Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jonathan Spyer

Let Them Meet Steel

As Noah pointed out yesterday, Syria is now being credibly accused of shipping Scud missiles with a range of more than 430 miles to Hezbollah, placing Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the Dimona nuclear power plant inside the kill zone. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been forced under duress to visit Damascus and make amends with his father’s assassins, as has Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, effectively terminating whatever independence Lebanon scratched out for itself in 2005. At the same time, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad contemptuously taunts the president of the United States, whom he clearly perceives as a pushover. “American officials bigger than you,” he said of President Obama’s attempts to talk him out of developing nuclear weapons, “more bullying than you, couldn’t do a damn thing, let alone you.”

Yet the Obama administration still seems to think engagement with Syria and the suggestion of possible sanctions against Iran may keep the Middle East from boiling over.

President George W. Bush lost a lot of credibility when the civil war and insurgency in Iraq made a hash of his policy there. It was eventually obvious to just about everyone that something different needed to happen, and fast. Replacing the top brass in the field with General David Petraeus and his like-minded war critics just barely saved Iraq and American interests from total disaster. The president himself never fully recovered.

If Obama’s squishy policies are misguided, as I think they are, it’s less obvious. The Middle East isn’t on fire as it was circa 2005. But it should be apparent that, at some point, all the pressure that’s building up will have to go somewhere. When and how is anyone’s guess, but there’s little chance it’s just going to dissipate or be slowly released during peace talks.

The Iranian-led resistance bloc is becoming better armed and more belligerent by the month. And the next round of conflict could tear up as many as six regions at the same time if everyone pulls out the stops. A missile war sparked between Hezbollah and Israel, for instance, could easily spread to Gaza, Syria, Iran, and even Iraq.

Even if it’s only half as bad as all that, we should still brace ourselves for more mayhem and bloodshed than we saw during the recent wars in Gaza and Lebanon. Israelis may show a lot less restraint if skyscrapers in Tel Aviv are exploding. Iran might even fire off some of its own if the leadership thinks Israel lacks the resources or strength to fight on too many fronts. The United States could be drawn in kicking and screaming, but resistance-bloc leaders have every reason to believe it won’t happen, that the U.S. is more likely to zip flex cuffs on Jerusalem.

I’m speculating, of course. The future is forever unknowable, and none of this is inevitable. An unexpected event — such as the overthrow of Ali Khamenei in Tehran — could change everything. A real-world conflict would take on a life of its own anyway that no one could predict or control.

What is clear, however, is that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah are hurtling ever closer to the brink. They’re acting as though they’re figuratively following Vladimir Lenin’s advice: “Probe with a bayonet. If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.”

I doubt most residents of South Lebanon believe in their bones that they won the war against Israel in 2006. I’ve been down there several times since. Entire neighborhoods were utterly pulverized. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, though, has touted his own “divine victory” so many times he may have convinced himself. Even if he knows he lost the last round, he has dug in with a much more formidable arsenal for the next one. As scholar Jonathan Spyer wrote not long ago, Hezbollah is “in a state of rude health. It is brushing aside local foes, marching through the institutions, as tactically agile as it is strategically deluded.”

It is also utterly unhinged ideologically. Let’s not forget what Christopher Hitchens saw at a rally last year in the suburbs south of Beirut commemorating its slain commander Imad Mugniyeh. “A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene,” he wrote, “with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT!”

The Israelis may well decide they’d rather fight a bad war now than a worse one later. Their enemies can afford to lose wars because Israel isn’t out to destroy their countries. No Israeli believes Syria or Iran shouldn’t exist. Israel, meanwhile, can barely afford to lose small wars. And the resistance bloc is boldly threatening and preparing for one of the most ambitious and destructive wars yet.

There’s only so much President Obama can do about this, but he’s lucky, even so, in a small way. The Middle East isn’t burning right now as it was during the Bush years. He can change course without having to pay a butcher’s bill first if he starts thinking seriously about deterrence as well as engagement. Let the resistance bloc see glints of steel once in a while instead of just mush — and not only for the sake of the people who live there. Our own national interests are at stake, and so is his political hide. Iran’s leaders would savor few things more than a second Democratic president’s scalp.

As Noah pointed out yesterday, Syria is now being credibly accused of shipping Scud missiles with a range of more than 430 miles to Hezbollah, placing Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the Dimona nuclear power plant inside the kill zone. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been forced under duress to visit Damascus and make amends with his father’s assassins, as has Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, effectively terminating whatever independence Lebanon scratched out for itself in 2005. At the same time, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad contemptuously taunts the president of the United States, whom he clearly perceives as a pushover. “American officials bigger than you,” he said of President Obama’s attempts to talk him out of developing nuclear weapons, “more bullying than you, couldn’t do a damn thing, let alone you.”

Yet the Obama administration still seems to think engagement with Syria and the suggestion of possible sanctions against Iran may keep the Middle East from boiling over.

President George W. Bush lost a lot of credibility when the civil war and insurgency in Iraq made a hash of his policy there. It was eventually obvious to just about everyone that something different needed to happen, and fast. Replacing the top brass in the field with General David Petraeus and his like-minded war critics just barely saved Iraq and American interests from total disaster. The president himself never fully recovered.

If Obama’s squishy policies are misguided, as I think they are, it’s less obvious. The Middle East isn’t on fire as it was circa 2005. But it should be apparent that, at some point, all the pressure that’s building up will have to go somewhere. When and how is anyone’s guess, but there’s little chance it’s just going to dissipate or be slowly released during peace talks.

The Iranian-led resistance bloc is becoming better armed and more belligerent by the month. And the next round of conflict could tear up as many as six regions at the same time if everyone pulls out the stops. A missile war sparked between Hezbollah and Israel, for instance, could easily spread to Gaza, Syria, Iran, and even Iraq.

Even if it’s only half as bad as all that, we should still brace ourselves for more mayhem and bloodshed than we saw during the recent wars in Gaza and Lebanon. Israelis may show a lot less restraint if skyscrapers in Tel Aviv are exploding. Iran might even fire off some of its own if the leadership thinks Israel lacks the resources or strength to fight on too many fronts. The United States could be drawn in kicking and screaming, but resistance-bloc leaders have every reason to believe it won’t happen, that the U.S. is more likely to zip flex cuffs on Jerusalem.

I’m speculating, of course. The future is forever unknowable, and none of this is inevitable. An unexpected event — such as the overthrow of Ali Khamenei in Tehran — could change everything. A real-world conflict would take on a life of its own anyway that no one could predict or control.

What is clear, however, is that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah are hurtling ever closer to the brink. They’re acting as though they’re figuratively following Vladimir Lenin’s advice: “Probe with a bayonet. If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.”

I doubt most residents of South Lebanon believe in their bones that they won the war against Israel in 2006. I’ve been down there several times since. Entire neighborhoods were utterly pulverized. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, though, has touted his own “divine victory” so many times he may have convinced himself. Even if he knows he lost the last round, he has dug in with a much more formidable arsenal for the next one. As scholar Jonathan Spyer wrote not long ago, Hezbollah is “in a state of rude health. It is brushing aside local foes, marching through the institutions, as tactically agile as it is strategically deluded.”

It is also utterly unhinged ideologically. Let’s not forget what Christopher Hitchens saw at a rally last year in the suburbs south of Beirut commemorating its slain commander Imad Mugniyeh. “A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene,” he wrote, “with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT!”

The Israelis may well decide they’d rather fight a bad war now than a worse one later. Their enemies can afford to lose wars because Israel isn’t out to destroy their countries. No Israeli believes Syria or Iran shouldn’t exist. Israel, meanwhile, can barely afford to lose small wars. And the resistance bloc is boldly threatening and preparing for one of the most ambitious and destructive wars yet.

There’s only so much President Obama can do about this, but he’s lucky, even so, in a small way. The Middle East isn’t burning right now as it was during the Bush years. He can change course without having to pay a butcher’s bill first if he starts thinking seriously about deterrence as well as engagement. Let the resistance bloc see glints of steel once in a while instead of just mush — and not only for the sake of the people who live there. Our own national interests are at stake, and so is his political hide. Iran’s leaders would savor few things more than a second Democratic president’s scalp.

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