Monday, 14 August 2006
An uneasy cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah went into effect earlier today, and both sides claimed victory in the conflict. Clearly Israel's claim is fatuous. What Israel's hawks were sure would be an easy romp over Hezbollah's forces turned out to be much harder than anticipated. Well over 100 Israelis, both soldiers and civilians died. It was no victory for Israel. On the other hand, Hezbollah undoubtedly suffered even heavier losses, and Lebanese civilians suffered several hundred deaths, so it's hard to think that Hezbollah won a great victory, either. If neither side can claim a decisive victory, were there clear losers? Yes, several.
First, both Israeli and Lebanese civilians were big losers. Not only were hundreds of people killed, and hundreds of families affected, but now civilians on both sides of the border will have to live with the knowledge that they are much less secure than they previously thought. The peace that had lasted since Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon in May of 2000 has been shattered, and along with it the hopes of a generation of citizens in both countries.
Second, the nation of Lebanon was a loser. Lebanon is the most diverse country in the Middle East in terms of religion. About 53% of the population is Muslim, divided almost equally between Shiites and Sunnis. 40% is Christian, and almost 6% is Druze. There is also a smattering of Jews, Bahais, and other religious groups. Perhaps because of this diversity, Lebanon is one of the few countries in the Middle East with a functioning democracy. The democracy was strengthened tremendously just a year ago when Syria withdrew its troops, following the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister. Now the democracy is in trouble again. Its attempts to live peaceably with its neighbor Israel will be seriously challenged by extremists in the country, who will use the destruction wrought on the country as a reason to take the fight to Israel with reckless abandon. If this happens, more civilians will die.
Third, the nation of Israel was a loser. Its international reputation as nearly invincible has dissipated in the plains of southern Lebanon. Israel's vaunted military machine, which rolled to victory in 1967 and in several subsequent wars, was stymied by a less organized guerilla force with inferior weaponry. In many ways the situation is similar to the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucids in the second century B.C.E. A small but determined group of fighters harassed a stronger military force that had invaded its land until it decided that its original goals were unattainable. Israel has been shown to have chinks in its armor, and its enemies have no doubt noticed.
Fourth, the United States was a loser. When the Bush administration gave Israel the go-ahead to invade, then sat back and did nothing while its ally bombed civilian targets, killing hundreds of people, its prestige in the eyes of the world--or what remained of it-- diminished yet again. The U.S. is no longer viewed as an honest broker by the world community. Of equal importance, at least as far as the reputation of the U.S. is concerned, is the fact that adversaries of the U.S. are confirmed in their belief that U.S. support of a country or a cause is no longer a guarantee of triumph. The U.S. had worked hard in the aftermath of Vietnam to create an image of itself as the world's chief power broker, tough but fair, and to a large extent it had been apparently successful. It is now clear, however, that the image was more of a façade than an accurate portrayal. It is also evident that although the Bush administration is responsible for the exposure of the façade, previous administrations of both parties had contributed to it to a greater or lesser extent.
Fifth, the Middle East peace process, already in shambles, was a big, big loser. Even with the cease-fire, tension between Israel and Lebanon will remain high. Tension between Israel and Palestine, near civil war in Iraq, conflicts between Turkey and the Kurds, the rising influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the rants of the president of Iran, and the conflict between the government and its adversaries in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia all demonstrate that the Middle East is a powder keg waiting to explode. Rather than dampening the powder, as the Bush administration foolishly hoped the war would do, it has merely lit the fuse.
No, there were no winners in this conflict, only big losers.