Friday, July 28, 2006

Where is the Lebanese/Israeli crisis heading? - Some tentative analyses & speculations

These were some of my thoughts about a week ago. They didn't pretend to be anything more than semi-informed speculation (or very tentative analysis), and many aspects of the situation remain very unclear and unpredictable--not only in Lebanon & Israel themselves, but also in the wider arena of international politics, diplomacy, and public opinion. But some of my guesses from a week ago are beginning to look more plausible, so perhaps these tentative analyses are worth sharing.

--Jeff Weintraub

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Where is the Lebanese/Israeli crisis heading?
Date: Fri, 21 Jul 2006 10:02:17 -0400
From:Jeff Weintraub
To: X

Hi X,

You make a lot intelligent points. I have to be quick right now, but here are some brief and preliminary responses.
Jeff - Like you, I'm very concerned and disturbed by what's going on in Lebanon and Israel. It's particularly concerning because the US has gotten itself into a position of negligible influence. Thanks to this stupid administration ignoring Israel and Iran, etc.
This list of other wars doesn't convince me of anything. It just shows how horrible people are when they enter a state of war and killing. It doesn't set a standard of proportionality.
Well, actually, that was precisely Stuart Elliot's point. The people talking about "proportionality" are overwhelmingly people who are using this language to criticize Israel on the grounds that its actions are somehow "disproportionate." Elliott makes it clear that almost all discussions focusing on alleged "proportionality" or "disproportionality" are fallacious and irrelevant. At the very least, if one wants to talk about "proportionality" (or "disproportionality") one has to ask seriously, "proportionate" (or "disproportionate" to what?

Some people seem to have missed Elliott's point (which seems quite clear and straightforward to me).
Following the argument by Elliott, proportionality has to depend on your aims, not just a mathematical formula. So what are Israel's aims? Clearly they want to send a strong message to Hezbollah and Hamas that they can't get away with kidnapping and other incursions with impunity. Second, they'd like to wipe out or weaken Hezbollah's missiles.
That's a good question, and obviously the right one to ask. I don't pretend to have a precise answer to that, but I think I'm beginning to see the outlines of one--and most of the news reporting and analysis so far has been completely unhelpful in making things clear regarding these issues.

With regard to the Gaza crisis, I have the increasingly strong impression that the Israelis went in without any clear sense of what they were trying to accomplish. With the Lebanese/Israeli crisis, the situation is quite different in fundamental respects, including this one. My impression is that they have a more coherent and plausibly defensible plan--which, of course, doesn't mean it will be successful.

Let me just mention that if Israel could actually destroy all or most of Hezbollah's enormous rocket stockpile and create a situation in which Iran & Syria couldn't simply re-supply them, this would be a major achievement and a perfectly sensible and justifiable war aim. If, in addition, they could prevent Hezbollah from continuing to occupy southern Lebanon as an independent state-within-a-state, this would be a significant accomplishment which, in the long run, would be good for Lebanese as well as Israelis.

The question is whether or not, and to what extent, these goals can be accomplished. I don't know the answer to that, but (unlike similar situations in the past), it seems to me that the Israelis realize they can't possibly accomplish this by themselves. They want political & diplomatic intervention by the so-called "international community," but they also have calculated (probably correctly) that this can't and won't happen without the kind of military pressure they're applying right now.

There is every indication that, in applying that military pressure, the Israelis have focused overwhelmingly on hitting strategic targets and have been making strong efforts to avoid civilian casualties. (If that weren't true, then the numbers of civilian casualties would not be so low in proportion to the other conflicts in the region mentioned by Stuart Elliott.) That impression could turn out to be wrong, but so far I haven't seen any information to contradict it.

All this may or may not turn out disastrously. But it's definitely wrong to believe that the Israelis are simply blowing things up out of a blind desire to blow things up. It's also wrong to believe that it would be a good thing, for either Israelis or Lebanese, to give Hezbollah an enormous political victory at this point by simply stopping the war without some steps toward a long-term political solution.
OK - but if they also want to keep open the possibility of separate and peaceful coexistence with moderate neighbors, is the killing of civilians and destruction of their infrastructure going to serve these ends? They may hope it will encourage moderates to rise up against the terrorists in their midst and throw them out. I don't see that happening.It certainly hasn't happened in Gaza. Rather, it hardens an anti-Israel view in the general populations and breeds another generation of resentful people who will be susceptible to demagogic leaders.
I think Israel should have used a graduated approach of military response and threats for more and diplomacy, and given the Lebanese government a chance to negotiate with Hezbollah while there was still time to save the infrastructure and civilian population.
Pull in US and UN diplomats. Instead, they've mounted an all-out attack. (Followed George Bush's approach in Iraq ---and look where that's led us. What's the long-term strategy? See Krugman today. There was none! It was omnipotent fantasy thinking.)
That "graduated approach" may sound appealing, but it is pretty certain that it would have accomplished nothing. As for Krugman's column--usually Krugman is right, but in the one sentence you're referring to I think he's wrong. For one thing, it clear that part of the purpose of the the Israeli operation in Lebanon (only part of the purpose, but an important part) is precisely to "pull in US and UN diplomats." The question is what those diplomats are going to do. In that respect, re-read what the diplomats & heads of state said in The G-8 statement on the Middle East crisis. The solution outlined by the G-8 statement strikes me as the right way to go ... and it happens to dovetail quite closely with the solution outlined by Chibli Mallat in .Chibli Mallat - "A Lebanese initiative" (Bitterlemons-International). All the other stuff is just unhelpful hyperventilating, as far as I can see.
So, lets hope for the best...that the fighting ends soon and some diplomacy is at least given a chance to work.
I'm sad to say that this has it backwards. If it weren't for the current fighting, diplomacy would have no chance to work. (The record of the past 6 years makes that clear.) And whether or not diplomacy has any "chance to work" now depends on how the fighting is ended. The hard reality is that if the fighting is ended with a political victory for Hezbollah, the chances that diplomacy can accomplish anything worthwhile are precisely nil.

It may sound odd to say this, but in the present Lebanese/Israeli crisis (matters are different in Gaza), I feel safe in saying that the ones who most want a constructive international diplomatic solution are the Israeli government. The fact that there is no hint of this in the reporting of the crisis is simply one more sign of the lousy condition of journalism and public discourse in the US right now.

Jeff Weintraub
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Hezbollah and the IDF, Part 2
Date: Thu, 20 Jul 2006 23:00:18 -0400
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: Kevin Drum (Washington Monthly)

Hi Kevin,

Regarding Hezbollah and the IDF, Part 2 ...
Conservative pundits are seemingly united in their belief that Israel shouldn't leave Lebanon until Hezbollah is completely destroyed. Earlier today I asked if this was even feasible
If the question is put that way, then I think the short answer is pretty obviously no. However, there may be other, more illuminating ways to frame the question. In this respect ....

Aaron Rutkoff's analysis and your response both strike me as sensible. Similar points have been made by some of the discussions collected in those round-up posts by Norman Geras.

There is an additional dimension to this. I doubt that anyone in the Israeli government or armed forces believes that military action, by itself, can solve the problem. I the short run, they can damage Hezbollah quite a lot (and, in this respect, they're obviously interested in reducing Hezbollah's enormous stockpile of missiles, which has qualitatively increased the threat to northern Israel). But if there's no political follow-up, Hezbollah will still control the border area, they can claim a big propaganda victory just from having survived, and in due time the Iranians and Syrians can replace their missiles.

On the other hand, the Israelis certainly don't want to occupy southern Lebanon again! In retrospect it's clear that doing this did, in fact, reduce the threat to northern Israel in the short term--but it was too painful to the Israelis, and it helped to build up Hezbollah's popularity, so it was dramatically counterproductive in the long term.

So I'm beginning to get the impression (which was greatly strengthened by the diplomatic outcomes of the G-8 conference) that the Israelis do want to see some international political follow-up to this military operation ... and that the Israeli & US governments have at least the rudiments of a coherent strategy for promoting this ... and that they believe the Israeli military operation can help lay the groundwork for it. At the moment, of course, all this is just semi-informed speculation on my part. And even if the Israelis do have some coherent plan in Lebanon (unlike the case in Gaza, where I suspect they went in without really quite knowing what they were trying to accomplish) that they can coordinate with the US, that's no guarantee that it will work. Condoleeza Rice appears to be trying to put together a multi-lateral, multi-national diplomatic & political solution to the crisis--but the track record of such efforts in the past has been pretty dismal.

I touched on some of these matters in an exchange with someone else a few days ago (below).

Hoping for the best (but not strongly expecting it),
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. In this connection, two of the more intelligent and usefully thought-provoking analyses of the current options and dilemmas in the Lebanese/Israeli crisis have come from the Lebanese Michael Young ("The meaning of a Hizbullah victory"), currently under Israeli bombardment in Beirut, and Shalom Lappin ("Israel's Strategic Quandaries in Lebanon"), now in London but recently teaching in Haifa. Both of them are exceptionally well informed, perceptive, and tough-minded analysts, always worth taking seriously. I'm thinking of maybe writing up something based on and/or commenting on these two pieces, but in the meantime you might want to have a look at them..

One difference in emphasis is a bit intriguing and ironic. Lappin comes from the Zionist left and the peace camp, but is a very "tough dove." He believes that the Israeli military response is certainly justified ... but, to my slight surprise, has already decided that it can't have a successful result. So he recommends, basically, that the least bad option--which is still pretty bad, but not as bad as the alternatives--is for the Israelis to agree to a quick cease-fire, cut their losses, and get out while the getting is good. "The truth of the matter is that there are no good choices in this case. It is necessary to find one which does the least damage, and to recognize that it will be seriously imperfect [....]"

Michael Young, on the other hand, is especially alarmed by the catastrophic consequences that Lebanon would suffer from a Hezbollah victory--and one implication of his analysis is that the scenario just sketched out would amount, effectively, to a Hezbollah victory. Unfortunately, just about any outcome that did not constitute a clear and unambiguous defeat for Hezbollah means a political victory for them.

I don't think either of them offers an especially convincing solution, but they do help make the dangers and dilemmas more vivid and concrete. (Just the thing to lift our moods, right?)

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: The G-8 statement on the Middle East crisis
Date: Tue, 18 Jul 2006 09:20:44 -0400
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: XX

Hi XX,
Jeff -- One gets the sense that the powers-that-be are willing to give Israel X number of days to cripple Hezbollah before playing out the usual script of intervening... but will Israel really be able to cripple Hezbollah enough to allow the Lebanese to control South Lebanon...? Sounds iffy...
Iffy indeed. In fact, it seems pretty clear that bombing Hezbollah & its military supplies, by itself, probably can't accomplish anything lasting. Hezbollah has a lot of strategic depth, and it obviously has spent decades preparing for a situation like this. Some analysts have been speculating that a ground invasion of southern Lebanon might be the next step, but that means increased Israeli casualties and political fallout both inside Israel & internationally ... and, in the end, the Israelis would just have to pull out again.

I suspect you're right that the basic scenario will play itself out, but perhaps with a few modifications this time. I don't pretend to know what the various governments involved in all this have in mind--especially since I also suspect that most of them are improvising as they go along. But it may be that in this case, unlike most past situations, the Israeli government actually wants some degree of intervention by the so-called "international community." That is, the crisis might prod the outside world to exert serious diplomatic & political pressure on Hezbollah & its foreign backers, along with the Lebanese government, to reduce Hezbollah's control of south Lebanon--and, critically, to make it more difficult for the Iranians and Syrians to continue to supply Hezbollah with long-range rockets. I see some signs (including the G-8 statement) to make me believe that the US & at least some of its allies might have some such scenario in mind. I hope so, and I hope it works ... because this is clearly not something Israel can do by itself.

Well, enough guesswork. We'll see.

Waiting and worrying,
Jeff Weintraub