Note: I'm a parttimer so I'm not exactly sure of how such things are handled in the blog world or if they matter, I left out a couple things in the original post and added them in two places thanks to the persons credited. I was also linked to by the people, thanks to both for that, who pointed out the ommissions so I know I don't have many visitors but they're something to check out.
One of the major problems with Olmert’s slow-mo strategy against Hezbollah is that it is putting what's left of (thanks Yaakov) Israel’s hard earned aura of invincibility at risk. I know that since leftists don’t believe that such emotions are supposed to impact national decision making, Olmert probably doesn’t think it’s an issue. The problem is not that his policy is causing the IDF to be defeated in battle at the hands of Hezbollah but that it is creating that perception for the vast majority of the world that doesn’t understand military affairs.
We are beginning to see more and more stories like this one about Hezbollah stopping the vaunted Israeli something (in this case tanks). The cable news is also beginning to report everything from the angle of the plucky underdog Hezbollah running circles around the plodding Israelis. Even Fox has sunk to those levels with host John Gibson saying something to the effect that Hezbollah has gutted the IDF. The only thing the non-military minded media would understand as an Israeli success is if a) the Israelis made it to the Litani River or b) the Israelis finished the fighting sooner. I have heard the incompetent union boss Israeli Defense Minister say on each of the last two days that the IDF will drive to the Litani. Yet, except for a report of an Israeli commando raid on Tyre, still no action.
This all masks what has been a fairly successful fight against Hezbollah by the Israelis and one that on strictly military terms is going very badly for Hezbollah. Yes, Hezbollah is not your standard Arab military force. It’s essentially a modern day equivalent of the post-World War II Jordanian Arab Legion. It is a smallish long term professional force trained, equipped, and led by a foreign backer. Despite all the advantages that Hezbollah enjoys, good training, high morale, good weapons, excellent defensive terrain to defend, 6 years to prepare defenses and to learn the lay of the land, using civilians as shields to restrict the actions of the humane Israelis (thanks Joe Settler), new tactics that the Israelis must adapt to, and a politically hobbled IDF offensive, Hezbollah is still taking casualties at between a 5 and 10 to 1 ratio. That is hardly better than Syria’s 8:1 ratio in 1982 fighting in the same area and far worse than the Arab Legion who gave as good as they got (and maybe even better) in 1948. The military problem for Hezbollah is that it is not your standard Arab militia force like those seen in the Palestinian areas and in Iraq. Those forces simply take a young man, give him a rifle and send him off to be killed. Losses do not affect them. Losses do affect a professional long term force. When Hezbollah loses say 7 fighters to one Israeli it is losing hard to replace fighters who took years to train and prepare. It is also a far greater portion of their fighting force. Meanwhile Israel loses a small share of its army and the rest gain combat experience that will benefit them and Israel for decades to come.
If the Israelis are doing fairly well in even their constrained environment, then why are they perceived to be losing? Simply put, because they aren’t advancing and they aren’t finishing the job quickly. There can be good reasons for a slow-mo approach, mainly it tends to limit casualties and fatigue within the military. The problem here is not just that Israel doesn’t have the time for this (the U.S. and France have agreed to a ceasefire resolution) but also because it causes this perception that no matter how successful Israel is in this village or that village, they are losing. This is extremely dangerous for a small country that depends on her “invincible” military for defense.
Having your enemies believe you are invincible can be one of the most important aspects in a battle. Prussia in the 18th Century was a relatively small power. Even so she was considered one of the major powers of Europe because of her excellent conscript army. Combined with the exceptional leadership of Frederick the Great the army would turn Prussia from a great power in name only into a real one. It would build such a reputation that all of Europe feared facing the Prussian army. Even Napoleon was scared to fight it in 1806. Following its crushing defeat by Napoleon, no one feared the Prussians as much anymore. This led to the humiliation by Austria at Olmutz in 1850. It took much reform and 2 spectacular victories to earn Prussia her reputation back. As for Napoleon, one of the interesting things about the success of his Grand Armee was how many times Napoleon and the army messed up and were saved simply because their enemy believed it was a clever trap and didn’t take advantage of it. After Wagram in 1809 his opponents began to realize that he was just a man who could be defeated and Napoleon’s successes began to decline. Within in the Grand Armee a further mystique built up around the “Old Guard”. They were Napoleon’s finest soldiers and had never been defeated in battle. The cause of the rout of the French army at Waterloo was when the Old Guard wasn’t defeated but simply wavered. The rest of the army saw the “invincible” Old Guard waver and panicked into a headlong rout. You can also see this dynamic in the Union generals who began to greatly fear General Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War. One general who didn’t fear Lee was Grant, and after their first encounter at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, Grant had to convince his frightened generals to pursue Lee by tell them something like “you behave as though General Lee can somersault his entire army over our heads and into our rear”. Once Lee ran into a general who wasn’t afraid of him or his army, his success also declined.
Israel is in a similar situation today. The Israelis probably could not hold back a continual effort by the Arabs to defeat her. Even Frederick the Great’s Prussia could last only 7 years before fate saved them. One important aspect of Israel’s survival is inculcating the notion that she can never be defeated. This caused the Jordanians to give up their war with Israel around 1970. The Egyptians were somewhat done with their bloodlust prior to 1973. 1956 and 1967 had already convinced them of Israel’s superiority. What caused them to try one more time against Israel was Israel’s poor showing in the War of Attrition. If Israel allows her perceived invincibility to disappear because Olmert either doesn’t know what to do or is trying to limit casualties then it will simply set herself up for major problems down the road. Egypt and Jordan probably won’t return to the fight, but Ahmadinejad is watching from afar. Like a predator, he is hovering, waiting for the Israelis to appear wounded. He would obviously love nothing more than to bring down the Jewish state. Meanwhile, Olmert is having the IDF do their best wounded animal impression. This is not a good combination. Can Israel survive a conventional war with Syria, a massive guerrilla war in Lebanon, a major uprising in the Palestinian areas, all supported by Iran? Probably, but still no reason to make it a possibility by appearing to lose.