Lessons on the limits of military power

July 24, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- Military power is a useful and often indispensable asset. Blessed with an abundance of it, and impatient with the continuing irritant of Saddam Hussein, the United States was able to remove him. But as we have found out in the aftermath, using military power can sometimes create more problems than it solves.

In its offensive against Lebanon, Israel may have to relearn the limits of armed might. No one doubts that it was responding to a genuine security threat. But whether Israel's response will enhance its security is anything but a foregone conclusion.

After all, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 with the goal of eliminating the threat of rocket attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization from the very same area. Having planned for a quick, decisive operation, the Israelis found themselves mired in Lebanon for 18 years, fighting the same kind of enemy the U.S. has been fighting in Iraq.

One of the consequences of Israel's last invasion was the emergence of a violent Islamic organization called Hezbollah. Back then, many Lebanese initially welcomed the Israeli army, but the damage it did to civilians bred resentment and radicalism. The result was fertile ground for new anti-Israel extremists.

Now the Israelis have gone back in. Why? Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, head of the Israeli Army Home Front Command, said the goal of the operation was to "remove this threat once and for all."

"Once and for all" is a phrase that should not be used in the Middle East, except in irony. Israel wants to permanently drive Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon. But if Israel couldn't purge Palestinian militants from land it occupied for decades in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, why does it think it can quickly rid another country of extremists? Nor can it very well expect the Lebanese government to do the job: Weak before, it is weaker now.

The campaign might be warranted if it could wipe out the enemy's arsenal, which poses a grave danger to Israel. But as The Wall Street Journal reports, Hezbollah has some 13,000 missiles that are hidden "in the homes of supporters, in remote valleys and caves, and in small factories and workshops scattered across Lebanon." These missiles are compact enough to transport in cars.

Jerusalem entertains the delusion that it can cure the affliction with bombing raids. Many of them are aimed at suspected rocket sites. But many are aimed at Lebanon's infrastructure, including airports, power stations, roads and bridges, causing widespread suffering and death among the innocent. When Israel is done, it is likely to find the Lebanese people more hospitable to groups such as Hezbollah.

Israel has a right to protect itself. But, writes Henry Siegman, former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, "Israel's political and military leaders remain addicted to the notion that whatever they have a right to do, they have a right to overdo." Self-defense is one thing. Systematic punishment of civilians is another.

The Bush administration and Israel want Syria to use its leverage to force Hezbollah to back off. But it was the U.S. that only last year demanded, and got, an end to Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon. Everyone was too busy cheering Lebanon's liberation and its alleged progress toward democracy to worry about the possibilities for Hezbollah. Like many of the administration's foreign policy moves, that one had regrettable unforeseen consequences.

The Israeli government may likewise face nasty surprises in Lebanon. It decided it was bound to gain from taking massive military action against Hezbollah, which could prove true in the end. But in the Middle East, it's never safe to assume you can't make a bad situation worse.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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