Just before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started her short trip to the Middle East on Sunday, she described the massive destruction, dislocation, and human suffering in Lebanon as an inevitable part of the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
From my perspective here in Beirut, where she landed on Monday, as I watch American-supplied Israeli jets smash this country to smithereens, her “birth pangs” look much more like a wicked hangover from a decades-old American orgy of diplomatic intoxication with the enticements of pro-Israeli politics.
We shall find out in the coming years if, indeed, a new Middle East is being born, or, as I suspect, we are witnessing the initial dying gasps of the Western-made political order that has defined this region and focused primarily on Israeli national dictates for most of the past half a century.
The way to a truly new and stable Middle East is to apply policies that deliver equal rights to all concerned. The events of the past three days suggest that Washington and Israel already are being forced to grapple with this basic demand. They have made important shifts in their diplomatic positions in the face of limited returns from nearly two weeks of nonstop bombing of Lebanon.
In Washington, Rice had stated that Israel should ignore calls for a cease-fire. En route from Washington to Beirut, Rice changed her tune, saying there was an “urgent” need for a cease-fire in Lebanon, but that conditions had to be right.
Similarly, the Israeli government stated Sunday it was prepared to accept a robust NATO- or EU-led military force in south Lebanon to bring calm to that region. It seems to have discovered, yet again, the limited capacity of military brutality to resolve political disputes.
So we see the clear outlines of two competing approaches to the problems of the Hezbollah-Israeli clashes and the wider Arab-Israeli tensions behind them. One position is reflected in America’s active support for Israel’s massive attacks against Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure and Hezbollah positions to achieve short-term tactical aims and long-term strategic goals.
Short term, the United States would like Israel to wipe out Hezbollah, allow the Lebanese government to send its troops to the south of the country, ensure the safety of northern Israel, cut Syria’s influence down to size, and apply greater pressure on Hezbollah-supporter Iran. Long term, Washington seeks to redraw the political and ideological map of the Middle East regardless of the cost to locals.
We have three Arab countries today where American policies and arms have played a major role in promoting chaos, disintegration and mass death– Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. You can watch them burn any time of day or night live on your television sets. Ironically, these were the three countries that Bush-Rice & Co. held up as pioneers of the American policy to promote freedom and democracy as antidotes to Arab despotism and terrorism.
Washington’s desire to change the face of the Arab world requires removing the last vestiges of anti-American defiance and anti-Israel resistance. The problem for Bush-Rice is that such sentiments probably comprise a majority of Arab people, led by Islamist parties and resistance groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and assorted Shiite groups in the Iraqi government.
Syria and Iran are the most problematic governments for Washington in this respect. So there is further irony and much incoherence in the latest American official desire for Arab governments to pressure Syria to reduce its support for Hezbollah and other groups that defy the United States and Israel.
The fact that Bush-Rice fail to acknowledge is that Washington now can only speak to a few Arab governments (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere) whose influence with Syria is virtually nonexistent, whose credibility with Arab public opinion is zero, whose own legitimacy at home is increasingly challenged, and whose pro-U.S. policies tend to promote the growth of those militant Islamist movements that now lead the battle against American and Israeli policies.
There is another approach to the problems of the Middle East, though. It is simply to respond to Arab and Israeli rights simultaneously, as equal phenomena in the eyes of God, the law, and their common humanity.
Any diplomatic efforts this week to bring about a cease-fire and install a multinational force in south Lebanon will succeed in the long run only if they respond to the demands and rights of Lebanese and Israelis alike.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star. Distributed by Agence Global.