First drafts of history make strange bedfellows. Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizballah, claimed a “strategic, historic victory” when UN Security Council Resolution 1701 ushered in a very belated “cessation of hostilities” in Lebanon and Israel on August 14. Indeed, grumbled the Israeli right and its backers in Washington, Israel did not prevail in its month-long campaign to “degrade” the Shi‘i movement’s military strength into insignificance — and so Nasrallah’s claim was not unjustified. The war “ended in a tie,” wrote Charles Krauthammer in the August 18 Washington Post, “and in this kind of warfare, tie goes to the terrorist.”
There is no irony to be found in the war itself, a senseless bout of destruction that took 900–1,300 Lebanese and 39 Israeli civilian lives, turned thousands of Lebanese homes into rubble and left southern Lebanon strewn with unexploded cluster munitions. Israel seized upon what should have been a border skirmish to launch a long-planned assault to knock out Hizballah’s arsenal of rockets, concentrating its bombardment in majority-Shi‘i areas to chasten the movement’s core constituency, and blockading and besieging the entire country to stoke antipathy for Hizballah among Lebanon’s other confessional groups. According to the Lebanese government, rebuilding the bombed infrastructure will cost perhaps $3.5 billion, including $50 million to clean up an oil slick created by an Israeli airstrike on the Jiyya power plant. Damage estimates in Israel also run in the millions. All this occurred with the apparent aim of reestablishing Israel’s “deterrence” capability and with such an obvious green light from Washington that, as an unnamed Bush administration official admitted to the Los Angeles Times, the US is seen in the region as a “co-combatant.”
The White House bet both that Israel’s collective punishment of Lebanon would bolster the Lebanese politicians seeking to disarm Hizballah and that Israel’s attacks on the Shi‘i militia would rob Iran of a weapon come the day of reckoning over the nuclear program in the Islamic Republic. The first bet, presumably informed by the neo-conservatives’ Orientalist nostrums about Arabs and force, was callous in the extreme — and also foolish. By standing their ground against Israeli armor in southern Lebanon, Hizballah’s guerrillas proved they cannot be disarmed against their will by any existing power in Lebanon. This fact, combined with Hizballah’s well-organized relief and reconstruction effort after the war, makes the party seem more and more like “a state within a non-state,” in the formulation of Lebanese political scientist Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. In Lebanon’s divided polity, these achievements will win Hizballah allies, but also mobilize its opponents. With its support for Israel’s war, therefore, the Bush administration simultaneously strengthened Hizballah’s arguments for keeping its weaponry and sowed the seeds of deeper sectarian discord, while exposing the Lebanese government as ineffectual.
There is ample reason to fear, in any case, that Resolution 1701 lays the groundwork for a continuation, rather than a cessation, of hostilities. Most strikingly, the resolution does not require a full Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and, with its call upon Israel to halt only “offensive military operations,” it leaves Israel free to resume operations (like, according to the US and Israel, the August 19 commando raid in the Bekaa Valley) classified as defensive. Krauthammer is only one commentator speaking of “the now inevitable Round Two” by which time Israel will have transcended the “exercise in hesitancy” of Round One. Likud Party leaders, sharing the wounded pride of much of the Israeli public and seeing the near collapse of the mainstream Israeli peace movement during the war, hint at the same thing. Hizballah militiamen, meanwhile, are not visible, but still present, in the south. The fighters are likely to remain even if the UN cobbles together the mandated peacekeeping force to accompany the Lebanese army in the south, if only to continue to press Lebanon’s claim to the Shebaa Farms, a well-watered and Israeli-occupied mountainside that the UN and Israel regard as part of the Golan Heights. The UN is to readjudicate the claims to Shebaa, but according to a story in the August 13 edition of Ha’aretz, the US promised Israel that it does not have to withdraw from the strip of land even if the UN declares it part of Lebanon. Hence, and despite great loss of life, the “rules of the game” on the Israeli-Lebanese border may not be altered much at all. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is staring at something very similar to the “status quo ante” whose return was so “untenable” that Lebanon had to burn for a month.
The White House’s second bet — about Iran — was based on the notion that Hizballah takes its every step on orders from Tehran, including the July 12 cross-border raid that Israel employed as its casus belli. After the war began, this notion permeated American media coverage so rapidly that no one paused to ask for proof. As the bombs and rockets flew in July and August, each of the big three American dailies featured front-page analysis purporting to show that Washington’s “weak hand” (Los Angeles Times) in Middle East diplomacy had so “sharply curtailed US maneuvering room” (Washington Post) as to leave Rice’s “hands tied” (New York Times) in her dilatory attempts to arrange a ceasefire. The main evidence in each story was the Bush administration’s refusal to talk to counterparts in Tehran and Damascus, who, by the newspapers’ unwritten assumptions, could command Hizballah to defuse its Katyushas.
So it was intriguing, to say the least, to read the after-action assessment, based on a fact-finding trip to Israel, by Anthony Cordesman, the epitome of Establishment respectability in matters Middle Eastern. Buried in the middle of Cordesman’s report is this section: “No serving Israeli official, intelligence officer or other military officer felt that Hizballah acted under the direction of Iran or Syria.” Apart from the harsher light this judgment throws on Israel’s proclamations of existential peril, are we to believe that Israeli officials did not share their feelings with their opposite numbers in Washington?
If Rice’s hands were tied, it was by an executive who not only declined to play Washington’s strong hand with Israel to effect a ceasefire, but also sent bunker-busting ordnance to Israel on the same day his chief diplomatic emissary departed for the Levant. President George W. Bush, buttressed by Vice President Dick Cheney and his national security staff, saw in Israel’s overweening retaliation a chance to humble US adversaries in the region as US-occupied Iraq slipped deeper into civil war and, with US approval, Palestine groaned under a siege of its own. Having identified the US with the goals of the war, Bush was obliged to state after passage of Resolution 1701 that “Hizballah suffered a defeat in this crisis,” a remark that elicited predictable jeers from Tehran and Damascus (and caustic complaints from neo-conservative circles in a closer capital city).
It comes as no surprise that the Bush administration would dissemble and deceive to justify and claim victory in a war it wanted. The more disquieting realization, confirmed rather than sparked by the Lebanon conflagration, is that the administration still believes the Middle East can be shaped to its liking through the naked display of military superiority. This belief bespeaks a lack of cognitive skills more worrisome than the profusely illustrated contempt for international law. The frightening possibility that the White House intended Israel’s attempted “defanging” of Hizballah as a prelude to military strikes on Iran cannot be dismissed.