I’ve had the pleasure of having beers with Charles Levinson before he went back to Iraq last year for USA Today. Now he’s at the edge of Gaza for the Wall Street Journal and writes an overview of the war that contains this curious observation:
In the clearest break from a strategy it used to pursue Hezbollah militants in Lebanon in 2006, Israeli leaders have set out clearly defined — and relatively modest — expectations for the current Gaza offensive. Two years ago in Lebanon, Israeli officials vowed to wipe out Hezbollah and bring back two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. They didn’t accomplish either goal.
This time, government officials have said their aim is simply to reduce rocket fire and weaken Hamas.
But is that really the case? The government of Israel has used the rocketing as a proximate cause of the war, certainly. But the defense minister speaks about an "all-out war" to the "bitter end" with Hamas and his colleagues discuss breaking its "will." This is rather strikingly reminiscent of 2006, Hezbollah and Lebanon. What’s more, three analysts who consider the war worthwhile — I found them via these Andrew Sullivan posts — describe the war’s endgame and its purpose in unsurprisingly expansive terms. Martin Kramer sees a "multi-phase plan" for the "elimination of Hamas control of Gaza." Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi see Israel aiming to "overthro[w] Hamas in Gaza," but as part of a wider war to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East. (Next stop: Baghdad?)
Kramer, Oren and Halevi are offering their analyses, but it’s clear that we’re a long way away from any sort of War On Rockets. There are salient differences between Hezbollah/Lebanon 2006 and Hamas/Gaza 2008, and reading over my past eight days’ worth of writings, I can be fairly criticized for viewing everything through the prism of 2006. Hamas is not remotely as strong a fighting force as Hezbollah. Nor are there sectarian implications for the future of Palestine of an assault on Hamas. It’s important to view situations on their own terms. But.
The Lebanon war really hangs over Operation Cast Lead, and — real talk – both the Israeli government and supporters of the current war seem to be suffering from Incompetence Dodge syndrome. Incompetence was not the fundamental problem of the invasion of Lebanon. The unfulfillable promise to destroy Hezbollah was. Yet if you read Yossi (I knew and liked him when I was at TNR) and Oren’s piece, you’ll get a lot of dross like this:
An earlier opportunity to check Iran — during Israel’s war against Hezbollah in 2006 — was squandered through a combination of Israeli incompetence and international pressure. Hezbollah manipulated the Western media by grossly inflating the number of civilian casualties and even "recycling" corpses from one bombed site to another. … [snip]
Israel learned the bitter lesson of Lebanon. For the last two years, the Israeli army has gone back to basics, rigorously training and restoring its fighting spirit. Israeli leaders drew on that spirit to attack Hamas bases in one of the most impressive airstrikes since the 1967 Six-Day War.
This is either myopia or denial. When the architects of wars definite their goals in apocalyptic terms, "fighting spirit" cannot possibly win them. (This is also why al-Qaeda has absolutely no hope of achieving any of its goals, incidentally.) It’s that sort of magical thinking that yielded the 2006 Lebanon debacle, rather than the antidote to it. Alas, we who wish to see Israel avoid such things in the present and the future are hostile to our ethnic and cultural inheritance or something, and the clerics emerge to rap our knuckles, but, you know, so it goes.
One last thing for the evening. Last year, Thomas Henriksen published an interesting study called The Israeli Approach To Irregular Warfare And Its Implications For The United States (PDF) through the Joint Special Operations University. If you read it, you’ll be impressed by how extensive and comprehensive Israel’s nonconventional capabilities are. And then it’ll seem all the more profound that Israel finds itself in a parlous situation despite its impressive attempts to guard its asymmetric flank. (Forgive the bad writing; I’m tired.) It’s too pat to say "the solution is political," but moving off a path where a political solution is closer to realization clearly is a grievous error.