May 18th 2010

Ready to Rumble in the Middle East?

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

Sun Tzu, the much quoted Chinese military strategist, stressed the value of knowing your enemy. A broader diplomatic formulation is: know your enemy, know your allies, know everyone in the field of action -- including yourself. Washington, like most great powers, is incapable of the last. Our special defect is the strong tendency to think that we know the enemy when we discern its hostile intent. That intent, in turn, is totally disconnected -- in our minds -- from what we, for our part, do and say. Such is strikingly the case in the Middle East. There, the resulting distortions in our reading of reality are compounded by including Israel in the American "we." Washington has come to identify so completely with the Israelis as to deny ourselves dispassionate understanding of their place in the complicated regional scheme of things. Hence, we operate with two sets of blinders -- little sense of how others' behavior is affected by Israel as well as disregard for how it is influenced by their perceptions of us.

So it's time for a few home truths as might be seen by a visitor from Mars -- or, more prosaically, an observer in Beijing. Here is my take on their perspective.

1. Washington is unduly prone to lump together as enemies a diverse number of parties who share a lack of sympathy with American ends and purposes. Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas are tightly knit co-conspirators only in the minds of the United States and Israel. Each has its own priorities, its own ambitions and its own vulnerabilities. Iran's are most complex and opaque. We assume they are preoccupied with doing us harm. That is a dubious assumption when we look beyond the rhetoric. That they see us as an opponent and a threat is surely correct. But its meaning needs to be placed in their perspective for its full meaning to be understand. The regime's weakness, the country's encirclement by American military forces and its being the object of an unrelenting American political and economic campaign to undermine it are compelling features of their strategic environment. Does this mean that the leadership in Tehran is guileless? Of course not. It does mean that they will seek every means to counter the United States -- including gaining allies by means fair and foul. They also will cooperate with us when it serves its interests -- as it did in Afghanistan in 2001 before Bush short circuited the connection by declaring Iran a charter member of the "Axis of Evil."

2. America's unflinching backing for Israel creates opportunities for the Iranians and creates powerful incentives for Hamas and Hezbollah to welcome practical help from Tehran. The same logic applies to Sunni Hamas as it does to Shi'ite Hezbollah. The former's abiding interest is Palestine. It has no wider ambitions. Hezbollah's abiding interest is Lebanon and its growing political strength there. Israel's implacable hostility and violent attacks play to the political advantage of both insofar as they are in a contest with local rivals (Fatah, other Lebanese factions). Will they use violence themselves, in one form or another, against Israel? Of course. Provoking that violence also serves the political interests of Israel's ultra nationalist government. The United States' uncritical siding with Israel makes it a party to this cauldron of emotion and political intrigue.

3. Syria, for its part, plays its own hardball game of protecting its stake and advancing its self-defined interests in a region dominated by the United States, its Arab allies and Israel. Does it want a settlement with Israel? Probably -- on its own terms, as does everyone else. Is it viscerally anti-American? Probably not. It can't afford to be with the Soviet Union now history and being a secular regime in the vicinity of Sunni and Shi'ite fundamentalists with whom it shares little in the way of ideology.

4. American endorsed Israeli violence against Palestinians and the Lebanese has produced 500 times more casualties than Hamas and Hezbollah violence against Israelis. To recall the facts, thousands of civilians were killed and wounded in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008-2009. Entire sections of Beirut and villages in the south of the country were razed, and much Lebanese infrastructure destroyed. As for Gaza, there is the stunning report of Justice Goldstone, the self-avowed Zionist from South Africa whom the White House reflexively scorned. You still may judge that Israeli violence was justified. That is not the point of this commentary. Rather, it is the inability to comprehend how those actions were experienced by Palestinians and Hezbollah followers that is a serious foreign policy failing. Recent Israeli murmurings about another 'go' at Hezbollah to erase the humiliating stalemate of 2006 feeds fear and anger. The attitudes thereby engendered are objective facts of the political state of affairs. The behavior that flows from them can best be dealt with by recognizing it as such -- whatever one chooses to do about it. If administration officials want to avoid a close concert of the Iranians, Syrians, Hamas and Hezbollah, then they should cease making the casual, convenient assumption that they're all a bunch of bad guys out to get us. That is not simply wrong; worse, it is not very smart and a recipe for diplomatic failure.

5. Following on the above, it is an analytical mistake to view Hamas and Hezbollah as Iranian proxies who are obediently doing Tehran's bidding. Whatever the reality of alleged Iranian Scuds to Hezbollah, and collaboration between Damascus and Tehran, it stems from a tactical, self-interested calculation among the parties. It is not diabolical machinations on the part of a latter-day 'Axis of Evil.' That is a self-serving, intellectually lazy notion nurtured by many inside and outside the Obama administration. It can only lead us into blind alleys. That is, unless one sees all these intricate issues liable to resolution by confrontation with the prospect of war.

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