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The Middle East: Bad strategy all around

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The hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah continue unabated, increasing the instability (and casualties) in Israel, Lebanon, and beyond. What began as tit-for-tat retaliatory actions quickly escalated into a full-scale conflict, and the endgame is still very much up in the air. The strategic implications of the events of the past week are myriad, but virtually none of them appear to benefit any nation or group for which I have any affection.

The conflict between Israel and Lebanon, I should note, is fundamentally different from that between Israel and the Palestinians. In the midst of a complicated regional and political situation, I think some observers are unfairly linking those two separate situations. Criticisms of Israel that are fair with regard to Palestinians are less persuasive with regard to the situation in Lebanon. There is no “legitimate” resistance from Lebanon against Israel, insofar as Israel does not occupy any part of Lebanon (having unilaterally withdrawn from southern Lebanon in 2000). Hezbollah is not a Palestinian group, nor is it immediately associated with Palestinian interests. The stated goal of Hezbollah is to eliminate the existence of Israel. One cannot equate Hezbollah with Hamas, structurally or politically. Both are terroristic political organizations that attack Israel, but there are marked differences.

Hezbollah is a Shia group supported by Iran and Syria. It is a movement with over 1 million estimated supporters, but it does not have the support of a majority of the Lebanese population, and although it has representation in Lebanese parliament, it is a decidedly minority party. Lebanon has not been able to satisfy the requirements of multiple U.N. resolutions requiring the government to take control of the southern part of the country, which has been essentially ceded to Hezbollah control. When Israel withdrew in 2000, it had a reasonable expectation that Lebanon would get Hezbollah under control, and that Hezbollah’s legitimacy would decrease since Israel no longer occupied any part of Lebanon. Lebanon has not managed to control Hezbollah since then; rather, Syria was the nation with the most control over Hezbollah, an influence which waned considerably when Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon in 2005.

In contrast, Hamas, which still is absolutely a terrorist organization, is the fairly elected governing political party of the Palestinians, who do have territory occupied by Israel. Hamas is a Sunni group, and it is not significantly managed by other states (though other Arab nations do provide some funding).

The current conflict is between Hezbollah and Israel, and in this fight Israel has more legitimacy than some give it credit for. This position is further supported by the remarkable and unprecedented recent reactions from other Arab states, which have criticized Hezbollah rather than the usual approach of blaming everything on Israel. A decent analogy is (the old) Afghanistan, a sovereign nation wherein a terrorist group operated with impunity. Virtually everyone agreed that the U.S. had the right to invade Afghanistan to get at al-Qa’ida because the Afghan government wouldn’t (and really couldn’t) control them itself.

The method of retaliation, however, has erased some of this legitimacy, and the attacks against Lebanon’s infrastructure and economy are morally questionable to say the least. While I understand the goal, Israel is going about it the wrong way, punishing too many of the wrong people. I'm not convinced that Israel's actions are appropriately matched to its strategic goals. Hezbollah, of course, remains morally repugnant, and continues to indiscriminately fire missiles into civilian areas.

But I’m not an ethicist, nor am I a moral philosopher. My greater concern with this situation is the apparent lack of strategy on the part of Israel, Lebanon, and the U.S. Each could end this conflict relatively quickly, and, in my estimation, the first one to take that initiative will end up the political “winner.”

Israel could cease attacks, pull back, offer aid to help restore the civilian infrastructure destroyed and demand that Lebanon and the U.N. rein in Hezbollah. Israel isn’t going to completely destroy Hezbollah, which is both huge and decentralized, and it can’t effectively control southern Lebanon (see: 1982 – 2000), so I don’t see a solid strategic endgame for them in the attacks, other than to provoke Lebanon to control Hezbollah. Israel could claim mercy and self-restraint if it pulled back now (or soon), and it might be able to parlay the Arab irritation with Hezbollah into better security and involvement with Lebanon. Conversely, continued attacks against Lebanon (rather than Hezbollah specifically) will only increase popular Lebanese support for the group that most stridently criticizes Israel . . . even when that group helped cause the conflict in the first place.

Lebanon could move its army, such as it is, into the southern part of the country, which it has long ceded to Hezbollah control. It could claim that it was finally going to take care of the Hezbollah problem, and although its military would likely be reluctant to fully take on Hezbollah (much of the army is Shia and probably sympathetic to the Hezbollah brethren), it could at least assert some authority. Israel would be heavily pressured to pull back, because the last thing it would want to do is start a war with Lebanese regulars, especially by accident. Lebanon would look competent and assertive (for the first time in forever) and would gain international appreciation for trying to take care of a long-standing problem. On the other hand, if Lebanon continues to abdicate responsibility for Hezbollah, it’s hard to blame Israel for taking matters into its own hands (against Hezbollah if not against Lebanon as a whole).

Finally, the U.S. could (and should!) throw its weight around. A negotiated settlement would probably relieve all parties at this point. Israel has got to be wondering what, exactly, it thinks it can accomplish with the total isolation of Lebanon, and anxiously contemplating the prospect of reoccupying southern Lebanon, which didn’t work for 20 years and is unlikely to work now. Lebanon is worried about total collapse, either through a no-confidence vote and new elections (which would almost certainly favor Hezbollah at this point) or from economic disintegration. Syria and Iran are wary about a very pissed off Israel and a perhaps freelancing Hezbollah. Comrade Putin’s diplomatic endeavors notwithstanding, the U.S. is the only nation with the ability to influence all parties, but we’ve apparently abandoned this opportunity. The refusal to negotiate with many of the parties (including Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria) is foolish, but we should still be able to effect an end to the violence, which is hurting our interests significantly through distracting attention from Iran’s nuclear progress and, even more importantly, by inciting Shia fury in Iraq. Unfortunately, our delusional Commander in Chief seems to think this is really all about Syria.

So . . . who will be the first to make a smart strategic move? It’s times like this I wish I was still reading the behind-the-scenes information, ‘cause with the public information available, it’s impossible to tell.

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