Augustus Richard Norton teaches International Relations at Boston University and is an expert on Hizballah and Lebanon. The Journal of Palestine Studies has done an interview with him called "HIZBALLAH THROUGH THE FOG OF THE LEBANON WAR". It is usually enlightening to actually read what knowledgeable scholars say about foreign policy issues and compare it with the ideology purveyed by most American media and certainly most American politicians. I'm not sure the U.S. can ever get back to assessing foreign policy issues rationally and realistically but that is the goal to which my effort in this blog (and any book that results) is dedicated.
The interview with Norton is long and I only want to touch some high points. He gives a history of the background to the recent war in Lebanon including these observations: "In the course of the Israeli-Hizballah fighting during the occupation, there developed a well-understood set of rules of the game. These became increasingly concrete in the 1990s, first as an oral understanding in 1993 and then actually written down in 1996.... [T]he “rules” specified that Hizballah would not attack Israel per se and in return Israel would not attack Lebanese civilians and infrastructure.... So contrary to a lot of commentary in the West and Israel, basically the south was pretty quiet during these six years [2000-2006].... I don’t think there’s any question but that [Hizballah] became more deeply rooted. Keep in mind that the government does not provide much, if any, of a safety net in Lebanon, and Hizballah offers both security and social services. This is amovement with lots of nonmilitary components—construction companies, schools, hospitals, dispensaries, financing organizations, and so on. These tend to be located in predominantly Shi`i areas, but they serve whoever walks in.... [Hizballah]’s also unique in Lebanon in terms of its reputation for being noncorrupt, which is another reason it has become so rooted.... Hizballah is widely admired, even by nonmembers, not only as a resistance force but as an extremely efficient and clean political apparatus.... [W]hen the current Lebanese government was formed in summer 2005, it officially endorsed Hizballah’s argument that Lebanese territory needs to be defended and that there is a legitimate role for its 'national resistance'.... [This] removes Hizballah from the “militia” category and thereby exempts it from requirements to disarm either under the terms of the 1989 Ta’if accord or UN Security Council Resolution 1559 of 2004."
Dr. Norton continued: "I think there is by now widespread recognition among leading Hizballah officials that an Islamic state in Lebanon is totally unrealizable.... It is quite clear now that Hizballah leaders like Nasrallah know that an Islamic state is not on the agenda.... There is no doubt that Hizballah massively miscalculated. In a way, they were too smart by half. They thought they were still operating more or less within the rule box on 12 July when they captured two Israeli soldiers to use in negotiations for the release of the Lebanese prisoners still held by Israel.... But for the Israelis, the incident was an opportunity to forget the rule box altogether and to take out Hizballah once and for all. There is pretty good circumstantial evidence that Israel’s response was well coordinated with the U.S. In my view, when Israel and Washington looked at Hizballah, they saw Iran."
The Journal of Palestine Studies interviewer asked: "How could Hizballah’s capture of the soldiers be seen as within the rule box since they crossed into Israel?"
Dr. Norton replied: "Hizballah was clearly trying to stretch the rules. There’s a lot of evidence that they thought they could get away with it and that the reaction would be minor, because the byword of the rules of the game was proportionality. In short, there was a monumental miscalculation.... It is just possible that the 12 July gambit might have worked if Ariel Sharon were still prime minister.... [I]n my view the military inexperience of Olmert and Peretz increased the chances of a massive attack.... What I definitely do not think is that this was something ordered by Iran. From my own long-term study of Hizballah, I am convinced that this was something that was decided autonomously; it is not something they would have had to consult anyone about because they thought they could get away with it."
JPS: "Earlier you seemed to suggest that Israel had planned this operation beforehand. Can you elaborate?"
Norton: "Clearly, this was not an operation that could be put together on the fly. Prioritizing targets and establishing bombing programs, these things need to be assembled ahead of time.... On the Israeli side certainly there was overestimation of their own military abilities. For that matter, Americans often exaggerate Israeli military capabilities as well. The Israeli military undoubtedly has a huge technical advantage over its adversaries in terms of its superior communications, logistics, and especially its air force. The idea that airpower may obviate the need to put troops on the ground is notoriously seductive, but given both Hizballah’s preparations and southern Lebanon’s irregular terrain, it was clear from the first day of Israeli bombing that the air force would not be able to deliver the “decisive and clean” victory that I gather Olmert promised to the White House.... Israelis officials have consistently presumed—in 1993, 1996, and 2006—that if they bomb Lebanon mercilessly the resistance will lose support. That has not turned out to be true. Indeed, the opposite effect is usually the result (emphasis added)."
JPS: "One of the big issues of this war has been the targeting of civilians, with repeated allegations that Hizballah used human shields."
Norton: "With regard to civilians, one thing that is crucial to point out is that during the entire occupation period up to 2000 Hizballah carried out relatively few attacks on Israeli civilians, and the few exceptions were during times of heightened fighting, for instance during the Israeli incursions of 1993 and 1996 when the Lebanese population was being bombed and driven north, and Hizballah would fire rockets across the border. But for the most part there was a scrupulous effort on the part of the resistance to attack only combatants or legitimate targets within the context of the 'rules of the game.' As for this last war, a lot of the charges that Hizballah was using “civilian shields” were spurious. Certainly there were cases when Hizballah fighters were positioned adjacent to civilian areas, as were weapons stores, but in a great many instances Israel attacked civilian locations where there were clearly no weapons, and this is amply documented by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. I don’t think there is any doubt that Israel has used the blanket charge of Hizballah using human shields to hide the fact that they were committing war crimes. I’m sure you recall the well-documented cases in the West Bank where Israelis literally and directly used Palestinians as human shields, and I know of no instance where Hizballah has ever done anything like this."
JPS: "There’s been a lot of talk about Israel’s systematic targeting of infrastructure, even far from Hizballah strongholds. What would be gained by this from a military standpoint?"
Norton: "As I mentioned earlier, one of the problems is Israel’s persistent conviction that if they pound hard enough, Lebanese support for the resistance will disappear. They should have learned by now that this doesn’t work. This was demonstrated yet again in this latest war. Initially, many Lebanese—including many Shi`a—were furious at Hizballah for giving Israel the pretext to attack and said so openly. But as these over-the-top attacks and bombings continued, the national identification solidified. I think that there is a rather extraordinary misreading of political psychology at play here. But there is also a fundamental disregard for Lebanese lives. And when you consider things like the massive dropping of hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs on south Lebanon in the last seventy-two hours before the UN resolution kicked in, I think you can only conclude that there is a high degree of simple vindictiveness on Israel’s part, an impulse to punish the Lebanese for Hizballah’s behavior (emphasis added)."
Well I've succeeded in making this post too long again. I guess I think so many things are important I don't want to leave them out. I also would prefer to let you read what the expert said for yourself rather than offer my abridged translation. I'll comment on what is most important to me here in the next post.