The Nasrallah Interview

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

10 thoughts on “The Nasrallah Interview”

  1. An interesting analysis, but I think we do need to see how this works out in Lebanese public opinion over the next quarter.
    A few comments of my own:
    If the Lebanese are upset at Hezbullah for capturing the two Israelis and setting off this mess, I suspect they are even more upset with the Israelis for a thoroughly over-the-top and indiscriminate response. Many non Shiite Lebanese who regarded Israel in the past with dispassion if not friendship are likely to have a more hostile view in future. We will see how this plays out in the next few months.
    Regarding the Israeli prisoners, the articles I have seen state that Hezbullah took them in order to force a prisoner exchange. What Lebanese prisonsers is Israel holding, if any, and under what color of law? Are these held from before Barak's decision to evacuate or were they captured in subsequent raids against Israel? I have seen very little discussion of this, and it seems a pertinent issue.
    As for who won, most of the accounts I read depicted Hezbullah as skilled in small unit tactics and use of terrain, competent in using some complex munitions, and willing to take casualties and still come back to the fight. They did not fold overnight, and the Israelis did not present a commanding narrative by repeatedly claiming control of towns such as Bint Jbail. Undoubtedly the Israelis could have gone to the Litani River line, but presumably at a price they did not want to pay just now. We will see how this sorts out in future, but I think the current view in the Arab "street" and elsewhere will be of a Hezbullah victory and will stay that way.
    I realize that the artillery rockets got most of the headlines, but it reads like much of the genuine damage to the IDF came from the TOW and laser-guided antitank munitiions. These were evidently a surprise, and constrained the actions of both infantry and armor. If these were really a surprise, someone in the IDF really screwed up.

  2. Yes, Jonathan: an excellent post: but it seems that it is going to take a little more time yet for the Lebanese peoples' attitudes towards Hezbollah, Israel, and the '06 war to work out. The easy CW trope of "well, the Lebanese will eventually blame Hezbollah for the destruction, and turn on them" doesn't seem, yet, to have much traction outside of the usual-suspects in on the starboard edges of the blogosphere. Greg Djeredjian ( has a post on Hezbollah's quick leap into the forefront of reconstruction efforts: whatever their military record, they are still showing a firm grasp of the PR situation.

  3. In this kind of asymetric war, public realtions is the measure of success. While it is no doubt true that there will be some backslide among the Lebonesse people, Hizbullah is the really big winner in this battle in a long term war. Further, Hizbullah seems to stil be on the offense.
    Brute force can prevail in this kind of War but it will take more and over a much longer period of time. Super powers, even regional super powers, seem always to over estimate the whimp in their human adversary. This is particularly surprising in a people that have fought back against the worst that humanity can perpetrate.
    Seems like there may be a fair amount of bigotry involved in this miscalculation.

  4. It's good to try to be optomistic, but let's not lose our minds. I'm sure that there are many people in Lebanon who resent Hizbullah and hold them partly responsible for their suffering. But this is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the tens of thousands of Lebanese who now hate Israel passionately. Not too surprisingly, the people who bombed their homes and killed their husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and children are going to get the lion's share of the blame. The country whose forces fired all those artillary shells into residential areas and dropped those cluster-bombs on concentrations of civilians, and straffed and bombed cars carry refugees away from the worst of the destruction, is the one most people are going to blame. Trying to paint this as a favorable outcome for Israel is like putting lipstick on a pig: it doesn't transform an ugly sitiuation. Olmert & co. seem to have drunk too much of that Richard Perle-Dick Cheney Kool Aid.

  5. It's a nice story, but I think it's just wishful thinking. Human nature being what it is — you blame the people [i]dropping the bombs[/i] for the explosions, not whatever idiots provoked them.
    There MIGHT be an example of where some country blamed their own leaders for getting the crap bombed out of them by another country, but I'm not really coming up with any examples here.

  6. In what sense did Britain win WW II? Churchill's greatness lay largely in the fact that he knew that the war would mean the end of Britain as a Great Power, and that victory would be Pyrrhic, but insisted on fighting anyway. See Lukas' "Seven Days in May". ( = May 1940)
    Wellington, another man who knew war fron the inside:
    "Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won."

  7. Like Wimberley comments (as opposed to his posts about Israel, which I find to be tilted dangerously). Any direct dealing with the current issues is subject to PR fog and personal biases that have nothing to do with facts.
    In the long run I offer several possibilities; they may be wishful thinking or flat wrong.
    1. Hezbollah cannot repeatedly attack Israel anymore due the potential reaction.
    2. Read Yossi Melman in Haaretz, he writes frequently for major American papers. He claims that towards the end of the war Hezbollah fighters were simply running away to avoid confrontation with Israeli soldiers. If this is true, I have no reason to doubt him, Hezbollah is already is bad shape and will avoid exposing it weakness in the future.
    3. Despite Olmert's attempts, he'll end up paying to his failure to run an effective campaign.
    4. Top Israeli generals claim that the war should have stopped after 3 days. That is, the future strategy might be to hit as hard as you can and gain the benefits and avoid the pitfalls.

  8. Read Yossi Melman in Haaretz, he writes frequently for major American papers. He claims that towards the end of the war Hezbollah fighters were simply running away to avoid confrontation with Israeli soldiers. If this is true, I have no reason to doubt him, Hezbollah is already is bad shape and will avoid exposing it weakness in the future.
    I'm sure this is true, but what does it prove? I don't think it shows that Hezbollah is in bad shape; I think it shows that they're not crazy. Were they retreating from strategic positions, or were they simply leaving the battlefield where they're technologically outmatched? The IDF depends on air power, so Hezbollah is at its strongest when it's launching missiles from fortified bunkers. I've not seen anything to indicate that they don't still have this capability.
    This article is written from a rather Gonzo point of view , but I think it's worth reading.

  9. I think that Hezbollah did extremely well in this war. More to the point, I don't see any way it could hope to do any better. If Hezbollah sees things they same way I do, it will adhere to the ceasefire because it has nothing to gain, and possibly a fair amount to lose, by breaking it.

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