Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Apologies to my long-suffering readers (if I still have any) for being incommunicado for so long. July was much busier than I expected, with business trips to London and Southern California and a surprisingly hectic schedule when in the office in New York. So, again, my apologies.

There are a lot of things I've wanted to say. Unfortunately, the topic you probably most want to hear about - the war in Lebanon and Gaza (remember Gaza? thought not) - is one that, frankly, I'm not sure how I feel about.

So perhaps I should air my thoughts in a relatively haphazard way, and see where they land.

- Israel's response, in the north especially, was, at the inception, extremely popular. Even now, there is virtually wall-to-wall support for a war with Hezbollah, albeit an increasingly loud chorus of outrage at the conduct of the war (its ineptness, not its violence).

- This should not be surprising, as the war was, to a considerable extent, launched for political reasons. The proper comparison of this war is not the 1982 Lebanon War, much less World War II (ridiculous comparisons to which continue to proliferate), but Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, Shimon Peres' strike on Lebanon that was intended to shore up his position in the run-up to that year's elections (it didn't work). By making that comparison, I don't mean to suggest that either the current operations or, for that matter, Operation Grapes of Wrath were unjustified. Hezbollah's naked aggression is manifestly unacceptable; Israel could with perfect justification respond with far greater force, including operations against Syria or even Iran. Justification is not the point. The point is: what is the objective of the war? It seems to me manifest that the primary objective of the war was political, and that the primary audience was Israel's own people. Prime Minister Olmert understood correctly that a failure to respond forcefully to brazen and unprovoked attacks from Gaza would discredit the idea of unilateral withdrawal, an idea he still fully intends to extend to much of Judea and Samaria. So he struck back to prove that Israel was still willing to defend itself - indeed, would defend itself more forcefully now that there were no Israeli civilians in the way (which was one of the primary rationales for the withdrawal from Gaza). And when Hezbollah responded, Olmert had to open a northern front as well.

- As I say, there's nothing unjustified about Israel's actions. But there's a problem with wars fought for domestic political purposes: they don't have a clear military objective. And once begun, the only acceptable way to end a war is to win it. And if you don't have a military objective that bears some relation to your offensive operations, then pretty much by definition you cannot achieve victory. And that's where Israel is today, on both fronts but more dramatically in Lebanon.

- Some have described this as a war to reestablish deterrence. But it is not obvious that Hezbollah is deterrable. On the contrary: so long as the political dynamic whereby Israeli responses strengthen Hezbollah's hand, there is no way to deter Hezbollah. If Israel ignores Hezbollah, they strengthen; if they respond, they strengthen. So why would Hezbollah not attack whenever war is useful to it or to its sponsors in Damascus and Tehran? Note that I am *not* saying that religious warfare is more "irrational" than other kinds of warfare, and that this is the reason they cannot be deterred. I think they cannot be deterred because it is not clear how Israel can respond in a way that clearly weakens them, and they know this. Lots of non-religious populations - Stalin's Soviet Union? Ho's North Vietnam? - have suffered immensely in war without breaking. If you that war not only will not break you, but will strengthen your position, why avoid war?

- For this reason, I am skeptical that Nasrallah or Assad or Ahmadinejad had some kind of "grand plan" in provoking this war that has either gone awry (assuming Hezbollah is suffering badly under the current campaign) or spectacularly well (assuming it isn't). No grand plan need be posited. These characters are more likely to benefit than not from disruption of the existing order. All they had to calculate is that the time was opportune to create a measure of chaos. That's not much of a plan, but it's sufficient to explain their behavior.

- Well before Israel withdrew from Gaza, I predicted that the IDF would return within a year. I nonetheless favored withdrawal and the dismantling of the settlements, because the settlements implied an Israeli *claim* to Gazan territory, and I thought that for both reasons of justice and prudence it made sense for Israel to renounce those claims. I never expected unilateral withdrawal would mean peace; I thought it would mean the continuation of war under altered conditions.

- A lot of commentators argued that withdrawal would make deterrence work better, because once they had Gaza the Palestinians would have something to lose, and would not lose that something readily. But I never bought this because the Palestinians have consistently chosen no loaf rather than settle for half. And precisely because there is no way to "eliminate" the terrorist infrastructure in a permanent way, I assumed that Israel would have to resume the occupation in order to protect its citizens from rocket attacks and other aggression. That's what's happening now, but it's not clear that Israel has set the stage for its ability to remain in place; indeed, Israel has made it pretty clear that it does not intend to remain in place.

- Similarly, after the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, I presumed that Israel would have to return. Israel had no territorial claims on Lebanon; its presence was entirely security-driven. Yes, the long occupation produced Hezbollah. But there was no reason to think that withdrawal would result in Hezbollah withering away, as indeed it has not. So now Israel has had to launch a full-scale war merely to "degrade" Hezbollah's capabilities - capabilities that can be rapidly rebuilt, at a fraction of the cost for Israel to degrade them. Israel's stated objectives are to make it possible for the Lebanese army and some unspecified international force to come in and "control" the region in which Hezbollah operates. But Hezbollah is more popular than ever in Lebanon, and it is inconceivable that an international force will actually use, well, force. In terms of restraining Israeli action any such force will be worse than Israeli settlements, and in terms of restraining Hezbollah they will be inferior to the Syrians who, if they chose to, certainly could force some restraint.

- Which brings us to Syria. Various hawkish voices have called for Israel to take the war to the source - that is to say: to Damascus, which never seems to suffer adequately for the wars it provokes (see, e.g., 1967, 1973). But there is no mystery about why Israel has declined to take any action against Syria directly: because the Assad regime is the best Israel could plausibly expect in that country. Were the Syrian regime to fall, it would be replaced not by a friendly Arab democracy but by one of three possibilities: a new military dictatorship (not obviously better than the current regime), a radical Sunni Islamist regime (obviously worse), or a state of anarchy such as obtains in Iraq (also obviously worse). If Israel were certain that the Syrian regime could survive a direct Israeli attack, then, perhaps, Israel might launch such an attack, which would make the Assad regime *fear* collapse and take the necessary actions to prevent it, even if these meant acceding to Israeli objectives such as reining in Hezbollah. The fact that Israel is being very careful with Syria is a testament not to Israeli weakness but to their perceptions of Syrian weakness, and their recognition that the fall of the Assad regime would be unlikely to benefit Israel. Israel will not turn decisively against Damascus until such time as it appears that Assad has been "captured" by Hezbollah, and has forgotten who is the patron and who is the client. That doesn't appear to have happened yet.

- (Side note: some*might* think it in Israel's interests for there to be an *American* effort to topple the Syrian regime, on the assumption that America can simply *impose* a more friendly government on that country. I think that since the Iraq campaign, no one serious in America or Israel still believes that America has that ability.)

- So this is how Israel got where they are. The Israeli government understood that it could not stand idly by while its citizens were murdered. But it did not want to reinstate the expensive occupation of either Gaza or south Lebanon. Nor did it want to seriously threaten the Syrian regime that it would ultimately have to count on to preserve some semblance of order. So it launched a war with no rational military objective, and it now has to figure out how to salvage the situation.

- The short-term consequences for Israel are likely to be quite negative. Israel launched this war with, initially, a surprising amount of support from Europe and the major Arab states. No one especially *wants* Hezbollah to succeed. But the botch job they've made of the campaign so far - which, in my view, stems from the lack of clarity about militarily achieveable objectives at the start - has squandered this goodwill and turned it to hostility, and undermined Israel's position with the Bush Administration as well. On the other hand, the long-term consequences are not likely to be terribly significant. The diplomatic context will have changed many times by the time the next war rolls around. The most significant medium-term consequence - for Israel - of this war is likely to be a substantial setback for Ehud Olmert, and hence for withdrawal from Judea and Samaria - precisely the opposite of the intended outcome when the operation was launched.

- The consequences for the United States could be more significant. In Iraq, Americans are fighting and dying for a Shiite-dominated government that supports Hezbollah verbally if not materially. Maintaining our position in Iraq's burgeoning sectarian conflict just got a whole lot harder; if we force Israel to stand down, we hand a victory to our enemies (not good for our position in Iraq); if we don't force Israel to stand down, we support their war against Lebanese Shiites (not good for our position in Iraq); and if we impose a "solution" in the form of an international force, then we "own" yet another crisis that can't actually *be* solved (which is incidentally also not good for our position in Iraq).

- I do not think that the manifest sympathy of the Iraqi government for Hezbollah materially constrains *Israel's* freedom of action, but it certainly should be an eye-opener for Americans, both as to the character of that regime and the nature of politics in the region. The Middle East is still, and will remain for the forseeable future, a "who/whom" region, where politics boils down mostly to who gets to do what to whom. That isn't the way the whole world works all of the time, nor is it the way one would like the world to work, but it's the overwhelmingly dominant mode of the Middle East. (Th flip side of the Iraqi government's response - and I should point out that not only the Iran-friendly Iraqi government, but also Ali Sistani, the leading Iraqi Shiite cleric opposed to sectarian war in that country, came out on the side of Hezbollah in this war with Israel - is, of course, the response of the Saudis, who, at least initially, blamed Hezbollah for the war and argued that a "proportional" Israeli response would be legitimate. This, again, is not warmth towards Israel or America, nor antipathy to terrorism, but "who/whom" - Saudi Arabia's oil region is predominantly Shiite, and the Hezbollahfication of that region is probably the worst thing that could happen to that kingdom.)

- As for the United States' democracy project: I continue to believe that elites are the motor of history, and republican governance depends on the existence of a patriotic elite willing to subordinate its private interests to the interests of the nation. The Middle East spectacularly lacks such elites, which makes successful republican governance very difficult if not impossible. How to nurture the growth of such an elite is a difficult problem as well, and I suspect an insoluble one; in any event, it seems clear at this point that adventures like the Iraq War are not the way to do it. In the absence of such elites, and of a realistic prospect for republican governance (which if it were realistic would, indeed, change the civilizational dynamics of the region), we're left with management of the conflict, which means working through the self-interested elites that exist, supporting those that seem more congenial against those that are transparently hostile. America is terrible at this sordid game, and always has been. But it's the only game in town.

- There has been a lot of commentary about how tough the Hezbollah fighters have proved. Piffle. Hezbollah is proving hard to defeat not because they are great warriors but because guerillas who have the support of the populace are *always* hard to defeat. To defeat them, you have to be either willing to destroy the populace - Israel is not, nor should it be - or able to separate them from the populace - Israel is unable to. Ironically, an authority perceived as legitimate can get away with - and get positive results from - the kind of brutality that can cause an illegitimate authority to lose a war. Thus, France lost their war in Algeria against the FLN - but the far more inept and corrupt but more legitimate Algerian military regime, the FLN's heirs, basically won their war against the Algerian Islamists, employing more than comparable brutality against a fairly comparably popular insurgency (the Islamists did, after all, win a popular election; the FLN did not enjoy majority support in polls for most of the Algerian war of independence). Hafez al Assad, the current Syrian President's father, was able to destroy the Syrian arm of the Brotherhood in about a week, with 20,000 casualties, and his regime survived; Israel's much less sanguinary and longer-lasting effort against Hezbollah has so far made Hezbollah more popular. Israel's problem fighting Hezbollah - and Hamas - is not that Hezbollah and Hamas are so mighty or so clever but that they are legitimate and popular, and Israel cannot separate them from the populace the way another legitimate authority might.

- Many pundits have pointed out that Hezbollah wants civilians casualties, and fights in such a away as to maximize such casualties on both sides. All true. They go on to argue that therefore it is perverse to reward this barbaric calculus on Hezbollah's part. True - and yet, on another level, entirely understandable. Because, after all, the reason why people are outraged by incidents like Qana is not only because they are biased against Israel, or against the West generally, or because they hold Western countries to a higher standard of civilization, or because people are just idiots. The outrage also follows from the outrage of the Lebanese people. They are not (today, anyhow) blaming Hezbollah; they are blaming Israel. This is a who/whom problem: the Lebanese don't ask whether Israel is justified, they just ask whether Israel is *other* and, if so, then its attacks are illegitimate. Lebanese outrage speaks to Israel's illegitimacy in their eyes, and the world understands that, if the war is not considered legitimate, then it is unlikely to succeed in any meaningful sense. I'm not saying people think this all through consciously. But there is simply more going on than stupidity and prejudice. There is a kind of cold wisdom operating as well.

- What to do now? Israel has just announced that it will expand its ground operations. That's probably a good thing; there's at least some chance that they will at least find out how much damage they did to Hezbollah's weaponry, and so long as Israeli troops remain in place during any cease-fire that is pressed on them they will at least know that violations of that cease fire will mean war on Lebanese territory rather than their own. And accepting more Israeli military casualties in exchange for fewer Lebanese civilian casualities is probably a trade Israel simply must make if it is to salvage anything from the current war. But within a few weeks this war will end, and I am very pessimistic that any solution imposed on the parties will end the threat from Hezbollah either to Israel or to stability in Lebanon. I ultimately don't think the most important aspect of this war is the PR war to decide who "won" - what really matters is whether there *was* a victor, whether anyone's war aims have actually been achieved, and I doubt that Israel's will have been. For that reason, I expect war, on both fronts, to recur.

- The biggest technical problem of any proposed cease-fire is how to make it difficult for Hezbollah to strike Israel. I'm not sure there's a straightforward solution to this technical problem. Shimon Peres has been fond of arguing for years that in the age of the ballistic missile, strategic depth no longer exists, and therefore there is no vital reason for Israel to retain the heights of the Golan or Samaria or the Jordan Valley. Well and good, but the corollary is that in the age of the ballistic missile, there are no borders, and Tel Aviv becomes the front line. Israel is in a novel position, but not a unique one; the rest of the world is trending their way, as it becomes easier and easier for "entrepreneurial" groups to foment violence on a large scale for low cost. Hezbollah's budget is tiny compared to any state military budget, but it can do more damage than most Arab armies have been able to inflict on the Jewish state. This is not a testimony to Hezbollah's greatness, but to the power of modern military technologies.

- But the most difficult problem for Israel is how to get the major Arab states - Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia - to begin to play a constructive role. I can't think of a good reason for any of them to help Israel in any meaningful way, but they are the key to Israel's geopolitical situation, because there is no way to satisfy the radicals - including all significant factions among the Palestinian Arabs - without destroying Israel as an independent sovereign entity. Israel is not going to consent to self-destruction, and for all that Hezbollah would love to wipe Israel off the map, they can't. Israel is probably going to have to learn whether nuclear deterrence works against Iran; even if it does, an ever-bolder Iran will surely try to provoke additional wars between Israel and Hezbollah, and between Israel and Hamas, and these proxies will be ever better armed. Even so, this is the continuation of the long war of attrition that Israel has been fighting since the pre-state period, a war that looks like it will continue for another generation. That's a very sad reality, but I don't see what is to be done about it but to face it.