Saturday, July 22, 2006

What should the United States Do?

(I have also posted the article below at my space at Newsvine).

The topic for debate this week on the Creative Syria Think Tank is, so far, only Murhaf Joueijati and I have sent contributions, but there should be more to come soon. My contribution is posted below, and can also be accessed here, for those interested in voting.

What should the United States and the other relevant regional powers do to stop the bloodshed in Lebanon.

Before we answer this question, I think it is relevant to ask ourselves how we got to where we are in the first place. So,...

While Israeli actions in Lebanon are outrageous, and while, for the sake of national unity, many Lebanese are tempted to avoid assigning blame, in reality, it is in no one’s best interest, neither Lebanon’s nor Syria’s nor the Arab world’s, to forget or ignore how we got embroiled into this conflict in the first place, and what the hallmarks of the overall geopolitical context in which the war is taking place are.

In other words, we cannot afford to forget about Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ provocation, although and in the latter case, the Israelis have done their fair share of provocation as well. Still, clearly, the popular mandate that Hamas had received, judging by the various polls conducted at the time, was not meant to help it conduct war again Israel but one that focused on improving the living conditions of the Palestinian people. Radical elements within Hamas, led by Khaled Meshaal from his headquarter in Damascus and in direct coordination with the Assads regime, worked diligently over the last few weeks to push a more confrontational agenda, and managed to score a major “hit” when their supporters managed to nap an Israeli soldier a couple of weeks ago, setting the scene for Hezbollah’s own operation and the current crisis.

We should also bear in mind here not only the ongoing probe into the assassination of former Lebanese PM, Rafic Hariri, but the alliance that was formed not too long ago, in Damascus during the visit of the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, between Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups. Each of these regimes and movements has a group of internal and external problems that it seeks to evade through generating a crisis that can allow it to appeal to national sentiments and mobilize the people behind it.

In Iran, there is an ongoing conflict between the reformers and the conservatives, and a dispute with the international community over the nuclear issue, with the international community, for all its internecine disagreements, being deadest against allowing Iran to develop its nuclear potential.

In Syria, there seems to be a power struggle within the ranks of the ruling family, as well as a growing pressure for internal reforms. But the more serious threat to the regime is posed by the ongoing probe into the Hariri assassination, among other assassinations in Lebanon, and where Syrian duplicity is all but assured. Investigators are only trying to determine how high up the ladder does Syrian involvement go.

For Hezbollah, the issue seems to relate to Shia concerns and Nasrallah’s personal ambitions and the struggle for imposing a new political arrangement on the other communities in the country.

As for Hamas, and we have noted, there is an ongoing battle within Hamas between those who want to focus on internal issues, and those who are pushing for a more direct confrontation with Israel. Moreover, the competition with Fatah is also something that needs to be factored into our calculations.

Each side, then, had its own reasons and had its own agitators for picking a fight with Israel. The only problem is that they seem to have gotten more than they have bargained for.

For countries like the United States and Israel plan for all possibilities and have all different sorts of contingency plans, both diplomatic and militaristic. Having to implement your policies with an eye on your approval ratings, and with an ear to the various debates taking place in the parliament, in the various think tanks and in the media, creates much pressure on the politicians on these countries. This state of affairs serves primarily as a check on the ability of these countries’ leaders to just do what they want and what they think is right. But it also affords them a certain amount of flexibility, as they always tend to have contingency plans, or such plans can quickly be prepared by a new administration.

Because they are not democratic institutions, and because they are not operating in a democratic setting, and because of the private interests and corruption schemes of many of the figures involved, policies envisioned by the leaders of Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are anything but flexible and anything but representative of the wider interests of the peoples involved. Only the interests of the ruling elite and their narrow interpretations of the situation tend to figure here. This limits their ability to act and all but drive them into lapsing back on confrontational policies. Their leadership style is more about gambling than planning, and when their gambles fail, the people lose.

The quartet made up of Ahmadinejad, Assad, Nasrallah and Meshaal are leading us into another defeat at the hands of Israel, by enacting a very old scenario. Israeli losses might be greater than they used to, but our losses, both in human and material senses, will be much higher. Faced with these realities, we cannot but wonder, is it all worth it? And what are we exactly fighting for?

So, what should the US do about all this?

No one in the Arab Street is going to think straight about any of the issues raised above, which, I believe, are quite critical to the future of the region, to the tunes of Israeli bomb strikes on Lebanese soil, hopes, sovereignty and children. So, stopping the violence is something that needs to be done and soon. Had the US combined a strong condemnation of the current Israeli action with a condemnation of Hezbollah’s provocation, Syrian facilitation and Iranian encouragement, the Arab Street, not to mention the Iranian one, might have been in somewhat more receptive to the need of containing the rogues actors and players in the region.

Still, it is not too late for that. The US can still assume such a tone now. The very expensive Israel message has been delivered. Considering the nature of Lebanese society, Hezbollah’s appeal, all talk of resistance aside for now, will be drastically reduced, as people begin to face the awesome task of having to rebuild everything again, with no figure like Hariri insight. Saad simply lacks the experience and the aura, and Nasarllah has always been too much of a sectarian character to have the necessary cross-sectarian appeal, and now, his credentials have been severely undermined and his reputation tarnished forever. The justification for this act of mayhem has, therefore, been nullified. The violence can and should stop.