Reflection in Lebanon, Israel, but Not in U.S.

Two weeks after the end of hostilities in the Lebanese-Israeli war – dubbed by some in the Arab press as the “sixth war” – Israel and Lebanon have been busy reassessing the meaning of the “victories” they both claimed. Only in Washington have certainty and absence of serious reflection about the nation’s role in the war prevailed.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, declared that he was surprised by the Israeli decision to wage war over the taking of two of its soldiers prisoner, and that had he known, he would not have ordered the prisoner-taking. In Israel, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced a limited inquiry into the conduct of the war, the primary opposition came from those asking for a bigger and more independent investigation. An editorial in the newspaper Haaretz told the story well as it wondered why Israelis need to investigate a “victory.”

In Lebanon, the sense that Israel faced in Hezbollah one of its toughest Arab enemies and was prevented from achieving its stated aims was overwhelmed by the degree of devastation that the war brought. Divisions that were suspended during the war by anger over the magnitude of the Israeli attacks began to surface again.

The debate in Israel has focused not only on the shortcomings of the Israeli military and on the weaknesses in homeland defenses but also on what the aims of the war were and whether it could have ended sooner. Some military officers expressed the belief that the war could have and should have been stopped earlier.

In particular, two junctures in the war were the subject of much discussion: the period after the first week of fighting, when, it has been revealed, military officers believed the war could have been stopped as they believed that achievable objectives had been attained; and the last weekend of fighting, when Israel enlarged its campaign after it was clear that a U.N. resolution to end the fighting was imminent.

The result was that in the last few days of hostilities, Israel suffered some of its highest casualties in the war, Hezbollah fired some of its most intense barrages of rockets on Israeli cities, and the Israeli military dropped a significant number of cluster bombs on heavily populated areas that are continuing to cause casualties among returning civilians.

As for Mr. Nasrallah, despite his admission of surprise, he has not apologized for the war, believes he has won and blames Israel for the fighting. In one of his earlier speeches during the war, Mr. Nasrallah explained his reasoning. He told of an Israeli war plan against Hezbollah to take place in September or October. Although he didn’t state that the aim of the prisoner-taking operation was to pre-empt the Israeli plan, he suggested that Lebanon was “fortunate” in that Hezbollah had inadvertently accelerated the war while depriving Israel of being fully ready.

But while many Lebanese and Arabs believe that Israeli behavior cannot simply be explained by the taking of its soldiers as hostages, the level of Lebanese devastation was bound to translate into some blame of Hezbollah – especially among the groups and politicians that had always worried about its rising military power. What gives Mr. Nasrallah the right, many Lebanese wondered, to “miscalculate” on their behalf in the first place – especially when the consequences are so painful for all?

Despite the intense debate in Israel, the government has not expressed any regret for its basic approach. There, too, Mr. Olmert was quick to argue that whatever the costs of the war, he believed a later war would have been even costlier, as Hezbollah could have acquired even more weapons. The stationing of more U.N. troops and Lebanese soldiers in South Lebanon, and the embargo on weapons transfers to Hezbollah, are highlighted as legitimate and important Israeli successes. But no one can escape the reality that the stated objectives at the outset of the war – disarming Hezbollah, ending its capacity to fire rockets and freeing the Israeli soldiers – were not achieved.

Both Hezbollah and Israel were surprised by the other, and both paid some price for this surprise. But the debate about who won the war is only in part about performance on the battlefield and achievement of stated objectives. It is in good part about internal politics and who wins and loses at home.

It is also about how the rest of the world perceives the war, as this affects one’s projection of power, the ability to deter future attacks and the extent to which each side attracts external support. Here, there is little doubt that most Arabs and Muslims believe Israel was defeated by Hezbollah, which, even as it faces criticism in Lebanon, has gained millions of supporters in the Middle East.

In Washington, the official story remains the same: Israel has won, even as the media have conveyed a more diverse picture.

This is not surprising given the close association of the Bush administration with the Israeli conduct of the war; an Israeli victory is, in effect, an administration victory. But even as they mourn their many dead, Lebanese and Israelis are intensely debating the war, with some sense that both sides would have been better off had it ended earlier.

It is thus surprising that in the American democracy there is less reflective discourse among our leaders about the role of the administration in the failure to act sooner.