July 30, 2006

A Futile Little War

Roger Cohen:

A little over two weeks into the conflict's current incarnation, it is safe to say the following: Hezbollah has already kept the Israeli Army busy longer than the army of any Arab state in the past several decades; the standing of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is likely to rise. The disarming of Hezbollah - the group widely believed to have been behind the slaughter of the U.S. Marines back in 1983 - appears remote.

Whatever vestigial standing the United States had as an honest broker in the Middle East has disappeared with the Bush administration's embrace of Israel's sustained use of force in response to Hezbollah's murderous July 12 cross-border raid.

With little subtlety and great predictability, the administration has gone through its familiar post-9/11 paces: Hezbollah equals terrorism, terrorism must be crushed, ruthlessness is the only way forward, and damn the consequences.

This position has allowed Israel to do its own post-9/11 thing. "Everyone understands that a victory for Hezbollah is a victory for world terror," said Haim Ramon, the Israeli justice minister.

Not so: A victory for Hezbollah is a victory for Hezbollah, which is not Al Qaeda, which is not the Palestinian national movement, which is not the Iraqi insurgency, which is not homegrown European Muslim suicide bombers.

Trying to turn the problems of the world into a single undifferentiated issue - the war on Islamic terror - does nobody any good.

Witness the current mayhem, a reflection of a terrible American failure to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any serious way over the past five years.

Problems must be fixed one at a time, which requires the curiosity to understand them, and to come up with particular solutions. Not everyone in the Middle East wants to be Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, a man generally ready to do America's bidding. Siniora, who is understandably furious, certainly does not want to be. Nor, of course, does President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

But nor do these leaders want to be in the pocket of Iran. The United States has room to probe this ambivalence. But first, of course, it must stop giving a green light to Israel to, in the current parlance, smash terror.

Bush, however, is very unlikely to change course, especially in an American election year. His stance is popular not only with many Jewish Americans, but also the Christian right.

"The United States has been more a party to this conflict than an arbiter," said Mourhaf Jouejati, director of Middle Eastern Studies at George Washington University. "Lebanese democracy, a supposedly cherished American aim, has been sacrificed for the Israeli ally."

The fragile Lebanese polity born since the withdrawal of Syrian troops last year has been shattered.

The democratic movement of 2005, applauded by the State Department as the "Cedar Revolution," has been left with shipments of American food as a token of sympathy. America's regional record of cheering on democratic uprisings and disappearing when the going gets rough - remember the Shiites of Iraq at the end of the 1991 Gulf war - has notched another unhappy chapter.

Yep. This 'accidental' war (as The Economist recently put it) will end up having proved something of a disaster for all parties involved save, perhaps, Hezbollah. Israel will not have eradicated Hezbollah (a totally unrealistic war aim, regardless, Krauthammer and Co's reckless imbecility aside), the United States has complicated its regional position immensely, and, as Cohen points out, the Cedar Revolution lies in ashes. Was the IDF action worth hundreds dead, thousands wounded, massive flows of internally displaced and refugees numbering in the hundreds of thousands, an environmental disaster unprecedented in Lebanon's modern history, and the scuttling of Lebanon's tenuous movements towards emergence from an oppressive Syrian yoke? All for, at the end of the day, a deal on Shaba Farms, the return of the two soldiers (probably in the context of a prisoner exchange anyway), French and other troops on the Lebanese-Israeli and Lebanese-Syrian borders (gee, wonder how porous that latter one will be?), and some (likely mostly chimerical) 'disarming' of Hezbollah?

Well no, of course not, this was more by way of an ill-advised temper tantrum than a serious military operation, as Arik Sharon would himself admit, if only he were aware of the disaster underway. Sharon would have recalled previous Lebanese quagmires and would have well understood (aided by the wisdom of years and the lack of any need to prove himself) that resort to airpower, in the main, cannot succeed in this context, with the specter of hundreds and hundreds of civilian deaths earning Israel international opprobrium in every world capital (save Washington), and that there is no real, sustained post-'82 appetite in Israel for a massive land incursion regardless, not least given the ultimate futility of same. No, Sharon would likely have chastised Ehud Olmert for his impestuous over-reaction, one so helpfully fanned on by myopic strategic blunderers and amateurs in Washington, both in policy and journalistic circles.

Walid Jumblatt, the irrepressible Druze survivor, puts it well:

From his hilltop citadel, Walid Jumblatt was a worried man Saturday. In Lebanon's Byzantine, ever-shifting politics, the leader of the country's Druze community has emerged as one of Hezbollah's harshest critics. But a savvy veteran, he understood the arithmetic of the Middle East these days: In war, survival often means victory. And after 18 days of the conflict with Israel, he was bracing for what Hezbollah's survival would mean for a country seized with volatile uncertainty.

Lebanon's survival, he said, was now in the hands of Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah.

"We have to acknowledge that they have defeated the Israelis. It's not a question of gaining one more village or losing one more village. They have defeated the Israelis," he said. "But the question now is to whom Nasrallah will offer this victory."

In contrast to the first days of the war, with ambitious U.S. and Israeli vows to dismantle the Lebanese group's militia, hardly anyone now expects Hezbollah to fade from a scene in which it has long played an intrinsic part, drawing support from a Shiite Muslim community that feels even more besieged today. And in a country where one community's gain is another's loss, Hezbollah's survival seems sure to fundamentally alter Lebanon, which is already reeling from the shock of a conflict that has killed hundreds of civilians, forced 750,000 to flee their homes and left the country's infrastructure in shambles. For a country whose identity was never settled, its religious diversity more curse than blessing, Lebanon is facing the very contradictions of its history.

Even before a cease-fire has been reached, Lebanese have begun to ask: What kind of a nation will the war leave?

From the southern city of Tyre to the Christian suburbs of Beirut, residents dourly talk about the prospects of civil war in a country still shadowed by 15 years of fratricide that ended in 1990. Divisions between Shiite Muslims and the country's other sects -- Druze, Sunni Muslim and Christian -- have grown deeper than at any time in perhaps a generation. To an unprecedented degree, Lebanese speculate whether the government can remain viable, or even survive.

Nasrallah strenuously tried to address those worries Saturday, in a broadcast on his group's television channel, al-Manar. "I tell the Lebanese that no one among you should be afraid of the victory of the resistance," he said, sounding low-key and assured. "I assert that the victory will be for all of Lebanon, for every Arab, Muslim and honorable Christian, who stood with Lebanon and defended it."

More reflective of the mood were the words of Hassan Taryaki, a Sunni helping care for Shiite refugees in the southern city of Sidon, where 57,000 Shiites have fled their homes.

Taryaki, an earnest 21-year-old, has worked for days with 30 other volunteers at the Saint Joseph University, a hilltop campus in the seaside Sunni city where 440 Shiite Muslim displaced have sought refuge. They slept just a few feet away in the courtyard, in classrooms and on a shady grass bluff overlooking a rocky valley. But a chasm separated his sentiments from theirs.

"The country's all ruined now," he said. "Not just what was reconstructed but everything. It's all ruined."

A student at Lebanese American University, Taryaki was blunt. He said Hezbollah would emerge from the war with its organization intact. It would keep its weapons in one form or another, and Lebanon's other sects would have to respond.

"If Hezbollah wins, it will become the leader of the country, and everyone else will start rebuilding their militias all over again to have their say," he said. "If you have a militia, you can survive. If you don't, you can't. It will be just like the 1980s."

The goal now, he said, was for each community "to protect itself."

Sound familiar? Baghdad becomes 70s era Beirut, and Beirut, perhaps, will go full circle yet again, and join Baghdad in the quasi-civil-war stakes. We're not there yet, of course, and let us at least hope Condi will belatedly nail down a cease fire in the next 5 or so days, so that we can do our best to stave off greater chaos, including the specter of such a Lebanese civil war. If adults had been at the helm, and people weren't chattering on about "root causes" and "birth pangs" like cocksure, naive pimpled adolescents, we wouldn't be in this mess, having instead sought an immediate cease-fire in early days, and asked the Israelis to restrict their military retaliation solely to actual Hezbollah military targets in the south, and very select strategic targets elsewhere. But no, adults weren't at the helm, and the consequences have been rather devastating. This appears to have been, in the main, an unmitigated blunder, save I guess, for the comfort that cross-border kidnappings and rocket attacks will no longer occur under the watch of the multinational force (well, at least for a spell, as we'd have to talk seriously with the Syrians and the Iranians, directly and indirectly, respectively, to effect any long-lasting dimunition in Hezbollah's power). But such a result could have been achieved regardless, without the severe over-reaching of an Israeli military campaign that has set back Lebanon (and increasingly the region) many years.

David Brooks writes:

Many of those calling for this immediate cease-fire are people of good will whose anguish over the wartime suffering overrides long-term considerations. Some are European leaders who want Hezbollah destroyed but who don’t want anybody to actually do it. Some are professional diplomats, acolytes of the first-class-cabin fundamentalism that holds that “talks” and “engagement” can iron out any problem, regardless of the interests and beliefs and fanaticisms that make up the underlying reality.

The best of them have a serious case to make. It’s true, they say, that Israel may degrade Hezbollah if it keeps fighting, but it may also sow so much instability that it ends up toppling the same Lebanese government that it is trying to strengthen.

They point to real risks, but if a cease-fire is imposed now, there won’t be only risks. There will be dead certainties.

But there are "dead certainties" also, alas, if the Israeli offensive continues. Hezbollah will not be conclusively defanged regardless, as they enjoy too much support among a good 30-40% of the country's populace, and the central government will continue to get weaker and weaker by the day, and the risk of pan-Iraqi re-alignments leading to a heightened insurgency against US forces in Iraq will grow, and the Egyptians and Saudis will increasingly align themselves with forces of reaction in the region, rather than Western-style moderation. The diplomats are not engaged in any "first-class-cabin fundamentalism" to speak of, they are engaged in cold, practical realities, and they realize that there are no panaceas or tidy, neat solutions to be had, if only we allow the war to go on, so they are instead (wisely) seeking to stem this futile bloodshed. The only real "dead certainties", finally, are that many more innocents will perish for no good reason (perhaps Mr. Brooks intended a grim pun, of sorts?) if we follow the prescriptions of the David Brooks's and Charles Krauthammer's (the former infinitely more reasonable and compelling, but lately appearing to have lost the "incrementalism" in the "neo"). More on all this soon.

UPDATE (Sunday AM NYT): British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett on the horrific loss of civilian life in Qana overnight: "quite appalling". Ironically, this attack reportedly took place around the time Condoleeza Rice was meeting with Israeli defense officials and calling for maximum efforts to avoid civilian deaths and exceed utmost caution in target selection. The Lebanese now don't even want Rice to come to Beirut (not suprisingly) unless she calls for an immediate cease-fire (which she still hasn't), and there are reports that after another day of meetings in Israel she will return to Washington to work on a UN Security Council Resolution. The Qana attack makes her task much harder, and emotions are getting increasingly raw, with pressure on the governments in Amman, Riyadh and Cairo to take a stronger anti-Israeli stance now certain to mount considerably, and the risk of miscalculations with regard to potential fighting between Syria and Israel perhaps mounting materially (though still unlikely, all things considered). Needless to say, Condi's presence in Israel during this attack (an unfortunate coincidence, you might say) is another shattering blow to America's image in the region. Karen Hughes, take note.

Posted by Gregory at July 30, 2006 04:43 AM

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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