Even before the horrible bombing at Qana, the conflict in Lebanon was shaping up to be not just a catastrophe for Lebanon and its people, but a disastrous mistake for Israel and the US. In addition to everything else I've already said, Hezbollah seems to be fighting Israel to a draw so far, and Israel has not managed to make a dent in the number of rockets Hezbollah fires over the border. For a country that depends as heavily as Israel on its army's reputation for invincibility, that's an enormous problem.
Our policy has been just as disastrous for us. I suppose that the charitable interpretation of our policy would be: we wanted to let Israel strike a devastating blow to Hezbollah, after which Israel would have one less serious threat on its borders, Lebanon would no longer have to bother with a large armed militia on its territory, Syria and (especially) Iran would be chastened and deprived of one of their most important proxies, and other groups (like, oh, Hamas) could look at Hezbollah and rethink the idea of confrontation with Israel. I guess. Here's an alternate version:
"As explained to me by several senior state department officials, Rice is entranced by a new "domino theory": Israel's attacks will demolish Hizbullah; the Lebanese will blame Hizbullah and destroy its influence; and the backlash will extend to Hamas, which will collapse. From the administration's point of view, this is a proxy war with Iran (and Syria) that will inexplicably help turn around Iraq. "We will prevail," Rice says."
This "strategy", if you can call it that, has several of the hallmarks of this administration: it greatly overestimates the degree to which political results can be achieved by military force; it does not take into account the sheer hatred that wars can produce, or the fragility of political structures in weak countries; its basic assumptions range from the wildly optimistic to the downright delusional; and it has no plan for what to do if those assumptions turn out to be wrong.
The less charitable way to describe it would be like this: imagine that a fire breaks out in someplace like New Jersey: heavily populated, and full of fuel tanks, large ammunition depots (including stashes of chemical and nuclear weapons), chemical storage facilities, and all sorts of other things that make a fire much more than usually dangerous. Unlike New Jersey, however, the locations of most of these hazards are unknown. Moreover, whereas New Jersey is a nice temperate place, our hypothetical New Jersey is very hot, very dry, and chock full of dried kindling and other flammable things just waiting to catch fire. The fire chief in New Jersey has already set a rather large fire in one part of the state, and it is burning out of control. Now a new fire breaks out.
Normally, when fires start in this part of the world, people put them out as quickly as possible. It's only sensible: when fires burn, people die. Moreover, putting out the fire quickly avoids the absolute worst case scenario, which is that several of the unknown caches of oil, gas, ammunition, and chemicals all go up at once, and the entire state is destroyed. This time, however, the fire chief says: no, just let it burn. We have to deal with the root causes of the fire: all that fuel and kindling lying around. If we don't let it burn out now, we'll just be back here again in a year or two. And besides, I have some great new landscaping plans for the state.
People are aghast: there are people trapped in the burning areas; the fire is spreading and might soon be out of control; and above all, the risk that the fire will hit one of the storage tanks or fuel refineries always looms in the background. But the fire chief just thinks they're being short-sighted: he is playing in a longer-term game than they are. As the fire rages, his spokesman puts out this statement:
"He mourns the loss of every life. Yet out of this tragic development, he believes a moment of clarity has arrived."
Oh, and I should mention this: the fire chief is safely out of harm's way. He can afford to be cavalier. The first responders who actually fight the fire, however, are in the field, along with the many, many inhabitants.
The war is far from over, but a lot of the costs are already clear. To Lebanon: destruction, hundreds of dead, thousands injured, 800,00 people fleeing for their lives, billions of dollars in damages. To Israel: scores of dead and wounded, the destruction of its reputation for military invincibility, the strengthening of an enemy, and the complete disappearance, for the foreseeable future, of any hope of a decent relationship with a democratic Lebanon. In what follows, though, I want to focus on the costs to the United States of George and Condi's Excellent Adventure.
First, we are more or less completely isolated. As best I can tell, much of the world looks at this and thinks: yes, Hezbollah started it, and yes, that required some response. But there's no reason to think that that response had to be: the systematic destruction of an entire country. That that's what Israel chose to do -- to flatten and devastate large chunks of a country, at a horrific cost in terms of human life and uprooted civilians -- is shameful. And we not only allowed this to happen; we have more or less single-handedly blocked any diplomatic resolution of the crisis while expediting weapons shipments to Israel so that it will be able to do as much damage as possible before the diplomatic pressure becomes overwhelming. This appalls most of the rest of the world, for good reason.
(The claim that Israel has a right to defend itself is not a response to this absent an answer to the point I made here. As The Lounsbury says, "Assertions that the Israelis are "justified" - the Lebs had it coming because they didn't control Hezbullah, etc - are empty political whanking. The reality is a State undertakes actions to achieve aims. The Israeli-US position and air-campaign has achieved the exact opposite of stated (and real) political goals, while the physical degradation of Hezbullah is going to be, at best, temporary." )
Second, we have managed to alienate even more people in the Middle East than we already had. (See also here.) This is a problem in its own right; it also puts enormous pressure on governments we are allied with, especially those that condemned Hezbollah to begin with, at our request. This will make it a lot harder for any Middle Eastern government to cooperate with anything we do. Consider praktike's account of developments in Egypt:
"Yesterday, opposition deputies (mainly the Muslim Brotherhood) embarrassed the government and its fake political party, the NDP, by walking out of the People's Assembly and staging a march on the Arab League building while calling for jihad and support for Hizballah. Amr Moussa was forced to invite them in for a meeting. Mustafa Bakri, an opportunistic leftist rabble-rouser who is sometimes a government stooge and sometimes independent, said that "The non-presence of the NDP deputies confirms that the regime does not express [the will of] its people." A number of deputies are now heading to Beirut to demonstrate their solidarity. In other words, even as the U.S. leans on Mubarak for more help in Gaza, with Syria, and in confronting Iran, our policies in the region continue to undermine his legitmacy in favor of people like Mustafa Bakri (who led the failed effort in the People's Assembly to censor The Yacoubian Building) and the Muslim Brotherhood."
Now imagine this all across the region.
Third, there was once substantial opposition to Hezbollah within Lebanon. Not any more:
"According to a poll released by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, 87 percent of Lebanese support Hizbullah's fight with Israel, a rise of 29 percent on a similar poll conducted in February. More striking, however, is the level of support for Hizbullah's resistance from non-Shiite communities. Eighty percent of Christians polled supported Hizbullah along with 80 percent of Druze and 89 percent of Sunnis.
Lebanese no longer blame Hizbullah for sparking the war by kidnapping the Israeli soldiers, but Israel and the US instead.
The latest poll by the Beirut Center found that 8 percent of Lebanese feel the US supports Lebanon, down from 38 percent in January.
"This support for Hizbullah is by default. It's due to US and Israeli actions," says Saad-Ghorayeb, whose father, Abdo, conducted the poll."
Even assuming that the Lebanese government survives, this will make the task of creating a democratic Lebanon with a monopoly on the use of force virtually impossible. And that assumption is itself open to question. Here's Walid Jumblatt in the Washington Post:
"Lebanon's survival, he said, was now in the hands of Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah. (...)
Jumblatt said he saw not unity, but division. He didn't believe Hezbollah would disarm, despite its endorsing a Lebanese plan for a cease-fire that suggested it might do so. He was blunt in saying the government had no power to force it to do so. He dismissed talk by others of another civil war; his militia was blamed for its own share of atrocities in the last conflict. But, he said, "I do fear for the future of Lebanon."
"Either we will have a state able to establish its control over the country or we will have a state comparable to what is happening in Palestine," he said, "a reduced weakened state and a strong militia beside the Lebanese army that decides war and peace at any time and has its schedule decided by the Iranians and the Syrians." He called it "a kind of coup d'etat."
"I don't see a state of Lebanon surviving with a militia next to an army. That's it," he said."
And here's an editorial in the Lebanon Daily Star (and in context, this is a prediction, not a veiled threat):
"The "new Lebanon" could end up looking more like an Islamized Somalia than the free and democratic country that was recently held up as a shining example by the Bush administration. If that should be the fate of Lebanon, then the Israelis ought to also prepare themselves for a different future: one of perpetual violence and instability along their border."
As I said earlier: in order to answer a question like: 'Is Israel just supposed to accept an enemy across the border armed with rockets?', you really have to know what the alternative could be. Losing twelve soldiers and seven civilians over a period of six years (by my count) means losing nineteen lives too many. But it is not nearly as bad as it could be.
Fourth, we have provided pretty conclusive proof that all that stuff about spreading democracy throughout the Middle East was just a lot of talk. We can get all misty-eyed at the thought of Arab populations rising up to throw out foreign occupation and holding elections; we can write editorials and speeches about how they represent a turning point in the Middle East (democratsumani, anyone?), but when push comes to shove and Israeli interests require it, we regard Arab democracies as completely expendable, and we will sacrifice them without a second thought.
Fifth, one of the few bright spots in the war on terror was the fact that Shi'a groups like, oh, Hezbollah did not seem to be interested in attacking US interests. That could change, and it would be a Very Bad Thing if it did.
Sixth, we have complicated the task of our troops in Iraq, and of the Iraqi government, beyond measure. Anti-American sentiment will obviously be taken out on the troops, and it will be taken out on the government to the extent that it is seen as our puppet. I imagine that for this reason the government will feel compelled to do things we don't like as a way of distancing itself. This is not good either.
Seventh, for the most part, the Shi'a groups in Iraq have not attacked our troops. Again, this could change. Moqtada al-Sadr urged his followers to stand behind the Lebanese and against the Americans two weeks ago:
"Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has lashed out at Israel and urged Iraqis to stand behind Lebanon to confront a "common enemy".
"We say a no, a thousand no's to Israel and its terrorism, and everybody should know that we in Iraq will not stay quiet against the rampaging Zionists," Sadr said Friday in a statement issued from the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf.
"I urge the people of Iraq and the political parties to stand behind the people of Lebanon. Let us forget our divisions, because I know our unity will be the arm to help the Lebanese in their confrontation with our common enemy."
Sadr, known for his strong anti-US stand, said: "Our hearts are broken by the bombings unleashed by the terrorist Zionist enemy with the backing from the enemy of all people, America.""
"Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has warned that the Muslim world will not forgive countries which stand in the way of a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
"The Islamic world and peace loving people will not excuse sides which hinder a ceasefire. It will have harmful consequences in the whole region," he said in a statement issued late on Sunday, in a clear reference to the United States."
Moreover, Iran has barely begun to use the means at its disposal to work against our troops in Iraq. That, too, might change. And if any significant number of Iraqi Shi'a decided to fight us, that could be a real problem.
"Without a plentiful and dependable source of fuel, food, and ammunition, a military force falters. First it stops moving, then it begins to starve, and eventually it becomes unable to resist the enemy. (...)
American troops all over central and northern Iraq are supplied with fuel, food, and ammunition by truck convoy from a supply base hundreds of miles away in Kuwait. All but a small amount of our soldiers' supplies come into the country over roads that pass through the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq.
Until now the Shiite Arabs of Iraq have been told by their leaders to leave American forces alone. But an escalation of tensions between Iran and the US could change that overnight. Moreover, the ever-increasing violence of the civil war in Iraq can change the alignment of forces there unexpectedly.
Southern Iraq is thoroughly infiltrated by Iranian special operations forces working with Shiite militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades. Hostilities between Iran and the United States or a change in attitude toward US forces on the part of the Baghdad government could quickly turn the supply roads into a "shooting gallery" 400 to 800 miles long. (...)
Are there alternatives to the present line of supply leading to Kuwait? There may be, but they are not immediately apparent."
(I'd be interested in Andrew's take on the article, and on the post by Billmon. To me, they are frightening.)
Eighth, we have made a hero out of Hassan Nasrallah. His army has now not only forced the Israelis out of south Lebanon (in the eyes of much of the Middle East, at least), it has now fought one of the best armies in the world to a draw. I won't bother to link to any of the many stories about people in small towns putting up pictures of Nasrallah in their shops, or demonstrators waving posters of him or shouting his name; you can find them all over the place. A Lebanese journalist quoted in TNR sums it up: "Nasrallah, he's becoming like bin Laden--a star," says Lebanese journalist Paula Khoury. "Because now he has this ability to address the world. This is a new thing, and it's dangerous." It is indeed: the Arab world needs to lionize a violent paramilitary leader like it needs a hole in the head.
And his stature could grow. I don't find this scenario at all implausible:
"Jon B. Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, outlined "not even the worst-case scenario, but a bad-case scenario: South Lebanon is in shambles, Hezbollah gets credit for rebuilding it with Iranian money, Hezbollah grows stronger in Lebanon and it's not brought to heel. The reaction of surrounding states weakens them, radicalism rises, and they respond with more repression. None of this is especially far-fetched. And in all of this, the U.S. is seen as a fundamentally hostile party.""
"To judge by Iran's expanding influence across an increasingly turbulent Middle East, Mr. Ahmadinejad has good reason to smile. Not only are the political winds blowing his way in former arch-enemy Iraq, but now the war touched off by Hizbullah, the Iranian- created and supplied organization in Lebanon, has embroiled Iran's nemesis Israel in a bloody conflict - and diverted attention from Iran's nuclear program.
Topping it all off, Iran specialists say, the diminutive but rhetorically explosive leader sees Iran's existential enemy, the United States, so weakened by its Iraq involvement that he and the regime's powerful mullahs are feeling less constrained by fears of America.
And the troubling reality, these experts add, is that the regime's analysis is more accurate than fanciful.
"Four years after being labeled part of the axis of evil, Iran has a sense of being on the rise while the US and the West are increasingly weak, and they have reason to think that way," says Lawrence Haas, an Iran specialist at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute."
Add to all this the enormous increase in anger, hatred and despair, which are awful in their own right, but also tend to lead to awful consequences, and this is almost as complete a disaster as I can imagine.
Almost, but not quite. The fighting is, of course, not over, and so there's ample room for things to get worse. There could be a wider war, for instance: just today, Syria told its army "to increase readiness to cope with "regional challenges"", and there are reports Assad has begun calling up reserves. Meanwhile, Hosni Mubarak warned that "the entire Middle East peace process could collapse because of Israel's fighting in Lebanon." Moreover, the longer this war goes on, the more likely it becomes that it will have completely unanticipated consequences, especially if the Lebanese government falls. Who would have foreseen that one of the most important results of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan would be the founding of al Qaeda, or that the war in Vietnam would lead to the Cambodian autogenocide? Wars often have completely unexpected consequences, generally bad ones, and they should, in my view, always be weighed in the balance when one is deciding whether or not to go to war in the first place. This war, brief though it has been so far, is potentially destabilizing enough to produce bad consequences that no one can now predict. And that's a scary thought.
So what, you might be asking, should we have done instead? Here's my proposal. At the outset, no one could have predicted that Hezbollah would succeed in holding off the Golani brigade. But two things were completely predictable from the outset: first, that Israel would not succeed in "striking a decisive blow against Hezbollah", since there was no such blow to be struck; and second, that a serious bombing campaign against Lebanon would greatly harm the prospects for a long-term solution. Given these two things, we did not face the question: should we allow Israel to finish off Hezbollah once and for all, or to remove the threat of rockets across its northern border? Neither outcome was remotely likely. Instead, we faced the quite different question: should we allow Israel to do something that is not in its interests or anyone else's? The answer to that question is easy.
That being the case, I think that we should have begun putting very serious pressure on Israel to accept a ceasefire on the second day of bombing. (Why the second day? Israel needed to retaliate; moreover, its initial strikes would have been against the most important targets that it knew about. Apparently, by the end of the second day it had seriously degraded Hezbollah's long-range missile capability.) If, as seems likely, Israel resisted, we should have done whatever needed doing to stop the bombing, and we should have done it publicly. (We should also have communicated to Israel that we did not view this as harming its long-term interests.) We have a lot of influence on Israel, if we're prepared to use it -- we give it an enormous amount of foreign and military aid, for starters.
Had we done this, we could in all likelihood have drastically curtailed the bombing campaign, thereby saving hundreds of lives. We would have supported an Arab democracy of the kind we claim to value, rather than tossing it aside. Perhaps more importantly (from the point of view of our interests -- obviously, this is not more important from the perspective of the Lebanese), we would have thrown those who oppose us off balance by being willing to take on Israel in a very serious way in support of an Arab country, defying all sorts of anti-American stereotypes. We would know, as would Israel, that we had done this because we did not, in fact, think that we were doing Israel any harm by taking this stand. But there is no obvious reason why we should have felt compelled to announce that fact to the rest of the world.
I think that the combination of the violence of the Israeli response, the initial fury of non-Shi'a Lebanese at Hezbollah, and the surprise of our intervention would have given us a much better chance of getting a ceasefire on terms favorable to Lebanon's survival as a country, which is to say involving serious disarmament of Hezbollah. As things stand, we don't look likely to get anything like that.
In any case, it seems pretty clear to me that that would have been a smarter approach than the one we have actually taken. (Talk about setting a low bar!) It would also have been political suicide; it would at least have exposed anyone who took it to ferocious criticism from the warmongers on the right, and from supporters of Israel on all sides of the political spectrum. Nonetheless, it would have been a way to turn this into a real opportunity to advance our interests while saving a country from destruction and an ally from folly.