Lebanon Again

Last week I thought the Hezbollah and Hamas kidnapping of Israeli soldiers suggested a fair degree of co-ordination and that Iran might be behind it in a effort to change the dynamic in the battle for Iraq. I thought Iran might be deliberately creating chaos by ‘kicking over the chessboard’ and wrote about it here. After watching the situation closely for a week I am more inclined to think that Nasrallah may have been acting pretty much on his own and not merely following Teheran’s orders. I still don’t buy the idea that Iran ordered the attack to distract the West from the issue of the Iranian nuclear program. Even if true, it has backfired. The whole incident has made Iran look more, not less, dangerous. Also neither Iran nor Syria are showing any interest in widening the war so it increasingly looks to me like a free lance operation initiated by Lebanese Hezbollah leader Nasrallah.

The big surprise to me has been the lack of Sunni support for Hezbollah. I am well aware of the split between Sunni and Shia and that the Sunnis are not at all happy about the empowerment of the Shia in Iraq. However, the lack of support for Hezbollah from the Sunni governments such as Saudi Arabia demonstrates to me that the Sunnis take Iranian political ambitions to become the dominant Middle Eastern power very seriously indeed. The politics are changing. As much as the Sunni Arabs hate Israel, it does not represent a threat to the existence of the Sunni Arab world. Even the Palestinians could have their own state tomorrow, although not all of Israel, if they wanted it. However, Iran has always been a real threat to the Sunni Arab world but a nuclear Iran threatens to unseat a millennium of Sunni dominance of the Middle East.

All this change in Middle Eastern political dynamics is to some significant extent a result of the US invasion of Iraq as part of America’s grand strategy of switching its main focus from Europe to the Middle East and fostering democracy while moving away from supporting dictatorships as it has in the past. Linda Secor in this Boston Globe article from 2004 summarizes the ideas of Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis on how the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 changed American grand strategy.

EVERY PRESIDENT makes foreign policy. Only a select few, over the sweep of history, design what scholars term grand strategy.

Grand strategy is the blueprint from which policy follows. It envisions a country’s mission, defines its interests, and sets its priorities. Part of grand strategy’s grandeur lies in its durability: A single grand strategy can shape decades, even centuries, of policy.

Who, then, have been the great grand strategists among American statesmen? According to a slim forthcoming volume by John Lewis Gaddis, the Yale historian whom many describe as the dean of Cold War studies and one of the nation’s most eminent diplomatic historians, they are John Quincy Adams, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and George W. Bush.

Secor goes on to describe Gaddis’ view of the transition to the post 9/11 grand strategy

The postwar United States extended its sphere of influence partly through generous economic aid, partly through the alliance system, and largely by the consent of the states in its orbit. So long as the Soviet Union was around, small states always knew that there was something worse than American domination.

The end of the Cold War changed all that — and found the United States without a grand strategy. President Bill Clinton, says Gaddis, thought that “globalization and democratization were irreversible processes, therefore we didn’t need a grand strategy. Clinton said as much at one point. I think that was shallow. I think they were asleep at the switch.”

…. The Bush administration, marvels Gaddis, undertook a decisive and courageous reassessment of American grand strategy following the shock of the 9/11 attacks. At his doctrine’s center, Bush placed the democratization of the Middle East and the urgent need to prevent terrorists and rogue states from getting nuclear weapons.

In his London speech in 2003 at at Whitehall Palace President Bush declared his policy clearly

We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.

As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.

Seen exclusively through the lens of Cold War thinking this change works against stability and promotes disorder and increasing uncertainty. No wonder the State Department and CIA professionals steeped in 60 years of Cold War history and thinking have been upset! On the positive side I think that the stasis in the Middle East was rotten anyway and 9/11 demonstrated that autocratic Arab governments propped up by the US could not maintain it. Islamic fundamentalism metastasized into radical Islam because these governments effectively blocked progress in the Middle East. The Saudis through religious conservatism and monarchy and countries like Egypt or Iraq thorough a a combination of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism that failed to deliver genuine economic and social progress. I don’t think America set out to promote bad government in the Middle East but simply looked the other way because these governments suited our purpose of opposing the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. During the last 30 years our focus on the Soviet Union blinded us to the increasing movement within the Muslim world toward radicalism and jihad. For example, in 1979 we were more concerned with preventing the Soviet Union from bringing Iran into its orbit than with forestalling the radical regime that now governs Iran coming into power. Likewise the US was so intent on tying down the Russians in Afghanistan that it empowered Bin Laden and the mujahideen .

Coming back to the present in Iraq and Lebanon it is quite unclear how things will work out. I think the best outcome is if we can foster prosperous democracies in Iraq and Lebanon. The Kurdish region of Iraq is succeeding even now, and the Lebanese were succeeding until hijacked by Nasrallah and Hezbollah. Iraq hangs in the balance as the battle for Baghdad heats up as does Lebanon as Hezbollah fights to maintain its power.

In Lebanon I expect there will be increasing diplomatic pressure on Israel to bring its offensive to a close before it can can come close to wearing down Hezbollah enough to effectively disarm them. But there is another diplomatic possibility here. That is, supporting that part of the Lebanese government that also wants to disarm Hezbollah. France, for example, is unlikely to support Israel but they could well support the Lebanese government against Hezbollah. Recall that during the height of the Cedar Revolution France moved military units to the Eastern Mediterranean to encourage Syria to leave Lebanon. France, and Europe in general, have an opportunity to help create a better government in Lebanon. Assuming that a wider war does not develop, the coming negotiations may be different this time. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and its withdrawal from Gaza last year demonstrate it’s willingness to make peace and the aggression by Hamas and Hezbollah has not been as strongly supported by either the Sunni Arabs or the Europeans. They both have the option of supporting the Lebanese government against Hezbollah without being seen to support Israel too much.

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