Blind Into Beirut

Hezbollah's July 12 raid into Israel, backed by Iran, was intended to entangle Israel in a limited skirmish on its northern border and a drawn-out prisoner exchange at a time when Iran was facing mounting pressure over its nuclear program. Israel, backed by the United States, responded with a large-scale war meant to deliver a knockout blow to Hezbollah and thereby remove the missile threat to northern Israel, weaken Iran in any upcoming showdown, and eliminate what the United States considers a major opponent in the war on terrorism. Washington also hoped to give a boost to the Lebanese government, which it considered a potential democratic success story.

But wars rarely proceed as expected, and no participant in this war got what it had bargained for. Hezbollah ended up in a full-scale war, in which it won some battlefield victories and popularity in the Arab and Muslim world but which devastated its Lebanese Shiite constituency and narrowed its tactical and political options. Israel, despite unleashing massive airpower on Hezbollah strongholds, failed to knock out the organization or even to stop its missile attacks, while the setbacks suffered by Israel's ground invasion had the effect of puncturing the aura of invincibility long projected by the Israel Defense Forces. Tehran reaped some benefit from Hezbollah's increased popularity and perhaps can point to the organization's robust performance as a warning to those considering military action against Iran, but this war wasted much of the deterrent power that it had vested in Hezbollah for its own hour of need. Meanwhile, the United States looked on helplessly as the crisis drove Arab and Muslim public opinion further against it and weakened an already fragile Lebanon. As is the case with most proxy wars, the highest price was paid by the host country, Lebanon, which found itself the arena of regional and international war. The terrible toll on civilian life, housing, and infrastructure made this one of the most devastating wars in Lebanon's recent history.

Significantly, the crisis was resolved diplomatically rather than militarily, with the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 -- a transformative resolution that provides a meaningful basis for moving forward and a framework for new political and security realities in Lebanon and the region. The deployment of the Lebanese army to southern Lebanon with UN troop support has put an end to four decades of control by nonstate actors. Resolution 1701 is an important step toward a stable and sovereign Lebanon. It deserves sustained support and beckons the international community to make renewed efforts to find multilateral diplomatic solutions to other conflicts in the area.

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Reprinted by permission of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, November/December 2006. Copyright 2006 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.