Lebanon: One year later
This week marked the anniversary of the end of last summer’s war between Hezbollah and Israel. It was a stupid war, as most wars are, but the end of the conflict on Aug. 14, 2006 after 34 days of fighting saw a defiant Hezbollah and a chastened Israeli military. The day also saw a flattened Lebanon and a United States policy for the region in tatters. It was a disaster for almost everyone involved.
But a year later, it’s a good idea to come back and take a look at who really won the war and who lost. Where do all the major players stand and how significant was the “divine victory”?
There’s little doubt that Hezbollah came out of the war politically stronger, at least initially. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had Lebanon in the palm of his hand, which is another way of saying he had it by the balls.
Hezbollah was roundly criticized for capturing two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006, a reckless and unilateral act that dragged Lebanon into a war with Israel it didn’t want to fight. But Hezbollah’s never been one to worry about the rest of Lebanon. Despite all its bluster about being a “national resistance movement,” Hezbollah is still a Shi’ite militia that draws its main support from the mainly poor Shi’ite communities of the south and the Bekaa Valley — that is, when it’s not getting money and weapons from Iran and Syria. And while Hezbollah can claim a technical victory — they survived a furious Israeli air bombardment and denied Israel the completion of its stated objectives — in a masterful bit of managing expectations they set the bar very low, with survival as their only objective.
But Lebanon was devastated. More than 1,000 civilians dead (a third of them children), a million displaced from their homes and billions of dollars in damage to private and public properties. Bridges, gas stations, roads, power plants… All were destroyed by the Israeli Air Force.
And soon, Hezbollah’s political position began to erode. Before the war, the group was looked on with a degree of suspicion by Lebanese Sunnis and Christians but not outright hostility. There was a bit of gratitude even for the group’s guerilla war against the Israeli occupation of the south that finally ended in 2000. I know a number of Christians who, before the war, openly expressed admiration for Nasrallah and thought him a tough, but fair leader. They didn’t agree with the Islamist politics of the group, but neither did they see it a threat to Lebanon.
No more. Since the end of the war, Hezbollah has overplayed its hand time and again. It has walked out of the government. With backing from Syria and, possibly, Iran, it has led an opposition that has so far been unsuccessful in all of its objectives: removing the pro-Western government from power; scuttling the international tribunal that’s investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; and claiming for the Lebanon’s Shi’ites a greater share of political power. The government is still in power despite nine months of protests and an economic paralysis; the tribunal is moving ahead as planned and the Shi’ites are more marginalize and powerless than ever.
This week, in a bid to boost the morale of his supporters, Nasrallah gave a 90-minute speech to a crowd of tens of thousands in the Hezbollah stronghold in the south of Beirut. But significantly, Nasrallah didn’t deliver his speech in person. He was in Dick Cheney-like seclusion, and his speech was displayed on large video screens around the square. This is the behavior or a man who led his people to a “divine victory,” hiding from Israeli warplanes on the anniversary of his big win?
Verdict: With points for surviving Israel’s onslaught but deductions for its crippled political judgement, a year after the war Hezbollah’s glass is both half-empty and half-full.
Things don’t look quite as good for Israel. It accomplished none of its objectives when it went after Hezbollah: It didn’t demolish the organization, it didn’t cripple its ability to fire rockets into Israel and it didn’t get its two soldiers back.
Israel had the bad luck of being caught unaware and then having Dan Halutz, a former chief of the Air Force, run the war. A a devotee of the theory that air power can win wars, he chose an aggressive strategy of bombing runs against civilian infrastructure in an attempt to split the Lebanese Christians and Sunnis from Hezbollah in the hopes they would turn on the Shi’ite group.
Israel also had its strongest weapon damaged: the idea of the invincibility of the Israeli military. Arabs opposed to Israel now see that the most advanced military in the region could be fought to at least a standstill and maybe even beaten.
But Israel isn’t all down. With Ehud Barak as defense minister, it has a proven warrior on deck who’s experienced in fighting Hezbollah. Israel is reemphasizing training for ground and guerilla combat (in the Golan, unfortunately, causing Syria to get a case of the jitters). And it’s also the recipient of an extra $30 billion in U.S. military aid as a means of building its deterrent back up. And there is a growing idea that Israel didn’t “lose” the war so much as muck it up. The strategy was terrible and its leaders inept. But if there’s one thing the Israeli military is good at, it’s learning from its mistakes. So if there’s another war with the Shi’ite militia, don’t expect the Jewish state to wait to send ground troops in. The assault will be massive, bloody and they’ll be up to Beirut before Hezbollah knew what hit them. Israel will take the casualties if they think they have a chance of winning.
Verdict: Mostly a loss, but also a learning experience. Glass half-empty.
The United States
The United States’ response to this war was shameful. On the one hand, the White House cheered it on because America has scores to settle with Hezbollah and better Israel do the dirty work than American GIs. On the other hand, the White House had adopted Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora as sort of a mascot for democracy — the scrappy little politician who could stand up to Syria and take over after the death of his boyhood friend Rafik Hariri.
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected calls for an early cease-fire as a return to the status quo ante and that the war was the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” she put the final nail in the coffin housing America’s positive image in the much of the region. To pick up the pom-poms while Israel blasted possibly the weakest Arab state in the region — and one that it had championed in the past — was confirmation that when it came to Israel, America has no other priority. Democracy, human rights, none of that mattered.
Through its aerial bombardment, Israel caused horrendous civilian casualties (almost all of the 159 Israeli deaths were military ones compared to the 1,000+ deaths of Lebanese civilians) and Americans watch wars on TV. They got to see awful images of fleeing refugees packed into cars with mattresses and household goods tied down on top. They didn’t look at all like terrorists.
Had the U.S. used its clout to get the Israeli military to stand down, on humanitarian grounds, it could have won back much of the good will lost because of Iraq. It might have convinced some Arabs that it could be an honest broker in the Israeli-Arab conflict. When Hezbollah survived, they were able to claim they had not only resisted Israel, but also thwarted the United States’ “plan” for the Middle East.
Just truly dumb all across the board.
Verdict: The U.S. was left with a shattered, empty glass, like you’d find after a bar fight. But Washington was too drunk with power to realize what the fight was about or that its wallet had been stolen.
Finally, Lebanon. Its economy has been shattered for two summers now. First, by the war and then by Hezbollah’s sit-in in downtown Beirut. Politically, it’s at a standstill, with pro-Western ministers being picked off one at a time by an assassination campaign. Hezbollah owns parts of the country and declares them no-go areas for anyone, including the Lebanese Army. Fuad Siniora is still in power, but he’s a weakened premier and his faction just lost an election to an opposition candidate.
It’s facing billions of dollars in infrastructure damage as well as additional billions added to its astronomical public debt that is 182 percent of its GDP, according to Citigroup. The economy is just now coming out of downturn but it’s not roaring back. It’s expected to grow only 1.8 percent in 2007 and 2.9 percent in 2008. The only thing keeping the economy afloat is the strangely robust banking sector and millions of diaspora Lebanese sending remittances.
The country is split almost exactly in half between the pro-government and opposition factions, and a civil war can’t be ruled out. Most Lebanese I’ve talked to expect one later this year or next. Lebanon was the true loser of the war.
Verdict: Out cold after a beating. There’s no glass to even drink from.