Seize the moment in Lebanon

Hizbullah may have won the propaganda war, but on the ground it lost.

War in Lebanon 88 (photo credit: AP)
War in Lebanon 88
(photo credit: AP)
"We did not think, even 1 percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11... that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.'' - Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, August 27 So much for the "strategic and historic victory" Nasrallah had claimed less than two weeks earlier. What real victor declares that, had he known, he would not have started the war that ended in triumph? Nasrallah's admission, vastly underplayed in the West, makes clear what the Lebanese already knew. Hizbullah may have won the propaganda war, but on the ground it lost. Badly. True, under the inept and indecisive leadership of Ehud Olmert, Israel did miss the opportunity to militarily destroy Hizbullah and make it a non-factor in Israel's security, Lebanon's politics and Iran's foreign policy. Nonetheless, Hizbullah was seriously hurt. It lost hundreds of its best fighters. A deeply entrenched infrastructure on Israel's border is in ruins. The great hero has had to go so deep into hiding that Nasrallah has been called "the underground mullah." Most importantly, Hizbullah's political gains within Lebanon during the war have proved illusory. As the dust settles the Lebanese are furious at Hizbullah for provoking a war that brought them nothing but devastation - and then crowing about victory amid the ruins. THE WESTERN press was once again taken in by the mystique of the "Arab street." The mob came out to cheer Hizbullah for raining rockets on Israel - surprise! - and the Arab governments that had initially criticized Hizbullah went conveniently silent. Now that the mob has gone home, Hizbullah is under renewed attack - in newspapers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt, as well as from many Lebanese, including influential Shi'ite academics and clan leaders. The Arabs know where their interests lie. And they do not lie with a Shi'ite militia that fights for Iran. Even before the devastation, Hizbullah in the last election garnered only about 20 percent of vote, hardly a mandate. Hizbullah has guns, however, and that is the source of its power. But now even that is threatened. Hence Nasrallah's admission. He knows that Lebanon, however weak its army, has a deep desire to disarm him, and that the arrival of Europeans in force, however weak their mandate, will make impossible the rebuilding of the vast Maginot Line he spent six years constructing. Which is why the expected Round Two will, in fact, not happen. Hizbullah is in no position, either militarily or politically, for another round. Nasrallah's admission that the war was a mistake is an implicit pledge not to repeat it, lest he be completely finished as a Lebanese political figure. THE LEBANESE know that Israel bombed easy-to-repair airport runways when it could have destroyed the new airport terminal and set Lebanon back 10 years. The Lebanese know that Israel attacked the Hizbullah TV towers when it could have pulverized Beirut's power grid, a billion-dollar reconstruction. The Lebanese know that next time Israel's leadership will hardly be as hesitant and restrained. Hizbullah dares not risk that next time. Even more important is the shift once again in the internal Lebanese balance of power. With Nasrallah weakened, the other major factions are closing in around him. Even his major Christian ally, Michel Aoun, has called for Hizbullah's disarmament. The March 14 democratic movement has regained the upper hand and, with outside help, could marginalize Hizbullah. In a country this weak, outsiders can be decisive. A strong European presence in the south, serious US training and equipment for the Lebanese army and relentless pressure at the UN can tip the balance. We should be especially aggressive at the UN in pursuing the investigation of Syria for the Rafik Hariri murder and in implementing resolutions mandating the disarmament of Hizbullah. IT WAS just a year and a half ago that the democrats of the March 14 movement expelled Syria from Lebanon and rose to power, marking the apogee of the American democratization project in the region. Nasrallah's temporary rise during the just-finished war marked that project's nadir. Nasrallah's crowing added to the general despair in Washington about a rising "Shi'ite crescent'' stretching from Teheran to Beirut. In fact, Hizbullah was seriously set back, as was Iran. In the Middle East, however, promising moments pass quickly. This one needs to be seized. We must pretend that Security Council Resolution 1701 was meant to be implemented, and exert unrelieved pressure on behalf of those Lebanese - a large majority - who want to do the implementing. The writer is a columnist for the Washington Post.