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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Tuesday, 18 July 2006
Research: Is the Sky Falling?
Topic: For policy wonks...
Research: Is the Sky Falling?
On Tuesday, July 18, the seventh day of the current war Israel is fighting on two fronts, it seemed best to decide if this was really the start of World War III, or IV, depending on which neoconservative enabler you listened to (see Steven Colbert on the matter here or here). World Wars are a big deal - millions die, economies collapse, refugees pour across borders, and the investments on which one's retirement depends can evaporate without anyone like Ken Lay doing a thing. It would be nice to know what's up, and who to believe.

So some research was in order. And here are the results.

There was more of that 1914 stuff, like this from Fred Kaplan -
Is Israel really planning to invade Lebanon - not just a minor raid on a discrete target but a full-blown invasion and an occupation to follow? Are the Hezbollah militants really trying to blow up the chemical plant in Haifa? Are Syria and Iran really going to let this happen? Could Israel restrain itself from retaliating against not just the attackers but their sponsors?

All over the world, people are asking themselves: Could this really be happening? It seems like the inveterate foes of Israel's existence are gearing up for a shot at dream-fulfillment. And it seems like Israel is gearing up to take out the dreamers first.

This sensation of palpable prelude - is this how people felt in the summer of 1914, as the major powers played out the logic of mobilization and escalation? Will future historians draw parallels between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the nabbing of the two Israeli soldiers across the Lebanese border?
Oh my. Say it's not so, Fred.

And he says it's not so -
There are at least two differences between the preparations for war in Europe 92 years ago and those taking place in the Middle East now. First, today's big powers are not locked in to escalation through alliances; one country going to war does not necessarily force another to follow. The world isn't even divided into hostile blocs, at least not to the same extent. Second, global institutions have been formed in the intervening century precisely to keep such scenarios from cascading.
But it could be so -
.... there are two other facts that mitigate those differences and that draw attention to the similarities between 2006 and 1914. The major powers and the global institutions are just standing by. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan talks about putting a "stabilization force" on the Israeli-Lebanese border, but he has little leverage to impose anything meaningful. The G8 nations unanimously harrumph a resolution of concern and condemnation, but they take no action. President George W. Bush tells British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he thinks his secretary of state will make a trip to the Middle East pretty soon.
Oh crap. So that's not good at all. Both sides here view their very existence as being at risk and so no one will back down. Diplomacy is called for, and it might work, or not, but no one to give it a try - not those in conflict or those looking on.

Kaplan says it's like this -
Israeli leaders seem to think that if they fight on for another week, they can strengthen their strategic position - and weaken Hezbollah's - so that when the international community does step in to impose a cease-fire, they'll come out significantly ahead.

However, another argument can be made that the longer Israel keeps bombing and shelling Lebanon, and unavoidably killing Lebanese civilians, the more its standing will diminish, regionally and globally. An editorial in today's Daily Star, Beirut's relatively moderate newspaper, is headlined, "Israeli onslaught will strengthen, not weaken, Hezbollah's popular appeal."
And then you mix in the sectarian stuff and it just gets weird -
The opportunity for a nonmilitary solution (the phrase "peaceful solution" may be going too far) is golden right now but not for long. In a remarkable statement, the Saudi foreign minister criticized Hezbollah's cross-border attacks as "unexpected, inappropriate, and irresponsible acts." So did the leaders of Egypt, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Some criticized Israel's response as "disproportionate," or they urged "restraint." But these caveats seemed almost pro forma. Rarely, if ever, have Arab leaders so condemned other Arabs on an issue of conflict with the Jewish State.

Yet there's something else that binds those Arab leaders - they're all Sunnis, while Hezbollah, Iran, and (nominally) Syria are ruled by Shiites. This is another reason this fire needs to be put out as soon as possible. Otherwise, it might not only ignite the grand battle between Israel and its most fervent foes, but also feed the flames of the region's larger war between Sunnis and Shiites.
Okay, the neoconservatives arguing it's time to get with what Israel has started and join them by taking out Syria and Iran, and occupying Damascus and Tehran and setting up the governments there that we really want, is too simplistic. We don't get World War III or IV and the "clash of civilizations" about which Rush Limbaugh is so excited he is nearly peeing his pants - we get to sit on the sidelines as international war between Sunnis and Shiites is waged everywhere. Bummer.

But something must be done. This is getting really dangerous. Will Bush send Condoleezza Rice over there to knock heads and set things straight, doing that shuttle diplomacy thing?

No -
The point of shuttle diplomacy, when Henry Kissinger and James Baker conducted it, was to talk with leaders who can't talk with one another, shuttling back and forth conveying messages, feints, fears, and ultimately offers. One problem right now is that the United States - the would-be shuttle diplomat - has long cut off relations with Syria and Iran, both of Hezbollah's enablers (and thus potential disablers). If Bush doesn't reopen the lines, there's no point in sending Rice on the plane; it would be a shuttle to nowhere - and, short of sensational luck, a region sliding to war.
We're screwed. But is a World War coming?

That's hard to tell. There are wheels within wheels here, and we just don't talk with the bad guys. We've made things so clear and simple we're out of the equation - and we call it "moral clarity." That precludes diplomacy, which is never clear and what Henry Kissinger once defined as "purposeful ambiguity." We no longer do ambiguity. The president can't grasp it, and Cheney and the neoconservatives think it's un-American. Maybe it is.

Okay, let's turn to Aluf Benn, the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz. He's covered Israel's foreign policy and the Arab-Israeli peace process since 1993, so he must know a thing or two. His analyses of what's really going on have appeared in Foreign Affairs over the years. He knows stuff. He can say how dire things are right now, or reassure us things will be fine.

And Aluf Benn says this -
The wisest of all Israeli statesmen, Moshe Dayan, once made a prescient comment about the inexplicable nature of Arab-Israeli wars. "All our wars started when afterwards we needed very thorough research to explain and understand why they had started at all," he said in a closed Cabinet consultation in April 1973. Indeed, several months later, the Yom Kippur War took Dayan and the rest of Israel's political-military elite by total surprise.

Dayan died in 1981, but had he lived today, he would undoubtedly have repeated his age-old analysis. This summer started out as the best one that Israel has had since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada six years ago. Tourists filled Tel Aviv beaches, the stock market hit its all-time high, and the government, flush with unexpected budgetary fat, lowered taxes and discussed cutting defense and beefing up welfare programs that had been cut in previous years.
And then things went south, and north as it were. The war was on. The regional troublemakers, the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah, would be dealt with, severely.

And Benn provides a narrative of how that happened, with the political and psychodynamics, which actually helpful (emphases added) -
The road to war began in early June, when the tacit cease-fire between Hamas and Israel began to crack. Smaller Palestinian groups kept firing their Qassam missiles at the Israeli border town of Sderot. The IDF responded with targeted killings of suspected perpetrators, unfortunately killing innocent bystanders as well. Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, put the brakes on military plans to escalate the fighting, and so did the Hamas leaders. But on June 25, a small Hamas unit attacked a military outpost on the Israeli side of the border, abducting a soldier and killing several others. Olmert decided against exchanging prisoners and hit back at Hamas, aiming to crush its military wing, halt the Qassams and weaken the civilian Hamas-led Palestinian government, which, despite enormous external pressure, has refused to recognize Israel and forswear terror.

Olmert's decision to fight back was in part a result of his political weakness: Israel's new Cabinet, sworn in on May 4, is led by a freshman team lacking battlefield experience and hangs on a loose coalition. It is a byword of Israeli politics that weak governments tend to hit harder. A former war hero like Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak, "Mr. Security" at the top, could afford politically to be more flexible. But Olmert, who was smeared by his right-wing adversary Benjamin Netanyahu as a leftist weakling, could not. Along with the new defense minister, Amir Peretz, Olmert had to show the weary public and the military leaders that he had balls.

The world stood by as Israeli tanks returned to Gaza, and Washington intervened only to tell Israel to avoid hitting key civilian facilities (after the IDF destroyed Gaza's only power plant) and to spare Mahmoud Abbas, the powerless president of the Palestinian Authority and America's darling. But Israel has failed to this day to achieve its goals in Gaza. Its abducted soldier, Gilad Shalit, is still missing, the Qassams keep hitting Sderot, and the Hamas government has stuck to its positions despite the arrest of dozens of its ministers and legislators in the West Bank.
It's odd how much that sounds like politics over here. Can't be a leftist weakling, and you have to show some balls and send the kids off to war. Sigh. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is in the same fix. Nasrallah rose to his present position when Israel assassinated his predecessor, Abbad Moussawi, in 1992. They play hardball over there.

And there was a George Bush moment, although Olmert wasn't reading "My Pet Goat" to grade school kids at the time -
Olmert heard the news about the Hezbollah attack when he was meeting the parents of Gilad Shalit, the abducted Gaza GI. This was his ultimate leadership test. As he said later, "There is a moment when a state says: No." Decisive by his nature, he instantly resolved to hit back forcefully and use the opportunity to reduce Hezbollah's capability for "holding Israel hostage" through its arsenal of rockets.

This was not an easy decision. Olmert was putting at risk not only the abducted soldiers, but also the lives, property and welfare of hundreds of thousands of Israelis within the rockets' range. The country's hard-won economic boom and tourism revival were at stake too. But he sensed correctly that the public expected him "to hit the bastards" and therefore would support his actions, and that given the circumstances, Israel would receive unprecedented international backing even for forceful attacks.
Sounds familiar. We threw our international support away by attacking the wrong guys, against all advice, but maybe that won't happen here.

And the attack was focused on the practical, "a Kosovo-style air campaign to destroy Hezbollah's headquarters and the south Beirut neighborhood where it is centered, its ammunition and rocket hideouts and village bases, as well as targeting Lebanese infrastructure like roads, power stations and bridges to prevent Syrian re-supply."

And, surprise, international support has not evaporated, yet -
The international community sided with Israel, stipulating only that it avoid killing too many innocent bystanders, and not topple the fragile Beirut government of Premier Fouad Siniora. G8 leaders, convened in St. Petersburg, Russia, put the blame firmly on Hamas and Hezbollah and all but halted the "diplomatic hourglass" to give Israel more time to finish the job. President George W. Bush's support for Israel is no surprise, but for key Arab states like Saudi Arabia to criticize Nasrallah, and then remain silent when Israeli warplanes destroy parts of an Arab capital is unprecedented.
But we'll see how long that lasts.

But it may work out -
If Israel succeeds in destroying Nasrallah's forces - and even in killing him - and a new international force dismantles Hezbollah's rockets and prevents a new buildup, then Olmert would be the clear winner in this round. Israel's economy will resume its growth course (even if defense cuts would be called off) and public morale will soar. If, however, Nasrallah walks out of his hiding place, shakes the dust off his beard, and still has thousands of rockets with their launchers - perhaps even replenishing them from Iran - he would be positioned as the king of "Arab resistance" against "the Zionists."
Yeah, yeah. Unlikely. The Sunni Saudis and Sunni Egypt may be a little alarmed, and al Qaeda may feel a bit miffed as the new kids on the block get to be the heroes. But writing from Tel-Aviv, concerned with the immediate war, Aluf Benn may think that's something for later, something to consider in the next bigger war.

Well, it's one view.

Ann Arbor, Michigan, is 5,995 miles (9,648 kilometers) from Tel-Aviv, but your research take you where it will, and there you will find Juan Cole, the eminent professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan, and things look different from there. Of course he might have been at Yale this year, but they withdrew their offer after all sorts of pressure from the right wing side of things (detailed here with Cole's comments here) - the "Bush can do no wrong" side doesn't much like what he concludes about the Middle East, and about the efficacy of our policies. But he's been all over the region and speaks, read and writes the major languages, and he knows the players. Ridiculing his views may be short-sighted.

And Juan Cole has a few things to say about the two-front Israeli war in progress here, which he calls Israel's "maximal option." He's not impressed. He's not impressed with either side.

The situation -
Everyone is wondering about the military objectives of the Israeli and Hezbollah leaderships, whose rash and immoral actions have brought their countries to this dangerous pass.

Beirut, of course, has taken the far heavier punishment, with dozens of buildings razed, massive bomb-produced potholes in the streets and frantic rescue crews carting away bloody bodies, mainly of civilians, including families and children. But Haifa is in greater shock, its inhabitants unused to taking direct enemy missile fire. Nor are they accustomed to seeing a bombed-out Israeli warship towed into the bay. The big international companies with offices not far from where the rockets landed include Microsoft, and the danger posed to Israel of capital flight in the billions dwarfs in magnitude the Lebanese losses of $100 million a day, mainly in forfeited tourism.
Both sides are screwing thing up for everyone, but he notes this -
One option being entertained by the Israeli leaders would have the effect of turning the Lebanese capital into a fetid slum, swamped by hundreds of thousands of cowering peasants expelled north by a vast Israeli human engineering project. And if this project produces a civil war between Shiite Lebanese and the central government, as the Israeli high command and the Kadima Party who are considering this plan believe, then all the better.
He thinks they want to do that Jordan thing again, like in 1970-71 when Jordan had filled up with Palestinian refugees after the 1967 war and the fledgling Palestine Liberation Organization was doing guerrilla crap against Israel- so back then they bombed and forced King Hussein to clamp down on the PLO. That led to a civil war within Jordan but the PLO was taken care of, severely. The idea might work in Lebanon now - get the current government to crush Hezbollah.

Bu the parallel doesn't pertain -
Lebanon, however, is far more fragile than Jordan. It is a multicultural society, sometimes called a country of minorities. In East Beirut, Jounieh and points north, into Mount Lebanon, Maronite Catholics are the majority. Sunnis are important in the port cities - Tripoli, West Beirut and Sidon - as well as in the Bekaa Valley and in the far north. In the Shouf mountains live the Druze, hardy adherents of an esoteric offshoot of Ismaili Islam. The deep south down near the Israeli border is orthodox (or a "Twelver") Shiite territory, though they are also a majority in the Bekaa Valley to the east, with Baalbak a major center, and decades of immigration to the capital have created a southern ring of Shiite slums around Beirut. Poor Shiites are the constituency for the fundamentalist Hezbollah Party, though in opinion polls most of them do not report their main political commitment as Muslim fundamentalism.
That's more detail than you might need. Don't worry about it. It's quite complicated and complex -and simple ideas may not work.

And Hezbollah aren't raggedy displaced nonentities. They're part of the government now.

This is the compressed history -
Hezbollah emerged as the militarily most important group in Lebanon when 14,000 Syrian troops withdrew from the country in spring 2005. The Syrians had played the role of peacekeeper, or at least referee, during the Lebanese Civil War. When the warring factions made peace from 1989 forward, all the Lebanese factions disarmed their paramilitaries except Hezbollah, which was struggling against the continued Israeli occupation of the south. In the 1990s and early zeroes, a reduced Syrian force provided some security in the rest of the country at a time when the Lebanese army was being rebuilt. Following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which a UN investigation linked to Syria, a popular movement, known in the West as the "Cedar Revolution," led to a Syrian withdrawal last year. Although the anti-Syrian reformers did well in the elections held late last spring, so too did the Shiite parties, including Hezbollah and Amal, who together won 29 seats in the 128-seat parliament. Hezbollah became part of the government for the first time, but resisted demands that it disarm its militia in the south, maintaining that the continued threat of Israeli violence and renewed occupation made it necessary. It pointed out that Israel continues to retain control of the Shebaa Farms, a small border area claimed by both Lebanon and Syria. (If the Israelis had negotiated the return of this land years ago, it would have been much more difficult for Hezbollah to have justified not disarming.)

The Cedar Revolution was hailed by the Bush administration as a great achievement of democratization, but in fact it pushed the fragile Lebanese political system into a state of dangerous instability, in which the Lebanese ethnic factions no longer had a referee. As members of the reformist bloc such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt began pressing for disarming Hezbollah, they threatened its prime source of political legitimacy and power. Within the arena of Lebanese politics, escalation of tension with Israel benefited Hezbollah at a time it was under this pressure.
So they're important, and integrated into the government, and big trouble -
On Sunday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah delivered a disturbing videotaped speech in which he gloated over his party's missile strikes on Israel. He said that the attack on Haifa had not been for revenge but for the purpose of deterring Israeli assaults on Lebanon. He contrasted his strikes, which he claimed deliberately avoided targeting civilians, with Israel's, which he claimed had targeted civilians. Since his missiles are inaccurate, this was a self-serving lie: Any Katyushas he launched could (and did) kill civilians. He sanctimoniously pointed out that he could have hit chemical plants and fuel plants and produced a much worse disaster for the city, but had refrained from doing so for the moment. He also promised further "surprises" for the Israelis. Nasrallah, soft-spoken behind his white-speckled soft black beard, exuded an adolescent nationalism, taking pride in this "Arab" achievement of striking back at last against the Israeli cities from which the Lebanese Shiites had taken decades of bombings.

... Nasrallah's speech was full of delusions of grandeur. His goals appear to include giving aid to the beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza, claiming the mantle of the most important political and military leader in Lebanon now that the Syrians are gone, and forcing Israel to negotiate with him as an equal. None of these goals is realistic. He has raised Hezbollah's status with the Arab street, but has no way to translate that into actual power. His ability to help the Palestinians is nonexistent. His amateurish missile attacks, most of which have done no real damage, cannot possibly deter Israel from its military plans for the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure. And after years of fighting the Israelis, he should have known enough about their psychology to know that nothing would guarantee a widening of the war more than menacing the descendants of victims of the Holocaust with poison gas.
Yeah, he's a real piece of work. Rush Limbaugh is a piker compared to him.

As for Israel, it is being just as odd -
There is no question that Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket attacks, and to respond appropriately to Hezbollah's illegal and immoral abduction of two soldiers and killing of others. A "proportional" response by Israel to Hezbollah's initial attack, of the sort demanded by international human rights lawyers, would have involved killing three Hezbollah fighters and capturing two down at the border between the two countries - and a heavier response directly specifically at Hezbollah could also have been justified. Instead, Israel has bombed, blockaded, isolated and crippled the entire country. Why? In preparation for what?
Who knows? What they says is the idea is to move all the Hezbollah bad guys back from the border, so their rockets cannot reach any part of Israel, but that's displacing a whole lot of people. And UNICEF's representative in Lebanon told AFP that "The situation is both alarming and catastrophic. There are about 500,000 people displaced already."

But the logic is clear -
If it comes about, the forced transfer of the Shiites of the south would have several advantages for the Israelis. The depopulated territory would make it easier to search for and destroy all the Katyusha emplacements and the heavier missiles of which Hezbollah boasted on Sunday. With Hezbollah's approximately 5,000 fighters deprived of civilian cover, it would be easier to kill them. The Israelis clearly anticipate that a refugee crisis in Beirut will put pressure on the Lebanese government to turn on Hezbollah decisively and to intervene against it militarily. Finally, they expect Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, in the aftermath, to send the Lebanese army south to take up positions along the border and so form a buffer between Hezbollah and Israel.
That might work, but Cole notes that, ethically, it is "monstrous, involving war crimes on a vast scale insofar as it targets a civilian population for forcible relocation."

And it won't work anyway -
Even if Lebanon's famously fractured political elite could come to a consensus that Hezbollah had to be curbed, it is unclear how they could accomplish that task. The reconstituted Lebanese army formed after the civil war is 60,000 strong, but most of the troops are green and many of the infantrymen are Shiites. The 5,000 battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters defeated the Israeli occupation with suicide bombings and guerrilla tactics. Even if the Shiite troops in the regular Lebanese army would fight their own, it is not clear that they could do so successfully.

... The Israeli plan to pressure the Lebanese government to take on Hezbollah will therefore likely fail. The Jordan precedent has no analogies here. The Shiites of Lebanon have played a role in contemporary Lebanese nationalism very unlike that of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan. Neither President Emile Lahoud nor Prime Minister Siniora command the respect, or have the steel, of Jordan's King Hussein, and the Lebanese army lacks the cohesion and loyalty that had characterized his Bedouin troops.

Instead, if Israel follows through on threats to create a massive internal refugee problem in Lebanon, they will further radicalize the Shiites, many of whom now support Hezbollah because of the services it provides or because it looks out for their interests rather than because they really want an Islamic Republic. If the Israelis manage to disrupt the party structure, as they appear to hope, they will simply remove any discipline over rank-and-file members and encourage small-group terrorism of the sort that has recently plagued Madrid, Spain, and London. Radicalized Lebanese Shiites can expect ongoing aid not only from Iran but from the newly liberated radical Shiites of Iraq, such as the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Yep, he did mention Iraq -
... the kind of large-scale injustice apparently being planned in Israel against tens or hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Shiites may profoundly affect the situation in Iraq. Many Iraqi Shiites entertain a profound hatred for the American and other coalition troops in Iraq, feeling humiliated by what they view as an infidel military occupation. Many have refrained so far from attacking the foreigners, however, because they have seen them as allies against Saddam Hussein and other Sunni Arab leaders, who persecuted the Shiites. Anger has grown in the Shiite south of Iraq against coalition troops, however, as witnessed by persistent attacks on the British in Basra and elsewhere. If the Iraqi Shiites decide that Britain and the United States are enabling Israel to crush the Lebanese Shiites, they may begin attacking the coalition in revenge. On Friday, Shiites demonstrated in the thousands in Baghdad against Israel's predations in Lebanon. The US and Britain have already had difficulty dealing with a vigorous Sunni Arab guerrilla movement, and the opening of a second front, with enraged Iraqi Shiites, could doom their enterprise in Iraq.
And locally nothing good can come of it all either -
There are two most likely outcomes of the war. One is the collapse of the Lebanese government and the creation of another failed state on Israel's border, where desperation will breed terrorism for decades. The other is a strengthened Hezbollah, which will become the leading force in Lebanese nationalism, weakening the reformists. The maximalist option would likely turn Beirut into a poor Shiite city, reinforcing Shiite political power at the center. Destroying a few Katyusha emplacements in the south will not affect either outcome, and in both cases Hezbollah will probably be able to rebuild its arsenal.

The Israelis' current blank check will begin to be canceled by the world community, as the full scale of the destruction of Lebanon becomes apparent and humanitarian crises ensue. At some point it will be forced to cease its attack. Israel will not get the Lebanese government of which it dreams. It may get a UN or Lebanese buffer for a while, but it will not be effective, and the southern Lebanese clans are famed for nothing if not long memories and determined feuding.
But that wouldn't be World War III (or IV), just the same old same old.

Aluf Benn opened with a quote. Cole ends with one -
If, as Abba Eban once said, the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, it is equally true that the Israelis, with their reflexive instinct to shoot first and negotiate later, never miss an opportunity to make a bad situation worse.

The Israelis have responded the same way to military threats for decades -- with overwhelming force. This is perhaps understandable, but each time they overreact they create future catastrophes for themselves. Just as their 1982 invasion of Lebanon and occupation of the south haunted them for a generation, they will be living with the blowback of their ill-considered war on hapless little Lebanon for decades to come. Tragically, the United States, as Israel's closest ally, will also have to suffer for its actions.
But it won't be World War III. At least that what the research shows so far.

So now you know the basics. It's more than enough. There will be a test.

On the other hand, the president says it's quite simple - "You see, the ... thing is what they need to do is to get Syria, to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over."

Maybe he knows best. People make things so complicated.

We're in trouble.

Posted by Alan at 23:19 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 19 July 2006 06:41 PDT home

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