Israel's attack on Lebanon, and the Hezbollah action that provoked it, pose strategic questions. I want to focus on Israel for the moment, since its very forceful - disproportionate - response is, to my mind, the most significant strategic issue. And when we consider the bombing of civilian targets in light of Sun Tzu's thinking, it appears that Israel may be making a serious error.
One of the most striking political aspects of the conflict is the way in which regional Arab states - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan - have publicly criticized Hezbollah for the initial incursion and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. This is an unusual and important development, suggesting that, before this most recent violence, the regional strategic context was moving in Israel's favor. Clearly, Hezbollah poses a threat, though not a mortal threat, to Israel, and it is in Israel's interest, over the longer term, to weaken Hezbollah. Regional Arab states could be very useful to that strategic Israeli goal.
Although Hezbollah can recruit sympathizers from these regimes, people frustrated with a variety of political and economic conditions, the power of these states could be brought to bear to limit Hezbollah's access to arms and, most importantly, money. I know Iran is a key supporter of Hezbollah, and, indeed, it may be a longer-term worry about Iranian power that could push, say, Saudi Arabia closer to Israeli interests on the Hezbollah issue. Iran will continue to pump arms and money to Hezbollah, but the regional Arab states could be useful in reducing the flow of money and arms from elsewhere or, even, disrupting Iranian support. And those states could be even more useful in engaging Syria in an effort to limit Hezbollah.
All of this is to say that it would be better for Israel to cultivate the anti-Hezbollah sentiments of the regional Arab states if it is to limit Hezbollah power in the long term. There is no military solution here. Previous Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon did not destroy Hezbollah. The best that can be hoped for, from an Israeli point of view, is a shift in the regional political dynamic, which was evidently in process before this new outbreak of fighting.
The death of innocent Lebanese civilians undermines longer-term Israeli strategy. Gruesome reports and pictures of dead children make it harder for the regional Arab states to maintain their public critique of Hezbollah. The disproportional Israeli response does not serve its longer terms interests but, actually, creates a new source of Hezbollah strength.
This is where Sun Tzu comes in. In war-fighting, he tells us, we should attack the enemy's strategy, not his cities, not even his army:
Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy;
Next best is to disrupt his alliances;
The next best is to attack his army.
The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative. (chapter 3)
The Israeli response, thus far, seems to be working in reverse of Sun Tzu's priorities. A more measured response, focusing on those Hezbollah military units in the south that may have participated in the kidnapping of the soldiers, would better serve Sun Tzu's first two points.
Thus, the US, instead of waiting around to allow Israel to pound targets in cities, should be taking a much more assertive position to limit the violence. That way, there would be better chances of building on the strategic regional political context that would target Hezbollah's longer term goals.