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August 20, 2006

 La paix des braves?

Sometimes the best chances for peace come when both sides lose. It's a commonplace that lasting peace only came in Western Europe after a war that both France and Germany knew they'd lost in 1940 and 1945 respectively. De Gaulle's aim, for which Jean Moulin and many other heroes died, was not to undo the verdict of 1940 but to restore the honour of France, through at least participating seriously in its own liberation. The long-lived peace of Westphalia was one of mutual exhaustion. Egypt could make peace with Israel only after the drawn Yom Kippur war.

It's plain that Israel didn't win the 2006 Lebanon war. Did Hezbollah? Long-distance speculation below the fold.

Hezbollah spun a propaganda victory from its unexpected survival as a fighting force. But I don't see any wider success. What has the war brought Hezbollah strategically? It did take heavy casualties, and for what?

Hezbollah is an odd fish, a throwback to the mediaeval ghazi fraternities - a bit like their imitators the long-lived Crusading military orders. They have two clearly stated objectives: dominating and Islamizing Lebanon, and destroying Israel. An instrumental objective seems to be to keep control of Lebanon's large Shiite population.

The second objective is impossible, except by sparking a general conflagration, and even then is extraordinarily unlikely. Even with its best shot, Hezbollah only inflicted trivial casualties on Israel. (I don't mean trivial in human terms, or in their political effect, only as steps towards Israel's destruction.) This wasn't a Tet offensive, shaking the will to resist of the adversary. Katyushas are a poor weapon against anything smaller than a concentrated military force. If there is a next time, Hezbollah may have better rockets but Israel will have invested in better counter-battery artillery. (Hat tip to Howard Berkowitz (link added) commenting at TPMcafé). The killing and disruption can go on, but to no real effect.

The first objective is within the realms of possibility but difficult; Syria may back Hezbollah for nuisance value but surely wouldn't want it in real power in Beirut. Did the war bring this goal any closer? Hezbollah may have made itself popular in the wider Muslim street and with its patrons in Iran, but scarcely in Lebanon itself. (Update: Juliette Kayyem finds evidence to the contrary; I reckon it's probably a temporary spike, on the "my enemy's enemy is my friend" theory, but there it is.) The Lebanese army, feeble as it is, has shown up in Hezbollah's fief; and a beefed-up UN force. French soldiers, unlike Norwegians, are likely to shoot back regardless of UN rules of engagement (Hezbollah will remember the Vrbanja bridge in Sarajevo ). These aren't disasters, but setbacks all the same. It looks to me as if the war has been on balance negative for the objective of dominating Lebanon.

One popular view of Hezbollah - apparently that of George Bush - is that they are nuts, like Osama. Diplomacy is impossible, rational analyses of their behaviour have no place, you just have to fight and kill them like the evil and helpfully incompetent aliens in Independence Day. Or as Hulagu Khan treated the evil and alarmingly competent Assassins in Alamut - massacred along with all the peasants in the valley below who'd kept them supplied.

I don't get the impression that Hezbollah is crazy or even subscribes to the Bush/Blair/Osama/François Ier view of politics as essentially show and spectacle, rather than the Augustus/Assassin/Richelieu/Lenin concentration on the reality of power. On the Leninist view, a different picture emerges. Like the Knights Templars or the arms industry in different contexts, Hezbollah needs its conflict with Israel to continue as a stalemate. This way it can ensure its own survival, a flow of funding and weapons from Iran, continued control over the Lebanese Shia and a shot at power in Beirut.

On this reading, sadly Hezbollah won't be in the market for une paix des braves. (The phrase is de Gaulle's, marketing a failed initiative in the Algerian war of independence). But it might be for the status quo ante.

Posted at 08:18 AM | TrackBack (0) | |


Totally agree with one qualification - Hezbollah may serve as an Iranian proxy. This makes the analysis more complex and status quo less appealing. It is also not clear whether status quo ante is available to Hezbollah; a variant may be.

Posted by: shmuel at August 20, 2006 10:57 AM

It seems to me to be worthwhile to distinguish between the goals of the organization generally, and the goals of the campaign. Hezbollah wasn't trying to obliterate Israel, or dominate Lebanon, but shooting a few missiles and kidnapping a couple of soldiers. It was, at most, engaging in petty harassment, trying to get a prisoner exchange, and maybe trying (a) to relieve pressure on hamas and/or (b) take advantage of whatever deal Egypt et al. might have brokered to end Israel's Gaza campaign. It's easy to argue that Hezbollah didn't really get any of these things, but what it got is much better. Once Israel made such a strong response, Hezbollah's goal for the campaign shifted to survival. It did so, and successfully posed to everyone in Lebanon, and beyond, as willing to stand up to the invader. Top this with the (a) more likely than not fall of the Israeli coalition and (b) influence that will flow from financing the reconstruction of Lebanon (even outside Shi'a areas), and it's hard to see why Hezbollah's attempt at a bunt, which because of Israeli errors has resulted in the runner standing on second base, isn't a strong victory for Hezbollah.

Israel is now reduced to looking like the post-ceasefire aggressor, and seems to be announcing an intent to engage in terrorism (targetted assassination) itself.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at August 20, 2006 11:48 AM
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