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.