A friend who has just returned from Lebanon told me that one of the jokes he heard before leaving Beirut was that the Bush administration decided to hire Hezbollah as one of the faith-based organizations that would help in the rebuilding of post-Katrina Louisiana.  After all, the Lebanese Shiite group has been assiduously reconstructing the destroyed areas of Lebanon in the aftermath of the Israeli bombing, while there are no signs that many parts of Louisiana that were devastated by Katrina are going to be rebuilt anytime soon.  So, perhaps, it’s time to inject some Middle Eastern know-how into the process of rebuilding Louisiana.

In a way, the joke is on Israel and her American patron who, on the eve of Lebanon II, had created expectations for a rerun of the 1967 Six-Day War.  According to the scenario drawn by the Israeli and U.S. governments and their neoconservative propagandists, the IDF would decimate Hezbollah in a few days and win a Big Victory for the “War on Terror.”  From the neocon perspective, the plot line of the Middle East Movie was obvious: Iran and Syria encourage their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to deliver a blow to America’s proxy in the Middle East, Israel, as a way of shifting the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Tehran and Damascus.  Then, Israel delivers a counterblow to Hezbollah and reshifts the balance of power in favor of Washington—a win against the Axis of Evil.

Instead, it is looking more like a draw, at best, or a perception of a Hezbollah victory, at worst.  “We have been driven into something we didn’t want to do,” Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told the New York Times.  “Far from Israel being the American proxy in a war against Iran, we’ve become Israel’s proxy in its war against Hizbollah,” he said.

Israel’s miscalculations have been so serious that its only hope for victory is to have the United States and the international community do for Israel what it can’t do militarily, which is defeat Hezbollah, assemble an international force in Lebanon and bring some sort of endgame to all this.

So it was not surprising that the Bushies and their neoconservative scriptwriters were angry and confused.  As military analyst Amir Oren reported in Haaretz (“No time to lose,” July 29), in the middle of the first week of Lebanon II,

a close personal friend of U.S. President George Bush, who is also a generous donor to the Republican Party, called an Israeli friend who is a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces.  “What’s happening with you?” he asked, as angry as he was disappointed.  “The best army in the region, one of the best armies in the world, is messing for two weeks with a terrorist organization three kilometers from the border, and the rockets keep falling on its population centers?  We sent our army to bleed 6,000 miles from home after September 11.  What’s stopping you?”

Oops . . . Something not very funny happened to the neocon paradigm on the way to southern Lebanon.  This is what happens in the “game of expectations” when you create a sense that “victory is at hand,” which is exactly the lesson the U.S. military was taught in Vietnam when, despite their victory over the Vietcong during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the perception among Americans was that the Vietcong had won.  After all, how could you talk about “light at the end of the tunnel” when the communist guerrillas were almost able to overrun the U.S. embassy in Saigon?

Similarly, while Israel delivered a major blow to Hezbollah’s military and political infrastructure in southern Lebanon and Beirut, it was clear that, contrary to earlier Israeli expectations, Israeli air power and hours of deadly bombardment failed to neutralize the entire military power of the Shiite group and put an end to the launching of deadly Katyushas into Israel.  Moreover, Israeli commando and elite units that were dispatched into southern Lebanon to kill or capture the Hezbollah guerrillas ended up facing stronger than expected resistance that resulted in a relatively high number of Israeli casualties.  The Israelis were embarrassed after the military leaked to the media that Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was captured.  It turned out that Israeli troops had detained a different Hassan Nasrallah—a Lebanese shop owner.

Adding drama to the Israeli sense of letdown was the discrepancy between the promises made by the Israeli political and military leaders to kill Nasrallah and the reality at the time of the cease-fire.  In a nationally televised talk show on the first day of Lebanon II, members of an Israeli audience were seen singing:

Yallah, Yallah, Nasrallah.  We’re going to screw you, inshallah.

We’re going to return you to Allah, with all of Hezbollah

Yallah, Yallah, Nasrallah, get out of here, you piece of trash.

It’s written from above, that it’s all over for you.

By the end of Lebanon II, however, the charismatic Nasrallah seemed to be alive and well and was transformed into the hero of the Arab Street, having stood up to the mighty military power of the American-Israeli axis—and survived.  Iran and Syria were also depicted as winners in this war.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Ol-mert, boasting of Israeli military success in Lebanon, sounded more and more like Bush declaring victory in Iraq—not that there’s anything wrong with that, according to neoconservative columnist David Brooks.  “And so it’s clear that [the Israelis] didn’t achieve what they thought they were going to achieve,” Brooks explained on PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.  “And now the question is: Can they create a narrative of victory which will give them a chance to get out?”  You see, as with Iraq, it’s all about the narrative, stupid!

As the Poles, Irish, and Italians would admit, however, you don’t win wars with the most creative “narratives.”  Israel now finds herself in a more vulnerable position in the Middle East than before Lebanon II.  Not only will she confront a more hostile Arab world, but her failure to win the military confrontation with Hezbollah in a swift manner is bound to raise major questions about her ability to deter future challenges from the region’s other countries and nonstate groups.  At the same time, U.S. officials are likely to begin questioning their long-held axiom that Israel is a “strategic asset” of the United States in the Middle East.  Some would argue that she has proved to be more of a “burden” for U.S. interests this time.  Hence, Israel’s great desire to reassert her deterrence power ASAP.

It is also unclear whether Hezbollah’s better-than-expected performance will translate into a long-term political win.  While the Shiite militia/social-services organization enjoys the political support of the majority of Lebanon’s Shiites (now more than 40 percent of the population) and is expected to achieve its goal of exchanging the Israeli soldiers it kidnapped with Lebanese prisoners that Israel is holding, the members of the Maronite, Sunni, and Druze communities are bound to resist continued efforts by Hezbollah to challenge the Israelis.  Backed by the mostly European peacekeeping troops dispatched by the United Nations, it is not inconceivable that the non-Shiite Lebanese, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, would confront Hezbollah in a way that could renew the civil war in Lebanon, turning the country into a battlefield in which pro-Iran Shiites would be fighting pro-Western Sunnis and their allies, while, in neighboring Iraq, pro-Iranian Shiites—backed by the United States—would continue battling anti-Western Sunnis.  Now there is an interesting narrative.