Thursday, August 03, 2006

Letting the terrorists win

During the last couple of weeks, I've been surprised by the number of analysts/pundits who have concluded that Israel is losing or has already lost in the current hostilities with Hizbollah. I'm not talking about the hippie Left, which always - and now is no exception (see here and here) - says that Israel's actions are illegal and ineffective. I'm talking about usually-sober analysts, supporters of Israel, who see no strategic advantage being accrued by the Jewish state in its ongoing battle against Hizbullah.

In this past Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, Brett Stephens argues that the aerial bombing of Lebanon has been essentially fruitless:

Israel is losing this war...The conflict with Hezbollah--a 15,000-man militia chiefly armed with World War II-era Katyusha rockets--is now in its 21st day. So far, Israel has nothing to show for its efforts: no enemy territory gained, no enemy leaders killed, no abatement in the missile barrage that has sent a million Israelis from their homes and workplaces. Generally speaking, wars are lost either militarily or politically. Israel is losing both ways.

Another popular critique, voiced by friends and enemies of Israel alike, is the notion that just by surviving, Hizbollah will have won. As Ralph Peters wrote last week in the NY Post, "All Hezbollah has to do to achieve victory is not to lose completely." An AP headline circulated in dozens of news outlets echoed the sentiment: "Survival may equal victory for Hezbollah."

Stephens's conclusions, I believe, are premature at best, and at least he openly acknowledges that the facts on the ground may soon change (and they do seem to be changing as Israel increases its ground presence in southern Lebanon). But the latter argument - that Hizbollah wins by not losing - strikes me as nonsensical. A tired trope from five years ago is being recycled in slightly different garb, and people are being taken in once again.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, you might recall, we were warned against doing all sorts of things lest "the terrorists win." We can't crack down on civil liberties, said the ACLU, because then "the terrorists win." People should go shopping, ride the subway, or invest in the stock market, lest "the terrorists win."

Of course, the whole "do x, or else the terrorists win" thing became a joke because of the way it was outlandishly applied to activities and behavior that clearly had nothing to do with the terrorists. However, I don't think that people fully appreciated the logical flaw in the argument in its application to increased security measures (and limiting of civil liberties). You see, the real reason it is stupid to say "if we make it harder to immigrate into America or harder to get on a bus without having your bag searched, then the terrorists win" is because the terrorists aren't trying to make us crack down on immigration or inconvenience bus passengers. What they are trying to do is kill us and overthrow our country. They've said as much, numerous times. It's a pretty simple equation: "dead Americans/destruction of America = terrorist victory." Inasmuch as curtailing civil liberties does nothing to further the terrorists' goals, and in fact might inhibit those goals, increasing security measures cannot be rightly considered a terrorist victory.

Let's try to apply the same sort of logic to the situation in Israel. The terrorist aim is to kill as many Israelis as possible and, ultimately, to destroy Israel. The only question that really matters, then, is how effective Israel has been and will be in foiling those aims and the pursuit of those aims by Hizbullah. This question, of course, is open to debate and should be debated. However, the idea that Hizbollah wins by simply not being destroyed is spurious. Sure, Nasrallah can claim victory and be adored by the Arab world and the European press (and populace?), but at the end of the day, all that matters is whether Israel shuts down Hizbullah's capacity to kill Israelis and threaten Israel.

So, on to the actual question. Is Israel on track in foiling the actual goals of Hizbollah? For my money, yes. Once again, Hizbollah can claim all the glorious victories of Allah they want, but the fact of the matter is - they're headed backward. Israeli troops are controlling an increasing area of southern Lebanon, and Hizbollah is already floating offers of a cease-fire to halt the punishing Israeli assault. Israel, thus far, is not biting, nor should it. As one Israeli official recently pointed out - if Hizbollah were to be given the choice of their current situation or the status quo of one month ago, the terrorists would much prefer the reality in early July to the current reality. When the enemy's actual present and future military capabilities are being degraded, does it really make sense to say that the enemy is winning?

One more point, which PM Olmert has actually said but has been mostly ignored. The fierce Israeli response to Hizbollah's activity is a (powerful) warning to the region. Whenever the UN or whatever other body finally enacts a ceasefire, my bet is that the ceasefire will hold - at least insofar as rockets are concerned. Israel is in the midst of establishing a very important precedent: you send missiles into our cities, you may get some of us, but we will make you pay - and it's going to be fucking expensive.

Last thing. There is solidarity in Lebanon now in favor of Hizbullah, but I'm guessing (well, hoping) that changes once the shooting stops and the Lebanese people are left to ponder how and why the country managed to squander peace and prosperity to satisfy the demented dream of a radical minority.


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