Thursday, August 03, 2006

What Is It Good For?

Far too much time was spent in the initial days of the recent round of Lebanese/Israeli violence discussing whether or not Israel's response was "proportional" to Hezbollah's aggression, whether Israeli was justified from a moral perspective to apply military force in this context and whether the military tactics employed (and targets hit) fit into acceptable guidelines of just wars and the like.

The incidents involving the bombing of the UN facility and the building in Qana have only served to breathe life into these discussions. It's not that these topics are not worthy of debate - because they are - it's just that such a conceptual focus tends to invite abstract argumentation that veers off into the ethereal land of inconsequence while actual events are unfolding with or without the final say from the collective moral arbiters (as if such consensus is even possible).

There is a time and a place for everything, and while a war is raging, perhaps we should table these noble - if a bit esoteric - dialogues. Lost in this over-intellectualization are the relatively mundane, though absolutely vital, questions: Are Israel's actions achieving its desired ends? Has this endeavor been worth it?

From Israel's perspective, it is fair to say that at least some of the primary goals would fall into these categories:

  1. Recover its captured soldiers

  2. Halt the rocket attacks

  3. Put on a show of force meant to deter future aggression from Hezbollah and others

  4. Significantly diminish, if not destroy completely, Hezbollah's military capabilities

  5. Weaken and isolate Hezbollah politically in Lebanon, and in the broader region, and increase anti-Hezbollah sentiments among the Lebanese people and the people of neighboring countries

  6. Sufficiently strengthen the Lebanese government vis-a-vis Hezbollah to allow for Lebanese armed forces - perhaps with international forces in tandem - to disarm the remnants of Hezbollah and maintain the state of disarmament

  7. Perhaps occupy a large enough portion of Lebanon to achieve #6 if the Lebanese/International forces are incapable

Regardless of Israel's moral justification, or the proportionality of the response, at this point in the engagement it's safe to say that Israel has not done very well in terms of achieving - or making significant progress toward - most of those goals. The captured soldiers remain in the hands of their captors. Each day, the number of rocket attacks seem to break the previous day's record. While Hezbollah has withstood some damage militarily, and the Israelis have made some modest gains in terms of clearing and holding small portions of Lebanese territory, these accomplishments have been hard earned and don't appear to be of a lasting nature.

In fact, in some areas, Israel has taken a substantial step backward from the dreaded status quo ante. Far from putting on a 'shock and awe' type show of force meant to dissuade would-be aggressors, Israel (like the US in Iraq) has revealed its weaknesses and limitations.

What was nervousness on the part of the governments in neighboring nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan at Shiite/Iranian ascendancy as manifested by initial statements against Hezbollah's aggression, has shifted to rather forceful condemnations of Israel. This change of rhetorical course has been in no small part the result of the overwhelming support for Hezbollah among the citizenry in those nations (even those traditionally hostile to Shiite "heretics"). In Lebanon itself the story of Hezbollah's rise in popularity is much the same.

Put simply, Hezbollah has been strengthened in Lebanon and throughout the region. Vicariously, Syria and Iran have reaped their proxy's rewards. Look, for example, at how the Lebanese government has taken the Hezbollah party line (via Swopa) [emphasis mine throughout]:

Lebanon's acting foreign minister, Tarek Mitri, said Wednesday he doubts that his government would agree to invite a European-led intervention force into southern Lebanon, citing fierce opposition from Hezbollah and its key foreign backers, Syria and Iran.

Mitri said Hezbollah's political standing in Lebanon has been greatly enhanced during its three-week battle with Israel, and that its views on the size and mandate of an international force will have to be taken into account. He also said that "no solution" to the current violence in Lebanon can be found without the participation of Syria and Iran in the search for a political settlement.

Billmon reacted to this story with the following ironic observations:

Already, Lebanon's foreign minister is saying, flat out, that Hizbollah and Syria and maybe even Iran will hold a veto over any deal, and signaling that the Lebanese government -- acting as Hizbullah's new proxy -- won't agree to the presence of a multinational force along the border unless it resembles the same toothless UNIFIL observers who are being killed there now.

(Shrub and company wanted to strengthen the authority of the Lebanese government, and in that they have succeeded -- but only by making the government an arm of Hizbullah.)

Walid Jumblatt was equally despondent:

"Walid Jumblatt, leader of the most powerful clan in Lebanon’s Druze community, said on Tuesday the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas had dealt a fatal blow to Lebanese hopes of a strong independent state, free of Iranian and Syrian influence. [...]

“After the 12 July, Lebanon is now unfortunately being entrenched solidly into the Syrian-Iranian axis," he said. “The hopes of a stable, prosperous Lebanon where we could attract investments is over for now. It is a fatal blow for confidence.”

When confronted with the reality that Israel's actions have yielded mixed results (mostly a mixture of stalemate and counterproductive), it is not uncommon to hear an understandably beleaguered cry of "something had to be done" as if the act of doing "something" was self-justifying - regardless of the consequences.

The bottom line is that there were no good answers, no magical roads to resolution that would fully resolve the long standing entanglement. But as Matt Yglesias noted, while the actions of Hezbollah have been odious and despicable, they have resulted in roughly 20 Israeli deaths (13 soldiers and 7 civilians) from May 2000 through June 2006.

This is bad, and Israel shouldn't be expected to endure such a loss of life from a moral/justice perspective. But it might be wiser - for Israel - to view these victims as casualties in a long war, rather than as a casus belli to a hot war likely to unleash more mayhem, bloodshed and instability. Sometimes "something" really is worse than the status quo. Especially because Hezbollah's influence and popularity were on the wane, even if the organization was not impotent or fully tamed by the political process - yet.

Hilzoy, at Obsidian Wings, does her part to battle with the circular logic of the "do something" crowd.

It is not OK, when arguing about what Israel should do, to say something like: do you expect them to accept Hezbollah's presence, with rockets, just over the border? You need to show that there is some way in which Israel could actually root out Hezbollah. If there is nothing Israel can do about the presence of Hezbollah, then the answer to the question "do you expect them to just accept it?" is: well, they can accept it, or rage against it, or adopt any attitude they like, but apparently they can't do anything to change this situation. And if there is nothing they can do, then the choice between (a) a course of action that does not root out Hezbollah, but that does kill hundreds of people, send hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives, inflict billions of dollars in damage, and risk toppling a very fragile democracy that, while imperfect, is better than a lot of other possibilities, and (b) a course of action that also fails to root out Hezbollah, but that has none of these consequences, seems to me pretty clear.

What it will do, aside from causing enormous amounts of destruction, is turn people who might have opposed Hezbollah into supporters, and people who might have supported getting along with Israel into Israel's enemies. In comments, several people have described this set of concerns as 'not wanting to upset the terrorists'. So let me be very clear about it: this is not a matter of thinking: oooh, Israel shouldn't do anything that would offend the tender feelings of terrorists! I am not, in the first instance, concerned about what the terrorists think....I am, however, greatly concerned about what Lebanese who were not members of Hezbollah before this crisis erupted think. The reason I care about this is not because I am worried about their having hurt feelings, or not liking us, or anything like that. I am worried that someone who might otherwise not have supported Hezbollah will strap a bomb to his body and blow people up; that someone who might otherwise have turned Hezbollah members in to the Lebanese government might allow them to operate with impunity instead; or that the Lebanese government might become unable to consider various courses of action that would enhance the prospects of peace with Israel because, after this bombing, any attempt at reconciliation would strike too many people as appeasement or capitulation, and reject any government that tried to make them.

Or, as Sebastian Mallaby put it:

Just as in Iraq, the United States is supporting a war that is defensible in concept. Yes, it was Hezbollah that provoked this fight. Yes, destroying this militant state-within-a-state would be a boon not just for Israeli security but for Lebanese democracy. And yes, the diplomatic options for dealing with Hezbollah promise no quick progress. But Iraq surely teaches that wars must be more than defensible in concept. Wars are only defensible if they can be won.

In response to the question posed by the title to this post, "What is it good for?" I would respond: frequently less than absolutely nothing.

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