Crossposted at My Left Wing
But it has also given me an opportunity to educate myself. About a year and three months ago I wrote a diary called "The Expanding Mushroom Cloud of Democracy," where I described why I found it hard to get excited over the `purple finger' day that the right was all orgasmic over. It's held up well (sadly). Essentially everything I said has happened. But there was one thing detail that I got flat-out wrong, and I was corrected immediately in the comments section.
I said in my diary that the Iraqi Shi'a and the Iranian Shi'a would be natural allies, thus making Iran the clear winner of the second Iraq war. I assumed they would cooperate because of their religious commonality, but a commenter pointed out that is one thing keeping the two apart--good ol' fashioned racism. Turns out the Persians don't really care all that much for the Arabs in much the same way that White Southern Baptists and Black Southern Baptists rarely go to each others' churches. Okay, so not in much the same way, but in the Mark Twain sense they "rhyme."
So the current crisis the in the Middle East heats up, and like everyone else I'm asked what my opinion is on the issue. I don't particularly know why it should matter, but my initial reaction was this--asking me to take sides in the current conflict is like asking me to take sides in the California wildfires. I'm anti-fire. I could give a shit about who started it or why, I just want the damn fire out. Once it's out, then let's find out who started it and act accordingly.
No one seems to like that answer, so I figured I'd better spend a little more time looking into the issue. I still retain much of my pre-conversion ignorance regarding Middle-Eastern politics. Part of my was still buying into the cliché that "the only thing those people understand is strength." This is a core doctrine of right-wing policy on the issue--the idea that we can ultimate "beat the love of Jesus" into "those people." Instinctively I knew the conflict was more complicated than that. I just hadn't spent any time researching it. Nor did it seem likely I would find the time.
Almost on cue I ran across a piece called "The Middle East--What's Really Driving the War?" It's not a political paper. It didn't come from the blogs. Rather it was emailed to me by a coworker who received it as part of a series of "Investor Insights." It was written to give stock brokers some background info on the conflict, and to forecast what impact this geo-political issue will have on the markets. Largely it relies on information provided by Dr. George Friedman's intelligence service at Stratfor.com I don't know anything about the guy, but if he has an axe to grind I had a hard time finding it in his commentary. I don't get the sense from his writings that he's pro-Israel, pro-Hezbollah, or pro-Palestine. His writings sound very much like those of a dispassionate observer. Long story short--this piece contained a lot of stuff I didn't know that I found more than a little interesting.
First, a condensed history of the goings on in the region to set the stage...
"Hezbollah's decision to increase operations against Israel was not taken lightly. The leadership of Hezbollah has not so much moderated over the years as it has aged. The group's leaders have also, with age, become comfortable and in many cases wealthy. They are at least part of the Lebanese political process, and in some real sense part of the Lebanese establishment. These are men with a radical past and of radical mind-set, but they are older, comfortable and less adventurous than 20 years ago. Therefore, the question is: Why are they increasing tensions with Israel and inviting an invasion that threatens their very lives?
There is a generation gap in Hezbollah. Hezbollah began as a Shiite radical group inspired by the Iranian Islamic Revolution. In that context, Hezbollah represented a militant, nonsecular alternative to the Nasserite Fatah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that took their bearing from Pan-Arabism rather than Islam. Hezbollah split the Shiite community in Lebanon -- which was against Sunnis and Christians -- but most of all, engaged the Israelis. It made a powerful claim that the Palestinian movement had no future while it remained fundamentally secular and while its religious alternatives derived from the conservative Arab monarchies. "
So, basically, Hezbollah had become sort of fat, dumb, and happy...well, those who hadn't blown themselves up at any rate. The status quo was treating them good, so why mess with that? Well, to understand what upset the balance you have to follow the money a little bit...
"Hezbollah had a split personality, however; it was supported by two very different states. Iran was radically Islamist. Syria, much closer and a major power in Lebanon, was secular and socialist. They shared an anti-Zionist ideology, but beyond that, not much. Moreover, the Syrians viewed the Palestinian claim for a state with a jaundiced eye. Palestine was, from their point of view, part of the Ottoman Empire's Syrian province, divided by the British and French. Syria wanted to destroy Israel, but not necessarily to create a Palestinian state.
From Syria's point of view, the real issue was the future of Lebanon, which it wanted to reabsorb into Syria, or at the very least economically exploit. The Syrians intervened in Lebanon against the Palestine Liberation Organization and on the side of some Christian elements. Their goal was much less ideological than political and economic. They saw Hezbollah as a tool in their fight with Yasser Arafat and for domination of Syria.
Hezbollah strategically was aligned with Iran. Tactically, it had to align itself with Syria, since the Syrians dominated Lebanon. That meant that when Syria wanted tension with Israel, Hezbollah provided it, and when Syria wanted things to quiet down, Hezbollah cooled it. Meanwhile the leadership of Hezbollah, aligned with the Syrians, was in a position to prosper, [in] particular after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.
That withdrawal involved a basic, quiet agreement between Syria and Israel. Israel accepted Syrian domination of Lebanon. In return, Syria was expected to maintain a security regime that controlled Hezbollah. Attacks against Israel had to be kept within certain acceptable limits. Syria, having far less interest in Israel than in Lebanon, saw this as an opportunity to achieve its ends. Israel saw Syrian domination under these terms as a stabilizing force.
Bottom line: The status quo, while generally sucky, was the preferred alternative. Syria was in Lebanon essentially using Hezbollah in a limited way to achieve political goals mostly involving Lebanon. In return they kept Hezbollah in check, which placated Israel. This wasn't exactly what I would call a shaky truce--more of a "best of a series of bad alternatives" kind of thing. So what disturbed the balance? Two things:
Two things converged to destabilize this sit uation. The emergence of Hamas as a major force among the Palestinians meant the Palestinian polity was being redefined. Even before the elections catapulted Hamas into a leadership role, it was clear that the Fatah-dominated government of Arafat was collapsing. Everything was up for grabs. That meant that either Hezbollah made a move or would be permanently a Lebanese organization. It had to show it was willing to take risks and be effective. In fact, it had to show that it was the most effective of all the groups. They moved... The second part of this occurred in Lebanon itself. After the death of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, outside pressure, primarily from the United States, forced a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Now, do not overestimate the extent of the withdrawal. Syrian influence in Lebanon is still enormous. But it did relieve Syria of the burden of controlling Hezbollah. Indeed, Israel was not overly enthusiastic about Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon for just that reason.
Syria could now claim to have no influence or obligation concerning Hezbollah. Hezbollah's leadership lost the cover of being able to tell the young Turks that they would be more aggressive, but that the Syrians would not let them. As the Syrian withdrawal loosened up Lebanese politics, Hezbollah was neither restrained nor could it pretend to be restrained. Whatever the mixed feelings might have been, the mission was the mission, Syrian withdrawal opened the door and Hezbollah could not resist walking through it, and many members urgently wanted to walk through it."
Ah...so it's all Bush's fault! Sorry...I guess I've been a liberal long enough now that I have a `Blame Bush First' complex. Still, it turns out he didn't to Israel any favors with his expanding mushroom cloud of democracy in Lebanon. On it's surface ending the Syrian occupation of Lebanon seemed like a good thing, and ultimately it could still work out. But it clearly has had a short-term destabilizing effect. The fat, dumb, and happy Hezbollah leadership used to be able to say "Dude, I'd love for you to go suicide bomb that thing you're talking about, but Syria's kind of in charge here and they say no. Sorry. Nothing we can do!" With Syria out of the equation, the leadership ran out of excuses. They couldn't bluff the rank and file anymore. They had to act. And who benefits the most from this conflict in the region? Iran, of course!
"At the same time the Iranians were deeply involved in negotiations in Iraq and over Tehran's nuclear program. They wanted as many levers as they could find to use in negotiations against the United States. They already had the ability to destabilize Iraq. They had a nuclear program the United States wanted to get rid of. Reactivating a global network that directly threatened American interests was another chip on the bargaining table. Not attacking U.S. interests but attacking Israel demonstrated Hezbollah's vibrancy without directly threatening the United States. Moreover, activities around the world, not carefully shielded in some cases, gave Iran further leverage.
In addition, it allowed Iran to reclaim its place as the leader of Islamic radical resurgence. Al Qaeda, a Sunni group, had supplanted Iran in the Islamic world. Indeed, Iran's collaboration with the West allowed Tehran to be pictured among the 'hypocrites' Osama bin Laden condemned. Iran wants to b! ecome the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, and one part of that is to take away the mantle of Islamic radicalism from al Qaeda. Since al Qaeda is a damaged organization at best, and since Hezbollah pioneered Islamist terrorism on a global basis, reactivating Hezbollah made a great deal of sense to the Iranians."
So Iran is in a pissing contest with Al Qaeda, what with Al Qaeda being some pissant, nationless Sunni entity and Iran being a predominantly Shi'a world power. They want to show their dominance of regional politics, and this helps them succeed in that goal. So who else comes out a winner? As is often the case with Bush's foreign policy the answer is "everyone but the U.S."
Syria benefited by showing how badly it was needed in Lebanon. Iran picked up additional leverage against the United States. Hezbollah claimed a major place at the negotiations shaping the future of Palestinian politics. It all made a great deal of sense.
Not to beat a horse that, if not dead is certainly in eminent danger of expiring, but this is just another in a long line of reasons why Condi really, really sucks at her job. The substance of Bush's much ballyhooed `shit' comment shows his ignorance of developments in the region. He still thinks Syria has an interest in reigning in Hezbollah in Lebanon, but they come out just fine if they sit on the sidelines and watch this whole situation turn to shit. If random private-sector intelligence guy is all over this, why is this administration so taken by surprise? I know, I know. It's shoe season. She's busy. Moving on...
So what's the endgame here? How does this play out?
Of course, it was also obvious that Israel would respond. From Syria's point of view, that was fine. Israel would bog down again. It would turn to Syria to relieve it of its burdens. Israel would not want an Islamic regime in Damascus. Syria gets regime preservation and the opportunity to reclaim Lebanon. Iran gets a war hundreds of miles away from it, letting others fight its battles. It can claim it is the real enemy of Israel in the Islamic world. The United States might bargain away interests in Iraq in order to control Hezbollah. An Israeli invasion [of Lebanon] opens up possibilities [for the Iranians] without creating much risk.
It is Hezbollah that takes it on the chin. But Hezbollah, by its nature and its relationships, really did not have much choice. It had to act or become irrelevant. So now the question is: What does Hezbollah do when the Israelis come? They can resist. They have anti-tank weapons and other systems from Iran. They can inflict casualties. They can impose a counterinsurgency. Syria may think Israel will have to stay, but Israel plans to crush Hezbollah's infrastructure and leave, forcing Hezbollah to take years to recover. Everyone else in Lebanon is furious at Hezbollah for disrupting the recovery. What does Hezbollah do?"
In the 1980s, what Hezbollah did was take Western hostages. The United States is enormously sensitive to hostage situations. It led Ronald Reagan to Iran-Contra. Politically, the United States has trouble handling hostages. This is the one thing Hezbollah learned in the 1980s that the leaders remember. A portfolio of hostages is life insurance. Hezbollah could go back to its old habits. It makes sense to do so.
That's why it's vital for all non-combatant nations to get their citizens out of Lebanon as soon as possible. Given Hezbollah's history of hostage taking, the evacuation should have been mandatory and issued immediately. But I guess we already know about Bush's history of issuing mandatory evacuation orders. The author of this piece makes the comment that he's surprised at the U.S.'s slow reaction to get their citizens to safety. He supposes that we've received some kind of inside information form Israel saying they won't invade. He's more charitable (or more gullible) than I would be. This was written before Israeli troops crossed the border, and to me illustrates how Bush wades hip deep into the shit before realizing maybe having a plan would have been a good idea. Just like Hurricane Katrina the right's reaction has been predictable--blame the victim.
From Think Progress...
Rush Limbaugh, 7/19:
Even in the eyes of our ingrate, spoiled-rotten little children, brat-type ingrate citizens in Beirut, it's our fault. (Crying.) "It's a war zone. It's a war! How do I get out? (crying) We're having to shield ourselves from the sun in cardboard." (sobbing) That's embarrassing.
Fox anchor Neil Cavuto, 7/20:
The media is playing up a lot of whining, complaining Americans in this country who said there's been no warning, no communication.
TownHall.com columnist Mike Gallagher, 7/21:
Amazingly, we're not even going to charge these ungrateful evacuees for the free trip home. ... Their sense of outrage and entitlement is slowly but surely becoming the American way. And it's positively disgusting.
Fox anchor Steve Doocy, 7/19:
Shockingly, after they've been plucked out of Beirut, a lot of them are whining and complaining that, you know what, I had to sleep on the concrete and they didn't have any food for me to eat.
"Whiney fucking babies! Why don't they just die!" I'm gonna miss these guys when America wakes up. I guess from their perspective it would be better for our citizens to end up as hostages.
As a novice chess player you're taught to play out games even when you know you've lost. You make forced move after forced move until ultimately you wind up checkmated. As near as I can tell, that's where we are with this crisis. There are moves left to be made, but the point where we could change the outcome has already passed. Maybe I'll be surprised by Bush & Co. Maybe they've got some devistatingly brilliant move left to play that I just can't see. Maybe everything will work out in the end. Maybe while I'm waiting for that to happen I should check my ass for flying monkeys.