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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.

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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.

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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."