Another Bush war

Published : Aug 25, 2006 00:00 IST

President George Bush offered the U.S. public an elaborate analysis of why his government not only offered verbal support to Israel, but also shipped necessary armaments to fill up a depleted Israeli armoury. - YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS

President George Bush offered the U.S. public an elaborate analysis of why his government not only offered verbal support to Israel, but also shipped necessary armaments to fill up a depleted Israeli armoury. - YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS

The Israeli war on Lebanon is in line with the United States' "forward policy for freedom in the broader Middle East" .

ON July 29, President George W. Bush delivered his weekly radio address to the nation. An anachronistic ritual that dates to the 1920s, the radio address now functions as a set piece for the President to lay out an issue without interruption and ensure that it is debated on the Sunday morning talk shows. Bush detailed the United States' role regarding Israel's war on Lebanon. Thus far he had made remarks that backed Israel to the hilt, offered tepid solace for the dead and carped about the role of Iran and Syria. To the U.S. public he offered a more elaborate analysis of why his government not only offered verbal support, but also shipped necessary armaments to fill up a depleted Israeli armoury.

Lebanon, he noted, "is the latest flashpoint in a broader struggle between freedom and terror that is unfolding across the region. For decades, American policy sought to achieve peace in the Middle East [West Asia] by promoting stability in the Middle East, yet these policies gave us neither. The lack of freedom in that region created conditions where anger and resentment grew, radicalism thrived, and terrorists found willing recruits."

Such a harsh criticism of U.S. foreign policy is a rarity within the Washington establishment. For five decades, the U.S. government has used "factors of stability" (such as the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party, the various monarchies, and Israel) to ensure that it has access to oil and to keep out the Soviet Union. Henry Kissinger, long-time architect of this "realist" foreign policy, summed this up in 2001: "The fact is that, quite simply, the industrial democracies cannot permit access to Gulf oil to be denied to them or acquiesce in the Gulf being dominated by a country or group of countries hostile to their well-being." "The conflicts in the region are not about democracy," Kissinger wrote, therefore "obliging America to cooperate with a number of states on the basis of common security concerns."

Israel was not always a "factor of stability". From its formation in 1948 to the six-day war in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the U.S. had an ambiguous relationship with the small nation. The closer ties were with Iran's Shah and the Saudi royal family. Israel's substantial military achievement in both the wars surprised the U.S. and it drew Israel into its orbit. For the 1973 war, the U.S. rushed 11,000 tons of materiel to Israel, because, as President Richard Nixon put it, "we will not let Israel go down the tubes". There have been minor bumps on the road. In 1981, the U.S. envoy, Philip Habib, asked General Ariel Sharon to desist from an invasion of Lebanon. "You can't go around invading countries just like that, spreading destruction and killing civilians." Sharon took this as an "amber light", not a red light, and the Israelis went ahead without complete U.S. support. The embrace got tighter since then.

On the radio, Bush distanced himself from the "realist" tradition that sought any ally if it helped U.S. economic and political interests. Israel is an ally, he imputed, because it is a formal democracy. The lack of democracy and the enablement of these authoritarian regimes by the U.S., Bush argued, led to the creation of rage against the West. This point is remarkable: that Bush almost blamed the terror attacks of the last few years on the very foreign policy crafted by his predecessors. Such a view has already got many academics into hot water (notably the American Indian Studies scholar Ward Churchill, who called the workers at the World Trade Centre "little Eichmanns", technicians of U.S. power overseas whose bureaucratic actions created the distress that produced terrorism). "We saw the consequences [of this policy]," Bush said on the radio, "on September the 11th, 2001. The experience of September the 11th made it clear that we could no longer tolerate the status quo in the Middle East. We saw that when an entire region simmers in violence, that violence will eventually reach our shores and spread across the entire world. The only way to secure our Nation is to change the course of the Middle East - by fighting the ideology of terror and spreading the hope of freedom."

U.S. power had to find a better use than simply exerting itself through alliances. It needed to promote radical change, to seed democracies in order to undercut the basis of terrorism. In 1991, the conservative writer Joshua Muravchik published Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America's Destiny. Muravchik argued that the U.S. needed to use its power to spread democratic principles.

The National Endowment for Democracy (1986) was an early U.S. instrument to export democracy. Since the Iraq fiasco, the Muravchik siren has fewer takers. The U.S. State Department's Iraq expert Alina Romanowski put it plainly: "Iraq presents as unpromising a breeding ground for democracy as any in the world." It is "Arab culture" that halts the success of the mission, she intimated, a view shared widely between conservatives and liberals.

Others, such as the Pentagon's Defence Science Board, however, question the seriousness of American messianism. "When American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies," the Pentagon's experts wrote in 2003, "this is seen [in the Arab world] as no more than self-serving hypocrisy." The cosy relationships with the Arab monarchies and with Egypt's Pharonic state have been off limits for democratisation. Only those who contest U.S. power are candidates for America's benevolence.

A week after 9/11, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave an important press conference in the Pentagon. "Terrorists do not function in a vacuum," he noted. "They don't live in Antarctica. They work, they train, and they plan in countries." The only way to undermine terrorist networks, said the Pentagon's leader a week after 9/11, is to "drain the swamp they live in". The terrorists and their neighbourhoods must be obliterated. "This adversary is different. It does not have any of those things [armies, navies, air forces] or any high-value targets we can go after. But those countries that support them and give them sanctuary do have such targets." This is the operational meaning of Bush's statement on 9/11 (that the U.S. will make "no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them").

Israel's actions in Lebanon are of a piece with the new U.S. doctrine - to destroy by armed force those organisations that oppose the U.S. dispensation. And if these organisations have insinuated themselves into the lives and labours of the civilian population, then the civilians are also legitimate targets. Israel's indiscriminate bombing in Lebanon is justified in the U.S. media by just this strategem.

Well-known columnist James Pinkerton, for instance, writes, "Israel's legal right to pursue Hizbollah into Lebanon should not be in dispute. The United States' mission into Afghanistan five years ago provides ample precedent." Others, such as close Bush ally and former head of the Rabbinical Council of America, Hershel Billet, sought to blame the civilian deaths at Qana, Lebanon, on Hizbollah itself. "In recent weeks," the rabbi wrote, "missiles have been fired by Hizbollah from Qana at Israeli cities and citizens. Before air attacks, Israel has warned Lebanese citizens to leave their towns and villages.

Hizbollah is using a civilian centre as a staging ground for military aggression. It is Israel's right to defend its citizens against missile attacks. Hizbollah bears full responsibility for the tragic loss of life in Qana."

The scale of the air war evokes a strategy articulated by Rumsfeld before the 2001 Afghan campaign, "We want to be so powerful and so forward-looking that it is clear to others that they ought not to be doing things that are imposing threats and dangers to us."

If Israel seems loath to seek a political solution, this too is in line with the Bush view. On June 2, 2004, Bush told U.S. Air Force cadets: "No concession will appease [the terrorists'] hatred. No accommodation will satisfy their endless demands." Israel seeks a total war to obliterate Hizbollah and to occupy Lebanon to the Litani river. If Israel occupies southern Lebanon once more, will it perhaps have to make some concessions as it did when it withdrew in 2000, and as it is doing with the Palestinians?

In October 2004, Sharon's Chief of Staff Dov Weisglas dismissed the "peace process" with the Palestinians. The withdrawal from Gaza, he said, "supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians. When you freeze the process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."

Much the same could be said of the process for Iraqi sovereignty. The U.S. encourages the formation of an Iraqi government, but it does not cede power. Instead, the U.S. Ambassador, who is perched in the largest U.S. embassy in the world and is surrounded by at least 14 permanent "enduring military bases", seems poised to be the kingmaker for at least a generation. The Lebanese need to look over the border to the Occupied Territories and to Iraq if they want to understand their future.

"We have launched a forward strategy for freedom in the broader Middle East," said the President, "from Kabul to Baghdad, to Beirut." The Israeli war on Lebanon is part of Bush's war. America cannot restrain Israel, because Israel is here part and parcel of Bush's mission for the world.

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