Neoconservatives miss the mark in Iraq and Lebanon

August 07, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- The last three years have been unkind to neoconservative thinkers. Entranced with our military superiority, they urged the U.S. invasion of Iraq, seeing it as a golden opportunity to remove a threat, intimidate dictators and remake the Middle East. More recently, they applauded the Israeli offensive against Hezbollah, which was supposed to remove a threat, strengthen Lebanese democracy and weaken enemy regimes in Syria and Iran.

But those fetching dreams have given way to painful realities. President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert marched to the sound of neoconservative trumpets, and they now find themselves in the same predicament: fighting extremists in wars that don't follow conventional rules and where any satisfying conclusion lies out of reach.

When he chose to go after Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush made several mistakes: rejecting less-comprehensive means of addressing the threat, dismissing the danger that locals would turn against us, underestimating the challenge of fostering political progress, and exaggerating the utility of military force. When he chose to launch a campaign against Hezbollah, Mr. Olmert similar errors.

They those blunders were the product of the neoconservative mindset, which habitually confuses what is desirable with what is doable. Neoconservatives also imagine that having a moral cause for war is the same thing as having a feasible plan.

Yes, the United States had numerous grounds for toppling Mr. Hussein, just as the Israelis had ample basis for acting against the terrorists in Lebanon. But in war, it's not enough to justify. You also have to win. The capacity to kill the enemy does not necessarily mean you can defeat him.

Israel has shown that its air force can demolish any target it wants to hit - and some it doesn't. But it also has proved that this is an ineffectual way of fighting guerrillas who can easily hide amid a sympathetic local population.

Hezbollah's resilience was only one of the grim surprises. The hawkish former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens wrote this week in The Wall Street Journal, "So far, Israel has nothing to show for its efforts: no enemy territory gained, no enemy leaders killed, no abatement in the missile barrage that has sent a million Israelis from their homes and workplaces." At this rate, he says, "Israel is headed for the greatest military humiliation in its history."

Stephens and other enthusiasts of the war have a simple remedy for this looming failure: a ground invasion to wipe out Hezbollah. But this looks like another specimen of wishful thinking.

Israel occupied southern Lebanon for 18 years, and far from eradicating opposition, it managed the feat of spawning Hezbollah. The civilian casualties caused by Israeli bombs are likely to increase support for the group, just as its rockets have rallied Israelis behind their government.

Other observers hope the United Nations will deploy soldiers to move in, establish control and disarm the militants. But if that task is too much for the battle-hardened Israelis, who have urgent self-interest to motivate them, how can we expect the Germans or French to do it out of altruism?

The problem resembles the one the U.S. faces in Iraq: The enemy doesn't have to defeat the outsiders, but merely survive and inflict pain until they leave. Having failed to learn from that experience, the Israelis may be trapped in the same kind of war, which they can't afford to lose but don't know how to win.

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

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