About That ‘New’ Middle East…

Close to 1 million people turned up for a Hizballah rally in 2006

Could there be a more perfect image of the catastrophic self-inflicted rout suffered by U.S. Middle East policy under President George W. Bush? This week, the President will party with Israel’s leaders celebrating their country’s 60th anniversary — and champion a phony peace process whose explicit aim is to produce an agreement to go on the shelf — with Bush curiously choosing the moment to honor the legend of the mass infanticide and suicide of the Jewish Jihadists at Masada. Meanwhile, across the border in Lebanon, Hizballah are riding high on the tectonic shifts in the Middle East’s political substructure, making clear that the “new Middle East” memorably (if grotesquely) inaugurated by Condi Rice in Beirut in 2006 is nothing like that imagined or pursued by the Bush Administration. On the contrary, the Bush Administration has managed to weaken its friends and allies and empower its enemies to an almost unprecedented degree.

The collapse and humiliation of the U.S.-backed Lebanese government after it had foolishly threatened to curb Hizballah’s ability to fight Israel was simply the latest example of a failed U.S. policy of cajoling allies into confrontations with politically popular radical movements that the U.S. and its allies simply can’t win. And picking fights that you can’t win is not exactly adaptive behavior. Indeed, as I noted earlier this week, recovering alcoholics in America are taught the adage that repeating the same behavior and expecting different results is the very definition of insanity — but by measure of what we’ve seen in Gaza, Basra, Sadr City, that’s one lesson that appears to have eluded this particular administration. The Lebanese showdown was initiated by Washington’s closest allies threatening to close down Hizballah’s internal communication network, and it’s hard not to suspect that such a provocative move could only have been taken with Washington’s encouragement. And to put it unkindly, paper tigers should not play with matches.

The result was predictable, because in terms of popular support, organization, and arms in the field, the militias backing the U.S.-backed government are no match for Hizballah, which quickly seized control of Beirut, and also of other key locations. But Hizballah made abundantly clear that it had no intention of taking over the country, it was simply underlining its intention to maintain its capacity to fight Israel — and to resist any attempt to trim that capacity, regardless of whether such trimming is required by UN Security Council resolutions. That’s why it took control over key Druze-controlled towns in the Chouf — because they’re strategically valuable in any confrontation with the Israelis.

President Bush sounded like a man lost in his own fantasies when he vowed, in response, to “beef up” the Lebanese army to help it disarm Hizballah. The Lebanese Army, Bush appears not to have noticed, enjoys the trust of Hizballah, which is why the Shi’ite militia immediately handed over areas it captured to the Army. And the reason the Army enjoys Hizballah’s trust is its scrupulous neutrality in the civil conflict between the government and the Hizballah-led opposition (i.e. in the clash between the U.S.-Saudi backed bloc and the Syrian-Iranian backed bloc) — the Lebanese Army has no intention of disarming Hizballah. On the contrary, it appears willing to cooperate with the movement’s efforts to steel itself for a new battle with the Israelis.

Rami Khouri, the Daily Star editor at large whose analyses are essential reading, is optimistic over the potentials for a new Middle East political order revealed in the unfolding of events in Lebanon.

Herewith an excerpt of his analysis:

1. When the government decided to challenge Hezbollah last Tuesday, by announcing it was sacking the Shia army general in charge of airport security and dismantling Hezbollah’s underground security telecommunications network, Hezbollah saw this as the first serious attempt by the government to try and disarm it.

Hezbollah immediately challenged the government, warned it against these decisions, and made a show of force to protect its security and telecommunications system. When street clashes started in several parts of Beirut, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah-led opposition alliance quickly and roundly asserted its dominance over the U.S.- and Saudi-backed government alliance. Put to the test, the new balance of power in Lebanon affirmed itself on the street for the first time in less than 24 hours.

2. All the Lebanese parties repeatedly indicated a preference for political compromise over communal war, but also showed they were prepared to fight if forced to. The persistent negotiations via the mass media included critical agreements on naming armed forces commander Michael Suleiman as the new president, resuming the national dialogue, forming a government of national unity, and revising the electoral law before holding parliamentary elections next year…

3. The newly vulnerable government effectively backed down Saturday and reversed its two decisions, as Hezbollah had demanded. The street balance of power was translated into a new political equation inside Lebanon. Hezbollah and its allies had achieved on the street that which they had been asking for politically: the capacity to veto government decisions that were seen as threatening Hezbollah’s security and resistance activities.

4. By immediately handing over to the armed forces those few buildings and strategic locations that they had taken over in Beirut, Hezbollah and its allies sent the signal that they did not want to rule the entire country, and that they trusted the army as a neutral arbiter between the warring Lebanese factions.

Prime Minister Siniora sent the same message when he asked the armed forces and their commander Michele Suleiman to decide on the fate of the two contested government security decisions that had sparked Hezbollah’s move into West Beirut. The armed forces emerged as the powerful political arbiter and peace-keeper, effectively forming a fourth branch of government, and the only one that is credible and effective in the eyes of the entire population.

All factions have agreed to get armed gunmen off the streets and leave only the army and police as public security guardians. Now they are expected to follow up quickly by formally naming Suleiman as president (to which they have all agreed already), agreeing on a transitional national unity government of technocrats, and drawing up a new election law. The precise sequence of those events is one of the disputed points that must be agreed, but agreement may be easier now that the army has emerged as a pivotal arbiter and political actor.

The new domestic political balance of power in Lebanon will reflect millennia-old indigenous Middle Eastern traditions of different and often quarreling parties that live together peacefully after negotiating power relationships, rather than one party totally defeating and humiliating the other.

The idea that the Lebanese Army is now going to accept U.S. tutelage and “beefing up” is simply fanciful. Someone ought to tell the Bush White House the bad news: It lost Lebanon.

But as much as I respect Rami’s analysis, I’m not sure I share his optimism over the idea that the manner in which this round was settled could become a model for the Middle East. Here I would heed the warnings of another fine analyst and sometime Rootless Cosmopolitan contributor Alastair Crooke, writing specifically about the increasingly vacuous efforts by Western countries to “save” a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “In the region — beyond the Ramallah hothouse — there is no ‘what if?’ The failure of the two-state solution is expected, and discounted, as thinking has evolved in a different direction: The cheer-leaders among Europeans desperate to ‘rescue’ it are stuck in denial from this perspective.”

The point holds for Pax Americana more generally in the Middle East. Crooke writes:

Israel has become so accustomed to Palestinian negotiators running to talks with Israel — irrespective of the deaths of Palestinians or new announcements of further illegal settlement construction — that Israel and the US Administration … believe that an Israeli ‘signal of peace’, however cynical its motive, is enough to placate the region — and to allow Israel and the US the quiet with which to continue with their plans.

But if this is what they think, then it is little wonder that the West so regularly misreads the ground in the region: Not all Palestinians are ‘desperate’ for hope from Israel. Far from it, many are making ready against the possibility of conflict.

The feeling among Islamists, many secularists, Christians, and a number of states is of being at the cusp of fundamental change. Change is coming; and the region will not again be what it is today: This major current does not foresee the coming era to be the one that Europe or the US envisages; but something very different. Islamic movements and states such as Syria and Iran increasingly are concerned to judge the evolving strategic shifts accurately. This is more important to them than to make some tactical and short term political accommodation with western powers — no one wants to be caught on the wrong side of events.

Underlying this psychological mood-shift is the realisation that neither Israel nor the US seems able to come to terms with the key outcome from the two Gulf conflicts: the inevitable emergence of Iran as a pre-eminent regional power. Similarly, the consensus is that the US is incapable also of coming to terms with the prospect of Islamist empowerment; and therefore of adjusting its secular, free-market vision for the region. And there is no sense that Europe or Israel or the US understands the nature or the energies being released by the growing forces of ‘resistance’. … there is no real sense that Israel or its US and European friends possess the political resources to make a strategic change of direction; or even to come to terms with Iranian or Islamist empowerment.

Crooke sees in this inability by the Bush-led Western alliance to grasp the reality of the changes that have occurred in the Middle East a growing likelihood of war:

The dynamic of waning western power to shape events as the West would like, is that sooner or later, the risk of a clash between the polarised forces of the West with some part of the ‘axis-of-resistance’ becomes much greater. When Annapolis, Iraq and the current Israeli overtures to take Syria out from the ‘axis’ fail; when western options narrow; and when its ‘peace initiatives’ come-up empty, logic argues that a frustrated West is likely to resort to military means to weaken or break the ‘resistance’.

Syria and the Lebanese understand that they are in the frontline in this event — as much as Iran; and all are mentally stiffening themselves against this prospect. The region is not ‘desperate’ for peace: It would welcome it, of course; but much of it is also preparing and judiciously expecting the worst. It is the West’s lack of recognition of the strength and rigour of this new psychology of resilience towards prospective conflict, and of lack of understanding why western policies are seen as so dangerously inadequate and misconceived, that pushes many in the region to believe that a West, sunk in deep denial, carries with it the probability of conflict — whether inadvertent or deliberate. Unless it is understood that it is this strategic focus that preoccupies Iran, Syria, Hesballah and Hamas, their thinking cannot begin to be judged accurately — and grave mistakes may occur.

Crooke’s description of a hardening in preparation for war, to my mind, offer the best explanation for what drove Hizballah’s handling of the most recent crisis. If the choice facing the punch-drunk Bush Administration is between responding sensibly and creatively to the changed reality — as Rami Khouri suggests they ought to — and lashing out militarily in the hope of reversing the new balance of forces, as Alastair Crooke suggests they will, I’m afraid my money is on the Bush Administration maintaining its dismal record.

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22 Responses to About That ‘New’ Middle East…

  1. Y. Ben-David says:

    Tony, could you explain to me what you meant by this which you wrote:
    The collapse and humiliation of the U.S.-backed Lebanese government after it had foolishly threatened to curb Hizballah’s ability to fight Israel was simply the latest example of a failed U.S. policy

    Please explain to me why an armed militia affilated with a political party that only represents a minority of the population of Lebanon needs weapons “to fight Israel”. Isn’t that the job of the army of that country? And why do they need to fight Israel at all? There are no disputed territories expect for the small Shaba Farms area and the dispute over this doesn’t need thousands of armed men roaming around Lebanon to deal with it.

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  3. Bernard Chazelle says:

    The US/Israeli strategy is
    premised on the ability to win military engagements (which is not the same thing as not to lose). The “only” problem with this is that neither the US nor Israel (or its proxies) seems capable of winning anything on the battle field any more.

    What a shame Hezbollah does not have a fleet of aircraft carriers in the Pacific! The US Navy would show them!!

  4. morris says:

    I think Bush’s 5 days in the Middle East is designed to end in a display of progress for the annapolis peace agreement.
    And pressuring hezbollah in lebanon prior to his arrival would have given more pressure on adverseries like syria to buckle under.
    In the event it all went horribly wrong for the schemers who seem unaware of what their opposition is.

  5. Anny says:

    Please explain to me why an armed militia affilated with a political party that only represents a minority of the population of Lebanon needs weapons “to fight Israel”. Isn’t that the job of the army of that country? And why do they need to fight Israel at all? There are no disputed territories expect for the small Shaba Farms area and the dispute over this doesn’t need thousands of armed men roaming around Lebanon to deal with it.

    Posted by Y. Ben-David | May 14th, 2008 at 4:08 am

    Response: the opposition wish is Hezbollah (most Shiaas) and more than half of the christians, some others related are more than 50% of the population in Lebanon. It is not a minority like you describe it on CNN news.

  6. Semantics says:

    Tony, saying “Jewish jihadists” could probably offend both Jews and Muslims, like saying “Muslim crusaders”.

  7. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Semantics: How’s “crusading Jewish jihadists” ?

  8. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Anny brings up an interesting point.

    The current majority in parliament is not representative of the Lebanese population. If Bush wants to “export democracy,” then perhaps he should ask for a census and an amendment to the Taif agreement. I’m sure he’d love a Shia prime minister… you know, just for democracy’s sake.

  9. Arie Brand says:

    Ben-David wrote:

    “And why do they need to fight Israel at all?”

    Well, this just might be because Israel feels the need to fight them.

  10. Y. Ben-David says:

    Why do you think Israel needs to fight Lebanon? Didn’t Israel pull out of the south Lebanon security zone 8 years ago?

  11. William Burns says:

    Mr. Ben-David,

    They’ve been back since.

  12. Matthew says:

    William: It doesn’t matter that before 2006 Israel routinely violated Lebanon’s territory and kidnapped (“arrested”) Lebanonese. It does not matter that Israeli jets still routinely violate Lebanese airspace. In the YBD world, only the right people get to have territorial sovereignty. You know the people who claim God gave them real estate.

  13. Wendell says:

    I would point out that, while an alcoholic, our President never recovered in AA. Rather, he found sobriety in a fundumentalist church group. One result: he may never have encountered the maxim you cite.

    And his history, pre-presidency, suggests that it is a very difficult lesson for him: he truly is inclined to double down regardless.

  14. Moshe says:

    Tony loves to express his “moral” indignation. Got to give credit where credit’s due. The Arab use of “People war” techniques of arousing an “outside force” to oppose the enemy, well the propaganda has achieved wonders. True the Arabs lost wars but they’ve won a war or two as well, most recently Olmert’s war in Lebanon. But with out doubt their skill and success at working to internationally isolate the Jewish state, clearly the Arabs have achieved mastery of this skill that merits applause. They have idiots like Tampon Tony who rattle and roll.

  15. Moshe says:

    why did you erase my last comment? Intellectual cowards

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