Thursday, August 17, 2006

Taking credit for the cornucopia of foolishness

Now that the ceasefire in Lebanon is (mostly) holding, all the major players are claiming victory. Historian Juan Cole wonders why anyone would want to claim victory in this sordid little Keystone Cops war:

Since the United Nations resolution calling for a halt to hostilities, Prime Minister Olmert, President Bush, Secretary-General Nasrallah, President al-Asad and President Ahmadinejad have all been procliaming [sic] the war a personal victory.

I don't know why they would want to claim it.

It was such a stupid war. It was thick-as-two-blocks-of-wood strategy on all sides. It was moronic for the Israelis to plan it out last year. It was idiotic for Hizbullah to cross over into Israel, kill soldiers, and take two captive. [Ed: there are considerable doubts on this description of events.] It was brain dead for the Israeli officer corps and politicians to think they could get anything positive out of bombing Lebanon back to the stone age and making a million people homeless. It was dim-witted for Hasan Nasrallah to threaten Israelis with releasing poison gases from Haifa chemical plants on them. It was obtuse for the Israelis to confront a dug-in guerrilla movement with green conventional troops marching in straight lines. It was dull of Hizbullah to fire thousands of katyushas into open fields where they mainly damaged wild grass. The few times when the rockets managed to kill someone, it was often an Arab Israeli civilian. Stupid.

Israeli's armed forces chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, unwisely sold off $27,000 in stock when he heard that Hizbullah had captured 2 Israeli soldiers. That wasn't unwise economically, since when Israel went to war, its stock market fell 12% It is further proof that the war was planned well in advance, and that Halutz knew that the capture would trigger it. But what could he have saved or made from this transaction? A few thousand dollars? It was stupid for him to risk the public perception of impropriety for such a small sum. Unprofessional.

But this war was a keystone cops war. It was horribly destructive for Lebanon, but not to any purpose for anyone, including the Israelis. The Americans and Israelis seem to have thought that the small farmers and small shopkeepers of south Lebanon were a sinister wraith army of the ghost of Ayatollah Khomeini. In fact, they were . . . small farmers and shopkeepers. One of the reasons they are rushing back down south is to see to their small farms, even if the small farmhouse isn't there any more.

But there you have it. Everyone wants credit for this cornucopia of foolishness.

Bush came out and said that Hizbullah had been defeated, and tried to link Hizbullah to the Sunni Arab guerrillas who make his life hell in Iraq. But, George, Hizbullah is Shiite. It was your Shiite allies in Iraq who supported it.

One event that stood out in my mind from early in the ground invasion was a complaint from an Israeli soldier that the Hezbollah fighters were deliberately wearing military uniforms to confuse them, because that made them look like soldiers. Hey Brainiac, that's what they are: soldiers.

I don't know what the Israeli brass thought, but the rank-and-file seem to have swallowed whole the myth of Hezbollah being untrained terrorists with machine guns. Maybe Israel really did expect to find Hezbollah fighters hiding in civilian clothes in markets and apartment buildings (and maybe the Pope is an atheist...) and was taken completely by surprise to discover Hezbollah troops were well-trained, disciplined light infantry, dug into heavily fortified, well-supplied positions far from the residential areas the Israeli airforce was blowing up.

It has been said, if you fight the weak, you become weak. Israeli soldiers have spent the last decade or two shooting rock-throwing Palestinian children, protecting bulldozers, and blowing up Hamas leaders with guided missiles. Whatever edge they once had has been dulled by their arrogant confidence that the IDF is the toughest, meanest military force in the Middle East and possibly the world. With total air superiority, heavy armour and a numerical superiority, they couldn't beat light infantry and failed to make a single one of their strategic aims. The best they can say after this is that, having picked a fight with the 40lb weakling next door, "we didn't get our butts kicked!"

Morally, ethically, Cole might be right that Hezbollah has nothing to be proud of here. (His assertion that they crossed into Israel and captured two soldiers is doubtful -- more details to follow soon.) Both sides have committed war crimes: Hezbollah by firing unguided rockets into farmland where they could -- and did -- hit civilians, and Israel by its application of collective punishment to the entire Lebanese people, its deliberate destruction of houses, factories, bridges, airports and other civilian infrastructure, and its killing of hundreds of civilians -- at best careless endangerment, at worst deliberate murder. Either way, a war crime.

But, militarily, there was a clear and obvious winner here, and it wasn't Israel. Victory isn't decided by casualties alone, and certainly not by civilian casualites. In the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, the suffering of ordinary Lebanese doesn't matter to either side.

It is bad enough that Olmert is a militaristic vicious thug who invaded a foreign state on the slimmest of pretenses, but he is an incompetent thug who couldn't even pull the job off. Not only has he failed to curb militant Fundamentalist forces in Lebanon, but he has embolded them, weakening the secular Lebanese government, perhaps fatally, undercutting their authority, handing moral authority and the support of virtually all of Lebanon (Christian, Druze, Shiite and Sunni) to Hezbollah.

Olmert may or may not be able to spin this for the domestic market as a great victory. The frightened people of Israel might even prefer Olmert's strutting tough-guy policy of "my way or a fist in the face" towards Hamas and Hezbullah over the alternatives of negotiation, diplomacy and compromise. But there is no doubt that his adventurism has weakened Israel's position in the Middle East and made them less safe and more insecure.

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