IN THE NEWS
Israeli attacks into Lebanon have not only resumed, but intensified. Since the US government has demonstrated no interest in constraining the Israelis, the accidental killing of over 50 civilians, including 37 children, in the twice-tragic town of Qana, caused only a pause in the Israeli campaign. If the external power with the most leverage over Israel were at odds with the Olmert government's strategy, the Qana tragedy might have been the end of Israeli operations in Lebanon.
Escalating the attacks won't change the outcome of this war. Israel may destroy more missile launchers, kill more Hezbollah fighters, and change the physical conditions in southern Lebanon to make it less hospitable for Hezbollah. The war will not, however, destroy Hezbollah as an organization, or drive a wedge between Hezbollah and the Lebanese who support or tolerate its actions. Israel's strategy will also not cut off Hezbollah's sources of foreign support, from Syria and Iran.
That conclusion, of course, is based on the assumption that Israel will withdraw from Lebanon. It's possible, though unlikely, that the Olmert government might reach the same conclusion about the war, and decide a more permanent presence in southern Lebanon will be necessary to keep Hezbollah at bay. This "presence" could be less an occupation, and more a regular series of incursions. Either way, Israel would be switching from the defensive posture it had against Hezbollah to something else.
Whatever form this new strategy takes, it will not be as simple as a switch from the strategic defensive to the strategic offensive. If you send out regular patrols from a firebase, you're not attacking; you're simply doing a better job of defending a fixed position. Israel's options with Lebanon are much the same, writ large: either keep the point of engagement with Hezbollah where it was before this war, on the border or just inside Israel, or move it to some distance inside Lebanon.
Hezbollah, of course, would be forced to respond. The opportunities for kidnapping and bombarding Israeli civilians would diminish. The new operational target would be the Israeli military. Hezbollah's goals would be the same: eliminate or weaken its political rivals in Lebanon; manufacture the animosities and fears that drive more people to support a radical, militant Islamic party like Hezbollah; cement the assistance it receives from outside Israel. Rocket attacks on Israeli towns are one way to achieve these goals; returning Lebanon to the conditions of the 1980s is another.
In fact, the situation that Israel has created is arguably better for Hezbollah. Before the Israeli attacks, Hezbollah had lost political ground in Lebanon. The Hariri assassination led to the withdrawal of its Syrian patron. Not only did Hezbollah suffer politically for its close ties with Syria, but political parties that led or joined the "Cedar Revolution" gained in popularity and clout.
Today, with Israeli bombs dropping on Lebanon, questions of popularity or clout appear meaningless. The men and women who led the peaceful and successful campaign to kick out Syria are powerless to defend Lebanon against Israel. Syrian and Iranian aid to Hezbollah now seems necessary, not problematic. Rather than devising ways to disarm Hezbollah, rival politicians are hiding in basements or fleeing from the war zone.
The Middle East has changed since the Eighties, but Eighties nostalgia seems to be in. There isn't an Iran-Iraq War, but there is a major insurgency in Iraq, with Iran as an indirect participant. The Sunni-Shi'ite fault line doesn't run along the Iran-Iraq border, but it does fall somewhere between Samarra and Basra. Saudi Arabia and the emirates may be supporting Israel as a proxy for fighting Shi'ites, but their interests are no more aligned with the United States than they were twenty years ago. American forces may not be based in Saudi Arabia, but 140,000 of them are in Iraq for an indefinite period.
The US Navy may not be skirmishing with Libyan MIGs and Iranian patrol boats, but Americans are fighting a much nastier enemy, the different insurgent factions in Iraq, and suffering far higher casualties. Lebanon may not have devolved to the multi-sided civil war of the 1980s, with Israel thrown into the mix, but Lebanon has gone a few steps down that dark road. Syria may not be governed by Hafez al-Assad, who may not have ever been able to live peacefully with his neighbors, but the current president, his son, Bashr al-Assad, is undoubtedly seeing few incentives to pursue an accommodating foreign policy, particularly since the US government has declared its intention to depose him. Israel may not be fighting the first intifada, but it has been living with a second, far nastier Palestinian uprising for longer than the first intifada lasted.
As frustrating as the Middle East was before 2001, it is far more vexing today. George W. Bush's hastily-sketched blueprint for remodeling the Middle East was worse than irrelevant. It actively contributed to creating this "Forward Into The Past" situation in the Middle East. The occupation of Iraq, the freedom of action granted Israel, the rejection of diplomacy with Syria and Iraq, and no visible changes in the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates are all deliberate US foreign policy choices that have led, since 2001, to where the Middle East is today. In some ways, the situation is better than it was in the 1980s. For example, Lebanon has not fallen as far as it did in the early Eighties. In other ways, the Middle East today is far worse than it was in the 1980s.