La paix des braves?

Did Hezbollah also lose the war?

Sometimes the best chances for peace come when both sides lose. It’s a commonplace that lasting peace only came in Western Europe after a war that both France and Germany knew they’d lost in 1940 and 1945 respectively. De Gaulle’s aim, for which Jean Moulin and many other heroes died, was not to undo the verdict of 1940 but to restore the honour of France, through at least participating seriously in its own liberation. The long-lived peace of Westphalia was one of mutual exhaustion. Egypt could make peace with Israel only after the drawn Yom Kippur war.

It’s plain that Israel didn’t win the 2006 Lebanon war. Did Hezbollah? Long-distance speculation below the fold.

Hezbollah spun a propaganda victory from its unexpected survival as a fighting force. But I don’t see any wider success. What has the war brought Hezbollah strategically? It did take heavy casualties, and for what?

Hezbollah is an odd fish, a throwback to the mediaeval ghazi fraternities – a bit like their imitators the long-lived Crusading military orders. They have two clearly stated objectives: dominating and Islamizing Lebanon, and destroying Israel. An instrumental objective seems to be to keep control of Lebanon’s large Shiite population.

The second objective is impossible, except by sparking a general conflagration, and even then is extraordinarily unlikely. Even with its best shot, Hezbollah only inflicted trivial casualties on Israel. (I don’t mean trivial in human terms, or in their political effect, only as steps towards Israel’s destruction.) This wasn’t a Tet offensive, shaking the will to resist of the adversary. Katyushas are a poor weapon against anything smaller than a concentrated military force. If there is a next time, Hezbollah may have better rockets but Israel will have invested in better counter-battery artillery. (Hat tip to Howard Berkowitz (link added) commenting at TPMcafé). The killing and disruption can go on, but to no real effect.

The first objective is within the realms of possibility but difficult; Syria may back Hezbollah for nuisance value but surely wouldn’t want it in real power in Beirut. Did the war bring this goal any closer? Hezbollah may have made itself popular in the wider Muslim street and with its patrons in Iran, but scarcely in Lebanon itself. (Update: Juliette Kayyem finds evidence to the contrary; I reckon it’s probably a temporary spike, on the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” theory, but there it is.) The Lebanese army, feeble as it is, has shown up in Hezbollah’s fief; and a beefed-up UN force. French soldiers, unlike Norwegians, are likely to shoot back regardless of UN rules of engagement (Hezbollah will remember the Vrbanja bridge in Sarajevo ). These aren’t disasters, but setbacks all the same. It looks to me as if the war has been on balance negative for the objective of dominating Lebanon.

One popular view of Hezbollah – apparently that of George Bush – is that they are nuts, like Osama. Diplomacy is impossible, rational analyses of their behaviour have no place, you just have to fight and kill them like the evil and helpfully incompetent aliens in Independence Day. Or as Hulagu Khan treated the evil and alarmingly competent Assassins in Alamut – massacred along with all the peasants in the valley below who’d kept them supplied.

I don’t get the impression that Hezbollah is crazy or even subscribes to the Bush/Blair/Osama/François Ier view of politics as essentially show and spectacle, rather than the Augustus/Assassin/Richelieu/Lenin concentration on the reality of power. On the Leninist view, a different picture emerges. Like the Knights Templars or the arms industry in different contexts, Hezbollah needs its conflict with Israel to continue as a stalemate. This way it can ensure its own survival, a flow of funding and weapons from Iran, continued control over the Lebanese Shia and a shot at power in Beirut.

On this reading, sadly Hezbollah won’t be in the market for une paix des braves. (The phrase is de Gaulle’s, marketing a failed initiative in the Algerian war of independence). But it might be for the status quo ante.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

3 thoughts on “La paix des braves?”

  1. Totally agree with one qualification – Hezbollah may serve as an Iranian proxy. This makes the analysis more complex and status quo less appealing. It is also not clear whether status quo ante is available to Hezbollah; a variant may be.

  2. It seems to me to be worthwhile to distinguish between the goals of the organization generally, and the goals of the campaign. Hezbollah wasn't trying to obliterate Israel, or dominate Lebanon, but shooting a few missiles and kidnapping a couple of soldiers. It was, at most, engaging in petty harassment, trying to get a prisoner exchange, and maybe trying (a) to relieve pressure on hamas and/or (b) take advantage of whatever deal Egypt et al. might have brokered to end Israel's Gaza campaign. It's easy to argue that Hezbollah didn't really get any of these things, but what it got is much better. Once Israel made such a strong response, Hezbollah's goal for the campaign shifted to survival. It did so, and successfully posed to everyone in Lebanon, and beyond, as willing to stand up to the invader. Top this with the (a) more likely than not fall of the Israeli coalition and (b) influence that will flow from financing the reconstruction of Lebanon (even outside Shi'a areas), and it's hard to see why Hezbollah's attempt at a bunt, which because of Israeli errors has resulted in the runner standing on second base, isn't a strong victory for Hezbollah.
    Israel is now reduced to looking like the post-ceasefire aggressor, and seems to be announcing an intent to engage in terrorism (targetted assassination) itself.

  3. It looks to me like Hezbollah made some progress towards "dominating and Islamizing Lebanon." One of the functions of a national government is to provide for the national defense. Hezbollah wins here: after the recent fighting nobody thinks that the Lebanese army is a match for Hezbollah in terms of being able to resist an Israeli attack.
    Another task is to provide for domestic welfare. Hezbollah appears to be winning here as well. According to today's New York Times, "While the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has just begun organizing committees to study the reconstruction of the country, Construction Jihad [a Hezbollah company] has all but completed surveys of southern Lebanese towns."
    A third task of the government is to manage international relations. Here Hezbollah struck out, provoking a war with Israel. What's not clear is whether this will end up damaging Hezbollah's reputation in Lebanon. Granted, Bush is finally paying a price for invading Iraq, but that took a while, and is largely the result of his incompetence in executing the war and his failure to devise a way to end the fighting. Hezbollah fought well, and now has a ceasefire. If you are Lebanese, it is probably more comforting to remember the war as a Lebanese victory than to remember it as a mistake.

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