Thursday, August 03, 2006


Alternate Realities

I read an Op Ed in the New York Times today that warranted closer scrutiny, beyond the particulars of its argument. If this piece reflects the level of mastery of logic possessed by a typical Political Science Professor, than God help those students of the political arts.

The basis for my prayer is Ground to a Halt, written by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago. Here’s how he launches his argument:

ISRAEL has finally conceded that air power alone will not defeat Hezbollah. Over the coming weeks, it will learn that ground power won’t work either. The problem is not that the Israelis have insufficient military might, but that they misunderstand the nature of the enemy.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Hezbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia. It is a broad movement that evolved in reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. At first it consisted of a small number of Shiites supported by Iran. But as more and more Lebanese came to resent Israel’s occupation, Hezbollah — never tight-knit — expanded into an umbrella organization that tacitly coordinated the resistance operations of a loose collection of groups with a variety of religious and secular aims.

In terms of structure and hierarchy, it is less comparable to, say, a religious cult like the Taliban than to the multidimensional American civil-rights movement of the 1960’s. What made its rise so rapid, and will make it impossible to defeat militarily, was not its international support but the fact that it evolved from a reorientation of pre-existing Lebanese social groups.

Hezbollah. Not a terrorist gang, not a radical Islamic militia, not a tool of the Iranians and Syria. Hezbollah, more a state of mind or movement, just like the US Civil Rights Movement. Rights for terrorists and other dreamers of the 7th Century Caliphate. That’s more reprehensible a comparison than oft-criticized Hitler and Nazi allusions (made by those all over the blogosphere).

I think it folly for casual observers such as Pape to assume that Israel somehow “conceded” anything, or that the chain of events from initial Israeli response to Hezbollah aggression to the current ground offensive weren’t part of a long range plan. Wretchard of The Belmont Club makes the point better than I in posts here and here.

That’s the same false assumption that lies behind a lot of uninformed reporting about Iraq, where the US military and Iraqi Security Forces continue to work through a long and involved process that may have bumps and unexpected developments, but pretty much going as one might expect, and the smart folks at the Pentagon clearly understood and anticipated. Not that that convinces the chatterers.

Israel may as well surrender, this line of thinking goes, because the enemy they face is against ideas and states of mind, a “multidimensional movement” rather than an armed militia. (A movement, by the way, that sustains its existence by force of arms, violence and physical intimidation.)

I say baloney. Hit them hard, attack their terrorist-making and violence making capabilities. Deny them safe havens anywhere. Block their retreat and supply lines. Make it very difficult for their allies. Kill them. Once they are destroyed by overwhelming force, let’s see how much staying power the “Hezbollah state of mind” retains. I have a hunch that the other long-suppressed political factions in Lebanon may have a different point of view when the Israeli’s finish the job and pull back to wherever they choose to pull back to.

Back to Pape’s thesis in a moment, time now for a theoretical discussion about the basis for attributing motivations to Nation States and other non-state, non-governmental organizations (NGO).

Digression on Reality, Truth and Perception

We want to know what’s going on, news confuses, and we crave someone to explain it all for us in a way that’s simple, direct, and helps us make sense of it all. For that, we turn to the chattering class. This rare group of self- and media-appointed sages does the heavy lifting for us. They scour the media, they track events against history and expectations, and they formulate opinions. They report, we decide.

Disclaimer. In the thoroughly modern world, a new set of voices self-nominate themselves into the chattering class, and use their blogs to promote alternative opinions, views, and other odd elements of the pubic discourse. Often not much more informative than barroom chatter, these opinion addicts nevertheless add to the world of commentary. So in the following, I and my fellow bloggers are un-indicted co-conspirators in the crime as charged. End of disclaimer.

As events occur, the chattering classes, well, chatter. In chattering, commentators and editors summarize events, draw conclusions, and prognosticate what things will happen next. In doing so, the commentator often loses grasp of the difference between what worlds he or she conjure up as speculation, and that world which constitutes the only one we know.

Nowhere does this form of disconnect occur most often than in trying to discern the motivations of Nation States and NGOs.

Most probably, Nation States don’t ever mean to do anything for any one reason at all, but rather, individual leaders and decision-makers agree to a course of action imperfectly executed, using a combination of both rational and irrational justifications. They jawbone amongst themselves, chatter in fact, work through one form of consensus or another, maintain their private sense of “what’s going on and why,” and publicly make statements about their actions, which likewise align imperfectly with what is thought privately.

Much like the nonsensical but ubiquitous anthropomorphism of inanimate objects, it makes no sense to attribute human emotions and motivations to the actions in the collective called Nation State (or NGO for that matter).

So why do I make such a fuss reading Pape’s Op Ed? Because his entire argument hinges on a core fallacy of thought. And truth be told, the core fallacy of much of what gets written by the chattering class about foreign relations. Which are very different animals indeed than the relations of their domestic counterparts, national, state, or regional politics. (See, if not anthropomorphizing exactly, I’m at least animating my subject.)

What’s that core fallacy? That Israel was in fact acting completely in accord with what opinion-makers said, and now that they are doing something different than what they did originally, they must have “changed their mind.” (This kind of projective logic has a philosophical name, I’m sure, but I am not a trained philosopher and apologize for the lack of a definitive label.)

We’ve watched a similar philosophy play out with reporting of Bush Administration actions and priorities. President Bush, if ever he takes a different tack than that expected or forecasted by his critics, it was directly due to their incessant scolding. It’s easy to note the headlines or opening ledes in the Washington Post: “Bush Sees Light, Bends to Criticism.”

We also witnessed this self-absorption in the way Senator Voinovich explained his reversal on Ambassador Bolton. (“He listened to my criticism. I was pretty hard on him, but he clearly knew I was right and straightened up his act.”)

Back to Pape’s Thesis

Only to sum up the rest of his argument. Pape concludes that, because Hezbollah enlists “non-fundamentalists” as their fodder for suicide bombings, that represents a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation. I tell you what, I’ll bet you’ll find they don’t as a class like McDonald’s and other Western fast food places, either.

What difference does it make where the terrorist planners recruit the poor saps and dupes? The poor of intellect you shall always have with you, to borrow from the New Testament. A strong Israeli offensive no doubt can credit some recruiting opportunities for potential bombers, but for the rest of the Arab world, what they also see is something much different. They see the strong horse of parable and legend. They see something very different from the typical Western reaction to terrorist intimidation of the past three decades.

Pape makes the other strange observation that Israel is squandering “goodwill,” as if they ever really had any from anyone he mentions:

Equally important, Israel’s incursion is also squandering the good will it had initially earned from so-called moderate Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The countries are the court of opinion that matters because, while Israel cannot crush Hezbollah, it could achieve a more limited goal: ending Hezbollah’s acquisition of more missiles through Syria.

This again represents Pape falling victim to the established mythology. Because Arab states criticized Hezbollah and refrained from typical rapid denunciations of Israel (for two weeks), that meant Israel had earned goodwill? Not in any geopolitical universe I’m familiar with.

Enough. In an alternate vein, Lee Smith bucks the prevailing mainstream media spin on behalf of an unconditional cease-fire (and, by proxy, a desperate Hezbollah who would benefit most) over at the Weekly Standard. (Courtesy, again, of Michael Totten, guest Instapundit.)

This underscores my point that Pape and his mainstream media (MSM) colleagues have constructed a virtual reality which they insist on inhabiting, contrary to common sense or fact:

There are many Lebanese imagining, fantasizing, hoping against hope that Hezbollah will be wiped from the face of the earth. Some are even joking about it.

"The new one," Fawaz says, "is that they're going to play the next World Cup in the Daheyh [the Shiite neighborhood]--the whole thing's been leveled nice and flat."

This narrative, including the morbid jokes at the expense of the heavily Shiite southern suburbs and the spectacular number of Hezbollah dead, runs against the current Western news narrative. It seems that U.S. and Western press outfits are determined to claim that the Israelis have driven all of Lebanon, Shiite or not, Islamist or not, pro-Hezbollah or not, into the waiting arms of the Islamic resistance. It is not clear why Western journalists believe this is so, though it seems to comport nicely with the idea that the Israelis are killing too many civilians--a cynical storyline, given that the Israelis are fighting against a militia and without the benefit of weapons capable of targeting only the bad guys.

Pape and the MSM are not the only ones retaining faith in an alternate narrative of their own liking, that’s the basis for delusions elsewhere, according to Smith:

Even now, three weeks after it has been proven beyond a doubt that Hezbollah's arms are incapable of protecting one inch of Lebanese soil from the Zionists, there are still many Lebanese, including in the government, who credit Hezbollah with having driven Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000. And thus the seeds of Lebanon's current crisis were sown in that willing self-deception of six years ago. The Lebanese could not then discern that Israeli politics all but forced then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak to withdraw from the South; nor could they imagine how the voting citizens of a liberal democracy would later compel its leadership to protect them at any cost. And if the Lebanese thought that an Islamist militia had beaten back the region's most powerful military, then they could hardly forecast, in spite of repeated warnings, that that "resistance" would end up reducing parts of their country to a soccer field.

Will Israel achieve their objectives for neutralizing the threat of Hezbollah aggression? Will they construct the foundation for a meaningful peace sometime in the future?

It’s way too soon for anyone to tell. But if we want to make an informed assessment, we need to discard these elaborate but misguided mythologies and start dealing with reality.

Let’s see how Hezbollah deals with Israel getting serious.

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