A Curious Omission

>> Monday, March 01, 2010

In the process of engaging In Praise of Aerial Bombing, Edward Luttwak makes an odd claim:

Back in 2006, while the Israeli Air Force was bombing down its target list in Lebanon, assorted experts were almost unanimous in asserting that the campaign would fail. As a defiant Hezbollah continued to launch rockets into Israeli territory day after day, the consensus was seemingly proven right. And because television and photographers in Lebanon kept feeding pictures of dead babies or at least broken dolls to world media while withholding images of Hezbollah's destroyed headquarters and weapons, Israel was paying a very high political price for its bombing. In any case, it was running out of targets: There were only so many bridges and viaducts in Lebanon. Even its friends could only regretfully agree that Israel seemed to be failing.

But that is not at all how it turned out. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted immediately after the war that he would never have ordered the original deadly attack on an Israeli border patrol had he known that Israel would retaliate with such devastating effect. Before the 2006 war, Hezbollah launched rockets into northern Israel whenever it wanted to raise tensions. Since the Aug. 14, 2006, cease-fire, Hezbollah has rigorously refrained. Whenever rockets are nonetheless launched, Nasrallah's spokesmen rush to announce that Hezbollah had absolutely nothing to do with it. Evidently, Israel's supposedly futile bombing did achieve its aim.
To put it as politely as possible, Edward Luttwak has never been the sort of writer who has felt deeply constrained by empirical reality. He's smart and knows his stuff, but he doesn't let facts get in the way of the argument he wants to make. In this case, I'm sure that Luttwak is aware that, in addition to the long air offensive that almost everyone agrees was a failure, the IDF launched a large ground incursion into southern Lebanon that engaged prepared Hezbollah defenses and caused significant Hezbollah casualties, by some accounts up to a third of the organization's front line strength. This ground offensive was covered on several blogs, as well as every major world newspaper and television network. People have written long reports about the ground war, and even books. Even if we assume that Hezbollah's reluctance to launch rockets was caused by Israeli military action (and this is a tendentious assumption), I would hazard to suggest that it is at least possible that Hezbollah's reluctance to launch rocket offensives against Israel may have something to do with the ground offensive that sapped its strength, rather than with the air offensive that devastated infrastructure targets in parts of Lebanon where Hezbollah has no control.

And so, while I can perhaps understand Luttwak's decision to engage in creative history by assigning all causation for the (questionable in any case) moderation of Hezbollah to the air offensive, I'm rather more perplexed by the editorial decision to allow him to perform such artistry. I appreciate that he's an important guy who's written books and stuff, but he's using Foreign Policy to make an empirical claim (terror bombing is super) and basing that upon an evidentiary foundation that would be laughed out of a freshman political science course. At the very least, Luttwak could have been asked to mention the ground offensive, and perhaps even to explain why the air offensive and not the ground offensive caused the purported effect. Like I said, he's a smart guy; I'm sure he could have managed.


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