The Compass

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Hezbollah Rearms

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Noah Pollack Pollak sounds the alarm over Hezbollah's recent move to rearm itself with more powerful rockets and to disperse those rockets throughout Lebanon to ensure that any Israeli retaliation would drag of all Lebanon into conflict. Pollack writes:

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

Indeed it would. Of course, ending all wars in the Middle East is a bridge too far for any administration, no matter how diplomatically adroit. But still, Pollak is right that such an explosion would fatally undermine the administration's case for its diplomacy. However, it's important to accurately characterize what's going on in the region. Pollak writes:

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

I think the only departure from reality here is the idea that Obama "tilted" the U.S. away from Israel. In point of fact, there has been no change in America's material or diplomatic support for Israel. The administration is not threatening to reduce U.S. aid or loan guarantees, nor is it reducing intelligence cooperation. They have not abandoned Israel in multilateral forums either, as the recent lobbying against the Goldstone Report in the United Nations demonstrates.

Indeed, about the only shift the Obama administration has made toward Israel is greater rhetorical opposition to Israel's West Bank settlement activity. But surely this can't be confused with substantive policy changes in the key material planks of the U.S.-Israeli alliance.

Pollak continues:

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict.

I'm not sure how this adds up. If I assume that Pollack considers George W. Bush a strong ally of Israel, than during his tenure Israel experienced: an Intifada (which began at the tail-end of the Clinton administration), a war in Lebanon against Hezbollah and a war in Gaza against Hamas. That doesn't strike me as a conflict free period by any stretch. Nor does this assertion make sense logically. The U.S. has for years been a strong ally Israel but the sub-state groups dedicated to waging war against Israel don't expect American reprisals and so America's support (as we have just seen) has no deterrent value. Consider that the Bush administration gave a good deal of diplomatic cover to Israel during its war with Hezbollah in 2006, with Secretary Rice saying it was necessary that Israel not be restrained so as not to return to the "status quo ante." And where are we now? As Pollak noted above, Hezbollah is back, armed with more powerful weapons and with a better idea of where to put them so as to cause even more destruction the next go round.

It may well be that the best Israel can hope for is to wage intermittent war with the terror groups on its borders to buy itself time before the next round. But these conflicts will ultimately be settled politically. The Obama administration clearly erred in thinking that diplomacy could unlock these political solutions in the absence of any other leverage or incentives. But that's where we are.

I'd also take a different lesson from "the past few decades" of America being the "guarantor of the regional order" in the Middle East. And that is that such a role entails huge costs to America - in the form of wars and military interventions (Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Iran), the economic costs of stationing forward military power in the region, and a huge increase in terrorism directed against the United States. And without a super power poised to wrest the region's oil off of world markets, we should be far less willing to casually immerse ourselves in the region's sundry squabbles. There are issues of far greater importance on our plate.

UPDATE: Pollak responds:

A couple of clarifications: I didn't claim that a strong U.S.-Israel alliance prevents all conflict. Rather, I said that when Israel's enemies see the U.S. wavering, they are more likely to attack. And there most certainly has been a different U.S. posture toward Israel -- so thoroughly documented by people from across the political spectrum that I don't think it needs to be recounted here.

The larger point of course is that before there was a U.S.-Israel alliance (1948-1970's), there was constant, large-scale war. 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973. These were wars that involved several nations, not just terror groups. The reason for the U.S. alliance was to put a stop to that; Israel traded its ability to engage in transformative military action, and the U.S. acquired a far more stable Levant.

Fair point, but my point is that we should look at the U.S. experience in the Middle East after 1973. A large number of Americans have been killed in military action in the region and vastly more American civilians have been killed by Arab terrorists after 1973 than before. All of this is a direct consequence of assuming the stabilizer role. You could make a strong case that these costs were worth bearing during the Cold War, but I find it much harder to justify them now.

As for the earlier point about the posture toward Israel, have there been any material changes in the U.S.-Israeli alliance? A reduction in aid, loan guarantees or military/intelligence cooperation? I don't believe there have been. But I'll gladly stand corrected if there's evidence to the contrary.


(AP Photo)