Belaboring the Obvious

Saturday, July 29, 2006

It's Enough to Give a Person Brain Cramps....

The political geography of the Middle East and South Asia is comprised of a complicated tangle of mixed motives and ahistorical alliances. Throw into that mix a right-wing militaristic Israel and a right-wing militaristic United States, and it gets even more complicated, and much, much uglier.

On Friday, Master and Commander Bush attempted to parse the role of the United States in the Middle East, in the context of what's happening now, and managed to convince much of the outside world that not only does he not have a clue, but that what little he does seem to acknowledge is blurred and confused by a messianic zeal that is most likely the result of some neurological disorder. No one rational or informed could say something like this:

QUESTION: Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister, with support apparently growing among the Arab population, both Shiite and Sunni, for Hezbollah, by bounds, is there a risk that every day that goes by without a cease-fire will tip this conflict into a wider war?

And, Mr. President, when Secretary Rice goes back to the region, would she have any new instructions, such as meeting with Syrians?

BUSH: Her instructions are to work with Israel and Lebanon to get a -- to come up with an acceptable U.N. Security Council resolution that we can table next week.

And, secondly, it's really important for people to understand that the terrorists are trying to stop the advance of freedom. And, therefore, it's essential that we do what's right -- not necessarily what appears to be immediately popular.

There's a lot of suffering in Lebanon because Hezbollah attacked Israel. There's a lot of suffering in the Palestinian territory because militant Hamas is trying to stop the advance of democracy. There is suffering in Iraq because terrorists are trying to spread sectarian violence and stop the spread of democracy.

And now is the time for the free world to work to create the conditions so that people everywhere can have hope. And those are the stakes. That's what we face right now. We've got a plan to deal with this immediate crisis.

It's one of the reasons the prime minister came, to talk about that plan. But the stakes are larger than just Lebanon.

Isn't it interesting that when Prime Minister Olmert starts to reach out to President Abbas to develop a Palestinian state, militant Hamas creates the conditions so that, you know, there's a crisis, and then Hezbollah follows up?

Isn't it interesting, as a democracy takes hold in Iraq, that Al Qaeda steps up its efforts to murder and bomb in order to stop the democracy?

And so one of the things that the people in the Middle East must understand is that we're working to create the conditions of hope and opportunity for all of them. And we'll continue to do that. This is the challenge of the 21st century

Or this:

Q: Mr. President, both of you, I'd like to ask you about the big picture that you're discussing.

Mr. President, three years ago, you argued that an invasion of Iraq would create a new stage of Arab-Israeli peace. And yet today there is an Iraqi prime minister who has been sharply critical of Israel.

Arab governments, despite your arguments, who first criticized Hezbollah, have now changed their tune. Now they're sharply critical of Israel.

And despite from both of you warnings to Syria and Iran to back off support from Hezbollah, effectively, Mr. President, your words are being ignored.

So what has happened to America's clout in this region that you've committed yourself to transform?

Bush: David, it's an interesting period because, instead of having foreign policies based upon trying to create a sense of stability, we have a foreign policy that addresses the root causes of violence and instability.

For a while, American foreign policy was just, Let's hope everything is calm - kind of, managed calm. But beneath the surface brewed a lot of resentment and anger that was manifested on September the 11th.

And so we have, we've taken a foreign policy that says: On the one hand, we will protect ourselves from further attack in the short run by being aggressive in chasing down the killers and bringing them to justice.

And make no mistake: They're still out there, and they would like to harm our respective peoples because of what we stand for.

In the long term, to defeat this ideology - and they're bound by an ideology - you defeat it with a more hopeful ideology called freedom.

And, look, I fully understand some people don't believe it's possible for freedom and democracy to overcome this ideology of hatred. I understand that. I just happen to believe it is possible.

And I believe it will happen.

And so what you're seeing is, you know, a clash of governing styles.

For example, you know, the notion of democracy beginning to emerge scares the ideologues, the totalitarians, those who want to impose their vision. It just frightens them.

And so they respond. They've always been violent.

You know, I hear this amazing kind of editorial thought that says, all of a sudden, Hezbollah's become violent because we're promoting democracy. They have been violent for a long period of time. Or Hamas?

One reason why the Palestinians still suffer is because there are militants who refuse to accept a Palestinian state based upon democratic principles.

And so what the world is seeing is a desire by this country and our allies to defeat the ideology of hate with an ideology that has worked and that brings hope.

And one of the challenges, of course, is to convince people that Muslims would like to be free, you know, that there's other people other than people in Britain and America that would like to be free in the world.

There's this kind of almost – you know, kind of a weird kind of elitism that says well maybe - maybe certain people in certain parts of the world shouldn't be free; maybe it's best just to let them sit in these tyrannical societies.

And our foreign policy rejects that concept. We don't accept it. And so we're working.

There are so many aberrant philosophies and strategies implicit in all this drivel that deconstructing it would take more time than it would take for the latest Israel-Lebanon war to burn itself out. But, maybe, for the sake of a clarity found infrequently these days, one ought to try.

Bush speaks of freedom and democracy as if they are brand names registered at the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office, and I find it remarkably odd that whenever Bush talks in this way, it is almost programmatic that he use those words--frequently and without much, if any, context--as if the words themselves were the codification of policy.

Therein lies part of the problem: the concepts of freedom and democracy, for this administration, anyway, no longer have any real meaning--they are treated as logos of the corporate United States. They no longer, because of so much empty repetition over the decades, mean what they once did.

Secondarily, Bush uses the words to evade reality. By concentrating on abstractions which he uses in figurative, rather than literal, ways, unpleasant facts can be ignored. For instance, there is his emphasis, often cited, of Israel being the only democracy in the region. Bush's tunnel vision enables this falsehood. Israel is not a democracy in the modern, contemporary sense of the word, simply because it excludes some of its citizens from full participation in the government and the social structure of the country. Full rights of citizenship accrue only to Jews in Israel. It has been that way almost from Israel's inception in 1948. Might that--and forty years of Israeli occupation of land not its own--be one reason for the hatred Bush speaks of in the Arab world?

There is no doubt that some factions in the Middle East have a virulent and irrational hatred of Israel, and Jews in general. Such hatred is likely not much different than that expressed by white supremacy groups in the U.S., or proto-Nazi groups in Germany and France. That sort of hatred can't be explained by facts or historical events. It simply exists as a bigotry laid bare and divorced from reality. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regular denials of the Holocaust almost certainly fit into that category.

To assign all hatred of the state of Israel, however, to such bigotry--or, as Bush does, because it is a "democracy"--is facile and wrong. Israel has, for almost six decades, used both military and constitutional power to subjugate Palestinians, and more recently, until 2000, the Lebanese, in the name of its own "national security."

It is for this reason that Bush can also ignore Lebanon's status. Because there are people in Lebanon opposed to Israel's actions--who were democratically elected to its parliament--Lebanon itself can be delegitimized as a democracy in Bush's mind and so be broadly attacked by Israel. Does this suggest that Bush has a reductive and Manichean view of the situation in Lebanon, as he does of the rest of the Middle East?

His words strongly suggest such--Israel is right, Lebanon is wrong. People with some understanding of the political and social complexities of Lebanon know that Hizbollah wears many hats. It represents the political interests of perhaps 35-40% of Lebanon's population. It serves a number of social needs--schools, food banks and health clinics--which a Lebanese state, after fifteen years of civil war, could not yet provide. Its militia acts as a border guard for the predominantly Shia population of south Lebanon. And, yes, it also has a branch of dedicated terrorists who have carried out brutal attacks on Israeli interests, including on the Israeli embassy and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, respectively (although Hizbollah has denied involvement in those attacks, the evidence suggests otherwise). While Hizbollah is clearly an Islamist organization, it coexists within a democratic state controlled by Christian and Druze and secular factions.

That Bush seems wholly unaware of the support of Hizbollah in Lebanon and in the broader Middle East--precisely because it is resisting Israel's attempts to destroy Lebanese sovereignty and because it is a legitimate part of the Lebanese political process--is readily apparent in his answers above and is a function of Bush's inability (or refusal) to see Lebanon except in Israeli terms--if there are factions in Lebanon determined to thwart Israel's expansionist policies, Lebanon is therefore a terrorist state. Much the same situation exists in Gaza and the West Bank. Bush's faith in Abbas is a reflection of Israeli intentions for the occupied territories--Abbas and the Fatah would have given Israel what it wants for very little in exchange. That is the reason why Palestinians elected--quite democratically--a Hamas government, which they expected to serve their interests, rather than the interests of the United States or of Israel's.

Deep down inside Bush's words, though, is a recognition of a common conceit of both the United States and Israel, one which has operated in similar ways--a deeply-held belief in a god-given right to what the United States has defined as manifest destiny. There are striking similarities between what happened in the United States from the period of 1825-1890 and what has occurred in the Mediterranean Middle East, on a smaller scale, from 1948 to the present. In both countries, military force was used to drive indigenous people further away from population centers, onto smaller and smaller tracts of land, with permanent military outposts used to keep indigenous populations removed from "settlers" who were subsidized by the government to act as colonizers of newly-taken land, finally forcing those indigenous people onto reservations in which they were given a very limited kind of sovereignty in exchange for freedom from attack by the occupier's pervasive and large military. Arabs, to Israel, are the "injuns" of the 18th and 19th century United States. We called Native Americans "savages," while the Israelis call Arabs "terrorists." They are spoken of in the same way, with the same contempt. (Interesting that poputonian over at digby's place seems to be on a similar wavelength.)

So, what's the difference between the United States then and Israel now? In national temperament and intent, not much. The circumstances, though, have changed a great deal. The major difference is that the world has changed--we now have 20th century institutions and international law in place created, if not to prevent, then to deter the sort of abuses which occurred around the world in the past. Geneva Conventions, international laws on warfare which prohibit the seizure and occupation of territory through war, widely-held conventions on human and civil rights and a UN to adjudicate international disputes.

Just as Bush and Co.™ have been renegade cowboys in the Middle East, drunk on air power and synthetic testosterone, so have the Israels emulated the Wild West of our 19th century, shooting up everything in the name of God and manifest destiny, with the intention of securing the means of expansion and wealth. In the United States, the natural resources provided by the land were minerals, coal, timber and eventually, oil. The seizure of land by Israel increases its access to water, among the most precious of commodities in its region.

That Israel does so with American arms and money and complicity is our problem, one which we've been loathe to address for almost five decades (and on which Bush gave up even before he was President, when he visited Ariel Sharon's "ranch" in 1998).

It's probably not quite the time to introduce the Palestinians to gambling casinos, but you can likely see the resemblance of their situation to that of the Mescaleros, or the Choctaws or the Pottawatomie in 1880.

Maybe George "wanted dead or alive" Bush still thinks it's some `50s television version of the Wild West, in Iraq and Lebanon, and the West Bank, and Gaza, even though the "injuns" communicate with cell phones, let the rest of us know what's happening via blogs and the internet, and all the while wish for peace and the opportunity to tend their fields and orchards and their businesses and have a little sweet tea and talk with friends in the heat of the early evening, and to come and go as they please in their own way, in their own time, in their own country.

Is there much of a difference between the Israelis bombing electricity and water treatment plants and closing access to food distribution centers in Gaza and Lebanon, and the wasichu hunters destroying all the Plains buffalo? If there is, I can't tell.


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