Is Iran Driving the Conflict?
People outraged by the hundreds of Lebanese killed in Israeli bombing raids over the past week may be tempted to see in the U.S. rush to ship Israel extra supplies of bombs and missiles to rain down on Lebanon, and in its diplomatic effort to prolong rather than end the conflict in the hope that Israel can achieve its battlefield objectives, evidence that the offensive is part of another club-footed U.S. effort to remake the region. But it’s not that simple. In fact, it may be no more true than the idea that because Iran funds, trains and arms Hizballah, it was Tehran that took the decision to escalate the conflict on Israel’s northern border. Client states and proxy forces tend to act autonomously of their backers, even if they share many of the same objectives — if they didn’t have their own separate interests they wouldn’t be proxies or clients, they would simply be satellites.
It’s well established that Israel acts independently of the U.S., and what distinguishes the current U.S. administration from its predecessors is the extent to which it simply follows Israel’s lead. Smart and well-informed Iran-watchers such as Trita Parsi challenge the the conventional wisdom in much of the media that Iran took the decision to seize the two Israeli soldiers, and suggest the focus on Iran comes from those who would like to see the U.S. take on Iran. I spoke to Parsi last week, and he suggested that the escalation in Lebanon actually undermined Iran’s interests, and that Hizballah acts autonomously from its backer, particularly on a tactical level. “On grander strategic actions, Hizballah would probably seek consent or approval from Tehran, but not necessarily on tactical operations. And its not clear that they saw the capture of those soldiers as having strategic consequences, or whether they just saw it as a tactical opportunity to press for the release of prisoners.”
Hezbollah and Israel stand along this border every day observing each other through binoculars and waiting for an opportunity to kill each other. They are at war. They have been for 25 years, no one ever declared a cease-fire between them. … They stand on the border every day and just wait for an opportunity. And on Tuesday morning there were two Humvees full of Israeli soldiers, not under observation from the Israeli side, not under covering fire, sitting out there all alone. The Hezbollah militia commander just couldn’t believe it — so he went and got them.
The Israeli captain in charge of that unit knew he had really screwed up, so he sent an armored personnel carrier to go get them in hot pursuit, and Hezbollah led them right through a minefield.
Now if you’re sitting in Tehran or Damascus or Beirut, and you are part of the terrorist Politburo so to speak, you have a choice. With your head sunk in your hands, thinking “Oh my God,” you can either give [the kidnapped soldiers] back and say “Oops, sorry, wrong time” or you can say, “Hey, this is war.”
It is absolutely ridiculous to believe that the Hezbollah commander on the ground said Tuesday morning, “Go get two Israeli soldiers, would you please?”
Parsi picks up the argument: “If Iran had encouraged Hizballah to do this, it’s not clear why Iran not doing more to help Hizballah — specifically, the fact that some of the stronger missiles that they have in Lebanon, such as the Fajr and the Zelzal, are not being used. And there’s also the fact that Iran made a stern warning that if Syria is attacked, Iran would come to its defense. But why did it not issue the same warning for an attack on Lebanon? Part of the reason may be that Iran didn’t actually order this operation. Because if they had ordered Hizballah to do this, and then left it to face Israel’s wrath alone, it would send a devastating message to other allied groups in the Arab world that if you do Iran’s bidding, it will abandon you to face the consequences.”
Whatever the truth about how Hizballah made its decision, what remains clear is that the U.S. policy for dealing with the crisis, which largely involves trying to secure on the diplomatic front what Israel is trying to achieve on the battlefield, is based on a series of linked fallacies. The result will be that the crisis is prolonged, at a cost of hundreds or thousands more lives, and that its resolution will leave the U.S. position in the Middle East even weaker than it is today.
Flawed Assumption #1: Hizballah Can Be Militarily Eliminated
We’ve dealt with this one in a previous post, so don’t need to dwell. Already, it’s clear that Israel has failed to achieve that objective from the air, and must now send in ground troops — in the process turning more than half a million Lebanese into refugees. Of course, this is how Hizballah cut its teeth, fighting Israeli troops in southern Lebanon. Once in, Israel may struggle to get its troops out without it appearing to be another victory for Hizballah. Even if it pushes Hizballah back, the chances of it destroying the movement as a fighting force in this way are slim. And the prevailing sentiment among Lebanese will ensure it has a steady stream of recruits ready to fight the invader. The U.S. has learned in Iraq that the insurgency cannot be militarily defeated. Israel has learned the same thing in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet, it is still willing to risk inflaming the mass of the Lebanese population against it by trying to do the same in Lebanon. It’s unlikely to succeed militarily, meaning it will have to settle for some form of truce that will look like a defeat for Israel and the U.S. because Hizballah will have survived.
Flawed Assumption #2: If Lebanon is Made to Pay a Heavy Price, It Will Turn on Hizballah
When you hear the Lebanese Defense Minister warn that the Lebanese Army will fight on the side of Hizballah against any Israeli invasion, you get the sense that things may not be working according to Israel’s plan. And why would it? It’s Bin Laden logic, after all, echoing the idea that if al-Qaeda blows up enough stuff on the American mainland, it can force the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East and stop backing Israel. Obviously, Americans are not going to allow people blowing up their cities to dictate to them how they should conduct their affairs; why does anyone think the Lebanese are any different? People don’t like being bombed, and they don’t like being told what to do by the bombers. The statements of the Lebanese government brought into being in part by U.S. backing reflect an acute sense of having been betrayed by Washington, which is doing its best to prolong the punishment of Lebanon by running diplomatic interference for Israel. I suspect the scale of what the Israelis have wrought in Lebanon may actually help ensure Hizballah’s survival. The message to moderate, pro-Western Arab politicians is simple: The U.S. will back you when you’re fighting Syria or the Islamists, but if you’re unfortunate enough to fall afoul of Israel, you’re on your own. The political consensus that this escalation will leave behind in the rubble of Lebanon will be far more antagonistic to Israel and wary of — even hostile to — the U.S. than the one that preceded it.
Flawed Assumption #3 (My personal favorite!): The Crisis Offers an Opportunity for the U.S. to Rally Arab Support Against Hizballah and Iran
Condi Rice, we are told, is heading to the Middle East to “build an umbrella of Arab allies against Hizballah”. Just listen to a White House official explaining her mission to the Telegraph: “She’s not going to come home with a ceasefire but stronger ties to the Arab world. It’s going to allow us to say that America isn’t going to put up with this and we have Arab friends that are against you terrorists. What we want is our Arab allies standing against Hezbollah and against Iran, since there is no one who doesn’t think Iran is behind this. We’re going to say to Hezbollah and the terrorist groups, ‘This will not stand.’ ”
Can someone please get me some of what these people are smoking? I, too, would love to escape, as they seem to do so frequently, from the squalor of reality… Israeli bombs are killing innocent Arabs by the hundred, while the U.S. supplies the bombs and demands that the Israelis be given more time, and the Arab leaders are going to stand by Israel against Hizballah. My, oh my… No lack of chutzpah in the Bush administration, I’ll grant you that. But the Arab regimes learned long ago to stop taking them seriously, as they did on Iraq, and then on Hamas. But this will be fun to watch, because the Arab citizenry is so outraged at what the Israelis are doing, and at the feeble posture of the pro-U.S. Arab regimes like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt when it comes to doing anything to help fellow Arabs under attack by Israel, that I suspect they will feel compelled to publicly rebuke Condi over the U.S. failure to press for a ceasefire, if only as a symbolic gesture for the benefit of their own public. The U.S. is going in saying Hizballah is the problem, not Israel. The Arabs will tell her that Hizballah is a problem, but not the problem; and that the Hizballah problem can only really be fixed if the Israel problem is fixed. Until Israel is ready to accept the Arab League proposals to settle all differences with the Arab world on the basis of the 1967 borders, these crises will continue to erupt. Of course, Condi may be prevented from embarrassing herself if she heeds the Saudis, who initiated Sunday talks at the White House to discuss the crisis. Safe bet is that the Saudis are going insist that the fighting be stopped, and that a grand bargain be pursued.
Flawed Assumption # 4: Syrian Cooperation Can Be Acquired Cost-Free
A spinoff of flawed assumption #3 is the idea that Syria can be persuaded to break from Iran and Hizballah by a combination of threats from Washington and persuasion by other Arab leaders. Uh, guys, what’s in it for Syria? And that’s a really important question, since Syria has been largely unmoved through two or three years of threats and harangues from Washington over its behavior on the Iraqi border, and over its murder of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon. That may be because Syria know that the U.S. and Israel know that there’s a limit on how far the regime in Damascus can be pushed, for the simple reason that the U.S. and Israel don’t want the regime in Damascus to fall — and the Israelis are explicit about this — because if it did, it would be replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood.
So Bashar Assad will stiffen his jaw and wait.
And what he may wait for will be to hear a phrase that hasn’t been uttered in Washington for at least six years now — “Golan Heights.” Syria relationship with Hizballah was premised on the fact that it had no military capacity to put pressure on Israel directly, and it saw in the Lebanese militia a form of proxy leverage to press Israel for the return of Syrian territory captured in 1967. It was assumed in the talks that went on through the 90s between Israel and Syria on this question that Hizballah’s capacity to attack Israel would be spiked once there was a deal. And I suspect that until the Syrians see some of their concerns addressed, particularly the fate of the Golan Heights, they won’t see any incentive to help out.
Flawed Assumption #5: The Middle East’s Crises Can be Addressed in Piecemeal Fashion
By now, you’d think the Bush Administration would have learned that everything in the Middle East is connected. It could just as easily pay a price in the lives of its soldiers on the streets of East Baghdad as it could in its diplomatic standing in Beirut for the stance it has taken on the Israeli action. Indeed, the crises in Gaza and Lebanon are both products of the Bush administration eschewing the traditional Pax Americana policies of its predecessors, and instead imagining it could remake the region on its own (and Israel’s) terms. Intead, in Iraq it created a vacuum filled by Iran; in the Palestinian territories it created a vacuum filled by Hamas; its handling of the Syria- Lebanon issue left the field open to Hizballah; and its refusal to engage the “grand bargain” discussion initiated by Iran’s leadership in 2003 has limited its ability to manage the crises created by Iran’s growing regional assertiveness.
The idea that the region is going to fall in line behind a U.S.-Israeli campaign against Hizballah is ludicrous. Sure, the Arab regimes have plenty of problems with Hizballah, but they can’t get behind the U.S. until a peace process that will get Israel back to some version of its 67 borders is under way, and other vital interests are addressed and engaged.
Flawed Assumption #6: Israeli Interests are U.S. Interests
The U.S. has a principle alliance with Israel, but it also has an interest in stability in the Middle East, for reasons of oil and security, on the basis of a Pax Americana. That has long been the lodestar of U.S. policy, balancing Israeli interests with those of its Arab clients. But the Bush administration abandoned that policy, tilting wholesale behind Israel on most tactical questions and abadoning its peacemaking role.
But Israel doesn’t necessarily need stability, democracy and prosperity in the Arab world. The “iron wall” doctrine of state building of Vladimir Jabotinsky, ideological icon of Ariel Sharon, is that Israel’s survival depends on crushing and humiliating its Arab neighbors. The idea was implied in Ariel Sharon’s mission-statement interview with Haaretz in April, 2001:
Haaretz: If an agreement on ending the conflict with the Palestinians is not possible and if a peace agreement with the Syrians is dangerous, what alternative are you proposing? What hope?
“From the strategic point of view, I think that it’s possible that in another 10 or 15 years the Arab world will have less ability to strike at Israel than it has today. That is because Israel will be a country with a flourishing economy, whereas the Arab world may be on the decline. True, there is no guarantee of this, but it is definitely possible that because of technological and environmental developments, the price of oil will fall and the Arab states will find themselves in a crisis situation, while Israel will be strengthened. The conclusion is that time is not working against us and therefore it is important to achieve solutions that will take place across a lengthy period.
Israel’s leaders — at least those of the right, who took power in 2000 with the express objective of putting an end to the peace process — have long seen Arab decline as to their advantage. Misguided as it is, the strategic doctrine that has guided Israel’s current leaders is very comfortable if there’s a civil war in Lebanon or in Gaza, or if the Arab leadership remains in its present enfeebled state. Indeed, Israel takes an indulgently amused view of the U.S. obsession with promoting Arab democracy. The actions that Israel has taken in Lebanon will have consequences for that country, and perhaps the wider Arab world, that Israel is content to accept, but that spell disaster for a Pax Americana.