Sunday, August 06, 2006

US/Israel strategy in the Israeli/Lebanese crisis

As Kevin Drum explains in his latest Washington Monthly piece on "Israel and Lebanon," he was intrigued but unconvinced by an interpretation of the nature and goals of Israel's operation in Lebanon that I had offered in several discussions of my own, including Where is the Lebanese/Israeli crisis heading? - Some tentative analyses and speculations (July 28) and Lebanon/Israel - Did the war make sense? August 4). So he contacted me to raise some questions about it ... and, after an e-mail exchange between us, he is still unconvinced. I think part of the reason is that he has misconstrued my argument to some degree, but there's also more to it than that.

To help clarify some of the issues, I reproduce below one message in our e-mail exchange, from which Kevin quoted a passage in his "Israel and Lebanon" post.

To avoid any possible misunderstanding, let me emphasize (again) that in this particular discussion I was only trying to clarify the goals that Israel seems to have pursued in this crisis, as best I understand them. I wasn't trying to assess how successful this strategy has been, or is likely to be. Until we have a clear picture of what that strategy is, it's hard to address the second question usefully.

My basic point here is that, contrary to most commentary on the crisis, it seems increasingly clear that the Israeli government has not acted on the belief that there was a purely military solution to the threat posed by Hezbollah, or that Israel could eliminate this threat by itself. Instead, in contrast to most previous conflicts, this time around Israel wanted this crisis to activate and pull in a multilateral diplomatic intervention to help broker, impose, and maintain a diplomatic and political solution--after the Israelis were able to damage Hezbollah's military capacity and bargaining position enough to make such a solution viable. It also seems clear that the Israel and the US have been largely in accord on this strategy.

As I tried to make clear (but apparently with only mixed success, so let me repeat myself), in this discussion I was not trying to address the question of whether and to what extent this strategy will turn out to be successful, and I was certainly not claiming that it has been flawlessly executed or has worked out swimmingly so far--it hasn't. But those are separate issues.. The first step here is to get a clear picture of what the US and Israel think they have actually been trying to accomplish--in military, diplomatic, and political terms. As long as discussins of the crisis are based on misleading assumptions about these matters, which I think most of them are, they are likely to continue to yield more heat than light.

--Jeff Weintraub
Hi Kevin,
I don't mean to get into a big argument, but this proposition of yours has always struck me as hard to believe on several different levels. It reminds me a bit of the arguments you used to see on conservative blogs claiming, in hindsight, that some supposedly dumb thing Bush did was actually a fantastically clever, two-bank-shot political stratagem.

I'm curious: what evidence do you have that this was Israel's intent all along? I've never seen anything to make me think that this is what's been going on all along.
Well, I'm glad someone picked up the bait. I don't want to get into a long argument either, but here's a brief response.

I assume you're referring to this suggestion of mine (which I repeated most recently in my post on Lebanon/Israel - Did the war make sense?).
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.)
Actually, all this seems pretty straightforward to me, not especially fancy or conspiratorial ... and I would further suggest that it's pretty much the only way to make sense of the diplomatic activity (& inactivity) that Condoleeza Rice has been engaged in the past several weeks. Furthermore, if one reads even slightly between the lines, various analysts have been pointing out different elements of this picture already.

But one doesn't even have to read between the lines--just read what's in the New York Times. It so happens that an analysis fairly similar to the one you find implausible and outlandish was laid out in a front-page New York Times article by their main Jerusalem correspondent, Steven Erlanger, on July 24. (Oddly enough, I seem to have been the only person in the blogosphere who read this article or paid attention to it--perhaps because it confirmed a lot of the impressions I had already been working out on my own.)

=> But before I get to that, let me start with a more partial and tentative (and more common) interpretation along the same lines. In an analysis that Anthony Cordesman did a week ago on Israel's strategic goals in Lebanon (see below), he started out by framing the situation in terms of the conventional wisdom.
In this case, however, Israel rapidly escalated to the massive use of airpower in ways that only made sense if it felt that it could (a) do meaningful and lasting damage to Hezbollah, and (b) coerce the Lebanese government and military to take advantage of Hezbollah's weakness to fully secure the south and disarm Hezbollah.
But as Cordesman went on to note, in this case Israel doesn't actually seem to be pursuing either of these goals. As you may have gathered from some of my previous messages, that's also the impression that I have been getting--and that makes the present crisis distinctive. Cordesman put it this way:
All of this seems to have pushed Israel into a new strategy. Air and land warfare have had limited tactical success, but do not promise lasting strategic benefits. This leaves the option of pressuring the international community into making up for Israel's military limitations by forcing it to react to Lebanese suffering on Israeli terms.

This is, effectively, the option that Secretary Rice advanced in Beirut. An international force comes in with the mandate of securing the south and disarming the Hezbollah. The US builds up Lebanese forces to support this mission and eventually replace it. A combination of the international force and Lebanese forces secures Lebanon's borders with Syria and also stops arms smuggling.

In all frankness, this is not a bad outcome for either Israel or the Lebanese people, and the payoff in regional stability for other Arabs and the international community may be worth it. However, using proxies to make up for the IDF's failures is a poor precedent, and this strategy may not work.
From my perspective, what Cordesman concedes here is the key point I want to establish--namely, that this has been the joint US & Israeli strategy for most of the crisis. Everything else is details.
But does Cordesman provide any evidence that this was not Israel's strategy from the beginning, but instead something they stumbled on (or that Condoleeza Rice worked out for them) a week or so after the crisis began? Actually, no.

So we can put the question the other way around. There is overwhelming evidence that this has been the joint US-Israeli political & diplomatic strategy for at least the past 2 weeks. And, again, that's enough to establish the basic point I wanted to make. But do we have any good reason to believe that this was not the idea from the beginning? To conclude that, we have to assume (a) that the Israeli government believed that the Lebanese government would be able and willing to crush Hezbollah by itself, without outside involvement, and (b) that even if Israel managed to knock out a large portion of Hezbollah's 10,000+ Iranian missiles, Iran & Syria wouldn't simply replace them in the absence of some larger political & diplomatic solution. Governments do a lot of stupid things, based on a lot of stupid assumptions, but is it likely that in this case the Israeli government was being that stupid? Unlikely. That would require a more implausible story-line than the one I propose.

So for this and other reasons (which I will put off spelling out until another time), I'm pretty sure this was Israel's strategy from the beginning (though the way that Cordesman frames it is a bit tendentious)--i.e., this time, unlike previous occasions, Israel wants the diplomatic and political intervention of the so-called "international community" ... and so does the US ... and the joint statement by the G-8 Summit suggests that the other major countries may be amenable to this strategy as well, whatever public statements they're making now. Anyway, whether Israel intended this from the beginning, or was talked into it by Condoleeza Rice a week or so later, is--again--of secondary importance.

=> As it happens, I'm not the only one to have noticed all this. For example, have a look at that front-page New York Times news-analysis article by Stephen Erlanger on July 24, 2006 (which, oddly enough, nobody except me seems to have read), "Weighing Foreign Forces: Sea Change for Israel".
For decades, Arab -- particularly Palestinian -- leaders have sought international intervention in their conflicts with Israel, while Israeli leaders spurned foreign forces as unreliable and likely to be biased against Israeli interests.

Now, in a sudden turnabout, Israel is embracing the possibility of an aggressive international force on its northern border with Lebanon to bolster its security in its struggle with Hezbollah.

"In a way, we're playing an old Palestine Liberation Organization game," said Michael Oren of the center-right Shalem Center, a research institute in Jerusalem, "to precipitate regional instability and then try to bring in international intervention. We fought against it in the past, but Israel now realizes it can't do things alone. And Israel feels here it has a friend in America and some greater understanding in Europe."

There are a number of reasons for the shift, he and other regional analysts say. Israel realizes that Hezbollah's rocket attacks cannot be stopped over the long term without troops on the ground confronting guerrillas. Israel, with no desire to reoccupy Lebanon, no longer wants those troops to be Israeli and believes a large, multinational force, working with the Lebanese Army, will have a greater chance of curbing Hezbollah.

Moreover, while Israel has often felt internationally isolated in the past, now it feels that its interests coincide with those of the United States, Europe and even parts of the Arab world, notwithstanding the alarm raised by international officials about civilian casualties in Lebanon. [....]

"It's often said that the Israeli psyche thinks the world is against us, but it's not true here," said Mark Regev, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. "Israel has an international environment much more understanding than in the past. When you say that Hezbollah is the problem, no one argues. Everyone is pretty much on the same page about how to go."

The call for international involvement is "a big change," said Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and co-editor of, a Web site promoting an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. It represents for Israel, he said, "two new, even revolutionary understandings."

First, he said, Israel has developed "a reticent but real repulsion about occupying Lebanon in particular and Arab lands in general," stemming from "the accumulated lessons" of Lebanon, which Israeli occupied a swath of from 1982 to 2000, and of the West Bank and Gaza, first occupied in the 1967 war, all of which he believes has cost Israel dearly.

Second, he said, Israel has developed "a broad understanding of the regional picture," which includes the involvement of Iran and Syria and a recognition of the weakness of the Lebanese government, which will never be able to confront Hezbollah without international help.

In its dispute with the Palestinians Israel faces much international disagreement, but increasing alarm in many capitals over Iran and Syria has given the Israelis something of a potential alliance.

The world's concern about Iran, Syria and Lebanon has been expressed in United Nations Security Council resolutions that Israel has embraced, even arguing that its war against Hezbollah is a necessary precursor to carrying out Resolution 1559, which calls for disarming Hezbollah and deploying the Lebanese Army to the border.

And so on. Well, maybe Erlanger, Alpher, Oren, Cordesman, and I are all imagining things. But at least we seem to be sharing the same fantasies. And they make more sense of the observable facts than the alternative fantasies that underlie most current discussions of the crisis.

The more interesting question is why I seem to be the only person who reads splashy front-page articles in the New York Times, which seem to be otherwise ignored by the punditocracy and the blogosphere (right and left).
=> Of course, as I have also noted repeatedly...
The real question is whether there are any serious possibilities that this strategy will prove at all successful--which would be a Very Good Thing for Israel, Lebanon, and the Middle East more generally--or whether the whole thing has been a huge blunder that will turn out disastrously for everyone.
In particular, can the so-called "international community" actually deliver? We should keep our fingers crossed, but I can't say I feel especially optimistic. However, all that is a topic for a separate discussion.

Yours for facing facts,
Jeff Weintraub