Condoleezza Rice has rescued Israel from the depths of the Hezbollah trap into which it was heading, egged on by some in the Bush administration.
Israel apparently believed a massive "shock-and-awe" bombing campaign that smashed Lebanon's civilian infrastructure as well as Hezbollah targets would destroy the guerrillas and turn the Lebanese public against them. The White House gave this strategy the green light. A new piece by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker alleges that Vice President Cheney saw the bombing in Lebanon as a trial run for a possible U.S. strike on Hezbollah's patrons in Iran.
Hezbollah gains strength
But shock and awe did not destroy Hezbollah. The terrorist/political group emerged stronger in the region and at home, where the bombing generated fury toward Israel even among Lebanese who detest Hezbollah. (Things would have been even worse had Israel continued its ground invasion; Israeli troops would have become mired in another Lebanon occupation guaranteed to chew them up.)
There's still a chance that Hezbollah's power in Lebanon will be diminished as a result of this conflict. But this would require the White House - and Israel - to grasp the truth that Rice belatedly forced on the administration: You can't defeat terrorist groups with one knockout blow.
Reliance on shock-and-awe or massive military strikes to defeat terrorists is a loser. Their defeat requires a more sophisticated strategy, linking force to diplomacy, better intelligence-gathering, and support for Arab moderates.
Three decades after Vietnam, five years after 9-11, and three years into the wretched Iraq war, you'd think the administration would have learned that fighting terrorism is a long slog unaffected by righteous rhetoric. After all, the British terror cell that planned to blow up airliners was bested by strong police work and the ability to infiltrate the group.
Army's doctrine changes
Hasn't anyone at the White House noticed that the U.S. Army is changing its doctrine on guerrilla warfare? Instead of all-out military assault, the new doctrine calls for waging a political battle for "hearts and minds" while exercising military restraint so as not to drive civilians into the arms of the terrorists.
One key army text is "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" by Lt. Col. John Nagl, which focuses on counterinsurgency lessons from the 1950s war in Malaya and from the Vietnam War. The title phrase was used by Lawrence of Arabia in describing the messy and time-consuming nature of defeating insurgents. Nagl focuses on the ability of armies to learn from mistakes and adapt their strategy and tactics - skills in which he finds U.S. forces lacking. He shows how the British in Malaya were nimble enough to defeat a communist insurgency, while the U.S. military in Vietnam clung to a failing doctrine of force.
Sadly, the Pentagon had not absorbed such insights before invading Iraq. Nagl himself says he learned a lot more during a one-year tour in Iraq. His ideas, if applied back in mid-2003, might have checked the growth of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and prevented Sunni Islamists from provoking a civil war with Iraqi Shiites. It may be too late for the army's new doctrine to stop Iraq from falling apart.
Had the White House paid any attention to its own army's doctrine, it would have given Israel very different advice on how to confront Hezbollah. It would have stressed the need for Israel to pursue a political as well as a military strategy. Lebanon's government, while weak, was the poster child for President Bush's campaign to advance democracy in the region. Its gutsy Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, and several of its political parties, want a democratic state, and might have faced Hezbollah down had Bush and Israel given them some backing.
Sources in Prime Minister Saniora's party tell me that, had Israel confined a strong air and ground attack to the south, Hezbollah's base, his government would have pressured Hezbollah to pull back from the border and disarm. They would have needed help from Israel: a pledge to settle territorial disputes with them, and the return of Lebanese prisoners to them, not Hezbollah - in exchange for two kidnapped Israeli soldiers.
U.S. insisted on knockout blow
Indeed, Saniora got Hezbollah's agreement to pull back from Lebanon's south weeks ago. But the White House ignored Saniora in seeking a knockout blow against the guerrillas. It backed a continued Israeli bombing campaign that destroyed Lebanese infrastructure and undercut Saniora while failing to destroy Hezbollah. Now the Lebanese economy is destroyed, its government broke; Hezbollah has pledged to rebuild 15,000 bombed apartments in Shiite suburbs.
The cease-fire agreement finally negotiated at the United Nations calls for Hezbollah to disarm and pull back from the south, to be replaced by the Lebanese army and an international force. If the cease-fire is to survive, Israel and the United States must belatedly strengthen Saniora's hand.
This will be far more difficult to do, now that Hezbollah is proclaiming its "victory." But it is the best, slim hope for curbing Hezbollah after the mistakes of recent weeks.
It's past time to make "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" required reading at the White House.
- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.