Mark Steyn, that savvy columnist or conservative polemicist depending on your point of view has been visiting Australia. On radio, television, and in the press he extols the virtues of instability in the Middle East.
That’s right, instability.
Stability fetishists, Steyn argues, have inhabited the Western foreign policy establishment for far too long, sticking with unarguably nasty regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. Even Saddam Hussein, for all his evil ways, offered many of us the warm inner glow of stability.
Now Steyn declares it is time for change. Understandably perhaps, he is somewhat less declaratory about ‘to what?’ Anything, it seems, would be an improvement.
Steyn’s views are little more than a variant of those found in the Administration of President George W Bush. After the shock of 11 September 2001, the US took the temperature of the Middle East. The region with the notable exception of Israel was declared to be sickly indeed, suffering severe ‘autocratitis.’ Those with hate in their heart for America were afflicted by a congenital jealousy of its freedoms. The cure, naturally enough, was ‘democratisation’ a word that became the catchcry for America’s remaking of the Middle East.
This was especially so after Saddam Hussein was toppled and the case for war his weapons of mass destruction program proved to be a mirage. With a quick make-over, Iraq was converted into the first domino for freeing 300 million plus Arabs from the burden of their corrupt and dictatorial rulers. God, said George Bush, had planted the desire for freedom in every human heart. America’s new crusade would ensure that the Arabs received their fair share.
In Cairo in mid-2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly recanted 60 years of American policies that promoted stability ahead of democracy. This, she said, had fed a very malignant form of extremism ‘because people didn’t have outlets for their political views.’ Stretching out before her was a new Middle East a free and united Iraq, a democratic Palestinian State, an Egypt pulsing with reform. What a different region it would be, she opined, certainly not one producing people intent on blowing up others.
A year on, Rice has acknowledged that the going is ‘hard.’ The Lebanese would certainly agree as Israel pounds their nation’s infrastructure and kills a thousand or so of their civilians, with the US watching from the sidelines and barely managing a ‘tut.’ Still, perhaps we need to put this into context. After all, it’s only one small Arab nation being put to the sword; a small price to pay for the benefit of a wider instability.
For if it’s instability we want we’re in luck. Even assuming that the new ceasefire holds, that the Israeli-Hezbollah war dies down and a strong multinational force keeps the protagonists apart, the peacekeepers herald not the arrival of Condi’s new Middle East but ‘Hobson’s choice.’ They will either be useless from the moment they land or face the very real prospect of fighting both Hezbollah when it attacks Israel and Israel when it responds, or vice versa. The international force may be better than nothing. But it will face the impossible task of promoting the authority of a democratically elected Lebanese Government that Israeli military action and US indifference have done much to destroy.
Israel has legitimate grievances against Hezbollah. Like its patron, Iran, Hezbollah has existentialist designs on the Jewish State. If anything, however, Israel has cemented Hezbollah’s place in Lebanese society and has done nothing to curb Iranian ambitions.
These ambitions are grist to the mill for those seeking Middle East instability. Shi’a-dominated Iran is flexing its not inconsiderable muscle, using its Shi’a constituencies particularly in Iraq and Lebanon. In removing Saddam Hussein that odorous fellow traveller of the stability fetishists the US did Iran an extraordinary favour, allowing Iraq’s majority Shi’a community to assume its rightful place in the country’s politics.
Thanks to Clay Bennett
Besides Iraq, Iran’s strong cards include its patronage of Hezbollah (created after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982), and its huge oil reserves the world’s fifth largest. Oil is definitely win-win for Iran and those in the Steyn camp. Instability drives up oil prices, providing Iranian leaders with additional funds to buy domestic quiet and promote instability abroad, which then drives up oil prices even more.
Another plus for instability is nervousness about Iran in autocratic, Sunni Arab regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Their initial response to the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict was to blame Hezbollah. This had a lot more to do with their wariness about Iran than the fact that Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel. But whatever those regimes think, and however much they may wish not to get too far off-side with the US, they have publics to consider. All the signs are that the ‘Arab street’ admires Hezbollah and has sharpened its distaste for Israel.
This points to one of the clearest outcomes of the Lebanon war, coming as it does after the litany of failed efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: American support for dictatorial regimes, its seeming inability to rein in Israel (US pressure on Israel’s illegal settlement activity is a farce), and its hollow rhetoric about democratisation have produced profound bitterness towards America in the Muslim world generally. No matter that it is unfair to blame the US alone for the troubles of the Middle East, let alone suggest that the US has a magic wand to resolve them, America has created for itself the mother of all image problems.
And this must lead us back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though relegated to a sideshow over the past month it continues to consume lives and treasure. The US held out a democratic Holy Grail to the Palestinians, then punished them for freely electing a HAMAS government. Rather than trying to drive a wedge between HAMAS’s political and military wings thus taming the former and marginalising the latter the US, urged on by Israel, tarred them both with the same brush.
There is little theological love lost between the Shi’a of Hezbollah and of Iran and the Sunni Muslims of HAMAS. But the more pressure on HAMAS, the more extreme its world view, the happier Iran will be because of the opportunities this offers to both take the fight up to Israel and to project itself as the only true national champion of the Palestinian cause.
For Australia, there is no good news in any of this. Israel has not succeeded in crushing Hezbollah, let alone embarrassing Iran. With Australian troops on the ground in Afghanistan, East Timor and Iraq a commitment to peace making (not mere keeping) in Lebanon would pose huge military and political risks.
As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Australia has minimal influence. We might encourage Israelis and Palestinians to talk and the US to try again. But given the events of the past month, and indeed the past decade, there is little hope on the horizon. Moreover, Australia is widely seen as little more than a clone of the US. It has diminished any role it once had as a voice of independent advice.
These are depressing times indeed. Despair and anger at the various parties’ endless capacity to find excuses for their own bad behaviour is what we should feel not relief at the new instability unfolding before our eyes.
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