War in Lebanon

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign-policy authorities about the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah

In the long run, who is likely to benefit the most from the armed conflict between Hezbollah and Israel?
43% Iran

“Iran benefits the most, as it diverts attention from the nuclear issue; undermines the more secular Arab leaders (such as those in Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), and gives Israel a black eye.”

“Iran staged this operation with Syria's support. The fighting is not in Hezbollah's interest, proving that Nasrallah will do what he is told by his state sponsors. This is Iran, widening the context of the nuclear negotiation by demonstrating that it is a regional power that can hurt us more than we can hurt them.”

“Iran has again demonstrated its ability to export instability well beyond its borders, making clear it is a region-wide player to be reckoned with. It is being empowered by a broader Shiite resurgence, one piece of which is Hezbollah's increased stature and influence. And Tehran, through Hezbollah's challenge to Israel, is taking control of the Islamist street.”

“Iran — While Hezbollah's initial attack seemed to widen the division between Sunnis and Shiites, the unrelenting (yet quite ineffective) military campaign by Israel is uniting the Muslim world — Sunni and Shiite — in opposition to Israel, the United States and the West. Over time, this cannot help but strengthen Iran's position in the region.”

“Iran. The longer it goes on, the more that Iran can position itself as a peacemaker, pull strings with Hezbollah as the latter seeks to re-supply itself, strengthen its negotiating position with the P5+1 [Britain, China, France, Germany Russia, the EU, and the U.S.], and split some of the P5+1 away from the U.S.”

“Iran has again demonstrated its ability to export instability well beyond its borders, making clear it is a region-wide player to be reckoned with. It is being empowered by a broader Shiite resurgence, one piece of which is Hezbollah's increased stature and influence. And Tehran, through Hezbollah's challenge to Israel, is taking control of the Islamist street.”

“As a revolutionary state claiming to represent radical Islamic fundamentalism, Iran comes out as the clear winner—without risking very much. It will be widely seen in the region as the architect of the first Islamic victory over Israel. A Shia victory will send the Sunni rulers in the Gulf into a search for accommodation with Iran and put an end of any hope for political reform. The fallacy of Israeli policy and the Bush-Rice approach is to believe that what was at stake could be determined by the exercise of superior Israel military force. Even if the Israeli military strategy and execution had shown the brilliance of an earlier generation of Israeli political-military leaders - and it clearly has not - this was always going to be a political contest with military force in support. While many will say that the US and Israeli governments are following in the same failed track that resulted in the current situation in Iraq, this does not truly comprehend the scale of what has happened. The closer analogue is the criminal ineptness of Tsar Nicholas II and his Generals in the Russo-Japanese War 1904-05. The Japanese victory led directly to the rise of virulent nationalism across Asia and in Russia ended any hope of reform. In ten short years the Western state system began to unravel and 30 years of war and revolution descended on the world. Those who believe that while history does not repeat itself, but does rhyme will understand the bloody chaos that lies ahead.

In the context of the Israel-Lebanon-Hezbollah relationship, Hezbollah wins the political victory. The nascent democratic, multi-confessional political system in Lebanon is shattered.”

33% Hezbollah

“While Hezbollah's initial attack seemed to widen the division between Sunnis and Shiites, the unrelenting (yet quite ineffective) military campaign by Israel is uniting the Muslim world — Sunni and Shiite — in opposition to Israel, the United States and the West. Over time, this cannot help but strengthen Iran's position in the region.”

“Whatever military weakening Israel inflicts [on Hezbollah] will be more than compensated by the rise of Hezbollah’s stature and power (and especially that of their leader, Hassan Nasrallah) throughout the region.”

“Unless the Israeli military campaign is changed to reflect a deeper involvement with more ground troops, the Hezbollah will be over-whelming winners. They will use this operation to propagandize the Middle East that Israel cannot defeat them and that the US has marginal, if any, influence in the Middle East. By-product winners are: first, Iran; second, Syria; and third, the terrorist-backed and Iranian-backed elements in Iraq using the same analogy that Western democracies can be defeated and that the US is a paper tiger.”

“Hezbollah and other radical groups. Their military capability will be eroded by the war, but their political standing within the Arab world will climb.”

“Hezbollah seems headed to be the big winner—every day they can keep trading shots is a day more than any Arab government was able to do so, while every day of Israeli air strikes weakens the Lebanese government further, strengthening Hezbollah's relative position within Lebanon too.”

“Hezbollah will become the new poster boy for standing up to the Israelis and, by proxy, the Americans. if Israel could not wipe them out over a period of years, they are unlikely to do so in weeks. All Hezbollah has to do to 'win' is still be standing when the crisis is over.”

“At the moment it appears that Hezbollah and its sponsors, Iran and Syria come out the best though events could change the tide once again.”

“Hezbollah, if nothing is done by the US to end the conflict there and between Israel and Palestine; also F. Al Qaeda, which will gain a big bump in recruits as a result of what is now happening.

But if the US does what it ought to do in terms of 1) Lebanon (Immediate ceasefire then major relief efforts and international force and serious political support for the Government of Lebanon); 2) Israel-Palestine peace (Clinton Principles and press constantly for a final settlement); and 3) Iran (open negotiations without preconditions and offer it a "grand bargain"), then the winners can be the US, the allies, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, other regional states, and the anti-terror effort. The Middle East is "all of a piece," and trying to deal with it piecemeal will fail as it always has.”

7% Lebanon
5% Israel

“Israel will gain the most if they prevail, as will the United States. Humiliating one of Iran's proxies advantages the U.S. By defeating Hezbollah Israel removes one of the most lethal threats from its borders.”

5% Syria

“Syria may benefit the most. There is a push to get the administration into diplomacy with Syria and Iran. Bush is reluctant to engage with Iran, lest he bolster the regime politically and demoralize the Iranians who oppose it. Some people argue that Bush should court Syria to drive a wedge between it and Iran and deprive Hezbollah of Syria's support. If Bush goes along with that argument, he'll have to reverse the course of US policy toward Syria, which could substantially benefit the Syrian regime.”

5% Radical Islamic Groups

“Radical Islamic groups: Hezbollah may lose both because Israel will degrade its capability and some of the Lebanese population will blame them once the dust settles, but the images of Qana will be a powerful recruitment tool for Al Qaeda and similar organizations throughout the Muslim world.”

2% Palestine
Who is likely to lose the most?
32% Lebanon

“Lebanon's efforts to knit together a functioning multi-sectarian society take another blow, while Israel and the United States deliver Hezbollah and Iran a public relations coup.”

“Lebanon. The state will risk collapsing.”

“Both Lebanon and Israel will lose most—this answer is interlinked. The only way Israel can 'win' is for Lebanon to be a genuine state, with full control of its borders and the factions within them (that means Hezbollah). If Lebanon remains instead an arena for conflict for the other powers in the region as it has been and now is, Israel will never have a secure Northern border. Bombing the hell out of Beirut does not, in the long run, do anything to bring about this strategic change.”

“Lebanon is again being racked by war and sectarian tension. At best, it will take years to rebuild the country and restore a functioning government that extends its control throughout the country. At worst, Lebanon could head in the direction becoming a failed state.”

“Lebanon, unless the U.S. and others finally decide that enough is enough in terms of its being a dumping ground for others' proxies conflicts. But if we do what we need to do, the big losers will be Hezbollah, and Syria, with Iran either accepting a genuine U.S. offer of a "grand bargain" or further isolating itself.”

“Lebanon loses the most, as it loses most opportunities in having a real government.”

26% Israel

“Israel has lost the most, because it has the narrowest of safety margins. Its major loss is the belief, among most of its Arab neighbors and even the United States, in the superiority of Israeli intelligence and military forces and the skill of Israeli diplomacy. The myth of Israeli invincibility is dead, to be replaced only by what? More terrorism, more embolden enemies, fewer political leaders in the region willing to stand against the voices of violence, and concern about whether the American political leadership will re-evaluate its willingness to mortgage American political and economic interests to support a weakened Israel.

In a broader sense, all who believed that the region had a future of growing stability, peace, and, even, elements of democracy have lost. Historians will have a hard time explaining how political leaders let two small border raids and the seizure of hostages spin so out of control. One wonders how they will explain how so many misjudged what was at stake and were so reckless with their nations future.”

“Israel. The US will also lose substantially but our size seems to give us a much larger margin for loss.”

25% The United States

“The U.S., for two reasons. One, like the insurgents’ ability in Iraq to challenge the U.S. military, Hezbollah’s ability to withstand Israel’s onslaught will only embolden terrorists and insurgents everywhere to use these same asymmetric tactics and network strategies against more powerful, conventional military opponents. Much as the Palestinian commandos’ success in the late 1960s ushered in the era of modern international terrorism that we are still enmeshed in today, Hezbollah’s success will similarly become a model for emulation by terrorists and insurgents elsewhere.”

“The Bush administration’s short-sighted decision to back Israel’s ineffective response against Hezbollah has further isolated America from the world. By insisting on its us vs. them view of the world, the administration has yet again pursued policies that makes more of them and less of us. In the end, by standing alone in the world, America has lost more than anyone else.”

“The biggest loser is the U.S. because we fail to open dialog with those elements that represent the center of gravity, namely, the Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Additionally, our total backing of Israel (which, in concept, I agree with) lacking any words of constraint reduced our position and portrayed a position of weakness. Finally, the Secretary of State appeared to be de-fanged in every meeting. It was somewhat reminiscent of Warren Christopher's initial visits to the Middle East.”

“The failure of U.S. diplomacy, the American isolation with Israel, and the Islamist television coverage of US supplied weapons all further diminish America's already low standing in the Islamic world and globally. The U.S. had made a big deal of its accomplishments in Lebanon's Cedar Revolution; that is now all ash. The impotence of the U.S. militarily and diplomatically greatly diminish our ability to influence events or even do commerce in key nations.”

“The United States of America—our mindless disregard of the problems the fighting is creating strengthens Hezbollah, gives Iran greater leeway on the nuclear file, and distracts us from the civil war spiraling out of control in Iraq.”

“The United States: By our unwillingness to understand the deeper dynamics of change taking place in the region, and to play a leadership role in actively addressing these problems (including the Israel-Palestinian track, and an active role in the building up the capabilities of the Lebanese state to take on Hezbollah), we have left Israel with the lose-lose choice of standing by while Hezbollah arms, or attacking and strengthening the radicals political position, and now we appear to be passive bystanders as Israel's tries to cope with these two unpalatable options. This will further damage the US already parlous standing and credibility in the region and the world.”

10% Hezbollah
5% Iran

“If Israel prevails Iran loses the most—one of their tools of intimidation is removed and the America can seize the opportunity to exert more pressure on the nuclear issue.”

2% Civilians

“The group that may lose the most from this war is civilians in general. What the press coverage and the diplomacy prove is that there are enormous benefits to Hezbollah in placing its people and weapons among civilians so that when Israel fights back, there are horrific pictures and reports of civilian casualties. The rewards for putting civilians at risk in this fashion are so large and obvious that we can expect to see a lot more of this in the future as terrorists pursue their jihad against democratic countries that have to take pains to avoid civilian harm.

One of the main goals of the drafters of the 1949 Geneva Conventions was to protect civilians in war zones by requiring all fighters—regular and irregular forces alike—to operate in ways that distinguish military people and sites (i.e., proper targets) from civilian people and sites. If fighters made the proper distinction—by wearing uniforms, carrying arms openly and not mingling with non-combatants—the Geneva Conventions rewarded them with combatant status, which meant that if they got captured, they were entitled to be treated as POWs.

If fighters purposefully endanger civilians by the way they deploy or emplace their weapons, then they are not entitled to POW status even in a war to which the Geneva Conventions apply. What this suggests is that all the people who are interested in upholding the Conventions—in GTMO and elsewhere—should be making a big stink about Hezbollah's policy toward purposefully endangering Lebanese civilians. Blaming Israel rather than Hezbollah for collateral damage in Lebanon can accomplish the opposite of what the Conventions aimed to achieve. In sum, if the world continues to reward Hezbollah's endangering of Lebanese civilians we can expect to see a lot more such endangerment in the future around the world.”

“These are short-term answers. In the longer run the biggest loser is probably the U.S., now associated more than ever with its local client state (Israel) and further weakened in its capacity to influence any of the local actors or achieve its proclaimed objectives. Another long-run loser is Israel: ever more friendless in large measure thanks to its own errors, and now seen to be unable to dispense efficiently with Hezbollah.”

“It is too early to make a choice. If the international response is weak and "balanced", probably Iran. If Israel is not forced to a cease-fire too soon, then Israel—particularly if the international response forces Syria to cease supplying Hezbollah with Iranian arms.”

“It is too early to tell who, if anyone, will end up benefiting from the conflict. But Lebanon is clearly the greatest loser.”

PARTICIPANTS (43): Kenneth Adelman, Ronald Asmus, Samuel Berger, Daniel Blumenthal, Stephen Bosworth, Daniel Byman, Warren Christopher, Richard Clarke, Eliot Cohen, Ivo Daalder, James Dobbins, Lawrence Eagleburger, Douglas Feith, John Gaddis, Jay Garner, Leslie Gelb, Marc Grossman, John Hamre, Gary Hart, Bruce Hoffman, John Hulsman, Robert Hunter, Tony Judt, Robert Kagan, David Kay, Andrew Krepinevich, Charles Kupchan, John Lehman, James Lindsay, Edward Luttwak, Jessica Mathews, John McLaughlin, William Nash, Joseph Nye, Charles Pascual, Thomas Pickering, Kenneth Pollack, Joseph Ralston, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman, Ann Marie Slaughter, James Steinberg, Anthony Zinni.

Not all participants answered both questions.

Photo by Morteza Nikoubazi/Reuters