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

Determining the true winners of the fighting between Israel and Hizballah may take years, as the lessons are chewed, swallowed and digested by all the parties. Yet while the jury is out, some interim conclusions are appropriate for Israel, the United States and other powers confronting strong terrorist movements.

One obvious lesson concerns the danger of power vacuums. A major triumph of the Bush Administration was to oust Syria from Lebanon; a major failure was to put nothing in its place. When the United States coerces oppressive occupiers like Syria or helps topple brutal regimes, it must have a plan to build up a new government in its place. In Lebanon, and in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, the destruction of a bad regime has led to its replacement by radicals.

A second lesson is that powerful states, even if they are rogues, cannot simply be ignored. Syria, Iran and other regional powers have sharp claws. They can back terrorist movements, sow unrest in neighboring countries, stir up the "street" in the Muslim world and otherwise make life difficult for U.S. allies. Simply ignoring these states is not an option. Indeed, diplomacy is also necessary if we are to coerce or punish them more effectively.

Finally, Lebanon proved the need for an information strategy when fighting terrorist and guerrilla groups. Israel seemed blithely unconcerned about how its military operations were being portrayed. The disastrous strike on Qana is one example, but more broadly the images of the suffering of the Lebanese people were not effectively countered by a concerted Israeli message that placed responsibility on Hizballah. As a result, the surprising sympathy Israel initially received from Europe and several Arab states dissipated over time.

What remains unclear is whether Israel's unrelenting use of firepower, combined with its willingness to inflict civilian casualties, could boost the country's deterrence against attacks both in Lebanon and in the region. This was a game of chicken in which Israel threw its steering wheel out the window-and no other state was prepared to intervene on Hizballah's behalf.

But the long-term lessons on deterrence will be heavily guided by perceptions and misperceptions. Already Palestinians are "learning" that stalwart defenders can vanquish Israel, conveniently ignoring that Israel's intelligence against the Palestinians is far superior than against Hizballah and that the Palestinian groups are a pale shadow of their Lebanese heroes when it comes to tactical skill. Hizballah is trying to convince itself and its followers that its game was worth the candle. For now its leaders appear sober about their losses, but the Arab world has a way of turning marginal victories and even limited defeats into brilliant triumphs.

Similarly, Israel is for now focusing on the negative. Israelis seem to forget that Hizballah did not anticipate this fight and thus may wrongly conclude that Hizballah cannot be deterred, when the history of the last 15 years at least suggests that Hizballah is highly sensitive to regional conditions and to the scale of any Israeli response. From the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 until this war, Hizballah had largely complied with the tacit rules of the road in terms of how far it could provoke Israel. Its infractions were designed to burnish the party's reputation as the defender of Lebanese sovereignty, to help the Palestinians wage their own struggle, and to humiliate Israel, without forcing a massive response. The comments of Nasrallah and other senior Hizballah leaders indicate that they thought the kidnapping operation fell into this category of provocation. Whether these tacit rules of engagement are still in operation remains unclear, as either or both sides may conclude that the latest round of fighting rendered them irrelevant.

The Lebanon war, in the end, showed that sometimes in the Middle East, there are no good options. Israel's use of force against Hizballah was bound to be inconclusive given Hizballah's ability simply to survive the onslaught and then transform a bad situation on the ground into a stirring propaganda victory. Yet, to downplay the provocation would only invite renewed attacks. The curse of Middle Eastern politics now is that these no-win situations are increasingly the norm rather than the exception.

Daniel Byman is the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Steven Simon is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

1 As quoted in John Burns, "Syria Turns Over a Top Insurgent", The New York Times, February 28, 2005, pp. 1.

2 "Majority of Lebanese believe Hizbullah won war", The Daily Star, August 26, 2006.

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