Leadership: The Lebanon Gambles


August 1, 2006: The rather sudden shift in international opinion about the Israeli campaign in Lebanon, from blaming Hezbollah for provocation, to blaming Israel for undertaking a "disproportionate response" and, more recently, for "war crimes," illustrates a major problem in attempting to use massive conventional capabilities in what is essentially a battle for public opinion.
When Hezbollah raided Israeli territory, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers, and killing several others, it seems to have done so deliberately to provoke a massive Israeli response. For weeks, there had been increasingly open talk in Lebanon about disarming militias, and a consensus appears to have been developing that this included Hezbollah (despite the participation of the movement's political front in the current government). By provoking Israeli military action, Hezbollah hoped to burnish its credentials as a champion of Arab resistance.
Initially things didn't go so well for Hezbollah. For one thing, the scale of the Israeli response came as a big surprise. Worse, many Arab leaders, who are mostly Sunni anyway, whereas Hezbollah is Shia and a creation of the hated Iranians, condemned Hezbollah for provoking Israel.
But the scale of their response soon began to tell against Israel. Rather than conduct carefully focused air and commando strikes directly against Hezbollah's leaders, forces, and infrastructure, the Israelis went in loaded for bear. It's not clear just what the Israeli objective was. If the intent was to break Hezbollah, then why were most of the targets struck not directly connected with Hezbollah, and most not even in the Hezbollah-dominated south? Some policy analysts seem to think Israel may have been hoping to force the Lebanese government to initiate its own action against Hezbollah. Perhaps, but might that have been more likely if the Israelis inflicted grievous injury to Hezbollah while leaving the rest of Lebanon relatively unscathed?
Worse, by adopting a major conventional response, the Israelis set themselves up for a public relations disaster. Hezbollah's policy of sitting missile launchers in the middle of residential areas was deliberately intended to invite Israeli attack, in the hope that civilian casualties would result. And the Israelis did precisely that.
While Israeli actions are understandable, given frustration over years of violent attacks by genocidal enemies, and although in the circumstance civilian losses are legitimately Hezbollah's responsibility, a more carefully crafted response would likely have paid off better. A Machiavellian strategy is needed, not a kinetic one. Then again, Israel does understand the neighborhood, and may have gauged Lebanese public opinion, in the long term, better than outsiders give credit for.


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