Getting It

David Ignatius is not my favorite Washington Post columnist. (For the record, George F. Will is.) But today, he writes about the pointlessness of the continued use of force by the US and Israel against Hamas and Hizbullah, noting that the groups — like Al-Qaeda — want that escallation.

Ignatius writes:

Israeli and American doctrine is premised on the idea that military force will deter adversaries. But as more force has been used in recent years, the deterrent value has inevitably gone down. That’s the inner spring of this crisis: The Iranians (and their clients in Hezbollah and Hamas) watch the American military mired in Iraq and see weakness. They are emboldened rather than intimidated. The same is true for the Israelis in Gaza. Rather than reinforcing the image of strength, the use of force (short of outright, pulverizing invasion and occupation) has encouraged contempt.

He is correct, though I would further add that by using force so often and the way they have, Washington and Tel Aviv have shown the parties how they can be beaten. Deterrence works best if the forces involved aren’t used, or are only used in instances in which they can achieve a quick, clear-cut victory. Glowering is much, much better than actual bombing. Once you are bogged down at war against a non-state enemy who can fight you to a draw (which is a victory), you’ve made your deterrence worthless. In Iraq, the US has blown its wad and cannot effectively defeat 30,000 or so Iraqi guerrilas. Israel has run rough-shod over the West Bank and Gaza for night on 40 years now, and has not been able to achieve any meaningful security. Hamas and Islamic Jihad still do their thing regardless of what the IDF does. Hizbullah, which didn’t exist until the Israeli occupation of Lebanon following the 1982 invasion, effectively tossed Israel out of Lebanon by inflicting very heavy casualties. Note how both Hamas and Hizbullah were able to yank the chains of the Israeli government after merely capturing three sojers?

A second point — obvious from Gaza to Beirut to Baghdad — is that the power of non-state actors is magnified when there is no strong central government. That may sound like a truism, but responding wisely can require some creative diplomacy. The way to blunt Hamas is to build a strong Palestinian Authority that delivers benefits for the Palestinian people. The way to curb Hezbollah is to build up the Lebanese government and army. One way to boost the Lebanese government (and deflate Hezbollah) would be to negotiate the return of the Israeli-occupied territory known as Shebaa Farms. That chance is lost for now, but the Bush administration should find other ways to enhance Siniora’s authority.

Except that strong statehood is impossible in all three instances here because outsiders — Israel and the United States — cannot convey what is needed most in state-building, which is legitimacy. In fact, any taint of outside involvement ruins legitimacy (and this explains the split over Hizbullah in Lebanon, since it isn’t legitimate in the eyes of many Lebanese). Only the Palestinians can make a strong Palestinian state, but attempts by Washington and Tel Aviv to boost the power of a friendly Palestinian Authority will automatically taint that authority. Same in Iraq. As for Lebanon, Hizbullah more or less repesents the country’s Shia, and many of those Lebanese who want to eradicate Hizbullah also want to do away with Shia communal power. So, the non-state actors will continue to have more legitimacy than the states.

In the Lebanon crisis we have a terrifying glimpse of the future: Iran and its radical allies are pushing toward war. That’s the chilling reality behind this week’s events. On Tuesday the Iranians spurned an American offer of talks on their nuclear program; on Wednesday their Hezbollah proxy committed what Israel rightly called “an act of war.” The radicals want to lure America and Israel deeper into the killing ground, confident that they have the staying power to prevail. We should not play their game.

Yeah, David, but the Bush Administration and the Olmert government are not smart enough and not confident enough not to play their game.