Litani or Bust?

Like John Quiggan at Crooked Timber, I think for me the first question about Israel, Lebanon and Hizbollah concerns consequences of action. That’s been the primary basis of my anger about the war in Iraq as well.

I read Charles Maier’s Among Empires while I was in South Africa, and I was fairly impressed with it. I have some quibbles about it, but they’re all friendly quibbles. One thing that’s valuable about the book is Maier’s identification of some common problems that imperial or quasi-imperial states of various kinds tend to run into.

One of those problems is the problem of the frontier, which he identifies as one of the structural instabilities that tend to bring empires to an end, or at least throw them into crisis. Any state with some kind of imperial character is constantly in a quandry about its frontiers. If the frontier is too close to the empire’s core sovereignities, it is seen by many social groups in the core as a serious threat which has to be pushed out further. The further the frontier gets pushed out, however, the more difficult it becomes to maintain it, and the more that difficulty leads to increasing stresses on political and economic cohesion in the imperial core.

So I’m thinking about that observation a bit at the moment. What does the Israeli leadership see as the likely good consequence of pushing their forces up to the Litani River? If occupying Lebanon is such a good or at least inevitable idea, why did Israel ever give up the occupation? I don’t think Hizbollah is thinking very well about the really long-term consequences either (e.g., what kind of society are they actually hoping to live in someday?) but in the short-term, their strategic thinking seems clearer. They know an Israeli occupation of Lebanon is costly and ultimately unsustainable; they know that Israeli’s political and military leadership also feels it can’t afford to ignore the kinds of incursions and rocket attacks that prompted Israeli’s military response. That’s like forking someone in chess. When you think ahead, you might argue that it would have been wiser in strategic terms for Israel to just grit its teeth and endure Hizbollah’s provocations while considering some more sustainable long-term response.

Still, just war thinking is all the rage these days, and I myself invoked the “proportionality” argument earlier. There are plenty of people who respond with fury at any version of the proportionality argument, pointing out that Hizbollah’s the initial aggressor (true), that Hizbollah’s attacking civilians also (true), that Hizbollah is using Lebanese civilian populations as a human shield (true), and even that some Lebanese civilians give logistical support to Hizbollah’s attacks (true).

Let me try a reductio ad absurdum response. If no proportionality or just-war argument is legitimate in this case because of those facts, then would there be anything wrong with Israel declaring all of Lebanon to the Litani River to be a no-man’s land, and giving all human beings within that area a month to leave, with the intent to using military force to kill anyone remaining within the zone after that time? Wouldn’t that solve every single one of those problems? No more civilian shields, drastically reduced capacity to conduct rocket attacks on Israel’s territory.

I’m a bit nervous about asking this, because I worry a bit that there may be people who would say that was a perfectly legitimate response. At least that would be philosophically clear. But if you agree that this would be an unjust or disproportionate response, then how do we know where the line is crossed between the current response and that outer extreme? If South Lebanon becomes more or less uninhabitable, or if there is no constraint on avoiding civilian casualties if a rocket launch site is located, then what’s the difference?

Just war and consequentialist arguments ultimately intersect. Clearing the land to the Litani River would just draw Israel into an unending obligation to bombard and kill any intruder, an empire drawn out to an impossible frontier. Chasing Hizbollah out with military occupation, assuming that can be done, accomplishes little if Israel doesn’t receive strong assurances from a strong Lebanese state that Hizbollah will never be allowed back. A strong Lebanese state can’t come into being while Israel occupies its territory and antagonizes its citizens. Chasing Hizbollah out is a temporary achievement as long as there are civilians living within South Lebanon who have any sympathy for Hizbollah. As long as Israel appears substantially indifferent to the consequences of its operations for people in South Lebanon, there will be some (likely an increasing number) who have sympathy for Hizbollah. Military actions which are unjust and disproportionate, or even those which appear to be such to many people affected by those actions, also may be self-defeating in their consequences.

Reading Maier, one proposition that I got out of his analysis is that with a few exceptions, the only empires which are liberated from the burden of their frontier are those which cease being empires, which integrate their sovereignities into nations, accepting the obligation to try and reduce regional inequality or dominance within the national borders. Such nations also seek to promote the integrated sovereignity of states or polities on their borders. Israel seems to have grasped this lesson very well with regard to Jordan and Egypt, for example. With Lebanon (or Palestine) it seems to me that something similar is the only real long-term answer. Everything else is a false road, no matter how urgently necessary it may appear in the short-term.

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4 Responses to Litani or Bust?

  1. homais says:

    Maybe I’m not reading you the right way, but it seems like you’re taking a prolonged occupation as a given that follows from pushing to the Litani river. I suspect that’s not Israel’s goal – very politically poisonous, and almost certainly likely to fail just like it did in the 90s. I suspect they hope that if they can pacify that region, they’ll be able to use the ‘moment of victory’ to hand it over to a peacekeeping force or maybe the Lebanese army, or some other poor sucker who has a mandate to (and this is their real hope) implement UN 1559. There are a lot of ifs in that plan, and I’m less opimistic about it not turning into a prolonged occupation than they seem to be, but I doubt that a longer occupation is their actual intention.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m thinking more that once you push to the Litani River, it becomes extremely difficulty to just “hand it over” to some sucker. As you say, lots of ifs. I think Hizbollah and its backers will in fact do everything they can to keep Israel stuck in the moral and political mud of occupation.

  3. SamChevre says:

    I’m very nearly one of those “people who respond with fury at any version of the proportionality argument”–except in my case, it’s “bristle at a misunderstood but common use of the proportionality argument.”

    The problem is that people argue for proportionality between the wrong things. The things that are to be proportional are the benefit and the harm of the war, NOT the harm done by each side to the other.

    In other words–destroying the Japanese Empire was grossly disproportionate if you compare it to their attacks on the US. It was proportionate with the goal–to stop the brutalization of a large portion of the Orient by the Japanese–NOT with the initial attack. Similarly, destroying the army, government, and economy of the South was quite disproportional to the attack on Fort Sumter.

    Similarly, if you want to argue that Israel’s response to the Party of God (Hezbollah) was disproportional, you need to argue in terms of the goals of both sides. The damage so far inflicted by Israel and that inflicted on Israel are not the things that need to be proportionate.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree with that, Sam. I think that’s the way I’ve been using the point about proportionality: does Israel’s military response to date achieve useful goals, service achievable objectives? And it’s in relation to the proportionate *harm* of Hizbollah’s initial provocations. Does one cross-border raid and rocket attacks threaten the survival of Israel, or put most of its citizens in mortal danger? No and no. Can those attacks be endured, mitigated? Yes. The current response puts Israel in a considerably more expensive and dangerous quandry than it was in before the counterattack on Hizbollah. That’s the disproprotion here, the escalation: a huge response to a manageable if outrageous and unjust provocation that puts the state of Israel in an ever-more difficult and perilous situation.

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