Thursday, August 17, 2006

Bad Choices

Someone asked me if I was only going to be writing about VP types here and I told him no, but for the second time in a row, a #2-ish person is the subject. Today it’s Ehud Olmert, formerly Ariel Sharon’s backup, forced into a leadership role by Sharon’s stroke. The attack on Hezbollah had been in the planning stages for years, so this isn’t a case of a former #2 trying to show how tough he is. No, Israel is doing what they think they had to do, taking out the threat posed by Hezbollah, using the pretense of a kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers to get things rolling.

Now Lebanon is Israel’s personal “tar baby” – they couldn’t wait to get out of there the last time they invaded, after nothing but trouble. Unfortunately, the government of Lebanon was unable, or unwilling (run by Syria, the latter is more likely) to demilitarize the south and control Hezbollah. The new government is nowhere near strong enough to take on Hezbollah – and besides that, Hezbollah is a large part of that government. So Israel, seeing the importation of weapons and the buildup by Hezbollah in the south, decided they had to take them out. What was their choice, letting them amass more and more weaponry and manpower?

If you’ve ever played blackjack, you know the terrible situation when you get dealt 16 and the dealer has a ten showing. You can count cards all you want, but most of the time, you are going to lose money on that hand. The only thing you can do is use all the information and possible options to limit your losses, so that later victories can leave you further ahead. There are moments where countries are faced with the diplomatic/military version of a 16 vs. a 10, leaving options which are not necessarily likely to yield wonderful results. Wise countries, run by intelligent leaders, consider all the possibilities before rushing in (not to be confused with countries run by George Bush and Tony Blair, who double down.) The question in this case is whether Olmert fully grasped the situation.

I suspect he did not. I suspect that he felt their vast air power would level what had to be leveled, blow up what had to be blown up, and that the IDF would move in and cleanup the south of Lebanon. This war, as much as any, has demonstrated the inability of air power to win a war. It can do a lot of damage, but in this case, against an enemy which is not controlled by the state you are attacking, it cannot achieve the key objective of eliminating the enemy. In fact, while clearly Hezbollah will be weakened militarily (having used most of their missiles on Israeli citizens), they will probably be strengthened politically. Destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure doesn’t strengthen its government. Blowing up a man’s home doesn’t make him upset at those who caused the situation which led to the destruction, he gets upset at the people who dropped the bomb. The result of this war will be to strengthen Hezbollah both inside and outside Lebanon, as well as strengthening the cause of its patron states, Syria, and especially the ascendant Iran.

I’m not talking about whether Israel had the moral or legal right to do what they did. That isn’t really Olmert’s problem here, since Israel’s survival trumps those concerns for him. The question is whether this was the optimal choice for Israel at this time. It seems clear that it wasn’t, yet it’s also hard to come up with the alternative strategy. Yes, they could have exchanged prisoners to get the soldiers back, but that doesn’t solve the long-term Hezbollah problem. And here’s the key to everything – doing nothing is not a long-term option for Israel. They have realized (or at least Sharon did) that time is not on their side. Between the demographics of the area and the advance of technology and militant Islam, the difficulty of occupation and the danger from those whom you are trying to control becomes harder and harder. Israel must constantly work on a two-track strategy, one which allows for the possibility of a peace agreement, another which deals with the absence of a true negotiating partner. I say “true” negotiating partner to differentiate from the sham which traditionally takes place, where the right of return pops up at the end to blow the whole process up. If one side in a negotiation sees the long-term benefit of never compromising to reach an agreement, then no true negotiation can take place. This is Olmert’s problem, this is Israel’s problem – they need to deal with every possible worst-case scenario. Does the U.S. have a role in this? Certainly. We have to ask Israel the question “what if this doesn’t work?” Of course, it would be nice if we ever thought of that ourselves, but the current U.S. regime does not think of such things – or think at all, for the most part. Good luck, Ehud, you have a bad hand there, play it very carefully.


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