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July 30, 2006 - When you're the strongest, the richest, and basically just the biggest...













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When you're the strongest, the richest, and basically just the biggest, does it matter if no one at all agrees with you?

 

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The question is not really hypothetical, and it's certainly not rhetorical. It is a real question. When you're the strongest, the richest, and basically just the biggest, does it matter if no one at all agrees with you? As of Wednesday, July 26, the grand experiment, to show that the United States can bend the rest of the world to its will continued.

Midmorning of that day, out here on the west coast, came the news that the talks to work out a ceasefire in southern Lebanon, between Israel and Hezbollah, had fallen apart. All parties agreed to call for an immediate ceasefire, except for Israel and the United States. We maintain the fighting could lead to "a new Middle East" and just stopping it would leave everything still a mess. We have a different vision - a ceasefire only when and if Hezbollah - and Hamas and all the rest - are defanged. Anything less would be pointless. No one agreed with us, and the fighting raged on - Israel losing either nine or fourteen soldiers, and no one making much military progress. The AFP report is here with all the details, but the details point only to the obvious - this is going nowhere, slowly, and will last for weeks, or months, or years, or decades.

Then there's this Countries Slam Israel over UN Deaths - someone called in a precision airstrike on a UN observation post that had been repeatedly been radioing in just who they were. Four UN observers died. Kofi Annan said that this seemed deliberate. Israel was ticked that he said that, but reluctantly said the whole business was regrettable. All parties agreed this was pretty awful, except for Israel and the United States. Israel offered its grudging "oops" - and the United States was silent.

Of course this was the day Prime Minister Maliki of our new Iraq addressed a rare joint session of congress. He avoided saying what he had said before - that Israel not Hezbollah was the real aggressor here - and just said thanks for the new country, send more troops and money, and we'll get things together one day, and yes, the Iraq War was worth it all, and if you lose this one you'll have lost everything. The details are here, but what would you expect him to say. He steered clear of any mention of the Israel-Hezbollah business. A few minor notes - there was a lot of chatter about who wrote his speech for him - Karl Rove, the American Enterprise Institute, or maybe Dick Cheney, but the White House Press Secretary, Tony Snow, late of Fox News, said the White House only went over a few points with him. It's tricky. He has his own Shi'a constituency to satisfy, and lots of people noted that when he was in exile long ago in Syria he was one of the founders of Hezbollah. It's really tricky. And a minor giggle, on Fox News before the speech Senator John McCain said Maliki really had denounced Hezbollah and was on Israel's side in all this. There was a web-based campaign to flood McCain's office with demands to show anyone when and where Maliki had said anything like that. But Fox News is Fox News. They ran with it. You and watch McCain or read the transcript here, but who knows what to make of that? When things are complicated and nasty you make up stuff. Politicians do that.

Condoleezza Rice is no different. She's the Secretary of State. She represented us at the ceasefire talks in Rome, and said they went just fine (details here). Sure, there was no agreement on an immediate ceasefire, but we were not alone at all - everyone agreed that we all want things to be better than they had been before. That's agreement, isn't it? It was just that some details had to be worked out. No big deal.

Marc Lynch, who surveys the press in the Middle East, disagrees -

 

I don't know anyone who will be surprised that the Rome conference failed - it seems to have been designed to fail, to give the US the chance to appear to be "doing something" while giving Israel the time it wants to continue its offensive. But this policy is so transparent, such an obvious stalling mechanism, that it is probably making things even worse for the United States and for Israel: when you are faking it, you're supposed to at least try to maintain the pretence so that others can at least pretend to believe you. The call for an immediate ceasefire has become more or less universal now, other than from the United States and Israel: even the pro-American Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, which initially blamed Hezbollah for the crisis, are now loudly demanding an immediate ceasefire.

America is totally alone on this. And more than most Americans might realize, America is being blamed for Israel's actions. The shift in Arab public discourse over the last week has been palpable. For the first few days, the split [was] between the Saudi media and the "al-Jazeera public" which I wrote about at the time. Then for a few days, horror at the humanitarian situation, fury with the Arab states for their impotence, speculation about the endgame, and full-throated condemnation of Israeli aggression. But for the last few days, the main trend has been unmistakable: an increasing focus on the United States as the villain of the piece. (That the Israeli bombing of Beirut stopped just long enough for Condoleezza Rice's-photo op certainly didn't help.)

While there's disagreement as to whether Israel acted on behalf of an American project, there is near-consensus about American responsibility for not stopping what al-Jazeera is now calling "the sixth [Arab-Israeli] war". For instance, al-Jazeera's prime time Behind the News on July 25 was devoted to "the American project for a new Middle East" (with no American officials accepting their invitation to participate). If you review the daily Arab media selections I've been posting in the left sidebar (with short English comments and summaries) you'll see something of this trend over the last few days: Sami Soroush, in al-Hayat, a new Middle East through Israeli war? America keeps making the same mistakes every single time; Hossein Shabakshi, al-Sharq al-Awsat, yes the Middle East needs reform and change... but not through the massacre of innocents; Abd al-Wahab Badrakhan, in al-Hayat: American plans require Israeli victory at any cost; Yasir al-Za'atra, al-Hayat: real roots of the escalating crisis is American drive for hegemony in the region; Hazem Saghiye, al-Hayat, America's responsibility; and that's not even getting in to Abd al-Bari Atwan (today: the Middle East against America) and the writers in al-Quds al-Arabi.

Perhaps this negative focus on America was inevitable, given Iraq and the war on terror and al-Jazeera?

No. This wasn't inevitable. Real American leadership, such as quickly restraining the Israeli offensive and taking the lead in ceasefire negotiations, could have created a Suez moment and dramatically increased American influence and prestige (especially if the Saudis had delivered Iran in a ceasefire agreement, as I've heard that Saudi officials believed that they could). But by disappearing for the first days of the war and then resurfacing only to provide a megaphone for Israeli arguments and to prevent international efforts at achieving a ceasefire, the Bush administration put America at the center of the storm of blame. I think that the Lebanon war will go down in history as one of the greatest missed opportunities in recent American diplomatic history - not because we failed to go after Iran, or whatever the bobbleheads are ranting about these days, but because we failed to rise to the occasion and exercise real global leadership in the national interest.

 

But the neoconservatives don't much care. When you're the strongest, the richest, and basically just the biggest, does it matter if no one at all agrees with you?

"Digby" offers another way of looking at the neoconservative approach, even if angry -

 

This is just the latest in a decades-long series of delusional miscalculations in which it is fantasized that if only the US would just get tough everything would fall into place. This is the simple essence of everything they believe in. And when they found themselves an empty brand name in a suit named George W. Bush they found the man whose infantile personality and outsized vanity could be manipulated perfectly to advance that belief.

The situation in Lebanon requires American leadership and we have failed miserably to provide it. The various players are engaged in a struggle in which minimizing loss of life and face saving kabuki may be the best we can hope for at any given time. The megalomaniacal belief that if only the Israelis are allowed to "get tough" or the Americans "take it to the Iranians" or whatever other simplistic schoolyard impulses they have been operating under have led us to the point at which the US is taking on the character of a rogue superpower, not a global leader.

I maintain that the players in the mid-east expected the US to exercise its power wisely and the American failure to fulfill its obligation has led to confusion, overreach and miscalculation. This is not surprising. The bumbling, hallucinatory nature of this administration's foreign policy has been manifest for some time now, but it's still hard to wrap your mind around the fact that the most powerful country in the world is being led so incompetently that it simply cannot rise to the occasion when the stakes are so high. I confess that I'm still shocked by that myself, although less so each time we are confronted with a challenge and these neocon magical thinkers automatically default to bellicose trash talk they are unable to back up.

This is a very dangerous moment for the world. The US is showing over and over again that it is immoral and incompetent. That is the kind of thing that leads ambitious, crazy or stupid people to miscalculate and set disastrous events in motion. The neocons have destroyed America's carefully nurtured mystique by seeking to flex its muscles for the sake of flexing them. What a mistake. This country is much, much weaker today because of it and the world is paying the price. At some point I have to imagine that we are going to be paying it too. Big Time.

 

Well, they would argue back that they have a grand vision, and everyone else is just thinking small.

And it's not like we said we would be sending troops in to defang Hezbollah. The hypothetical multinational force would defiantly not have any US troops. We said so, publicly.

So why is there this in Harpers? -

 

According to the former [CIA] official, Israel and the United States are currently discussing a large American role in exactly such a "multinational" deployment [in Lebanon], and some top administration officials, along with senior civilians at the Pentagon, are receptive to the idea.

The uniformed military, however, is ardently opposed to sending American soldiers to the region, according to my source. "They are saying 'What the fuck?'" he told me. "Most of our combat-ready divisions are in Iraq or Afghanistan, or on their way, or coming back. The generals don't like it because we're already way overstretched."

 

But nobody stands up to Rumsfeld. That ends careers.

Then there's this -

 

My friend is an old Middle East hand who has some good sources on the Israeli side, mostly ex-military and ex-Mossad, plus some contacts among the Bush I realist crowd - although of course they're not in government any more either.

He didn't have any secret dope on what the next military or diplomatic moves will be - it seems to be purely day-to-day now - but he DID get a clear sense that the Americans and the Israelis both understand now that they are in serious danger of losing the war.

They're freaking out about this, of course, because they're deathly afraid that if Israel is seen to fail, and fail badly, against Hezbollah, everybody and their Palestinian uncle will get it into their heads that they can take a crack at the Zionist entity.

… Plan B, then, is to try to "make something happen" on the ground - although what, exactly, isn't clear. Today it was killing a low-level Hezbollah leader (in a border village they supposedly secured three days ago) and pumping him up as a big catch (shades of Zarqawi's 28,000 "lieutenants"). Tomorrow it will be something else - maybe the capture of the "terror capital" of south Lebanon, beautiful downtown Bint Jbeil.

But, of course, I'm getting the impression from reading between the lines of the official propaganda that the IDF is struggling just to produce these little symbolic victories - they seem to be "securing" the same objectives over and over again. So my guess is that the internal debate will now turn to how many more divisions to commit to the battle, how far north to push, etc. My friend can't tell, nor can I, if the primary objective is still to smash the hell out of Hezbollah, or whether the Israelis are just looking to save a little face.

But the Israelis are being squeezed between two relentless pressures. One is the desire to avoid taking too many casualties, and the other is the amount of time left to achieve even their minimal objectives. The less time, the more casualties - and the more firepower that will be unloaded on Lebanon to try to keep those casualties as low as possible. More firepower means more scenes of civilian death and destruction. (The Arab puppet regimes can see perfectly clearly what's coming, which is probably why they all bailed out today.)
But the end game remains stubbornly unclear. Or rather, what is being put forward as the official end game - insertion of a force of NATO peacekeepers into the "buffer zone" -- is so outlandish it's hard to believe the Israelis (the ultimate hard-eyed realists) believe it for a second. An ex-Mossad guy actually told my friend the Israelis are hopeful that the EU would provide the troops. The EU!

So I explained to my friend that the EU manages a currency and writes standardized regulations for toaster safety and stuff like that, but it doesn't do peacekeeping. If the Israelis want boots on the ground, they're going to have to go to NATO or directly to the Germans and the Danes and the Poles and the French (yes, the cheese eating surrender monkeys) -- who are about as enthusiastic for the idea as they are for Mad Cow disease. Maybe less so.

… One possible twist: The Condi might ask the Turks to jump in. This has certain uncomfortable historical overtones (call it the return of the Ottomans) but the Turkish Army is pretty good and might actually be able to handle the job, if anyone can. But one imagines that before the Turks agreed to do any such thing, they would name their price. And if I were the Kurds, I'd be a little nervous about that.

To me the whole thing sounds like cloud cuckoo land. It seems particularly so after today. My conversation with my friend pre-dated the strike on the UN observers, so I don't know if it has changed anybody's thinking. But to me it seems like such an enormous provocation that I almost have to wonder if some military crazies on the Israeli side didn't do it on purpose - just to foreclose the possibility of anyone or anything getting in the way of a fight to the death with Hezbollah.

I know that sounds paranoid, but then this is the Middle East.

… If all this sounds familiar - the half-baked war plan, the unexpected setbacks, the frantic search for foreign legions, the lack of an exit strategy, the rising tide of blood - it certainly should. We've already seen this movie, in fact we're still sitting through the last reel. It's a hell of a time to release the sequel.

 

But wait! There's more.

There's this -

 

According to retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft, the goal of the campaign is to "create a rift between the Lebanese population and Hezbollah supporters." The message to Lebanon's elite, he said, is this: "If you want your air conditioning to work and if you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hezbollah-land."

 

Juan Cole, the University of Michigan Middle East expert comments -

 

The horrible thing is that the Lebanese could not do anything about Hezbollah if they wanted to. Their government is weak and divided (Hezbollah is in it, and the Bush administration and Ambassador Mark Feltman signed off on that!) Their new, green army only has 60,000 men, and a lot of them are Shiites who would not fight Hezbollah. Lebanon was a patient that needed to be nurtured carefully to health. Instead, it has been drafted and put into the middle of the worst fighting on the battlefield.

 

And add this -

 

Brigadier General Dan Halutz, the Israeli Chief of Staff, emphasized that the offensive … was open-ended. "Nothing is safe (in Lebanon), as simple as that," he said.

 

Cole -

 

In other words, Halutz, who is also said to have threatened ten for one reprisals, is openly declaring that he will commit war crimes if he wants to. Nothing is safe? A Christian school in the northern village of Bsharri? A Druze old people's home in the Shouf mountains? A Sunni family out for a stroll in the northern port of Tripoli? He can murder all of them at will, Halutz says. And Luft gives us the rationale. If these Lebanese civilians aren't curbing Hezbollah for Israel, they just aren't going to be enjoying their lives. They are a nation of hostages until such time as they have properly developed Stockholm syndrome and begin thanking the Israelis for their tender mercies.

It is a bit mad, and Cole's summary cuts no slack either way -

Israel's present policy toward Lebanon, of striking at so many civilian targets as to hold the entire civilian population hostage, is unspeakable.

I haven't complained about the Israeli border war with Hezbollah. I'm not sure it is wise, and I don't know how many Israelis Hezbollah even killed in, say, the year 2005. Is it really worth it? But I don't deny that Hezbollah went too far when it shelled dozens of civilian towns and cities and killed over a dozen innocent civilians, even in reprisal for the Israeli bombing campaign. (You can't target civilians. That is a prosecutable crime.) That is a clear casus belli, and I'd like to see Nasrallah tried at the Hague for all those civilian deaths he ordered. The fighting at Maroun al-Ra's and Bint Jbeil was horrible on all sides, but it was understandable, even justifiable. The fighting itself isn't going to lead anywhere useful, though, and it is time for a ceasefire and political negotiations - the only way to actually settle such disputes.

What was done to Lebanon as a whole is among the most horrible war crimes of the young 21st century. And that it was done tells me that there is something sick in the heart of the Israeli military and political elite, a sickness of the soul that had better be faced and remedied before our entire world catches the contagion.

I mean, who talks like that? "If you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hezbollah-land." … "Nothing is safe, as simple as that." If they are the good guys, why do they talk like James Bond villains?

Yes, yes, Nasrallah and his shock troops are also evil. They are also sick in the soul. We have established that. … I have been to Haifa, too, and the city means a lot to me. I mind deeply when I hear that the mad bombers around Nasrallah have killed people there and done substantial damage.

But you will note that 800,000 Israelis are not homeless, that the ports are still operating, that Tel Aviv airport is open, that over 400 Israeli civilians aren't dead in two weeks, that factories, roads, bridges, telecom towers are still there. In fact, you will note that no flotilla of international vessels had to come to evacuate tens of thousands of foreigners from Israel. It is suffering, and that is wrong.

 

A pox on both houses, and can we end this? No. That's not our position.

There are political considerations, as Peter Baker explains in the Washington Post here (emphases added) -

 

The discord at a conference in Rome yesterday over a proposed cease-fire in Israel and Lebanon underscored the widening gap between the United States and Europe over how to stop the fighting. And the images of mayhem from the two-week-old war, combined with the rising death toll in Iraq, have further rattled a domestic audience that polls show was already uncertain about Bush's leadership.

For the president, the timing could not be much worse. In a second term marked by one setback after another, the White House was in the midst of a rebuilding effort aimed at a political comeback before November's critical midterm elections. Now the president faces the challenge of responding to events that seem to be spinning out of control again, all but sidelining his domestic agenda for the moment and complicating his effort to rally the world to stop nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

The crisis imperils one of Bush's signature ambitions. This is a president who eschewed Middle East peacemaking of the past as futile, embarking instead on a grand plan to remake the region into a more democratic, peaceful place. A year ago, a wave of reform seemed to take hold. Yet today radicalism is on the rise, Iran is believed to be closer to nuclear weapons and Bush is sending thousands more troops to Baghdad to quell spiraling violence.

"You've got Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories aflame, you've got Iraq still aflame, and you've got the Iran issue now unresolved," said Carlos Pascual, a senior State Department official until this year. "It has hurt the U.S. internationally because it has only reinforced in everyone's mind that the U.S. was not being strategic, it was not looking ahead to how to handle the whole panoply of issues in a way that's both realistic and effective."

Bush advisers who have been buffeted in the past year by a catastrophic hurricane, rising gasoline prices, a failed Social Security initiative, Republican revolts, criminal investigations and a relentless overseas war said they have grown accustomed to constant crisis. "This is a new normal for our administration in the last couple years," said one senior official. "You begin to expect the unexpected."

 

But you don't make it worse, do you?

We had almost won back our European allies, and things went in the weeds -

 

He was ready to reap the benefit of this diplomacy when he left for Europe and the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg earlier this month, confident that he had a broad consensus with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to take stronger measures against Iran for defying them on its nuclear program.

By the time Bush arrived in St. Petersburg, however, the latest conflict had broken out and Iran was shoved onto the back burner. Although European leaders agreed that Hezbollah was to blame for the fighting, they condemned what they called Israel's disproportionate response and insisted on an immediate cease-fire, while Bush resisted any instant cessation of hostilities and effectively gave Israel leeway to destroy as much of Hezbollah as it could.

Moreover, the administration appeared uncertain at first how to respond, some analysts said. When the G-8 countries adopted a statement calling for consideration of an international force in southern Lebanon after hostilities end, some U.S. officials all but rejected the idea. But now it is a centerpiece of what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to accomplish.

 

Oh well. Of course swaggering and talking with his mouth full, and that surprise back rub he gave the German Chancellor, didn't help either. In any event, we're leading no coalition, just explaining our unusual and counterintuitive positions to our allies, just as before. And they are just as impressed as before. That would be "not very."

So what about the original question? When you're the strongest, the richest, and basically just the biggest, does it matter if no one at all agrees with you?

The answer from some circles is a resounding no, it certainly does not matter.

As reported in Insight Magazine, the magazine of Reverend Moon's Washington Times (some say the official daily of the administration), "conservative national security allies" - those in the vice president's office and others- are urging the president to dump the "incompetent" Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State and move her into some kind of "advisory role."

 

The item is here and says everyone thinks she knows next to nothing of the Middle East and has been a wimp - her foreign policy in insufficient aggressive, or something like that. One senior Republican congressional staffer puts it this way - "Condi was sent to rein in the State Department. Instead, she was reined in."

Ah, seduced by diplomacy. And they cite Richard Perle here saying it was her fault we "blinked" on Iran - "What matters is not that she is further removed from the Oval Office; Rice's influence on the president is undiminished. It is, rather, that she is now in the midst of - and increasingly represents - a diplomatic establishment that is driven to accommodate its allies even when (or, it seems, especially when) such allies counsel the appeasement of our adversaries."

Newt Gingrich says the same thing - the administration is "sending signals today that no matter how much you provoke us, no matter how viciously you describe things in public, no matter how many things you're doing with missiles and nuclear weapons, the most you'll get out of us is talk."

We all know talk is useless. Can her ass. And when Iran has its nuclear weapon, blame her. "At that point," one GOP source says, "Rice will be openly blamed and Bush will have a very hard time defending her." These people know diplomacy never works. When you're the strongest, the richest, and basically just the biggest, it just does not matter if no one at all agrees with you.

These next two and a half years will be interesting.































 
 
 
 
Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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