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Israel's Endgame?

Hezbollah is a nasty, unrepentant Islamicist organization that until 9/11 had more American blood on its hands than any terrorist group in the world. In April 1983, Hezbollah blew up the US embassy in Beirut, killing 17. In October of the same year, Hezbollah killed 241 Marines at the Beirut airport and in September 1984 a third bombing killed another 2 Americans and 21 Lebanese citizens. Hezbollah also killed Malcolm Kerr, the president of the American University of Beirut, and two of the Americans held hostage in Beirut, including the CIA's William Buckley. In June 1985, Hezbollah killed Seaman Robert Stethem onboard TWA flight 847. The mastermind of most of this mayhem, Imad Mugniyah, is still at large. And unlike the Libyans who were similarly ghastly in the 1980s, Hezbollah's leadership never atoned for these actions. Indeed Hezbollah continued to engage in international terrorism in the 1990s. in July 1994 nearly a hundred people died when Hezbollah blew up the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires and two years later, 19 US military personnel were killed in the destruction of the Khobar towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Then it suspended its campaign of international terrorism and increasingly began to acquire some international legitimacy as a political resistance organization. It never stopped killing Israelis, however, even after Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon. So, history provides ample reason for Americans to cheer on the destruction of Hezbollah's ability to make trouble. The problem is that history also suggests that trying to bomb terrorist organizations, however legitimate the rationale, does not usually make long-term strategic sense, especially when they have a political base. Hezbollah is as much an ideological and social movement as it is a mafia of hardened criminals. You can kill the inner circle with bombs, but how do you kill the idea and social networks that have unfortunately seduced many Lebanese Shi'ites. The catalyst for the creation of Hezbollah, which was a fusion of existing Islamicist groups, was Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The Israeli army stayed until 2000 and was never able to destroy Hezbollah or through local proxies provide a successful political alternative to Hezbollah in the Muslim quarters of the capital, the Bekaa valley and in the south. The fact that Hezbollah was not a wholly autonomous movement surely complicated Israel's task. From the beginning the organization benefited from Iranian training, money and weapons, as well as from significant Syrian assistance. But the problem was that this terrorist group was linked to a genuine political movement among Lebanon's most unfortunate.

Israeli's current offensive so far involves air attacks on Hezbollah military depots and leadership centers as well as on the communications network that Iran and Syria use to resupply the organization. It has also produced the deaths of noncombatants. Israeli generals have said that Ehud Olmert's government assumes that it will have a week to do as much damage as it can before the pressure from the international community gets too heavy to resist. US policy, it appears, is to let Israel have as much time as is politically feasible.

One can be sympathetic to the goal of weakening Hezbollah without liking the current approach. What is the endgame? Let's say Israel stops attacking in a week (and resists the temptation to send troops back into southern Lebanon), then what? Hezbollah will probably stop its longer-range strikes on Haifa and wait some time, while it licks its wounds, before resuming small cross-border shelling. Meanwhile the genetically weak Lebanese government will emerge no stronger from this campaign and will have to rebuild its infrastructure and try to help the innocent victims. Will the two Israeli soldiers whose brazen kidnapping by Hezbollah started this mess be freed? As Hezbollah showed us in the 1980s and early 1990s, it is never in any hurry to hand over hostages that it knows someone considers valuable. Indeed what those years also showed was that Hezbollah can be so headstrong that even when both of its state sponsors tell it to stop engaging in terrorism (as Teheran and Damascus did briefly in the late 1980s when the US tried to bribe them), it can say no. Even if the Syrians decide they want to pretend to help us again this time, President Bush's hope that young Assad might be able to bring Hezbollah to heel may be futile.  An Israeli reprisal, lasting a day or two, to hit Hezbollah rocket sites and send a message to its leadership made some sense after the kidnapping. The air campaign unfolding before our eyes, however, suggests an unrealistic strategy or none at all. Unless you kill all of them and the network that supplies them, bombing terrorists just makes them madder, helps their recruitment and makes them more likely to bomb you. What seems to be lacking is a political strategy: how to build a stronger Lebanese state and an international coalition (without the deployment of Western soldiers) to help it to disarm Hezbollah. Up to now, the West has been singularly inept at employing political tools in the struggle against Islamic extremism. It is so much easier to bomb.

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