Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said a curious thing Saturday: Israel has recognized reality and is ready for a cease-fire in Lebanon, Nasrallah claimed, but it is the U.S. that insists that it fight on. And if you read the analysis of Ze’ev Schiff, the dean of Israeli military correspondents and an enthusiastic advocate of the military campaign against Hizballah, there’s a remarkable confirmation of Nasrullah’s analysis. Schiff writes:
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the figure leading the strategy of changing the situation in Lebanon, not Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Defense Minister Amir Peretz. She has so far managed to withstand international pressure in favor of a cease-fire, even though this will allow Hezbollah to retain its status as a militia armed by Iran and Syria.
As such, she needs military cards, and unfortunately Israel has not succeeded to date in providing her with any. Besides bringing Hezbollah and Lebanon under fire, all of Israel’s military cards at this stage are in the form of two Lebanese villages near the border that have been captured by the IDF.
If the military cards Israel is holding do not improve with the continuation of the fighting, it will result in a diplomatic solution that will leave the Hezbollah rocket arsenal in southern Lebanon in its place. The diplomatic solution will necessarily be a reflection of the military realities on the ground.
Listening the millenarian rubbish pouring out of the mouths of Bush and Blair last Friday about this being a fight led by the U.S. and its allies for a “new Middle East” of freedom from tyranny blah blah there was also a sense that this skirmish had been appropriated by the U.S. for its wider global war, and Iran, of course, is its prime target right now — with Hizballah being identified as an Iranian asset that could be destroyed. (Never mind that Bush’s rhetoric is oblivious to the reality that every time Arab electorates have been given the option to vote in a democratic election, they have returned governments profoundly at odds with U.S. and Israeli policy, and the U.S. has ended up ignoring them, or trying to overthrow them… repudiating Bush’s increasingly brittle and shrill rationalizations is not my purpose here — and Blair, quite frankly, knows better, which is why the court of history will judge him even more harshly).
I’ve always maintained that the “pro-Israel” position of the Bush administration, formulated and influenced by hardline American Likudniks (whom, it must be said, are hardly representative of mainstream Israeli thinking) is actually fundamentally bad for Israel. Its infantile, aggressive maximalism precludes Israel from doing what it will take to live at peace with its surroundings, instead demanding a confrontational approach in keeping with Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” in which Israel’s survival depends on crush and humiliating the Arabs. Bush may talk the language of “Arab liberation,” but his contempt for Arab democracy is plain — just look at his response to the Hamas election victory. His administration appears to be dedicated to a remaking of the Middle East on America’s terms through violent social engineering. The depth of their failure in Iraq appears not to have deterred them from another adventure in Lebanon, this time using Israel as their agent of “change.” And if hundreds of Lebanese children are killed in Israeli air strikes, they’re just victims of the “birth pangs of a New Middle East.”
Plainly, the region has no interest in being remade in the manner in which Bush envisages. I strongly recommend the coverage of Rami Khouri, the excellent Jordanian analyst of Arab affairs at Beirut’s Daily Star, who makes clear that the region’s politics have indeed been remade, with the pro-U.S. autocracies having discredited themselves beyond repair, and the new motive force of Arab politics is the Islamist movement representing resistance to Israel and the U.S. and responsive, clean government in comparison to the autocracies.
Mark Perry and Alistair Crooke have argued thoughtfully that the most credible and viable policy for the U.S. to follow in these circumstances is to promote democracy and acknowledge that it will bring Islamists to power, and seeking to engage with that reality rather than continuing the vain path of seeking to violently suppress an increasingly popular movement.
Yet the Administration appears to have clung to its old instincts in the case of Lebanon. Indeed, they appear to have framed their response to the crisis as an opportunity to wage proxy war against Iran by seeking to militarily eliminate what they see as nothing more than an Iranian proxy. So when Israel launched its retaliation, probably expecting the Bush administration to set the limits and demand restraint, instead it found Washington saying “Don’t hold back on our account, in fact, make sure you finish them off…”
And seeking Hizballah’s defeat on the battlefield remains their objective. But with the zealous delusion that has characterized so much of what this Administration has done in the Middle East, it simply failed to reckon with reality and consequence. It’s premises were faulty, as we’ve discussed in a previous post — Hizballah can’t be beaten on the battlefield, it seems, and Israel very quickly began looking to a NATO force to pull its chestnuts out of hte fire (As I noted in my TIME.com piece after the Rome meeting, this gives the Europeanns far more leverage than washington would like over the shape of a cease-fire — they’re not about to go and fight Hizballah on behalf of Israel or the U.S. so they’re demanding a cease-fire as a precondition for going in. A cease-fire that would have to be agreed by Hizballah, in other words, that fact alone giving Hizballah a remarkable victory over the U.S. and Israel.)
After its air campaign failed to even slow the rate of Hizballah rocket fire into Israel, it sent in ground troops. They managed to capture Maroun al-Ras, but after days of fierce fighting in which they took heavy casualties, the Israelis actually pulled out of the battle for Bint Jbail. And Israeli officers had freely admitted there are at least 170 such towns controlled by Hizballah in southern Lebanon. And Israel has no appetite for reestablishing roots in the quagmire of southern Lebanon. That’s why it suddenly finds itself needing the international force more than anyone.
So, not only is Hizballah going to emerge stronger, having survived the onslaught and therefore have a substantial hand in shaping the cease-fire that will follow — and politically, while the Administration may have been hoping the Israeli campaign would turn Lebanese against Hizballah, the opposite has occurred: A poll last week found that a solid 70 percent of Lebanese, across the board, supported Hizballah’s capture of the two Israeli soldiers that started the current confrontation: That breaks down as around 95 percent of Shiites, 70 percent of Sunnis, around 40 percent of Druze and 54 percent of Christians, far from turning on Hizballah as a result of its provocation, instead backed it to the hilt after two weeks of bombing. (Bombing will do that, I suspect — two dramatic terror hijack-bombings on 9/11, and the U.S. population was ready to follow Bush into an entirely unrelated military adventure in Iraq, remember?)
Not surprising, also, 86 percent of Lebanese in the same survey don’t believe the U.S. is an honest broker. And frankly, the Lebanon debacle will have sealed America’s fate in Arab eyes for a generation: When the next al-Qaeda attacks come on U.S. soil, I don’t expect there’ll be much hand-wringing or denial in the Arab world, blaming the Mossad for something they didn’t want to believe Arabs were capable of and so forth. And media outlets wanting to run “Why do they Hate Us?” specials can probably start writing them already.
I also noted in a different Time.com piece how the Lebanon crisis has further weakened the U.S. position in Iraq, particularly its ability to influence the Shiite-led government (whose leaders, after all, are ideological fellow travelers of Hizballah).
There will be other regional implications, such as gains for Syria. And I want to return to the issue of the cease-fire and prospects for Hizballah — it wouldn’t surprise me to see new proposals from the Lebanese government under which Hizballah’s armed forces would be incorporated into those of the Lebanese army. Probably not exactly what Condi had in mind.
But it also seems clear that Israel’s own position is weakened. It has once again aroused the hatred of the Arab world, and the disdain of much of the international community for its plainly excessive response, all in pursuit of reestablishing its “deterrent” capacity — but if Hizballah is left standing, and indications are that it will be, that deterrent capacity itself will have been undermined. And Israel will have to pay a diplomatic price too, being forced back into internationally supervised peace discussions with a view to settling the conflict on the basis of the 1967 borders, as Brent Scowcroft, of the grownup Bush administration so forcefully argues.