Saturday, August 05, 2006

In the real world, perception matters as much as reality

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.


  1. Heres an ideology to remember...

    Perception is Reality

  2. I'd agree for the most part. Perception affects decision making which affects reality. The only caveat I would add is that in the end reality still counts. Just because Fredericks or Napoleons army was considered invincible didn't make it so and they were both still defeated at times. Whether Israel is perceived to be losing the tactical level battle in Lebanon doesn't change the reality that Hezbollah is getting beat up pretty bad. Should Iran, Syria, and Lebanon allow a belief in fictional Israeli weakness to start a war doesn't mean Israel will lose because of it. But then Israel could lose and then perception will have become reality.

  3. Olmert is dealing with more than just his lack of experience (and that of his Defense Minister).

    24/7 the Israeli left-wing media is repeating the mantra of ‘the Lebanese Swamp ’ a code word with a lot of baggage. Olmert is terrified of committing resources as he is worried that he will be trapped in our version of Vietnam (he’s not necessarily worried about the losses themselves in the short term).

    Unfortunately it’s turning out to be a rather self-fulfilling prophecy.

    As his military staff provides him his options, Olmert keeps choosing the ones that requires the least amount of commitment, and then finds that he didn’t provide enough resources so more last minute resources need to be quickly called in. This cycle keeps repeating itself.

    In addition, Olmert is terrified of hitting civilian targets, and you forgot to mention that Hizbollah are using human shields to their maximum benefit.

    Finally, the question arises, even if we knock out Hizbollah, and hang Nasrallah up by his toe nails, Iran just sent in Imad Mughniyeh to help reorganize Hizbollah’s defenses in Southern Lebanon. While Hizbollah may be a small army, it essentially has the entire human and weapon resources of Iran behind it – as long as they can get supplies through (and if not now, then in a year from now).

    And as you mentioned, Israel has a big problem with an active war of attrition, and what’s going on now, it’s just a battle within the war.

  4. Firstly, thanks. I always appreciate someone taking the time to leave a good reasoned and long comment.

    I pretty much agree with your assesment. I had thought I mentioned Hezbollahs tactic of hiding behind civilians as one of their advantages fighting the IDF but I do a poor job of editing so it was missed initially.

    I didn't mention a lot the stuff you did in this post since I tend to narrowly focus them. About the only thing that appears in all of them is the great dislike I have developed for Olmert (though I never liked him to begin with, as mentioned in a previous post I'm a Bibi fan). From the start of the Gaza operations I could tell he had no clear idea of what he was doing. Even so, the military below Halutz (and maybe northern command)is performing admirably. Ordered to take Bint Jbail with a minimum amount of forces they did it. What they can't do is disobey the subsequent order to abandon it.
    With Iran and Syria around if Hezbollah is eliminated from any meaningful existence it would simply be replaced. That's why I've been a fan and written from the beginning of using this as the excuse for dealing with Syria and Iran. Sort of like a tag-team wrestling match. In one corner America and Israel, in the other corner Iran and Syria. Even in the bigger picture after dealing with Iran and Syria it won't end, they too will be replaced.

    Specifically about Lebanon, it will continue being a source of instability until it has its own "Black September" moment(topic of an upcoming post). With the wider war, this post was about the battle and its ability to turn a proxy war into a conventional war. So the overall war wasn't mentioned beyond that. But like I said, I wouldn't disagree with any of your points.

  5. I find your analyses on the spot and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, the-powers-that-be in the Israel government are amateurish in their appreciation of strategical thinking. I don't know if you've seen any of Olmert's "rally-round-the-flag" speeches on video but he never makes eye contact. He looks up from his text and then out above everyone's head. He is out of his league all the while promotiong himself as better than Sharon now since Sharon couldn't do anything these past 6 years due to Sharon's own personal "Lebanon trauma". And all the while, he's creating the Olmert-Peretz trauma for an entire nation.

  6. Thanks. Fortunately I'm far enough removed that I don't have to see Olmert's speeches on TV everynight (they are almost never on besides very short clips). I do know though that the content of his speeches varies erratically from speech to speech. One speech is blood, sweat, and tears to complete the difficult task of defeating Hezbollah, the next speech is despite 200 rockets yesterday, Hezbollah is already defeated so I could just declare victory if I wanted, and after that is this reinforces the need to repeat this mistake on a much larger scale in Judea/Samaria. That just further indicates that he's out of his league and has no idea what needs to be done. Given how bad the speeches are I guess it's not surprising that the delivery matches the substance.