By measure of each man’s negligible influence over events in the Middle East — despite florid denunciations of all compromise and accomodation with those each brands as evil — President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden appear to have more in common than either would care to admit. And not just because Bush and Bin Laden are on the same page regarding the influence of Iran.
Lebanon is but the latest example of how events passing both men by. The agreement that ends the 18-month political standoff there is a stunning victory for Hizballah, and for the politics of accomodation rather than the binary good vs. evil strategy pressed on the Lebanese government by its U.S. sponsor. Indeed, it seals the collapse of the Bush Administration’s strategy there, which became obvious two weeks ago when the U.S.-backed ruling alliance was trounced on the street. Hizballah was never trying to take control of the country, it was simply ensuring that it maintained its military capacity to fight the Israelis and maintain its role as a regional player in concert with Iran and Syria. Which is exactly what the U.S. and its allies, from Saudi Arabia to Israel (and, of course, Bin Laden), have spent the past two years trying stop.
The new deal, by giving Hizballah a power of veto in the government that certainly reflects its power on the street — and probably in the electorate, too, if Lebanon’s politics were based on a representative read of the actual current population (as opposed to the 1932 census on which it is based for political reasons), allows it to hold on to its weapons despite the requirement of UN Security Resolution 1571 that it be disarmed. It probably also allows Syria to circumvent any discomfort from the probe into the murder of Rafic Hariri.
The interesting thing, though, is that despite the warnings of Bush and Bin Laden, the Sunni-led government in Lebanon had little choice but to accept Hizballah’s terms in the peace process brokered by Qatar — it was the only way of keeping their country from imploding. Bush (and Bin Laden, actually) offered only the politics of confrontation, but that wasn’t a plausible option against a politically and militarily stronger adversary.
And Lebanon was only one example. Elsewhere, Hamas and Israel are negotiating a truce, with Egypt playing the mediating role once adopted by the U.S. in talks between Israel and its neighbors. The Israelis won’t call it a truce, or admit to talking with Hamas — which Bush, in his fantasy world, likens to talking with Hitler, despite the fact that two thirds of Israelis support such talks — but everyone knows that’s what they’re doing. Bush’s posturing is all very well, but Israel needs a truce with Hamas, so in the realm of practical politics, Bush must simply be sympathetically humored, and ignored.
The same is true for the unsolicited “advice” Bin Laden periodically offers Hamas, warning it against participating in elections, or engaging in truce talks with the Israelis, and so on. Hamas long ago made clear it has no need of the advice of a man roaming the wilds of Waziristan threatening to blow things up. Leon Trotsky could issue all the ideologically pure communiques he could think of from his Mexico City hideout in the 1930s, but those mattered not a jot to the unfolding of events, even among communist parties, in Europe. As Stalin asked of the pope in a different setting, “how many divisions does he command?” And the answer is that Bin Laden represents absolutely nothing when it comes the real politics of the Palestinians on the ground. He’s just a kind of nutty talk-radio figure, a Rush Limbaugh for the jihadi set.
Israel is also forced to ignore Bush’s adolescent militancy when it comes to Syria. Washington has, under Bush, refused to engage with Damascus, insisting that it be isolated. But despite Bush’s reservations, the Israelis have opened peace talks with Syria, using Turkey to play the mediating role traditionally assumed by the U.S. — but vacated under the Bush Administration.
Bin Laden, of course, denounces any such talks. And a clearly miffed Condi Rice tells the Israelis they’d do far better to concentrate on her “Israeli-Palestinian” track, which, as we’ve explained, is a rather dark joke, since it involves Israel making “peace” only with those who are not at war with it.
But everyone in the region knows that the Bush Administration, with its surfeit of megaphone indignation and aversion to serious diplomacy, has nothing concrete to offer them — so they’re getting on with things on their own. Robin Wright makes the same point, noting that the Lebanon deal and the Syria-Israel talks “were launched without an American role, and both counter U.S. strategy in the region.”
A “new” Middle East, indeed — one in which the U.S. role has been substantially marginalized, largely as a result of the policies it has pursued. And the election-season debate over Hamas suggests that it might be naive to expect an instant turnaround next January.