Thursday, August 03, 2006

Sacrificial Pawn

Kevin Sites, Yahoo's Hot Zone reporter, has what I would characterize as a fair-minded and thorough summary of the war in Lebanon. Some key graphs:
Three weeks in and it's clear that few are blameless in this conflict: Hezbollah for the kidnapping of IDF soldiers and the barrage of rockets they fire toward northern Israel from southern Lebanon, Israel for what many in the international community consider a disproportionate response to the provocation, and the West, specifically the U.S. and Britain, for not endorsing an immediate cease-fire that could have helped prevent so much death and destruction; the casualties may now include the West's foreign policy interests in the Middle East.

But once again the biggest loser, it seems, is Lebanon. The country had finally turned the economic and political corner from its devastating civil war in 70s and 80s and was also asserting — with the exception of the presence of the armed Hezbollah militia in the south — a sense of its own sovereignty after Syrian troops departed its soil in March 2005.

Lebanon was more interested in economic growth than military might, pumping billions into hotels, restaurants, resorts and business. The hope was to regain the title of "the Paris of the Middle East," and for a short time it succeeded.

"Lebanon is just a souk (a marketplace)," said one Beirut businessman during its period of rapid growth. "But it has no political clout whatsoever."

Except, perhaps, as a pawn of both international and internal forces.

Some Middle East observers believe that Lebanon's failure to invest in a strong military — one with sovereignty over the entire nation, including the strongholds of Hezbollah's militia in the south — may have been its undoing.
Sites also points out what few mainstream media stories have mentioned — that cross-border incursions and kidnappings are a common occurence, and a two-way street:
One Middle East source with an intimate knowledge of Hezbollah, who wishes to remain anonymous because he's still involved in back-channel negotiations, says that Hezbollah's July 12 kidnapping of the two IDF soldiers was instigated, in part, by the earlier reneging by the Israeli government on a prisoner swap with Hezbollah.

"These kind of kidnappings are perpetrated by both sides," says the source. "The Israelis have routinely landed helicopters in Lebanon, scooped up people and taken them back to Israel. It's nothing so extraordinary."
There are many levels to this unfolding tragedy. None may be greater than the grave undermining of democratic movements and social liberalization in the Middle East. Milt Beardon, a former CIA officer and ME expert, tells Sites why. Not only is Hezbollah "an organic part" of the 40% of Lebanon that is Shia, it has gained credibility in the region:
"Hezbollah is the current darling of everybody in the Middle East," Bearden says, "mainly because of what they've accomplished by not being destroyed."

"I don't think anyone really believes you can remove Hezbollah through bombing," says the source close to Hezbollah. "It's an organization that is part of the Shia society. In fact, there will be Hezbollahs sprouting up all over the world after this. Groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are bridging that divide and it's showing how vulnerable many of the Arab governments are."

And though they've shown their vulnerability in this conflict, Bearden believes Arab governments have also found an "out" from the pressure from the West to democratize — since the U.S., to them, no longer seems like an honest broker after its response to Hamas' and Hezbollah's election victories in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon.

"The concept of a tsunami of democracy (in the Middle East) is done for," Bearden says.
The last six years make it hard to remember a time when the US had some clout as an "honest broker," back in the days of shuttle diplomacy and the Camp David accords. But our current Cowboy-in-Chief has little interest in such sissy, peacenik stuff, famously shaking off Colin Powell's calls for engagement in the Israel/Palestinian conflict at the beginning of his administration with the bon mot, “Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things.”

Clarity is breaking out all over these days.

More from Sites and Bearden:
As a member of Conflicts Forum, a group of former cold warriors who believe the West has to establish a dialogue with fundamentalist Islamic organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah to peacefully resolve crises like this, Bearden says the U.S. missed important opportunities to head off the violence.

"I've been in countless hours of meetings with some of them (Hezbollah) to where I can guarantee you that they would have welcomed a quiet dialogue with the United States," he says. "We don't do our fundamental homework anymore. You've got to empathize with the enemy to the extent to that you don't have a cartoon character that you're fighting, but someone that might be smarter than anybody in your administration."
Well, that last possibility strikes me as a pretty safe bet. The cartoon characters seem to be on our side, populating an Administration whose language of diplomacy can pretty much be summed up as, "Hulk smash!"

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