A New Mideast, but Not One to Bush’s Liking

A New Mideast, but Not One to Bush’s Liking
Soumaya Ghannoushi, The Guardian

After his plane landed in Ben Gurion airport this week, Bush may just have got a whiff of the clouds of smoke engulfing the Middle East skyline. When he was last in the region, four months ago, on the heels of the Annapolis conference, he had declared that he was optimistic peace and prosperity could be brought to the region. Instead, its hot spots have grown hotter, while the deadly flames are threatening to consume new territory all the time.

Bush will not be stopping at Beirut. That the American president should be avoiding Lebanon is understandable. The political equation that he and his administration have striven to consolidate there after the short-lived euphoria of the “Cedar Revolution” has all but evaporated.

Having forced Syria to withdraw from Lebanon in the aftermath of Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Washington embarked on a mission to redraw the country’s labyrinthine political map. As part of this confrontational strategy, it blocked any consensual resolution of the crisis, insisting on Hezbollah’s disarmament — a task which Israel had failed to achieve in 33 days of brutal bombardment back in 2006. But as the recent events in Lebanon have painfully illustrated, this policy has ended in abysmal failure. The noose which Washington has worked tirelessly to tighten around the opposition’s neck now threatens its friends.

For Washington, Lebanon is the most recent — though, perhaps, not the last — in a series of failures and setbacks unleashed by the Iraq catastrophe five years ago. The situation is not much better in Palestine next door. For months, it had raucously demanded that Palestinians hold legislative elections — a move designed to bolster Mahmoud Abbas’ frail legitimacy after the death of the charismatic Yasser Arafat. But yet again, its predictions proved disastrously miscalculated.

Much to its horror, Hamas emerged as the winner, elected by a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Rather than strengthened, Abbas and his team were further weakened. Just as it had done in Lebanon recently, Washington moved to widen the rift between the rival sides. It worked to undo the landmark deals signed in Cairo and Makkah aimed at bringing the conflict to a close through unity a Fatah-Hamas national unity government. The administration went as far as to conspire with warlord Mahmoud Dahlan and his militiamen to topple the elected government and engineer a Palestinian civil war. Mahmoud Abbas and his administration ended up being driven out of the Strip, and the engineered chasm culminated in one government in Ramallah and another in Gaza.

Iraq was supposed to be the midwife for the birth of the “new Middle East”, a Middle East where the US, Israel and their allies reign unchallenged. In truth, Washington was right; the invasion did have a domino effect on the wider region. The Iraq earthquake generated tremors which have been felt across the entire Middle East.

From Iraq, to Lebanon, and Palestine, the ground is increasingly shaking under the feet of Washington and those who have bound their political fortunes with it. Not only has the administration been unable to settle the conflicts raging there in its allies’ favor, it has been placed on the defensive, increasingly pushed to the corner by its emboldened opponents. Through its string of misguided military adventures, fought directly, as in Iraq, or by proxy, as in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, Washington has caused the pendulum to swing away from its friends and toward the “axis of evil”.

Perhaps what Waleed Jumblatt, the seasoned Lebanese politician (who may be regretting his decision to desert the Syrian camp for Washington’s), has told the Guardian last Monday is just as true of the Middle East as it is of Lebanon. “Hezbollah and Iran won the battle of Beirut,” he said. “The Iranians chose the moment America is weak in the Middle East. The balance of power has completely changed in Lebanon and now we wait to see what new rules Hezbollah, Syria and Iran will lay down.”

The distance between the “New Middle East” he envisioned in 2003 and the Middle East he visited this week has never been greater. All Bush’s sweet promises of prosperity and democratization have vanished into thin air, leaving a long, bitter and bloody trail of conflict, political schism and sectarianism behind. Perhaps, instead of banqueting in Tel Aviv and Cairo, the president should be walking the streets of Baghdad, Gaza and Beirut. There, he will catch a glimpse of his “new Middle East”.

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