Sunday, October 08, 2006

Mistakes In Perception

The Washington Post has an interesting article about the mistakes Hezbollah made in the recent war with Israel. The biggest being the response of Israel regarding the capture of its soldiers.

'What have you done?' Prime Minister Fouad Siniora asked him.

Khalil reassured him, according to an account by two officials briefed by Siniora, one of whom later confirmed it with the prime minister. 'It will calm down in 24 to 48 hours.'

More technocrat than politician, Siniora was skeptical. He pointed to the Gaza Strip, which Israeli forces had stormed after Palestinian militants abducted a soldier less than three weeks earlier. Israeli warplanes had blasted bridges and Gaza's main power station.

Calmly, Khalil looked at him. 'Lebanon is not Gaza,' he answered.

No, it is not. But what Khalil and Nasrallah did not, and perhaps still do not, realize is that Israel is not like other Middles East countries. Israel is a young country; one of the youngest in the world. It simply does not have the inertia of tradition that at times distort the Middle East's view of Western countries. Israel was born in a cauldron of battle and still exists in that state even now. In addition, it has its own cultural inertia; a legacy of the Holocaust. Pervading the country's psyche is a determination never to be that vulnerable again -- never to be put into a position where 6 million of its people can be murdered. As a result, Israel has developed a defiant, almost inflexible, society. It is not until recently that Israel has shown that it even knows what the word compromise means.

'I can reach Haifa and beyond Haifa,' Nasrallah was quoted as answering them, according to Marwan Hamadeh, the telecommunications minister and a critic of Hezbollah who took part in the dialogue. Israel would not risk a Hezbollah missile attack, Nasrallah added, which could strike its petrochemical industry and the northern third of the country, including some of its most populated regions.

'He considered his potential threat as his deterrent,' Hamadeh said, 'that Israel would not escalate.'

Part of this is a legacy of Arabian culture, partly the Islamic feeling of divine righteousness. What they don't understand is that Israel will not respond to bluff and bluster. Or if they do, it's to treat it as a deadly serious threat and react accordingly. They simply did not believe that Israel would respond with such force. Granted, Israel's response left a little to be desired. They took too long to mobilize and let Hezbollah entrench themselves in tactically significant positions for missile attacks. If Israel had moved instantly, Hezbollah most likely would have ceased to exist. At the very least the organization would have been mortally wounded.

In speeches and iconography, Hezbollah has cast the war as a 'divine victory.' But a reconstruction of the period before and soon after the seizure of the soldiers reveals a series of miscalculations on the part of the 24-year-old movement that defies its carefully cultivated reputation for planning and caution. Hezbollah's leadership sometimes waited days to evacuate the poor, densely populated neighborhood in southern Beirut that is its stronghold. Only as Israeli warplanes began reducing the headquarters to rubble did they realize the scope of what the Israeli military intended. Hezbollah fighters were still planning to train in Iran the very month that the soldiers were seized; Hezbollah leaders in Beirut had assured Lebanese officials of a relatively uneventful summer.

This is the big problem with religious justifications for actions. The assumption that somehow your actions are dictated by the courts of heaven. Yes, this can make for indefatigable fighters, but it also gives rise to one of the greatest sins a general can make. Overconfidence and a blindness to one's shortcomings.