If War Comes, Indeed

Posted November 12th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

More than a month after skimming it, I have had the time to carefully read Jeffrey White’s paper on what a new war between Hezbollah and Israel might look like. “If War Comes: Israel vs. Hizballah and Its Allies,” a Washington Institute for Near East Policy publication, contains reams of useful information about the military tactics that parties to another Lebanon war might employ. However, White builds his argument on some misunderstandings and highly debatable assumptions about actors other than Israel. His analysis ignores much of the history of Israel’s last 30 years of war. And it fails to imagine any of the creative measures Hezbollah and its allies might take in another conflict.

White’s main arguments are:

  1. Israel and Hezbollah both want a rematch from the inconclusive 2006 war.
  2. The next time around the stakes will be higher: both sides will fight for a decisive result.
  3. Hezbollah’s relationships with Syria and Iran make it more likely that a conflict will escalate into a regional conflagration.
  4. At its conclusion, White argues, a devastating Israel-Hezbollah war could create major new political crises, leave Israel occupying some of Lebanon and possibly all of Gaza, and destroy extensive civilian infrastructure – but he says it might also “break” Hezbollah military, weaken the Syrian regime, limit Iran’s influence, and weaken Hamas.

It’s definitely worth reading, and Andrew Exum posted his own very perceptive response to the paper on his blog. I want to amplify some similar questions and criticisms.

Fundamentally, White doesn’t account for the political reality of Lebanon today: Hezbollah has won the support of 1 million or more Lebanese, and achieved a statistical tie in the last elections. As a result, Hezbollah controls one-third of the government ministries, enjoys warm collegial relations with the president, the Lebanese Army, and much of the state’s institutions, and holds not only veto power but provides counsel to the weak government helmed by Saad Hariri.

Furthermore, Hezbollah has effectively silenced those forces in Lebanon that question Hezbollah’s right to manage its own militia, independent from the government’s army. Any attack by Israel on Lebanon – especially one that involveds widespread bombing of civilian infrastructure in particular in areas populated by Lebanese who oppose Hezbollah – will only renew Hezbollah’s legitimacy and expand its dominance over Lebanese politics.

There is simply no outcome of a war that, as White imagines, could leave Hezbollah “broken as a military factor in Lebanon and weakened politically.” (To “break” Hezbollah would require Iran and Syria to end their partnerships with it.) Hezbollah’s military prowess depends on a few thousand fighters and relatively low-tech armaments that Iran and Syria can resupply at little cost. Hezbollah’s staying power stems from the web of influence it has built with its militia, its politicians, its network of social and educational institutions, and its increasingly potent ideology of Islamic Resistance.

In passing, White invokes other assumptions that at best raise enormous questions and problems:

  • He suggests that after another war Israel will occupy part of Lebanon and perhaps all of Gaza. Israel’s troubling experience doing so in the past led it to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2006. What does White think has changed to make occupation of these areas more sustainable or effective for Israel?
  • In 2006, Israel thought that holding all of Lebanon accountable for the behavior of Hezbollah would weaken Hezbollah and strengthen its opponents. The opposite happened, and Hezbollah emerged stronger than ever before. Why would the same course of action by Israel this time produce different political results?
  • The case for an expanded war depends on a calculus that Hamas, Syria and Iran might be drawn into a war, directly, if they believe Hezbollah is losing. An alternate interpretation suggests that none of those actors would have an incentive to directly involve themselves in an Israel-Lebanon war, especially if they believe that Hezbollah wins politically no matter what the outcome on the battlefield. (In my estimation, a Hezbollah that resists and survives to fight again wins politically even if its military forces are decimated.) The behavior of the “Axis of Resistance” parties in Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), the 2006 Lebanon war, and previous crises, suggests they see no need for overt involvement in a time of hot war in order to cash in on the political benefits of being allies afterward.
  • What of Israel’s cost in diplomatic support and strained relations if it engages in the kind of speedy and widespread campaign White describes? “War on this scale may come as a chock to some of Israel’s supporters, and to countries and organizations under the spell of ‘proportionality,’” he writes. Indeed, such a war could cost Israel vital support domestically, and in the United States, not to mention bringing it approbation and possible legal action supported by parties “under the spell of ‘proportionality,’” like the United Nations and the United States, whose military hews to that principle in its own laws of war.
  • Iran and Syria gain from Hezbollah’s willingness to fight Israel, and its presumed survival of such a conflict. They have little to gain from a frontal military confrontation with Israel, and would likely be content to sit on the sidelines, frustrating any attempt to expand a war and fulfill the almost Polyanna-ish hopes to “reorder” regional politics, critically weaken all of Israel’s enemies in a single war, and “shatter” Hezbollah’s “myth of resistance and military power.”

There are lots of other questions worth asking, including whether analysts should take Israel’s war in Gaza as a fair preview of a conflict with a major opponent like Hezbollah.

Andrew Exum very graciously questioned White’s assumptions in his response to the paper at WINEP in September, and pointed out that the entire exercise seems to concentrate on the minutia of military tactics at the expense of examining the overall political and strategic context.

The analysis betrays a common Achilles Heel I’ve encountered while reporting on the Middle East – a real lack of familiarity with the governments, militant movements, and public sentiments in Arab states and in Iran. Many Hezbollah supporters I interview read Haaretz on line, study Hebrew, and read books like Ariel Sharon’s autobiography. They might not understand Israel and Israeli society, but they try, and their attempts at self-education have translated into adaptive tactics and strategy. Meanwhile, supporters of Israel all too often forget to question their own assumptions, make critical assessments of Israel’s enemies, or update those assessments as those enemies evolve. As a result, they can fall into analytical traps, misapprehending the motives of their opponents, their levels of public support, and the likely political consequences of applying military force to them.

If I understand White correctly, he’s arguing that next time Israel goes to war on its northern border, Israel should apply lethal, overwhelming, widespread military force to Lebanon, and it should be prepared to simultaneously do so to Gaza, Syria, and Iran. Such a venture, White argues, would probably leave Israel in a stronger position.

Reality, and the experience of Israel’s last wars, suggests the opposite. Widespread conflict would probably not leave Israel more secure, and would at the same time unleash manifold waves of unintended consequences. As the United States learned from its venture in Iraq, upending the card table doesn’t necessarily lead to better hands in the next game.

Jeffrey White hasn’t provided any compelling reasons why Israel would emerge in dramatically better condition than it is in today after a massive war against Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and Iran, and he certainly hasn’t provided any evidence (historical, comparative, analytical) that war in 2011 would play out differently than it did for Israel in 2009, 2006, 2000, 1996, 1993, and 1982.

He has, however, given us a glimpse of the kind of pie-in-the-sky assumptions needed to convince an American audience that a high-risk, expeditionary, regional war might yield great, unspecified consequences – without accounting for the chilling risks such a war carries for millions of Arabs, Israelis, and for U.S. interests in the Middle East.

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