Louder than bombs

The big idea Israel and Hizbollah beat the drums of war - but can tough talk itself keep the peace? Andrew Exum considers the paradox of deterrence.

An Israeli soldier sleeps atop a tank parked along the international border with Lebanon, moments after crossing back into Israel 18 August 2006. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said yesterday he expected Israel's military to have withdrawn from southern Lebanon in a matter of weeks, as part of its commitment to a UN-brokered ceasefire.  AFP PHOTO/GALI TIBBON
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Israel and Hizbollah beat the drums of war - but can tough talk itself keep the peace? Andrew Exum considers the paradox of deterrence.

In Beirut and Tel Aviv there is little doubt that another war between Israel and Hizbollah is inevitable - the escalating rhetoric on both sides of the Blue Line makes this clear. Ironically, though, this same heated rhetoric may be the best chance for preserving peace. Israeli officials, led by defense minister and Labour Party leader Ehud Barak, have been talking since the summer about the "disproportionate" punishment they intend to inflict on Lebanon in the event of another war. News reports suggest that the Israeli Defense Forces are training for a large-scale ground campaign backed by punishing air and artillery strikes. "In the last war, we made a distinction between Hizbollah targets and Lebanese national targets," a senior IDF general told The Jerusalem Post last month, adding that "there is no longer a reason to make this distinction."

The head of the IDF's Northern Command, Gadi Eisenkot, left no doubt about Israel's aims when he told an Israeli paper that the army had devised a "Dahiyeh Doctrine" - in which Israel would level large swathes of the mostly-Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hizbollah maintains many of their offices and enjoys overwhelming support from the local population. "We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases," he said. "This isn't a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorised."

Not all the sabre-rattling is coming from the Israeli side. In October, Nawaf Moussawi, Hizbollah's respected head of international relations, surprised many observers by making a claim on the so-called "Seven Villages," a swath of territory just south of the present Israeli-Lebanese border - considered to be part of Lebanon when the border was demarcated between France and Britain after the First World War. But "terrorist Zionist organisations," Moussawi claimed, moved the borderline in 1923.

The journalist Nicholas Blanford, who has produced a detailed study of the issue, observes that Hizbollah no longer relies on specific territorial claims (like the Shebaa Farms) to justify keeping itself armed. Today Hizbollah claims the right to retain its weapons as long as Israel represents a threat to Lebanese sovereignty - a threat as open-ended and ill-defined as the "war on terror". But Moussawi's reckless invocation of further territorial claims only confirms the Israeli belief that Hizbollah will continue to be a threat unless it is decisively defeated.

All signs point toward another war - just as disastrous as the last one. For despite Hizbollah's claims of victory, there was no winner in 2006. Hizbollah's followers in the south were punished to a degree that exceeded previous Israeli bombing campaigns in 1993 and 1996; one million Lebanese were driven out of the country or internally displaced; and more than 1000 civilians were killed. One horrific massacre in the Biblical town of Qana left some 30 dead - half of them children - in an echo of a similar slaughter there 10 years earlier. If the war really was a "victory from God" as Hassan Nasrallah claims, then consider me a convert to atheism.

On the Israeli side, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands were either displaced or driven into shelters, a traumatic experience for a population which thought it had turned a page on Lebanon by withdrawing its occupation forces in 2000. Worse, the vaunted IDF - rightly hailed as the region's finest military machine - was upstaged by its Lebanese adversaries, even as many of the villages that put up such ferocious resistance were defended in large part not by Hizbollah regulars but by residents who functioned as a kind of "national guard".

Indeed, the harshest blow to Israel was the widespread perception that Hizbollah had fought the mighty IDF to a standstill: as the late Ha'aretz defence correspondent Ze'ev Schiff lamented to me a few months after the war, "We have lost our deterrence capability." But this may have been one of many false assumptions about the results of 2006. It was said, for example, that the fighting would set Lebanon back a decade. But this summer's tourist season was the best in memory, and despite the global economic crisis, the banking sector remains strong. As I have travelled around both southern Lebanon and the Dahiyeh in the past few months, I have been struck by the speed and skill with which Hizbollah and external donors - not just Iran but also the countries of the Gulf and the West - have rebuilt areas that appeared devastated beyond repair. Lebanon - and Hizbollah's constituents - now have as much to lose in 2008 as they did in 2006.

In this light - and reflecting upon the belligerent words coming from Tel Aviv - Schiff may have been mistaken. Some of my Lebanese friends have dismissed the words of Eisenkot as "dangerous" and "stupid". But I am not sure they are either. In 2006 Israel brought a horrific amount of air and artillery power to bear on Lebanon, and few north of the Blue Line believe they would hesitate to do so again. Hizbollah's July 2006 cross-border kidnapping raid was a serious mistake that had devastating consequences for the people of Lebanon. If the words of Eisenkot have effectively communicated that another such provocation will bring even harsher retribution, then Israel's deterrent capability remains intact - so long as it doesn't have to be put to use.

Deterrence, as the legendary American defence analyst John Collins reminds us, is a strategy for peace - not for war. The principles of deterrence are different from those of war. Whereas surprise and security are paramount in war, deterrence often hinges on publicising one's capabilities and leading the enemy to believe you're crazy enough to use them to the full effect. And as the Cold War theorist Thomas Schelling explained in 1966, "the power to hurt is most successful when held in reserve. It is the threat of damage, or of more damage to come, that can make someone yield or comply." To actually employ the "Dahiyeh Doctrine" would be a foolish move indeed. The lessons of 1993, 1996 and 2006 are that military power alone has not accomplished Israel's political goals in Lebanon - a country that few Israeli policymakers seem to have understood. In 1993 and 1996, for example, Israel aimed to deter both the civilians of southern Lebanon and the Syrian regime by the direct application of violence and not merely its threat.

"Now we are at the stage in which we are firing into the villages in order to cause damage to property," explained the then-commander of the IDF's Artillery Corps in 1993. "The aim is to create a situation in which the residents will leave the villages and go north. The aim is to damage the infrastructure, to destroy the villages and the houses of the activists and the locations from which the rockets are fired."

This type of violence, though, rarely has the intended effect. As the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas notes, states often overestimate the degree to which a population has influence over the behaviour of an armed group - and then fail to establish clear incentives for collaboration. The latter was especially difficult in southern Lebanon, where it was increasingly obvious through the 1990s that Hizbollah would remain a political power in the region long after Israel and its allies departed.

As it failed in 1993, 1996 and 2006, another Israeli military campaign against Hizbollah in southern Lebanon is also likely to fall short of achieving Israel's political objectives. Israel's elected leaders seem to understand this. As outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert recently said, "The Lebanon war will go down in history as the first war in which the military leadership understood that classic warfare has become obsolete."

In the end, the best way to use the IDF might be not to use it at all. Israel's best hope for peace along the Blue Line might consist in tough rhetoric and actual restraint. The belief that cross-border aggression will bring overwhelming force might deter Hizbollah, which differs from other armed groups - and from its own situation in years past - in that it has a civilian constituency with much to lose.

Hizbollah, however, is going to find it difficult - after labouring so hard and for so long to create a "society of resistance" - to restrain itself from moving against Israel. The danger of creating a society of resistance is that you might succeed - and become enslaved to what that society sees as its raison d'être. Last month, I spent some time in the Dahiyeh at a crafts fair sponsored by one of Hizbollah's social services and international donor groups. High above the merchants hawking paintings of Nasrallah and fresh thyme from southern Lebanon were large banners honouring the assassinated Imad Mughniyeh.

"Imad Mughniyeh left you thousands of fighters who are ready for martyrdom," one read. Peace in southern Lebanon, though, depends on Hizbollah keeping those fighters in their barracks. Israeli policymakers must understand that - and craft a strategy for peace that will encourage Hizbollah's leaders to do so.

Andrew Exum, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is a doctoral candidate at King's College London and the author of This Man's Army.