August 11, 2006
Lebanon & Regional Blowback (Updated)
The rising chorus of commentators horrified at the American-Israeli desire to play a self-indulgent Thelma & Louise drive-off-the-cliff policy in MENA continues to grow.
Ranging from a late echo to my own "Guns of August" allusions, in the Washington Post yesterday (although the lunatic Thelma & Louise approach is reaffirmed by Gingrich and Krauthammer today), to Roula Khalaf's analysis in the Financial Times last week, to intelligent Israeli analysts realising that this 1982 business is not going to get any better, whatever the utterly magical thinking going on in Bush and Olmert governmental quarters, to The New York Times (in a generally decent if somewhat superficial review) noting the disastrous impact this useless war is having on American policy interests.
The news is all bad for the US, while Israel continues to find that Hezbullah indeed can punch above its weight, and in sign of desperation, promises collective punishment for the Lebanese in some bizarrely misplaced attempt to change the political dynamic in favour of its enemy, done by its own hand, by continuing pounding that has only proven to reinforce Hezbullah politically and morally.
One despairs of any degree of rationality entering the calculations of the fabulists currently in control in Washington.
While it is perhaps interesting to watch a foreign policy disaster in action, that interest verges on the sick fascination that strikes one in watching the aftermath of a particularly spectacular and fatal car wreck.
The New York Times article on the blasted impact of the stunningly stupid American position on the "liberals" in the region rather highlights the sheer idiocy and madness of its incredibly Bolshy approach to foreign policy, where ideologically driven and framed wishful thinking rather than cold evaluation of state interest frames policy.
In particular I draw attention to this paragraph that perfectly captures the position America has puts its in-region friends (or better, those that were not inclined to agree with the radicals denunciations of America as the slave of Israeli interests and bloody-mindedly indifferent to local lives):
The overwhelming conclusion drawn by Arabs is that Washington’s interests lie with Israel, no matter what the cost.
Sheik Nasrallah is particularly adept at exploiting public anger at civilian deaths in Lebanon by talking about how fickle the United States can be as a friend.
“I want you never to forget that this is the U.S. administration, Lebanon’s friend, ally and lover,” he mocked in a speech on Thursday. He also issued a pointed warning to other Arab leaders that if they spend more time defending their thrones than the people of Lebanon, they might find themselves pushed off those thrones.
The analysis really isn't wrong in a sense, and indeed this rather highlights an analysis that an Arab friend of the US is expendable, rather like perhaps a not quite human servant.
Meanwhile, the sheer clumsiness, self-regarding nature of AMerican policy in the region (founded as it appears to be on a navel-gazing evaluation of what Arab bodies politic 'should' feel rather than how they fairly predictably will) is having serious blow back, as anyone in region can attest and feel, and again to illustrate with a comment I feel is quite accurate:
The Americans “wanted to tarnish the Islamic resistance and opposition movements, but in reality they only served them,” said Sobhe Salih, a 53-year-old lawyer in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was swept into the Egyptian Parliament in an election last fall after capturing an unprecedented 20 percent of the seats. “They made them more appealing to the public, made them a beacon of hope for everyone who hates American policies.”
Indeed, and as such the entire political sphere is sliding inexorably into more and more intense anti-Americanism, fed by Iraq, and now the American administration's ostentatious indifference to Lebanese interest as the Israeli forces replay their occupation of Southern Lebanon with the same iron fist habits and neo-colonial contempt for engaging 'the contemptible Wogs' that are the Arabs, that earned them the hatred of most Southern Lebanese, Shia or not.
Even on the entertainment channels on Sat TV one is treated to music videos that are starting feature not just Leb Pop Tarts but images of Lebanon being pummeled by Israeli forces, dying children, etc. The Egyptian greaseball populist 'singer' Shabaan already has two videos, and the Leb Pop Tart singers are following up with videos that equally feature the juxtaposition of Israeli bombing with American symbols.
Indifference to the rising tide of what I would call real revulsion and hatred is pure dilletantism, which is not only dangerous but fundamentally futile in its aims. I am hard pressed not to agree with the implication in this comment, again from the NYTimes arty:
“We are really afraid of this ‘new Middle East,’ ” said Ali Abdulemam, a 28-year-old computer engineer who founded the most popular political Web site in Bahrain. He was referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statement last month that the situation in Lebanon represented the birth pangs of a “new Middle East.”
“They talk about how they will reorganize the region in a different way, but they never talk about the people,” Mr. Abdulemam said. “They never mention what the people want. They are just giving more power to the systems that exist already.”
There is a whiff of the neo-colonial blindness and contempt to be detected in this approach, although certainly unconscious.
This utter misunderstanding of how to approach MENA (and frightening blindness to the building blow back from completely gratitious mistakes, bleeding examples of incompetent amateur hour own-goals as Iraq) contains, I am sure, the seeds of its own destruction, but in a climate where Washington prattles on about a Lebanese army (that is at once targetted and held out a solution in a bizarre display of indifference to cognitive dissonance on the part of the Israelis and the Americans, that has not escaped notice and sardonic comment) one fears that the drive forward will get one to a real Thelma & Louise kind of resolution.
Rather queer really, as only a few years ago, I thought this American administration would focus on economic development, push for economic liberalisation with the more rational expectation that with a liberal economy creating genuine middle classes, that one would get to firmer ground in leveraging change and real liberal political reforms (or for the American readers, libertarian, although not in the loony-tune sense of the paranoid US).
In this context, it is useful to draw attention to an almost equally despairing as myself commentary in The Finanacial Times, entitled Misplaying the Islamic power game by David Gardner
First, Gardner begins by noting that little of what has passed was not predictable:
When the US and its British ally decided to invade Iraq in 2003, certain consequences were always clear, except, perhaps, to those driving the strategy in Washington and London. It was clear beforehand that this was a step that would proliferate jihadism, risked turning Iraq into a Lebanon cubed and would destroy western credibility and legitimacy in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Well, at the very least American and UK credibility - although for fuck's sake no one expected Blair to prove to be so doggishly slavishly loyal to the utterly incompetent Bush administration, against all reasonable limits and even state interest. One can credit the analysis that the UK's best role is as the American second without taking that to suicidal extremes.
And I note, as in the case of the US to Israel, there are times when the proper role of a friend is to yell: what you're doing is fucking insane, bloody well cut while you have something left
But regardless, moving along, the author has some interesting observations about the Shia, and blow back that are relevant.
But there was one intriguing aspect of the policy that was not then clear. What was Anglo-American thinking about the Shia, the disadvantaged and dispossessed minority in Islam who, in Iraq, are the majority?
Were those who would transform the Middle East aware that by toppling Saddam Hussein they were overturning the nearly millennium-old dominance of Sunni Islam in Iraq and the Arab world, an unbroken run of power since the collapse of the Fatimids, a heterodox Shia dynasty, in Cairo in 1171?
Were they, at a minimum, conscious of how this change in the regional balance of power would enhance the influence of Shia Iran, or would they lose their nerve and turn against the Shia, bringing the revolutionary strain in this faith to the fore?
Well, in terms of the US administration, the answer is clealry no.
I raised these questions after the fall of Baghdad*, having spent three months trying to discover whether there had been any substantive discussion within the Bush administration of the tectonic power of this aspect of their decision, any precautionary anticipation of unintended consequences. I found nothing, then or subsequently, to suggest that there had.
There were, of course, people in the American and British foreign and intelligence services who thought about these questions. They were ignored. “All you people know about is history,” a Pentagon official told a veteran Central Intelligence Agency man in Baghdad at the time, “but we are making history.”
Well, when history turned out to be a lot less malleable, the “freedom on the march” brigade took fright. They started to discern an arc of mostly Shia radicalism under the leadership of Tehran, stretching from Iran to the borders of Israel. What we are seeing in Lebanon is in good part a response to this loss of nerve, a logical extension of the misadventure in Iraq.
That cavalier contempt for understanding the material, the people, the society they were working with characterised the CPA Americans I met - not all to be sure, but the leadership certainly. Willfully blind, arrogant and ignorant.
Israel’s assault on Lebanon to get to Hizbollah, the Shia Islamist movement and militia seen in Washington and London (and Sunni Arab capitals such as Cairo and Riyadh) as the spearhead of Iran in the Levant, is regarded as a regrettable but necessary price to pay to roll back Tehran’s perceived ambitions in the region. That is why Israel is getting away with razing south Lebanese and eastern Bekaa villages, with levelling Beirut’s southern suburbs, with, in short, destroying Shia Lebanon.
Naturally the public narrative is not that, it is George W. Bush’s account of freedom confronting terror, or Tony Blair’s arc of extremism. Prior to Iraq, however, there was no arc, just an archipelago of disjointed radicalisms and unresolved rejectionisms.
All the Anglo-American approach to Lebanon promises to do is join these up, adding a failed state on Israel’s northern border to the failed would-be state of Palestine to its south, with the broken state of Iraq to its east. This is a policy that continues and compounds the failure in Iraq where, as Anthony Cordesman, the US strategist and supporter of the war, recently observed: “we essentially used a bull to liberate a china shop”.
I have nothing of substance to add to this, other than to echo Cordesman's comment.
It is also a policy that is hopelessly inconsistent, adding further to Arab and Muslim perception of western hypocrisy. In Lebanon, a Shia Islamist militia allied to Iran that is also part of an elected government, Hizbollah, must be destroyed. In Iraq, however, a Shia Islamist militia allied to Iran, the Badr brigades of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is part of an elected government Washington supports. Inconsistencies of this sort have a way of stewing for a bit, but then they boil over.
That is what is happening among the Shia in Iraq, tactical allies of the US who could soon become its enemies. Hundreds of thousands came out into the streets in Baghdad and southern Iraq last week to support Hizbollah and/or their Lebanese Shia co-religionists, not just the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, the young Shia radical who models his Mahdi army on Hizbollah, but the Sciri, too. Indeed, how many members of the US Congress, recently addressed by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, would know that his Da’wa party was one of the original progenitors of Hizbollah?
How many different ways can one highlight the utter incoherence and idiocy of the current American administration's foreign policy. Were it cynical manipulation based on a cold and hard reading of state interest, I would understand and support. Realpolitik that properly prices in the range of interests into the medium and long term is absolutely necessary.
But that is not the case here.
It is merley ideologically motivated and informed wishful thinking.
Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s ambassador to Iraq who does know how the region interconnects, this week warned that Iran might encourage its “forces” in Iraq to “create increased instability here”.
Iran, especially under Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, its shrewdly populist and messianic president, will not be unhappy with the perception that its Hizbollah allies can establish a balance of terror over the Israel-Lebanon border, or that its friends in Iraq can pull what is left of the country down around America’s ears if the conflict over Iran’s nuclear ambitions eventually turns violent.
But what all this should suggest is a direct approach to Iran, of the type the US has been evading since the 1979 Islamist revolution.
True, the accumulated grievances and bad blood on both sides are prodigious obstacles, as is the unwillingness of Israel, the only nuclear-armed power in the region, to brook any challenge to its hegemony.
But what has never been properly explored is whether Iran – scarred by a century of foreign meddling in its affairs and western support for Mr Hussein when he rained rockets on its cities and chemical weapons on its troops during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war – could come to share an interest in regional stability. Whether, in return for security guarantees and international underwriting of regional security arrangements binding together Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states, Tehran would respond with verifiable nuclear transparency and an end to meddling in its neighbours’ affairs.
President Bill Clinton, who wanted to do a Nixon-to-China with Iran, missed a beguiling opportunity when Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president, was riding a wave of popular passion for change in 1997-99. President Bush rebuffed Iran’s overtures for a “grand bargain” in 2003, instead making it a charter member of his Axis of Evil.
Confrontation is a godsend to the current Iranian regime. What might weaken the mullahs, and maybe even dull some of the hysteria about the Shia, is to confront them with a deal.
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might I add that confrontation is also quite possibly a godsend to the Bush people. 9-11 etc. has kept them in power. Now terror plot foiled, announced the day after John Reid announced new anti-terror measures and Lieberman lost to an anti-war Democrat. Bound to boost GOP ratings, judging on the voting records so far. meh.
End of history indeed.
Posted by: Klaus at August 11, 2006 06:12 PM