The No-Win Zone

The No-Win Zone

Mini Teaser: War in Lebanon highlights the lack of options, and victors, in the Middle East.

by Author(s): Daniel BymanSteven N. Simon

Yet despite the largely positive results from Hizballah's defiance, Nasrallah and other leaders are likely to be cautious about another future round. There is no appetite among Lebanese, Shi‘a included, for another month of devastating Israeli strikes. A large European force that cannot be attacked without risking Hizballah's larger diplomatic position is now between Hizballah fighters and the Israeli border. Hizballah, like every other faction in Lebanon, must also watch its back with regard to the al-Asad regime in Syria. Iran's commitment to Hizballah is unquestionable at this point-Tehran will still at times try to rein in its proxy or use it for Iranian interests, but in general Iran is strongly committed to the relationship. Syria, however, has historically had an instrumental view of the organization. For now it serves Damascus's interests in Lebanon and against Israel to keep close to Hizballah-interests reinforced by the additional domestic legitimacy that Bashir's regime gains from ties to Hizballah. Nevertheless, it is always possible that Damascus would sacrifice Hizballah's freedom of action on the altar of Syrian self-interest.

Nasrallah miscalculated but turned up trumps because Israel overplayed its hand-the next time the cards may not fall the same way.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seized on the Hizballah kidnapping as a way to demonstrate that he would be tough when Israel was threatened, but Israel's poor showing left the government humiliated and reeling politically.

A steady drumbeat of missile launches from Gaza, followed by Hamas's clear victory in the Palestinian Authority elections, ate away at the credibility of Olmert's "Convergence" policy (his touchy-feely moniker for Sharon's "Severance" initiative, which in essence called for withdrawing from parts of the West Bank where few Jews lived while building up the security barrier around Israel proper and the most populous settlements in the West Bank). The vulnerability of the Olmert government and the hollowness of its agenda accounted for the harsh response to a Hizballah provocation that Ariel Sharon might have waved off, or at least avoided committing his government's prestige to the fight by engaging in a less massive retaliation. Olmert, however, was in no position to ride out a small disgrace, especially after the killing and kidnapping initiated by Palestinian militants in Gaza almost three weeks earlier.

And the military outcome was far from stellar. Israel's losses were considerable, particularly given Israel's ostensible superiority to what is still, by comparison, a poorly armed guerrilla group. Israel lost over one hundred soldiers, with almost 1,000 wounded. Israeli officials seemed overconfident, and military leaders underestimated Hizballah's determination and skill, both of which are surprising given the many times Hizballah fought Israel to a standoff in skirmishes in the past.

The navy's complacency and the common problems of the Mossad and military intelligence left a Saar 5 destroyer at the mercy of an Iranian C-802 cruise missile. (Flawed targeting data exacted civilian casualties at Qana-again-that complicated the lives of politicians but had no adverse effect on operations.) Hizballah's adroit use of anti-armor missiles not only against Merkava III tanks, but also to destroy improvised idf defensive positions, was extremely effective and could not be countered in the short duration of hostilities. This will raise questions about budget cuts that deprived the idf of larger numbers of the Merkava IV, a tank so heavily armored that Hizballah fighters apparently did not bother to fire on them. The failure to insert the two divisions deployed to northern Israel at the outset of hostilities, and to rely instead on airpower, will also be heavily criticized, but this was a political, not military, decision.

The source of these problems lay mostly in the focus of the idf on the intifada, which erupted just three months after Israel's 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. Israel will have to rebalance these security priorities and, in the process, divert resources from social services to the military. In a country where political coalitions form on the basis of budgetary rewards, this will add to the coming political volatility.

What is the fate of Kadima after the war? As a party without a raison d'être or charismatic leader, Kadima's prospects were already diminishing. As a party perceived to have squandered an opportunity to lay waste to Hizballah, rather than Lebanon, its odds of surviving an electoral challenge are declining. The premise of convergence, that withdrawing from territory will reduce the number of attacks, is now widely questioned. And defenestrating the Labor leader and Defense Minister Amir Peretz for the years of idf budget cutting that preceded his accession to the ministry will not be enough to stave off elections within six to nine months. A resuscitated Likud will claim that Kadima's policy of pre-emptive capitulation created the test that the party's leadership failed to pass. High flyers in Kadima, like Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, will be invited back to Likud with a promise of a place on the electoral list. Barring a sudden reversal, Kadima will go to the polls as a spent force, and Israeli politics may revert to a polarized and paralyzed status quo ante. Likud is hardly the dream party for most Israelis, but by default it may reemerge to lead the country. Israelis will not be the only ones to pay a high price for the Lebanon war; Palestinians will share the pain, perhaps for years, if a less compromising Israeli government takes power.

U.S. policy in the region also suffered a serious setback. The Bush Administration stood by Israel as a matter of principle: Israel had been unjustly attacked by terrorists, and it had a right to respond. Moreover, Lebanon was the "Western Front" of a momentous struggle with Islamic extremism; this was an opportunity for rollback. Washington thus moved slowly on a ceasefire resolution, hoping that Israel would smash Hizballah.

The Bush Administration's principles were right, but their implementation hurt both U.S. and Israeli interests in the region. Many Arabs believe that Israel's attack on Hizballah was done in part on Washington's behest. The suffering of the Lebanese was seen as something condoned (or, worse, encouraged) by Washington. Delays in getting a cease-fire compounded the impression that the United States cared little about the well-being of ordinary Muslims-especially after watching graphic images of the deaths of noncombatants from an Israeli military campaign.

This perception proved particularly troubling for moderate U.S. allies in the Middle East. Showing a degree of public political courage they usually lack, fueled perhaps by worries about Shi‘a assertiveness, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan initially criticized Hizballah, implicitly endorsing Israel's campaign. But as the violence wore on and the suffering of the Lebanese increased, these governments feared popular criticism and backed away from Washington and towards the radicals. Their willingness to defy the Arab street and take a pro-U.S. stance on other issues is likely to diminish. Future U.S. efforts to rally Arab regime support for U.S. initiatives in Iraq or to restart the stalled peace process will be that much harder.

The clash also led Europe to re-engage in the Middle East. The humanitarian catastrophe that Hizballah and Israel visited on Lebanon animated the European press; the resulting public outrage forced reluctant and unprepared European governments to declare that this was the hour of Europe. Europe responded better than it did when Jacques Poos made a similar declaration in 1992 and the EU was humiliated by the Serbs-but this is faint praise. This time there was no American power in the wings to offer oomph to the European force, and it could only come in after the belligerents had agreed to a ceasefire.

The Italians were the first to offer a sizable number of troops, but the French, who lost 58 peacekeepers in Beirut in 1983 to Hizballah (a near-simultaneous Hizballah attack killed 241 U.S. Marines who were part of the same mission), were more reticent. For Chirac and his military advisors, the force size and rules of engagement stipulated by unscr 1701 would put too many soldiers in too much of an exposed and unstable situation. Once again, peacekeepers would be at the mercy of local warring factions. The pressure to act decisively and effectually in a Middle East crisis, however, proved irresistible. Chirac reversed himself and the French increased their troop concentration by a factor of ten, including a Leclerc tank company and a 155mm artillery unit. This in turn shook the Germans out of isolation, resulting in Angela Merkel's decision to send Germany to patrol the Lebanese coast.

Whether or not the overall UNIFIL-2 troop level reaches the level envisaged by the Security Council, European governments will have assumed security responsibility for a situation over which they have little control. Hizballah fighters remain in southern Lebanon and the border between Syria and Lebanon is open to the transfer of weapons to Hizballah to replenish its depleted inventories. For over two decades before the latest fighting, Hizballah proved able to resist Israel and even prosper, and no one thinks unifil will be more skilled or more aggressive than the Israelis were. The organization also retains some long-range missiles it can fire over the heads of unifil troops into northern Israel. Israel has corresponding capacity to strike at its enemy. The likelihood for renewed fighting, therefore, is high. Despite uncommonly tough rules of engagement, the odds are that capitals will not give commanders on the ground authority to open fire when they should. The odds are only slightly smaller that a panicked unit will fire when it shouldn't. Either way, its peacekeeping utility will quickly fade and the deployment will be seen in Europe as a massive liability. If Europe cannot yet be put into the category of "loser", it can fairly be labeled as out there, swinging in the breeze.

Essay Types: Essay