The era of the Middle East strongman, propped
up by and enforcing Western policy, appears well and truly over. His power is
being replaced with rule by civil war, apparently now the American administration's
favored model across the region.
Fratricidal fighting is threatening to engulf, or already engulfing, the occupied
Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and Iraq. Both Syria and Iran could soon be
next, torn apart by attacks Israel is reportedly planning on behalf of the US.
The reverberations would likely consume the region.
Western politicians like to portray civil war as a consequence of the West's
failure to intervene more effectively in the Middle East. Were we more engaged
in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or more aggressive in opposing Syrian manipulations
in Lebanon, or more hands-on in Iraq, the sectarian fighting could be prevented.
The implication being, of course, that, without the West's benevolent guidance,
Arab societies are incapable of dragging themselves out of their primal state
But in fact, each of these breakdowns of social order appears to have been
engineered either by the United States or by Israel. In Palestine, Lebanon,
and Iraq, sectarian difference is less important than a clash of political ideologies
and interests as rival factions disagree about whether to submit to, or resist,
American and Israeli interference. Where the factions derive their funding and
legitimacy from increasingly a choice between the U.S. or Iran
seems to determine where they stand in this confrontation.
Palestine is in ferment because ordinary Palestinians are torn between their
democratic wish to see Israeli occupation resisted in free elections
they showed they believed Hamas the party best placed to realize that goal
and the basic need to put food on the table for their families. The combined
Israeli and international economic siege of the Hamas government, and the Palestinian
population, has made a bitter internal struggle for control of resources inevitable.
Lebanon is falling apart because the Lebanese are divided: some believe that
the country's future lies with attracting Western capital and welcoming Washington's
embrace, while others regard America's interest as cover for Israel realizing
its long-standing design to turn Lebanon into a vassal state, with or without
a military occupation. Which side the Lebanese choose in the current standoff
reflects their judgment of how plausible are claims of Western and Israeli benevolence.
And the slaughter in Iraq is not simply the result of lawlessness as
is commonly portrayed but also about rival groups, the nebulous "insurgents,"
employing various brutal and conflicting strategies: trying to oust the Anglo-American
occupiers and punish local Iraqis suspected of collaborating with them; extracting
benefits from the puppet Iraqi regime; and jockeying for positions of influence
before the inevitable grand American exit.
All of these outcomes in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq could have been foreseen
and almost certainly were. More than that, it looks increasingly like
the growing tensions and carnage were planned. Rather than an absence of Western
intervention being the problem, the violence and fragmentation of these societies
seems to be precisely the goal of the intervention.
Evidence has emerged in Britain that suggests such was the case in Iraq. Testimony
given by a senior British official to the 2004 Butler inquiry investigating intelligence
blunders in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was belatedly published last week,
after attempts by the Foreign Office to hush it up.
Carne Ross, a diplomat who helped to negotiate several UN security council
resolutions on Iraq, told the inquiry that British and US officials knew very
well that Saddam Hussein had no WMD and that bringing him down would lead to
"I remember on several occasions the UK team stating this view in terms
during our discussions with the U.S. [who agreed]," he said, adding: "At
the same time, we would frequently argue, when the U.S. raised the subject,
that 'regime change' was inadvisable, primarily on the grounds that Iraq would
collapse into chaos."
The obvious question, then, is why would the U.S. want and intend civil war
raging across the Middle East, apparently threatening strategic interests like
oil supplies and the security of a key regional ally, Israel?
Until the presidency of Bush Jr., the American doctrine in the Middle East
had been to install or support strongmen, containing them or replacing them
when they fell out of favor. So why the dramatic and, at least ostensibly, incomprehensible
shift in policy?
Why allow Yasser Arafat's isolation and humiliation in the occupied territories,
followed by Mahmoud Abbas', when both could have easily been cultivated as strongmen
had they been given the tools they were implicitly promised by the Oslo process:
a state, the pomp of office, and the coercive means to impose their will on
rival groups like Hamas? With almost nothing to show for years of concessions
to Israel, both looked to the Palestinian public more like lapdogs rather than
Why make a sudden and unnecessary fuss about Syria's interference in Lebanon,
an interference that the West originally encouraged as a way to keep the lid on
sectarian violence? Why oust Damascus from the scene and then promote a "Cedar
Revolution" that pandered to the interests of only one section of Lebanese
society and continued to ignore the concerns of the largest and most dissatisfied
community, the Shia? What possible outcome could there be but simmering resentment
and the threat of violence?
And why invade Iraq on the hollow pretext of locating WMD and then dislodge
its dictator, Saddam Hussein, who for decades had been armed and supported by
the U.S. and had very effectively, if ruthlessly, held Iraq together? Again
from Carne's testimony, it is clear that no one in the intelligence community
believed Saddam really posed a threat to the West. Even if he needed "containing"
or possibly replacing, as Bush's predecessors appeared to believe, why did the
president decide simply to overthrow him, leaving a power void at Iraq's heart?
The answer appears to be related to the rise of the neocons, who finally grasped
power with the election of President Bush. Israel's most popular news Web site,
Ynet, recently observed of the neocons: "Many are Jews who share a love
The neocons' vision of American global supremacy is intimately tied to, and
dependent on, Israel's regional supremacy. It is not so much that the neocons
choose to promote Israel's interests above those of America as that they
see the two nations' interests as inseparable and identical.
Although usually identified with the Israeli right, the neocons' political
alliance with the Likud mainly reflects their support for adopting belligerent
means to achieve their policy goals rather than the goals themselves.
The consistent aim of Israeli policy over decades, from the Left and Right,
has been to acquire more territory at the expense of its neighbors and entrench
its regional supremacy through "divide and rule," particularly of
its weakest neighbors such as the Palestinians and the Lebanese. It has always
abominated Arab nationalism, especially of the Ba'athist variety in Iraq and
Syria, because it appeared immune to Israeli intrigues.
For many years Israel favored the same traditional colonial approach the West
used in the Middle East, where Britain, France, and later the U.S. supported
autocratic leaders, usually from minority populations, to rule over the majority
in the new states they had created, whether Christians in Lebanon, Alawites
in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq, or Hashemites in Jordan. The majority was thereby
weakened, and the minority forced to become dependent on colonial favors to
maintain its privileged position.
Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, for example, was similarly designed
to anoint a Christian strongman and U.S. stooge, Bashir Gemayel, as a compliant
president who would agree to an anti-Syrian alliance with Israel.
But decades of controlling and oppressing Palestinian society allowed Israel
to develop a different approach to divide and rule: what might be termed organized
chaos, or the "discord" model, one that came to dominate first its
thinking and later that of the neocons.
During its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel preferred discord
to a strongman, aware that a prerequisite of the latter would be the creation
of a Palestinian state and its furnishing with a well-armed security force.
Neither option was ever seriously contemplated.
Only briefly under international pressure was Israel forced to relent and
partially adopt the strongman model by allowing the return of Yasser Arafat
from exile. But Israel's reticence in giving Arafat the means to assert his
rule and suppress his rivals, such as Hamas, led inevitably to conflict between
the Palestinian president and Israel that ended in the second Intifada and the
re-adoption of the discord model.
This latter approach exploits the fault lines in Palestinian society to exacerbate
tensions and violence. Initially Israel achieved this by promoting rivalry between
regional and clan leaders who were forced to compete for Israel's patronage.
Later Israel encouraged the emergence of Islamic extremism, especially in the
form of Hamas, as a counterweight to the growing popularity of the secular nationalism
of Arafat's Fatah Party.
Israel's discord model is now reaching its apotheosis: low-level and permanent
civil war between the old guard of Fatah and the upstarts of Hamas. This kind
of Palestinian infighting usefully depletes the society's energies and its ability
to organize against the real enemy: Israel and its enduring occupation.
The neocons, it appears, have been impressed with this model and wanted to export
it to other Middle Eastern states. Under Bush they sold it to the White House
as the solution to the problems of Iraq and Lebanon, and ultimately of Iran and
The provoking of civil war certainly seemed to be the goal of Israel's assault
on Lebanon over the summer. The attack failed, as even Israelis admit, because
Lebanese society rallied behind Hezbollah's impressive show of resistance rather
than, as was hoped, turning on the Shia militia.
Last week, Ynet interviewed Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli citizen and co-founder
of MEMRI, a service translating Arab leaders' speeches that is widely suspected
of having ties with Israel's security services. She is also the wife of David
Wurmser, a senior neocon adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Meyrav Wurmser revealed that the American Administration had publicly dragged
its feet during Israel's assault on Lebanon because it was waiting for Israel
to expand its attack to Syria.
"The anger [in the White House] is over the fact that Israel did not
fight against the Syrians.
The neocons are responsible for the fact that
Israel got a lot of time and space.
They believed that Israel should
be allowed to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight
against the real enemy, the one backing Hezbollah. It was obvious that it is
impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that its [Iran's]
strategic and important ally [Syria] should be hit."
"It is difficult for Iran to export its Shi'ite revolution without
joining Syria, which is the last nationalistic Arab country. If Israel had hit
Syria, it would have been such a harsh blow for Iran that it would have weakened
it and [changed] the strategic map in the Middle East."
Neocons talk a great deal about changing maps in the Middle East. Like Israel's
dismemberment of the occupied territories into ever smaller ghettos, Iraq is
being severed into feuding mini-states. Civil war, it is hoped, will redirect
Iraqis' energies away from resistance to the U.S. occupation and into more negative
Similar fates appear to be awaiting Iran and Syria, at least if the neocons,
despite their waning influence, manage to realize their vision in Bush's last
The reason is that a chaotic and feuding Middle East, although it would be
a disaster in the view of most informed observers, appears to be greatly desired
by Israel and its neocon allies. They believe that the whole Middle East can
be run successfully the way Israel has run its Palestinian populations inside
the occupied territories, where religious and secular divisions have been accentuated,
and inside Israel itself, where for many decades Arab citizens were "de-Palestinianized"
and turned into identity-starved and quiescent Muslims, Christians, Druze, and
That conclusion may look foolhardy, but then again so does the White House's
view that it is engaged in a "clash of civilizations" that it can
win with a "war on terror."
All states are capable of acting in an irrational or self-destructive manner,
but Israel and its supporters may be more vulnerable to this failing than most.
That is because Israelis' perception of their region and their future has
been grossly distorted by the official state ideology, Zionism, with its belief
in Israel's inalienable right to preserve itself as an ethnic state; its
confused messianic assumptions, strange for a secular ideology, about Jews returning
to a land promised by God; and its contempt for, and refusal to understand, everything
Arab or Muslim.
If we expect rational behavior from Israel or its neocon allies, more fool