Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
July 21, 2006
WAR: Defeat In Detail
It is well-known that Hezbollah receives major financial support, equipment, and to some extent direction from Iran (in addition to material support and safe harbor from Syria). Bill Kristol makes the case that, this being so, the United States should use the current war between Israel and Hezbollah, triggered by Hezbollah's rocket attacks on Israel, as casus belli for a U.S. preemptive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Kristol is right, of course, about the Iranian roots of the Hezbollah problem, he's right that Israel's war with Hezbollah is our war too, and he's most likely right about the Iranian nuclear threat and what we have to contemplate doing about it. But he's missing a crucial point about military strategy and tactics.
Now I have, in the past, written about the Iranian nuclear threat, the serious possibility that we will have to use military force at some point to remove that threat, the futility of negotiating with Iran's present regime, the ways in which the U.S. can actually benefit from fighting on several fronts at once, and the potential benefits of widening the present war at least to include Syria. I'm not unmindful of the costs involved in each of these decisions, which are a subject for another day, but it's safe to say that I'm in Kristol's camp at least in the broadest outlines.
What Kristol is missing here is the opportunity for defeat in detail of an important Iranian asset. Defeat in detail is military-theory jargon - it's not precisely synonymous with the more colloquial concept of "divide and conquer," but the idea is similar: defeat an enemy's forces by isolating individual units and deploying your main force against them one at a time, rather than engaging the enemy's entire force at once. It's one of those ideas that military theorists and historians love, but that can be much more difficult to execute in practice, where the enemy gets a say in the terms of engagement. But the conditions for pulling this off are nearly perfect, so long as we get out of the way and let the Israelis finish what they have started.
Hezbollah, of course, is an organization with tentacles extending over a number of areas worldwide, and we can't hope to see it entirely liquidated. But let's discuss here what I would call "Hezbollah-Lebanon," the main force of Hezbollah, as it exists in the region west of Iraq and east of the Mediterranean (thanks to the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq, there are at least some obstacles, if not enough, to free movement of forces and weapons between Hezbollah-Lebanon and Iran). Entering the current conflict, Hezbollah-Lebanon had four major assets: (1) rockets/missiles capable of reaching Israeli territory, (2) conventional military forces, (3) unconventional (terrorist) capabilities and (4) political control over a chunk of Lebanon.
If we ended up in a full-scale war with Iran, Hezbollah-Lebanon would undoubtedly be a major asset for the Iranians, a base from which the Iranians could, as desired, attack Israel, Iraq, Turkey and of course Lebanon. We would also have another problem: wishing to gather broad international support, we would yet again want the Israelis, with their formidable military and knowledge of the terrain, to sit on their hands, so as not to offend possible Arab/European allies. Thus, an ideal strategic precondition for any confrontation with Iran would be to eliminate Hezbollah-Lebanon as a miliary asset without activating the full range of Iranian assets worldwide, and at the same time make use of the Israeli forces that might otherwise be sidelined in a larger war. This is precisely what is happening. All the better, from the point of view of U.S. interests, the rocket attacks on Israeli cities have blunted much of the usual criticism of Israel by our other real and putative allies.
I have no illusions that an Israeli war with Hezbollah will result in a complete elimination of Hezbollah-Lebanon. But if allowed to continue without widening to Iran or Syria, the war should be expected to yield the following:
1. Substantial degradation or elimination of Hezbollah-Lebanon's rocket/missile capabilities.
2. Substantial degradation of Hezbollah-Lebanon's conventional military forces, possibly to the point where in the future, another party who has been sidelined so far - the Lebanese Army under the command of the democratic government of Lebanon - will find the balance of forces much more favorable in attempting to assert control over Lebanese sovereign territory.
3. Some degradation of Hezbollah-Lebanon's terrorist capabilities. Terrorist groups can never be destroyed by military force alone, any more than by law enforcement alone, but destroying camps and killing potential terrorists and equipment should go a long way to reducing the threat.
Less certain is the impact on Hezbollah's political influence; while there are signs that many in Lebanon, especially those previously well-disposed towards Hezbollah because of its use of (Iranian-supplied) funds to buy good will with the populace through public works, are turning against Hezbollah for having brought down the wrath of the mighty IDF on Lebanon. On the other hand, the impulse to rally with any Arab or Muslim against Israel is a deep-seated one in the Middle East, so long term it will remain to be seen if a radicalized faction keeps Hezbollah's place at the table in a democratic Lebanon, or worse yet leads to the failure of Lebanon's nascent democracy. As in any war, the potential political ramifications are never all good and certainly never predictable.
In short, the terms of the war have a key Iranian strategic asset right where we want it. No matter how eager one may be to remove the Iranian threat once and for all, widening the battle before Israel has a chance to finish the job against Hezbollah-Lebanon would just be bad strategy.