Politics & Policy

Transformers

Who will it be in the Mideast?

It’s not only neocons in the United States who believe in transforming the Middle East, a goal that has been widely scoffed at in the wake of our setbacks in the Iraq war. Hezbollah and Hamas and their task-masters in Syria and Iran cherish the same goal, only with a radically different vision. The hot war Israel is now waging to its south and north shows again that the Middle East will definitely be transformed — the question is by whom?

Iraq has always been one front in this larger geopolitical struggle, a fact that hasn’t always been appreciated by skeptics of the war in this country, but one that Syria and Iran have always been fully aware of. It’s why they have worked so strenuously to oppose us there, realizing that U.S. success would undermine their radical ideologies and strengthen the hand of the region’s reformers. They have largely been successful, and the assaults by their proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, on Israel were a sign of confidence, part of a play for dominance around the region.

But Hezbollah’s cross-border attack on Israeli soldiers and its kidnapping of two of them just might be Islamic extremism’s bridge too far. Hezbollah surely figured that Israel would negotiate to exchange terrorist prisoners for its soldiers, as it had in the past; that Israel would be deterred from strong military action by Hezbollah’s 12,000 rockets; that even if Israel did hit back, the international community would rise as one to make it stand down. Hezbollah was proved wrong on each count.

Instead, Israel has launched a wide-ranging offensive that could be a devastating military and political blow to Hezbollah. There is much worry about Israel going “too far.” A distinction here is important. Israel can indeed go too far in punishing ordinary Lebanese and in degrading the Lebanese government, which it ultimately needs to take control of Southern Lebanon from Hezbollah (it would be much better to target the assets of the Syrian government instead). But in dealing with Hezbollah, the only danger is that Israel won’t go far enough, that its offensive will end before it has pulverized the terror group.

The destruction of Hezbollah would be a huge favor to Lebanon. It would remove an illegal private army that has been defying a U.N. resolution to disarm, and that is (as we have seen) extremely destabilizing. Hezbollah is also the agent of the country’s former occupier, Syria.

One of the odder twists of contemporary Middle Eastern history is that the Great Satan and his Little Brother Satan (the United States and Israel, respectively) have increasingly aligned themselves with legitimate Arab national aspirations.

The United States wants to rid Iraq of foreign interlopers and check the influence of Iran, so Iraqis can make a better future for themselves. Israel wants to destroy an army within Lebanon that takes it orders from foreign governments, so Lebanon can continue its post-civil-war recovery. It is Iran and Syria who want to twist the national destinies of neighboring countries to their purposes, a sort of imperialism-lite in the service of Islamic radicalism. Other Arab countries have clued into this, which accounts for the extraordinary fact that in an Israel-Hezbollah war they are all condemning Hezbollah.

The choice around the Middle East now is between governance and warfare — do the Arabs want to pour their energies into governing themselves decently or waging jihad? Both Hamas and Hezbollah have well-developed service wings, and there was some hope that they might gradually mature out of terrorism to become legitimate actors in the political systems of their respective countries. In recent weeks, both decisively chose war, and chose war even though Israel had vacated occupied territories in Gaza and southern Lebanon. They now are reaping the whirlwind.

When the air strikes and rocket attacks end, Arabs will still have that choice. Ultimately, they get to decide how the Middle East is transformed. 

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years. © 2006 by King Features Syndicate 

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