By Nicholas Noe
BEIRUT - Almost five years after the George W Bush administration was handed a potentially game-changing opportunity to peacefully declaw the militant Shi'ite movement Hezbollah, Washington is finally waking up to the grim reality of its ill-conceived "Cedar Revolution" policy in Lebanon: the prospect of a renewed war involving a sophisticated actor whose hybrid military power has only grown exponentially.
Setting aside, for the moment, the contentious argument over who is indeed responsible for these developments - which, it should be noted, quickly followed the forced exit of Syrian troops in April 2005 - the truly pressing issue for concerned policymakers and citizens alike is that both opposing axes, but especially the "resistance axis" of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas, now seem to believe that the next war can and should be the last one between Israel and its enemies.
Unfortunately, this ideological certainty only helps to further grease the wheels of conflict - since the perception is that there will (finally) be no more "winning by not losing" or "winning, but the loser as "we know him' remains" - while virtually guaranteeing that, should war come to pass, the costs will be truly awful for all those touched by it.
Interestingly, from Hezbollah's perspective, which has been increasingly uniform across private discussions and public rhetoric, there is relatively little concern or extended analysis about exactly when, or even whether, war will happen.
The central reason for this seems to be that with either a war or a confrontational ceasefire with Israel, it perceives victory.
The real questions being asked, then, concern the mechanics of how this victory will come about, and, more remotely, whether the "hardware" and "software" of the US-Israeli negotiating position(s) will change just enough to avoid the end of Zionism.
For the party, which now publicly appears to be the least doubtful actor among its allies, this represents a dramatic shift in strategic thinking - a shift that needs to be fully appreciated by those who believe further violence is either wrong and/or will ultimately serve no one's interests.
The transformation in Hezbollah's outlook was evident as early as September 2006, in the wake of what the Lebanese call "the July War". For much of the Western media the change only came into focus in the past month - that is, following the recent "resistance axis summit" in Damascus and Hezbollah secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's mid-February speech threatening the wide devastation of Israel should it pre-emptively attack.
Aspects of this movement had been apparent before, most notably following the collapse of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria and the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in early 2000, after which point Nasrallah famously declared Israel was "weaker than a spider's web".
But it was the July War (vigorously encouraged by the Bush administration), the February 2008 assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeah and then the May 2008 street violence between the opposition and the majority "March 14" forces that really crystallized what Nasrallah now publicly views as the impending, "divine" telos of history.
"Arab armies and peoples," Nasrallah told the war-weary crowd of over a million one month after the August 14, 2006 ceasefire, are "not only able to liberate Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, they are simply capable of regaining Palestine from sea to river by one small decision and with some determination".
"This is the equation," Nasrallah declared. "Today, your resistance broke the image of Israel. We have done away with the invincible army. We have also done away with the invincible state. Indeed, we have done away with it. I am not exaggerating or voicing slogans."
With this, Nasrallah had decisively broken through the greatest barrier in his own thinking, in that of the leadership and, crucially, in the hearts of his supporters: Israel could be defeated, once and for all, and, more to the point, it could be done with relative ease.
By the time Mughniyeah was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008, Nasrallah felt certain enough to declare that Israel would collapse, not in 10 or 20 years, but in the "coming few years".
"In the aftermath of the 2000 withdrawal," Nasrallah explained, "The only remaining question [is]: Can this entity [Israel] cease to exist? Well, before the year 2000 this was impossible. Before the Lebanese resistance and the first and second Palestinian Intifada, this talk was merely a legend and madness ... I can say that after 2006 this question was undoubtedly answered ... there was a new answer ... Could Israel be wiped out of existence? Yes, and a thousand times yes, Israel can be wiped out of existence."
Soon after his declaration of impending victory, Nasrallah laid out eight, detailed points as to why he believed the Jewish state of Israel was finished.
Not surprisingly, as is Hezbollah's custom, the points borrowed heavily from analyses laid out by leading Israelis themselves concerning the inner, long-term dangers facing their state - including demography, emigration amid fear, corruption and mounting miscalculations in conducting international relations and international conflict.
Nasrallah did not, however, address exactly how the Israelis would react in the event of an impending collapse, whether such a reaction might entail mutual destruction or whether most Lebanese thought such a process worth it in the first place.
Always the careful purveyor of cost-benefit calculations, the secretary general had unbound his normal economy of rhetoric and cast aside exactly the question he had long said should be paramount for any resistance movement: will self-sacrifice lead to a reasonable outcome?
No matter. Avenging Mughniyeah's death had become a critical lever in accelerating the effective end of such questions: for it had become permanent.
"As for retaliation," Nasrallah explained, "It will always be in front of us" - a statement suggesting that rather than one spectacular operation, payback for the assassination is to come in war or peace as the total collapse of Israel
Mughniyeah's revenge is therefore to be delivered in war or peace as the collapse of Israel, not merely via one spectacular operation.
And what of the likely destruction in Lebanon and perhaps beyond, given Israel's capabilities?
"Our adversaries," Nasrallah assured, "cannot comprehend that this battle has entered a totally different stage. This new stage's motive, title, and incentive are the belief in God, trust in God, content in God, dependence on God, and hope to win God's reward whatever the worldly results were.
"In such cases," he added, in an uncanny parallel to the threat that lies at the heart of Israel's nuclear program (codename: Samson), "the ability to bear calamities and to stand the loss of the beloved, the dear, the children, money and wealth becomes something else."
More than one-and-a-half years on from these statements, Hezbollah's strategic thinking on the conflict with Israel has only expanded further along the mutually reinforcing tracks of analytical certainty and war and has gone beyond mere public posturing to deter an Israeli attack.
As Nasrallah recently explained, Hezbollah "craves war but we do not want it. We do not want it but we crave it."
The statement, evidently a contradiction, captures the essence of Hezbollah's primary conviction that Israel cannot tolerate the repeated crossing of successive military "red lines" - something the Israelis and Washington are now stating often and openly. As the party crosses these lines (with air defense weapons but one example), fear increases and military preemption by Israel becomes ever more impossible.
If, therefore, Israel fails to reprise its spectacular 1982 air assault in the Bekaa that knocked out Syria's air defense capability (or for that matter, fails to hit the Iranian nuclear program a la Osirak in 1981), then the fate of Zionism is sealed, Hezbollah seems to believe.
In this "rosy" scenario, war is avoided, but the crescent of resistance now partially surrounding Israel steadily locks its inhabitants into either a negotiated settlement with the kind of far reaching Israeli concessions that talks have so far failed to produce, or, as the Hezbollah prefers, an outright one-state solution.
The real scenario, though, that Nasrallah and party leaders appear to be gambling on - or "craving" - is an outright Israeli "miscalculation"; a rush to a war that the Israeli Defense Forces and the political echelon do not fully understand and for which it's army and home front are not really prepared (the Iron Dome anti-missile system, gas masks, perpetual American assistance - these things, Nasrallah said recently, only offer illusory protection in the near to medium term).
"Syria is getting stronger with time," Nasrallah claims. "Iran is getting stronger with time, Hezbollah is getting stronger with time. The Palestinian resistance factions are getting stronger with time:" The arc of history is on the side of the resistance axis.
An Israeli miscalculation, the party believes, will realize Nasrallah's promise of a Zionist collapse in the next "few years" - rather than the somewhat longer and perhaps less certain timetable of a relatively peaceful implosion.
What options remain, then, to disrupt these scenarios and calculations?
If one accepts that the war option - or the "war unbound" option as some in Israel and among ex-Bush administration adherents favor - is a bad option, playing into the hands of the resistance axis, then what is left are familiar avenues that have hitherto produced little substantive movement:
1. Bolstering the settlement option, a course that has been blocked even in the best of times.
2. Containment of the growing military (and possibly nuclear) power of the resistance axis, which will be difficult given Israeli and some Arab regime concerns that the prevention of a steady strangulation by the resistance axis's power through technology, sanctions and targeted assassinations is neither guaranteed nor an adequate response in the near to medium term.
3. A renewed, Machiavellian effort to stoke domestic and sectarian discord in the region, something that has proven difficult to manage and exacerbate.
4. A more radical strategy that would obliquely undermine critical points of grievance among resistance axis members and their constituents - essentially a policy of "pre-emptive concessions" by an alliance of hegemonic powers that aims at dramatically undercutting (or wedging) their desire and ability to exercise violence.
Unfortunately, the reality seems to be that this last approach, like the settlement option, is also blocked since it is most likely too radical to sustain politically in either the US, Israel or among Sunni Arab states where the default setting remains, for the most part, the archaic, racist notion that Middle Easterners only understand force (or, somewhat differently, only favor "strong horses").
What is left, then, is a policy of staving off conflict for as long as possible in the hope that the balance of power will change in an as yet unknown way to finally unlock old options and present completely new ones.
In the absence of concrete investment in specific remedies for at least some of what deeply ails the Middle East, such a strategy appears dangerously like a credit card debtor who, instead of paying off his mounting balance, opens another line of funds so he and his friends can remain, just a bit longer, the masters of a situation they know is deadly, but which they just can't bring themselves to end.
Nicholas Noe is author of the 2008 Century Foundation White Paper entitled "Re-Imagining the Lebanon Track: Towards a New US policy" and is the editor of Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (Verso, 2007). He is also a co-founder of the Beirut-based media monitoring service Mideastwire.com.