October 18, 2009

Bergman on Hizballah

I have several friends in the Israeli journalism community whose reporting I trust and admire, but when it comes to Hizballah, I am often wary of what is written from south of the Blue Line unless it focuses almost exclusively on Israeli operations. Sometimes the author is a little too sure of the conclusions he or she draws about Hizballah, something Beirut-based journalists like Nick Blanford and Mitch Prothero who report on Hizballah from north of the Blue Line and enjoy good contacts within the organization rarely do. (In case you are wondering, I cannot think of a single journalist in the Arabic language whose reporting on Hizballah's military activities I consider to be "must-read" and worth breaking out the old Hans Wehr. I suspect there are strong incentives for Lebanese journalists to not report on such activities.)

That said, I read and got something out of Ronen Bergman's op-ed on Israel's "Secret War" on Hizballah. Since 2006, Lebanon south of the Litani River has been turned over to the Lebanese Armed Forces and UNIFIL II, meaning it has been difficult for Hizballah to rebuild the kind of border defenses they used in the summer of 2006. (12,000 international soldiers, whatever their loyalties, kinda get in the way.) Most of their construction appears to have shifted just north of the Litani, while the villages of southern Lebanon appear to have been hardened and resupplied with caches of arms, food, water, etc. Smart people on both sides of the Blue Line tend to agree with this analysis, and it matches up with what I myself saw in southern Lebanon on multiple trips there between November 2006 and November 2008. 

Since 2006, then, southern Lebanon has indeed been a kind of semi-demilitarized zone. At the very least, the hardened border defenses Hizballah built between 2000 and 2006 are no longer in place. Which, funnily enough, makes it a lot easier for Israeli commando teams to infiltrate southern Lebanon. And it seems to me that some kind of Israeli special operations raids are as good an explanation as any for those mysterious explosions that have been taking place in southern Lebanon lately. I cannot say for sure, of course, since the Israelis have no reason to acknowledge them and Hizballah has every reason to deny they are taking place, but such an explanation seems both plausible and probable.

I could spend several posts quibbling with things Bergman wrote in his op-ed, but I think he got the first half of his conclusion right:

In short, despite the fact that Hezbollah today is substantially stronger in purely military terms than it was three years ago, its political stature and its autonomy have been significantly reduced. It is clear that Nasrallah is cautious and he will weigh his options very carefully before embarking on any course of action that might lead to all-out war with Israel.

The second half, meanwhile, was more problematic.

There are some experts in Israel who believe that even Hezbollah's retaliatory role in the Iranian game plan is currently in question. Whether or not this is the case, all of this is being considered in Jerusalem as part of Israel's calculations about whether to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.

Danger, Will Robinson. One of things that bothered me about Bergman's op-ed and about some conversations I had with Israeli military officers last month is how, well, "cocky" they are these days.

"By all means, let the Hezbollah try," one officer told me two weeks ago when I asked if he was concerned about the possibility of warfare. "The welcome party that we are preparing for them is one that they will remember for a very long time." That sentiment is shared by many of his colleagues.

I recently read an excellent article by Richard Kohn that was recommended to me by a retired three-star I know and admire. Kohn writes that a decline in U.S. military professionalism -- especially the ability of U.S. officers to think strategically -- has been masked by the fact that "our military regularly demonstrates its operational effectiveness in battle." Like the United States, Israel can also be accused of letting operational brilliance be a substitute for sound strategy.

First off, both Hizballah and Israeli officers have been talking a lot of smack about how they would each bloody the other if 2006 were to be refought. And if -- Heaven forbid -- such a war were to be fought, I indeed think the Israeli military machine would punish Hizballah and the people and infrastructure of Lebanon to a horrific degree. If there is to be another war, the gloves would be off. But after the shooting stops and the Israelis inevitably go back across the Blue Line, what will have been accomplished in terms of Israeli policy aside from the further isolation of Israel within the international community? And from Hizballah's perspective, why on earth would you want to precipitate such a horrible conflict?

Second, one or two successful special operations raids into southern Lebanon should not should not should not inform your calculus as to whether or not you should attempt to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. Apples and freaking oranges. The former is a tactical exercise that carries with it moderate strategic risk. The latter is a strategic decision that carries with it enormous geopolitical consequences for you, your neighbors and your allies. I mean, how does the cabinet discussion go on that one? "Well, you know, we managed to send a seven-man team into southern Lebanon last night. Pretty awesome, yes. Who, then, is up for sending the entire IAF to Qom tonight? Anyone?"

Israelis are now realizing something I have long argued: that Israeli deterrence did not take the hit many said it did immediately after the 2006 war. It's doing quite well, actually. But the paradox of deterrence is that, in Schelling's wordsir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0300002211, "the power to hurt is most successful when held in reserve." Deterrence is, as John "The Warlord" Collins is fond of saying, a strategy for peace -- not for war. Like Bergman, I too feel Israeli deterrence vis a vis Hizballah is doing pretty well right now. But it all goes the way of the Dodo if one side or the other, like the Kinghts Hospitalier at Arsuf, gets restless enough to start something off without thinking through the endstate.