The images of death and devastation are so appalling, the destruction seems so senseless. It is not difficult to understand the emotional impulse behind the call for the United States to “do something” about the fighting between Israel and the forces of Hezbollah, the jihadist group that effectively controls southern Lebanon.
Surely the sole superpower has some responsibility to try to negotiate a cease-fire, to engage in shuttle diplomacy, to … do something.
For various reasons, however, U.S. options in the region are limited.
Despite — or because of — the likelihood that the fighting involves not just Hezbollah but other countries in the Middle East, the United States will do well to move cautiously.
Perhaps the best we can do is try to understand.
The basic facts on the ground, though subject to some dispute and differing interpretations, are reasonably clear.
Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist/jihadist group that grew in opposition to the previous Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, between 1982 and 2000, is controlled or heavily influenced by Syria and through Damascus is financed and supplied with weapons by Iran.
After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah, probably using Iran’s money, established hospitals and other social-service institutions to cement its authority and popularity. After the “Cedar Revolution” that followed the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri — and the expulsion of Syrian forces that had effectively controlled Lebanon for years — Hezbollah’s political wing has participated in parliamentary elections and gained some representation in the still-weak Lebanese government. In possession of a reported 14,000 rockets, some of which Hezbollah has lobbed from time to time into northern Israel, it seems to feel confident.
But why would Hezbollah choose at this time to provoke Israel, as it did by crossing the border into Israel more than a week ago and killing three Israeli Defense Force soldiers and kidnapping two others? Perhaps it was in solidarity with the Hamas guerrilla fighters in Gaza who also kidnapped an Israeli soldier — remember when that conflict seemed like the worst that might happen? — but there could be other reasons.
One is that the U.N. commission investigating Rafik Hariri’s assassination issued an interim report in June, implicating Syrians and suggesting an international tribunal to try suspects, almost all of whom would probably be Syrian or Syrian-controlled. The other is that the U.N. Security Council is on the verge of a resolution condemning Iran’s alleged attempt to build nuclear weapons, which would probably have dominated last week’s G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, had there not been a shooting war in the Middle East.
From Israel’s perspective, the kidnapping of its soldiers demanded retaliation and offered an opportunity to eliminate, or at least degrade, Hezbollah’s capacity to attack Israel. One can argue as to whether the response was proportionate to the threat, but it’s not difficult to understand why Israel would attack. Israel’s modern military is by far the most capable in the region. It would not be surprising to see a ground invasion, since it is clearly impossible to destroy all of Hezbollah’s scattered rockets and launching sites with attacks from the air alone.
There are grave perils for Israel as well as opportunity. The assault has killed Lebanese civilians, which will increase hatred of Israel, and is unlikely to dismantle Hezbollah completely, even if it is seriously weakened. Peace has always been a long shot in the Middle East, and the odds seem longer than ever now.