By Chris Hedges
Editor’s note: In this column, the former New York Times Mideast bureau chief argues that America’s failure in Iraq and Israel’s humiliation in Lebanon have emboldened and empowered those in the Arab world who seek to topple U.S.-backed regimes in the Middle East and cripple the Jewish state.
The Israeli debacle in Lebanon, along with the failed occupation in Iraq, has given many Arabs, after decades of humiliation, hope that armed guerrilla resistance by Islamic radicals will topple U.S.-backed regimes in the Middle East and cripple the Jewish state. The callous comment by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the Israeli bombing of Lebanon signaled “the birth pangs” of a new Middle East has turned out to be true, although not in the way the secretary intended.
The dogged resistance by bands of irregular fighters, disciplined in battle and indoctrinated with radical Islam, has seen Washington’s most vociferous enemies, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, lionized throughout the region. This resistance has eroded the power of pro-Western regimes in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As we prepare for Round Two, with Israel plotting to again bomb and invade Lebanon, it is clear that these wars of attrition are about to become cyclical, with Israel and Washington clinging blindly to the illusion that increased force will solve their dilemmas.
Israel and Washington see Lebanon and Iraq as temporary setbacks. They believe that these setbacks can be rectified with modified tactics, greater force and more sophisticated counterinsurgency campaigns. But the Arab world views Lebanon and Iraq differently. It sees the battles there as finally challenging the long subjugation at the hands of the Zionist state and its American backer. A second attempt to neutralize Hezbollah will mark the beginning of a prolonged conflict between radical Islamists and the Jewish state. A strike by Washington on Iran will unleash waves of rage and revulsion throughout the Arab nations. These are battles Israel and America cannot win.
The 34 days of fighting, which saw Israel withdraw in humiliation without freeing its captured soldiers or defeating Hezbollah, along with the potent insurgency in Iraq, has awakened the Arab world from its stupor. Hezbollah is busy regrouping, rearming and restocking the rockets and weapons its guerrilla fighters used effectively against Israel’s conventional army. The network of tunnels and bunkers, along with the classic hit-and-run tactics of small teams of fighters, neutralized the Israeli air campaign and incursion. And Israel, whose soldiers in Lebanon often lacked basic supplies, including food, gasoline and water, along with useful intelligence, was left to lash out blindly at an elusive enemy, as its American counterpart does daily in the streets of Baghdad.
The U.S. failure in Iraq and Hezbollah’s stubborn resistance illustrate that modern armies such as Israel’s, equipped with the world’s fourth largest air force, are not invincible. These failures have exposed the impotence of the U.S.-backed regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt, which have nothing to show for their collaboration with Washington other than increasing repression, isolation and corruption. Iran and radical Shiites are now at the vanguard of the struggle to wipe out the Jewish state and remove the United States from the region, something that makes the Sunni-led regimes, especially those in countries with large Shiite populations, very nervous.
This is the first time since the creation of the state of Israel that an Arab force has withstood an Israeli assault. The despair that has gripped the Arab world since Israel crushed the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies in the 1967 war has been replaced by a giddy hope that radical Islam is the tool to restore Arab dignity. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi King Abdullah and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, all of whom have criticized Hezbollah and excoriated the Iranian regime, have been silent, especially with opinion polls in their own countries showing wide support for Iran and Hezbollah. The old politics of appeasement with Washington, which they represent, have failed. The new politics of armed confrontation, led by Shiite radicals, have been validated. Another upheaval in the Middle East, such as U.S. bombing of suspected nuclear sites in Iran or a second Israeli incursion into south Lebanon, could see the cracks in these unpopular pro-Western regimes lead to their disintegration. An attack on Iran will solidify the power of the Iranian regime. At best, these pro-Western regimes, with little credibility and support, will become ineffectual, unable, because of popular revulsion, to do Washington’s bidding. Such attacks will also see widening support for armed radical groups that have captured the imagination of many in the Islamic world. The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, for example, refused to condemn Hezbollah and did not, although pressured by Washington, side with Israel.
Israel and Washington appear not to have grasped this seismic change. Israeli leaders, busy studying the failures of the first incursion, appear as intoxicated with their military power as when they began bombing Lebanon. Washington mouths its usual empty promises about a negotiated solution to the Palestinian and Israeli conflict and its tired clichs about building democracy in Iraq and the Middle East. The quiet endorsement of the Israeli strangulation of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, along with the carnage unleashed by U.S. forces in Iraq, makes Washington appear more and more remote, even ridiculous.
The blunders by Israel and the United States have left Iran as the undisputed leader in the Muslim world. These blunders have empowered the radical Islamic groups allied with Iran and have indeed ushered in the birth of a new Middle East, one that understands that the days of Israel and Washington’s hegemony in the region are doomed.