Column: Dispatches From the Edge: The Aftermath of Lebanon: Myths and Dark Plans

By Conn Hallinan
Friday September 01, 2006

The Middle East has always been a place where illusion paves the road to disaster. 

In 1095, Pope Urban’s religious mania launched the Crusades, the reverberations of which still echo through the region. In 1915, Winston Churchill’s arrogance led to the World War I bloodbath at Gallipoli. In 2003, George Bush’s hubris ignited a spiral of chaos and civil war in Iraq. Illusion tends to be a deadly business in those parts. 

And once again, illusions threaten to plunge the Middle East into catastrophe. The central hallucination this time is that the war in Lebanon was a “proxy war” with the mullahs in Teheran, what one senior Israeli commander called “Iran’s western front.” 

At the heart of this is what William O. Beeman, a professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at Brown University, calls “a longstanding U.S. foreign policy myth that believes terrorism cannot exist without state support.” In short, if Hezbollah exists, it is solely because of Iran. 

This particular illusion, according to a number of journalists, is behind the carte blanche the White House handed the Israelis during the war in Lebanon. 

In an Aug. 21 New Yorker article, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claims that, “The Bush administration was closely involved in the planning of Israel’s retaliatory attacks,” and that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney saw the assault on Hezbollah as “a prelude to a potential American pre-emptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations.” 

Former Associated Press and Newsweek ace Robert Perry reports that, not only did Bush push the Israelis to strike Hezbollah, but the U.S. president lobbied Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to include Syria in the attack, an idea the Israelis thought “was nuts.” 

According to Perry, a number of Israeli officials are “privately blaming” Bush for pushing the inexperienced Olmert into “the ill-conceived military adventure,” although one needs to take that statement with a grain of salt. Everyone in Tel Aviv is busy pointing fingers and passing the buck these days to avoid taking the blame for the debacle. 

And debacle it was.  

Olmert’s Kadima Party is almost certainly dead. A Dahaf Institute poll found that 63 percent of Israelis want the prime minister out, and 74 percent want to oust defense minister and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz. The latter is busy trying to shift the blame to Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. General Dan Halutz (54 percent want him to resign) for claiming that Hezbollah could be destroyed from the air. The army is whispering that the politicians held them back, and the politicians are grumbling the army mishandled its budget. 

Olmert is stonewalling a formal inquiry on the war, but almost 70 percent of the population is demanding it, and the reservists are up in arms. After 34 days of war, Hezbollah is intact, and the two soldiers whose capture kicked the whole thing off are still in its hands. And last, but not least, the war knocked 1 percent off Israel’s GNP.  

The war’s outcome is giving some Israelis pause, and there are some interesting straws in the wind. Peretz, for instance, has called for negotiations with the Palestinians and “preparing” for talks with Damascus. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says she is willing to “explore” the idea of talks with Syria. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter has gone even further and says Israel should give up the Golan Heights.  

It is not clear where these discussions are going, but, if nothing else, the war has energized an Israeli peace movement, one rather more inclusive than such movements in the past. 

But for the Bush administration and its neoconservative allies, the ceasefire is just a break between rounds in the president’s war on “Islamofascism.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says the United States is “in the early stages of World War III (Norman Podhoretz, editor-at-large of Commentary, says it’s World War IV). William Kristol calls the Lebanon war an “act of Iranian aggression” and suggests the U.S. attack Iranian nuclear sites. Writing in the Los Angeles Times neo-con heavy Max Boot called for a U.S. attack on Syria.  

According to journalist Sidney Blumenthal, the neocons in the administration, specifically Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Agency Middle East Director Elliot Abrams, have been funneling U.S. intelligence intercepts to the Israelis as part of a plan to target Syria and Iran. 

Those intercepts were behind the recent House Intelligence Committee report blasting U.S. spy agencies for being reluctant to say that Hezbollah is nothing more than an extension of Iran, that Tehran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, and that Iran poses a clear and present danger to the United States. 

The author of the House report, Frederick Fleitz, was a former special assistant to current U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Bolton was a key figure in gathering the now discredited intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. 

According to Blumenthal, Cheney and his Middle East aide David Wurmster have dusted off a 1996 document called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” The study was authored by Wurmster, ex-Pentagon official Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle, disgraced former head of the Defense Policy Board. 

The “Break”—originally written for then Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—advocates that the Israelis, with support from the United States, dump the 1992 Oslo Agreement with the Palestinians, target Syria and Iraq, and redesign the Middle East.  

A key ingredient in the document, and one central to current administration thinking, is that since terrorism is state-supported, the war on terrorism can be won by changing regimes. Hence, to defeat Hezbollah, you have to overthrow Syria and Iran. 

However, Beeman argues that Iran has no direct control over Hezbollah. While Iran does provide the organization some $200 million a year, that money “makes up a fraction of Hezbollah’s operating budget.” The major source of the group’s funding is the “sakat,” or tithe required of all Muslims. 

Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman, writing in Foreign Affairs, says that Iran “lacks the means to force significant change in the [Hezbollah] movement and its goals. It [Iran] has no real presence on the ground in Lebanon and a call to disarm or cease resistance would likely cause Hezbollah’s leadership, or at least its most militant elements, to simply sever ties with Tehran’s leadership.” 

If a wider war is to be avoided, argues Christopher Layne of Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, and author of “The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the present,” the U.S. “will have to engage in direct diplomacy with Syria and Iran—both of which have important stakes in the outcome of security issues in the Middle East, including those involving Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and with Hezbollah in Lebanon.” 

Recently a group of 21 former generals, admirals, ambassadors and high ranking security advisors proposed exactly that, calling on the Bush administration to “engage immediately in direct talks with the government of Iran without preconditions.” The group warned “an attack on Iran would have disastrous consequences for security in the region and U.S. forces in Iraq. It would inflame hatred and violence in the Middle East and among Muslims everywhere.”  

Just as Middle East illusions have done for almost a millennium.