Is Retreat an Option?

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?

  • Matt

    The first lesson is that allies do matter

    Yes. Yes, they do.

  • Mike Landfair

    I do not believe “Israel is responding in a heavy-handed manner”. You know what they should do. You say “they can’t stop until they’ve proved a point that terrorism is a strategy that will not succeed.” That is the correct response: Prove to the world that terrorism is not a strategy that will suceed. To hell with the world opinion. Currently, the world’s survival is not at stake. Israel’s is. Israel should CRUSH the opposition. Do not allow then any idea whatsoever that they can win. The world will howl. Let them. Any enemy that hides in the midst of civilians should be taught that is a bad strategy for them and the civilians. I see no other solution!

  • Jackie

    OK, you’re saying three soldiers is worth all this? If this thing snow-balls, and it very well might, the worlds survival COULD be at stake! All over three soldiers. WWI started out as a war between Austria and Serbia over the assination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Ferdinand. From the ashes of the “war to end all wars”, came the rise of Adolf Hitler, the holicaust and WWII. The state of Israel is a direct result of the holicaust. Present day Israel was given to the Jews by the UN in 1948 (the land HAD belonged to the British) with no consideration whatsoever for those already living there, and they’ve been fighting ever since

  • Brad Warbiany

    3 soldiers, several hundred rocket attacks, and a boatload of history. This is a hell of a lot wider than “3 soldiers”.

  • Ryan

    Jackie, while World War I technically was started by the assasination of the Archduke, that was simply the spark that set off the fire, much like the three soldiers today set off this conflict. The actual war has been brewing for many years, just like WWI was when it started, it just finally boiled over.

  • IndianCowboy

    a local radio host once said that we should stop all support of israel while they’re fighting and become completely neutral. And as soon as they’ve won, give them their aid right back. I kinda liked the idea.

  • Matt

    That’s precisely how I treat my friends! Of course, I don’t have any.

  • Eric

    Jackie said: OK, you’re saying three soldiers is worth all this? If this thing snow-balls, and it very well might, the worlds survival COULD be at stake! All over three soldiers.

    Jackie, I have a simple answer if you want those soldiers to be there when you need them. Whether it’s 1, 10, 1000, or a million, a soldier is always worth it. You go in and get them out. Alive, if possible. Dead, if there’s no other way. But, you bring your soldiers home.

    Unless, of course, you want a military that won’t fight for you when the time comes that you really need them.

    It’s a lesson the US had to learn after abandoning soldiers in Korea and Vietnam. The Army of the 70’s and early 80’s was hollow and brittle. I know, I was there. You can choose to stand by your own people no matter what, or you can choose consequentialism. Your apparent choice, to abandon your soldiers, will reap a long term whirlwind of disaster.

  • Jackie

    I’m a disabled vet. I was on active duty in the late ’70’s early ’80’s. We’re still IN Korea 53 years after the war supposedly ended. I lost cousins in Viet Nam, so I remember it vividly. Viet Nam should have NEVER gone on for 10 years. JFK had begun to see Viet Nam for what it was. The government in Siagon was as corrupt as all get out. The average Viet Namese just wanted to be left alone. Anyway, in 1975 we picked up the last of our toys and left. Viet Nam survived and is today thriving. Today we are fighting fanatics who aren’t even fighting on their own soil. They did this to goad Israel into doing EXACTLY what she did. I expected Israel to be smart enough to use restraint when they’re clearly being played. Hezzbollah is being nourished by Iran and Syria and unless something is done about those two Hezzbolah will continue to rise from the ashes like a Phenix. As for WWI, the assination of the Archduke was the spark-for a war between Austria and Sarajevo. It was the other European countries “sticking up for their friends” that had the entire continent at war.

  • Mike

    “Viet Nam survived and is today thriving.”

    Tell that to the million that got send to re-education camps. Or to the boat people.

    I’m not saying that Vietnam isn’t a decent country today, but to pretend that our withdrawal had no real consequences is historical revisionism of the worst kind.

  • Mike

    Oh, and we’re “still in Korea” because the war ISN’T over. We signed an armistice…that’s kind of like a “ceasefire agreement.”

    Sound familiar?

  • Jackie

    I never said it didn’t have consequences. Everything you do or DON’T do has consequences. Every country that had ever been involved with Viet Nam left without accomplishing anything, from the French to the Chinese to us. Even Ike warned JFK that Viet Nam was a quagmire and best left alone, and there’s evidence he was about to do just that. Korean war was a draw. And how STUPID are WE to fight a war for 53 years! With no end in sight no less! South Korea should have BEEN taking care of itself! Of course with Kim Jung Il, we don’t dare pull out now. Things could have been handled differently, and Kim would have never come to power. South Korea has wanted to normalize relations with the north for YEARS! We were standing in the way with that “as long as you’re red we can’t talk” BS. China tried to talk to Kim Jung Il, telling him that good communists don’t live in luxury while their people starve and he cut them off. They have no more influence with him than WE do.

  • Mike

    “Every country that had ever been involved with Viet Nam left without accomplishing anything, from the French to the Chinese to us.”

    You take that to mean that we shouldn’t have been involved in the first place. I take that to mean that we should’ve dispensed with the BS and achieved our objectives. Difference of opinion.

    And you’re sorely mistaken if you think that North Korea wouldn’t have hesitated to to come across the border if we had left in the ’60s or ’70s. As for now, we ARE withdrawing troops from South Korea in general and from frontline duty on the DMZ in particular, because South Korea is finally capable of defending itself.

  • Jackie

    The most dangerous maniac since Caligula ruld Rome is running North Korea, and he has nukes, so NOW we leave?

  • Bret


    First, our goal in the Korean War was to restore the 38th parallel. We did that. Victory was declared.

    Second, there’s this one thing about nuclear weapons: they are the great equalizer. With nukes the north koreans have removed most of our military options in the region. Want to know why the current administration thinks Iraq, Iran, Syria, et all are so important? Because they don’t have nukes yet. No one wants them to be another North Korea.

    “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late.” – George W Bush, State of the Union 2003.

    I know there is a rift in the Classical Liberal/Libertarian community concerning the initiation of aggression. To me, however, in an age of assymetrical warfare we cannot permit imminent threats to emerge. It is the duty of the federal government to ensure to safety of it’s people from outside threats.

    As for Israel, I think they’ve reached the last straw. All the pullouts, all the meeting of terrorist and international demands has bought them nothing. They continue to be assaulted. I don’t support every move that the Zionists have made (my problems begin with the Balfour agreement) I can do nothing but support their right to self defense.

  • Mike

    “The most dangerous maniac since Caligula ruld Rome is running North Korea, and he has nukes, so NOW we leave? ”

    In short, yes. South Korea’s military (with some U.S. assistance) can handle a North Korean invasion with biological and chemical weapons. We aren’t withdrawing completely, just withdrawing 1/3rd of our troops and pulling them into a more defensible position further south of the 38th. With the troops and airpower we have left in Korea the South Koreans can defend their territory quite adequately unless things go nuclear, in which case all bets are off.

  • Eric


    First you’re critical that the US has been in Korea since the Korean War and then you’re critical that the US is pulling out of Korea. Is it too much to ask for some consistency?

  • Jackie

    There’s nothing inconsistant about my position. When it was SAFER to leave we didn’t. Had things been handeled differently we may not have to deal with that nutcase today, and now that he has a million soldiers waiting to cross the border, we pull back.

  • Eric

    It is inconsistent to insist we should have left and then insist we shouldn’t leave. Not to mention that your assessment of the military posture of the two Koreas is about reversed from reality.

  • Mike

    “Had things been handeled differently we may not have to deal with that nutcase today”

    Tell me how. Really, I want to know how exactly we could’ve dealt with Kim Jong-Il in a way that would now have him out of power.

    “now that he has a million soldiers waiting to cross the border, we pull back.”

    …to a more defensible position. Like I said above.

  • Eric

    Let’s not forget that those million soldiers are slowly starving, like everyone else in N. Korea. The only reason that N. Korea is any sort of threat is that they have nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. In some cases, especially the chemical weapons, they also have delivery systems. None of which does them any good when their soldiers are not physically capable due to malnutrition.

    The best solution here is to prevent Kim and co from doing any damage, having any propaganda tools and letting them collapse from their internal dysfunctionality. In other words, the Cold War strategy on a regional scale. If we let N. Korea fester in their own disaster, they will collapse, sooner or later.

  • Jackie

    Had things been handled differently he would have never COME to power. We could have left when North Korea was less of a threat but we didn’t and now we can’t. His soldiers are the only ones besides Kim Jung Il himself who ARE eatting. I was in South Korea last year visiting a cousin stationed in Seoul. His soldiers are well fed, well trained and completely brainwashed

  • Eric

    First, I\’d be very interested in just how, short of a war, you think that Kim the younger could have been kept from coming to power.

    Second, regardless of the past, we have today to deal with.

    Third, your comments about North Korea\’s Army don\’t jive at all well with more professional opinions, many of which have been reported in the press. And they also remind me of the mythic Soviet Army of the 1970\’s that we all decided to fear. Or the mythic Iraqi Army of 1990 that we all decided to fear.

  • Mike

    “Had things been handled differently he would have never COME to power. We could have left when North Korea was less of a threat but we didn’t and now we can’t.”

    There’s your answer, Eric. We would’ve left, the South Koreans would’ve made nice with their northern bretheren (who wants to go poplar tree chopping?) and everybody gets a puppy. /sarcasm

    The North Koreans were, if anything, crazier in the ’60s and ’70s than they are today.

  • Jackie

    The South Koreans would LOVE to make nice with their northern brethern, just like the West Germans would have LOVED to make nice with their eastern brethern. South Koreans still have family in the north, just like the West Germans had family in the east. Just as Germany rejoined, so must the Koreas eventually. They are, after all one people.

  • Eric

    I’m not saying that won’t happen, although I think you underestimate the difficulties. I happen to have good friends and family who are German and know a bit about the pain that bringing the two Germanies back together has had. It’s not all sweetness and light, not all Germans LOVE the idea. The Koreans will find the same problems, probably even more.

    Aside from all of that, how about you tell us how all of these wonderful things could have been accomplished? How could the younger Kim have been kept from coming to power? How could the US have withdrawn when South Korea was not capable of defending itself? You tell us they could have been done, but provide absolutely no reason why or how. Every time any sort of specific reality is pointed out, you just tell us that it’s wrong, again without details or evidence.

    At this point the conversation is probably pointless. It’s like arguing with someone that believes the world is only 6000 years old because their pastor told them so. You have a belief and no amount of logic, reason or evidence is going to change your belief. Nor are you willing, or able, it seems, to provide logic, reason or evidence of your own.

    Shall we call it done?

  • Jackie

    You have family who are German! So do I! Sister-in-law from Stuttgart. She had family on the wrong side of the wall through no fault of their own. There were growing pains and some resentment, mainly from the east being kept in the dark ages for 30 years but they were glad to be one Germany again. Families could see one another with out going through an inquision. Nothing worth having is ever easy, but they have to work it out themselves.