I am very cautiously optimistic that Nasrallah’s contrite interview concerning the Israel-Hizbullah war is good news. Nasrallah essentially admitted that the war was a mistake; there is no way that Hizbullah would have kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, he said, had it known that Israel would have struck back so forcefully.
I doubt that he actually means it. Instead, I agree with a reader over at Talking Points Memo, who suggests that it was a cynical PR maneuver: “I never, ever would have dreamt that the kidnapping might have brought that kind of harm to [my] poor, beloved Lebanon.”
It seems to me that this is the whole point. After the first few days of celebration for a “defeat” of the IDF, lots of Lebanese are waking up to the fact that Hizbullah brought this on them, and they aren’t happy. Maybe the Shiites are, but while they are Lebanon’s largest group, they are still a minority, and Sunnis, Christians and Druze should be livid at how their lives have been severely injured because Nasrallah sees himself as Saladin, or wants to do Iran’s bidding, or both. Lots of chatter on the Arab street–and in a few months, when people in Lebanon are still digging out, the chatter will be just that.
Lots of people made confident predictions about how the war would strengthen Hizbullah. We just don’t know that yet. I’m inclined to agree with Michael Totten, subbing for Sullivan, who asks rhetorically, “if the latest round against Israel were such a great epic victory, why say he wouldn’t have started it if he would have known how it would turn out?”. Totten says that Nasrallah’s statement is an admission of defeat. I’m not prepared to go that far, but Nasrallah’s feeling that he had to give this kind of interview is a good sign. Lee Smith at the Weekly Standard sees it as an admission of defeat as well: I don’t know anything about Smith, but anything that the Weekly Standard says about the Middle East is inherently suspect. (And by the way, none of this excuses what appears to be a totally inadequate inquiry commission set up by Ehud Olmert.).
Matthew Yglesias, who strongly opposed Israel’s actions, is less sure, arguing that the mere fact that Hizbullah suffered damage doesn’t mean that Israel somehow won:
Lee Smith . . . takes Hassan Nasrallah’s statement of regret that the recent Israel-Lebanon war as evidence that the CW is wrong and Israel did just fine. Noam Scheiber leans a bit in the direction of embracing that interpretation as well. I suspect the truth is more depressing. War is typically a negative sum endeavor that leaves both sides worse off than they would have been had the war not begun. Think of Iraq — the US seriously damaged our interests by invading, but Saddam Hussein didn’t benefit at all from the war.
It sounds sufficiently dippy that I hesitate to express the view, but the simple fact of the matter is that going to war is rarely a good idea.
Yglesias isn’t being dippy, but I think he overstates his case. It is certainly true that war can do enormous damage to both sides, but that hardly implies that both sides necessarily lose. The key notion in international relations is that of a relative gain: if your side ends up relatively stronger than your adversary, then that strengthens your country. Power is an inherently relative concept. Britain was surely worse off in absolute terms in 1945 than it was in 1939, but there is little doubt that it won the war. One could make the same argument with the United States after the Civil War: It had lost millions of men to death and injury, but it was clearly better off than before: more unified, more coherent, more poised to become a global leader.
Yglesias is careful to say “rarely”: he isn’t being pollyannish. But it’s important to keep relative and absolute gains straight. If–and it is a very big if–Lebanese forces occupy the border together with a robust UN force, and Hizbullah has to tread more carefully in rhetoric and military posture, then this war is a net gain for Israel. We just do not know.
And by the way: of course there were winners in the Iraq War. They just all happen to live in Tehran.