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William Fisher: Birth Pangs of What?

Birth Pangs of What?

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Wednesday 09 August 2006

President Bush sees the Israel-Hezbollah conflict as "an opportunity." Condoleezza Rice calls it "the birth pangs of a new Middle East." These statements are likely to be remembered by history as even more iconically absurd than Vice President's Cheney's description of the Iraqi insurgency as being "in its last throes."

Israel's expansion of its military campaign in Lebanon has turned the Arab world against the US, with the so-called moderate governments of the Middle East - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, as well as most of the "Arab Street" - now more estranged than ever from US policy. And despite Karen Hughes's characterization as "absurd" the idea that the US gave a green light to Israel, the whole of the Arab world - and lots of other nations - believes it to be true.

That Israel was provoked by Hezbollah's prolonged firing of Katyusha rockets into Northern Israel and, finally, its cross-border incursion and kidnapping of IDF soldiers is not open to debate - it happened. Ask yourself how France would react to similar aggressive acts by, say, Germany. Or Canada lobbing rockets into New England.

Whether or not Israel "over-reacted" is now largely moot. If Hezbollah is left with the capability of firing a single Katyusha, it will claim victory - if for no other reason than that it stood up to the region's premiere military for some weeks, perhaps months.

Israel can also be counted on to offer reasons to claim its own victory, though there is likely to be a protracted debate within Israel about the strategy of this military campaign. And since no subject is off limits in Israeli political dialogue, there may even be debate about whether Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, with the legacy of Ariel Sharon weighing heavily around his neck, felt the political need to demonstrate his own military machismo.

But the real winner in this game of smoke and mirrors will be neither Israel nor Hezbollah. The real winner will be Hezbollah's principal sponsor, Iran. This is Tehran's war. Hezbollah is a mere proxy.

What will Iran have won? Even if the United Nations can muster the support - and the troops - to put a multinational force in place in Lebanon, Iran will have succeeded in distracting the world from resolution of its nuclear issue. The mere survival of Hezbollah will likely embolden Iran to continue its efforts to create a Shia "state" in the South of Iraq, and to continue to work to undermine any notion of unity there. And the world will have been further distracted from serious efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue - that will please the Iranians and many other Arab governments who over many years have shown they would rather have an open wound than a doctor. Finally, while Sunni Hamas and Shia Hezbollah have not exactly been pals through the years, they could get a lot friendlier in the face of what they consider a common enemy - the US. To these parties, Israel is as much a proxy for America as Hezbollah is for Iran.

The US experience in Iraq has demonstrated the futility of attempting to defeat an armed insurgency militarily. Likewise, no matter how long Israel remains in Lebanon, it will never completely destroy Hezbollah. Given current attitudes in the Middle East, there will always be more Hezbollah recruits than there are Israeli shells.

And there will continue to be state actors happy to continue their covert support for such movements.

It would be simplistic to lay this mess at the feet of US foreign policy. But America does bear some responsibility. Preferring its "Axis of Evil" rhetoric to reality, it has chosen not to engage Iran. It has also shunned direct talks with Syria. Yet these countries are the two principal sources of physical and moral support for Hezbollah. Of equal consequence, the US has been largely AWOL on the Israeli-Palestinian issue for six years. Its love of elections brought Hamas to power in the Palestinian territories.

So, on that issue, if America hadn't already completely lost its credibility as an honest broker, it has now.

The so-called international community has also demonstrated its paralysis. Two years ago, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, demanding that Lebanon disarm militias like Hezbollah and assume complete control of all of its territory. That resolution placed Lebanon in a totally untenable position. Its armed forces are small, weak and heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah supporters. The UNIFIL force deployed to Lebanon was never mandated to enforce 1559 and, in any case, was never given the resources to do so. Syria was only too happy to fill that vacuum, thank you very much.

But most important, 1559 appeared to ignore Lebanon's chief dilemma: Hezbollah's role as a bona fide political party represented in the parliament, with ministers in the government, and with a growing constituency based on its ability to deliver the social and humanitarian services Lebanon's government seemed incapable of providing. Both diplomats and the Western media conveniently suffered amnesia on these issues as they celebrated the Cedar Revolution.

Where was even the discussion of a multinational force then? Non-existent. As was any robust plan from the UN to help Lebanon achieve this virtually impossible goal. Pity is that there was widespread if quiet agreement that, given Lebanon's divided government, Syria's military presence, and Hezbollah's growing popularity, any attempt by Lebanon to unilaterally disarm this "state within a state" would risk plunging Lebanon back into civil war.

Instead, a shattered Lebanon chose to concentrate on rebuilding itself after a generation of civil war. If the US had done half as well in Iraq, that quagmire might be looking a lot more hopeful now.

It will take Lebanon years to recover from the Israeli campaign, and exactly who will step forward to help remains problematic. Chances are that as long as the Katyushas remain, the answer will be nobody.

President Bush claims he wants a resolution that will get at the root cause of the present mess. And he identifies the root cause as Hezbollah's rockets and kidnappings.

But for most in the Middle East and other Muslim nations - states whose support we need now more than ever - the root cause goes much further back than that - to the establishment in 1948, with the UN's blessing, of the State of Israel. Destroying Israel is high on the official agenda of Iran's president Mahmud Ahmedinejad, and on the back-channel propaganda agendas of other Arab and Muslim states.

Disarming Hezbollah will not turn back the clock, and it is no long-term solution to the problems that beset the region, but it needs to happen. Every day it doesn't happen means more death and destruction.

The unanswered question is: Who can make it happen? America's green-lighting of Israel's current Lebanon project - and the negative reaction to it by so many Arab and Western nations - leaves the US in a distressingly weakened state diplomatically. A byproduct of that sad truth is the Bush administration's sudden love affair with multilateralism. After six years of dissing the UN, the president and his secretary of state have, perhaps reluctantly, embraced their last remaining option.

In a best-case scenario, the UN will not only pass however many resolutions may be needed to stop the killing, but will pursue their implementation with the kind of energy too often absent from the world body.

But that will still leave many critical questions on the table: Will the US finally muster the resolve to sit down and talk directly with the Iranians and the Syrians? Can it regain the credibility to finally breathe some high-level consistency into the search for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine? And will it find the imagination to develop a sustainable strategy for success in Iraq?

In the end, talking may produce nothing. But it is better than killing.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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