Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Lebanese War Subjected to an Armchair Historian's Analysis

It won't please the Christian Zionists who were, bizarrely hoping for Armageddon, but the United Nations passed a ceasefire resolution for the conflict in Lebanon yesterday. Both the Israeli and Lebanese governments have agreed to it. It calls for the deployment of an international peacekeeping force of some 15,000 in a buffer zone between the two countries.

Of course, Lebanon was not a combatant in this fight. So, that leaves a big question regarding the resolution's implementation:
"The Lebanese government has fully endorsed the resolution," said a senior State Department official. "It remains to be seen: Will Hezbollah behave as a Lebanese entity and assume a place in the political process or continue to be a proxy for foreign governments?"

But U.S. officials said they believe that at least some members of Hezbollah have endorsed the ideas in the proposal because Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora won unanimous cabinet support -- including from two Hezbollah ministers -- for the deployment of an expanded U.N. force.
Assuming that the ceasefire can now be put in place relatively incident-free, there will begin a time of postmortem analysis of this conflict, something I find fascinating as a student of history. And there are any number of questions to be answered:
  • What was Hezbollah thinking when it initiated this conflict?
  • What was Hezbollah trying to achieve with its attack?
  • Given Israel's initial stated goal of destroying Hezbollah, why did it rely so heavily on the imprecisions of air power and why did it engage in a kind of non-sequitur war that seemingly ignored that the real powers behind the Hezbollah attack were most immediately, Syria, and more remotely, Iran?
  • Why, when the Arab League had condemned Hezbollah's original attack on Israel, did the Israeli government not seek to work with its Arab neighbors to put pressure on Hezbollah for the return of its kidnapped soldiers, rather than resorting immediately to war that put innocent civilians--Israeli as well as Lebanese--in the crosshairs? Why did Ehud Olmert's government botch an historic opportunity?
  • What explains the massive failure of Israel's usually sterling intelligence in failing to learn either of Hezbollah's extensive battle plans or its military capacity?
One lesson that comes through clearly from this conflict is that military power, even overwhelming military power, can definitely be used to impotent effect.

The wisest stewards of massive military advantage, like Dwight Eisenhower, the greatest US President of the last half of the twentieth century when it comes to diplomatic and military strategy, have always known several things:

The first thing they've known is that the implied use of force often accomplishes more than its actual use. "Power is what people think you have," my Ohio State PoliSci prof, Jim Kweder, used to tell us. (Poli Sci 265, Winter Quarter, 1972) Had the Israeli government exercised some patience, it might have been able to exert prevailing, massive pressure on Hezbollah through Arab countries already condemning the group's actions and so, driven a wedge of disunity within the ranks of Israel's historic enemies.

Israel could have implied that it would use its military against Hezbollah or its sponsors--and actually done so, if it appeared that Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt would not maximize pressure on Hezbollah--and gained the release of its soldiers as well as the dismantling of the group's military apparatus without firing a shot.

When major military powers allow themselves to be suckered into armed conflict with inferior forces, as happened to the United States in Vietnam and to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, they subject those forces to unexpectedly high casualties. Guerilla fighters who are underestimated going into a fight see anything other than being annihilated as victory. So does the watching world. It's what I call "the emperor has no clothes" effect. It lessens the influence and security of a great power and emboldens its enemies if it doesn't achieve its stated military goals.

The second thing which the wise stewards of military power know is that once a decision has been made to fight, nothing necessary for victory must be held back. In America, this notion is a key component of the Powell Doctrine. As summarized in a terrific Newshour resource:
...the Doctrine expresses that military action should be used only as a last resort and only if there is a clear risk to national security by the intended target; the force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy; there must be strong support for the campaign by the general public; and there must be a clear exit strategy from the conflict in which the military is engaged.
The Ehud Olmert government never seemed to know exactly where to hit its enemy, relied heavily on the imprecisions of air power to go after that enemy, and had an announced exit hope without having an apparent strategy.

Donald Sensing believes that the war in Lebanon has been a disaster for the Olmert government and will lead to the Prime Minister's replacement by Benjamin Netanyahu. That would likely signal a move away from the policies of Ariel Sharon, who understood the ticking demographic time bomb that will make Israel itself an Arab state unless it divests itself of territories once seized from its enemies. Netanyahu appears to want to ignore this demographic imperative, thus guaranteeing that Israel's very existence will be a taunt and constantly in danger.

When Hezbollah attacked, Israel had every right and responsibility as a sovereign state, to protect its citizens. But the Olmert government also then had a choice about how to defend Israel. It could have employed the implied use of force, striving to isolate Hezbollah on the one hand, or gone after the terrorist group with overwhelming force, on the other. Either option could have been legitimately supported and pursued. But the government there chose neither one. Now, after enormous loss of life in both Israel and Lebanon and after giving Hezbollah a PR-windfall, the Israeli government has severely crippled Lebanon's nascent democracy and filled Lebanese of all stripes with renewed hatred for Israel.

I'm just a preacher who's a student of history, but it looks like a recipe for another war to me.

[Thanks to Annie Gottlieb of Ambivablog for linking to this piece.]

[Thanks also to Stubborn Facts for linking to this post.]

[I appreciate that Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice has also linked here.]


Charlie said...

The Olmert government was most likely driven into the use of military force against its will by the more militant voices in Israeli politics and public opinion. If true, it shows their weakness.

You're right that Israel botched an opportunity to divide Arab opinion by seeking Arab help against Hezbollah. It was foolish to think Hezbollah could be defeated militarily when they are so throughly embedded in Lebanese society. Either Israel received bad advice from its generals, or the Olmert government caved to pressure and ignored the warnings of what lay ahead.

We are undoubtedly learning some similar lessons in Iraq. There are no quick and easy wars, and events always move in ways that war planners -- and politicians -- fail to foresee.

Your PoliSci prof's quote is well worth remembering, and should be written on a banner in the Oval Office.

Mark Daniels said...

Interesting comments, Charlie. I have seen the wisdom of Jim Kweder's maxim repeatedly and in many different contexts in the intervening thirty-four years.


Robbo said...

"I'm just a preacher who's a student of history,...."

From where I sit reading, you are more than that. You have made a lot of valid arguments, asked very important questions and drawn some very perceptive conclusions. Some Christian bloggers think it is a weakness to even acknowledge the existence of innocent civilians in Lebanon let alone mention them in the same sentence as innocent Israelis and I also respect you for that. I have one comment/question. Re

"Israel could have implied that it would use its military against Hezbollah or its sponsors ..... and gained the release of its soldiers as well as the dismantling of the group's military apparatus without firing a shot"

I do not honestly believe that is possible- who would have disarmed Hezbollah, why would they willingly give up their arms, and what about the initial attack which killed other Israeli soldiers- how would you expect Isaael to respond to that? I note that the vast majority of Israeli opinion including Israeli peace activists were in favor of going after Hezbollah.

- Raymond

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments.

You may be right in saying that Hezbollah would not have acquiesced to pressure from Israel. But I hadn't envisioned them exerting that pressure on their own, only in concert with the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians. Even such a combination of influencers may not have caused the group to release the kidnapped Israelis or complied with other legitimate Israeli demands. But now we will never know. I believe though that the hours after Hezbollah initiated the recent conflict represented a splendid opportunity for the Olmert government, an opporunity that has now been squandered.

Thanks again.


Patrick Martin said...

As we've been discussing over at Stubborn Facts, I've been a very strong supporter of the justness of Israel's war against Hezbollah. At the same time, I've questioned its wisdom. I'm not sure that what they've achieved with the cease fire was worth the costs. I fear they will be left with an emboldened Hezbollah which will now have more sympathy from ordinary Lebanese, and a weakened central Lebanese government.

Mark Daniels said...

You put the thing quite well, I think.

Thanks for stopping by and for the link.