July 27, 2006

The Perils of Over-Simplifications

Where are we now, vis-a-vis the Israeli-Lebanese crisis, post-Rome? With every passing day, unfortunately, it appears we are becoming more isolated in the international community. For instance, any nascent trans-Atlantic rapprochment looks to be coming under increasingly heavy strain in coming days, particularly as Condi Rice appeared the only participant at the Rome meeting opposed to an immediate cease-fire. It is widely viewed, of course, fairly or unfairly, that she is stalling to give the Israelis more time to conduct their ongoing Lebanese offensive, but that might well take many more weeks, if not months, in terms of achieving real results on the ground. During that time, the humanitarian situation in Lebanon is going to go from bad to worse to desperate, and it is far from clear regardless that Israel will even be able to achieve its objectives of eradicating or otherwise conclusively defanging Hezbollah’s military wing.

The reality is, at some juncture sooner than many of us realize, Olmert will probably want a cease-fire deal pretty badly too. So rather than see America's reputation continue to plummet through the region (Condi's comments about the disaster unfurling in Lebanon constituting part of the "birth pangs" of a new Middle East might have even made Karen Hughes cringe, so poorly chosen the verbiage--and the de facto Israeli bombing halt of Beirut that coincided with her visit was no great shakes in the public diplomacy wars either) for the achievement of, at best, uncertain ends, or risk even more American forces coming under attack in Iraq as a result of Sadrists and perhaps others becoming even more radicalized by the unfolding situation in Lebanon, I believe it is incumbent on the Administration to listen to its allies both in Europe and the Arab world and move with utmost urgency and speed to get a cease-fire deal negotiated no later than very early August.

After all, it is the Europeans (and perhaps some Arab and Islamic countries), that will be asked to contribute, not only men for a stabilization force in the south of Lebanon, but also reconstruction funds for a Lebanon that is being steadily decimated (while the people of northern Israel are suffering mightily too, of course, the destruction in places like Tyre and southern Beirut are exponentially worse than anything that has occurred in Haifa or elsewhere in northern Israel, as is manifestly clear to any judicious observer). It is high time to listen to some of our European friends, and put down the mantle of arrogant American exceptionalism that we are somehow the unimpeachable do-gooders in all this, merely presiding over a (somewhat messy, alas) birthing that will lead to a new flowering of democracy in the Middle East. The region is complicated, and the narrative cannot be simply distilled to Israel as torch-bearer of freedom, along with benevolent pan-regional hegemon Uncle Sam, ever at the ready to preside over rosier times but for the bad guys trying to spoil the party.

It is time to engage with subtlety and nuance, for a change. I know it has become unfashionable to do such things, amidst all the macho Manichaeanism so popular among the serried ranks of various think-tanks, journalistic eminences, and blogospheric blowhards, where far too often ideological affiliation trumps fact-based inquiry. But stay with me, if just for a moment or two: Al-Qaeda is not Hezbollah, and Hezbollah is not al-Qaeda, and Hamas is not either of them. It is easy to scream like a boy from the rooftops that they are all terrorists, and terrorists, we know, are bad, and so must be defeated, for if they aren't, we are showing weakness, and showing weakness too is bad, because, you see, Mogadishu and then, well, you know the script. But Islamists come in different shapes and sizes, and with different agendas, and we cannot tar them all with the same broad brush and presume that we will prevail in a complex global counter-insurgency campaign against radical Islamists simply by egging on the Israelis to eradicate Hamas and Hezbollah (whatever that means), while we take care of Sadrist death squads and al-Qaeda radicals, neo-Baathists, and hard-line Sunni nationalists in Iraq (before turning to Syria and Iran!) Does anyone seriously believe that such simplistic, quasi-messianic approaches will make this country safer, as legions of individuals from (aptly named) 'Londonistan' to the Parisian banlieu to Dearborn to Jeddah to Lahore to Jakarta look on with horror at the scenes of Arab and Muslim blood being shorn hither dither? (Yes, of course, there has been episodic (mostly de minimis) cooperation among some of these groups, and your friendly, neighborhood rogue Pentagon intelligence shop, or bushy-tailed-eager-to-please research assistants at neo-con rags, could make your head spin morphing Nasrallah into Osama to Khaled Meshal and so on and on. But the reality is that these groups have vastly different agendas, although it is obvious of late that Hamas and Hezbollah have perhaps engaged in a level of strategic cooperation with regard to the timing of the kidnapping of IDF forces).

But putting aside that we shouldn’t put all these actors into one big, easy pot labeled terrorists, necessarily, and certainly not from the perspective of over-arching, long-term strategic threats to the U.S, recall too that large swaths of the Lebanese public, particularly the poor in the Shi'a south and slums of Beirut, view Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance movement. Similarly, the Palestinians have voted in Hamas, impressed by their anti-corruption platform and, to some extent, rejectionist stance against Israel (though Palestinian polling often finds majorities in favor of a two-state solution). The stubborn irredentism and noxious resort to terror tactics of such groups aside, they cannot simply be eradicated, or wished away, solely via the use of military force or communal punishment techniques. Remember, the power of these groups was enhanced by the very democratic precepts we’ve fought in Iraq to introduce to the region. Do we plan on bombing them into moderation now, because we don’t like their platforms?

Yes, of course, by all means let us work intelligently to effectively disarm the military wings of these organizations, but by killing scores and hundreds of innocents, and by ignoring that each of these organizations, like it or not, have plausible social welfare arms too, and by refusing to think about the context of outstanding territorial disputes and other unresolved grievances that should be addressed diplomatically, in the main, and whose lack of resolution feed their support—how do we really plan to change the basic dynamics of the region, clear the underbrush of much of this fanaticism born of poverty and propaganda and hate? By more wars? By so myopically and simplistically and self-contentedly categorizing them as all as one and the same, with all their constituents but terrorist sympathizers and enablers for whom collateral damage isn’t worth shedding a tear? America's national interest must be focused on continuing to fight transnational terror organizations (of which Hamas is not one, as they focus on Palestine/Israel, and of which Hezbollah has been on occasion, but more often than not has been primarily active in the context of Lebanon-focused operations--like the horrific slaughter of our Marines which led to an American exit from that country--but also of course keeping in mind odious attacks like that of the Jewish center in Argentina, among other operations reaching well beyond Lebanon).

My point? We must remain very focused on reducing the winds in the sails of radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, but our basic carte blanche to Israel these past weeks, and our total conflation of Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and seemingly every other group under the sun that we don't care for in the Middle East--is not only leading to far too simplistic foreign policy analyses among too many in the Beltway--but also, more important, serving as recruiting sergeant for more radicalized Islamists to proliferate, not only in the region, but in Europe and perhaps even the United States itself. And what of Israel, you ask, an ally of long-standing that deserves staunch (but not blind) US support, in my estimation: it is clear, to me at least, that Israel’s long term security and existence will only be guaranteed by a two-state solution, one that the entire international community gets behind, involving binding resolution of the Sheba Farms, Golan Heights, West Bank, East Jerusalem and other so-called final status issues. America has to reclaim the mantle of ‘honest broker’ and lead this effort to a successful conclusion, whether a year or five years or ten years from now. In the immediate context, of course, what is needed is a cease-fire, and I’ll be writing much more about that in coming days. Finally, and at the same time, the US must focus like a laser on trying to turn back the savage sectarian carnage underway in Iraq, so as to try to push Iraq's nascent post-Saddam polity towards moderation rather than furious score-settling and internecine rage, and also to contain Iranian trouble-making (Teheran's biggest strategic opportunity for greater regional influence lies today in Baghdad, more than Beirut or Damascus, say), each a mammoth task we are failing at dismally today. These are the key ingredients of a sane approach to Middle East policy-making at the present hour, not gross over-simplifications that, while seductive and appealing to the masses (by which I mean too much of our political governing class and commentariat), will run aground in the real world and severely jeopardize the American national interest both in the Middle East and indeed throughout the globe.

Posted by Gregory at July 27, 2006 03:44 AM

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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