Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Bunch of Losers

At this point, while the United Nations is trying to put together a viable peacekeeping force, we are holding our breath hoping the cease fire will hold between Hezbollah and Israel.  Whether or not it does, or if ultimately a prisoner exchange now being hinted will take place, one thing is absolutely certain – in this conflict everyone is a loser.  Trying to quantify those losses, who lost more who less, would be a fool’s errand.  No matter how you spin it, the losses on all sides (some of them yet to become apparent) are significant and there will be consequences, possibly irreversible consequences. 

Perceptions play an enormous role in our world.  Just look at George Bush whose entire administration is built on creating them out of whole cloth.  The most immediate result of the current conflict is that long held perceptions about the Middle East have been shattered.  The idea that Israel has an invincible military force, a David that could knock out multiple Goliaths in a matter of days, is now a distant memory.  So, too, is the notion that Hezbollah, however troublesome and lethal, is a largely disorganized rag tag fringe group of terrorists with more bark than bite.  Gone also is the idea that it has only a small following in Lebanon and in the region.  Israel’s army may have suffered fewer losses of life and meted out greater physical damage but if this is a victory it’s to say the least a hollow one.  It is the kind of victory that the United States boasted early on in Iraq; no win at all.  Hezbollah may have proved endurance and the ability to hit places once thought beyond its reach, but at a very high cost to the very Lebanese that they proclaimed to be protecting and with no apparent gain for the Palestinians whose cause they espouse.  Both sides lost dearly.

The Lebanese, caught squarely in the crossfire, may have lost the most because not only was much of their infrastructure and housing decimated; their elected government proved unable to prevent it and Hezbollah has probably emerged as the country’s preeminent and popular force.  Moreover, while the elected government finds itself unable to respond quickly even with pledged funds from other nations, Hezbollah hands out cash to individual families for rebuilding within days.  It isn’t only that they are being heavily funded by the oil wealth of Iran, it is that NGO’s regardless of who they are generally can execute far more nimbly than governments.  That gives them an added edge, but in the end will also present some problems if they reach their own goals of morphing from terrorist outsiders into governance.  Once shackled with the business of running a very troubled and economically crippled country, their response time will plummet too and the Lebanese street may soon find itself less impressed.

Another big loser of course is the United States which, with its misguided policies and arrogance, the Bush Administration has systematically transformed into the ultimate toothless tiger.  The world’s only superpower, locked helplessly (not to mention haplessly) in the Iraq quagmire, has been rendered effectively impotent in dealing with large problems elsewhere.  Despite the lip service paid to us and our leadership by other countries, there is a clear sense that we are no longer taken seriously, certainly not given the respect that we commanded when people like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton ran the place.  Only with France’s (of all countries) help did we succeed in getting the UN to adopt a highly compromised resolution and Kofi Annan is having a hell of a time prying volunteers out of member states to enforce it.  Most nations are reluctant to send their kids into this unpredictable territory and the United States, beyond being stretched to the limit in Iraq and Afghanistan, is seen as a partisan rather than an honest broker and thus is unwelcome.

Occupation brings with it unintended consequences.  No matter how powerful the occupier may be, it is inevitably a no-win situation.  On one level it’s simply that any occupier tends to be a minority outsider who far from being welcome is seen as illegitimately lording over the majority.  Ironically even though they were native Iraqis, Saddam’s minority Sunni reign over the majority Shiites were seen in the same way and presents a curious parallel to our current occupation of Iraq.  Like him we’re seen as a tiny minority that’s calling the shots.  The only differenced is that we are truly outsiders and that, all of our talk of democracy notwithstanding, the country is more destabilized and dangerous for ordinary folk than it was in his day, killing fields and all.  Israel is caught in the same quagmire with its even briefly renewed occupation of southern Lebanon and it unending occupation of the West Bank.  In both cases, it constitutes a tiny minority that rules only by the sword.  Occupiers don’t make friends and the longer they stay in place to deeper the resentment.  Inevitably occupiers become losers.

In the end that is the nut of the problem, and while the UN feverishly seeks to put a buffer between Hezbollah and Israel, no one (especially not the United States) is even talking publicly about resuscitating the necessary peace process.  There are no urgent shuttles between capitals and no legitimate plan being presented not merely to end the latest violence but that which has effectively continued at some level unabated since 1948.  It is not merely a situation in which everyone is a loser, it is also one in which no one has really clean hands.  Western and increasingly Eastern nations as well are hopelessly conflicted by their need for crude – no substantial consumer on the planet is seriously pursuing alternative sources of energy.  So we talk of support for democracy and at the same time coddle the Saudis and others.  By the same token you can bet that the Chinese won’t be voting for sanctions against Iran.  We have lingering guilt, and rightly so, about Israel which rose from the ashes of a Holocaust that might at least have been mitigated to some degree by a more timely entrance by America in World War II.  That guilt has prevented us from exercising even the tough love which, while not very popular among my fellow American Jews, might ultimately insure Israel’s survival more than the current inexplicable acquiescence to the status quo.

The fact is that, despite the ideological and sometimes religious rhetoric, Hezbollah and Hamas see coming to terms with Israel as impossible not so much because it is there, but because Israel’s “there” extends into their “here”.  Israel on the other hand (certainly its many thoughtful realists) sees the tide turning as the Arabs increasingly get their act together and feels both threatened and cornered.  They are well armed, but being a nation with a keen sense of history they know that the few can dominate the many only so long.  Unfortunately parties at such emotional odds, and despite knowing where they ultimately must end up, are incapable of turning the corner on their own.  Just as Iraq began its steep decline when US soldiers stood idly by watching senseless looting, Israel and its neighbors suffer because we and other nations in the world are standing idly by watching the mayhem and doing little to stop it much less helping the parties with a process that they are clearly incapable of executing on their own.  Until that changes we all will continue to be losers.

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