Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 July - 2 August 2006
Issue No. 805
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

US ignorance will lead to failure

Fomenting Sunni-Shia conflict is now Washington's, and Israel's, preferred method of pursuing their aims, writes Hassan Nafaa*

As Condoleezza Rice gave her first news conference following the flare-up in Lebanon the stench of death pervaded the war-ravaged country and the severed limbs of children, women, and the elderly lay scattered above and beneath the rubble of homes wrecked by Israel's warplanes.

As everyone waited with baited breath for what the US secretary of state had to say, hoping that she would provide clues about when the terrible massacre would end, Condoleezza Rice, a woman said to be among the more moderate members of the most extremist administration in US history, calmly announced that "what we're seeing here, in a sense, is the growing -- the birth pangs of a new Middle East." She then added that it was not yet time to seek a ceasefire. In saying so she made it clear to all that Israel's war on Lebanon is also America's war, and it will not stop until the US achieves its objectives. The international community and the nations of this region have no choice, therefore, but to bear the pain, however severe, of the birth of this wonderful thing the US calls the new Middle East.

This is not the first time the US administration has spoken about the new Middle East. You may recall that the same administration years ago promised a democratic Middle East that is free from despotism and corruption. Considering that Lebanon, the country now being crushed to produce this new Middle East, is one of the most democratic Arab countries, one can only wonder what future it is that Washington envisages. How will the new Middle East differ, for example, from the greater Middle East?

Some people imagine that US policy in the Middle East has taken a new turn. But I fail to see any change in US policy in the region. The new Middle East that the US is trying to achieve amounts to no more than the eradication of all regimes, forces and ideas hostile to US and Israeli designs and their replacement with more malleable regimes, forces and ideas.

For the US the Middle East has been, and still is, a mosaic of rival nationalities and ethnicities, religions and factions, some of which have been coerced into coexistence against their will. This is how the US administration and researchers see the region. Using this model, the current US administration assumed that sectarian, ethnic, and doctrinal diversity and divisions in Iraq offered it a golden opportunity to form a federal state -- one lacking a strong central power and willing to accept US bases in every part of the country. The assumption was reinforced by the cooperation of Kurdish and Shiite factions who hoped to bring down Saddam and cooperated with the Americans during the planning that preceded the war on Iraq. It was not surprising that the US administration, immediately following the toppling of the Iraqi regime, began to talk about democratisation as integral to its idea of the greater Middle East. Elated, the US administration didn't even seem to be bothered by the possibility of Islamist politicians taking power. You may recall Secretary Rice talking about "creative chaos".

Some Arab analysts, at least for a while, assumed that the US administration had decided to throw its weight behind the forces calling for true democracy in the region. They were wrong, as I said repeatedly in the past. US rhetoric was designed to blackmail Arab regimes, especially those loyal to the US, into making more concessions concerning Iraq and Palestine and to manipulate Arab civil society, gain favour with the liberals, and flirt with Arab minorities, encouraging all of the above to challenge the existing regimes. In other words, the democracy proposed in the greater Middle East scheme was conditional; it aimed to produce regimes loyal to US policies and comprising a delicate sectarian balance, all for the sake of allegedly protecting minorities. The US administration thought it could implement this model in Iraq and then spread it across the Middle East.

Two problems appeared. One was that the US scheme for Iraq stumbled in the face of Iraqi resistance. Then sectarian strife became ever more complicated as time passed and ultimately acquired regional proportions. When the US realised that its project for Iraq had reached a stalemate it had to choose between two options: to withdraw from Iraq and admit that its project there -- presumably the blueprint for a greater Middle East -- had failed or, press on with its designs but in a manner that would endorse a new set of alliances in pursuit of the same old policy. The first option was out of the question for an administration so ideologically motivated, leaving only the second. The US was determined to redraw the regional map through changed patterns of alliances. It is an option that faced considerable obstacles from the outset. What would be the foundations on which the new alliances would be built? And how could Israel play a major role in the new scene? The answer reached by US strategists was simple: foment Sunni-Shiite differences.

One cannot separate events in Lebanon today from the US confrontation with Iran over the latter's nuclear programme. Several Arab countries with close links with the US have become embroiled in the latter crisis. A few months ago the Jordanian king warned of a "Shiite crescent" stretching across the region. Several Arab leaders followed suit, warning of Iran's growing regional influence. Whether the US was creating a new bogeyman or simply reinforcing existing concerns is immaterial; what is important is that the way some Arab countries have been acting suggests that they are toeing the US line, out of either conviction or fear. These countries are now acting in a way that suggests that Iran is the main threat to the region's security and that the destruction of Hizbullah is the starting point for containing the "Shiite threat".

The recent crisis makes it clear that the war Israel is waging on Lebanon is motivated by the US, or equally by the US and Israel. The US role in this war involved more than giving the green light. The US has encouraged the war, sponsored it, and advised the international and regional communities on what to do about it. Never in the history of Arab-Israeli conflict has the US been so involved in an open war against an Arab country.

Israel's conduct has breached all red lines. Israel, a rogue state at heart, is acting like a wild beast in the jungle. That the modern world has an international criminal court that is actively prosecuting war criminals seems to be beside the point.

Meanwhile, a number of Arab countries have been willing to blame the current crisis on an Arab party. True, the target of the blame is a militia, not a state, though it still remains a first in the history of Arab-Israeli wars.

It is obvious that the US wants to give Israel enough time to destroy the military infrastructure of Hizbullah, after which Israel will proceed to destroy Hamas and bring down its government. The US wants to form an international and regional alliance and then tempt Syria to join it. The purpose of the alliance will be to isolate Iran and diminish its influence in the region, prior to changing its regime. This is the new Middle East that the US hopes to see born on the ashes of Lebanon.

It seems as if the US hasn't learned anything. Certainly its understanding of the region remains woefully distorted. The whole US strategy -- if one can call such nonsense a strategy -- is based on wrong assumptions. Israel cannot eradicate Hizbullah and destroy its military infrastructure. The destruction of Lebanon will not make the Lebanese blame Hizbullah for what has happened. And fears of a "Shiite threat" are not enough for an Arab Sunni-US- Israeli alliance to materialise.

Hizbullah is a state of mind. It is an idea of resistance. And resistance will stay with us, with or without Hizbullah, as long as Israel keeps occupying our land and pushing us around. You cannot destroy an idea, especially if it is about resisting occupation. Nationalist forces in Lebanon and in the Arab world have rallied behind Hizbullah and supported it because it is a resistance group, not because it is a Shiite group. (The US seems unaware that Hizbullah has never used sectarian rhetoric). The alliance the US is hoping to put together is nothing but a figment of the imagination of an extremist and sick administration.

I know it is unfair to ask the Lebanese people to bear the burden of resistance at a time when Arab governments, and perhaps Arab nations, are failing to act. But the Lebanese people have every right to be proud of a resistance that has challenged and humiliated the most powerful army in the region. The Lebanese people should be proud of a leader such as Hassan Nasrallah, a man who has galvanised Arab minds and hearts in a way unseen since Abdel-Nasser. Once the Israeli-US aggression on Lebanon ends -- and it will end -- those who planned the aggression will be in for a surprise or two. The Middle East born of that aggression e

will be a far cry from what they had hoped.

Arab regimes must understand that the anti- Iranian alliance the US is trying to put together is nothing but the mirror image of the sectarian war Israel is trying to foment across the region. There is a need for Arab-Iranian dialogue. There is also a need for Shiite-Sunni dialogue to nip this sedition in the bud. This is the only lesson this war has taught us. Once the guns fall silent, the Arabs and Iranians will have a lot to talk about.

* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

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