If asked to point to the main victims of the recent crisis in the Middle East, most objective observers might express sympathy for the innocent Israeli and Lebanese civilians killed or injured in the fighting between the Israeli military and Hezbollah guerrillas. And they’d be right.
But in the pundits’ world of Washington think tanks and policy positions, the conflict seems to have taken down a less tangible target-the neocon paradigm of Israel as a valuable U.S. asset in the Middle East. The Beltway Warriors themselves, of course, are alive and kicking-the Chicken Hawks have not reported any major casualties. To these desk soldiers, an act of “war” is launching a blazing op-ed or participating in a fiery verbal exchange on a FOX News television show. A “war casualty” is a lost debate in the battlefield of ideas, and a “victim” is an ideological ally who-God (or Reverend Moon or Rupert Murdoch) forbid!-lost a cushy and powerful job somewhere along the Boston-Washington corridor.
The failure to defend one’s ideological turf or policy paradigm is considered a dangerous sign of impending defeat-or at least a sign of soon being buried alive in the editorial offices of the Weekly Standard or the ideas shelter of the American Enterprise Institute. Indeed, much of what the neocon ideologues have been doing since 9/11 is protecting their cherished policy paradigm-the Imperial Democratic Crusade in the Middle East-from challengers who dare demonstrate that freedom is not on the march in Mesopotamia. (It reminds me of how, in the 1930s, Communist ideologues explained with dialectical precision why the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact made so much sense from a Marxist perspective.)
We in the reality-based community are familiar with the many “tipping points” in Iraq that have come, gone, and reappeared again, including the formation of the new government in Baghdad and the killing of terrorist mastermind Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. The extent to which neoconservatives have gone to protect that besieged paradigm might serve as a study on “How to Win a War You’ve Lost.” A few weeks ago, I attended one of those off-the-record forums in Washington. A top Bush administration official insisted that the raging civil war in Iraq was not a, well, “civil war,” but “sectarian strife” ignited by “death squads” led by “Saddamists” and “Sadists.” (A few days later a top U.S. general admitted that what’s happening in Iraq looks like a civil war.)
Now the Israel-Hezbollah conflict has forced Bush administration officials and their neocon allies to mount a fierce “paradigm protection effort.” Hence, against the backdrop of horrifying images from Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained to reporters that the scenes of death, destruction, and human misery were actually “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
But even the most skilled Hegelian neocon seemed to have found it difficult to engage in one of these you-need-to-break-an-egg-to-make-an-omelet exercises in confronting the latest challenge to the dogma: Israel’s failure to decimate Hezbollah. From the neoconservative perspective, the plotline of the current Middle East movie is obvious: Iran and Syria encouraged their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to deliver a blow to America’s proxy in the Middle East, Israel, as a way of shifting the Mideast power balance toward Tehran and Damascus. Then, according to the script, Israel was supposed to deliver a counter-blow to Hezbollah to shift the power balance back toward Washington. The expected conclusion was an American-Israeli win over the Iranian-Syrian team. Instead, the best-case scenario is looking more like a draw; in the worst-case scenario, there is the perception of a Hezbollah victory.
“We have been driven into something we didn’t want to do,” Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the New York Times. “Far from Israel being the American proxy in a war against Iran, we’ve become Israel’s proxy in its war against Hezbollah,” he said. “Israel’s miscalculations have been so serious that its only hope for victory is to have the United States and the international community do for Israel what it can’t do militarily, which is defeat Hezbollah, assemble an international force in Lebanon, and bring some sort of endgame to all this” (New York Times, August 5, 2006).
Something not very funny happened to the neocon paradigm of democracy-spreading on the way to Southern Lebanon. And serious damage has been done to that other favorite neoconservative paradigm, that which holds that the United States should regard Israel as a major “strategic asset” in the Middle East. (This paradigm is in turn rooted in yet another neoconservative axiom: what’s good for Israel’s strategic interest is good for America, and vice versa.)
Israel, according to the tale concocted during the Cold War, is America’s strategic asset in the Middle East, its “unsinkable aircraft” in the Eastern Mediterranean. After Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, the intellectual predecessors of today’s neoconservatives popularized the idea of Israel as a U.S. strategic asset in the Middle East, promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship as a strategic alliance in order to mobilize support for Israel, which had, after all, defeated Egypt, a Soviet ally.
This was a turnaround. After World War II, the top U.S. diplomats and military officials that guided U.S. foreign policy had opposed the idea of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine and pressed President Harry Truman not to recognize the new state, arguing that such a move would harm the U.S. position in the Arab Middle East. It was the Soviet Union that provided much of Israel’s early military and diplomatic backing. Similarly, it was France, not the United States, that served as Israel’s main source of arms and munitions in the 1950s and early 1960s, even helping to develop its nuclear arsenal.
Even after 1967, when Israel and the United States strengthened their military ties, there was recognition in both Washington and Jerusalem of the strategic constraints on their relationship. America could not maintain its position as a great power in the Middle East without establishing its presence in the Arab world, while Israel’s friendship with America could not substitute for the acceptance of Israel by its Arab neighbors. Hence, Washington’s never-ending efforts to try to bring about peace in the Middle East began.
The end of the Cold War should have made the Israel-as-a-strategic-asset paradigm obsolete. But after 9/11, and against the backdrop of the Iraq War, neoconservatives succeeded in marketing the notion that the United States and Israel were now being brought together in a strategic alliance against “Islamofascism” and a global Intifada. In their vision, this alliance would operate with America as sheriff and Israel as deputy, which translates into American regional hegemony with certain military tasks subcontracted to Israel. Israeli-Arab peacemaking was placed on the policy backburner. The neoconservative message has been that the United States needs to adopt more of the tough Israeli methods of dealing with Mideast terrorists (since they think Arabs understand only force). Of course, the Americans have been trying to do just this in Iraq, with very little success. And in the process, the Bush administration has strengthened Iran, a consequence that runs contrary to both U.S. and Israeli interests. Now the same sense of irony could be applied to the disastrous outcome of the Israeli military operation in Lebanon, which could help enhance the status of Iran and Syria in the region.
So it was not surprising that Bush backers and neoconservatives were angry and confused by Israel’s performance. In his unique form of Israel-bashing, leading neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer blamed Israel for not living up to its role as a U.S. strategic asset. “Hezbollah’s unprovoked attack on July 12 provided Israel the extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate its utility by making a major contribution to America’s war on terrorism,” Krauthammer wrote. Suggesting that Washington had green-lighted Israel’s attack on Hezbollah “as an act of clear self-interest,” Krauthammer declared that “America wants, America needs, a decisive Hezbollah defeat.” But America “has been disappointed” (Washington Post, August 4).
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s boasts about Israeli military success in Lebanon sounded more and more like Bush’s “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Not that there is anything wrong with that, according to neoconservative commentator David Brooks. “And so it’s clear that [the Israelis] didn’t achieve what they thought they were going to achieve,” Brooks explained on PBS. “And now the question is: Can they create a narrative of victory which will give them a chance to get out?” (NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, August 4, 2006). This perhaps explains the ridiculous idea of birth pangs of a new Middle East.
But like the majority of Americans, the Israelis have not bought the spin. In fact, if Americans are now realizing that Israel might be a strategic burden and not an asset, some Israelis are discovering that they are uninterested in playing the prescribed pro-U.S. role of strategic asset. After all, Israel, as Ha’aretz columnist Doron Rosenblum put it, “was not established in order to be a spearhead against global Islam, or in order to serve as an alert squad for the Western world.”
Leon Hadar, a Washington, D.C.- based journalist and global affairs analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com