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Lebanon and the Unlearned Lessons of Iraq

By Steve Chapman

The last three years have been unkind to neoconservative thinkers. Entranced with our military superiority, they urged the U.S. invasion of Iraq, seeing it as a golden opportunity to remove a threat, intimidate dictators and remake the Middle East. More recently, they applauded the Israeli offensive against Hezbollah, which was supposed to remove a threat, strengthen Lebanese democracy and weaken enemy regimes in Syria and Iran.

But those fetching dreams have given way to painful realities. George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert marched to the sound of neoconservative trumpets, and they now find themselves in the same predicament: fighting guerrillas in a war that doesn't follow conventional rules, where any satisfying conclusion lies out of reach.

When he chose to go after Saddam Hussein, Bush made several mistakes: rejecting less comprehensive means of addressing the danger, dismissing the danger that locals would turn against us, underestimating the challenge of fostering political progress and exaggerating the utility of military force. When he chose to launch a campaign against Hezbollah, Olmert made the same errors.

But those blunders were not the result of ordinary miscalculations. They were the product of the neoconservative mindset, which habitually confuses what is desirable with what is doable. In their exaltation of military might, neoconservatives also imagine that having a moral cause for war is the same thing as having a feasible plan.

Yes, the United States had numerous grounds for toppling Hussein, just as the Israelis had ample basis for acting against the terrorists in Lebanon. But in war, it's not enough to justify. You also have to win. Lebanon, like Iraq, is a reminder that the capacity to kill the enemy does not necessarily mean you can defeat him.

Israel has shown that its air force can demolish any target it wants to hit -- and some it doesn't. But it has also proven that this is an ineffectual way of fighting guerrillas who can easily hide amid a sympathetic local population. The bombing was meant to destroy Hezbollah's arsenal. Three weeks into the war, though, the terrorists keep raining rockets on Israel, including a high of more than 230 on Wednesday.

Hezbollah's resilience was only one of the grim surprises. The hawkish former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens wrote this week in The Wall Street Journal, "So far, Israel has nothing to show for its efforts: no enemy territory gained, no enemy leaders killed, no abatement in the missile barrage that has sent a million Israelis from their homes and workplaces." At this rate, he concludes, "Israel is headed for the greatest military humiliation in its history."

Stephens and other enthusiasts of the war have a simple remedy for this looming failure: a ground invasion to wipe out Hezbollah, which Israel has finally begun. But this looks like another specimen of wishful thinking.

Israel occupied southern Lebanon for 18 years, and far from eradicating opposition, it managed the feat of spawning Hezbollah. The civilian casualties caused by Israeli bombs are likely to increase support for the group, just as its rockets have rallied Israelis behind their government. As we've found in Iraq, you can end up creating terrorists faster than you can kill them.

Another problem is that while Hezbollah has shown it can mount fierce resistance in battles, it doesn't have to. It can retreat or melt into the civilian population, then return to the suicide attacks and roadside bombs it used the last time. Israel may eventually face the same choice it did then: being bled dry by a phantom adversary, or giving up and going home.

Other observers hope the United Nations will deploy soldiers to move in, establish control and disarm the militants. But if that task is too much for the battle-hardened Israelis, who have urgent self-interest to motivate them, how can we expect the Germans or French to do it out of altruism? A more realistic assessment came from an anonymous Israeli official who told U.S. News & World Report: "There is no military solution to this. Israel is under no illusion of eliminating Hezbollah as a military foe."

The problem resembles the one the U.S. faces in Iraq: The enemy doesn't have to defeat the outsiders, but merely survive and inflict pain until they leave. Having failed to learn from that experience, the Israelis may be trapped in the same kind of war, which they can't afford to lose but don't know how to win.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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