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July 31, 2006

Lebanon: The first step to remaking the Middle East by force

By Edmund Burke III

Is the current operation in Lebanon a joint U.S./Israeli operation, with the latter playing the role of American mercenaries? Or was the Bush administration caught by surprise by the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers at the beginning of the month and the rapid escalation of hostilities? Why, after initial concerns about the destabilization of the Lebanese government, has the United States been willing to countenance the wholesale destruction of Lebanon (and not just the destruction of Hizbullah's bases in southern Lebanon)? Why, when a political solution to Middle East problems seemed so close weeks ago, is this happening now?

Photo of Edmund Burke, III

Edmund Burke III

Let's begin with the first question. Reports are emerging that show that the current Israeli campaign in Lebanon was not just a response to Hizbullah “terrorism.” Instead it was part of a long, meditated plan to redraw the strategic balance not just in Lebanon, but ultimately in the Middle East. In a recent San Francisco Chronicle story Matthew Kalman quotes Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, as saying: “Of all Israel's wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was the best prepared.”

Indeed Kalman suggests the recent war marks the coming of age of a generation of Israeli military commanders who had begun their careers in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and who never accepted its failure in the humiliating 1990 withdrawal. They resolved to try again. By 2004 the Israeli military had drawn up plans for a new initiative in Lebanon whose objective was destroying Hizbullah and its infrastructure. It was to feature the massive application of air power, together with pinpoint commando attacks.

By 2005, the proposal was ready and a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations of Israeli plans to U.S. diplomats, journalists, and think tanks. Despite the seeming indecision of Washington policy makers, there can be no doubt that the U.S. government was fully briefed on the operation currently unfolding.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins a diplomatic visit to Israel and Egypt (but not Lebanon), a New York Times report reveals that the U.S. is currently expediting a shipment of precision-guided bombs and other munitions to Israel at the latter's request. These are alleged to include GBU-28s, which are 5,000-pound laser-guided bombs intended to destroy concrete bunkers, as well as state-of-the-art satellite-guided munitions. These are part of the $1 billion U.S. arms-sale package to Israel, approved by Congress just months ago. It is hard to avoid concluding that the Israeli operations in Lebanon in reality form part of a well-prepared joint U.S./Israeli operation.

Why now? When Hizbullah captured three Israeli soldiers in October 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak chose not to respond. And when Hizbullah killed several soldiers on the border in April 2002, Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister at the time, also chose not to act. Instead he negotiated the release of three dead Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman, this, despite his full knowledge that some 10,000-12,000 Hizbullah missiles lay just across the border.

So let's consider the prewar context. Just prior to the recent eruption of violence, the proponents of negotiation at the State Department were in the ascendancy. The continued bad news from Iraq and Afghanistan had eroded the credibility of the proponents of “creative chaos” and warfare as the keys to remaking the Middle East.

Last spring's “revolt of the generals” also played an important role. (According to Seymour Hersh, many senior U.S. officers made it clear they would not allow themselves to be “tasked” to prepare contingency plans involving a first-strike nuclear attack on Iran.)

By late spring the momentum seemed to be shifting. Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and the proponents of remaking the Middle East by force were on the defensive. U.S. policy makers seemed resigned to seeking political solutions to Middle Eastern problems.

By the end of June the international diplomatic context was looking increasingly favorable. The administration appeared to have concluded that it needed to support the Siniora government in Lebanon, and that the costs of “taking down” Hizbullah were too high. Syria looked ready to deal. Jimmy Carter reported that Hamas had accepted a formula likely to lead to a resolution of the crisis. And senior Iranian officials made it known that they now believed that a negotiated settlement of the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions was within reach.

By mid-July, the reversal of fortunes is striking.

With the Israeli attack on Lebanon, the proponents of “creative chaos” are back in control. There's good reason to believe that Lebanon is just the beginning. How did things change so rapidly?

The massive Israeli attack on Hizbullah and Lebanon was not a sudden response, but was years in preparation and well known to American planners. And it was just the thing to allow the Cheney/Rumsfeld war party to once again take control.

The current Israeli offensive also fits within the logic of the 1997 Israeli “Clean Break” strategic plan that sought to radically remake the politics of the Middle East. In this plan, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was to be but the first step in destabilizing the existing Arab nationalist states. After his fall, the U.S. would be free to install pro-American client regimes. The destruction of Hizbullah and the overthrow of Bashir Asad in Syria were to follow.

But there could be more. Seymour Hersh writes the GBU-28s (which the U.S. first used on Tora Bora) are primarily intended for Iran.

Who's running American foreign policy? After the springtime of the diplomats, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and those who gave us the Iraq war are back in charge.


Edmund Burke III is a professor of history and director of the Center for World History at UC Santa Cruz; he also holds a UC Presidential Chair.

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