January 30, 2009

Who Really Won the Second Lebanon War

Israel’s recent war in Gaza was waged for the simplest of reasons: to deter Hamas from firing Qassam and Grad rockets. Whether or not the Israelis succeeded is an open question. An Israeli soldier – who, by the way, was an Arab – was killed by a roadside bomb next to the border with Gaza a few days ago. But if the aftermath of the less successful Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah in 2006 suggests anything, Hamas is likely to cool its guns for a while. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared a “divine victory” in August of 2006, and most Israelis agreed. Bombastic boasts to the contrary, however, Hezbollah lost, and Hezbollah knows it.

I’m hardly the first to point out that Hezbollah sat out the Gaza war. Somebody fired a salvo of rockets into Israel from South Lebanon on January 8, and Hezbollah couldn’t distance itself from the attack fast enough. If the 2006 war was such a success, why wouldn’t Nasrallah want to rack up another divine victory? He could hardly ask for a more auspicious time to launch the next round if that’s what he was planning. The Israel Defense Forces were busy and preoccupied in Gaza, and much of world opinion had already turned sharply against the Israelis. If Nasrallah’s passivity doesn’t prove he feels more reluctant to pick a fight than he did in 2006, it certainly strongly suggests it.

There’s something else, though, that only a handful of analysts have remarked on. Very few people in Lebanon sincerely think Hezbollah won the 2006 war. It’s mostly Arabs outside Lebanon who take Nasrallah’s declaration of “divine victory” seriously.

Leave aside the fact that ten times more Lebanese than Israelis were killed in that war, and that the centers of entire towns in South Lebanon were destroyed from the skies. It’s theoretically possible that the Lebanese could delude themselves into thinking they won. Most Egyptians, after all, think they beat Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, though they most certainly did not. And denial is a river that flows through other lands besides Egypt.

Nasrallah, though, was all but forced to apologize to Lebanese for the death and destruction he brought down on their heads. “We did not believe,” he said on Lebanon’s New TV station, “even by one percent, that the captive operation would result in such a wide-scale war, as such a war did not take place in the history of wars. Had we known that the captive operation would result in such a war we would not have carried it out at all.”

These are not the words of a man who thinks of himself as a victor. Nor are these the words of a man speaking to those who think they have won. He did not issue his apology because he hoped to appease his Christian, Sunni, and Druze opponents in Lebanon. He routinely, and absurdly, dismisses their March 14 coalition as the “Zionist hand.” No. Nasrallah apologized because his Israeli adventure devastated his own Shia community.

It’s not easy finding Lebanese who are interested in a repeat. I drove from Beirut to South Lebanon shortly after the war to survey the destruction with a couple of Hezbollah’s political enemies. My guide Said succinctly summed up the reaction I heard from most when we parked amid the rubble of downtown of Bint Jbail. “So this is our victory,” he sarcastically said. “This is how Hezbollah wins. Israel destroys our country while they sleep safely and soundly in theirs.”

Don’t assume only March-14 Lebanese feel this way. The Shias of South Lebanon feel it more acutely than most since they suffered the brunt of the damage. But even many of Nasrallah’s allies elsewhere in Lebanon aren’t interested in more of the same. “Both sides lost and don’t want to do it again,” a supporter of Hezbollah’s ally Michel Aoun said to me in Beirut. “The situation in the South is finished. If it happens again, Nasrallah will lose his case.”

Predicting the future in a bottomlessly complicated society like Lebanon’s is a risky business, to be sure, but a clear majority have no interest in yet another bloody conflict. Most Lebanese, like most Israelis, prefer to be left alone. And most of Nasrallah’s supporters will tell you they want Hezbollah to deter Israeli invasions, not to invite Israeli invasions.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 30, 2009 8:01 AM
Comments

"There’s something else, though, that only a handful of analysts have remarked on. Very few people in Lebanon sincerely think Hezbollah won the 2006 war. It’s mostly Arabs outside Lebanon who take Nasrallah’s declaration of “divine victory” seriously."

I regularly visit FPM and LF blogs to get the temperature so to say.
Why today it is as you say, it wasn't like that in August of 2006. It took approximately half a year for most of the Lebanese to start sobering up. Many are still in the process even today and I sense no hope for diaspora Lebanese at all if you are counting them too.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at January 30, 2009 7:10 PM

"“Both sides lost and don’t want to do it again,” a supporter of Hezbollah’s ally Michel Aoun said to me in Beirut. “The situation in the South is finished. If it happens again, Nasrallah will lose his case.”"

And there's the problem: Nasrallah brings ruin to his country, and is not held accountable. Hamas brings ruin to Gaza and is not held accountable in any meaningful sense. When will the people of Lebanon and Gaza lose their fear of these thugs? Because that will be the time they can evolve into something more than fractured societies infested with terror parasites.

Posted by: Li'l Mamzer Author Profile Page at January 30, 2009 9:14 PM

Michael,

Maybe you'd consider elaborating in your reports on the idea of strength being respected and perceived weakness being exploited. It might help us non-middle easterners better appreciate the dynamics in play there.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at January 31, 2009 12:12 AM

I have always thought that people underestimated Israel's success in the second Lebanon war. Yes, the war was badly waged on the battlefield, but, as MJT points out, Hezbollah seems to have been deterred from a repeat performance.

Unfortunately, I think there are key differences between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. First, Lebanon has no real reason for conflict with Israel. The antagonism with Israel is an ideological contrivance by Hezbollah that I have a feeling does not resonate with most Lebanese, certainly not to the extent that they are willing to suffer the kind of death and destruction they saw in the war. The Palestinians are a different story. They eat, breath, and sleep the historical grievance with Israel, and, as MJT showed a few posts ago, propaganda is drummed into them from an early age.

Second, Hezbollah is subject to internal restraints from the other players in Lebanon - the Christians, Sunni and Druze. Hamas has no such internal restraints in Gaza. They rule the roost there.

So, I think the Gaza example will be diametrically opposite the Lebanese one. In Lebanon Israel prosecuted the war badly but succeeded in its deterrance. In Gaza, they waged the war successfully, but will fail in deterrence.

Posted by: MarkC Author Profile Page at January 31, 2009 12:13 AM

"In Gaza, they waged the war successfully, but will fail in deterrence."

Well maybe but waging the War successfully was and is by far the greater of the results. Deterrence depends upon the ability of the potentially deterred to get their collective heads out of their collective you-know-what. I have never held out much hope of the Palestinians reaching that happy stage in any future I can visualize.

But the successful war effort can be repeated elsewhere, and if Israel has indeed sharpened up the pointy end of the stick, Nasrallah will be even less willing to poke that hornet nest again. If he was deterred by 2006, he must be truly cringing at the thought of Israel doing a 2008 on him the next time around. Hope that this analysis is true.

By the by, all congrats to the Iraqi people,security forces,Government and their US 'advisors' on the great success just had in the Provincial Elections. Never thought in 2006-2007 that I would ever see this day transpire.

Thanks, George. I sort of miss you already. The 'One' looks to have a very limited shelf life.

Posted by: dougf Author Profile Page at January 31, 2009 12:29 PM

In Gaza, they waged the war successfully, but will fail in deterrence.

I think you're right, there, MarkC. It doesn't seem (to me) that Israel has ever been able to deter Palestinians. But maybe that wasn't the point. Maybe the point was to deter Arab neighbors from becoming more actively involved in the conflict. Public perceptions count for a lot. Before 9/11 it was a commonly held belief in the Arab world that the US was only capable of fighting "push-button" wars, for instance. Don't hear much of that, anymore.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at February 1, 2009 5:34 AM

Good analysis. Perhaps it was Mr. Totten, perhaps another blogger, who pointed out that the MSM seemed to deliberately omit from their reporting regarding the latest Gaza dust-up the obvious "axis" of cooperation between Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

By taking the shine off Iran's Hamas pawns, Israel not only reminded Hezbollah of what they can expect if they try to capture any more IDF troopers, but they also threw some mud in Ahmadenijad's eyes: What good is Iraninan sponsorship if all it gets you is flattened by the IDF (even with the IDF making warning telephone calls to innocent civilians ahead of their strikes).

Regarding Hezbollah and the aftermath of the 2006 confrontation, the person who goes down in history almost as poorly as Nasrallah and Olmert is former US SecState C. Rice, who promised the world -- while pushing Israel into a truce -- that the UN-managed truce arrangement would be "robust."

Yeah. Right.

Posted by: gunjam Author Profile Page at February 1, 2009 7:19 PM

Declaring a victor of that war is made difficult due to the Israeli government's phobia about occupying, for any time, any part of Southern Lebanon. It has to do much with Olmert's fear over the demise of the older occupation.

Olmert was open about this in the media at the beginning of that strife. It just got little reported elsewhere.

Posted by: exmaple Author Profile Page at February 3, 2009 5:27 PM
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