Clichéd postmortems analyzing Israel’s failure to deal Hezbollah a clear defeat miss the point in blaming Prime Minister Olmert’s lack of military experience or native ineptness. The key reasons for Israel’s poor performance are deeper and far more ideological.
True, Olmert lacked the military background of certain of his predecessors. But defending a country is more an issue of strategic judgment than a question of whether or for how long a person wore fatigues. Ronald Reagan, who never saw battle, defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Moreover, Olmert, a calculating man, is hardly inept or disorganized.
Rather, Israel lost – or at least did not win – the war because the core liberal-secular beliefs of its leaders made them too militarily cautious in confronting the cult of death represented by Hizbullah. Morale, more so than Merkava tanks, determines which side better understands the end game of war and accordingly musters the nerve to make the necessary sacrifices. In other words, modern guerrilla warfare is as much about ideology as F-16s, which is why Hizbullah fanaticism triumphed over Olmert’s secular mindset.
Like all thinking people, Olmert is driven by basic political and social values. While believing himself strongly committed to the security of Israel, he is also very much a product of contemporary Western culture – its notion of acceptable nationalism, its emphasis on diplomatic rather than military solutions, its distaste for military violence.
Since Olmert is not an observant Jew, his understanding of political right and wrong in a global culture is similar to that of respectable secular-minded American Jewish liberals. One group speaks and thinks in Hebrew, the other in English – but both operate under the same assumptions and reach the same conclusions in the articles penned by their academics and the reporting and editorializing in their elite newspapers and opinion journals.
(In my despair during the fighting, I amused myself by substituting Olmert with certain American Jewish liberals whose reputations are marked by a reluctance to take the battle too forcefully to the enemy, i.e., Michigan Senator Carl Levin and Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.)
“White guilt in the West,” writes historian Shelby Steele (Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2006), prevents the Left from facing up to Islamic extremism. “The West is so terrified of being charged with its old sins of racism, imperialism, and colonialism that it makes oppression an automatic prism on the non-Western world”
How much was this endemic sense of liberal guilt responsible for Olmert’s failure to use the full force of the Israeli military? What was the relationship between his advocacy of convergence (withdrawal from parts of the West Bank from which future rocketing of Israel could take place in exchange for nothing from the other side) while battles were still underway, and his complacent use of infantry on the ground? Did he feel some doubt about the rightness of annihilating the invaders for fear of being called an oppressor?
Olmert’s ideologically liberal mindset provides a context for understanding Israel’s inability to defeat an extremist enemy with a take-no-prisoners mentality. Throughout the fighting, Olmert’s message cast doubt on the legitimacy of Israel’s cause. Given Hizbullah’s apocalyptic commitment to the mass murder of the infidel Jews, Olmert’s deliberately limited response (reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson’s defeatist “limited war” strategy in Vietnam), the case could be made that he was worn down at some level by trendy liberal support for “oppressed” peoples.
A militarily committed prime minister would never have handed over the Ministry of Defense to a union boss holding Peace Now credentials. In response to Hizbullah’s act of war, Olmert’s original puny goal was to secure four villages and a strip of territory six miles wide and 2.5 miles along the border. Instead of threatening Hizbullah’s Syrian arms supplier, Israel repeatedly made clear that it would not attack Damascus. The decision to call up reserves came only after public pressure.
Even so, Olmert’s deputy prime minister, the tiresome Shimon Peres, voted against the plan to move thousands of troops into Lebanon, arguing that Israel should rely on diplomacy, the liberals’ favorite tack for dealing with military violence. Not to be outdone, Olmert also showed his penchant for diplomacy over military force when, after a public outcry, Israel finally called up some 30,000 troops.