Today in the Washington Post, Sebastian Mallaby pens a screed called The Wisdom of Retreat. He suggests that while retreating from our hawkish stance supporting Israel may not be a good option, it just might be the least bad:
If its diplomacy fails, the Bush administration will have to face the dilemma that it’s now avoiding: whether to support an indefinite cease-fire that goes beyond the 48-hour suspension of airstrikes announced yesterday but does not neutralize Hezbollah. To support such an outcome would be to retreat publicly. It would boost the prestige of extremists in the Middle East and encourage Iran to defy the West over its nuclear program. Yet refusing to support an imperfect cease-fire would be a greater error, for it would involve disregarding three lessons that emerge from the administration’s own record.
He gives three main reasons for this opinion:
- We’re losing clout with allies. While we must act on our own accord when absolutely necessary, if we do it too often we will find ourselves unable to marshal our allies’ forces when we need them.
- Just because Europe won’t stand up for Israel doesn’t mean Israel has a winnable strategy here. We may not like the “retreat” option, but unless Israel has a real objective to accomplish with this offensive, we don’t need to support them.
- War is an option, but how can this war be won? Unless we aim at Damascus & Tehran, we’re not really “draining the swamp”, and thus this will be a temporary victory after which Hezbollah will return.
There are some good points here. Israel is responding in a heavy-handed manner, and this sort of an offensive is not something that can just be walked away from. Israel is rapidly approaching the point of no return, if they haven’t crossed it yet. If we don’t do what we can to push for a cease-fire now, we may find ourselves backing Israel in a multi-year campaign of war and occupation of Lebanon, because all other options will have expired.
But what happens if we do push Israel into accepting a cease-fire? Will Hezbollah accept a cease-fire? I think Hezbollah will do one of two things. Start attacking or start re-arming for a later attack. It is clear that Israel is backed into a corner. Committing to a cease-fire now will be worse than— as Mallaby suggests— making America look weak and retreating; it will make Hezbollah victorious. All Israel has done so far is to piss off the world and the Lebanese without materially affecting Hezbollah, making the Lebanese more likely to support Hezbollah.
Israel is in a difficult position. If they stop, they’re giving Hezbollah the green light to re-arm and reorganize for future attacks. If the proceed, they’re embarking on a long campaign of war and occupation, and they can’t stop until they’ve proved a point that terrorism is a strategy that will not succeed. I don’t think they need to be aiming for civilians, but they need the Lebanese people to understand that allowing Hezbollah to operate within their borders will only lead to pain. That may require occupation of Lebanon to set up a sovereign government capable of reining in terrorists if necessary. But Israel has hit a point where retreat only ensures future attacks. They must decide whether the cost of war and occupation is better or worse than allowing those future attacks. While retreat might have short-term benefit, it is not a question of whether future attacks from Hezbollah would come, but when they come and how strong they’ll be.
Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of what the United States should do. I think either option is bad for us. For us to advocate a cease-fire looks to the world like a retreat, and hurts our position with Israel as their ally. For us to forcefully defend Israel’s actions make us look like the puppetmaster pulling Israel’s strings, and ensures that all the negative world attention that Israel gets is heaped on us as well. But is there a third way?
Can the United States publicly say “it’s your problem”? What would happen if the US basically proclaimed that while Israel is a trusted ally of the United States, they’re also a sovereign entity and need to determine for themselves how to handle this situation. We may simply need to tell the world that it is not our responsibility to secure a Middle East peace. We believe Israel is more than capable of taking care of their own security needs, and as their ally, we will assist if they ask us to. But at the moment, we’re stepping away from the situation.
Right now, the United States has no solution to the problem. And every time we try to step in and barter a peace between parties who don’t want one, we look like we have failed, not them. Why do we keep coming to the table? Why don’t we take the position that if they want us to help solve this problem, they need to invite us to the table, not the other way around?