Israel

Bombing to Lose

Why Israel failed in Lebanon

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Just hours after the cease-fire with Lebanon took effect Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave a speech to the Knesset acknowledging "deficiencies" in the way the war was conducted. Buffeted by critics on the left and right, he added that, "We will have to review ourselves in all the battles" and pledged, "We won't sweep things under the carpet." At the same time, though, he proclaimed that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had crippled Hezbollah as a "state within a state as an arm of the axis of evil" and that the "strategic balance" in the region had shifted against Hezbollah. President Bush agreed, proclaiming, "There's going to be a new power in the south of Lebanon."

Like O.J. Simpson's search for the real killer, however, Olmert's review begins with a false premise. By any meaningful measure, Israel lost this war. Wars, Clausewitz tells us, are fought to achieve political objectives. Intermediate military objectives—targets destroyed, enemy personnel killed, and so forth—are merely a means to an end. Reasonable people can debate whether the offensive created more terrorists than it killed, but it is beyond dispute that Israel ended up accepting a truce that falls far short of its original war aims.

Olmert and his planners appeared oblivious to the asymmetric strategic environment. Ralph Peters, a retired intelligence officer deeply sympathetic to Israel's cause, noted early in the conflict that, "All Hezbollah has to do to achieve victory is not to lose completely. But for Israel to emerge the acknowledged winner, it has to shatter Hezbollah." Unfortunately, as the editors of New Republic pointed out, "Israel can cripple Hezbollah, but it cannot destroy it, since Hezbollah is a movement with a social and philosophical foundation in its country; and Hezbollah will certainly never renounce its power or its philosophy, since it regards both as holy."

That proved prescient. The evidence continues to mount that Hezbollah has emerged emboldened and with increased respect in the Arab world. The group was lauded as "The Best Guerrilla Force in the World" in a front page story in Monday's Washington Post.

Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has claimed a "strategic, historic victory" and the group's standing in Lebanon has been buoyed by its having stood up to the vaunted Israelis. Syrian President Bashar Assad said the region has changed "because of the achievements" of Hezbollah, and U.S.-supported political changes were "an illusion."

Kuwaiti actor Daoud Hussein, appearing on al Jazeera television, proclaimed, "If there was just one Nasrallah in every Arab country—one person with his dedication, intelligence, courage, strength and commitment—Arabs would not have had to suffer stolen land and defeat at the hands of Israel for 50 years." Anecdotal evidence suggests that view is widely held.

While even some moderate Arab governments initially conceded that the war was provoked by Hezbollah, Israel's response was almost universally condemned as disproportionate and every civilian casualty was touted by the international media. From the beginning, as Williams College Middle East scholar Mark Lynch reported, scores of photographs of maimed children were filling the front pages of the region's newspapers and "shaping Arab views towards the Lebanon crisis—particularly in the key anti-Hezbollah Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt)."

Politicians faced with the pressure to "do something" about terrorist strikes but unwilling to commit ground forces early or the risk a prolonged fight ignored the realities of panoptic war and appeared genuinely dumbfounded when they got hammered in the press for their tactics. By bombing civilian infrastructure, being indiscriminate in their targeting, and just being generally ham-handed, they played into the jihadists' hands.

The Qana fiasco likely ended permanently any chance Israel had of winning the propaganda war, which, as conservative pundit Tony Blankley rightly noted, was crucial to winning the larger war: "[T]o the extent that defeating radical Islamism is enhanced by winning the hearts and minds of so far non-radical Muslims, corrosive world opinion against us only deepens the deep hole in which we currently find ourselves."

Powerful states simply can not combat terrorists using the same tactics they would apply to a conventional war with a traditional enemy. Massive aerial bombardment and armored invasion are excellent for, say, toppling Saddam Hussein's regime, but they're actually counter-productive in counter-terror/counter-insurgency operations.

The editor of the Defense and the National Interest website explains "As important as finding and destroying the actual combatants, for example, is drying up the bases of popular support that allow them to recruit for, plan, and execute their attacks. Perhaps most odd of all, being seen as too successful militarily may create a backlash, making the opponent's other elements of [4th generation warfare] more effective." Robert Pape noted in his 1995 masterwork Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War that aerial bombing usually "generates more public anger against the attacker than against the target governments."

Commando raids, which have the advantage of minimizing non-combatant casualties, and other precisely targeted strikes are simply much more reasonable and effective options in this environment. They of course take away some of the force multipliers enjoyed by modern armies and, ironically, make the fighting far less asymmetrical. Such tactics, too, may well mean more friendly casualties in the short term. They are, however, the only proven way of defeating insurgencies and terrorist groups.