Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Cease-fire in Lebanon - "For It Before They Were Against It" (Jonathan Zasloff)

What Jonathan Zasloff says in his post For It Before They Were Against It (at The Reality-Based Community) is completely correct, of course.
So for two weeks Arab governments and Iran demanded an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon. Now, France and the United States draft a security council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire, and both the Arab League and Iran reject it. [....]
All of this is in keeping with traditional diplomacy. But spare us the wailing from Arab governments about civilian casualties. Suddenly, all those people who were demanding an immediate end to fighting because of civilian casualties seem a lot less interested in them.
As a matter of fact, it should have been clear a week ago already that if and when Hezbollah and its friends were offered an unconditional cease-fire, they would reject it. This struck me when I read an interview from August 3 (last Thursday) with Trad Hamadah, one of the Hezbollah ministers in the Lebanese government:
Much of what Hamadah says here is just standard propaganda boilerplate. Incidentally, that includes a preview of Hezbollah's current position on an immediate unconditional cease-fire. Now that the UN is about to pass a resolution mandating an immediate cease-fire (prior to resolving the substantive issues), as many people around the world have been demanding for weeks, Hezbollah and its friends refuse to accept one. This position had already been made clear last week, though its significance seemed to elude a lot of commentators at the time. What Hamadah said in this August 3 interview was: "We demand an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli troops." What this means is: We will not accept an immediate cease-fire without other conditions attached. Now the list of conditions, qualifications, and reservations has merely been increased.
=> Zasloff mentions an alternative interpretation by the blogger Billmon, who believes that these changed positions on a cease-fire reflect a recognition by the US & Israel that the conflict has been a strategic defeat for them and a strategic victory for Hezbollah. So Hezbollah is sitting pretty, and the US is scrambling to find a face-saving way out.

This interpretation is quite incorrect, but it's interesting because it reflects a number of misconceptions about what has actually been going on the past several weeks that remain surprisingly pervasive in the news media, the punditocracy, and the blogosphere. Billmon's assumption is that the US & Israel believed there was a purely military solution to the threat posed by Hezbollah, so that their willingness to stop the fighting now is a sign of defeat and desperation. But these premises and assumptions happen to be off-base. As I've been arguing recently--particularly in two recent posts on US/Israel strategy in the Israeli/Lebanese crisis (August 6) and Where is the Lebanese/Israeli crisis heading? - Some tentative analyses and speculations (July 28)--this conventional wisdom has gotten caught up in a very misleading picture of the situation.:
As I have noted before (here and elsewhere), most of the commentary on the current Israeli/Lebanese crisis seems to have missed a key point about the nature and goals of Israel's military operation. Unlike the situation in previous conflicts, it seems clear that this time around the Israeli government did not believe that Israel could achieve a solution by itself, nor that a solution to the threat posed by Hezbollah could be achieved solely by military force.

Instead, it looks increasingly apparent that a prime Israeli goal was to provoke a multilateral diplomatic and political intervention by the so-called "international community" (meaning in this case the US, the major European governments, Russia, and some Arab governments) to help broker, impose, and guarantee a political solution alone the lines of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1680. In the meantime, Israel's military assault would also weaken Hezbollah's military capacities and other bargaining cards in ways that could facilitate a diplomatic & political solution of this sort. It also seems clear that the Israeli & US governments have been roughly in accord on this strategy--and, more surprisingly, that the major European governments have signed on to its broad outlines (expressed, for example in the G-8 Summit statement on the Middle East crisis and the positions adopted at the later Rome conference), a fact that has been obscured by surface noise and posturing about the more specific issue of an immediate cease-fire. All the commentary that has misunderstood or ignored these connections between the military, diplomatic, and political dimensions of the situation--which is to say, most of the commentary in news reports, punditry, and the blogosphere--has largely missed the point of what is going on. (For one example, see here.)

One notable exception is a front-page article in the July 24 New York Times by their chief Jerusalem correspondent, Steven Erlanger. Oddly enough, I seem to be the only person in the blogosphere who read it--partly because it helped to confirm some impressions that had already been coming together in my own mind.
As a matter of fact, the current UN Security Council Draft Resolution (jointly drafted by France & the US, no less!) gives the US the great bulk of what Condoleeza Rice has been trying to achieve diplomatically for the past several weeks--at least on paper. And judging from the response of Hezbollah and its friends, there is some reason to believe that a cease-fire now would be disadvantageous to them and advantageous from the US perspective. Therefore, it's perfectly logical for the US to believe that the right moment has arrived to stop the fighting and bring international diplomatic & political intervention to bear directly on the situation. Billmon is wrestling with a pseudo-problem.

=> So, on the face of it, this looks like a qualified success for the diplomatic & political strategy that has been pursued by Condoleeza Rice, broadly in accord with the Israeli government. I know that this conclusion sharply conflicts with the picture that has been presented by the prevailing conventional wisdom, and I also know that the idea of this US administration being able to pursue a coherent and even slightly successful diplomatic strategy sounds wildly implausible, but people ought to be willing to face surprising realities.

To try to pre-empt some possible misunderstandings, this does not imply that the military dimension of the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel has gone smoothly or according to plan for the Israelis. It's pretty clear that it hasn't. There have been significant blunders, setbacks, complications, unpleasant surprises, and even more unpleasant side-effects on public opinion in the Middle East and elsewhere. (One consequence of that is that some Arab governments that probably still support the overall US/Israeli strategy can't afford to say so publicly now.) But none of that affects the main points outlined above.

=> More important, the fact that the overall strategy being implemented by Rice seems to have paid off, for the moment, in the arena of international diplomacy doesn't necessarily mean that it will actually work in terms of producing substantive positive results on the ground in the Middle East. Yes, it looks as though Rice may get the kind of UN Security Council resolution she wanted all along--or something close to it--and, even more significant, this outcome signals that a broad range of European governments have signed on to the basic US position, despite superficial posturing that might suggest otherwise. But it may turn out that this UNSC resolution isn't worth the paper it's written on. That's the sort of thing that Bushites usually say about UN resolutions (and something that Israelis generally suspect). The agenda laid out in the draft UNSC resolution may turn out to be un-enforceable and un-viable, and this entire project may end in disaster for everyone concerned (except perhaps Hezbollah & its backers). Or maybe not.

I'm not at all sure of the answer myself, and I confess that I'm not at all inclined to be optimistic. Two big question marks stand out especially sharply in my mind (though they're not the only ones).

First, the US, the Europeans, and the Israelis now agree in supporting a "robust" and effective multi-national peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon as part of an overall diplomatic & political resolution of the conflict. Hezbollah, its allies, and the Arab League all reject this notion, and that is a sign that there might be something worthwhile about this proposal. But for anyone who knows what happened to the last multi-national peacekeeping force sent to Lebanon in 1982-1983 (hint: it was driven out after Hezbollah blew up several hundred US & French soldiers, along with the US Embassy, in suicide-bombing attacks), it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this whole idea is a mirage. So what are all these diplomats and political leaders talking about? Either they are engaged in empty talk, or they know something we don't.

Second, there is the Syrian connection. It is quite clear that, unless Syria stops collaborating with Iran in arming Hezbollah, the Iranians can simply replace all the missiles and other resources that Hezbollah has lost in this conflict. On the other hand, without its stockpile of over 10,000 Iranian missiles, Hezbollah goes back to being a serious nuisance, rather than a major strategic threat to Israel and everyone else. So one key element of the agenda is presumably to find ways to pressure and/or induce Syria to cooperate in cutting off a re-supply of Hezbollah's military arsenal, especially its missiles. Is this possible? I am dubious. But since so many people have been clamoring that "international diplomacy" should be given a chance to work in addressing such problems, they can now see whether it can actually deliver results here.

=> The answers to these questions remain murky and hard to predict, and they're likely to turn out to be complicated. As I said, I am not very optimistic about the prospects for a positive outcome to this crisis, though I also think it's wrong at this stage to assume that a disastrous outcome is inevitable. We'll see.

But in the meantime, it would be useful to start from a clearer and more accurate picture of what has actually been going on the past several weeks, even if that means giving up some comfortable but quite misleading clich├ęs and slogans.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub