Israel against Hezbollah: Air Power Won’t Do It

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

July 25, 2006

Military historians have a name for the logic behind Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon. It’s called the “strategic bombing fallacy.” Almost since the dawn of the age of military air power, strategists have been tempted by the prospect that the bombing of “strategic” targets such as infrastructure and transportation hubs could inflict such pain on a population that it would turn against its leaders and get them to surrender or compromise.

Unfortunately — as the United States itself discovered during World War II and Vietnam, to cite just two examples — strategic bombing has almost never worked. Far from bringing about the intended softening of the opposition, bombing tends to rally people behind their own leaders and cause them to dig in against outsiders who, whatever the justification, are destroying their homeland.

The history of perennial overoptimism about air power is worth keeping in mind as we consider some of the arguments heard in Jerusalem and Washington that the Israeli bombing campaign will put Hezbollah out of business or somehow lead the Lebanese people and army to turn against it. According to retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft, the goal of the campaign is to “create a rift between the Lebanese population and Hezbollah supporters.” The message to Lebanon’s elite, he said, is this: “If you want your air conditioning to work and if you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hezbollah-land.”

The theory is almost as neat as those that postulated that an American show of force in Iraq would bring peace and democracy throughout the region — but it is even less realistic. The issue is not whether Hezbollah is responsible for this crisis — it is — or whether Israel has the right to defend itself — it does — but whether this particular strategy will work. It will not.

It will not render Hezbollah powerless, because it is simply impossible to eliminate thousands of small, mobile, hidden and easily resupplied rockets via an air campaign. And it will not lead the weak Lebanese government to confront Hezbollah, because the civilian casualties caused by Israel’s bombing are infuriating the Lebanese population and providing fodder for Israel’s enemies throughout the Muslim world.

Perhaps recognizing that an air campaign alone might not bring about the desired effects, some have been calling on Israel to launch a ground invasion. What is less clear is why an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon now would be any more successful than the one carried out in 1982, which led to the creation of Hezbollah, a bloody 18-year occupation and, ultimately, to Israeli withdrawal. Again the strategy seems to be based more on hope than on experience.

What is striking about all this wishful thinking on Lebanon is that it is being promoted by many of the same people most closely associated with the wildly misplaced optimism about the effects of the use of force in Iraq. The theory behind that invasion was that an American show of force to remove Saddam Hussein would so impress the region’s populations (and frighten its dictators) that it would produce a chain reaction of democratization all the way to Palestine. Critics who worried that Iraqis would quickly come to resent and challenge the seemingly all-powerful American occupiers — or that outside actors such as Iran or Syria would seek to undermine Iraq’s stability — were accused of an almost un-American historical pessimism. That Iraq is now plagued with a violent insurgency and putative civil war suggests that the pessimists’ arguments might have deserved a greater hearing.

Proponents of strategic bombing in Lebanon acknowledge that it is not sufficient in itself to deal with the Hezbollah threat, and they point out — rightly — that Iran and Syria are the real instigators of the trouble. But it is one thing to say that, and quite another to explain just how Israel and the United States are supposed to go about eliminating the Iranian and Syrian problems. Invasions or airstrikes with the purpose of installing stable, pro-Western democracies would not seem a great bet in light of recent experience.

Those calling on Israel or the United States to use force against Lebanon, Syria and Iran legitimately ask what the alternatives to decisive action are. But they asked the same question about Iraq, and they seemed to overlook the possibility that a bad situation can be made even worse.

Given the long odds against Israeli or U.S. bombing campaigns actually producing the desired effects, a more focused and sustained strategy of proportional retaliation, increased support for the Lebanese government, international pressure on Iran and incentives for Syria to end its support for Hezbollah would seem a better approach than another wild throw of the dice.