Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Don't Paper The Tiger

One of the rationales for invading Iraq had to do with putting on a display of force for the world to see - and react to. The thinking behind this "shot off the bow" doctrine was that uncooperative and emboldened regimes the world round would think twice about acting to subvert US power and/or support elements that would attack US interests. In the wake of 9/11, America had to flex its muscles in order to reaffirm our dominance, and create a change in the geo-political kinetics. We had to recapture the momentum.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to Baghdad. While the initial display of "shock and awe" did seem to bear fruit - there was a surprisingly conciliatory outreach from Iran in the form of a letter complete with bold concessions to the US on many desired fronts - the end result has created a negative motion. While the Bush administration, at the apex of its hubris, rejected Iran's overtures, the image of America's unipolar, globe straddling might began to crumble.

A prolonged insurgency has sapped the US of billions of dollars, international prestige, diplomatic leverage, intelligence assets, the lives of thousands of soldiers (and the health of tens of thousands more), has chewed up military equipment that we are barely replacing and brought the all-volunteer military to the brink of collapse or severe degradation. The US has been unable to quiet a country and control a comparatively unsophisticated, loosely organized amalgamation of insurgents - and the World has been able to watch on satellite TV.

Beyond Iraq, our hands have been tied. Our influence, and moral authority, on the wane. Our ability to act in other theaters, substantially limited by our current commitments. Even when our commitments eventually end, the World will know exactly what we are capable of, and what we aren't. Instead of advertising our strengths, we have revealed our weaknesses.

The momentum has now shifted in the other direction, with frightening results. Iran is emboldened in a way not seen in decades. Suffice to say, the US won't be receiving any plaintive letters from Iran offering a generous dowry of compromises in the near future. Quite the opposite: Iran is thumbing their nose at the US, rejecting repeated offers of carrots in exchange for halting certain nuclear activities and scoffing at blustery threats about military intervention. Teheran is fearless.

They are free to act in Iraq, and free to attempt to manipulate events in the Levant. Their ascendancy has been so sweeping that certain Arab governments in the region (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan) even flirted with taking the Israeli side in its conflict with Hizbollah - that is, until popular sentiment in those countries forced an about-face.

Despite the enormity of the strategic blunder on display daily in Iraq, it appears that Israel may have walked into a similar trap - and for some of the same reasons. After the inflammatory incursion by Hizbollah that killed eight Israeli soldiers, and resulted in the kidnapping of two more, some Israeli factions and their allies abroad made loud and persistent pleas for, of all things, a display of force. Israel must show its neighbors that it will not allow this type of action. To do so by not responding with its own version of shock and awe, it was argued, would be to give a green light to would-be attackers.

I never found this line of argumentation particularly compelling. No nation in the region, or armed group, had any grounds to doubt the potency of the Israeli military, nor the resolve of its people. Previous small-scale attacks from Hizbollah had been met with limited responses from Israeli leaders in the past - even the notoriously hawkish Sharon had shown such restraint in response to provocation. The consequences were nothing like dire. So why, suddenly, the pressing need to re-assert the obvious? The rewards for this action are somewhat ephemeral in character.

On the risk side of the ledger, however, the consequences could be far more damaging if Israel's attempt to flex its muscles ends up displaying its weaknesses the same way the US invasion of Iraq has done for us.

An article in today's New York Times contains some details that might have pulses quickening in the upper-echelons of the Israeli government: [more after the jump]

A week ago, Israeli officials said their military had knocked out up to half of Hezbollah's rocket launchers and suggested that another week or two would finish the job of incapacitating the Lebanese militia. That talk has largely stopped.

Hezbollah is still launching 100 rockets a day at Israel, nearly as many as it did at the start of the war. Soldiers return from forays into Lebanon saying the network of bunkers and tunnels is more sophisticated than expected. And Iranian-made long-range missiles apparently capable of hitting Tel Aviv remain in the Hezbollah arsenal.

"Two weeks after Israel set out to defeat Hezbollah, its military achievements are pretty limited," lamented Yoel Marcus, a columnist and supporter of the war, in the daily Haaretz on Tuesday. [...]

At the Pentagon, senior military planners cast the conflict as a localized example of America's broader campaign against global terrorism and said any faltering by Israel could harm the American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hezbollah "has features of a stateless terrorist organization, but it also holds territory - and is quite dug in there - and is able to hold at risk the population of the regional superpower in the way that only national militaries once could," said a senior military officer with experience in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. [...]

A government minister, Eitan Cabel, a former paratrooper, caused a stir on Sunday when he expressed disappointment in the performance and speed of the army. "I admit I had hoped for better from the army," he said, arguing that it was illusory to try "completely to eliminate Hezbollah as an armed force in Lebanon."

While the tone of that article is calm and measured, this post by Billmon is anything but - with the caveat being that it is more speculative in nature:

My friend is an old Middle East hand who has some good sources on the Israeli side, mostly ex-military and ex-Mossad, plus some contacts among the Bush I realist crowd -- although of course they're not in government any more either.

He didn't have any secret dope on what the next military or diplomatic moves will be -- it seems to be purely day-to-day now -- but he DID get a clear sense that the Americans and the Israelis both understand now that they are in serious danger of losing the war.

They're freaking out about this, of course, because they're deathly afraid that if Israel is seen to fail, and fail badly, against Hizbullah, everybody and their Palestinian uncle will get it into their heads that they can take a crack at the Zionist entity. (The tough guy realists see this as a disaster in its own right; the "cry and shoot" gang frets the IDF will have to pound the West Bank and Gaza even harder to re-establish the balance of terror. Either way, it's an unacceptable outcome.)

...My friend can't tell, nor can I, if the primary objective is still to smash the hell out of Hizbullah, or whether the Israelis are just looking to save a little face.

The parallels are disturbing if anything like the scenario described by Billmon is in fact reality. Right down to the lack of international prestige and support - made worse now, no doubt, by news of the sustained shelling and bombardment of clearly marked UN facilities resulting in the deaths of four UN workers. Putting a missile - bullseye - through the top of a Red Cross ambulance wasn't exactly a PR coup either. Actions such as those will make it even more difficult to assemble the international force ex machina - assuming everyone in the IDF is on the same page.

My only hope is that Israel will not feel compelled to up the ante in order to "save face" as it were. If they get bogged down in Lebanon for any length of time, then they will also likely replicate US costs in lives, equipment, money, diplomatic leverage and range of motion. The gains made from such an occupation might prove equally dubious. I think Billmon summed up the deja vu qualities of this endeavor quite well.

If all this sounds familiar -- the half-baked war plan, the unexpected setbacks, the frantic search for foreign legions, the lack of an exit strategy, the rising tide of blood -- it certainly should. We've already seen this movie, in fact we're still sitting through the last reel. It's a hell of a time to release the sequel.

You know, sometimes its better to leave a good reputation alone.

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