you’re prepared for what comes next. Your greatest asset has always been a disillusioned West, and I fear that you may have just thrown it away. The tactics you chose to rally your side of the "street" may have been just enough to awaken the Israeli side to the true nature of the existential threat that it faces.

Good luck with that.

11 comments:

Devang said...

Turns out winning hearts and minds really is that easy.

I don't know if a mideast Marshall Plan is what's called for because it is awash in oil money as is, but we really have lost this battle on all fronts and continue to lose the war. Surprise is a repeated tactic in the repertoire of a guerrilla army and there has been more than one in hte past month.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, the world press, and the New York Times in this case, would be expected to cover it that way.

The United States gave billions to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Betcha didn't know that, but you could look it up. (Still waiting for our thank you note.) The Palestinians continue to live in squalor, by hook, by crook, and by choice. They prefer guns to butter.

Very tight essay, Matt, and I tend to agree. We lose all perspective in the 24/7 news cycle: by the standards of the grave threats and indeed wars that Israel has faced, this was a mere skirmish. From what I hear from here and there, Israel is a bit shocked with itself, that its young military was considerably softer than its forebears; the sophistication and extent of Hizbollah tunnels (which are useful only offensively, of course) at the border took Israeli intelligence by surprise.

The net result of this little blip will be shining a light on the cockroaches and seeing them scramble, their nests revealed. And as you point out, Hizbollah spent their hide-behind-civilians card. Neither Israel, nor, I think world opinion, will fall for that one as easily again. For at least six months, anyway. Mebbe a year. ;-)

James Elliott said...

Wow, Matt. You must have some sort of magical power of international relations prognostication. Especially since just about every analyst of international affairs and Middle East affairs in specific contradicts you.

I find Greg Djerjian far more convincing.

Matt Huisman said...

Especially since just about every analyst of international affairs and Middle East affairs in specific contradicts you.

That's primarily why I posted.

I don't have much good to say about what Israel has done so far, but the idea that Hizbollah came out of this as victors just seems to miss the mark. How many more such victories they can afford?

As for Mr. Djerjian, I agree with the following:

Let’s be clear. Beating Hezbollah ultimately must rely more on what might be described as counter-insurgency tactics, not some Dresden redux. To beat back Hezbollah one must moderate the 40% of Lebanese who are Shi’a, by over time having them pledge their primary allegiance to a strong central government, one that is sharing the economic fruits of Lebanon’s revival with all ethnic groups, so as to ultimately render the social welfare arm of Hezbollah largely irrelevant.

The tricky part is the strong central government. How do you get there? The end game involves this government telling Hizbollah to get out, and we're a long ways away from that happening.

For its part, Israel needs to regroup, to encourage the Lebanese government to be responsible for what goes on in its country, and to act decisively against further aggression.

The bizarre thing in this whole scenario is that Israel and the Lebanese government should be allies, and yet it seems almost impossible for it to be so.

James Elliott said...

"The bizarre thing in this whole scenario is that Israel and the Lebanese government should be allies, and yet it seems almost impossible for it to be so."

Something about bombing the living crap out of your potential ally's infrastructure tends to put a damper on the relationship.

I cannot help but feel that if Olmert felt like he had a bigger wee-wee, none of this would have happened.

Matt Huisman said...

And something about the way that the Lebanese government tends to appease/cozy up to Hizbollah might lessen the chances of a future partnership as well.

I probably never should have used the word bizarre, as there are just too many obstacles preventing them from working together. The best one can hope for is that they recognize that theyare mutually interdependent - each benefitting from the other's strength.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Something about bombing the living crap out of your potential ally's infrastructure tends to put a damper on the relationship.

Actually, it worked real good with Germany and Japan.

And to fast-forward to the Clinton administration, Serbia. At least it made them a bit more tractable.

But you're right, James, in that the size of Olmert's pee-pee and the performance of the Israeli armed forces was found wanting:

Yossi Klein Halevi, Israel Correspondent for the New Republic & Fellow at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem: “However hard Ehud Olmert tries to spin it, the U.N. ceasefire that began yesterday is a disaster for Israel and for the war on terrorism generally. With an unprecedented green light from Washington to do whatever necessary to uproot the Iranian front line against Israel, and with a level of national unity and willingness to sacrifice unseen here since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, our leaders squandered weeks restraining the army and fighting a pretend war. Only in the two days before the ceasefire was the army finally given the go-ahead to fight a real war. But, by then, the U.N. resolution had codified the terms of Israel’s defeat” (New Republic, August 15).

I dunno, but something about bombing the living crap out of your potential ally brings him around a bit. Olmert stopped a little too short of living crap, it appears.

Francis W. Porretto said...

John Stoessinger, in his book Why Nations Go To War, made a penetrating observation about the Six Day War: the Israelis understood the political context of that war very well. They knew they had at most five days before political considerations would compel a cease-fire, and they engineered their strikes within that envelope.

This time around, it appears that Israel's leadership did not fully grasp the political context. Either that, or Hezbollah and its state backers (Iran, Syria) had achieved a deeper understanding and had placed themselves in a position against which, given the political context, the Israelis could make no headway. To be completed in the time available, and within the constraints available, a war of annihilation against Hezbollah would have required a completely different assault pattern. It might well have been impossible. But this is the sort of judgment that's far easier for a Monday-morning quarterback to reach than for a statesman straining to do something about the persistent slaughter of Israeli civilians.

Matt Huisman said...

This time around, it appears that Israel's leadership did not fully grasp the political context.

Actually, in a strange sort of way, one could make the argument that this contributed to the lack of forethought in the Israeli invasion. Like the ballplayer that has to be "restrained" from charging the umpire, there can be a temptation to act a little more rashly than you might otherwise if you expect to be held back.

What do you do when no one shows up to stop you?

Devang said...

What do you do when no one shows up to stop you?

You wouldn't be trying to elude to the UN would you? or against preemption and unilateralism...

Matt Huisman said...

The idea was that normally world outrage would lead to the US pressuring Israel to back off. Given that the US had already given the greenlight for the invasion in the first place, you can read my comment [note the italics] as speculation on the Israeli subconscious.

Now I do think that Mr. Porretto makes an astute observation regarding Israel’s failure to fully grasp the political situation. Personally, I think they had no (strategic) idea of what they were doing. They had developed a successful response model for suicide bombings by using force against PLO/Hamas leadership, and intuited that force was required against Hizbollah.

But it appears they were just reacting to the situation, and hadn’t worked through the details of what their response should accomplish. At that point they were operating on instinct, and I suspect that one of them may have been this idea that somebody would step in from the sidelines to “hold them back”.