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Friends Don't Let Friends Wage Wars

This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.
It's usually best in the American context to keep one's criticisms of Israel polite and measured, but there are times when it's better to be blunt in the hopes of achieving clarity. Israel's current war in Lebanon is strategically blinkered and morally obtuse. The idea that the United States or American Jews like me should support it out of friendship is akin to the notion that a real friend would lend a car to a drunk buddy after the bartender confiscates his keys. I understand why the Israeli government and public think this war is a good idea, but they're simply mistaken.

Moral obtuseness is this case follows directly from strategic foolishness. Much — too much — ink and hypertext has been spilled on the question of "proportionate response," which leads only to the blind alley of debating arcane points of just war theory. The more basic point is this: War is a terrible thing. Waging it is a terrible thing to do, but sometimes a necessary thing. A misguided, counterproductive action, however, can never be necessary. A foolish war is never a just one.

One can tell simply by the extreme speed with which the Israeli operation in Lebanon was launched — with no interval for threats, diplomacy, preparation, or negotiations — that little if any thought was put into the merits of this venture. Already, one hears word from Israel's camp that the IDF itself deems talk of "crushing" Hezbollah as little more than bluster. Eighteen years of previous warfare did not render southern Lebanon terrorist-free, and Israel now seems to have reached a consensus that past efforts to actually occupy and administer portions of Lebanon were disastrous. Israel's Hezbollah problem is not, fundamentally, one amenable to forcible resolution. The issue is less the presence of an armed anti-Israeli militia just north of Israel's border than the widespread public support just north of Israel's border for the presence of an armed anti-Israeli militia.

What's more — and however impolitic it is to say — the fact remains that this operation came about in response to a problem that wasn't very problematic.

In the years between Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon and the current crisis, Hezbollah was known, now and again, to fire off a rocket or two in Israel's direction. Primarily, however, the organization directed its energies at Lebanese domestic politics. Indeed, even the occasional rocket attack is best understood as having been undertaken for domestic consumption. The nominal rationale for Hezbollah being allowed to maintain a militia while other Lebanese factions were not was the struggle against Israel. Therefore, it was necessary to launch a notional attack or two to prove that the group was still in the fight. These attacks were, morally speaking, despicable — the targeting of civilians with no possibility of achieving any legitimate war aims. They were not, however, a large problem in practice for the state of Israel. Efforts to root out Hezbollah rocketeers by force have made Israelis civilians much less safe than they were before.

The cross-border raid to capture Israeli soldiers was, of course, another matter. But here Israel had options. If they wanted their soldiers back, they could have traded some Hezbollah captives for them. If they wanted to act tough in the face of threats, they could have refused to negotiate and mounted a smallish, well-targeted retaliatory strike that would have garnered significant international support. Instead, Israel chose to escalate a low-intensity border conflict that posed no serious threat to its security into a much larger-scale battle it can't possibly win — one that will only harden anti-Israeli sentiments in its neighbor to the north.

Hawkish pundits in Israel and the United States are celebrating the move by Sunni regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to take an anti-Hezbollah line in the current conflict. This is blinkered and short-sighted. Popular sentiment in all three states is running sharply against Israel and in favor of its adversaries. Osama bin Laden's longtime contention that the United States, Israel, and the Arab world's homegrown autocrats have banded together in an anti-Muslim conspiracy are seemingly vindicated by these events. Nothing threatens American interests more in the long run than actions which push the Islamic world's masses into the arms of the extremists. That is precisely the main effect of this incursion.

Israel and its friends abroad need to face reality — the problem that needs solving is the Palestinian problem. Were Israel's conflict with the Palestinians resolved, other challenges like Hezbollah would soon melt away. The idea of firing rockets into Israeli towns would appear absurd. Iran and Syria would have nothing to gain from supporting groups that behaved in that manner. Arab public opinion would no longer applaud the firing of rockets at random into Israeli cities.

The Palestinian problem is, to state the obvious, not an easy one to solve. The Israelis made an offer at Camp David they regarded as generous and that the Palestinians deemed inadequate. Israel, in turn, rejected a peace proposal emanating from the government of Saudi Arabia that Arabs saw as generous and Israelis saw as inadequate. This is a thorny issue. But the difficulty of finding a mutually acceptable agreement is no excuse for the Bush/Sharon/Olmert policy of just giving up. Certainly, it in no way justifies wreaking devastation on Lebanon in a quixotic effort to alter what is fundamentally a public opinion problem by means of air strikes and mass displacements of the civilian population. Rather, the very difficulty of reaching an agreement points toward the vital importance of doing so.

Given a mutually acceptable agreement, Israel's other difficulties would subside or become amenable to much easier solutions. Absent such an agreement, solving the ancillary problems will be impossible. And efforts to solve those problems through force — efforts like the disastrous folly we are currently witnessing — will only worsen the problem while piling on the loss of innocent life.

This, rather than hearty bromides of encouragement and solidarity, is what Israel needs to hear from its American friends right now.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved