Friday, June 5, 2009

U.S. Leaders Show Every Day They Don't Understand the Middle East and That's Why Their Policies Fail

By Barry Rubin

General David Petraeus has been highly praised for his labors in Iraq, and I mean to show no disrespect to him. But every day American leaders make statements that show their failure to understand Middle East politics and why their policies don't work.

It isn't a matter of attitude toward Israel that's usually the problem but the caricature of Arab politics contained in their minds.

Petreaus in an inteview with al-Hayat newspaper--presuming his remarks are reported fully and accurately--said the U.S. government considers Hizballah to be a terrorist organization that did not contribute to stability in Lebanon.

If this is true, it means that a government dominated by Hizballah or even a coalition in which Hizballah has veto power will not receive U.S. support and aid. Let's see if that indeed happens.

But here's the remark I want to highlight:

"Hizballah's justifications for existence will become void if the Palestinian cause is resolved. Reaching an agreement over a peace process in the Middle East will eliminate several groups' justifications for existence."

This is truly shocking. First, Hizballah is an organization which seeks to lead--with much success--all Lebanese Shias. As such, an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict would have no effect whatsoever on its existence.

Second, Hizballah seeks to rule Lebanon to the largest extent possible.

Third, Hizballah is an agent--not a puppet but a real follower albeit with its own independent decision-making power--of Iran and Syria. Even if the Palestinian Authority were to disappear, Hizballah would continue to promote the interests of its sponsors which are anti-American and revolutionary in intent.

Fourth, Hizballah is a radical Islamist group which would like to turn Lebanon into an Islamist state on the Iranian model. This is not likely to happen but it is a motive that transcends the Arab-Israeli conflict that will continue to motivate Hizballah.

Finally, since Hizballah and its sponsors are dedicated to using the conflict for their own political purposes and genuinely oppose Israel's existence under any conditions, if Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to reach a peace agreement, Hizballah would work extremely hard--and violently--to sabotage any such agreement, both through attacking Israel from the north and assisting Hamas in trying to overturn the Palestinian Authority.

All of this is elementary. If Petreus doesn't understand it, something is seriously wrong in U.S. policy. For him to say this publicly is even worse.

No, the Arab-Israeli or Israel-Palestinian conflicts are not the core of everything that goes on in the Middle East. The thinking represented by Petreus is equivalent to saying that if the West gives the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe (1945) or the United States shows enough respect for Japan (1941) or Britain and France give western Czechoslovakia to Germany (1938) there will be no more conflicts with these forces.

Hizballah and other radical Islamists may want to help the Palestinians destroy Israel but they exist because they want to seize state power and transform their own societies. Is this really so hard to understand?

And even if there is a comprehensive agreement to end the conflict and the Palestinians get a state of their own, they would reject this diplomatic solution, not go out of business entirely.

Ironically, the American people often understand things better than their elites. In a recent USA Today-Gallup poll, Americans doubt, by a 66 to 32 percent margin, "There will come a time when Israel and the Arab nations will be able to settle their differences and live in peace." This is the least optimistic assessment in ten years of polling.

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