Sunday, August 20, 2006

Israel, Hezbollah, and the Balance of Soft Power

Joseph Nye's a professor of political science at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He had an interesting article up yesterday at the Boston Globe, arguing that the shift in international sympathy toward Hezbollah a few weeks into the 2006 Mideast conflict strengthened the Shiite terrorist organization's "soft power," the ability to exercise influence based on the attractiveness of one's values rather than pure material capabilities. Here's an interesting passage:

Israel used its hard military power in a manner that bolstered Hezbollah's soft power and legitimacy in Arab eyes, including many Sunnis who were originally skeptical of a Shi'ite organization with ties to non-Arab Iran. We know that terrorist organizations most often lose popular support by their own excesses -- witness the drop among Jordanians in the soft power of Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al -Zarqawi, after the organization bombed a wedding in an Amman hotel.

Israel had to use force in response to Hezbollah's attack to reestablish the credibility of its deterrence, but it misjudged the scale and duration of its hard-power response. Sooner or later, continued large-scale aerial bombardment, even in an era of precision munitions, was bound to produce a disaster like Qana with dozens of dead children. And with dead Lebanese children continually displayed on television day after day, public outrage was bound to limit the leeway of moderate Arab leaders and enhance Hezbollah's narrative.

A shorter military response might have kept the onus on Hezbollah's initial destabilizing attacks. Israeli leaders are quoted as telling the United States that they wanted more time to degrade Hezbollah's rockets and other military capabilities, and the Bush administration provided a green light. But the costs of such a campaign seem to have exceeded the benefits. An alternative course would have been diplomacy to end the isolation of Syria, which the United States had driven into the arms of Iran and thus facilitated the transfer of equipment to Hezbollah.

Lebanon provides larger lessons for the United States about how to conduct a war against jihadist terrorism. The current struggle is not a clash of Islam vs. the West, but a civil war within Islam between a minority of terrorists and a larger mainstream of more moderate believers. America cannot win unless the mainstream wins, and needs to use hard power against the hard core like Al Qaeda because soft power will never attract them. But soft power is essential to attract the mainstream and dry up support for the extremists.
Nye's one of the founders of liberal institutionalist theory in international relations scholarship. His coauthored book, Power and Interdependence, is a classic in the field, and is an entry text into the transnational relations side of the literature. I think his theory of soft power fairs better in the analysis of great power strategies and success, however. Here, as applied to Hezbollah's surprising resiliency against Israel, the theory seems to condemn too easily Israel's response, and doesn't take into account the spinelessness among Sunni-Muslim Mideast regimes in the face of domestic public opinion sympathethic to Hezbollah. Moreover, had Israel's military planning been more effective, perhaps with an early lightning ground offensive saturating Southern Lebanon with a massive troop deployment, and with less reliance on indiscriminate (and collaterally deadly) airpower, perhaps events on the battlefield would have remained in Israel's favor, with the balance of soft power staying with the Jewish state.

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