Michael Totten has a piece about Israel’s bombing of civilian targets in Beirut that manages to have more rationalizations and apologetics than an IDF press release. As with most politicized writings, Totten’s article has two parts – a factual one, and a polemical one. As in most cases, there’s little connection between the two. The factual report is usually just an excuse to write the polemic, or a way for the author to signal to the readers that he knows what he’s talking about, so his political views must be right.
Here, the factual part is a short trip throughout Beirut documenting the damage the Israeli air strikes did. It looks fairly extensive; it’s not anything like WW2-style carpet bombing, but individual buildings blocks did get flattened. It’s not the sort of thing that contributes to an understanding of the damage caused by either side, but it’s something.
The polemic part that follows it is based entirely on Totten’s wild guesses, which shouldn’t even be dignified with the word “conjecture.”
If Hezbollah ever acquires the ability to do to Israel what the Israelis did to Haret Hreik, Hezbollah and the strongholds they control could very well cease to exist. Hezbollah can’t win a total war. They can only “win” if the Israelis don’t feel like they have to fight to the finish. I would not want to be anywhere near South Lebanon or Beirut’s southern suburbs if Hezbollah decides to launch skyscraper-shattering missiles at Tel Aviv instead of long-range souped-up hand grenades at Kiryat Shmona.
This is what scares the Israelis, after all – that missile war may be replacing terrorist war. Their ability and willingness to launch an overwhelmingly disproportionate response means Hezbollah had better not dare ramp it up.
The unbroken string of defeats to the established powers in asymmetric warfare in the last 40 years have led some hawks to believe that all that’s needed is the will to kill large numbers of civilians. In 1975, that view was conjectural. Today, it’s provably false.
Realist foreign policy has to be conducted with considerations of political capital in mind. Even the US squandered its with the invasion of Iraq. Israel, 3% of whose GDP is American aid, has an even greater need to avoid making its money source too irate, as the Grapes of Wrath fiasco showed.
And even so, the assumption that Israel is the only party that is restraining itself out of goodwill is one-sided. In principle, Israel can level Beirut. So what? In principle, Syria and Iran can launch a joint invasion of Israel. If Syria and Iran shoot first then the USA will airlift ammunition to Israel the way it did in 1973, but not if Israel has just bombed civilian targets so recklessly that it will have lost its entire political capital reserves.
Totten’s piece is ultimately just another link in a long chain of polemics that try to use idealistic analysis, which was never really in vogue in international relations. The only difference between the new neoconservative idealists and the old liberal ones is that the liberal ones tried promoting peace, whereas the neoconservative ones are promoting war and domination. Reality never conclusively swings either side’s way.