ISRAEL AND ITS ENEMIES: GOOD TACTICS CANNOT MAKE-UP FOR POOR STRATEGY
Though several requests were put in for this post earlier today, the aftermath of Qana seems an even more appropriate moment to survey how one of the most competent and effective of earth’s armies finds itself frustrated and outgamed by a small terror militia dependent on third rate foreign powers for logistics and intelligence support. The answer to Israel’s inability to come to grips with Hezbollah in Lebanon hinges on the fact that all military actions occur in a geopolitical, economic and diplomatic environment, or as Dr. Barnett likes to say ” in the context of everything else”.
You need a strategy in order to navigate that global context and I’m not sure what Israel’s strategy actually is in Lebanon -or if they have one at all. Whatever the IDF is using, all observers seem to agree that it is not working very well in terms of advancing Israeli interests. Hezbollah, and frankly I see them as a very nasty, dangerous and destructive force, has managed to finesse a near disaster into a diplomatic coup and a military stalemate, primarily because they have kept their eye on their strategic goals and consider human life to be a very cheap price to pay for coming out on top.
Some informed commentators, notably Colonel Patrick Lang, have pointed to the IDF chief, a career air force man, as the source of Israel’s current debacle, as General Halutz is the advocate of Israel’s EBO attack on Lebanon, there’s no doubt some truth to that. But General Halutz is the chief of staff, not the Israeli Cabinet, which contains no small number of politicians with experience in Israel’s previous wars. Nor is he the Prime Minister of Israel. EBO is a tactic, a very effective one against states, but it is not an end in itself. Why, Israel would use an EBO attack and against whom counts for much more.
That was a question of strategy for Israel’s government to decide for General Halutz, because for a small state like Israel, no matter how militarily effective it might be, diplomacy and leveraging the psychological dimensions and moral level of warfare matter about as much as bombs and bullets. Israel has no strategic depth, no room for error, while Hezbollah has depth clear back to Teheran. Instead, Israel went with the easy and tactically certain course of degrading Lebanon’s systemic infrastructure -slowly – and is painting itself into a strategic corner as a result, having done insufficient damage to Hezbollah to justify the costs of the campaign.
In fairness to PM Olmert and the Israelis, we do not know the backstory here. The popular assumptions are that the Bush administration egged Israel on to attack Lebanon and, conversely, that Hezbollah is being run from Iran. These assumptions may very well be wrong. The Bush administration may have vetoed an Israeli EBO attack on Syria, a campaign that would have made far more strategic sense, given Syria’s indispensible role as a conduit of Iranian aid to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. Likewise, while the Pasdaran and MOIS keep Hezbollah fine-tuned as a terrorist machine, Nasrallah may have manuvered Ahmadinejad and Khameini into backing Hezbollah’s confrontation with Israel the way Ho Chi Minh and Giap once played Kosygin and Mao for fools. We don’t know what options were foreclosed in a priori.
As Hezbollah is a semi-4GW organization, it obeys no recognized rules of warfare yet escapes much in the way of blame, and intentionally seeks maximum civilian casualties among Lebanese Shiites from Israeli retaliation, there are certain political realities that cannot be ignored:
First, even careful Israeli retaliation will kill plenty of civilians.
Secondly, if you are going to retaliate and kill civilians, the faster you react, the better you will appear to the rest of the world. Time lag and killing civilians does not mix for a power that needs diplomatic ratification to secure its strategic gains.
Third, if you are going to kill lots of civilians, there needs to be a realizable, acheivable, end-goal in mind. Pushing Hezbollah’s rocket line back in terms of geography is meaningless because either Hezbollah will tweak their rockets to improve the range or Iran and Syria will provide better rockets. What happens when Hezbollah launches rockets from north of Beirut ?
The only meaningful strategic goal here for Israel was the total demilitarization of Hezbollah, an objective that coincided with the national interests of not just the U.S. but that of France, and therefore, in a languidly trailing and desultory way, the EU. The key to that objective was Syria, not Lebanon, and making the hapless and ineffectual Lebanese government instead of the “strong”, generally unpopular and very “targetable” Syrian regime the focus of Israeli wrath – followed by real negotiations of things Damascus is interested in talking about – was a mistake. Carrots and sticks. Much more efficient use of Israeli political capital than bombing Lebanon or engaging in bloody house to house fighting in the Bekaa ( the only way to actually root out Hezbollah’s fighters). A better route for Israel to have taken if it wanted an EBO campaign.
And of course, in five or six years, if Nasrallah were to have an accident, by then Israel will probably only be one of the suspected culprits. Perhaps not even at the top of the list.
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