In the wake of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, a public poll in Egypt asked a cross-section of that country’s citizenry to name the two political leaders they most admired. An overwhelming number named Hassan Nasrallah. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad finished second.
The poll was a clear repudiation not only of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had made his views against Hezbollah known at the outset of the conflict, but of those Sunni leaders, including Saudi King Abdullah and Jordan’s Abdullah II, who criticized the Shi’ite group in an avowed attempt to turn the Sunni world away from support of Iran.
“By the end of the war these guys were scrambling for the exits,” one US diplomat from the region said in late August. “You haven’t heard much from them lately, have you?”
Mubarak and the two Abdullahs are not the only ones scrambling for the exits – the United States’ foreign policy in the region, even in light of its increasingly dire deployment in Iraq, is in a shambles. “What that means is that all the doors are closed to us, in Cairo, in Amman, in Saudi Arabia,” another diplomat averred. “Our access has been curtailed. No one will see us. When we call no one picks up the phone.”
A talisman of this collapse can be seen in the itinerary of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose inability to persuade President George W Bush to halt the fighting and her remark about the conflict as marking “the birth pangs” of a new Middle East in effect destroyed her credibility.
The US has made it clear that it will attempt to retrieve its position by backing a yet-to-be-announced Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, but America’s continued strangulation of the democratically constituted government of the Palestinian Authority has transformed that pledge into a stillborn political program. The reason for this is now eminently clear. In the midst of the war, a European official in Cairo had this to say about the emotions roiling the Egyptian political environment: “The Egyptian leadership is walking down one side of the street,” he said, “and the Egyptian people are walking down the other.”
The catastrophic failure of Israeli arms has buoyed Iran’s claim to leadership of the Muslim world in several critical areas.
First, the Hezbollah victory has shown that Israel – and any modern and technologically sophisticated Western military force – can be defeated in open battle, if the proper military tactics are employed and if they are sustained over a prolonged period. Hezbollah has provided the model for the defeat of a modern army. The tactics are simple: ride out the first wave of a Western air campaign, then deploy rocket forces targeting key military and economic assets of the enemy, then ride out a second and more critical air campaign, and then prolong the conflict for an extended period. At some point, as in the case of Israel’s attack on Hezbollah, the enemy will be forced to commit ground troops to accomplish what its air forces could not. It is in this last, and critical, phase that a dedicated, well-trained and well-led force can exact enormous pain on a modern military establishment and defeat it.
Second, the Hezbollah victory has shown the people of the Muslim world that the strategy employed by Western-allied Arab and Muslim governments – a policy of appeasing US interests in the hopes of gaining substantive political rewards (a recognition of Palestinian rights, fair pricing for Middle Eastern resources, non-interference in the region’s political structures, and free, fair and open elections) – cannot and will not work. The Hezbollah victory provides another and different model, of shattering US hegemony and destroying its stature in the region. Of the two most recent events in the Middle East, the invasion of Iraq and the Hezbollah victory over Israel, the latter is by far the most important. Even otherwise anti-Hezbollah groups, including those associated with revolutionary Sunni resistance movements who look on Shi’ites as apostates, have been humbled.
Third, the Hezbollah victory has had a shattering impact on America’s allies in the region. Israeli intelligence officials calculated that Hezbollah could carry on its war for upwards of three months after its end in the middle of August. Hezbollah’s calculations reflected Israel’s findings, with the caveat that neither the Hezbollah nor Iranian leadership could predict what course to follow after a Hezbollah victory. While Jordan’s intelligence services locked down any pro-Hezbollah demonstrations, Egypt’s intelligence services were struggling to monitor the growing public dismay over the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.
Open support for Hezbollah across the Arab world (including, strangely, portraits of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah carried in the midst of Christian celebrations) has put those Arab rulers closest to the United States on notice: a further erosion in their status could loosen their hold on their own nations. It seems likely that as a result, Mubarak and the two Abdullahs are very unlikely to support any US program calling for economic, political or military pressures on Iran. A future war – perhaps a US military campaign against Iran’s nuclear sites – might not unseat the government in Tehran, but it could well unseat the governments of Egypt, Jordan and perhaps Saudi Arabia.
At a key point in the Israel-Hezbollah contest, toward the end of the war, Islamist party leaders in a number of countries wondered whether they would be able to continue their control over their movements or whether, as they feared, political action would be ceded to street captains and revolutionaries. The singular notion, now common in intelligence circles in the United States, is that it was Israel (and not Hezbollah) that, as of August 10, was looking for a way out of the conflict.
Fourth, the Hezbollah victory has dangerously weakened the Israeli government. In the wake of Israel’s last lost war, in 1973, prime minister Menachem Begin decided to accept a peace proposal from Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The breakthrough was, in fact, rather modest – as both parties were allies of the United States. No such breakthrough will take place in the wake of the Israel-Hezbollah war.
Israel believes that it has lost its deterrent capabilities and that they must be retrieved. Some Israeli officials in Washington now confirm that it is not a matter of “if” but of “when” Israel goes to war again. Yet it is difficult to determine how Israel can do that. To fight and win against Hezbollah, Israel will need to retrain and refit its army. Like the United States after the Vietnam debacle, Israel will have to restructure its military leadership and rebuild its intelligence assets. That will take years, not months.
It may be that Israel will opt, in future operations, for the deployment of ever bigger weapons against ever larger targets. Considering its performance in Lebanon, such uses of ever larger weapons could spell an even more robust response. This is not out of the question. A US attack on Iranian nuclear installations would likely be answered by an Iranian missile attack on Israel’s nuclear installations – and on Israeli population centers. No one can predict how Israel would react to such an attack, but it is clear that (given Bush’s stance in the recent conflict) the United States would do nothing to stop it. The “glass house” of the Persian Gulf region, targeted by Iranian missiles, would then assuredly come crashing down.
Fifth, the Hezbollah victory spells the end of any hope of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least in the short and medium terms. Even normally “progressive” Israeli political figures undermined their political position with strident calls for more force, more troops and more bombs. In private meetings with his political allies, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas castigated those who cheered on Hezbollah’s victory, calling them “Hamas supporters” and “enemies of Israel”. Abbas is in a far more tenuous position than Mubarak or the two Abdullahs – his people’s support for Hamas continues, as does his slavish agreement with George W Bush, who told him on the sidelines of the United Nations Security Council meeting that he was to end all attempts to form a unity government with his fellow citizens.
Sixth, the Hezbollah victory has had the very unfortunate consequence of blinding Israel’s political leadership to the realities of their geostrategic position. In the midst of the war with Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert adopted Bush’s language on the “war on terrorism”, reminding his citizenry that Hezbollah was a part of “the axis of evil”. His remarks have been reinforced by Bush, whose comments during his address before the UN General Assembly mentioned al-Qaeda once – and Hezbollah and Hamas five times each. The United States and Israel have now lumped Islamist groups willing to participate in the political processes in their own nations with those takfiris and Salafists who are bent on setting the region on fire.
Nor can Israel now count on its strongest US supporters, that network of neo-conservatives for whom Israel is an island of stability and democracy in the region. These neo-conservatives’ disapproval of Israel’s performance is almost palpable. With friends like these, who needs enemies? That is to say, the Israeli conflict in Lebanon reflects accurately those experts who see the Israel-Hezbollah conflict as a proxy war. Our colleague Jeff Aronson noted that “if it were up to the US, Israel would still be fighting”, and he added: “The United States will fight the war on terrorism to the last drop of Israeli blood.”
The continued weakness of the Israeli political leadership and the fact that it is in denial about the depth of its defeat should be a deep concern for the United States and for every Arab nation. Israel has proved that in times of crisis, it can shape a creative diplomatic strategy and maneuver deftly to retrieve its position. It has also proved that in the wake of a military defeat, it is capable of honest and transparent self-examination. Israel’s strength has always been its capacity for public debate, even if such debate questions the most sacrosanct institution – the Israel Defense Forces. At key moments in Israel’s history, defeat has led to reflection and not, as now seems likely, an increasingly escalating military offensive against Hamas – the red-headed stepchild of the Middle East – to show just how tough it is.
“The fact that the Middle East has been radicalized by the Hezbollah victory presents a good case for killing more of them,” one Israeli official recently said. That path will lead to disaster. In light of America’s inability to pull the levers of change in the Middle East, there is hope among some in Washington that Olmert will show the political courage to begin the long process of finding peace. That process will be painful, it will involve long and difficult discussions, it may mean a break with the US program for the region. But the US does not live in the region, and Israel does. While conducting a political dialogue with its neighbors might be painful, it will prove far less painful than losing a war in Lebanon.
Seventh, Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon has been immeasurably strengthened, as has the position of its most important ally. At the height of the conflict, Lebanese Christians took Hezbollah refugees into their homes. The Christian leader Michel Aoun openly supported Hezbollah’s fight. One Hezbollah leader said: “We will never forget what that man did for us, not for an entire generation.” Aoun’s position is celebrated among the Shi’ites, and his own political position has been enhanced.
The Sunni leadership, on the other hand, fatally undermined itself with its uncertain stance and its absentee landlord approach to its own community. In the first week of the war, Hezbollah’s actions were greeted with widespread skepticism. At the end of the war its support was solid and stretched across Lebanon’s political and sectarian divides. The Sunni leadership now has a choice: it can form a unity government with new leaders that will create a more representative government or they can stand for elections. It doesn’t take a political genius to understand which choice Saad Hariri, the majority leader in the Lebanese parliament, will make.
Eighth, Iran’s position in Iraq has been significantly enhanced. In the midst of the Lebanon conflict, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld privately worried that the Israeli offensive would have dire consequences for the US military in Iraq, who faced increasing hostility from Shi’ite political leaders and the Shi’ite population. Rice’s statement that the pro-Hezbollah demonstrations in Baghdad were planned by Tehran revealed her ignorance of the most fundamental political facts of the region. The US secretaries of state and of defense were simply and unaccountably unaware that the Sadrs of Baghdad bore any relationship to the Sadrs of Lebanon. That Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would not castigate Hezbollah and side with Israel during the conflict – and in the midst of an official visit to Washington – was viewed as shocking by Washington’s political establishment, even though “Hezbollah in Iraq” is one of the parties in the current Iraqi coalition government.
We have been told that neither the Pentagon nor the State Department understood how the war in Lebanon might effect America’s position in Iraq because neither the Pentagon nor the State Department asked for a briefing on the issue from the US intelligence services. The United States spends billions of dollars each year on its intelligence collection and analysis activities. It is money wasted.
Ninth, Syria’s position has been strengthened and the US-French program for Lebanon has failed. There is no prospect that Lebanon will form a government that is avowedly pro-American or anti-Syrian. That Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could, in the wake of the war, suggest a political arrangement with Israel shows his strength, not his weakness. That he might draw the correct conclusions from the conflict and believe that he too might successfully oppose Israel is also possible.
But aside from these possibilities, recent history shows that those thousands of students and Lebanese patriots who protested Syria’s involvement in Lebanon after the death of Rafiq Hariri found it ironic that they took refuge from the Israeli bombing in tent cities established by the Syrian government. Rice is correct on one thing: Syria’s willingness to provide refuge for Lebanese refugees was a pure act of political cynicism – and one that the United States seems incapable of replicating. Syria now is confident of its political position. In a previous era, such confidence allowed Israel to shape a political opening with its most intransigent political enemies.
Tenth, and perhaps most important, it now is clear that a US attack on Iranian nuclear installations would be met with little support in the Muslim world. It would also be met by a military response that would collapse the last vestiges of America’s political power in the region. What was thought to be a “given” just a few short weeks ago has been shown to be unlikely. Iran will not be cowed. If the United States launches a military campaign against the Tehran government, it is likely that America’s friends will fall by the wayside, the Gulf Arab states will tremble in fear, the 138,000 US soldiers in Iraq will be held hostage by an angered Shi’ite population, and Iran will respond by an attack on Israel. We would now dare say the obvious – if and when such an attack comes, the United States will be defeated.
The victory of Hezbollah in its recent conflict with Israel is far more significant than many analysts in the United States and Europe realize. The Hezbollah victory reverses the tide of 1967 – a shattering defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan that shifted the region’s political plates, putting in place regimes that were bent on recasting their own foreign policy to reflect Israeli and US power. That power now has been sullied and reversed, and a new leadership is emerging in the region.
The singular lesson of the conflict may well be lost on the upper echelons of Washington’s and London’s pro-Israel, pro-values, we-are-fighting-for-civilization political elites, but it is not lost in the streets of Cairo, Amman, Ramallah, Baghdad, Damascus or Tehran. It should not be lost among the Israeli political leadership in Jerusalem. The Arab armies of 1967 fought for six days and were defeated. The Hezbollah militia in Lebanon fought for 34 days and won. We saw this with our own eyes when we looked into the cafes of Cairo and Amman, where simple shopkeepers, farmers and workers gazed at television reports, sipped their tea, and silently mouthed the numbers to themselves: “seven”, “eight”, “nine” …
Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry are the co-directors of Conflicts Forum, a London-based group dedicated to providing an opening to political Islam. Crooke is the former Middle East adviser to European Union High Representative Javier Solana and served as a staff member of the Mitchell Commission investigating the causes of the second intifada. Perry is a Washington, DC-based political consultant, author of six books on US history, and a former personal adviser to Yasser Arafat.
(Research for this article was provided by Madeleine Perry.)