WASHINGTON - Alarms are definitely on the rise here.
And it's not just because the British
police arrested 21 people who were allegedly plotting to bomb up to 10 jetliners
between London and the United States in mid-flight over the Atlantic Ocean.
Although that probably didn't help.
It's more the sense that the growing number of crises in the "new Middle
East," proudly midwifed by the administration of President George W. Bush,
is rapidly spinning out of control with potentially catastrophic consequences
for the entire region and beyond.
The ongoing war between Israel and Hezbollah not to mention the imminent
expansion of Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon if it does not get a UN Security
Council resolution to its liking has, by virtually all accounts, inflamed
and radicalized the Islamic world and rendered a larger regional conflagration
much more likely.
At the same time, Wednesday's report that an unprecedented 1,815
bodies, 90 percent victims of violence, were brought to the Baghdad's morgue
last month eclipsing the previous record established in June by some
250 corpses appeared to confirm the increasingly widespread view here
that Iraq is moving headlong toward civil war, if it isn't already in one, as
many regional experts have contended for some time.
"Two full-blown crises, in Lebanon and Iraq, are merging into a single
emergency," noted Washington's former UN ambassador, Richard Holbrooke,
in an uncharacteristically alarming column
in Thursday's Washington Post.
The column's title, "The Guns of August," was a reference to a book
about the diplomatic follies and indecisive battles that launched Europe into
a devastating world war in 1914.
"A chain reaction could spread quickly almost anywhere between Cairo and
Bombay," Holbrooke warned. "
The combination of combustible
elements poses the greatest threat to global stability since the 1962 Cuban
missile crisis, history's only nuclear superpower confrontation."
Among other things, noted Holbrooke, a top candidate for secretary of state
if Democrats had won the presidency in 2000 or 2004, Turkey is threatening to
invade northern Iraq; the world's largest anti-Israel demonstrations are taking
place in downtown Baghdad; Syria may yet be pulled into the Lebanon war; Afghanistan
is under growing threat from a resurgent Taliban; and India is threatening punitive
action against Pakistan for its alleged involvement in the recent train bombings
Particularly alarming to Holbrooke, as to a steadily growing number of Republican
realists and other members of the traditional U.S. foreign policy elite, is
the apparent complacency of the Bush administration in the face of these events.
Indeed, since the outbreak of the Lebanon crisis four weeks ago, a succession
of former top Republican policy-makers including Brent Scowcroft, the national
security adviser to former presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush; the
younger Bush's former deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage; and Council
on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass has called publicly for a major
reassessment of U.S. Middle East policy and its conduct of the "global
war on terror."
Their common message is the necessity of pressing Israel for a quick ceasefire
in Lebanon, engaging directly with Syria and Iran on both Lebanon and Iraq,
and restarting a serious peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
It has been echoed by leading Democrats, including former President Jimmy Carter;
his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski; and former secretaries of
state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, as well as by Holbrooke himself.
To these appeals, however as well as to the worsening of the twin crises
themselves the administration has appeared largely deaf. "There
is little public sign that the president and his top advisers recognize how
close we are to a chain reaction, or that they have any larger strategy beyond
tactical actions," Holbrooke noted.
The one, at least partial, exception has been Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice whose State Department, a bastion of realism, has been under almost constant
attack since the outset of the Lebanon crisis by the same coalition of neoconservatives,
assertive nationalists, and Christian rightists led by Vice President Dick Cheney
that led the drive to war in Iraq.
In the early stages of the latest war, Rice, who is also the only senior administration
official who has been in constant communication with European and Arab leaders,
was most outspoken about the importance of Israel exercising restraint and not
attacking civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. She was reportedly infuriated
when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert failed to follow through on a pledge
to suspend aerial attacks for two days late last month.
Rice, a Scowcroft protégé, has supported talks with Syria on
the crisis, and, according to an account published this week in Insight
magazine, a publication of the right-wing Washington Times, has also
argued in favor of engaging Iran.
Before the Lebanon crisis, Rice appeared to be successfully moving U.S. policy
gradually, if fitfully, toward a more realist position, particularly with respect
to Iran. But she has now run into a brick wall in Bush himself, according to
"For the last 18 months, Condi was given nearly carte blanche in setting
foreign policy guidelines," it quoted one "senior government source"
as saying. "All of a sudden, the president has a different opinion and
he wants the last word."
Her problems, however, may not be confined to Bush, according to another report
in Thursday's New York Times, which suggested that Cheney and
his mainly neoconservative advisers has become increasingly assertive
in the latest crisis in support of Israel's efforts to crush Hezbollah. (In
fact, some of his unofficial advisers, such as Weekly Standard editor
William Kristol and former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, have
called for expanding the war to Syria and even Iran.)
In that respect, the current situation recalls the humiliation of then-Secretary
of State Colin Powell's who in early 2002 sought to persuade Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon to halt Israel's military offensive in the Palestinian territories
only to be undercut back home by Cheney and, ironically, by then-National
Security Adviser Rice herself.
"She had as much to do with cutting his legs out from under him vis-à-vis
the Middle East as anyone else either through outright agreement with
Cheney, or, at the minimum, complicity with his views so as to draw even closer
to Bush," according to ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's former chief
of staff at the State Department.
That experience, of course, confirmed the demise of realist influence in Bush's
first term, at least with respect to the Middle East.
That Rice may now find herself in a similar position, having to contend with
a resurgent Cheney-led coalition of hawks who are not so much complacent about
the course of current events in the Middle East as convinced that their strategy
of regional "transformation" by military means will be vindicated,
is what is perhaps particularly alarming about the present moment.
"This whole business is nuts unless, of course, you believe what
the rumormongers are beginning to pass around," wrote Wilkerson in reference
to the Lebanon war in an e-mail exchange with IPS. "[T]hat this entire
affair was ginned up by Bush/Cheney and certain political leaders in Tel Aviv
to give cover for the eventual attack by the U.S. on Iran. At first, I refused
to believe what seemed to be such insanity. But I am not so certain any longer."
(Inter Press Service)