About Those ‘Birth Pangs’

by , August 17, 2006

“What we’re seeing here, in a sense,” said Condoleezza Rice at a July 21 press conference announcing her trip to the Middle East, “is the growing – the birth pangs of a new Middle East and whatever we do we have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one.”

Well, that was quick, because here it is, a month later, and the Old Middle East has bounced right back – with a vengeance, as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was quick to note: “Their ‘New Middle East,’ based on subjugation and humiliation, and denial of rights and identity, has turned into an illusion,” he crowed. Not that the denial of rights and identity isn’t an everyday occurrence in Syria, a tightly controlled one-party state. Bashar was addressing the Syrian Journalists Union, although, given Syria’s state-owned -and controlled media, what journalists in Syria do is much closer to stenography. But he’s right when he says:

“Israel has been trying for decades to gain acceptance in the region. What Israel should know is that every generation has more hatred toward it than the generation before. Hatred is not a good word. We do not hate and we do not encourage hatred. But Israel did not leave room in our region except for hatred.”

Which raises the question: just what were the Israelis trying to accomplish? Oh, I know what they say their war aims were, but all accounts of these have been strangely unsatisfactory. We are told that the “plan” was to strike Lebanon and incur, not a wave of hatred directed at Israel, but a reaction against Hezbollah. The Lebanese people, the Israeli strategists supposedly told themselves, would blame Hezbollah for starting the war and bringing Israeli vengeance down on their heads. As Seymour Hersh relates in his latest New Yorker piece:

“The initial plan, as outlined by the Israelis, called for a major bombing campaign in response to the next Hezbollah provocation, according to the Middle East expert with knowledge of U.S. and Israeli thinking. Israel believed that, by targeting Lebanon’s infrastructure, including highways, fuel depots, and even the civilian runways at the main Beirut airport, it could persuade Lebanon’s large Christian and Sunni populations to turn against Hezbollah, according to the former senior intelligence official. “

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way: instead, the Lebanese people – Muslim, Christian, and Druze alike – were outraged by the viciousness of the Israeli attack, which killed over 1,000, overwhelmingly civilians, including many children, and decimated the infrastructure of a once thriving society. But what I want to know is: how could anyone have expected a different result? The Israeli “strategy” – we bomb the sh*t out of them, and then they’ll hate someone else, not us – is just not believable. There’s something else going on here.

As far as I can discern, there was no “strategic” reason to go after Hezbollah at this particular moment in time. As Hersh relates:

“The Pentagon consultant noted that there had also been cross-border incidents involving Israel and Hezbollah, in both directions, for some time. ‘They’ve been sniping at each other,’ he said. ‘Either side could have pointed to some incident and said “We have to go to war with these guys” – because they were already at war.'”

Sure, the Shi’ite militants and the Israelis are mortal enemies and always have been, but that doesn’t answer the question: why now? Let’s look at the larger picture.

To begin with, the presence of 130,000-plus U.S. soldiers in the heart of the Middle East has completely changed the equation: Israel is empowered as never before, and has been using that forward momentum to extend its influence into Kurdistan as well as dispatch its enemies closer to home – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and any semblance of a real Palestinian government in the occupied territories. This is hardly an accident. I note that “mainstream” writers, such as Sidney Blumenthal, are now acknowledging the “Clean Break” plan, put together in 1996 by several key players in the Bush administration, which called for the elimination of Iraq as a prelude to going after Syria, and this is key to understanding Israel’s actions.

The important thing to remember about this scenario is that it was put together not for American policymakers, but for the benefit of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and that it summed up the program of a powerful faction, not only within Israel but also within the highest reaches of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. Its thesis, embraced by American neoconservatives as well as Israeli hawks, was that Israel needed to make a “clean break” with the peace process, which was undermining the foundations of the Jewish state. It needed to break out of its passivity and make a new start characterized by a policy of relentless aggression, and there was only one direction it could go, at least initially: north, into Lebanon.

Given the green light by the U.S., the Israelis expected to secure a “buffer zone,” similar to the one they carved out of Lebanon in the 1980s and then were ignominiously expelled from by Hezbollah. But as Assad put it, Lebanon’s Shi’te Muslim militia will now make Israel think twice before executing “terrorist policies” in pursuit of its goals: “Israel was defeated in its war on Lebanon. It was defeated on day one of its aggression.”

I wouldn’t be so sure about that, however: if I were Assad, I would save the crowing for later, or else ditch it altogether. Because the Israelis are now trying to achieve on the diplomatic and political front what they failed to accomplish on the battlefield, and that is the disarming of Hezbollah, the neutralization of Syria, and – not far down the road – a U.S. strike at Iran.

For the moment, however, things don’t look so good from the Israeli perspective. Syria is now in the ascendant, and there is little support in the U.S. for a strike at Iran. On the question of disarming Hezbollah, prospects are, at best, dim. As the IDF withdraws from Lebanese territory, UN Resolution 1701 avers that “there will be no weapons without the consent of the Government of Lebanon and no authority other than that of the Government of Lebanon.” It also calls for “full implementation” of the 1989 Taif Accord, which envisioned “disbanding all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias and surrendering their arms to the Lebanese state.”

In other words, all those rockets and other weaponry shipped to Hezbollah from Iran via Syria will now fall into the hands of the Lebanese army. In effect, Hezbollah’s armed wing will be absorbed into the Lebanese armed forces, just as the Shi’ite militias in Iraq (the Badr Brigade, the Da’wa Party fighters, the Mahdi Army, etc.) have become the de facto Iraqi police and military. The only difference is that, in Iraq, this process is being resisted by the Americans; in Lebanon, it is being legitimized by 1701 and given the official imprimatur of the international community.

President Bush says democracy is impossible as long as there is “a state within a state” in Lebanon. But what about the U.S., where “a state within a statebypassed the CIA and the State Department, and, utilizing its own parallel institutions, pulled off a massive intelligence fraud and lied us into war?

Aside from its breathtaking hypocrisy, Bush’s statement reveals a massive ignorance when it comes to the reality on the ground in Lebanon. The Levant is all about states within states – that’s the only reason for the period of relative peace it has enjoyed since the fratricidal 1980s. In a country riven by ancient religious, ethnic, and tribal rivalries, power has been devolved to the local level, where homogenous ethnic and religious communities are granted a large degree of self-rule and each group gets representation roughly proportional to its numbers. The Lebanese constitution reserves certain offices for particular religious groups, and the result is an uneasy peace brought about by a delicate balancing act between majority rule and minority rights. Ideally, a rough equilibrium is achieved, and social and political stability is the result – unless something or someone upsets the apple cart by demanding more than what is perceived as their fair share.

When you think about it, Hezbollah puts into practice some of the main tenets of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” – what else is Hassan Nasrallah’s extensive network of social and charitable agencies other than an enormously successful “faith-based initiative“? The president parrots the Israeli line that Hezbollah is a “terrorist” organization that represents a mortal threat to Americans worldwide, but the reality is quite different, as the U.S. intelligence community recognized in a National Intelligence Estimate prepared in April, which, according to Laura Rozen, “says that Hezbollah is the only major terrorist group with global reach currently not trying to kill Americans.”

By involving the U.S. as their ally in this fight, the Israelis and their American amen corner are trying to change that – whether as an unintended consequence of their actions or not is largely irrelevant, because the consequences will be just as deadly. Hezbollah, says former Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, has more of a presence in the continental United States than al-Qaeda. If the U.S. goes to war with Iran, and a regional war breaks out, Hezbollah’s hands-off policy toward American targets could very well change. Yet, as Rozen suggests, this is hardly inevitable:

“Despite suggestions by some politicians that Islamic radical groups are all alike, Hezbollah is not al-Qaeda. ‘President Bush and some congressmen paint Hezbollah the same way as al-Qaeda,’ says Dennis Pluchinsky, who recently retired after 28 years as a State Department counterterrorism analyst. ‘But I don’t think [Hezbollah] has a global agenda. Al-Qaeda has initiated a global jihad. Al-Qaeda and other global jihadists really believe it’s Islam’s manifest destiny to rule the earth. Hezbollah is fairly pragmatic; they want to set up an Islamic state in Lebanon.’

“Pluchinsky says as esteem for Hezbollah has risen, al-Qaeda has tried to get in on the action. ‘Now bin Laden has an opportunity to step forward and show support, and to try to link what’s happening in Lebanon to what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Hezbollah says, “No, there’s no link at all.”‘”

Bin Laden and his confreres are devotees of the Big Picture analysis, which posits a “clash of civilizations,” in the Huntingtonian phrase, between Islam and the West, with the latter supposedly intent on destroying the former. This same wide-angle view – albeit stood on its head – is taken by the most radical neocons. Michael Ledeen, in his most recent polemic, inveighs against critics of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s conduct of the Lebanese campaign and Bush’s execution of the neocon strategy in Iraq:

“Both campaigns and both debates suffer from the same narrow focus, the same failure of strategic vision, the same obsession with a single campaign in a single place, when the war itself – the real war – is far wider. Our leaders and our pundits are fighting single battles, and, since their strategies are not designed to win the real war, they are doomed to fail. The failure of strategic vision is not unique to politicians, or pundits, or military strategists; it seems common to them all. It is extremely rare to hear an authoritative voice addressing the real war.

“The terror masters in Syria and Iran are waging a regional war against us, running from Afghanistan and Iraq to, Gaza, Israel, and Lebanon. Alongside the ground war in the Middle East, they are conducting fifth-column operations against us from Europe to India and on to Indonesia, Australia, and the United States; the plot just dismantled in Great Britain provides the latest evidence.”

The “real war” is a regional struggle, one that must be fought from Lebanon to the wilds of Central Asia and all points in between: Ledeen believes this, and so does bin Laden. It’s as if they are both possessed by the ghost of Leon Trotsky, who argued that Communism had to be extended internationally because socialism in a single country was doomed to failure. Ledeen makes a similar argument – similar in form, not content – and the followers of bin Laden are also militant internationalists, who yearn for the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate.

All fanatics are fond of systematic – and simplistic – explanations: in their view, everything is part of a vast narrative telling the story of a Manichean struggle between Darkness and Light. There is no differentiation, no variety in their analysis: from the neocon perspective, all Muslims are the same, there is no distinction to be made between Sunni and Shi’ite, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, the ayatollahs of Iraq and those of Iran, the Wahhabis and the Alawites. They are all servants of “the terror masters,” as Ledeen, with his flair for melodrama, dubs the governments of the region.

The jihadist internationalists, followers of bin Laden, are also inspired by a Manichean vision: they don’t want to limit the conflict, but instead seek to expand it – to America, if possible. The neocons, for their part, don’t mind putting the rest of us in mortal danger: it’s part of the risk of their grand strategy, which they justify by repeating endlessly, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?

The jihadists and the neocons are brothers in spirit: both conjure the prospect of eternal war, and both, in their own distinctive and yet eerily similar ways, glory in the fighting of it. We are all of us caught between them, innocent civilians – and potential collateral damage. The question is: how do we get out of this untenable position?

We’ll leave that for a future column: suffice to say that we ought to expect no respite from the crisis that has become a permanent condition since 9/11. Powerful forces have been unleashed, and not only in the Middle East, and we are being buffeted about like leaves in a torrent. Our response must be to live and work for the day we can recapture our fate – and take back American foreign policy from those who have hijacked it.

What we are witnessing in the Middle East is the sad spectacle of a once great nation dissipating its resources on a futile crusade to implant “democracy” in inhospitable soil. These aren’t the “birth pangs” of a new, U.S.-Israeli regional hegemon, but the death throes of an American Empire that is expiring before it is even properly born.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Yet another fundraising campaign has just finished, and this time we raised some $67,000! The staff of Antiwar.com wants to thank everyone who contributed – over 1,300 of our readers put us over the top and cast their vote of confidence for the work we have been doing, and now will continue to do. Every fundraising campaign evokes in me a feeling of dread: what if we don’t make it? What if catastrophe strikes? I don’t get over it until it’s over. And let me tell you, it’s quite a relief, every time. I am continually astonished anew at the conclusion of a successful fundraiser: and, I can say with pride and awe, we’ve never had an unsuccessful one.

Which is not to say it couldn’t happen. That’s why we work so hard, here at Antiwar.com – because we want to be worthy of your support. We have a responsibility, precisely because of the depth of our readers’ commitment, to hold ourselves to the highest standard. And we promise not to let you down.

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