Abetting Catastrophe in Lebanon

by , August 19, 2006

The U.S. and Israel are close allies, so perhaps it comes as no surprise when both make the same mistakes. Still, Israel always seemed to be more insightful and ruthlessly pragmatic than America. Yet just as the U.S. jumped into the Iraqi imbroglio based on fantasies about the peaceful, pro-American democracy that would soon arise, so Israel invaded Lebanon with illusions of quick victory filling its head. Alas, Israel has learned the same lesson as has America in Iraq – there is no easy victory in irregular combat with fanatical opponents, and no easy way out once war has commenced.

The compromise UN resolution is merely a temporary palliative. Assume the cease-fire holds. An earlier peacekeeping mission (UNIFIL) has been in place for 28 years, with little obvious effect. The new deal rests on promises that aren’t likely to be kept and is backed by a joint Lebanese-international force that isn’t likely to keep the peace.

Moreover, the keys to stability are missing. The Lebanese government is incapable of disarming Hezbollah. Iran and Syria have no incentive not to resupply Hezbollah. The latter is no more reconciled to Israel’s existence than before and has demonstrated that it more effectively represents Lebanon’s long-oppressed Shia population than does the government.

Moreover, nothing has been done to resolve the underlying political issues. Hezbollah sparked the current conflagration, but it is just another battle growing out of the creation of Israel in war more than a half century ago.

Israel rightly demands recognition of its right to exist. But Israel is unwilling to end its occupation of the West Bank and routine intervention in Gaza, which leave it hopelessly entangled in Palestinian affairs. Israel can win any military battle in the occupied territories or against its neighbors, but so long as millions of Arabs live under Israeli domination, there will be more conflict. How to break a cycle of violence that is as predictable as the monsoon in Southeast Asia is no more evident today.

Thus, the long term looks bleak. More hatred. More Hezbollah attacks south and Israeli retaliation north. More corrosion in the fragile civil society that has built up in Lebanon after years of civil war and foreign occupation. More antagonism toward Israel and the U.S. throughout the region.

Hezbollah lit the fuse with its July 12 raid that killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured another two. It might have hoped to trigger a Götterdämmerung to solidify its political position throughout the Mideast. However, that seems unlikely.

Hezbollah launched similar raids in the past, which generated a minimal Israeli response (Israel, too, routinely violated the boundary, usually for reconnaissance purposes, sometimes for combat). Moreover, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in April had publicly threatened military action to win the release of Hezbollah fighters held by Israel. And shortly after hostilities erupted, Hezbollah leader Mahmoud Komati told The Times of London: “The truth is we didn’t expect this response … that [Israel] would exploit this operation for this big war against us.”

This apparent Hezbollah miscalculation was matched by an equally serious Israeli mistake. Israel could have responded with modest retaliatory action, as in the past, or undertaken special targeted missions against Hezbollah personnel or installations. Why Israel chose general war is unknown.

Perhaps Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who lacks the military experience of his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, felt the need to demonstrate toughness. Perhaps because of this background he and his ministers were more willing to believe the military’s promises of an easy success. Perhaps the Olmert government felt more sure of U.S. backing than before. Perhaps they thought a regional crisis would help trigger American action against Syria or Iran, or both.

Or most likely, they thought the incident provided a good excuse for a long-desired final reckoning with Hezbollah. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that last year the Israelis briefed foreign diplomats about their war plans against Hezbollah. Just four days after the initial incident, according to the Washington Post, “Hezbollah’s cross-border raid that captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others has provided a ‘unique moment’ with a ‘convergence of interests’ among Israel, some Arab regimes, and even those in Lebanon who want to rein in the country’s last private army, the senior Israeli official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing conflict.”

In any case, Israeli officials apparently believed that they could win a quick victory, and in doing so cripple Hezbollah, eliminate the threat of cross-border attacks, reinforce the image of Israeli invincibility, discredit Hezbollah in Lebanon and throughout the region, and send a message to Iran and Syria. As Israel attacked, Gen. Gershon Yitzhak said that the goal was to “remove this threat once and for all.”

Whether these goals warranted the cost of the ongoing military action itself is surely questionable. Hezbollah was more an unpleasant nuisance than a threat to Israel’s existence: the former possessed perhaps 5,000 guerrillas, while the latter can mobilize hundreds of thousands of soldiers possessing the most advanced equipment available. Hezbollah had avoided unleashing its missiles, its most potent weapons, for fear of retaliation.

And, after a month of combat, Israel appears to have achieved none of its objectives. The Israelis simply forgot their own history in Lebanon. The latter – with confessional political representation for a population with 18 official religious groups – dissolved into civil war between 1975 and 1990. Israel launched Operation Litani in 1978 to depopulate the area south of the Litani River (about 13 miles north of the border), thereby creating a free-fire zone. Many of those displaced ended up in Beirut suburbs and ultimately members of Hezbollah. Israel soon retreated, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization filled the void.

Israel undertook a full-scale invasion in 1982 to destroy the PLO. At first even Shia Lebanese viewed Israelis as liberators, but those sentiments quickly faded, leading to the rise of Hezbollah (“Party of God”).

Israel easily defeated the PLO and occupied Beirut for a time. But an indigenous Lebanese resistance arose, and Israel pulled back in 1985, maintaining a buffer zone south of the Litani. In 1993 and 1996, Israel undertook limited incursions into Lebanon. Finally, six years ago Israel brought its troops home. Over that 18-year period Israel lost about 800 soldiers; as many as 30,000 Lebanese were thought to have died in the extended conflict.

Now Israel is back in Lebanon. But what was supposed to be the Israeli equivalent of a cakewalk turned into anything but. Everyone has lost big, with the result veering toward catastrophe.

Despite Israel’s great military superiority – which routinely humbled the formal militaries of its Arab neighbors – it has been unable to destroy Hezbollah. Even worse, it has found much of its territory vulnerable to missile attack.

About a hundred civilians and soldiers have died and even the living fled their homes for fear of new attacks. Hezbollah forces proved surprisingly capable, destroying tanks and even disabling a ship. Israel held back its ground forces for fear of substantial casualties. The mobilization, with ever more reserves called up, placed a huge burden on the Israeli economy.

Even direr is the situation in Lebanon, which was attempting to recreate what once was the most prosperous, tolerant, and peaceful oasis in the Mideast. Israel laid waste to much of Lebanon’s south; the country’s ports, roads, bridges, and airport have been wrecked.

Attacks may have started on Hezbollah strongholds to the south of Beirut, but they soon spread to Christian neighborhoods. Writes Michael Young, opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, the attacks are worse than in 1982: “All of Beirut is a target; all access roads, airports, and ports have been blocked or are in constant danger of being attacked, and a much larger swath of civilians are in danger. According to eyewitnesses in southern Lebanon, including journalist friends of mine, the destruction of villages is the worst they’ve ever seen – both intense and systematic – and it’s not Hezbollah that is usually on the receiving end of the ordnance, it is civilians.” Nearly 1,000 Lebanese died and between 800,000 and a million people, a quarter of Lebanon’s population, fled their homes.

Israel says it attempted to limit civilian casualties, but obvious military targets have been absent in many attacks and Israeli pilots have been reported to deliberately miss civilian targets on some bombing runs when their intelligence proved to be erroneous. A campaign allegedly begun to free two captured soldiers turned into one of the region’s worst wars.

In fact, it appears that Israel intended to inflict collective punishment on Shia, in particular, and Lebanese, in general, for Hezbollah’s activities. “Everyone in southern Lebanon is a terrorist and is connected to Hezbollah,” claimed Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon. Israel’s UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, told an American audience that to those “who claim that we are using disproportionate force, I have only this to say: You’re damn right we are.”

America also is a big loser. Early in the conflict, presidential press secretary Tony Snow explained that “The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel.” But the U.S. is held responsible for military decisions by Israel.

Even if Washington had not been Israel’s strongest backer for four decades, the former’s behavior during the latest crisis reminded everyone in the Middle East that the current administration has extended Israel a blank check for whatever it chooses to do. The Bush administration provided diplomatic cover for Israel’s invasion. Moreover, the U.S. expedited weapons deliveries to Israel.

Thus, the war added fuel to the fire of anti-Americanism throughout the region. Lebanese, including many who supported last year’s Cedar Revolution, blame the U.S. for backing Israel. “We didn’t used to be against the Americans, but now we are,” Fatima Haider told Reuters. Haider’s husband had helped rescue Americans injured in the embassy bombing in 1983, but recently died in an Israeli military strike.

At the same time, Washington’s goal of promoting democracy may have disappeared under Beirut’s rubble. When Israel began its attack, President Bush worried about the “fragile democracy in Lebanon” and urged Israel not to weaken the government of the nation that it was bombarding, a frankly inane request. Beirut’s Daily Star editorialized: “What was once a dream of democracy is fast becoming a nightmare of unstoppable civil war and terror.”

Nor is that all. As Tim Cavanaugh of Reason magazine observed of Israel’s supposedly simple plan, “The Israeli blockade on and bombing of Lebanon that began six days ago will end when two abducted soldiers are returned, Hezbollah ceases its attacks on Israeli territory, and the Lebanese army is deployed to the Israel-Lebanon border. The problem is that none of Israel’s actions so far appear to be aimed at those goals.”

By attacking spectacularly but with only limited effect, Israel has shifted the regional balance of power in the wrong direction. Israel simultaneously enhanced Hezbollah’s stature, drove Sunni and Shia Muslims together, weakened pro-American regimes, and strengthened radical Islamists. That is quite an achievement.

About 40 percent of Lebanese are Shia, and most support Hezbollah. Other Lebanese were wary of the group, though in that nation’s Byzantine political process some Christians have allied with Hezbollah. Still, before the Israeli attack, most non-Shia Lebanese wanted to disarm Hezbollah, but the army, with a disproportionate share of Shi’ite soldiers, could not do so.

The current Lebanese government viewed the U.S. with favor for having backed the Cedar Revolution last year. America’s traditional Sunni allies viewed Hezbollah with suspicion and criticized its provocative actions. These regimes were especially worried about rising Iranian influence.

The war changed everything. Although Hezbollah is weaker militarily, its equipment losses are likely to be made up quickly. Moreover, its political role, especially as provider of social services and pensions, may be more important than ever – it already has announced that it will aid those who have lost their homes. Finally, Israel has turned Hezbollah into the apparent last-resort defender of Shi’ites. Indeed, this invasion, so disproportionate compared to the initial Hezbollah foray, makes Lebanon’s Shi’ites less secure and thus less likely to accept Hezbollah’s demobilization.

In Lebanon more widely, there initially was substantial anger at Hezbollah for pulling the nation into an unnecessary war. Michael Young advocated playing on these sentiments by pursuing a diplomatic response that would “narrow Hezbollah’s ability to justify retaining its arms.” However, warned Young in a piece published in the New York Times just two days after Hezbollah’s initial assault, “No Lebanese government could legitimately help to advance such a plan if Israel were to try to, as its army chief of staff put it this week, ‘turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years.'”

But that is precisely what Israel did, making war on all Lebanese. Roula Khalaf, the Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times (who still has family in Lebanon), writes, “Certainly, there is outrage among non-Shia politicians and people who blame Hezbollah for dragging Lebanon into a futile war. But so devastating has been Israel’s campaign that Hezbollah’s provocation is fading into distant memory.”

Thus, popular opinion shifted toward Hezbollah. One poll in early August found that 71 percent of Lebanese supported Hezbollah’s initial capture of the Israeli soldiers and 87 percent backed its retaliation after Israel’s attack.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora formally thanked Hezbollah’s leader “for his efforts” and “all those who sacrificed their lives for the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon.” By August, even Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, long a Hezbollah critic, declared that he had to support the group in response to “brutal Israeli aggression.”

He added, “All American policy in the Middle East is at stake because their failure in Palestine, then failure in Iraq, and now this failure in Lebanon will lead to a new Arab world where the so-called radical Arabs will profit.” It doesn’t take a genius to imagine that many of those with families shattered, homes destroyed, and lives uprooted will eventually vent their fury on Israel, and perhaps America.

The U.S. once had high hopes for the Lebanese government, an anti-Syrian coalition created in the aftermath of last year’s Cedar Revolution. But Siniora may have been irretrievably weakened by the conflict. Two-thirds of Lebanese say they are dissatisfied with his performance.

As the credibility of the Lebanese government falls, that of other organizations, most notably Hezbollah, rises. As noted earlier, the latter already has promised aid to those displaced by the conflict. Secretary Rice stated that “I have no doubt there are those who wish to strangle a democratic and sovereign Lebanon in its crib”; Israel and the U.S. have done the job most nicely.

Beyond Lebanon, Arab sentiments are overwhelmingly pro-Hezbollah. As Sunni Palestinians celebrate their co-combatants, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seems increasingly irrelevant, and even Hamas leaders are being pressed by more militant leaders.

To preserve themselves, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all shifted from criticizing Hezbollah to denouncing Israel. Jordanian King Abdullah II observes, “A fact America and Israel must understand is that as long as there is aggression and occupation, there will be resistance and popular support for the resistance.”

U.S. ally Turkey, which has long maintained a cooperative relationship with Israel, unequivocally denounced the war. Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, normally an American friend, denounced both Israel and America. Demonstrations have reached all the way to Indonesia, the most populous Muslim state. Hezbollah’s apparent success stands in stark contrast to the impotence of the venal, authoritarian Arab autocrats who stand by the U.S.

Perhaps most ominous, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki criticized Israel and called on Washington to press for peace. Moderate Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani denounced “the entities that hinder a cease-fire,” the identities of which are not hard to guess. Even Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, denounced Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shi’ites marched, chanting “death to Israel” and “death to America.”

The expanded conflict probably reduces still further the already low chance of Iran agreeing to a deal to dismantle its nuclear program. Sadegh Kharrazi, former Iranian ambassador to France and a moderate, told the Financial Times that the conflict complicated efforts to reach a compromise. He added that the U.S. would have to accept “the reality of Iran’s geopolitical power.”

Finally, bleeding Lebanon will join a long line of other grievances for terrorists old and new. Of course, administration officials have trouble understanding this fact. President Bush seems to believe that Arab terrorists kill Americans because we are free and go to Disneyland. As Secretary of State Rice recently complained, “the notion that somehow policies that finally confront extremism are actually causing extremism, I find grotesque.” Grotesque she might believe it to be, but that doesn’t stop it from being true.

There are many reasons for America to be hated, but the image of the U.S. killing and helping to kill Muslims certainly must be among the most important. Authoritarian regimes are not creating radicalism, observes Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan: “Mainly it is American policy in the region – survey after survey shows this.”

Moreover, points out Jeff Taylor of Reason magazine, “There is certainly historical precedent for a Hezbollah-Israeli clash in Lebanon inspiring Muslim terrorists the world over. Back in 1996 Israeli artillery hit a UN compound in Qana crowded with Lebanese refugees; 106 people were killed. Israel said it was trying to hit a nearby Hezbollah mortar site and mistakenly used old maps; a UN investigation found the attack was ‘unlikely’ to be completely in error. Take your pick, but that is what happens in war fought among civilians – murderous mistakes. By August of that year Osama bin Laden cited ‘the massacre of Qana’ prominently in his first fatwa against the U.S. government.”

As if widespread bloodshed was not enough, the administration’s simplistic treatment of al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi insurgents, Iran, and Syria as all part of the same enemy blob is pushing them closer together. Even Hezbollah, an indigenous Lebanese force, and Iran, which backs Hezbollah, have their differences. But Washington serves as a strong unifying force.

What now for the U.S.? By all accounts, President Bush believes that Washington and Israel are on the same page, destroying evil, killing terrorists, eliminating the “root cause” of violence, and preparing the Mideast for a democratic renaissance. Bush mourns the dead, says presidential counselor Dan Bartlett, “Yet out of this tragic development, he believes a moment of clarity has arrived.”

Bush’s moment of clarity may have arrived, but not to America’s benefit. Bush and his advisers are living in a world that exists only in their minds. Ironically, of all the international crises brewing, perhaps the strategically least important for America is Lebanon. Indeed, if the U.S. had a rational foreign policy, Lebanon would not be its problem.

Hezbollah is an ugly actor, but not an enemy of America. True, more than two decades ago Hezbollah targeted the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps barracks in bombings that cost 258 U.S. lives. However, we were at war then.

Unlike 9/11, when terrorists flew to America’s homeland to attack civilians, in 1983 Washington sent U.S. forces to intervene in Lebanon’s long-running civil war. American forces were active combatants, not innocent peacekeepers. For instance, the battleship USS New Jersey bombarded Muslim villages in the Bekaa Valley. It was a foolish policy decision that made America a tragic but obvious target. Colin Powell, then a military aide to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, observed, “When the shells started falling on the Shi’ites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides.”

Although some of today’s Iraq war enthusiasts blame President Reagan for withdrawing, he made the only rational decision possible. The U.S. had no vital interests at stake and could not have pacified the war-ravaged nation, at least at an acceptable cost.

Since then, Hezbollah – whose leader actually criticized al-Qaeda after 9/11 – has focused its attention on Israel. That’s unfortunate, but the fact that the organization is the enemy of an American friend does not make it America’s enemy also. (By the same token, Washington need not war against Sikh or Islamic terrorists who target India, Tamil guerrillas who attack Sri Lankan authorities, Basque terrorists who kill Spaniards, Chechen fighters who battle Russian forces, etc.) The U.S. has enough international burdens without taking on those of everyone else.

But America’s close alliance with Israel and support for its invasion of Lebanon have made Lebanon its problem. Secretary Rice originally justified doing nothing because she wanted an “enduring cease-fire” and a “sustainable peace,” something that has eluded not only this president, but his nine immediate predecessors, as well as the British, French, and Ottoman empires. Unfortunately, hoping for the best proved to be insufficient as the Bush administration, joined by Israel, proved to be far better at destroying than creating.

What now? The U.S. should stay out of any UN mission. Obviously Washington is very busy in Afghanistan and Iraq. More seriously, U.S. forces would immediately be seen as an army of occupation allied with Israel and would become the target of innumerable attacks. Neocon armchair warriors might thirst for another Muslim war, but it would not be in America’s interest.

Over the longer term, the U.S. should distance itself from Israel. The irrepressible Bill Kristol declared, “This is our war, too.” Economic analyst Larry Kudlow went even further: The Israelis “are defending their own homeland and very existence, but they are also defending America’s homeland as our front-line democratic ally in the Middle East.” President Bush might not have gone quite so far, but he didn’t need to. If there was light between the American and Israeli positions, it was hard for anyone to see.

It is time for Washington to set policy independent of Israel and end the special relationship – large-scale financial aid, emergency arms transfers, and the like – that makes Washington complicit in everything Israel does. The point is not that America should necessarily criticize or oppose Israel. U.S. policy simply should reflect U.S. interests, irrespective of whether or not they coincide with those of Israel.

Then the latest twist in who Israel negotiates with and who it bombs would not be America’s affair. The U.S. really could act as an honest broker in the region. And Muslims the world over would not blame the U.S. for everything Israel did.

Washington also should talk to Syria and Iran. Although both support Hezbollah, the irreligious Ba’athists and the Shia revolutionaries are very different. Damascus has pushed for a dialogue since 2003, and more recently officials have suggested that they could be detached from Iran and might be prepared to restrain Hezbollah. Iran might not be prepared to make give up its apparent nuclear ambitions, but refusing to talk to Tehran serves no purpose.

Further, the U.S. needs to get out of Iraq. The spectacle of Washington and Israel simultaneously warring against Muslims encourages terrorism, undercuts friendly Arab governments, and pushes regional peace even further into the distance. Speaking of Israel, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, author of Liberty for Latin America, observed in the Washington Post, “It is hard to see how a nation that stands for moral rectitude and civilization can win people over to its struggle for security by using means that tarnish that very objective.” His comment applies equally to America.

Early in the crisis, Secretary Rice spoke of “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” If anything is being birthed, it is more death and destruction. Her remark brings to mind the 1968 American horror movie Rosemary’s Baby.

Thankfully, the war in Lebanon is over. It has been a disaster for all concerned. But the relief might be only temporary, unless Washington changes its Mideast policy.

Read more by Doug Bandow