It is very likely that the world will look back at the summer of 2006 as a seminal moment in Middle East history. We may well be seeing, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it, “the birth pangs of a new Middle East. But it is also quite possible a monster will be born.
History may well record that, as a result of Washington’s failure to act quickly to stem the violence, this bloody summer was one in which: Arabs realized, once and for all, that Israel had definitively lost its façade of invincibility. Hezbollah, which humbled America in 1983 and drove Israel out of south Lebanon in 2000, has won this war by the very fact that it fights on. Israel’s survival has always depended on the perception of strength. The implications of the loss of that psychological armor are profound, both for its impact on Israel’s enemies and the potential destabilizing effect of an Israel that must restore the balance of fear.
Hezbollah reclaimed the crown of militant Islamic leadership from Al-Qaeda and the Sunnis of Iraq. Videos from the Hindu Kush and internecine slaughter in Iraq pale in comparison to fighters locked in what is being positioned in the Arab media as an epic battle. A new phase has begun.
Iran re-emerged as the region’s broker of war and peace. Already empowered by America’s toppling of its one real rival, Saddam Hussein, the Tehran regime – even without nuclear weapons – sent a strong message to both Washington and the conservative Arab governments: Don’t mess with us. The Gulf could once more become the Persian lake it was under the Shah.
The leaders of the “old Arab world were rocked by the power of the Arab street. The initial condemnation of Hezbollah by the governments of key Sunni countries has sparked a popular backlash. Suddenly the democracy so ardently sought by the Bush administration is taking form in a way never anticipated; public opinion is driving policy, in a direction counter to U.S. interests and dangerous for existing regimes.
A powerful new confluence of interests arose between Sunni and Shiite militants, and angry young secular Arabs, around Palestine, regional political change and opposition to America. The movement will resemble the brief alliance-of-convenience in the 1950s between Nasserites and Muslim Brothers that sparked the Egyptian revolution. Look for Iranian-funded militants to step up efforts to undermine regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
The Arab world was cleaved into a dangerous new top-down Sunni-Shiite Cold War, driven by Sunni governments and elites threatened by the rise of Iran and the Shia. Even as the agendas of the most militant Sunni and Shiite forces – Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda and their kin – briefly coincide, a regional confrontation between nations could result. Lebanon once more descended into civil war as Hezbollah usurped the power of the central government. Many Lebanese Sunnis and Christians have rallied to Hezbollah’s side in the face of the Israeli assault, but it will not take much to send the country spiraling back into confessional chaos.
The obituary for America’s Iraq adventure was written. The intimate ties of family and religion between the Shiites of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran mean engagement with Hezbollah via the Israelis could easily provoke open war against the U.S. by the Shia of Iraq. Even Iraq’s U.S.-backed prime minister is a Hezbollah ally.
Western peacekeepers embarked on a doomed mission to restore peace to Lebanon. Multinational forces have been trying to bring peace to the country since the 1840s. Each time, they have been driven out bearing coffins. The tactics being now used against American forces in Iraq were pioneered in Lebanon.
A new terrorist force was awakened. Hezbollah has not targeted U.S. interests since the 1980s. But America’s support for Israel’s attempt to annihilate it may change all that.
The last time a U.S. administration tried to isolate and marginalize Syria and Iran, the result was the birth of Hezbollah, the dawn of suicide bombing and the humbling of a superpower. Now, America is at it again.
“Folly, wrote historian Barbara Tuchman, is “the pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest.
The Bush administration set out to redraw the map of the Middle East. Instead, it has set it on fire. A month ago, Hezbollah was a militia/political party engaged in a domestic struggle to survive on the new Lebanese political landscape reshaped by the withdrawal of Syria’s forces. Today, it is the inspiration for a generation. Meanwhile, Iraq is becoming the new Afghanistan.
This is, President Bush tells us, “a moment of opportunity. The question history will decide is, for whom?
Lawrence Pintak is the director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent, his books include Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad, which The Washington Post called, “One of the most perceptive accounts of the nightmare in Lebanon, and, most recently, Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star Egypt.