Condoleezza Rice is on a mission to rescue the "new Middle East", but it feels more like a swan song, writes Graham Usher
"What we are seeing here," said United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, en route to Beirut, Israel and thence Rome, "is the birth pangs of a new Middle East. And, whatever we do, we have to be certain we're pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one".
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Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora shakes hands with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
The US secretary of state was signalling that her latest bout of diplomacy would brook no return to the pre-12 July "situation" when routine Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty were held in check by batteries of Hizbullah weaponry on the Israel-Lebanese border. Instead the Lebanese resistance -- humbled and preferably disarmed -- would have to retreat 20 kilometres north or to wherever Israel deemed was the comfort zone, she told Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on 24 July.
But there are many in the region who will interpret Rice's words differently. For them the old Middle East is represented by Washington's abject failure to refashion the region in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks. That grand design now lies buried under the sectarian carnage of Iraq, the death of hope in Palestine and the rubble of Beirut. It is not clear what new Middle East will emerge but harbingers suggest a resurgent Iran and an ever-more defiant Islamism in the form of Hizbullah, Hamas and Muqtada Al-Sadr.
The American project, post-9/11, was predicated on three "enduring principles". Israel has invoked each one in its latest onslaught on Lebanon. Indeed if the US borrowed from Israel in the invasion of Iraq, Israel is repaying the compliment in kind in Gaza and Lebanon.
The first "principle" was the right to use massive pre-emptive force to "change the balance of power on Israel's northern border", said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
In the heady days immediately following Hizbullah's capture of the two Israeli soldiers, this meant massive land, sea and air assaults to "degrade" Hizbullah's arsenal rocket-by- rocket (or, in the case of southern Beirut, housing block-by-housing block). Where this failed, the idea was to pummel civilian infrastructure so that a supine, divided Lebanese government would be "compelled" to rein in Hizbullah, the strongest political, military and sectarian force in the country.
Two weeks and 400 deaths on neither goal have been accomplished. On the contrary, the higher the body count climbs the more modest the aims become. An Israeli Foreign Ministry official quoted by AFP on 24 July said Israel's "main objective today" was neither the defeat of Hizbullah nor the depletion of its firepower. It was to "dissuade Hizbullah from renewing its attacks on the border and retrieve the two soldiers".
Israel's Mariv newspaper -- usually a good source for new government thinking -- went even further. "Israel now considers there is a basis for negotiation (with Hizbullah, through a third party) for the release of the two soldiers," it said. This -- together with a mutual exchange of prisoners -- has been Hizbullah's "basis" since the beginning of the crisis.
The second principle was to marshal international and Arab covenant for acts of Israeli unilateralism. This proved successful with "disengagement" when the world was persuaded to ditch the roadmap and even the fiction of a peace process in favour of policies that would rid Israel of Gaza and deepen its hold on occupied East Jerusalem and "strategic" areas of the West Bank.
In Lebanon, unilateralism means the deployment of a "new international stabilisation force" that is "combat experienced" enough to police the border on Israel's behalf and, ultimately, help the Lebanese government disarm Hizbullah.
The Lebanese government is not averse to an international force, though it would prefer an enlarged UNIFIL. But it has made it clear any force must follow a ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli forces as well as address outstanding conflicts like Israel's occupation and prisoners.
Similarly the idea Hizbullah will meekly accept its disarmament by an international force in the name of UN Resolution 1559 while those same agencies ignore Israel's ongoing violation of resolutions 242, 338 and a host of others is imaginary. So is the notion that many nations will enlist. "No, there has been no request made to NATO to play any role," was the cool response of NATO spokesman, James Appathurai.
Finally, there is the matter of democracy, which was always more an afterthought to the American project than a principle. When thousands of Lebanese took to the streets last year to get rid of the Syrian occupation, they were told by George Bush that their freedom would be protected. When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insisted that his view of final peace settlement must be embedded in the democratic choice of his people, he assumed their choice would at least be respected.
But Bush has not lifted a finger to defend "democratic Lebanon" against the Israeli onslaught and has actively colluded with the Jewish state to bring down the elected Hamas government. Many consequences flow from this enormous hypocrisy. But one is the leeching of political legitimacy from national, elected institutions like governments to non-elected, non-state institutions like Hizbullah, Ezzeddin Al-Qassam and the Mehdi army.
And, for better or worse, it is these forces -- rather than the "democrats" -- that are articulating the new Middle East. This is not evidence of a new "Shia crescent" arcing all the way from Tehran to Gaza, whatever Israel and certain Arab regimes allege. It is rather that the Islamism these movements propound resonates on what were once the deepest signature chords of the region's secular, progressive and socialist movements: "the chords of Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism and anti- Zionism," says French scholar Oliver Roy.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora shakes hands with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; a displaced woman cries upon arrival at Sidon from her southern village of Aitaroun (photos: AP and AFP)