Friday, August 25, 2006

Clear-eyed appraisal of Hezbollah's "victory"

I'm a bit surprised that my own view of the recently halted war between Israel and Hizbollah most resembles that of Michael Young, the opinion editor of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. Young is no stooge, and is in fact an inveterate critic, of Israel and the West; yet he demonstrates impressive insight in burrowing through the hyperbolic bluster of Arab leaders and assessing the real outcome of the latest Arab-Israeli battle. Young notes that the conventional wisdom seems to be that Hizbollah defeated Israel:
Hezbollah beat Israel in the latest war in Lebanon, and if you have any doubts, listen to...Syria's President Bashar Assad...Some pundits agreed. This unqualified, air-punching evaluation is from one Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the Lebanese-American University and author of a book on Hezbollah: "In military terms this is a victory that the Arabs haven't tasted in decades by Israeli standards even. Hezbollah is fully aware that it has emerged victorious..."The author of a New York Times story on the Iranian counteroffer, Helene Cooper, offered up this assessment: "Iran has emerged stronger from the Lebanon crisis by showing the world that it is capable of wreaking havoc through its support of the Hezbollah militants"—a view echoed by George Perkovich, the director for nonproliferation at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

After a few sarcastic remarks about the propriety of Hizbollah victory celebration, Young details exactly why Hizbollah's supposed victory is nothing more than fool's gold - the same fool's gold that Arab leaders have always purveyed following military defeat.

But what kind of victory is this that, even by Hezbollah's unexacting standards, must qualify as a major setback?...Hezbollah has ignored what Israel did to those parts of Lebanon the party cannot claim as its own. Its cries of triumph have been focused on the stubborn resistance put up by Hezbollah combatants in south Lebanon. Nothing has been heard from party leaders about the billions of dollars of losses in infrastructure; about the immediate losses to businesses that will be translated into higher unemployment; about the long-term opportunity costs of the fighting; about the impact that political instability will have...on public confidence and on youth emigration; and about the general collapse in morale that Lebanon faces.

Hezbollah is believed to have many more rockets in storage and its network of bunkers in south Lebanon is probably mostly intact. However, it cannot initiate a conflict without facing the political fallout of imposing new suffering on its already traumatized Shiite community. Almost a million Shiites were thrown into the streets by Israeli bombardments between July and August. Hezbollah has started distributing money to the community, but that won't pay for much of the horrendous suffering—lives lost, profitable businesses closed, self-respect gone for those without homes or livelihoods, and much else that cash handouts cannot remedy.

...the month-long fighting brought the Lebanese Army into south Lebanon, after an absence of several decades—soon to be accompanied by an expanded United Nations force. Nasrallah...has sought in recent weeks to empty those deployments of their meaning, even as he has pretended to welcome the army. That is hypocritical. Hezbollah had repeatedly refused to allow the army to go south, and only agreed to do so because this was seen by an increasingly impatient Lebanese public as a means of ending the Israeli onslaught. If Hezbollah brings out the rockets again, however, it will mean not only confronting the Lebanese consensus, but also the international community, and that's before a shot is fired in anger against Israel.

...the regime in Tehran has not only seen its main reason for supporting Hezbollah go up in smoke in a largely futile endeavor, but must now dole out large sums of compensation money to Lebanese Shiites so the party can hold on to its base of support, even as Iran's poor complain their regime has left them by the wayside. Iran will probably pay out the money (though I've heard unconfirmed reports of delays), but of what value is this if Hezbollah cannot fire on Israel in the event of an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities? Or, to the contrary, of what value is the compensation if, by firing on Israel at Tehran's behest, Hezbollah only brings new destruction down on the heads of Shiites, who might then turn against Nasrallah?

Despite Saad-Ghorayeb's assertion that the balance of power will change in Lebanon, in the past week the opposite seems to have been true, as both the government and the parliamentary majority, made up of the so-called March 14 forces hostile to Syria and critical of Hezbollah, have worked to curtail any effort by Nasrallah to transform his so-called victory into political gains. Indeed, as the costs of the war are tallied, there has been a noticeable lack of enthusiasm in Lebanon to see the war as anything but a calamity.

So perhaps a victory it is, but in that case Hezbollah's victory is no different than most other Arab victories in recent decades: the "victory" of October 1973, where Egypt and Syria managed to cross into Israeli-held land, their land, only to be later saved from a thrashing by timely United Nations intervention; the "victory" of 1982, where Palestinian groups were ultimately expelled from West Beirut, but were proud to have stayed in the fight for three months; the Iraqi "victory" of 1991, where Saddam Hussein brought disaster on his country but still held on to power. Now we have the Hezbollah "victory" of 2006: the Israelis bumbled and blundered, but still managed to create a million refugees, to kill over 1,000 people, and to kick Lebanon's economy back several years. One dreads to imagine what Hezbollah would recognize as a military loss.

This guy's analysis is dead-on.


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