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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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

The Israeli decision to go to war against Hizbullah in Lebanon – a decision which, the commission charged, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made hastily – bears remarkable correlations to President Bush's Iraqi venture.

Each leader was relatively quick to take his country into a war for reasons that looked convincing enough at the time, and which, when first launched, prompted mostly tepid reservations. Each leader stands faulted for not having been more adept at planning, for not having anticipated what would go wrong, and for either underutilizing or disregarding entirely the advice of some of their own best experts.

Each also faces quickly dwindling public support and mounting pressure from lawmakers and rivals. In the US, this has crescendoed in the congressional challenge to Mr. Bush in demanding a timetable for drawing down troops in Iraq, tied to a spending bill. And in Israel, this has Mr. Olmert's political peers abuzz, waiting for an appropriate moment to unseat him without having to endanger their own positions in government.

"The heart of the failure is this kind of intellectual laziness," says Ari Shavit, an influential columnist for Haaretz newspaper. "It's like, 'Oh, let's have it easy,' " he says with a dismissive air. " 'Let's just send the planes and let them solve the problem.'"

His reference is to the approach Israel took at the start of the war, which has primarily been blamed on Israeli army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who has since resigned. Israelis blame Mr. Halutz, an airman, for relying too heavily on air superiority and not sending in ground troops until very late in the war.

A commander sending his soldiers to do house-to-house operations knows he's sending them on a perilous mission. But fighting from the air often causes a great deal of "collateral damage" and doesn't necessarily put any of the goals within reach.

By comparison, the US faced a similar dilemma in the Iraq war, which got the post-Hussein period off to a disastrous start. Amid disagreements among top Army brass over whether there were going to be enough "boots on the ground," then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued for the most conservative – and least expensive – estimates.

Today, few would argue against the understanding that there were not enough troops to secure Iraq from the start, which quickly unleashed unrest.

To be sure, the differences are almost as remarkable as the parallels. Washington's goals in Iraq were largely based on the regime's supposed weapons of mass destruction and Mr. Hussein's oppressive rule, while Israel said it was focused on getting its soldiers back that had been captured by Hizbullah, and, at the same time, inflicting heavy damage on Hizbullah's increased military capacity.

Robert Blecher, a fellow at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Iowa and an editor of Middle East Report, says that ideally, the Winograd Report should provide a chance for reassessing whether diplomacy could have played a more prominent role last summer. The report faults the prime minister for not involving his own foreign ministry in the decisionmaking process.

"The Winograd Report [is] as a potentially watershed moment in how national decisionmaking is done," says Mr. Blecher, an expert on Israeli and Palestinian affairs. "There needs to be a better calibrated mix of military and diplomatic means to achieve the goals."

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