Sunday, July 30, 2006

Middle East Lunacy, Part 457

I wanted to make this post more long-term in its view, but given its topicality, I thought it important to contribute my $0.02 to understanding it all.

Essentially, Hizbollah has taken Lebanon hostage and is now using it as a human shield. Lebanon suffered 15 years of sectarian civil war, 18 years of Israeli (partial) occupation, and 15 years of Syrian control. The Cedar Revolution of 2005 (the March 15th movement) gave many hope that it could make a full comeback. But Lebanon cannot be put back together or become a real country with an armed Hizbollah acting as an Iranian proxy. It's not only a state-within-a-state, but a mini-state apparently more powerful than its host. It's the Iranian Armed Forces West.

The governments currently complaining about Israel's disproportionate response will be singing a different tune when terrorist groups in, say, Russia or India can do what Hizbollah is now doing. (The Russian or Indian response to such attacks will also not be proportionate -- the Chechen war has been wildly disproportionate. But they also probably won't appear on CNN.) Many of the world's critics of Israel are still reading an old script connected to the Palestinians. What they don't realize yet is that Nasrallah and Hizbollah have, in a single stroke, succeeded not only in exporting a Shiite jihadism that might soon eclipse Sunni jihadism, but have also finished converting the Arab-Israeli conflict into a Muslim-Jewish conflict no longer connected to the Palestinians.

The apparent political payoff is that Hizbollah is staging a "coup" against the Lebanese government, by leveraging its fight against Israel to achieve what they couldn't achieve through internal Lebanese politics or Syrian domination -- that is, to reverse the Cedar Revolution. See here and here, as well as here. For more, listen to this discussion by a Lebanese Christian here (streaming WMV video). In this regard, my biases are essentially these.

The payoff for Iran is also great. A Hizbollah coup moves Iran closer to dominating an area stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean coast, in part through allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon -- the start of a new caliphate with messianic ("hidden imam") claims and a big blow to the current Western-style system of nation-states in the region. For a second time, Iran has diverted attention from its nuclear weapons program by instigating a crisis, just at the moment the G8 summit in Russia was to focus on that very issue. The first was last winter, when Iran led the way in engineering the staged provocations (the anti-Danish cartoon riots) in Europe, just at the moment when Denmark took the chair of the UN Security Council.

Many commentators are now arguing that Israel is losing against Hizbollah. It's too early to say that for sure. But it is clear that the Israeli policy of unilateral withdrawals has come to an end. The first such withdrawal (from Lebanon in 2000) helped precipitate the misnamed "Al-Aqsa intifada"; the second (from Gaza in 2005) helped lead to the Hamas electoral victory and start of rocket attacks from Gaza this past spring. Israel's goals for now are narrowly military. Olmert is clearly determined to avoid playing empire-builder in Lebanon as Sharon did 24 years ago. But that will eventually have to change. While the larger regional problem cannot be solved by Israel alone and international involvement is needed to put Lebanon back together, Israel is a regional power and needs to act as such, and not just militarily. The one good thing about all this is that what was once just Israel's problem, is now recognized as everyone else's problem as well. Arab governments are terrified that what they see in southern Lebanon is also their future. There is growing public recognition that jihadism is as big or bigger threat to Arab countries than to Israel or West. European governments should also be terrified, but they're not -- yet.

Another consequence is that isolating Iran will now be easier than you think -- they have overplayed their hand. Until now, they avoided doing anything really stupid (unlike Saddam or Milosevic), but they've clearly blown it. The stubborn Euro-myth that Hamas-Hizbollah jihadism was merely "resistance to occupation" has been exploded: Israel is gone from Gaza and was gone from Lebanon for six years. Clearly, Hizbollah and to a lesser extent Hamas are Iranian proxies, and this is a proxy war, not a war against occupation. Of course, that's always been true, but there has a widespread refusal to see this in Arab capitals and in Europe. This can no longer be sustained. The parallel need to isolate Syria, Iran's sidekick, is widely recognized in Arab capitals, but not appreciated in the West.

A final clear point is the need for Bush to re-engage politically in Middle East, something that is tentatively underway. By Bush reducing much of his foreign policy to the Iraq war, America is no longer as respected or feared as it once was in the Middle East, one of the many negative consequences of the Iraq invasion. Another was riling up Iran by toppling its neighboring regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush's times of maximum leverage in the Middle East were 2002 and early 2005, both periods of intense political engagement. Let's hope Bush is now free of the neoconservative fallacy of trying to achieve non-military ends with military means and that he understands that military means are effective only when used for military ends.

To add more opinion than analysis: Olmert does not want to repeat what Sharon did in the 1980s in Lebanon, a prolonged and massive ground war/occupation. Hence the air strikes without a large ground force. But Hizbollah has quite deliberately interlaced its rocket launchers in civilian areas (not even always Shiite areas, but Druze and Christian areas as well). Stopping the rockets needs ground attacks. To stop the rockets by air would require carpet bombing southern Lebanon, and even that would probably not work. Special forces raids can do this. But they can't accomplish the larger goal of disarming Hizbollah, or pushing it out of southern Lebanon, or allowing the Lebanese government to take control. Many Lebanese now support Hizbollah, because of the escalating civilian casualties. This could turn into a catastrophe for Lebanon and the end of Lebanon as an independent country, as well as another Iranian-backed jihadist triumph.

There is an alternative to a massive ground invasion, as Michael Totten has repeatedly explained: those Israeli bombs currently falling on southern Lebanon should instead be falling on Syria and Iran. The air strikes on southern Lebanon should stop. Israel should explicitly link attacks on Syria and Iran with the international and Middle Eastern effort to isolate both countries. The best offense is strategic, not getting bogged down in a futile and politically costly fight against Hizbollah, a diversionary trap in the end. Hit their sponsors instead, and hit them hard. The timing is obviously critical but should not obscure the need.

Israel should not just offer, but insist, publicly, that it be involved with Lebanon's reconstruction, including paying some of the costs. This aid should be conditional on disarming Hizbollah and on Lebanese government control of the border.

(Posted on the eve of Tisha B'Av 5766 and the 92nd anniversary of the start of World War One.)

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