US blueprint falls apart in Lebanon

The brutal Israeli assult on Lebanon is a direct result of the failure of the US plan for the Middle East, writes Noah Bassil.

Horrific images of the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of Israeli-US military force in Lebanon and Gaza are a reminder not only of Israel’s disregard for civilian casualties in its role as the "strong man" of the Middle East but also of the failure of the US project of "refashioning" the region. With the death toll mounting on both sides, and Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure all but destroyed, the unwillingness of the US to censure Israel’s military attacks against non-military targets (including a UN observation post) and the reluctance of the Bush administration to broker an immediate cease-fire suggests a deeper US involvement in events than admitted. Why would the US condone such a violent and over-zealous reaction to the operations by Hamas - and then Hezbollah - against military targets? The answer lies in the bankruptcy of US attempts to refashion the Middle East.

In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration presented a blueprint for its foreign policy with the democratisation and liberalisation of the Middle East as its centrepiece. Invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq followed with the intention of replacing weak regimes easily vilified in the Western press for past humanitarian crimes against civilians. The idea of destroying the Taliban and deposing Saddam Hussein seemed not only philanthropic but also exercises that would be embraced by the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. The reality has been somewhat different. Neither country has accepted the “gift” of Western-style democracy in the manner expected by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration. However, events occurred outside Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005 that seemed to reinvigorate the neocons belief that the US could transform the Middle East through democratisation and liberalisation.

In the Lebanese spring of 2005 the assassination of Rafik Hariri led to a massive domestic upsurge for reform of the political system, especially the release of Lebanon from direct Syrian dominance. The images of throngs of people protesting in Beirut provided the right moment for an international push, initiated by France then conducted primarily by the US, for Syrian withdrawal and parliamentary elections. The US hailed this as momentous and evidence that a new era was dawning on the Middle East. The Cedar Revolution, as the mass movement of Lebanese against Syria was called, was about to usher in a period of democracy, stability and peace in the Middle East, according to neocon predictions. The domino effect would soon occur and throughout the Middle East democratic governments would emerge where corrupt and unrepresentative regimes previously ruled.

To Lebanon’s south the Palestinians were preparing for politics after the symbol of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, Yasser Arafat, died in November 2004. Arafat's death marked an end of an era, an era in which the Palestinian leadership could count of the unconditional support of the Palestinian people. However, without Arafat the Palestinian Authority rapidly lost legitimacy in the eyes of most Palestinians due to corruption and the lack of momentum in the negotiations with Israel. This was, it seems, unknown to the intelligence services of the US and Israel who considered elections another sign that democracy was sweeping across the Middle East. The result, the victory of Hamas, was unforeseen, unprepared for and most certainly unwanted by Israel and its US ally.

The outcome of the ballot in Lebanon was also unfavourable to the US administration and Israel. The electoral success of Hezbollah transformed a guerilla movement into a political party. Alongside the victory of Hamas, this created an unsustainable and disturbing paradox for the US and Israel. Democratisation had been presented as the panacea for the ills of the Middle East, but the representatives elected by the voters of Lebanon and Palestine were not those the US and Israel wanted.

The barbaric bombing of Lebanon and Gaza over the past month is an attempt by the US-Israeli partnership to redress this mistake. Both Bush and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice have said as much since the bloody Israeli campaign commenced on July 12. Bush has stated that this is a chance for a new Middle East and Rice declared no peace without lasting change in the region.

What Bush and Rice fail to recognise is the momentous change that occured with the election of Hamas and Hezbollah. The Israelis might have recognised the fact but are deeply resentful and threatened by the shift in the political dynamics of its neighbours. It is of no surprise to well-informed Middle East commentators that the electorates of Palestine and Lebanon’s south have chosen political parties that over the past two decades have acted as providers of social, political, economic, religious and military resources where there has been an absence of such provision by the state or international donors. Why the US and Israel were unable to see the deepening popularity of Hamas and Hezbollah throughout the Palestine and Lebanon, is an interesting question. The answer is probably related to the power of the rhetoric created to justify the neoconservative foreign policy directives under Bush.

The ‘war on terror’ discourse has been incredibly empowering for the Bush administration and Israel as a means of silencing any oppositional voices. In fact, one may argue that the capacity to delegitimise any state, political party or social movement by labeling it a “terrorist organisation” may be the most powerful weapon that the US and Israel possess in the attempt to transform the Middle East in a way that they envision. For those “terrorist groups”, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, that disagree with the future of a Middle East as designed in Washington, continued violence is inevitable. The risk created by current US and Israeli strategy is that instead of refashioning the Middle East into a more stable, secure and prosperous region for capital it will produce more oppositional voices. Whether or not these oppositional voices are also labeled “terrorist”, people in the Middle East and beyond are certain to increase their disapproval of a policy that sanctions the indiscriminate use of force by one, Israel, and punishes entire populations in other cases.

As Palestinian author and former negotiator Ahmad Samih Khalidi has argued: “There has of course been nothing ‘clean’ about Israeli military action throughout the many decades of conflict in Palestine and Lebanon. Israel's wanton disregard for civilian life during the past few days is neither new nor out of character. For those complaining about violations of Israeli sovereignty by Hezbollah or Hamas, it may be useful to recall the tens of thousands of Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty since the late 60s, the massive air raids of the mid-70s and early 80s, the 1978 and 1982 invasions and occupation of the capital Beirut, the hundreds of thousands of refugees, the 28-year buffer zone and proxy force set up in southern Lebanon, the assassinations, car bombs, and massacres and, finally, the continuing violations of Lebanese soil, airspace and territorial waters and the detention of Lebanese prisoners even after Israel's withdrawal in 2000.” (The Guardian, July 18)

What is new though, is the emerging unity of response in Lebanon, the Middle East and beyond to the blatant barbarism of US and Israeli policy. The issue of US ideological hegemony has been in question for some time, both within the Middle East and beyond. Regardless of the outcome of the Israeli destruction of Lebanon, what has become blatantly certain as a result of the events in Lebanon and Gaza over the past weeks is the recognition that the US-Israel blueprint for the Middle East has failed.

Noah Bassil is president of the Macquarie University Postgraduate Representative Association and is completing his doctorate on the political economy of ethnic conflict in Dar Fur, Western Sudan


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