Binge and Hangover

— The Editors

THE LORDS OF empire set out to show that the United States, not Iran or any other potential rival, will rule the Middle East. Unable to attack Iran directly, however, they instead employed the willing regional branch office of the U.S. military-industrial complex, the Israeli Defense Force, to destroy Lebanon. A war that began as a triumphal imperial binge has ended, at least as of August 14 if the fragile ceasefire holds, with uncertainty and a hangover. (The ceasefire’s fate, following the failed Israeli commando raid in the Bekaa Valley, is uncertain as we go to press.)

The facts of the war are clear enough and well documented. The operation was a long-planned joint U.S. and Israeli strategy, as reported in detail by the San Francisco Chronicle (July 21, 2006), awaiting only a pretext to sell it as “a war for Israel’s national survival.” The main source was not some maverick or anonymous leak, but a prominent Israeli academic militarist Gerald Steinberg, who boasted that this was the “best-prepared war in Israel’s history” with a three-week timetable for overwhelming victory. Further, as Seymour Hersh’s reporting reveals, proponents of air power in the Pentagon as well as Dick Cheney envisioned not only smashing Hezbollah in Lebanon, but demonstrating how U.S. air power on a massively greater scale could bring “victory” over Iran.

As it turned out, Israel’s Lebanon bombing and expeditionary campaign ended only after five weeks, and with nothing like the promised smashing victory. We believe it will go down, in the historical long run, as a chapter in a slow-motion Israeli national suicide. Immediately, however, it has meant the destruction of the country of Lebanon, the subjection of its population to starvation in the manner of a medieval siege conducted with state-of-the-art military technology, the greatest oil spill and ecological disaster in the history of the eastern Mediterranean, and – mostly hidden from the headlines – a concentrated murderous Israeli assault on the Palestinian Gaza and West Bank population.

It is not a question of whether it was the United States or Israel that initiated this carnage – it was both, with closely coinciding interests. For the Israeli state the local agenda remains crushing the Palestinian nation, and the regional priority is to demonstrate Israel’s value to the imperial superpower in wiping out any potential Arab resistance to U.S. dominance. But the driving factor prolonging the war was the global agenda of U.S. imperialism. That is why it continued long past the point where the impossibility of “a complete defeat and disarming of Hezbollah” was clear.

What astonished the world was that, after a full month of war, the Israeli assault failed. The Katyusha rockets were still falling in northern Israel – mostly landing at random (except for one apparent sophisticated hit, reported by Robert Fisk, on a secret air command facility), not very relevant militarily and with Arab citizens of Israel almost half the civilian victims, but terrifying the population and crippling economic activity. (As the Israeli antiwar campaigner Uri Avnery observed, both in northern Israel and southern Lebanon it was the poor who lacked the means to leave and were forced to remain behind after the more affluent had packed and fled.)

If Hezbollah’s rockets had a strategic rather than symbolic purpose, it was perhaps to force Israel to give up reliance on air power alone and undertake a massive ground invasion – a scenario that would imply weeks or months of brutal fighting and possibly hundreds of deaths for the invading army. Faced with this prospect, in the second week in August a divided Israeli cabinet – its meetings interrupted so that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could place phone calls to the U.S. Secretary of State – voted for “a decisive ground operation to the Litani River,” then placed it on hold.

That was roughly where matters stood as the UN cease-fire resolution was adopted – at which point Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered a final full-scale ground operation, during which Israel suffered its worst one-day military loss, with 24 soldiers killed, when the war was already supposed to have ended.

War Crimes and Futility

Put aside, for the moment, the overwhelming weight of the historical record of Israeli aggression against Lebanon. Put aside the fact that an Israeli withdrawal from Shebaa Farms (the piece of Lebanon still occupied by Israel from 1967) and releasing Lebanese prisoners held by Israel would have prevented this horror. Suspend all judgment temporarily on the immediate responsibility for starting the war, and ask instead: Once it began, what made this war continue to the point of the slaughter in Qana, the bombing of farm workers in northern Lebanon, neighborhoods in south Beirut and civilian convoys, the blockading of aid and creation of total “humanitarian disaster” throughout the country?

One week after the war broke out, several facts were already completely clear. First, Israel could smash anything in Lebanon anytime it chose. Second, Hezbollah was both politically and militarily entrenched and could not be removed by lightning Israeli air or ground power. Third, the Syrian regime could not be isolated or ignored. Fourth, the Iranian regime can’t be isolated either – not only because it provides sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah, but because of the implicit threat that if pushed to the wall, it could give that kind of assistance (as it hasn’t so far, for good reasons) to allied militia forces inside Iraq.

In short, everyone’s “point” had been made. Even in the lunatic logic of warmaking, then, it was time to use the available machinery (i.e. the United Nations) to move to a quick cease-fire and political negotiations. The primary reason this didn’t happen was that for the U.S. administration, no outcome was acceptable short of 100% Hezbollah defeat and surrender. Given its defeat in Iraq, the Bush gang saw Lebanon as the chance to reverse its fortunes, a proxy war to smash the influence of Iran and soften it up for the next round of “regime change.” To accomplish this absurd dream, Washington is willing to bravely fight to the last Lebanese civilian, and to sacrifice the Lebanese government along with as many Israeli lives as necessary. Even while Condoleezza Rice went running around the Middle East like a headless chicken with nothing to offer anyone, she was shadowed by the obscene Elliott Abrams (the pardoned 1980s Iran-Contragate felon who resumed his government career in this administration) calling the White House to report her if she engaged in any actual diplomacy.

For three weeks, Bush and Rice and Bolton continued to block any Security Council resolution that didn’t “address fundamental issues” – by which they meant eliminating the existence of any force that can fight back. This began to change only as it became clear that the Israeli assault wasn’t a success, and as Arab governments (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan) that secretly backed the U.S.-Israeli war could no longer ignore the anger of their own peoples.

A second factor was the tangle of Israeli politics. For the Israeli military command, the popular trauma over Hezbollah rockets provided an unusual (short-term) mandate to “go all the way” in Lebanon, to demonstrate Israel’s military supremacy without restraint and in the process, to shoot off all the cool stuff in their arsenal and get more, courtesy of the generous U.S. taxpayer. For a coalition government headed by Ehud Olmert and his junior partner Amir Peretz, neither of whom have strong military credentials, this war was calculated to restore their stature after the post-”disengagement” drive to starve the people of Gaza failed to produce a Palestinian surrender.

As it turns out, the carnage in Lebanon seems more likely to destroy military and political careers in Israel than to bolster them. Not only are sectors of the Israeli military now blaming each other for the failure, but the political backlash is beginning – even among Israel’s most hawkish U.S. partisans. The warmongering neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, a leading advocate of the view that “the West is in a war with fundamentalist Islam that will last for our lifetimes” and an aggressive proponent of the very policies that could make this drivel a self-fulfilling prophecy, warns that an Israeli failure to crush Hezbollah will cause American policymakers to question its usefulness as a strategic ally (God forbid).

There is one other force, to be sure, that would prefer the slaughter in Lebanon to go on and on. That’s al-Qaeda, the global totalitarian-religious jihadist movement that loathes, as its main rivals, Shiite Muslims and successful nationalist resistance forces – exactly the two things that Hezbollah represents. Al-Qaeda needs to recruit to its brand of terrorist jihad from the rubble of defeat; it cannot grow where a movement like Hezbollah succeeds.

This is not to imply that Hezbollah is left-wing in the context of Lebanese politics; indeed its political success began with the defeat and decline of the secular left. The point, however, is that (like HAMAS in Palestine) Hezbollah wages a national struggle that gives fanatical terrorism of the Osama bin Laden or al-Zarqawi type no room to operate. While jihadists in Iraq promote Sunni-Shia intercommunal slaughter, Hezbollah has reached out beyond Lebanon’s traditional sectarian-communal politics and become a national resistance force in the eyes not only of Shia Muslims, but also Sunni and Christian Lebanese.

And the Winner Is?

Amidst this horror, no one can say that the Lebanese people have “won.” To repair even the physical wreckage of the country may take as long as in Iraq, and that is the smallest part of the unimaginable damage to the psychology of the population, the political structures and the hope that had just been reborn in recent years.

The people of Israel have lost a great deal too – not only in the numbers of dead, which are absolutely tragic yet small by comparison with the losses in Lebanon, and the economic losses which will be reimbursed by the U.S. Treasury and Zionist fundraising, but in the loss of their sense of security and the hope for a “normal” life.

The choice the Israeli population faces is now clear, and the short-term prospects for that choice are not encouraging. The choice is whether to make peace with the Arab world and the Palestinian people, by a clean and complete break with the policies of Occupation and the delusion of security through overwhelming firepower; or to carry through the Zionist program of crushing the Palestinian nation by annexation and the “unilateral” creation of Bantustans, and adopting a perspective of permanent war-and-threat-of-war against the rest of the Middle East.

The war was popular in Israel, both because of the trauma of real rockets falling in northern Israel and the myth that “victory” was possible with the use of sufficient force. But hopeful signs began to emerge as the myth dissipated: Antiwar demonstrations that began with a few hundred hardcore activists grew to rallies of five thousand Israeli citizens, Jewish and Arab together demanding peace. Some Israeli pilots, aware that their orders to bomb civilian houses were a crime against humanity, deliberately missed the targets. A few soldiers and reservists publicly refuse to serve and face prosecution, while a much larger number of reservists simply don’t show up and are ignored by the military which can’t afford to arrest them all.

The American people are certainly losers: Along with the war in Iraq, this disaster has made us poorer and less free at home, and more despised and hated around the world, than at any time in history. Everyone understands the meaning of the rapid U.S. re-supply of 5,000-pound bombs to the Israeli air force, and the expedited shipment of cluster bombs – with the meaningless exhortation for Israel to be “careful” in using them!

Hezbollah is the political winner in this war. Far from turning against it, most of the Lebanese population – and not only the Shia community – see in it the standard-bearer for national resistance and dignity. The biggest question left hanging after this bloody inconclusive war is the status of the looming confrontation with Iran.

If logic were to prevail, the backfire of the U.S. proxy war with Iran, waged in Lebanon by the Israeli military to show the world that the United States rules the Middle East, should have proven the reverse. U.S. power can incinerate a country, a region or the world, but Iran has the capacity to resist, not only on its own but through its allies and clients.

Arab governments that calculated the U.S.-Israeli onslaught would wipe out an Iranian-allied movement and isolate the Tehran regime will think harder before they sign on to the next imperial venture. And European states, which stand to be devastated by an oil price shock and the terrorism that an uncontrollable Middle East conflagration could produce, should be applying the brakes – hard.

But there is an alternative logic, especially for a U.S. administration whose leading “thinkers” inhabit a reality-free zone of their own creation. If the conquest of Iraq is a disastrous failure, they argue, it can be “solved” by taking on Syria and Iran too. One power-drunk calculation might be that Iran’s “deterrent asset” in Lebanon, Hezbollah, can no longer militarily attack Israel and that Iran is now ripe for the taking. If these ideologically-driven strategists, most of whom have no actual military experience, really believe th in Lebanon and what’s needed is only the “will” to proceed to the next regime change, the potential danger to the world is unimaginable.

Make no mistake: The course that U.S. imperialism has set toward confrontation and global catastrophe cannot be stopped by international resistance alone. It requires also an antiwar movement at home, independent of the twin U.S. war parties, that can organize the deep loathing of the American people for the dreadful consequences of a war that is now spreading outward from Iraq, to Lebanon and beyond.

ATC 124, September–October 2006