the only winning move is not to play

david ignatius at the washington post writes that israel and the US need to evaluate the effectiveness of their strategy, in light of the weeks activity to, in the words of lt. gen. dan halutz of the IDF, “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years.” :

Israeli and American doctrine is premised on the idea that military force will deter adversaries. But as more force has been used in recent years, the deterrent value has inevitably gone down. That’s the inner spring of this crisis: The Iranians (and their clients in Hezbollah and Hamas) watch the American military mired in Iraq and see weakness. They are emboldened rather than intimidated. The same is true for the Israelis in Gaza. Rather than reinforcing the image of strength, the use of force (short of outright, pulverizing invasion and occupation) has encouraged contempt.

The danger of Iranian-backed adventurism is immense right now, but that’s all the more reason for America and Israel to avoid past mistakes in countering it. Reliable strategic lessons are hard to come by in that part of the world, but here are a few:

The first is that in countering aggression, international solidarity and legitimacy matter. In responding to the Lebanon crisis, the United States should work closely with its allies at the Group of Eight summit and the United Nations. Iran and its proxies would like nothing more than to isolate America and Israel. They would like nothing less than a strong, international coalition of opposition.

…The way to curb Hezbollah is to build up the Lebanese government and army. One way to boost the Lebanese government (and deflate Hezbollah) would be to negotiate the return of the Israeli-occupied territory known as Shebaa Farms. That chance is lost for now, but the Bush administration should find other ways to enhance Siniora’s authority.

A final obvious lesson is that in an open, interconnected world, public opinion matters. This is a tricky battlefield for an unpopular America and Israel, but not an impossible one. To fight the Long War, America and Israel have to get out of the devil suit in global public opinion. For a generation, America maintained a role as honest broker between Israel and the Arabs. The Bush administration should work hard to refurbish that role.

In the Lebanon crisis we have a terrifying glimpse of the future: Iran and its radical allies are pushing toward war. That’s the chilling reality behind this week’s events. On Tuesday the Iranians spurned an American offer of talks on their nuclear program; on Wednesday their Hezbollah proxy committed what Israel rightly called “an act of war.” The radicals want to lure America and Israel deeper into the killing ground, confident that they have the staying power to prevail. We should not play their game.






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