Battle of the Speeches Breaks out in Wake of Lebanon War
Israel shot 5 Hizbullah fighters on Tuesday and Hizbullah fired ten rockets inside Lebanon at Israel troops. Emergency workers dug 38 bodies of civilians out of the rubble in Lebanon. But despite these provocations, the ceasefire more or less held. The Israelis were towing damaged armored vehicles out of Lebanon.
I suppose it is better for them to wage a war of words than one of bombs, though one tends to lead to the other. Since the United Nations resolution calling for a halt to hostilities, Prime Minister Olmert, President Bush, Secretary-General Nasrallah, President al-Asad and President Ahmadinejad have all been procliaming the war a personal victory.
I don’t know why they would want to claim it.
It was such a stupid war. It was thick-as-two-blocks-of-wood strategy on all sides. It was moronic for the Israelis to plan it out last year. It was idiotic for Hizbullah to cross over into Israel, kill soldiers, and take two captive. It was brain dead for the Israeli officer corps and politicians to think they could get anything positive out of bombing Lebanon back to the stone age and making a million people homeless. It was dim-witted for Hasan Nasrallah to threaten Israelis with releasing poison gases from Haifa chemical plants on them. It was obtuse for the Israelis to confront a dug-in guerrilla movement with green conventional troops marching in straight lines. It was dull of Hizbullah to fire thousands of katyushas into open fields where they mainly damaged wild grass. The few times when the rockets managed to kill someone, it was often an Arab Israeli civilian. Stupid.
Israeli’s armed forces chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, unwisely sold off $27,000 in stock when he heard that Hizbullah had captured 2 Israeli soldiers. That wasn’t unwise economically, since when Israel went to war, its stock market fell 12% It is further proof that the war was planned well in advance, and that Halutz knew that the capture would trigger it. But what could he have saved or made from this transaction? A few thousand dollars? It was stupid for him to risk the public perception of impropriety for such a small sum. Unprofessional.
There have been professionally-fought wars in the Middle East. I mean, in 1973 both sides at least seemed to know what they were doing. The Egyptians used sophisticated technology to cross over to Sinai. They had the sense to stop and not actually invade Israel, so as to stay within the umbrella of their anti-aircraft batteries. The Israelis got caught flat-footed when the Egyptians crossed the canal, but they soon were able to riposte. The big powers came in and settled it. The Soviet Union insisted on a cease fire and the US decided it didn’t want a confrontation over it. So Ariel Sharon did not get to take Cairo. In turn, that the Egyptians acquitted themselves decently allowed them to make peace with heads held high. War is horrible, but you came away feeling that everyone involved at a high level in that one was competent and rational (except for that moment of early panic when Golda Meir thought that it was the fall of the Third Kingdom and Wild and Crazy Guy Moshe Dayan wanted to nuke Cairo).
But this war was a keystone cops war. It was horribly destructive for Lebanon, but not to any purpose for anyone, including the Israelis. The Americans and Israelis seem to have thought that the small farmers and small shopkeepers of south Lebanon were a sinister wraith army of the ghost of Ayatollah Khomeini. In fact, they were . . . small farmers and shopkeepers. One of the reasons they are rushing back down south is to see to their small farms, even if the small farmhouse isn’t there any more.
But there you have it. Everyone wants credit for this cornucopia of foolishness.
Bush came out and said that Hizbullah had been defeated, and tried to link Hizbullah to the Sunni Arab guerrillas who make his life hell in Iraq. But, George, Hizbullah is Shiite. It was your Shiite allies in Iraq who supported it. Bush underscored his permanent deer-in-the-headlights cluelessness when at a press conference he said this:
‘ QUESTION: How can the international force, or the United States if necessary, prevent Iran from resupplying Hezbollah?
BUSH: The first step is — and part of the mandate in the U.N. resolution was to secure Syria’s borders. Iran is able to ship weapons to Hezbollah through Syria.
Secondly is to deal — is to help seal off the ports around Lebanon.
BUSH: In other words, part of the mandate and part of the mission of the troops, the UNIFIL troops, will be to seal off the Syrian border. ‘
Note that I can’t even understand what he means by “the ports around Lebanon” being sealed. Does he mean Lebanon’s ports? Note that you wouldn’t want to seal off Lebanon’s ports, since Lebanon will need to import things through them. That you could have such good port security in Lebanon that you could altogether screen out missile shipments is unlikely. Does he mean that Turkish, Syrian, and Israeli ports around Lebanon should be sealed. Just Syrian? Impractical.
Note also that the little blue strip at the bottom of Lebanon is generally where the UN peacekeeping troops will be. They aren’t in a position to “seal off” the Syrian border, which stretches far to their northeast, and can’t be “sealed off” by anyone at all, being rugged and long. The blue helmets of the UN, being a land force, are not in a position to seal off Lebanon’s ports, such as Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Jounieh or Tripoli. Nor could they seal off the Syrian port of Latakiya, if that is what Bush meant.
In other words, Bush doesn’t have the slightest idea what he is talking about and nothing he said on this subject makes any sense at all. Why does the US press always let him get away with this?
Now today Bashar al-Asad came out and made a fool of himself. Josh Landis discusses Bashar’s speech. Robert Fisk is enthusiastic about Bashar’s frank words on Bush as proponent of preemptive war and on Israel’s land-grab in the Golan and the West Bank as key to the outbreak of violence. OK, but his comments on internal Lebanese politics were so unhelpful as to qualify as sinister.
Bashar just more or less openly declared war on the elected Lebanese government. It came to power in last year’s elections in the wake of a popular movement that condemned the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, which a majority of Lebanese blamed on Syria.
The Baath ruling elite in Damascus has been worried that the new Lebanese ruling group, including Saad al-Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, will try to use the UN, the US and Israel to unseat them. A string of assassinations or attempts against outspoken critics of Syria in Lebanon probably reflects that anxiety.
But Hariri and others had consistently denied that they wanted to overthrow al-Asad. And the reformers let Hizbullah into their government, determined to find a framework for a national unity government, despite Hizbullah’s close alliance with Damascus.
The leading Lebanese politicians have in the past year been a class act, demonstrating a good deal of political maturity in how they dealt with the assassinations, with Hizbullah, with Bush, and with Syria. It hasn’t been easy.
First, Olmert went on a rampage, destroying the infrastructure that made their little country run.
Now, al-Asad has decided to try to reinforce Hizbullah’s power in the wake of its success in standing up to the Israelis, and seems to want to pit Hizbullah against the reformers. But that is exactly what the Israeli hardliners were hoping for, as well. Al-Asad is playing into Israel’s hands. Syria can’t regain its commanding position in Lebanon at this point, and trying to do so will just tear Lebanon apart. Syria would have been best served by a reinforcement of the government of national unity, such that Hizbullah could continue to represent a pro-Syrian point of view within the government. Asad recognizes this much. But a national unity government is no good if it is radically divided against itself, a division he seems to be promoting. Now, Asad has made it look as though when Hizbullah supports Syria, it is acting as nothing more than an agent of Damascus. Agent (`amil) is not a nice word in Arabic.
Syria under Asad is acting as though it is a regional power entitled to press its claims on Lebanon as a sphere of influence. In fact, the Lebanese public mobilized in the hundreds of thousands, and you simply cannot have an imperial role in a country if enough people refuse to cooperate. And, all of Asad’s military equipment could be destroyed in about two or three days by Israeli warplanes. Israel could not hope to occupy Syria, but it could leave the country in shambles and defenseless. Syria is not a regional power any more. It is a second-tier power that had best avoid frontal confrontations. Bashar doesn’t seem to appreciate this.
Ahmadinejad, a figure with relatively little power in the Iranian system, also weighed in.
I’m not saying that all these people are stupid, personally. I am saying that the politics of exclusion has made them act stupidly. And no end in sight.