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Exum, Center for a New American Security
Remarks to the Washington Institute in response to Jeff White's "If War Comes:
Israel vs. Hizballah and Its Allies"
First off, please allow me to say what a tremendous honor it is to be back here at the Washington Institute. Between earning my master's degree at the American University of Beirut and beginning my doctoral degree at the University of London, I spent 12 wonderful months here in Washington, DC as a visiting fellow.
I learned much from my time spent researching here, took several highly rewarding research trips to Israel and Lebanon, and was even granted leave for six weeks to spend part of my summer in Morocco working on my Arabic. So allow me to thank Rob and the trustees of the institute for allowing me to return to see so many old friends.
Second, it is likewise an honor to be invited here by Jeff to respond to his essential and excellent new report on the next war - if there is a next war, that is - between Israel and Hizballah. The last time I sat on a panel with Jeff was in the spring of 2007, and J remember the two of us disagreeing at the time about U.S. strategy in Iraq. As I now recall, Jeff was right, and I was wrong. I should have learned my lesson from that experience: it is never a good idea to publically disagree with someone who has spent more years in the intelligence community than you have spent living. That having been said, I will hopefully offer up enough critical comments in my remarks to keep the conversation that follows interesting.
By way of introducing his new report, Jeff alludes to what might happen if war, in his words, "does in fact come to Israel's northern border." It is important to remember, of course, that there are two sides to a border, and if war does indeed return to the region, it will similarly return to the haunt to the peoples of southern and greater Lebanon as much as it does our friends in Israel. In 2006, you will remember, 44 Israeli civilians were killed in the fighting compared with nearly 1,200 in Lebanon. And the damage sustained by Israeli infrastructure during the conflict in 2006 pales in comparison to the damage suffered by the Lebanese. As many of you know, I have spent several years of my life on the northern side of the Blue Line, most recently as part of my doctoral research on Hizballah, so one of the things I hope to do today is provide a little nuance - and
what I believe to be an important correction - to the way we think about Hizballah's behavior on the battlefield.
I also wish to think a little more about the larger strategic issues that might be in play in the event of another war between Israel and Hizballah. I think Jeff did a marvelous job in this report outlining what an order of battle might look like in another war and also providing much-needed insight into some of the very real tactical and operational lessons Israel has learned since the disastrous 2006 campaign and has demonstrated since in the Cast Lead campaign of 2008 and 2009. I also think Jeff has crafted what I believe to be a disturbing and perhaps all too accurate assessment of a future conflict.
Colin Gray recently wrote, though, that "Strategy is very difficult for many reasons, one of which is that it is neither a question of politics nor fighting power, but rather the conversion of military effort into political reward .... The purpose of fighting is not to win a military victory, necessary though that usually is. Rather the purpose of fighting is to secure a better peace than one enjoyed before."
I, for one, am left unsure of how another conflict will secure for Israel a better peace than the one it currently enjoys along a tense but largely pacific northern border. Briefly, my uncertainty is based on some of the very assumptions that Jeff acknowledges but largely leaves unexplored at the end of his paper. That is, namely, that at the end of the war "the IOF would be occupying some, perhaps substantial, parts of Lebanon and potentially all of Gaza."
That does not, to me at least, look like a favorable policy outcome for Israel- no matter how bloodied Hizballah might be at the end of a protracted campaign. In fact, that - a future in which Israel once again occupies a large portion of Lebanon - rather looks like a strategic nightmare.
Before returning to larger strategic questions, though, let me turn to Hizballah. A few years ago, I wrote a short paper for this institute on Hizballah military tactics and operations during the 2006 war. Upon further study, though, I determined that Hizballah's tactical performance alone (nor Israel's tactical performance alone, for that matter) was not enough to explain why the war in 2006 ended on terms so unfavorable to Israel. In fact, none of the ways in which social scientists traditionally predict success in war - and variables examined most often center
around numerical preponderance, technological advantages and force employment - explain how Hizballah managed to not only secure political gains in the 2006 conflict but also in earlier conflicts with the Israelis during the occupation.
The conflict in 2006, I would argue, is best seen in light of Operation Accountability (1993) and Operation Grapes of Wrath (1996). In both of those earlier conflicts, Israel attempted to realize strategic objectives quite similar to those they attempted to achieve in 2006 and what Jeff believes they would attempt to achieve in a future conflict. In 1993, 1996 and 2006, Israel pursued strategies reliant on brute force to degrade Hizballah's combat power through air, artillery, and - in 2006, at least - ground combat operations. They also relied on coercive force in an attempt to weaken Hizballah politically. In each case, they failed despite increasingly violent efforts.
One of the reasons Israel failed in each case was due to a misunderstanding of the nature of Hizballah's combat power. And Jeff, like Israel, focuses almost entirely on Hizballah's kinetic capabilities and lines of operations. Hizballah, by contrast, has succeeded in combat with Israel thus far by employing what the U.S. military would call a "comprehensive" approach to warfare utilizing both kinetic and nonkinetic lines of operation. By non-kinetic lines of operation, I mean things like propaganda and social services - things that don't go "boom". Hizballah information operations - before, during, and after the fighting - shape the narrative. The provision of social services within and outside its constituency in 1993, 1996 and 2006, meanwhile, ensured that Hizballah's political position following the conflicts was strengthened, not weakened, despite the massive punishment absorbed by Hizballah's constituents during the fighting. I'm not sure this paper, or the Israel Defense Forces, really comprehends the way Hizballah has managed to consistently thwart Israeli strategic aims in conflicts over the past two decades. Thus I think that Jeff's assumption that, were Israel to act decisively enough, Hizballah would "be broken as a military factor in Lebanon and
weakened politicallv' is dangerous.
I, for one, have difficulty envisioning a political outcometo this war in which Hizballah's standing among its core constituency - the Shia of southern Lebanon, the Biqa'a Valley, and the southern suburbs of Beirut - is in any way threatened. I also have trouble envisioning an outcome in Lebanon whereby Hizballah ceases to
be the preeminent military actor. And it is again worth noting that previous Israeli punishment campaigns had the effect of actually galvanizing popular support for Hizballah's arms.
Moving back to the casus belli, Jeff writes that certain changes "must occur" in the balance of power in the region. Jeff writes:
Hizballah's military capabilities need to be broken and its political power reduced; Syria needs to be disabused of the notion that it can play violent games in Lebanon as a means of furthering its own cynical interests without incurring any significant cost; and Iran needs to see its Hizballah proxy militarily defeated and politically humbled.
Quite frankly, I fail to see how any of those undeniably desirable outcomes amount to vital U.S. or Israeli interests. And I fail to see where, exactly, the existential threat to the Israeli state might be found in the above goals. Jeff further writes that "If war comes, Washington should not necessarily take immediate steps toward ending it quickly, That is the natural reaction to conflict, based on the belief that war is so terrible that it needs to be stopped above all."
It is true that some oppose war for such reasons, but other Americans might oppose such a war based on the doubt - that I, for one, share - that this conflict will end with Israel having secured a better peace than the one with which it began the conflict. You can make a very good argument that Israel is under more international pressure than at any time since its founding. There is a concerted campaign to delegitimize the state of Israel, and speaking frankly, some Israeli behavior, to include the expansion of settlements beyond the separation barrier as well as belligerence within its foreign ministry, has not helped the Israeli cause of late.
Think, then, how a massive ground war waged in Lebanon might further exacerbate Israeli isolation on the international stage. Lebanon is not Gaza. You cannot seal it off from western and Arabic-language media. The Lebanese themselves are some of the most sophisticated producers and consumers of news media in the world, and Beirut is the home of much of the western world's Middle East journalist corps. Let me return to the assumption - very much grounded in recent historical experience - that the people of Lebanon are likely to face orders
of magnitude more suffering in another conflict than the people of northern Israel. Now ask yourself what that will look like on the BBC and in the pages of the New York Times?
And have I mentioned, by the way, that there are now six times as many U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon today as there were before 2006, with many of them hailing from NATO member states that enjoy strong diplomatic relations with Israel? How many of those peacekeepers do you think would die as collateral damage from Israeli military operations? Five were killed in 2006, and Jeff envisions a much more robust Israeli military campaign in the next war. So ... 3D? 50? What effect might those deaths have on Israeli bilateral relations with the governments in France, Berlin and Rome? How might the public of Western Europe react?
What, then, are the alternatives?
I would argue that Israel has two. The first is the status quo. Jeff quoted Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah at the beginning of his paper:
I'd like to say to the Israelis today: Not only if you attack al-Dahiva, we will attack Tel Aviv, but if you attack Beirut's Rafiq al-Harirl Airport, we will attack Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. If you attack our ports, we will shell your ports. If you attack our oil refineries, we will shell your oil refineries. If you attack our factories, we will shell your factories. If you shell our electricity plants, we will shell your electricity plants.
You may find that scary; it is. But it's also an example of deterrence. Deterrence is a strategy for peace, and I'm not arguing that's what Hizballah wants over the long term. But it's clearly trying to dissuade Israel from attacking Lebanon through the credible threat of force.
Israel is doing much of the same. In the fall of 2008, while I was back living in Beirut, Israeli officials began to threaten Hizballah with what might happen in the event of another war:
"In the last war, we made a distinction between Hizballah targets and Lebanese national targets," a senior IOF general told The Jerusalem Post in November of 2008, adding that "there is no longer a reason to make this distinction."
The head of the IDF's Northern Command, Gadi Eisenkot, left no doubt about Israel's aims when he told an Israeli paper that the army had devised a "Dahiyeh Doctrine" - in which Israel would level large swathes of the mostly-Shia southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hizballah maintains many of their offices and enjoys overwhelming support from the local population.
"We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases," he said. "This isn't a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized."
People in Beirut were outraged when they heard this. How could the Israelis threaten such things? I, meanwhile, thought it really smart. Actually carrying out another punishment campaign against Hizballah and the rest of the Lebanese people, as I have just argued, would be really foolish. I do not think it would result in a better peace for Israel than the one they enjoy now and would in fact contribute to the Jewish state's further isolation within the international community. But communicating in advance what might happen if another conflict were to break out, I felt, was really smart deterrence. Thomas Schelling would be proud of Gadi Eisenkot and Hassan Nasrallah both.
What, if, though, conflict does break out? What if Hizballah, perhaps in an attempt to further bolster its deterrent capability, tries to sneak across equilibrium-breaking weaponry such as sophisticated long-range rocketry or antiaircraft weaponry and ends up tripping the wire that leads to another conflict? What if Hizballah attempts to avenge the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh by killing an Israeli diplomat? What if Hizballah kidnaps another soldier?
Here I would counsel restraint. One of the things I heard from many Lebanese after the 2006 conflict was that if Israel had ended its campaign after three or four days, the result for Hizballah would have been completely different. Remember how the leaders of the Arabic-speaking world initially greeted, for example, Hizballah's 12 July kidnapping operation? A more limited series of strikes to degrade Hizballah's combat power - communicated beforehand through the IDF's own rapidly improving information operations - is much more likely to feed Lebanese frustration with Hizballah than another punishment campaign like those of 1993, 1996 and 2006 that only confirmed for many Lebanese Hizballah's right to retain its arms.
Jeff ends this paper by saying that "In some ways, the current situation in the Israel-Lebanon arena echoes the pre-World War I period."
I agree, and Israel is Germany. Before the First World War, Germany devised an aggressive military plan to rapidly defeat its enemies on two fronts. Unfortunately, this plan called for the invasion of Belgium, which brought Great Britain into the war. Bringing Great Britain into the war meant a naval blockade. A naval blockade meant submarine warfare. Submarine warfare brought the United States into the war. Germany, to say the least, did not enjoy a better peace at the end of the conflict than the one it enjoyed at the beginning of the conflict.
This is what happens when operations drive strategy and strategy in turn drives policy instead of visa versa as God and Carl von Clausewitz intended. I fear the scenario that Jeff sketches out, which, again, I fear might end up being scarily accurate, does just that, and I fear that if the scenario he envisions does in fact occur, it will have profound and mostly negative political effects for the state of Israel.
Another war, then - especially a war that looks like this one - will not be good for the Israelis. It will not be good for the Lebanese either. And it will not be good for U.S. interests in the region.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?