By Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University
Published August 13, 2006
President Bush recently said that it was necessary to get to "the root of the problem" in Lebanon. By this, Bush certainly did not mean Israel's 18-year occupation of south Lebanon that created Hezbollah following the 1982 invasion. Nor did he mean Israel's 39-year-plus occupation in Palestine. For him, the problem is Hezbollah's nature as a "terrorist organization," which is how it is framed in most of the American media.
It is worth considering how Hezbollah is now regarded elsewhere. As recently as a month ago in democratic Lebanon, (touted by the Bush administration as a great achievement of its Middle East policy), there were sharp differences over Hezbollah, its armed presence in south Lebanon and its links with Syria and Iran. The Lebanese government and much of the country's political establishment were closely aligned with the United States and France in opposing Hezbollah. Few observers, however, paid attention to the fact that all the elected representatives of the largest community in Lebanon, the Shiites, were not part of this happy consensus.
Now, a month after Israel unleashed its air force against Lebanon, killing more than 700 civilians, there is near-unanimity among Lebanese in supporting Hezbollah's resistance to the grinding advance of Israeli troops in the south, the third such invasion in 28 years. Hezbollah is once again seen by almost all Lebanese as a resistance movement, as it was after it succeeded in 2000 in forcing Israel to evacuate occupied territory (a feat that the Lebanese and Syrian governments, and the Palestinians, all failed to achieve).
Americans, who have been fortunate never to live under foreign occupation, may not understand that invasion and occupation inevitably breed resistance.
Hezbollah's rocket attacks on Israel, initially condemned by some Lebanese, are now seen as a justified response to Israel's offensive against Lebanon. For the Lebanese, the fact that most of their casualties were civilians, a third of them children, and that the bombing has created a million refugees, severely damaged the environment and systematically destroyed the country's infrastructure--from bridges and power plants to airports, milk factories and lighthouses--substantiates this belief.
The idea that this or any other Lebanese government will act against Hezbollah after the fighting ends is therefore perfect fantasy. The "successes" of American and French diplomacy over the last year in driving a wedge between Lebanese and isolating Hezbollah, a futile exercise in any case, have gone up in the smoke of Israeli air raids on every part of Lebanon.
In their place is bitter anger at the United States, which has once more shown that neither Lebanese democracy nor Arab civilian casualties, nor anything else in the Arab world, counts in American calculations when Israel's perceived interests (and President Bush's "war on terror") are at stake.
This is also the impression left in the Arab world by the reduction of a third Arab country--Iraq, Palestine and now Lebanon--to smoldering ruins as part of what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the "birth-pangs of a new Middle East." No one there any longer takes seriously the idea that U.S. policy has anything to do with democracy. The crushing of an elected Palestinian government (many of its leaders kidnapped by Israel) and the humiliation of an elected Lebanese government at the hands of Israel and the United States have dissolved the last illusions in the region as to this flimsy pretext for American actions.
Beyond further angering Arabs and others in the Middle East, U.S. support for Israel's offensive in Lebanon has also gravely embarrassed undemocratic pro-American Arab regimes. Some were so unwise as to criticize Hezbollah publicly in the first days of this conflict, and have been forced to eat large amounts of crow since then, as their publics have massively supported Hezbollah. All of these regimes have now been obliged to line up behind the diplomatic position of a Lebanese government that is closely coordinating its stand with that of Hezbollah.
So a month of unlimited American support for Israel's war in Lebanon has been disastrous even in terms of the Bush administration's questionable Middle East objectives. It has shattered a Lebanese coalition the U.S. and France painstakingly built up over more than a year, it has exposed the United States as the enemy of democracy in the region (all of the bleating in Washington to the contrary notwithstanding), it has weakened undemocratic Arab clients of the U.S., and it has shown that nothing in the Middle East counts for the Bush administration as much as the self-fulfilling ideological obsession with "terror" that it shares with Israel.
These policies do not serve the true interests of the United States, or for that matter those of Israel. American involvement, direct or indirect, in new Middle Eastern wars, which some zealots in Washington are calling for, would mean even more Iraqs. The Israeli government and the Bush administration both suffer from the foolish illusion (one easy to understand among warmongers in Washington who have never been near a battlefield) that war is the solution to problems in the Middle East. The idea that Arabs understand only force, which underlies American and Israeli policies, is racist and profoundly mistaken. As long as such dangerous illusions reign, innocents will continue to die in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Israel.
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune