Is the Arab Spring turning to Dust under Israeli Bombardment?
Petroleum hit $76.70 a barrel on Thursday, a record high price, in reaction to the new Middle East crisis. (Though in real terms, the 1980 post-Iranian revolution crisis price was probably $80 a barrel in today's dollars). To those of you in the Gen-X and younger generations, let me welcome you to the late 1970s. The only pleasures of that day of which you are now denied are standing in long lines just to fill up your tank and stagflation or combined high inflation with economic stagnation. If George W. Bush's wise stewardship of the world continues in this brilliant fashion, you may yet have those joys, as well.
Nicholas Blanford reports on Israeli bombing of Lebanon, which killed 50 civilians, including entire families. The Israelis also bombed the runway at Beirut airport, blockaded Beirut port, and bombed the road on the way from Beirut to Damascus. Ordinary Western tourists and Lebanese who were blocked from getting out by the airport (and who could have been killed there by Israeli bombs) were then endangered again by the Israeli air force when it blasted the only other way out of the country, the road to Syria.
Hizbullah got off dozens of katyusha missiles in reply, which they would not have been able to do if the Israeli airforce had been hitting katyusha missile emplacements in the deep south instead of attacking the whole Lebanese economy up at Beirut. The missiles killed two Israeli civilians. One was said to hit the outskirts of Haifa, but Hizbullah denies that one and ordinary katyushas do not have that kind of range. Hizbullah's attacks on Israel during the past two days have been despicable.
As the Saudis pointed out, Hizbullah's latest actions are a form of ill-conceived adventurism that has plunged the region into greater crisis. On the other side, Condi Rice called on the Israelis to exercise restraint in their response in Lebanon. Given the power of the Israel Lobby in Washington, this statement is about as close as you would get nowadays to a denunciation of disproportionate Israeli attacks on the whole Lebanese people for the actions of a handful of Shiite guerrillas in the far south of the country.
Yes, I am saying that Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and the Bush administration Secretary of State are the adults in all this.
Bush is aware that the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon, of which he and the Wall Street Journal were so proud last year, is in danger of being undone. He politely asked the Israelis please not to bring down the Lebanese government, but that is probably as far as he dares go in an election year, given the support for Israel of his evangelical base.
But of course there was always a severe contradiction in the Bush position on the 2005 Lebanese elections, which were the freest and fairest in some time-- given the departure of Syria's military from the country. Those elections brought to power a government in which the hard line Shiite fundamentalist party, Hizbullah, had cabinet posts for the first time. The US under Clinton had consistently warned Beirut not to admit Hizbullah to the government, and even the Bush administration had adopted that position as recently as January of 2004.
A Lebanon with no Syrian troops and Hizbullah in the government was inherently unstable. All the other parties but Hizbullah had disarmed, so it alone had its own paramilitary. With Syria gone, Hizbullah filled a security vacuum and also was less restrained in its policies. While in the country, Syria supported the party, but also curbed its adventurism.
So this was Bush's big success in the Levant. It was as though a chef baked a lopsided wedding cake with a ticking bomb embedded in it, and declared it a culinary breakthrough. Now the bomb has gone off.
People are speculating that the timing of Hizbullah's attack on Israeli troops had something to do with the crisis at the UN over Iran (i.e. it might be a diversionary move). But these events are usually localistic and planned for some time and it would be unwise to tie them too closely to such an immediate context. It seems to me much more likely that Hizbullah is flexing its muscles as, increasingly, the most important political force in Lebanon. Lebanon used to have a Christian majority, but Christians are probably down to only 30% of the population, and Shiites, most of whom support Hizbullah, may be 45%. They have large families and are poor and many are rural, and they are likely to be a majority in a decade or two.
Israel is apparently hoping, by bombing the Beirut airport and other irrelevant targets, to put pressure on the rest of the Lebanese to turn against Hizbullah and curb it themselves.
The Lebanese government is split. President Lahoud and Hizbullah are allied with the Syrians, but the majority of the cabinet is anti-Syrian and is often critical of Hizbullah. The cabinet recalled the Lebanese ambassador to the US when he seemed to support Hizbullah's call to negotiate over a prisoner exchange.
But even anti-Syrian, anti-Hizbullah cabinet members like Walid Jumblatt are blasting Israel's "brutal aggression."
If the cabinet breaks with Hizbullah, the government might well fall. There are 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament, so the government needs 65 to survive a vote of no confidence. Given that there are pro-Syrian Sunnis and pragmatic Christians in the legislature, I'm not sure the reform government would have 65 votes if the Shiites, with their 29 seats, pulled out. Even if the government of Fuad Seniora didn't fall, Lebanon could be torn apart again if the Shiites pulled out or were excluded. Bush, who is cleverer than most give him credit for, knows all this and that is why he is afraid that Israeli aggression and over-reaction will reduce the Cedar Revolution to mere ashes.
Some press reports suggest, moreover, that a lot of Lebanese, seeing their capital under attack from Israel, are rallying behind Hizbullah. Even many formerly pro-American Christian Lebanese are deeply upset that Bush seemed to say it was all right for the Israelis to bomb their civilian airport and blockade the whole country. If the country goes to new elections, the results could be quite different this time.