Thursday, August 03, 2006

President Bush’s apocalyptic vision of the Middle East

The weakness and passivity of the diplomatic efforts -- and even “efforts” seems too strong a word – of the Bush Administration is simply mind-boggling. The failure to engage our enemies or quasi-enemies diplomatically severely limits our options in dealing with adversaries and does not advance our interests. This is not a new topic on this blog. The failure of the United States to provide international leadership is a symptom of decline as we are less able to influence events around the world.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East – particularly in the current war Israel is fighting on its northern and southern borders.

Israel is justified in the attacks it has launched in Gaza and Lebanon. The attacks and kidnapping of soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah were simply the straws that broke the camel’s back. There has been a history of violence on both borders and a dangerous build-up of armaments in the southern Lebanon obviously in preparation for large scale attacks on Israel contrary to previous agreements and U.N. resolutions. Both the United Nations and the Lebanese government hold some responsibility for allowing this situation to develop to this point. Israel has the right to self-defense. Period.

That said, there is a point when an entirely justified military response overreaches and when friends, in their enthusiastic support, render themselves useless. Such seems the situation now in the Middle East.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah use civilians as shields. Israel is getting sucked into a situation in which more and more civilians are being killed by the IDF. Keeping in mind the old adage that peace divides and war unites, the growing number of deaths of civilians is uniting the divided societies of Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. Even Israel is now united when just a month ago it was facing serious division in the country over the issue of closing down settlements.

But the point here is the Arab world is slowly coming around to at least verbal support for Hezbollah, which previously had been kept at arms length because it was a Shiite organization with ties to the non-Arab Iran further isolating Israel rather than integrating it in Middle East society and economy. And the war against Hezbollah is obviously much more complicated than Israel had planned who initially seemed to think the war could be fought from the air only. Now with thousands of troops committed to southern Lebanon, Israel faces the possibility of repeating the disastrous occupation it carried out roughly a quarter of a century ago.

And where is the United States? The U.S. Secretary of State is sitting on her hands saying she doesn’t know what to do when in fact she is so clearly buying time for the IDF to accomplish its mission which is taking longer and longer. In fact, the U.S. has been sitting on its hands for several years now and, along with the U.N. and the Lebanese government, holds some responsibility for the development of the current situation.

The U.S. is effective, and a good ally to Israel, when it takes a more neutral position and acts as an honest broker between parties in the Middle East rather than rooting for one side over the other. (This is the argument John Judis makes below.) This is also our most effective weapon in the struggle against terrorist groups who would do us harm. It is better to rein groups like Hezbollah and Hamas in sooner rather than confront them militarily later. This is not to say we should never fight – when we need to fight we must never hesitate. This is to say all wars have unintended consequences and much suffering might be avoided if diplomacy is effectively used years in advance.

Former President Jimmy Carter discussed the situation in the Middle East in the Washington Post Tuesday. He is perplexed by the apparent current policy of the United States to refuse to talk to those with whom it disagrees. He writes,

A major impediment to progress is Washington's strange policy that dialogue
on controversial issues will be extended only as a reward for subservient
behavior and will be withheld from those who reject U.S. assertions. Direct
engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization or the Palestinian
Authority and the government in Damascus will be necessary if secure negotiated
settlements are to be achieved. Failure to address the issues and leaders
involved risks the creation of an arc of even greater instability running from
Jerusalem through Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran.

David Ignatius in a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post sees opportunities to seize if only the players act. I am not as optimistic as he is about the possibility of Nasrallah as a negotiating partner as he is but the general direction of this argument is correct. He writes,

The Israeli and American resolve in this grim summer of war should be:
No more falling into traps. In the age of missiles, there's limited value in a
"security fence" or "security buffer." The evidence grows that you can't achieve
real security without negotiating with your adversaries, and you can't succeed
in such negotiations without offering reasonable concessions.

For the Arabs, the opportunity of 2006 lies in the surprising
success of Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah. Their resistance on the
battlefield makes them more dangerous adversaries -- but also more plausible
negotiating partners. Little in Nasrallah's past suggests that he will use his
new stature and confidence to encourage indirect negotiations with Israel, but,
as 1973 reminds us, the aftermath of war can produce big surprises. U.S.
officials recognize that Nasrallah is likely to emerge as the strongest
political force in Beirut, and they hope he will make strategic choices that
will build a stronger and more stable Lebanon.

This war is opening a door: Will the combatants have the good sense
to walk through it? Will America have the guile to help them?

In the meantime, John Judis in the New Republic today explores the history of the United States’ relationship with Israel. The U.S. role in this relationship has moved back and forth between one as an “honest broker” and one as a strategic ally. Judis believes that Israel usually benefits when the U.S. plays the role of the former rather than the latter.

Further, he believes the current policy represents President Bush’s apocalyptic vision of the Middle East changing for the better through violence. This explains the position of the Administration to sit back and do nothing as the war ratchets up. This may appear to be to Israel’s advantage but it is in fact doing them no favors. He writes,
Bush's move away from being an honest broker began soon after he took
office. Author Ron Suskind has reported that Bush announced at his first
National Security Council meeting, "We're going to tilt back toward Israel."
When then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, fearing that Bush would encourage the
Israeli army in the West Bank, warned that "the consequences of that could be
dire, especially for the Palestinians," Bush responded, "Sometimes a show for
force by one side can really clarify things." While endorsing a Palestinian
state, Bush backed then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's refusal to deal
with Yasir Arafat and held out hope that elections could remove the Palestinian
Authority leader from power.

When Hamas won the elections this year, Bush, instead of pressuring
the government independently, endorsed Israel's strategy of undermining the new
government through sanctions and the withholding of tax revenues. A series of
attacks from Islamic groups were met with sharp Israeli reprisals, but the
conflict escalated after Hamas's military wing kidnapped an Israeli soldier.
Bush might have tried to drive a wedge between Hamas government officials, who
had edged toward recognizing Israel, and Hamas's military leadership in
Damascus, but, instead, he treated the two as one, fully backing Israel's
offensive in Gaza and its imprisonment of Hamas government officials. When
Hezbollah entered the fray and the Israelis responded by holding the Lebanese
government responsible, bombing Lebanon's infrastructure and killing hundreds of
civilians, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected a cease-fire
and heralded the war, which had plunged Lebanon into chaos, as the "birth pangs"
of a "new Middle East." According to the administration's logic, Israel, in
attempting to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah, is fighting the war on terror on
behalf of the United States. If Israel really succeeds, it will also accelerate
regime change in Syria and weaken Iran--two parties to the conflict with whom
the Bush administration, relying on magic and the Israeli military, refuses to

Again, it's not a question of whether Israel should have responded
to provocations from Hamas's military wing and from Hezbollah, but the role that
the United States, the principal outside power in the region, should be playing
in trying to resolve the resulting crisis. Will the Bush administration's
strategy of urging the Israeli government on work? It's very unlikely--indeed,
the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be backing away from
it. Bush's vision of change in the Middle East is apocalyptic. It presumes the
transformation of the Middle East through the fire of violence into a simulacrum
of the United States. This strategy hasn't worked in Iraq, and it's not likely
to work here either. More likely, the Israeli and American actions will simply
fuel existing hostility toward both countries in the Middle East and, after a
period of rebuilding and recruiting, strengthen the hand of Hezbollah and its

Of course, many Israeli officials prefer an American administration
that regards Israel as a strategic ally to one that places a priority on
brokering peace between Israel and its adversaries. But the United States and
Israel have both fared better when an American administration has tried to
broker peace. Carter oversaw the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt--to
Israel's enormous benefit. Support from George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton
contributed to the Oslo agreements and to a peace treaty between Israel and
Jordan in October 1994. This strategy doesn't presume apocalyptical change;
instead, it assumes that over decades, Israel could become integrated
economically, if not politically, into the Middle East and that former
adversaries could co-exist peacefully, if not happily.

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