An Honorable Exit

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.

It’s hard not to identify with the congressional Democrats who protested this week against the planned Capitol Hill appearance by the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi visitor had just gotten through a White House press conference, where he condemned Israel’s anti-terrorist action in Lebanon as an “aggression.” (In Baghdad a week earlier, he had called it a “criminal aggression.”) The very next day, he was to address a rare joint session of Congress and ask America to continue pursuing its own anti-terrorist action in Iraq. America has lost nearly 2,600 soldiers in Maliki’s country over the past three years, fighting on what we’re told is one front in a global war against terrorism. Israel is currently battling on what is undeniably another front in that very war. Whose side, Democrats were asking, is Maliki on?

It’s a fair question, but sadly beside the point right now. When you’re flat on your back, you can’t be too choosy about who your friends are, and America — it’s no secret — is flat on its back in Iraq these days. We’re bogged down in a war we can’t win and can’t get out of. We misjudged our foes’ capabilities and overestimated our own. We have alienated our allies and inflamed much of the rest of the world, and as a consequence we’ve sharply narrowed our short-term options and undermined our leadership position on the broader world stage. Perhaps most alarming, we have unintentionally unleashed our most dangerous adversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran, by eliminating its worst enemy, the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.

At this point, whatever hopes America may still harbor for an honorable exit from Iraq rest on the slim shoulders of Nouri al-Maliki. He happens to be a Shi’ite Muslim, like the mullahs in Tehran and the Hezbollah rocketeers in Lebanon, so it’s not hard to guess where his gut sympathies lie. But right now, he’s the best we’ve got.

There is a cautionary lesson for Israel in all this. Although the war in Lebanon is less than three weeks old, it is already clear that things are not turning out the way Israel planned. Like America in Iraq, Israel misread the capacity and the will of its adversaries. Like America, Israel began from a starting point of worldwide sympathy because of an outrageous attack on its soil, but now sees that sympathy dissolving before its eyes. It set itself a goal, the elimination of Hezbollah as a fighting force, that depends in large measure on factors beyond Israel’s control. Now it finds itself in an unexpectedly tough battle that it cannot afford to lose — but may not be able to win.

Israel’s war in Lebanon differs from America’s war in Iraq in at least one crucial respect: It was, from the outset, indisputably justified. Faced with an unprovoked attack by a terrorist organization across its border, Israel decided to bring the war to the enemy. It replied with reasonable force to an unreasonable assault.

At the end of two weeks, however, Israel had accomplished far less than it needed to. It had not dented Hezbollah’s fighting spirit or slowed the rain of rockets on Israeli cities. The effort to clear terrorist bases away from the border zone had netted just two villages captured, and one of them just barely. Israel is now learning that the task it has taken on will require more time and exact a greater toll, on Israel and Lebanon alike, than anticipated.

But precisely because of that mounting toll — on both populations — Israel may not have time. As televised scenes of loss in Lebanon are beamed hourly into living rooms around the world, governments in London, Paris, Cairo and Riyadh are under pressure to do something. That pressure is felt in Washington, and then in Jerusalem. The way things look now, Israel will be forced to quit well before it finishes the job it set for itself. The only question is how soon.

To achieve an honorable exit from Lebanon, then, Israel must find another way of moving Hezbollah. It will need to reach an understanding with those that can influence the Shi’ite militia, beginning with Syria. Israel’s leaders understand this, we’re told by senior officials in Jerusalem, but they worry that Washington doesn’t get it.

Now is the time for diplomacy to begin. Getting a deal will require the help of nations that are tacitly on Israel’s side right now, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The trick is to press as far as possible on the battlefield, so that Hezbollah comes to the negotiation in the most compliant position possible — but not to push so far that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are no longer on board. They are, so to speak, the best Israel has got.

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