Tuesday, August 15, 2006

On War: Winning and Losing

What does it mean to win a war?

Around here, there has been too much talk about Israel "losing" to Hezbollah. That would be true if Hezbollah actually won anything. But it got battered, lost most of its fighting corps and weapons, its position along Israel's border, the element of surprise it used to such advantage, and it must now reckon with the Lebanese people who experienced a trauma while Hezbollah pursued the interests of Syria and Iran. But Hezbollah survived, at least they can claim that.

Some victory. It would be called losing by anyone but the weak and feable.

The idea that Israel lost reinforces the unrealistic standards we demand from the IDF. If the IDF generals snap their fingers and the Arabs don't run for cover, the IDF was defeated. After all, Israel's security depends on Arabs believing that the IDF is invulnerable. If it takes a few casualties while fighting on the enemy's turf, it shows it can be beaten.

The way people talk about Hezbollah reminds me of how people used to discuss Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader completely failed to bring bring anything good to his people despite numerous opportunities. But newspapers still lauded him for his "shrewd" negotiating style and leadership. Even in his final years, while he sat in a bullet-ridden room in constant fear of assassination, op-eds would appear asserting that Arafat would likely emerge the clear winner of the intifada.

So, what does it mean to win? For Israel, it means maintaining its strategic edge and its psychological advantage over the Arab world. It also means achieving the goals it set out in the first days of the conflict. No matter how we look at it, Israel failed to squeeze the kidnapped soldiers out of Hezbollah's hands. And it failed to "break" Hezbollah's backbone. But I'm not sure at all that Israel's strategic edge has been harmed, despite what some extremists say.

Israel showed that a daily barrage of rockets will not bring its citizens to their knees, demanding an immediate ceace-fire (like in Lebanon). Except for the kidnapping that ignited the whole month of fighting, Israel did not experience a breach of its territory on the ground. It couldn't stop the rockets from inside Lebanon, but it managed to protect its citizens pretty well - Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets and killed 41 civilians.

All in all, I don't see how anyone could say Israel came out of the war looking vulnerable. I think Lebanon's state of disaster will prevent another Hezbollah attack in the near future. Syria has always been a big talker. But if Israel was being defeated by the mighty Hezbollah, why didn't Syria jump in and capture the Golan Heights? Because talks is cheap; rebuilding road, bridges, and its electrical system are expensive.

But still, it is impossible to ignore the "shortcoming" Olmert alluded to in his speech before Knesset. Israel had complete air supremacy throughout the fighting but it wasn't enough to keep the soldiers safe or to push Hezbollah out of its strongholds. I don't know what the higher eschelon knew about Hezbollah's capabilities, but soldiers returning from the field consistently expressed surprise about what they were facing. Someone has to answer for these failures. It will be interesting to see who goes and who stays when it all plays out. Then we'll know the war's real winners and losers.