Let's leave aside the danger to American policy in the Middle East, the creation of a new generation of orphan terrorists, the horrific prospect of World War VII or VIII. Forget about all those erstwhile "Cedar Revolution" cheerleaders, who not two years ago were discovering their inner Lebanophilia, gloating at Syrian discomfiture, and plastering their blogs with photos of Beirut "freedom babes," and who now must be wondering what happened in the ten minutes after their attention spans ran out. Hell, I'll even put aside concerns for the safety of my immediate family, all of whom are right now trapped in the Republic of Lebanon. At the moment, I'll settle for an answer to just one question: What the hell is Israel's game plan?
Officially, the plan is simple. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made his three goals clear last night: The Israeli blockade on and bombing of Lebanon that began six days ago will end when two abducted soldiers are returned, Hezbollah ceases its attacks on Israeli territory, and the Lebanese army is deployed to the Israel-Lebanon border. The problem is that none of Israel's actions so far appear to be aimed at those goals.
By this I don't mean that the vicious cycle of violence creates more terrorists, or that the Jewish state risks international chastisement, or that the response is disproportionate, or any of the other bugbears that get trotted out every time an Israeli sneezes. I mean that as a practical matter, Israel's actions do not appear aimed at achieving its stated objectives.
This becomes clear once we examine the stated goals in more detail. Last one first: Lebanon is not a nation, and it probably never will be. The Lebanese army is worthless, and if it ever tried to make a move against Hezbollah, the half of its cohort that has any fighting spirit at all would defect to Hezbollah's side and devour the other half. This is aside from the many political considerations that make the idea of Lebanon's reining in Hezbollah by force a non-starter, and the detail that any sort of redeployment of a still-armed Hezbollah will still leave Lebanon with an uncontrollable paramilitary within its borders, quickly returning us to square one. The only army in the area that has the means to clear Hezbollah forces out of the south of Lebanon is Israel's.
As for Hezbollah's ceasing of its attacks on Israeli territory, I'm going to go way out on a limb here and predict that Hezbollah will never cease its attacks on Israeli territory as long as it has the means to attack. Better minds than mine have already opined that the only way to take away those means is to attack Syria or somehow wish Iran into the cornfield—two actions Israel has a demonstrated disinclination to take. But even if we eliminate the international element, the pacification of Hezbollah would involve a full-scale invasion of Lebanon, encompassing at least the southern half of the country and the Bekaa valley, cutting off all avenues of escape, and deploying ground troops in massive numbers.
This has been done before. The Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982 to demolish the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and they achieved that goal. The PLO was removed, and it withered and faded in exile, to be replaced by other enemies (chief among them: Hezbollah, an organization created by the 1982 assault). History remembers this infamous invasion in vivid, grisly detail, but forgets one central aspect: that it was an absolute success. Israel, for a variety of reasons, appears unwilling to repeat that success, but if you're serious about ending Hezbollah violence, the only way forward is to crush Hezbollah.
As for the return of the two soldiers, the pattern is too well known to need much rehearsal here. You can't find a kidnap victim through military force alone. That's true in tiny Gaza, and it's truer in less-tiny Lebanon, medium-sized Syria, and large Iran. Israel has traded Arab flesh for Israeli flesh in the past, and will do so again. This casus belli is, as Patton (or just George C. Scott) said, so trivial in its nature and so terrible in its consequences that we must look for meaning elsewhere.
One thing is clear. Israel is trying to effect some strategic shift or change. A sea and air blockade, even on a country that neither commands nor deserves respect as a sovereign state, is serious business. So is attacking military installations and infrastructure all over the country, and killing more than 200 people (nearly all of them civilians, as Israel bashers are pleased to note).
Is all this fury designed to deplete Hezbollah's capacity for violence? It is not. The target selection is telling: The bombing of bridges and infrastructure indicates a ground invasion is not in the works, while the focus on political targets and Lebanese national military bases borders on the strange. The Hezbollah offices that were destroyed over the weekend are located in a densely populated mixed-use neighborhood. There was nothing to achieve in this attack, at least if your goal is to prevent rocket attacks on Haifa, nor could you make with any credibility the modern warrior's fondest claim—that every effort was made to avoid civilian deaths. More puzzling is a navy ship's attack on an army installation in the northern town of Batroun, which killed one soldier. I have been by that base many times, and it appears to contain little more than a dozen personnel carriers and a dozen more sleepy soldiers. Perhaps there's more to that base than I've seen (Israel claims to have destroyed a radar station), but given the geography of the area I suspect not. (Disclosure: My wife and daughters were staying at a nearby beach resort during that attack but were unharmed.)
The leaflets are even more puzzling. Last week Israel blanketed southern Lebanon with flyers warning civilians to avoid areas frequented by Hezbollah—a message that, given Hezbollah's ubiquity, amounts to a flee-your-homes warning. This is a proven tactic at least as old as Heinz Guderian: You present the enemy with roads blocked by panicking civilians and a major humanitarian crisis. Yet with the people in headlong flight, command and control in ruins, and total air supremacy, the Israeli Defense Force opted not to invade. By the weekend, the Israeli pamphlet campaign had been reduced to distributing caricatures of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah so crude and artless you'd have thought they were made by an Arab rather than a Jew. I also heard a rumor of a leaflet claiming Nasrallah was dead, but I suspect that one didn't exist.
So what is the strategy? We must assume the Israeli military is as steeped in game theory and scenario-building as any war machine in history. What we're seeing in practice now is one of a host of contingencies that were on the books long before the terrorists kidnapped some poor schmuck in olive drab. The possibilities:
1. Israel is trying to prompt the Lebanese government to take control of Hezbollah. This is not plausible. The Lebanese state has no means of coercing the Shiite militants. We can talk all day about how things should be different, but the bottom line is that they're not. Olmert knows this; any talk of getting Lebanon to take control is a feint.
2. Israel is hoping to take a military bite out of Hezbollah. Not plausible. One missile destroyed after all this violence? Moshe Dayan is rolling over in his grave. If the Israelis were serious about taking on Hezbollah, their tanks would already be in Lebanon.
3. Israel is trying to get its soldiers back. Good luck with that one.
4. Israel is trying to turn the population of Lebanon against Hezbollah. Even less plausible. Forced to choose between Israel and Hezbollah, the majority of Lebanese, including substantial numbers of Christians and Sunnis, would pick Hezbollah.
5. Israel is trying to turn elite opinion in Lebanon and Syria against Hezbollah. More plausible. The opinions of the masses matter even less in the Arab world than they do in the democratic world, and a good pitch to the actual leaders would go something like this: "Yes, yes, the Israelis are brutes and villains and Jews and so forth, but they've been there your whole life and they've never threatened your position. This radical Shiite cleric, on the other hand, he's actually got ideas, and ideas do threaten your position."
6. Israel is trying to internationalize anti-Shiism. Even more plausible, and supported by the tepid criticism of Hezbollah coming from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The invasion of Iraq has turned the dream of a Shiite Crescent into a reality. The Sunni states are looking for any means to cut chunks out of that crescent, and with Saddam Hussein no longer available, Israel becomes a useful means to that end.
There are undoubtedly many other possibilities, and I should note that the assumption that there is a master strategy may be rooted in the simultaneously philo-Semitic and anti-Semitic notion that The Jews have figured out the universe and therefore always have a plan. However, in this case it is only reasonable to assume that we're seeing more than just some feckless hissy fit.
Of course, for the hawks and stab-in-the-back theorists who supposedly make up the hard backbone of Israel's support, the answer is (and always is) cowardice and fecklessness. In this view, Israel's hesitation is due to weakness, to the treasonous pacifism of insufficiently warlike Israelis or Americans. I look at an Israel that year after year strengthens its strategic position and expands its economy, and I conclude that that's crazy talk. The Israelis know what they're doing.
And the American position? President Bush summed it up yesterday by finally making the word "shit" suitable for polite conversation. I'll take him up on that offer: President Bush is full of shit. He has no ideas for this situation, nor should he. His strategy on the Arab-Israeli conflict has always been to let nature take its course, and he's not about to change now. The Israelis are in the driver's seat. I just wish I knew where they were heading.