The goal of U.S. diplomacy in the Israel–Lebanon conflict has always been to lock in Israel’s military gains. With Friday’s resolution, the U.S. achieved that goal. It’s just that the Israeli military gains have been maddeningly elusive, so the diplomatic deal is correspondingly lackluster. While Israel’s campaign surely damaged Hezbollah, it also caused strategically counterproductive destruction in Lebanon and never succeeded in expelling Hezbollah from the south of the country.
It was the hope of Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert that U.S. diplomacy would deliver what the IDF either could not accomplish or wasn’t permitted to attempt. That was always a forlorn hope, although he can point to elements of the ceasefire deal that vindicate it on paper. An arms embargo will notionally cut Hezbollah off from resupply. The Lebanese army is supposed to move into the south, take it over from Hezbollah, and establish the Lebanese government’s sovereignty there. A U.N. force, beefed up in terms of both numbers and its mandate, is charged with backing up the Lebanese army.
All this will probably lead to a marginally improved situation in southern Lebanon for the time being, since Hezbollah’s infrastructure and heavy arms there have been hit hard. There previously hadn’t even been an attempt to cut off Hezbollah’s supply lines or to extend the sovereignty of the Lebanese government to the south. Now there will at least be an effort, although probably an ineffectual one.
In the final tussling over the resolution, Israel insisted that there be no “vacuum” between the exit of its forces and the arrival of an international force, as such a vacuum could be exploited by Hezbollah to return to the south. But since Hezbollah was never fully pushed from the area, it is going to be there, vacuum or not. The Lebanese army, a pathetic rust-bucket riven by sectarian tensions, isn’t going to seriously challenge Hezbollah. It’s not clear at the moment whether it even has the capability to transport itself to the south, and in recent weeks it has been evident that Hezbollah is in a position to dictate to the Lebanese government, not the other way around. Nor will the international force threaten Hezbollah, even if its mandate is exceedingly ambitious by milquetoast U.N. standards. Over time, as the sense of urgency behind its mission declines, it will surely begin to look more and more like the old accommodationist UNIFIL force.
Hezbollah has a crucial advantage over any competitors for ultimate control of the south — not just the legitimacy that comes with the support of the Shia population, but the sheer will that motivates it to fight and die for its cause. Are French and Italian troops willing to die for the enforcement of Resolution 1559, calling for the disarming of Hezbollah? To ask the question is to answer it. In theory, an international force could police Lebanon, but that would require a tough-mindedness and a willingness to sacrifice that aren’t on offer.
The problem of southern Lebanon represents in microcosm much of what the War on Terror is meant to defeat or resist. The region is beyond the control of any national government, and has been filled by an organization with a radical interpretation of Islam and a taste for terrorist tactics. But the only thing the world was willing to do about it was look the other way while Israel fought Hezbollah — or, rather, look the other way for a brief spell before insisting that Israel stop.
The Bush administration gave Israel more running room than anyone else, and was amazingly stalwart by the standards of former U.S. administrations. We would have preferred that Israel be given even more time. But there were legitimate fears about the Lebanese government’s falling, and it was understandable that the administration’s patience with the incoherence of the Israeli military campaign and the indecisiveness of Olmert ran out. The IDF’s dash to the Litani River should have been the opening gambit in its fight against Hezbollah rather than an hours-before-the-ceasefire afterthought.
Hezbollah will have much rebuilding to do, and for a while will find it harder to operate. But it emerges from the conflict a winner. It scores an incalculable propaganda victory by having successfully stood up to Israel, and enjoys a surge of support from the Lebanese reaction against the Israeli bombing campaign. It lives to fight another day — and fight it will. Its patrons, Syria and Iran, can only be delighted. In addition to winning in Lebanon, Iran has the upper hand both in Iraq and in the contest over whether it will be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. If current trends continue, the Bush administration’s project in the Middle East will require the same sort of expedient we have just seen in the Israel–Lebanon conflict: a papering over of what is essentially a failure.