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Lessons from Israel's Lebanon war resonate globally

A new report provides a window into an increasingly insurmountable task facing democracies: winning war, regardless of military superiority.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2007



JERUSALEM

As Israelis continue to absorb the impact of a stinging report indicating that the country's leaders "severely failed" when leading the country in a war against Hizbullah last July, it became increasingly clear that the conflict will be absorbed in the public mind as an almost complete fiasco.

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This despite – from a strictly military point of view – the devastating losses imposed on Lebanon. Israeli military experts also say that several key goals – "degrading" the military capabilities of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah and getting the international community to keep a closer eye on Lebanon – were realized.

But last week's Winograd Commission report on the war provides a window into what may be an increasingly insurmountable task facing modern democracies: winning war, regardless of military superiority.

Both Israel and the United States are face to face with religious militants and insurgency groups – organizations that are committed to an idea but not necessarily a country or its leadership. From Hizbullah in Lebanon to Al Qaeda in Iraq and around the world, victory is in the eyes of the beholder.

Each group has the Internet at its fingertips and an increasingly sophisticated public-relations machine to strike at the home front, from Hizbullah's slick marketing proclaiming "Divine Victory" after the Lebanon war to Al Qaeda's professional video-distribution network.

The traditional scorecards used to tally winners and losers, experts say, were designed for a battlefield that is fading into obsolescence.

"None of our paradigms apply today. All of our models are becoming irrelevant," says Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of several books on the Middle East.

One of the key changes emerges from the reality of facing off against nontraditional combatants. Those opponents find it easier to hide amid civilians and engender the loss of innocent life. "If you're compelled to fight an ununiformed enemy, he's also forcing you to inflict civilian casualties. The irregulars know this, and that it will find its way onto TV sets, and it will affect your ability to fight them any further," Mr. Oren says.

The media's role

Although newsreels once drove home some of the horrors of World War II and viewers saw disturbing images of the war in Vietnam through network television footage, the media today can bring tragic scenes to the public eye in minutes, swaying opinion with the alacrity of an e-mail.

"The media isn't only more intense; it's more instantaneous, and everyone with a cellphone with a camera on it is a virtual reporter," Oren adds. "War is fought in real time now, and that greatly limits your latitude if you're fighting someone like Hizbullah."

After five weeks of war, Hizbullah's top leadership survived, claiming victory.

Hizbullah was able to herald Israel's retreat – following its reoccupation of positions in south Lebanon – as capitulation. Meanwhile, many in Israel decried the wanton loss of both Lebanese and Israeli life, as others argued that their leaders sent in reservist soldiers unprepared for battle, making the war particularly ill fought.

"There's no question that whether it's the insurgency or Hizbullah, the victories are Pyrrhic," says Oren. "The impression is created that they have won, and this is rife with implications."

US-Israeli parallels

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