Generals, goes the cliché, are always fighting the last war. It is probably truer today that reporters are always reporting the last war.
A Middle East war, in particular, has a familiar narrative: Israel is attacked by its Arab neighbors. It wins easily (sometimes after initial setbacks). It does so by overwhelming its weaker enemy with “disproportionate” firepower. And it then dominates the region for a decade.
This recent war was very different. Some of the differences were so acute that even the BBC noticed. But the tone of much coverage was still that of Israel as Goliath versus Hezbollah as David. And some of the more remarkable novelties were, if not entirely missed, then given less attention than they deserved.
Take the question of who started the war. The aggressor was neither one of Israel’s Arab neighbors nor even the Arab sub-state terrorist group, Hezbollah. Iran started the war using Hezbollah as its agent and Syria as its transit camp. Iran supplied the weapons, the training, the diplomatic support, and even some “volunteers.” This war was the First Iranian-Israeli War — but not the last.
Another novelty is that this was recognized by two powerful groups of states usually determined to avoid facing unpleasant realities: Europe and the Sunni Muslim governments of the Middle East. Both saw that revolutionary Iran at the head of a radical and largely Shia coalition — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad — was a serious and perhaps mortal threat to their interests. They therefore hoped for an Israeli victory.
European governments went to the extraordinary extent of signing onto a G8 communique five weeks ago that placed the blame for the war squarely on Hezbollah and the “extremist” forces supporting Hezbollah (i.e., Iran and Syria) at the very time when Israeli jets were blasting away at the infrastructure of southern Lebanon.
Sunni Arab states were understandably less overt. They simply sat quietly and waited for Israel to destroy Hezbollah and weaken Iran on their behalf.
A third point is that Israel was waging this war as much to preserve Lebanon from Iran and Hezbollah as to protect Israel from Hezbollah’s rockets. Knocking out Lebanon’s infrastructure may seem an odd method of helping the country — destroying the village in order to save it, as the old Vietnam saying goes. It is the main justification for criticizing Israel’s actions as “disproportionate.”
But it was the inevitable consequence of a “doveish” military strategy that sought to save both Lebanese civilian and Israeli military lives by using air power to destroy buildings rather than infantry to kill people. This strategy failed in its objectives. Instead of destroying Hezbollah and strengthening Lebanon as a democratic state, it destroyed much of Lebanon physically, weakened its new democratic government, and strengthened Hezbollah.
That leads onto the most significant point of all: Israel lost. Though it had the overt support of the U.S. and the covert support of Europe and Middle Eastern governments for almost five weeks, it failed to gain its main objectives. When the fighting was eventually stopped by the device of a U.N. Security Council Resolution backed by the U.S., Hezbollah was still fighting. And it will soon replenish its supplies of arms from Iran and of men from the young Shia Muslims inspired by its “victory” (i.e., avoidance of outright defeat.) The wider international picture is still more alarming. Former German Foreign Minister, Joshcka Fischer, had described in advance the three larger war aims of the radical Iran-Syria-etc.:
first to ease pressure on Hamas from within the Palestinian community to recognize Israel; second to undermine democratization in Lebanon, which was marginalizing Syria; and third to lift attention from the emerging dispute over the Iranian nuclear program and demonstrate to the West the “tools” at its disposal in the case of a conflict.
All three of these were achieved. The radical coalition took on the international community and it won. As a result the international community has shifted its stance. France has been criticized for weakening its original cease-fire resolution in response to pressure from Lebanon and the Arab League. But France, Lebanon, and the Arab League were all responding to the unpleasant fact of Hezbollah’s victory.
Both Israel and the U.S. also made such a shift by agreeing to a cease-fire that ended the campaign prematurely for them, shattered the vital myth of Israeli invincibility, encouraged its other enemies to join or at least appease the radical coalition, and placed Israel at a legal and strategic disadvantage in future conflicts.
As is already becoming clear, the ceasefire will be only partially implemented. Hezbollah will not be disarmed. The U.N. arms embargo on weapons from Iran and Syria will not be enforced. And the new UNIFIL force will have neither the numbers nor the material to enforce the ceasefire on unwilling warriors — especially if the Lebanese government begins to take its orders from the more powerful Hezbollah in its midst.
Yet as Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post predicted and as Kofi Annan confirmed this weekend, Israel will face international criticism — and perhaps criminalization — if it violates the terms of the cease fire when it is responding to the refusal of its enemies to observe them.
The lesson from all this is: Don’t lose a war. But Israel will also draw the second lesson that follows directly from it: If a nation in Israel’s fundamentally weak strategic situation has lost a war, it must win the next war convincingly and pretty soon.
The first shots fired in that war will be political. Watch out for maneuvers in the Israeli government and parliament to replace the current doveish left-wing government of Ehud Olmert with a new government perhaps headed by — and certainly containing — former premier Bibi Netanyahu. This week’s protests at the nation’s indecisive political and military leadership by angry soldiers back from the front are the beginning of major shift in Israeli politics to a more realistic strategic and diplomatic posture.
Nothing will happen overnight. A new Israeli government will need time to prepare for the Second Iranian-Israeli War. It will not want to fire the first shot. But Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad will be neither slow nor reluctant to give it pretexts for battle. And though no war is ever predictable, the next war will be very different from the one that has just been interrupted.
— John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review. He is currently writing a book on Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. A version of this first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.