[ Saturday, March 12, 2005 ]
Neoconservatism Turning Middle-East Into Powder Keg
by Matt Singer
The neoconservatives are facing a problem they didn’t expect:
Democracy spreading in the Middle East. This may sound like it fits nicely within the plans of the president, but the so-called “Cedar Revolution” under way in Lebanon, the increased likelihood of open elections in Egypt and the recent election in Iraq pose major foreign policy problems for the United States.
As soon as Lebanese protesters ousted the Syrian-backed government in Beirut, right-wing pundits started their crowing:
Bush’s democratic revolution was working. One problem: it wasn’t Bush’s. Its leaders have cheered the killing of American soldiers. And Bush’s own advisers have made clear a democratic tidal wave was not really their intention in invading Iraq.
In fact, elections were not part of the original plan in Iraq. The short time frame on elections in Iraq was a concession to Ayatollah al-Sistani and the insurgency. Al-Sistani’s Shia followers have since been quite successful in establishing a parliamentary majority.
Since then, they have been calling for a U.S. withdrawal as well as working on closer ties with Iran. They have also increased fears of establishing Shariah — Islamic law — which would pose strict regulations, especially on Iraq’s women.
Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the major faction opposing withdrawal of Syrian power is the Hezbollah (literally, the “Party of God”) and other Shi’ites. Hezbollah is probably a name well-known to Americans.
They are the party responsible for the death of 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983. Fingers remain pointed at Hezbollah for anti-semitic terrorism around the world. Yet for many in the Middle East, Hezbollah is a heroic organization, having been the only Arab army to ever defeat Israel in a military conflict.
And at this point, no one sect comprises a majority of the Lebanese population. The CIA World Factbook estimates that about 60 percent of the population is Muslim, while 40 percent is Christian. The Muslims are divided between multiple factions, with a Shia plurality; a small, economically well-to-do Sunni bloc; and the unorthodox Druze making up large factions as well. The Christians largest contingency is the Maronites who have had an uneasy relationship with Muslims at many points, yet there are also Melkites, Armenians, Catholics, and Protestants within the Christian community.
So if you think that democracy in Iraq, with Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish factions looks messy, perhaps a brief history lesson is in order.
Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, is synonymous with violent anarchy. And the explosion of violence that occurred in Lebanon in the 1970s is exactly what precipitated the Syrian occupation that so many local leaders are now claiming to oppose.
Even as Druze leaders like Walid Jumblat call for democracy, one needs only read papers months old to see these leaders reveling in the spilling of American blood. More honest perhaps than most is Hezbollah, which strictly opposes the removal of Syrian power in part because it would increase pressure on them to disarm.
But while Syrian withdrawal may set the stage for Hezbollah disarmament, it could also lead to explosive violence in a number of ways. First, let us remember that this is still Beirut, a city with more armed factions than UM has academic departments. Second, one factor currently limiting Hezbollah’s electoral success is anti-Syrian sentiment. If Syria leaves, Hezbollah may actually grow in electoral power. Even if they disarm, their ability to control Lebanon’s military would only grow.
And no one should doubt the continued dislike — perhaps hatred is the proper term — of Israel among residents of these Arab and Persian nations. Just as full democracy in Iran would not stop the drive for nuclear arms, democracy in Lebanon would not stop the likelihood of state terror against Israel.
Israel, then, is not aided, but possibly endangered, by Islamic republics popping up through the region, especially if they fall, one-by-one, to extreme Shia leaders.
If America can navigate this process of democratization and can convince Israel’s Mossad to allow democratization and both nations can figure out how to build security, we’ll be much better off. But the coming years are fraught with danger.
The main opposition to the process of democratization has not arisen from racism or cruelty, as many on the right have implied or explicitly stated. Rather, it has arisen from a concern that too many of the right-wingers and hawks in the Bush administration have repeatedly misunderstood the forces they have let loose upon the world.
The Bush administration originally envisioned that by this point, we would basically be withdrawn from Iraq, with a relatively stable chieftain comfortably installed. Fortunately, democracy is emerging in the Middle East. But it is no time to pop the corks or the hangover we experience may be unlike anything we can imagine. Bush has destabilized the Arab and Persian worlds. We’ll be dealing with them for a long time.
art [5:33 PM]