Rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory

Former Chinese Communist premier Chou En-lai’s famous statement that it was too soon to evaluate the French Revolution never impressed me. Surely it is obvious that everybody lost. And while it really is still too early to evaluate the Lebanese war of 2006, it’s clearly heading in the same direction. The conflicting claims of the warring parties are superficially uninstructive. Of course Hezbollah and its backers claim a glorious victory. They always do. Mideast radicals think they’ve won every war with Israel, first in 1948 by confining it to a small contiguous area, then in 1967 by pushing it to the banks of the Jordan and the southern tip of Gaza and finally in 1973 by forcing some Israeli units clear across the Suez canal.

Israeli deputy prime minister Shimon Peres’ assessment that the IDF killed or wounded roughly half of Hezbollah’s hardcore members is probably fairly accurate while Hezbollah’s claim to have lost only 80 fighters is an obvious typical lie. But Peres’ further claim that Hezbollah must now lick its wounds doesn’t exactly amount to a shout of triumph.

You should also ignore most of what the press is saying. The New York Times, for instance, led off its e-mail bulletin Wednesday with “Hezbollah Leads Work to Rebuild, Gaining Stature.” Right. First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of countrymen. (The day before, a Times “News Analysis” told us: “For the moment, Hezbollah is bathed in a heroic light, not just in Lebanon but throughout the Muslim world.” And you thought Alexandre Trudeau’s Castro embarrassment in Sunday’s Toronto Star was Radio Moscow’s last broadcast.) A Tuesday National Post “Analysis” piece told us “Hezbollah has arguably emerged from the war stronger and more influential.”

If a quarter of the IDF were dead and another quarter wounded I doubt we’d be hearing how Israel had kicked butt. But the conflicting claims point to a deeper truth. In clashes between West and Rest, the latter typically yell about glorious God-given victories to the last kamikaze while the former ponder what went wrong as they straddle the vanquished foe. I remember my PhD advisor commenting that there’d been more scholarly battles after the Second World War than military ones during it and adding with a chuckle that by the time you read all the revisionism you wondered if we even won. If Hezbollah and its backers want to do it all again because they think they won, and Israel wants to do it all again because they think they didn’t, both will probably get their wish. But only one will improve its performance.

That the world acted decisively to impose a ceasefire once Israel got good and ready for a ground war suggests Hezbollah was already starting to take a pounding. But it is all too probable that most people in the region really do think Hezbollah won a great victory. That Arab governments, and the “Arab street,” seem as unable as the black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail to carry out elementary strategic analysis, to recognize when they are going to lose a war or even that they just lost one, is a source of profound misery to Arabs. But what is anyone else meant to do about it?

Not what they just did. The “international community” looks like the big loser again. Israel was strong-armed into accepting UN ceasefire resolution 1701, including a commitment to disarm Hezbollah. But Hezbollah immediately refused to comply. The Lebanese defence minister said Tuesday his job was to “ensure the security of the (Islamic) Resistance and citizens, to protect the victory of the resistance.” And, as I wrote a month ago, France is not going to send soldiers to shoot Hezbollah or watch it shoot Israel. So the “international community” promised Israel if it stopped its invasion it would disarm Hezbollah. Israel did, and now it’s “Sorry, we lied, death to Jews.”

It looks like the characteristic alliance between the weak and the evil founded, as G.K. Chesterton said, on agreement between the militarist and the pacifist that aggression should not be resisted. (To be fair, some of the governments involved are both weak and evil.) This alliance, it is not premature to say, historically benefits the evil far more than the weak. So barring sudden spine growth, the West will have sacrificed moral principle for geopolitical disadvantage, which, if it’s not a defeat, will do until a defeat comes along. If nothing else it will convince the “Israeli street” there is no one to talk to among Palestinians, Arabs or Europeans. If 1701 is a cheap trick to save Hezbollah to fight another day, it won’t work twice. And why would you want it to?

In short, if Hezbollah keeps its weapons we’ll know everybody lost. Which, this being the Middle East, is a conclusion you rarely have to wait long to reach.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson