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talking politics

Windows of Flopportunity

US President George W. Bush has meddled in three major theatres of the Middle East: Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. As a result, the first is now in civil war and the remaining two are on the brink.

Back in 2003, seeing the growth of Islamic militancy, Washington viewed Iraq as the key for strengthening its hold over the Middle East. It went in, basically, on its own steam—without the UN and without key allies such as France and Germany. The philosophy behind the invasion, we recall, was the so-called Bush Doctrine, as expressed in a document of 2002 entitled “The National Security Strategy of the United States”:

"While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively...”

The US called its invasion "Shock and Awe." The idea was to shock and awe not just Iraq, but the world. The message was to read: We are in control now. We can go it alone.

The government of Israel, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, relished America's invasion of Iraq. Duly shocked and awed, it was thought, Israel's enemies would soon fall into line. With Washington's wholehearted approval, Sharon adopted Bush's unilateral approach. He decided to bypass Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA). He announced his plan to disengage unilaterally from Gaza and was rewarded, in April 2004, by a precedent-breaking letter from the American president, implying that the major West Bank settlements were established facts and that any future negotiations would have to adapt to these "realities."

Then the Bush-Sharon fabric began to unravel. Saddam Hussein had been the lid on a Pandora's Box in Iraq. His removal opened the way to civil war. Today Shiites and Sunnis are ethnically cleansing each other.

In Palestine, Sharon's Bushy unilateralism proved equally disastrous. It turned the Gaza Strip into a prison. From behind the fence, militant groups have been firing Qassam rockets into Israel. The IDF has responded by lengthy incursions into Gaza that have taken a major toll in civilian blood—as on November 8, 2006, when tank fire killed 18 members of a family in Beit Hanoun.

Israeli unilateralism also had dire consequences within Palestinian politics. By ignoring the PA, Sharon enabled Hamas to take the credit for Israel's withdrawal, as if Hamas had extruded it from Gaza by force. Where corrupt Fatah had never succeeded, Hamas apparently had. In this way, Sharon contributed to a landslide Hamas victory in the PA elections. Today we live with the consequences: Israel and the West refuse to do business with the Hamas government, withholding donations and other funds that are needed to pay salaries in the PA's huge public sector. The economic blockade has fueled violence between Hamas and Fatah. Despite repeated efforts between them to reach agreement on a national unity government acceptable to the economic blockaders, the differences have run too deep.

And then there is Lebanon. After Bush's invasion of Iraq turned sour, he blamed Syria for refusing to cooperate as it had in his father's war: Bashar Assad, he complained, was failing to stop insurgents from crossing his border into Iraq. Bush named Syria as part of the "axis of evil" (along with North Korea and Iran) and backed efforts to force it out of Lebanon. In September 2004, he persuaded the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1559, which called for Syria's withdrawal, the disbanding of Hezbollah and free elections. Former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri created a party that would seek to implement 1559.

Hariri was assassinated. In the resulting furor, Syria did indeed pull out, and the anti-Syrian coalition won the parliamentary elections. Seeing its fortunes in decline, Hezbollah sought to restore its prestige by attacking Israel. This reckless adventure, which took place on July 12, 2006, had the unwanted result of provoking Israel into war. The delicate balance in Lebanon was once again broken.

Now the American- and French-backed government of Fouad Siniora has approved the establishment of an international tribunal to pass judgment on Hariri's murderers. In opposition, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah has sent millions of demonstrators into the streets, accusing Siniora of collaboration with Israel during the war. Hezbollah seems intent on toppling Siniora—or at least on gaining veto-power in the government. The main thing preventing civil war, at this point, is the memory of the last one.

The Bush Doctrine, in short, has churned up chaos in the Middle East.

A turning point: Republican losses in the US elections

The November elections for the US Congress amounted to a referendum on Bush's policies in Iraq. The Democratic Party took a very clear line: Bush had lied to the American people when going to war, and he had made all possible mistakes in conducting the subsequent occupation. The Democrats believe that the US no longer has an option of victory; it must seek a way out, they say, in order to save whatever remains of its credibility as a world power.

Bush once boasted that he could guarantee a Republican presidency for the next quarter century. In the light of electoral defeat, however, he seeks to rescue what is left of his own meager term, which will end in 2008. The firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been one of several steps undertaken to close the Iraq file—and yank the rug from under the Democrats—before the next election.

America's quest is for a lifeline to haul it out. The basic concept is that all Washington's allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, should pull together toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This would enable the US to restore a measure of its credibility while making it easier for the Arab regimes to cooperate with it in stabilizing Iraq.

The Iraq question is bound up, we have seen, with the turbulence in Lebanon, the role of Syria, the internal Palestinian strife and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nobody wants to go it alone in conducting a diplomatic campaign. Teheran, Damascus, Hezbollah and Hamas coordinate their positions. So do the parties on America's (and Europe's) side: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, the Lebanese government and Israel; spurring them on is the fear that the internecine violence in Iraq will spread to Lebanon and Palestine—or even to the Gulf states.

The dangerous situation created by America's invasion does not seem headed for solution. Iraq's Prime Minister, Nuri al-Malaki, whom Washington accepted with the utmost reluctance, is the result of America's gambling on the Shiites. The same gamble has forced the US to seek cooperation from—irony of ironies—Iran! Here is a lesson in geopolitics that the neo-cons, apparently, never quite learned: Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a bulwark separating Iran from the rest of the Middle East. (He warred against Iran for eight years in the 80's.) By toppling him, America removed the bulwark. Today it cannot pull out in an orderly manner unless Iran lets it. As soon as America is gone, moreover, a weakened, Shiite Iraq is likely to become Iran's gateway into the Arab world. That world looks on with trepidation as Teheran's influence grows.

Iran, to be sure, has troubles of its own. The weakness of its economy is reflected in the results of December's local elections: the majority has said "No!" to the hard-line policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet Iran is not about to abjure the important regional role that America has put in its lap.

Into this situation comes the Republican defeat. Bush's weakness offers the players in the Iranian axis a small window of opportunity through which they are trying to squeeze. Each side holds tough on its positions, as we see in Beirut, Gaza, and Teheran. At the same time, sprouts of apparent good will crop up, such as the rapprochement between Damascus and Baghdad or the attempts by Fatah and Hamas to find an internationally acceptable Prime Minister.

Bush's weakness registers on the Israeli side too: witness Olmert's conciliatory speech at Sde Boker in the Negev. His offer to negotiate with PA President Abu Mazen signifies the death of unilateralism—or in other words, an acknowledgment that the Bush Doctrine has failed.

The various players are trying to squirm out of potentially disastrous situations. The Iranian regime wants to save itself from a strong and growing opposition. The failing dictatorial regime in Syria seeks rescue from its many opponents inside and outside. The Lebanese and Palestinian factions are desperately trying to escape civil war. Israel seeks deliverance from any number of looming disasters: a nuclear Iran, the chaos in Palestine, the demographic threat to its Jewish majority, and a turn for the worse in Damascus or Beirut.

It does not appear, however, that anyone will get through the window. Neither the US nor the Middle Eastern regimes, with all their political and ideological variety, can find a solution to the crises now afflicting the region. The root causes lie deeper than any solution that is contemplated. The root causes are poverty and backwardness.

These are familiar ills in the Middle East, but socio-economic gaps have only grown larger with globalization. They exist in Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt and Israel. These gaps strengthen ideological and ethnic differences: for example, the Shiites make up the bulk of Lebanon's poor, as compared with the Christians of the center and north.

No number of regional conferences will solve the basic confrontation of classes that pushes the region toward violence. The faith in the US and Europe as fair arbiters is today at an all-time low. This is partly the result of the Oslo Agreement, which—in the name of the free market—paved the way toward a deepening of the gaps. And we only need examine America's motives in making war on Iraq; one of them was a real gap-deepener: the desire to grab the country's oil resources and privatize them. Today the war over this precious resource is fanning the ethnic strife.

The American capitalist order has undermined the stability of its allies in the Middle East. Today it is attempting to protect its own citizens from the danger of terrorism, offspring of the evil that it has wrought.

The fall of this capitalist order is a matter of time. Despite the euphoria of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism will not bring it down. It will fall as the result of a radical change in the consciousness of the working class.

One of the difficulties inhibiting such change is the existing imbalance between, on the one hand, societies that live in relative peace and still enjoy what capitalism has to offer and, on the other, the great mass of people who try to survive on less than two dollars a day. When capitalism starts gnawing at the benefits of the global middle class, then the alternative idea will spread: that there is no choice but to distribute the world's wealth according to the principle that each human life is absolutely important. "end"

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