A celebrated moment in US cinema had Indiana Jones facing off an Arab swordsman of evident skill. Jones gave the Arab a deprecating glance, drew his revolver and shot him dead. Put President George W. Bush in the role of the swordsman and Hezbollah’s Hasan Nasrullah in place of Indiana Jones, and the events of March 8 in Beirut fall into context.
No woolier idea ever found its way into foreign policy than the premise that democracy will promote Middle East peace. Nemesis overtakes the tragic hero at the extreme of hubris, and now the Bush tragedy has plunged into its second act just when the US president was confident that democracy would sweep through the region (George W. Bush, tragic character, November 25, 2003).
The great slapping sound heard around Washington last week was the shutting mouths of conservative pundits after Hezbollah put half a million supporters in the streets of Beirut March 8. On March 4, the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer bragged of “the dawn of a glorious, delicate, revolutionary moment in the Middle East.” The National Review’s John Derbyshire opined prematurely that “this has been a bad few weeks for us pessimists … with 1989-style demonstrations out in the streets of Beirut.” A prominent Bush detractor, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, conceded that “Bush is right” and “may change the world.” That was then. On March 11, Krauthammer had forgotten about the Middle East and devoted his column to the ethics of frozen embryos.
Hezbollah’s Hasan Nasrullah has laid a cuckoo’s egg in the nest of US policy, conjuring up the specter of a terrorist democracy. US planners long have worried that Iraq’s Islamist al-Da’wa party might find common cause with Hezbollah. With Da’wa chief Ibrahim Jaafari about to become Iraq’s prime minister, Lebanese circumstances endanger the entire US venture in Mesopotamia. Bush appears to face a tragic choice: allow Iran to become a nuclear power with a veto on the ground in Lebanon as well as Iraq, or use force against Iran and its supporters. Unless Bush is willing to use (or permit Israel to use) nuclear weapons, the second alternative is next to unworkable. If he chooses the first alternative, the odds that radical Islam will triumph over the West rise sharply.
There is a third alternative, albeit one too terrible to enter into Washington’s present consideration, which I will sketch out below.
Civil war in either Lebanon or Iraq might turn into a single conflict, given the Islamist parties’ theological and Iran-centered political connections. Nasrullah’s control of facts on the ground leaves Washington in apparent Zugzwang, a position in which a chess player is compelled to move, and any move loses. That is why Washington is talking out of both sides of its mouth about Hezbollah. Steven R Weisman quoted an unnamed US official in the March 10 New York Times to the effect that Washington was willing to accept Hezbollah into the Lebanese mainstream: “Hezbollah has American blood on its hands. They are in the same category as al-Qaeda. The administration has an absolute aversion to admitting that Hezbollah has a role to play in Lebanon, but that is the path we’re going down.”
Tehran now feels bold enough to thumb its nose at Washington’s proposed economic bribes to stop nuclear-fuel production. “US officials are either unaware of the substance of the talks or hallucinating,” Sirus Naseri, a senior member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, told Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
The roar of the American triumphalists left the few of us feeling shrill and small who fear that the Islamic world will prefer a collective identity to Western democracy, as I wrote last week (They made a democracy and called it peace, March 8). Among the neo-conservatives, only Daniel Pipes, writing in the March 8 New York Sun, offered words of caution:
Yes, Mahmoud Abbas wishes to end the armed struggle against Israel but his call for a greater jihad against the “Zionist enemy” points to his intending another form of war to destroy Israel. The Iraqi elections are bringing Ibrahim Jaafari, a pro-Iranian Islamist, to power. Likewise, the Saudi elections proved a boon for the Islamist candidates. [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak’s promise is purely cosmetic; but should real presidential elections one day come to Egypt, Islamists will probably prevail there too. Removing Syrian control in Lebanon could well lead to Hezbollah, a terrorist group, becoming the dominant power there. Eliminating the hideous Assad dynasty could well bring in its wake an Islamist government in Damascus.
US denials of the Weisman story ring a bit hollow, for Washington cannot afford to take on Hezbollah without unsettling Iraq’s Shi’ites. Some reports out of Washington allege that Nasrullah is merely the Lebanese opposite number of the marginalized Shi’ite radical Muqtada al-Sadr. In the fluid circumstances of the moment Hezbollah well might find itself closer to Da’wa. The senior Middle East specialist of the Army War College (AWC), W Andrew Terrill, warned in February 2004:
US forces must also emphasize their concern about Iraqi Shi’ite groups, which may seek to coordinate with outside radicals such as those in Lebanon. While it may be impossible to prevent Da’wa and Iraqi Hezbollah from seeking theological inspiration from radical Lebanese clerics, the formation of any kind of operational ties should be of grave concern to the United States [see Note below].
And as Ashraf Fahim wrote in Asia Times Online on March 10, “Regionally, the group has close religious ties to Iraq’s new Shi’ite-dominated government, which makes threatening it risky – Nasrullah studied in Najaf with many of the Da’wa Party’s clerics” (Hezbollah enters the fray).
Terrill updated his views in a report released by the AWC on March 5, under the title “Strategic Implications of Intercommunal Warfare In Iraq.” I am astonished that Terrill’s study received not a single mention in any news outlet other than this (a Google News search turns up only the original AWC press release). Parenthetically, the same silence greeted another report of vast strategic importance, namely the United Nations’ “World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision” (see They made a democracy and called it peace, March 8, link above). Terrill warns:
Many Western observers reflexively view Western-style democracy as the way to address the divisions within Iraq society that may lead to severe civil conflict. Nevertheless, the birth of democracy and development of ethnic and sectarian harmony are not always closely related, and a number of important challenges will have to be addressed for Iraq to evolve into a viable democracy that protects the rights of all religious and ethnic groups. Should Iraqis be unable to meet the challenges of accommodating and regulating key differences while forming a functioning government, civil war becomes a serious possibility.
A major concern of the US Army’s senior Middle East strategist is that:
… Civil war in Iraq will also have important implications for Lebanon. In the event of an Iraqi civil war, Lebanese Muslims, and especially the numerically dominant Shi’ites, can be expected to be concerned with the fate of Iraq’s Shi’ite community, and a few young Shi’ite men may further choose to go to Iraq. Leaders of the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group, Hezbollah, have made numerous statements about Iraq, and will probably seek to support like-minded Shi’ite radicals in Iraq, should civil war break out … A circulation of fighters could occur between Iraq and Lebanon under conditions of protracted sectarian fighting.
Just what is it about a civil war in Iraq or Lebanon, though, that prejudices US strategic interests? Civil wars, especially the prolonged and bloody wars of attrition, benefit the outside power best equipped to intervene (Civil war: A do-it-yourself guide, August 29, 2003). The only chess move on the Middle Eastern board that frees Washington from apparent Zugzwang is to call Nasrullah’s bluff, and let him launch civil conflict in Lebanon, taking into account contagion in Iraq. This would create a meat-grinder on the ground, with the object of depleting the ranks of the militants on both sides.
Call this a Lincolnian, rather than a Wilsonian, foreign policy. US president Abraham Lincoln crushed his country’s slave-holding south by killing two-fifths of southern men of military age, a policy of attrition well understood by his generals. “Full 300,000 of the bravest men of this world must be killed or banished in the south before they will think of peace, and in killing them we must lose an equal or greater number, for we must be the attacking party,” wrote General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864. “Still, we as a nation have no alternative or choice.”
“Americans fail to grasp decisive strategic issues not only because they misunderstand other cultures, but because they avert their gaze from the painful episodes of their own history,” I wrote in 2003 (Why radical Islam might defeat the West, July 8). Wars do not end when they are won, but when those who want to fight to the death find their wish has been granted (More killing, please!, June 12, 2003).
“The United States and Iraq’s Shi’ite Clergy: Partners or Adversaries?”Available <here>. My ATol colleague Marc Erikson drew attention to Terrill’s work in an April 27, 2004, commentary (Deadline looming, US forces the issue).