The New Creative Destruction

If there is one question I could ask Hassan Nasrallah today, it would be this: When did you begin planning for the reconstruction of southern Lebanon, before you kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on July 12, or only after it became clear how much of southern Lebanon Israel was willing to destroy to "win" its war against you?

Either way, it was the latest master-stroke in a string of decisions that have confounded Israel, the United States, and the world at large. Indeed, while critics of the Israeli invasion claim--with increasing evidence--that Israel planned the attack well in advance (even with the support from the Bush administration) it now appears that it was Hezbollah who suckered Israel into a war for which it had perfectly planned each component: the bait--the kidnapping of two soldiers; the military strategy--tunnels, missile barrages, and advanced anti-tank weapons; and the post fighting reconstruction--a large scale effort that only Hezbollah, and not the feckless Lebanese government, is capable of undertaking.

Call it the new Creative Destruction; and the "new" Middle East it is creating will be very different than the one dreamed of by Bush Administration planners and their allies in Israel.

The idea of "creative destruction" first was popularized by the Austrian economist Rudolph Schumpeter more than half a century ago to describe how capitalism simultaneously destroys existing social systems and profits from the economic and social systems that take their place. The Bush Administration, and proponents of globalization more broadly, latched onto creative destruction as a way of describing the process by which they hoped to create their new world orders.

For both, in the words of neocon philosopher and Bush advisor Michael Ledeen, the United States is "an awesome revolutionary force" for whom creative destruction is "our middle name." A similar faith in Israel's role in the Middle East was behind Shimon Peres's idea of a "New Middle East" in which Israel would be its cultural and economic engine. This is the vision upon which the Oslo peace process was founded, and ultimately foundered.

But in keeping with this philosophy, the Israeli military thought that by destroying thousands of Lebanese bodies and buildings it could take out Hezbollah, and in so doing create a new and more favorable regional balance of power. What it didn't count on was that Hezbollah was using the same principle of violence as the instigator of social and political change, only in reverse: each bombed out building and lifeless baby created another opportunity for Hezbollah to show its patriotism, charity and efficiency.

Now, as Israeli soldiers begin withdrawing from Lebanon in what most every Lebanese believes is defeat, Hezbollah fighters exchange their Kalashnikovs for hard hats and bulldozers, clearing away the rubble, handing out money, food and furniture to the homeless, and rebuilding the roads and buildings that the war they precipitated destroyed-all with an unlimited supply of funds from Israel and America's main enemy and ultimate target of the war, Iran.

In short, Hezbollah has been able to eat its cake and have it too: It has stood up to the mighty IDF and either coopted or cowed its domestic opposition (which collectively had more support than it did before the war). Then, before anyone could criticize it for the magnitude of destruction its actions unleashed, it has begun a massive, well-funded rebuilding effort. If only the Bush administration had acted as astutely in Iraq.

What can the United States and Israel learn from the last five weeks? Well, they've been pretty creative about destroying things--as a tour of Iraq, Lebanon or Gaza makes clear--in the process unleashing waves of chaos that they assumed could be managed to their advantage. But Nasrallah's strategy has shown him to be a true master of both sides of the creative destruction equation. That is, he understands that creative destruction must create a viable system that gives people a stake in their future if the process is to be completed.

Because of this, if Secretary Rice really heard the birth pangs of a new Middle East, the baby they heralded is not America's or Israel's; it's Hezbollah's. Will we still love it? Or will we abandon it as if it's not our responsibility? These are hard lessons to swallow, but we'd do well to learn from it, and quickly. Our enemies already are.