The Israeli war against Hezbollah was reckoned a failure as soon as the fighting stopped, and so is the American war against Iraq, though the fighting continues. Even responsible parties understand this now. ``Pentagon studying its war errors," read one headline not long ago. A second headline on the same front page read, ``In Israel, critics condemn strategy behind war." In each case, the war has created conditions that threaten even more grievous catastrophe to follow. Hezbollah is intact, and the Lebanese people, having been so savagely bombed by Israeli warplanes, have reason to embrace it. Iran and Syria are emboldened. The international peace keeping force is anemic. The elimination of the Jewish state is on the agenda.
In Iraq, as brutal sectarian violence flares, the debate about whether and when to ``withdraw" the American forces is being superseded by an urgent worry about how US soldiers can be evacuated from the crossfire? Iraq as a national entity has already been destroyed. The question now is what comes of its ruin? A regional war over oil? A world center of terrorism? A new tyrant to restore order?
Neither the United States nor Israel is in control of what comes next, but whether these disastrous scenarios are played out in the future depends on how American and Israeli failures of the recent past are understood. If the Pentagon focuses on tactical mistakes, like troop levels or intelligence errors, the larger question will be not be asked. Likewise with Israel. The decision to wage an air war against Lebanese infrastructure clearly backfired, and was taken as if the futility of such a strategy, not to mention the inhumanity of it, had not been repeatedly demonstrated in past wars. But was that the first and most basic mistake?
It remains true that the path of negotiations with rejectionist Hezbollah, and Hamas for that matter, was not open to Israel during the provocations of July. It is also the case that Israel was confronted with a sharp new level of irrational antagonism tied to the broader inflaming of the region by America's war in Iraq. The very existence of the Jewish state had, startlingly, come to be at issue again. Thus, even the peace movement in Israel saw the point of firmness, especially once missiles began to fall in the north. But firmness can be combined with restraint, and force can be exercised judiciously. Many of those who love Israel longed for such responses.
Israeli leaders, acting more out of anger than wisdom, demonstrated in their move to an overwhelming military assault against targets across Lebanon that they had learned nothing from the American misadventure in Iraq. The fact that Israel, unlike Hezbollah, was not aiming to kill civilians ceased to matter as civilian casualties mounted. This grievous moral wound, certain to cause Israel much trouble, was self-inflicted. Israel responded to Hezbollah's cynical strategy of hiding its missile batteries among the innocents exactly as Hezbollah wished, and even then Israel was unable to stop the missiles from flying. The result is that Israel is more vulnerable than ever, especially now that the myth of its invincibility has been punctured.
Both the United States and Israel have been at the mercy of the same illusion, that the hammer of military force is the tool to use against every threat. To oppose the rush to war is not to deny that threats are real, but only to insist that war is as likely to exacerbate the threat as to eliminate it. In the age of weapons of mass destruction, especially, the old dichotomy between ``realists" and ``idealists" is a false one. Now the argument against war starts not from a moralizing pacifism, but from a profoundly realistic assessment of what actually happens when violence takes over. When mass destruction and pain are inflicted to no purpose, the old lesson of ethics reverses itself: If the ends don't justify the means, nothing does.
This is the kind of reckoning that should be going on in America and Israel today. The failures are not of tactics or strategy, but of insight and history. Across the last 60 years, wars have been waged to no purpose. Millions of civilians have been killed. Enemies have been empowered, not defeated. That history is denied with every national budget drawn to give primacy to weapons, at the expense of humane investments that attack structures of violence at the source. The only justification for these terrible wars today will be if they lead to new thinking tomorrow.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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