Playing the Sunni Card

by , July 20, 2006

The U.S. government is finally moving – albeit with the slowness of its Katrina response – to rescue Americans trapped in Lebanon. As our warships steam toward the Eastern Mediterranean, however, innocent tourists out for a pleasant sojourn in Beirut have been handed some galling news (via Andrew Sullivan):

“I am currently enrolled in an intensive summer Arabic program at the American University in Beirut, and am holed up at the university, probably the safest place in the city right now. Basically my choices have been to make a run for the border with Syria and try to catch a flight out, or wait for the USG to carry out the evacuation plan. Because I heard reports about the dangers of the former (and based on a statement by the American embassy), I opted for the latter. They are finally getting everything together today, but they dropped a little surprise: they are going to be billing us for giving us emergency transport to Cyprus, and then basically dropping us off on our own to get commercial flights back to the US.”

This is one of those telling little ironies that neatly and succinctly dramatizes a grand-scale absurdity. The U.S. is willing to pay for this war – and of course the American taxpayers have paid for it, to the tune of the $3 billion in yearly tribute to Tel Aviv – but our government is unwilling to rescue its own citizens from the blowback for free. If there is a better way to underscore more vividly the Israel-centric nature of our policies in the region – and how the entire mindset of government officials runs counter to genuinely American interests – I can’t imagine what it might be.

The creation and rise of al-Qaeda is another case in point: back in the day, the “jihadists,” as we now call them, were “freedom fighters” – according to the same neoconservatives who are now leading the anti-jihadist jihad. We funded, nurtured, and armed the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion of 1979, which eventually morphed into al-Qaeda – and 19 hijackers who plowed into the World Trade Center and made a smoking ruin of the Pentagon. Another telling irony: during the Reagan years, that building housed the very brain trust that masterminded al-Qaeda’s precursors.

Without the massive U.S. subsidies that flow into Israeli government coffers every year, the IDF would not now be launching a massive aerial attack on Lebanese military and civilian targets and considering seriously the prospect of sending in large numbers of ground troops. I thought perhaps that is what Bill Kristol meant when he wrote “It’s Our War,” but, then again, maybe not.

According to Kristol, Hezbollah and Hamas aren’t the real problem: it’s Syria and especially Iran that have to be dealt with, and not by the Israelis but by the Americans. As to why this is so, Kristol is strangely mum: we are told only that both countries are “enemies of the United States,” and that we have emboldened – even provoked them – by our “weakness.” We can remedy this by promoting “regime change” – and maybe even launching an attack on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons facilities. After all, opines Kristol, “Why wait?” It’s never too soon to start the bombing – that, in a nutshell, is the neoconservative creed, and the editor of the Weekly Standard expresses it more bluntly than most.

If, however, you thought the moral insanity of the neoconservative ideologues driving U.S. foreign policy has no better representative than Kristol, then get a load of what the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is saying:

“U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said there was no moral equivalence between the civilian casualties from the Israeli raids in Lebanon and those killed in Israel. ‘I think it would be a mistake to ascribe moral equivalence to civilians who die as the direct result of malicious terrorist acts,’ he added, while defending as ‘self-defense’ Israel’s military action, which has had ‘the tragic and unfortunate consequence of civilian deaths.'”

This argument is based on alleged intent: Bolton posits, without offering any evidence, that the Israelis did not intend to harm innocent civilians, but Hezbollah certainly did and does. Surely, however, he doesn’t really believe the Israelis failed to foresee large numbers of civilian casualties as the inevitable result of their aerial bombardment. We all know they simply discounted this and went ahead anyway. Yes, avers Bolton, Lebanese deaths are “tragic,” but they are less tragic than some others:

“It’s simply not the same thing to say that it’s the same act to deliberately target innocent civilians, to desire their deaths, to fire rockets and use explosive devices or kidnapping versus the sad and highly unfortunate consequences of self-defense.”

How does one gauge the desires of the Israeli leaders, the generals and the strategists, and those who carry out their orders? Bolton must be a mind-reader. It’s impossible to know with certainty the motives and emotions that propel human action in any instance, but it’s easy enough, in the case of the Middle East, to imagine some sort of hatred is involved, be it religious, ethnic, or nonsectarian.

Clearly, both sides are motivated by a fair degree of hatred, and if anyone wants to make the case that one party is ahead of the other in this regard, they are going to have a hard time of it. The idea, in this war more than most, is to terrorize the enemy and so demoralize them that they are either driven into the sea or the desert.

The real core of Bolton’s argument, however, is unstated: it is the premise that state-sponsored terrorism is morally superior to the “privatized” Hezbollah brand, but this is unsupportable, in logic and by any rational ethical standard. It is, of course, the conceit of nations – that is, of their governments – that their terror is excusable, even liberating, while the same behavior engaged in by individuals or private groups is defined as a criminal act.

This conceit has been buttressed by various ideologies – Marxism and the various forms of racialism, including German national socialism – all based on the primacy of either class or race in determining human consciousness. The “class-conscious” workers were the vanguard of a Higher Truth, one that gave us the gulag and arguably the worst tyranny ever visited on humankind. The “race-conscious” Nazis gave us the Holocaust and the most destructive war in world history. In the Middle East, the same sort of tribalist “logic” allows both sides to disdain the moral arguments against attacking civilians.

What is weird is that the Israelis are hurling their bombs at the wrong tribe. It wasn’t the Lebanese army that first took aim at innocents, yet the Israelis are now attacking Lebanese military positions. These facilities are manned mostly by Christian Lebanese who had nothing whatsoever to do with the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers – the pretext Israel is utilizing to rationalize a long-planned campaign.

It was only natural for the Vatican – the fountainhead of a universalist theology – to emphasize the moral irresponsibility of Israel’s actions and take a stand putting state-sponsored terrorism on the same moral plane as all others. Along these same lines, if we look at what is happening through a theological lens, it is possible to see the strategic if not the moral logic of Israel’s grossly disproportionate “response” to Hezbollah’s actions.

The entire thrust of Israeli war propaganda – and I’m including the Weekly Standard in this appellation – has been to identify the Iranians as the real intended target, and this strategic orientation comes through loud and clear in Robin Wright’s reporting for the Washington Post:

“Whatever the outrage on the Arab streets, Washington believes it has strong behind-the-scenes support among key Arab leaders also nervous about the populist militants – with a tacit agreement that the timing is right to strike.

“‘What is out there is concern among conservative Arab allies that there is a hegemonic Persian threat [running] through Damascus, through the southern suburbs of Beirut and to the Palestinians in Hamas,’ said a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity because of sensitive diplomacy. ‘Regional leaders want to find a way to navigate unease on their streets and deal with the strategic threats to take down Hezbollah and Hamas, to come out of the crisis where they are not as ascendant.

“Hezbollah’s cross-border raid that captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others has provided a ‘unique moment‘ with a ‘convergence of interests‘ among Israel, some Arab regimes and even those in Lebanon who want to rein in the country’s last private army, the senior Israeli official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing conflict. Israel and the United States would like to hold out until Hezbollah is crippled.”

This concept of a “hegemonic Persian threat” is another one of those Frankenstein monsters that has turned on its creators: after all, it was the invasion of Iraq that elevated Tehran’s status as the aspiring regional hegemon. U.S. forces in Iraq are presently defending a government composed of factions that were nurtured and armed by Iran during all the years of Saddam’s rule. If there is now a looming Persian threat, who is to blame for that?

This is not so much of a problem, however – from the War Party’s point of view – if we look at the sectarian religious dynamics of the Middle East’s rush to war. The awakening Shi’ite giant casts a long shadow over the entire region, and the Sunni rulers of the various U.S.-allied states are uniting against the prospect of a rising super-state stretching from the Mediterranean end of the Shi’ite crescent to the steppes of central Asia. If we are engaged in a “civilizational” war with Islam, then this splitting of the enemy is bound to be thought of as an effective strategy. Professor Charles Harb, of Beirut’s American University, puts it this way:

“For the first time in recent history, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Israeli, and U.S. interests now converge in an implicit alliance to quell Hezbollah. Reactions by these states in the past few days have been strongly indicative of such a stance, from the Saudi statement implicitly condemning Hezbollah, to the U.S. president’s explicit refusal to ‘rein in’ Israel.”

This achievement, if it can be called that, is the geopolitical strategy that energizes Israel’s rape of Lebanon, one meant to not only throw back the threat to Israel from Hezbollah, but also to rescue the rapidly failing effort to quell the Iraqi insurgency. As I wrote months ago, there are numerous indications that the Americans are eager to play the Sunni card against the consolidation of a pro-Iranian Shi’ite theocracy in Baghdad.

Edward Luttwak says there is little or no chance of the Israeli aggression igniting a regional conflagration, but his argument is built on the premise that the only important military factors are state actors. He is perfectly correct to say the Sunni rulers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are not about to come to Hezbollah’s rescue. Yet Luttwak ignores important non-state guerrilla groups, such as al-Qaeda, which can point to this convergence of American, Israeli, and “apostate” interests as confirmation that they’ve been right all along. To say nothing of the strategically located Shi’ite region of the Saudi Kingdom, an oil-rich area that could break away if Muslim internecine war spreads.

The U.S.-Israeli strategy aims at atomizing the Arab-Muslim world: the invasion of Iraq smashed the Ba’athist state and split it into three distinct and warring pieces – the Shi’ite south, the infamous Sunni Triangle, and Kurdistan. The same method is being employed in Lebanon, where the fragile state apparatus is about to come undone under the impact of the Israeli assault – and, soon enough, in Syria and Iran, where Kurds and other restive ethnic groups are being encouraged by the regime-changers of the West.

Divide and rule: it’s the oldest strategy in the book, and particularly effective when it comes to the Arab-Muslim world, which is rife with internecine strife that only needs a bit of provocation to come to the surface in violent form.

As to whether this strategy will work, the question is: do we want it to? What “work” means, in this context, is the metastasis of Iraq’s civil war. They told us Iraq would be a “model” for the region – what they didn’t say is that it would be a “model” of how to destroy an entire civilization.

The goal of the War Party is to keep up the momentum for intervention created by the Iraq war and allow the conflict there to naturally spill over Iraq’s borders into Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and beyond. There are many, including within this administration, who do not share this goal, and there were signs that, until recently, this “realist” faction might prevail. As Steve Clemons points out, the neocons have been troubled by recent moves to make some sort of accommodation with Syria and the pragmatist wing of Hamas, and the Israeli invasion has had the effect of

“Removing from the table important policy options that the U.S. might have pursued. Israel is constraining American foreign policy in amazing and troubling ways by its actions. And a former senior CIA official and another senior Marine who are well-versed in both Israeli and broad Middle East affairs agreed that serious strategists in Israel are more concerned about America tilting towards new bargains in the region than they are either about the challenge from Hamas or Hezbollah or showing that Olmert knows how to pull the trigger.”

I made essentially the same point here: that this is more about internal American politics than any “threat,” real or imagined, represented by Hezbollah or Iran. The Israelis, terrified that the Americans were about to bail on them, forced the issue by going for Lebanon’s throat – effectively sidelining Condoleezza Rice and the “realists.”

The crushing of Lebanon beneath the Israeli boot achieves two goals for the War Party: it outflanks their enemies in Washington, and it divides their enemies in the Middle East. It is a one-two punch that could plunge much of the world into a conflict that we will never see the end of in our lifetimes: the opening shots of what the neocons refer to as “World War IV.” (Note: World War III was the Cold War, according to this thinking.)

Whether we can pull back from the brink of this global catastrophe – one from which the inhabitants of the imperial metropolis will not be protected, as they weren’t on 9/11 – is an open question. If we can’t – well, then, God help us all.

There are presently around 25,000 Americans stuck in Lebanon, about 10,000 of whom will have to be transported back to the U.S. – at tremendous cost. What say you we deduct the total bill from the $3 billion we send Israel every year? Who will be the first member of Congress to introduce that resolution?

UPDATE: I am listening to an announcement on MSNBC that the State Department is no longer demanding that Americans stranded in Lebanon sign a promissory note pledging to pay for their own rescue. The decision was made at a meeting of the National Security Council in response to widespread criticism of this alleged “legal requirement.” My point about the mentality of government officials – who have actively encouraged the vicious bombing campaign, which has targeted civilians – still stands: without the outraged response from Americans, who wonder why we can send billions to Israel for arms but not one penny for the rescue of U.S. citizens from Israeli bombs, the U.S. State Department would have gotten away with sticking the rescued Americans with the bill.

Read more by Justin Raimondo