Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.
Israel’s reckless, high-stakes decision to launch simultaneous wars against both Hamas and Hezbollah last week is a critical, perhaps world-shattering event. It cannot be seen merely in its local context, that is, as an act by the unilateralist regime in Jerusalem to crush the armed wings of two Islamic fundamentalist organizations in Gaza, the West Bank and southern Lebanon. Nor can it be seen merely in its regional context, that is, as an effort to raise the stakes in the struggle against Syria, Iran and rejectionist factions in occupied Iraq. Rather, Israel’s actions must be seen, first and foremost, in the context of global politics.
The key question: Is the Israeli offensive designed as a calculated effort to catapult the hard-right, neoconservative ideologues back to power in Washington?
The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 21st century’s Pearl Harbor, allowed Vice President Dick Cheney—along with Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, John Bolton, et al. —to steer President George W. Bush and the U.S. government toward a global war, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; the endless “war on terrorism” and the militarization of American foreign policy. Since then, and especially as the adventure in Iraq bogged down, the less adventurous realists in the American foreign policy establishment have begun to eclipse the previously hegemonic neoconservatives. For the past year or so, the Pollyannas amid the chattering classes have told us that the neoconservatives’ moment has passed, and that the adults are back in control in the nation’s capital. What they forgot—and what Israel’s criminal attacks on Gaza and Lebanon have reminded us—is that the neoconservative war party is global, not domestic. Outflanked, temporarily, in the United States, the neocons are now flexing their muscle outside the United States in a way that can give them added new leverage at home.
Let’s analyze the current crisis, piece by piece.
First, Israel’s actions in no way can be seen as a legitimate response to the small-scale attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah. Instead, what Israel has done has used the pretext of those pin-prick attacks—a couple of border raids and a handful of errant rockets—to launch a strategic attack whose goals are to crush Hamas and the remaining institutions of Palestinian self-rule and decapitate and destroy Hezbollah politically and militarily in Lebanon.
Second, it’s clear that Israel would never have launched this war without having made the calculation that it would win the support of the United States. The rest of the world is solidly aligned against Israel’s outrageously disproportionate attacks, but none of that matters. No diplomatic mission from the feeble United Nations, no angry statements from the Arab League, no fulminations from Western Europe will deter Israel. As long as Israel has the support of the United States, it will forge ahead relentlessly. So far, in a shocking display of craven capitulation to the Israeli fait accompli , President Bush has repeatedly endorsed Israel’s aggression. But Israel is clearly counting on more than just Bush’s support for its actions in Gaza and Lebanon. More broadly, Israel is seeking to shift the balance in the Bush administration back in favor of the neocons, the hawks and their radical “New American Century” comrades.
Third, by invading and bombing Lebanon and acting brutally to crush the Palestinian Authority, Israel has created a unified field theory of the Middle East’s crises, uniting the escalating world showdown with Iran, the unraveling civil war in Iraq, the crisis over Syria’s role in Lebanon, and the Arab-Israeli conflict itself into one big tangle. To be sure, all of those conflicts were always linked. But now they are as one. And in each case, the United States now faces a huge dilemma.
A sane U.S. policy would (1) exert backbreaking pressure on Israel to halt its attacks; (2) open a dialogue with Iran and Syria about containing Hezbollah and Hamas; (3) take drastic steps to stop the Iraqi civil war by making across-the-board concessions to Iraq’s Sunnis and forcing the Shiites to swallow it, while starting a phased U.S. withdrawal; and (4) get the White House directly involved in the Israel-Palestine peace process as if their lives depended on it.
But Israel, and its neoconservative allies, are counting on none of that to happen. Instead, they’ve gambled that in each case President Bush will fall back under the spell of Dick Cheney and the neocons, and do precisely the opposite: continue to give Israel the green light, throw rhetorical bombs at Damascus and Teheran, escalate the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq and take Israel’s side in its wall-building, settlement-defending, no-talks-with-Hamas unilateralism.
Make no mistake: Until last week, before Israel went to war, the neoconservatives were losing across the board. They watched in horror as the war in Iraq faltered, and they were appalled by President Bush’s Condi-led opening to Iran. Indeed, to many it seemed as if the entire post-9/11 project to remake the Middle East and build American hegemony on that cornerstone was in jeopardy.
Speaking at a forum at the American Enterprise Institute last week, Frederick Kagan warned that the United States is in “danger of losing everything” because the war in Iraq is not being pursued aggressively enough. “All of this success can and will be undone … if we do not get the security situation [in Iraq] under control, and fast,” he said, accurately enough. Now that Israel is at war, they have the chance once again to go on the offensive, against Iran, in Iraq, against Syria and against the mythical Terrorist International that they warn about so regularly. You can imagine what Cheney and his allies are whispering to the president: Be resolute, be strong—and bring ‘em on!