Shock and Awe

July 31, 2006

 

By: Paul Krugman

 

For Americans who care deeply about Israel, one of the truly nightmarish things about the war in Lebanon has been watching Israel repeat the same mistakes the United States made in Iraq. It’s as if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been possessed by the deranged spirit of Donald Rumsfeld.

Yes, I know that there are big differences in the origins of the two wars. There’s no question of this war having been sold on false pretenses; unlike America in Iraq, Israel is clearly acting in self-defense.

But both Clausewitz and Sherman were right: war is both a continuation of policy by other means, and all hell. It’s a terrible mistake to start a major military operation, regardless of the moral justification, unless you have very good reason to believe that the action will improve matters.

The most compelling argument against an invasion of Iraq wasn’t the suspicion many of us had, which turned out to be correct, that the administration’s case for war was fraudulent. It was the fact that the real reason government officials and many pundits wanted a war — their belief that if the United States used its military might to “hit someone” in the Arab world, never mind exactly who, it would shock and awe Islamic radicals into giving up terrorism — was, all too obviously, a childish fantasy.

And the results of going to war on the basis of that fantasy were predictably disastrous: the fiasco in Iraq has ended up demonstrating the limits of U.S. power, strengthening radical Islam — especially radical Shiites allied with Iran, a group that includes Hezbollah — and losing America the moral high ground.

What I never expected was that Israel — a nation that has unfortunately had plenty of experience with both war and insurgency — would be susceptible to similar fantasies. Yet that’s what seems to have happened.

There is a case for a full-scale Israeli ground offensive against Hezbollah. It may yet come to that, if Israel can’t find any other way to protect itself. There is also a case for restraint — limited counterstrikes combined with diplomacy, an effort to get other players to rein Hezbollah in, with the option of that full-scale offensive always in the background.

But the actual course Israel has chosen — a bombing campaign that clearly isn’t crippling Hezbollah, but is destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure and killing lots of civilians — achieves the worst of both worlds. Presumably there were people in the Israeli government who assured the political leadership that a rain of smart bombs would smash and/or intimidate Hezbollah into submission. Those people should be fired.

Israel’s decision to rely on shock and awe rather than either diplomacy or boots on the ground, like the U.S. decision to order the U.N. inspectors out and invade Iraq without sufficient troops or a plan to stabilize the country, is having the opposite of its intended effect. Hezbollah has acquired heroic status, while Israel has both damaged its reputation as a regional superpower and made itself a villain in the eyes of the world.

Complaining that this is unfair does no good, just as repeating “but Saddam was evil” does nothing to improve the situation in Iraq. What Israel needs now is a way out of the quagmire. And since Israel doesn’t appear ready to reoccupy southern Lebanon, that means doing what it should have done from the beginning: try restraint and diplomacy. And Israel will negotiate from a far weaker position than seemed possible just three weeks ago.

And what about the role of the United States, which should be trying to contain the crisis? Our response has been both hapless and malign.

For the moment, U.S. policy seems to be to stall and divert efforts to negotiate a cease-fire as long as possible, so as to give Israel a chance to dig its hole even deeper. Also, we aren’t talking to Syria, which might hold the key to resolving the crisis, because President Bush doesn’t believe in talking to bad people, and anyway that’s the kind of thing Bill Clinton did. Did I mention that these people are childish?

Again, Israel has the right to protect itself. If all-out war with Hezbollah becomes impossible to avoid, so be it. But bombing Lebanon isn’t making Israel more secure.

As this column was going to press, Israel — responding to the horror at Qana, where missiles killed dozens of civilians, many of them children — announced a 48-hour suspension of aerial bombardment. But why resume that bombardment when the 48 hours are up? The hard truth is that Israel needs, for its own sake, to stop a bombing campaign that is making its enemies stronger, not weaker.

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