Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

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After Lebanon, What’s Left? by Issandr El Amrani :: 17 August 2006

Issandr El Amrani is a Moroccan-American independent journalist based in Cairo. His work about Middle East culture and politics regularly appears in American and British magazines and newspapers. A former editor of two independent liberal weeklies in Egypt, he also publishes a collaborative weblog on the Arab world,

As the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel draws to a close—albeit with a high risk that it will reignite, or even worse, spark a new Lebanese civil war—American policymakers who supported Israel’s decision to go to war should understand its long-term impact on moderates in Lebanon and in the Arab world.

Ever since 9/11 brought the Middle East to the center of U.S. foreign policy, we have been told by the Bush administration, the network of neoconservative think tanks that provide much of the intellectual raw material for its policies, and pundits, that, while we fight Islamic extremism with guns, an even more important struggle is winning the “hearts and minds” of moderates in the Muslim world. In countless speeches, Bush and close allies such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair have reiterated their commitment to fostering democracy in the region as the best way to eradicate the threat posed by al-Qaida and the loose network of terrorist groups it inspires across the globe.

As the Bush administration speaks grandly of wooing a silent moderate majority in the Arab world, it has done little to change its policy on the key issues that have radicalized the region. The U.S. government, traditionally pro-Israeli, has over the past five years completely abandoned any pretense to balance. Its self-described role of “honest broker” in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been replaced with a wholehearted embrace of Israel’s far right and its American allies. While promising to spread democracy, Washington continues to support some of the region’s worst despots. It is doing nothing substantial to help the few courageous moderates who dared to stand up against their own governments and were tortured and jailed for their trouble. The disastrous bungling of the invasion of Iraq, finally, indicates that U.S. policy in the region is not only ill-advised, confused and contradictory, but also incendiary.

The Lebanon war may mark a watershed point in the way American foreign policy in the region is perceived by Arab moderates, the constituency the Bush administration supposedly wants to woo. While armchair strategists debate the “real reasons”—is Iran manipulating Hezbollah? Is Bush behind Olmert? etc. —behind this meaningless and unnecessary war, from the perspective of Arab moderates several conclusions present themselves.

Firstly, the unconditional and complete U.S. support for Israel’s decision to escalate a long-ongoing border skirmish into a war on the whole of Lebanon was met with tremendous anger and disappointment. It was clear from the beginning that Israel was intent on fighting a punitive war that was clearly disproportionate and caused massive civilian casualties and damage to Lebanon’s economic infrastructure. This has the effect of confirming every phobia about American intentions for the region—already stoked by the ongoing carnage in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib scandal. Indeed, America’s connivance with Israel during this war—notably its obstruction of an immediate cease-fire and its logistical support for the Israeli war effort—seems more perverse than the situation in Iraq.
Unlike Iraq—a country that was isolated from the rest of the Arab world by three decades of brutal dictatorship, war, sanctions and now civil war—Lebanon was seen by most Arabs as an “ordinary place.” Beirut, the most cosmopolitan Arab capital, was the kind of place middle-class Arabs would travel to for respite from the gilded dullness of the Gulf or the gritty chaos of Cairo. It was also a potent sign of hope, considering Lebanon’s impressive recovery from its civil war and its importance as a center of Arab cultural life. A month after the war started, the future now looks bleak for Beirut, and the entire country has been set back about two decades. Those Lebanese who came back to rebuild their country after the civil war ended are packing their bags again. Who can blame them? A beacon for Arab hope has been switched off.

Secondly, while the U.S. betrayed Lebanon’s population, it also betrayed its government. The cabinet headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is, to be sure, not perfect. But it is one that Washington called its ally and had proudly touted as the result of its democratization strategy for the region. This explicit pro-American affiliation was not without peril for Siniora and his colleagues, who needed to confront forces such as Hezbollah without risking a return to civil war. The message the U.S. endorsement of Israel’s assault on Lebanon sent to Arab moderates across the region is that being a friendly government and a fledging democracy is of no consequence to Washington next to Israel’s desire for a vengeful and ultimately pointless war. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Thirdly, the early condemnation of Hezbollah’s attacks by traditional Arab allies of the U.S.—such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia—reminded moderates of  Washington’s hypocrisy. Although occasionally chastised by the Bush administration for repressing their citizens, these governments are earning a reprieve from Washington by espousing anti-Hezbollah sentiments that are seen domestically as immoral. Many in the Arab world have expressed misgivings about Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, which seemed certain to elicit a strong response in light of the attacks that took place in Gaza after the capture of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, by Palestinian militants. But this argument was rendered largely irrelevant in the face of the scale of Israel’s attack on Lebanon. Hezbollah was rapidly transformed from an irresponsible militia into a lone bastion of resistance against Israeli aggression.

This was hardly surprising. Much to the chagrin of the Israeli government and its American supporters, Arabs do feel strong sympathy for other Arabs even after the demise of pan-Arabist ideologies. Moreover, considering that Israel has fought wars of aggression against Arab countries on several occasions and continues to occupy Arab land, resistance to new aggression is seen as not only justified but a duty. Americans don’t have to like this sentiment, but they should make an effort to understand it if they are to understand the region.

Over a week ago, I went to observe one of the many street protests organized in Cairo in solidarity with Lebanon. It had been organized by the leftist movement Artists and Writers for Change, which had hitherto protested against the aging dictatorship of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key U.S. client. There, I met three young women wearing “Save Lebanon” T-shirts—one of them, who had coquettishly tied a knot in her T-shirt to reveal her midriff, was reminiscent of the Lebanese protesters who took to the streets after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. All from middle-class, educated backgrounds, they articulately described themselves as pro-peace and distanced themselves from Hezbollah’s ideology. But, even so, they waved yellow Hezbollah flags and brandished portraits of the militia’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah alongside a poster of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with the words “We don’t want your new Middle East.”

These and the other Westernized, Sunni Muslim and Christian young women, literally representing the future of their country, were in the same situation Arab moderates have been for the past three decades: forced to reconcile progressive views with the fact it is mostly Islamists who are standing up for Arabs, whether against their own repressive governments or against foreign aggression.

The Bush administration’s intuition that it must reach out to moderates in the Arab world is an obvious one, and hopefully will continue to be the policy of future U.S. administrations. But it is not enough to speak warmly about Arab moderates. They are still in the situation they have been for the past three decades: outgunned by a repressive state apparatus, outmaneuvered by Islamist groups that deliver social safety and facile rhetoric and outraged by the schemes of regional powers that seem bent on sabotaging their chances at leading the debate on the future of the Arab world—their future. Orphans of the region’s deadly strategic games, they look at the Bush administration’s shameful conduct over the past month and wonder: Where are the American moderates?

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This entry was posted on 19 August, 2006 by in Geopolitics, Lebanon, Middle East, Race, Syria, US Foreign Policy.

Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"