Sunday, December 03, 2006

War of words in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine

War of words in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine
By: Ghassan Rubeiz / The Arab American News

In Iraq cruel societal disorder is at a peak; in Lebanon civil disorder is about to start and in Palestine the two-state solution is becoming a mirage.
Desperate for a solution to the U.S. quagmire in Iraq, policy makers are now in a game of semantics about this country's war. In this game, politicians ask if Iraq is in a civil war, or a political war.
Looking for a face-saving rationale for an American exit, Democrats tend to label the Iraqi quagmire as a civil war. Those Republicans who are still allied with the U.S. government's policy say "no, we are in a new phase of the war.” Most Democrats argue that if there is a civil war there is no further justification for U.S. involvement in a conflict that should be ended by Iraqis themselves.
The issue is not simply "stay the course” or "cut and run,” depending on the status of the war now. Regrettably, Americans do not seem to be willing to assume their full responsibility for their waging a cruel war on Iraqi society. By going after a dictator without planning, the U.S. has committed many grave mistakes for which there is no honest assessment yet. U.S. troops have stayed too long, dismantled the Iraqi security system, left borders un protected and created an opportunity for the formation of local and international militias.
The fact that the militias are partly aligned on a sectarian basis (Sunni /Shi'i) and partly on an ethnic basis (Kurdish/Arab) is evidence that religion is not the overriding factor in militia formation. Political power, oil revenues, organized crime, tribal rivalries and community security divide any society that is robbed of statehood: sovereignty, a strong army and a functioning economy.
Leave the semantic game. Iraq is not in a state of civil war. The Shi'a and the Sunni are not so different ethnically, religiously or socially. Arab identity, language and intermarriage are strong cementing societal factors. What then explains the so-called sectarian killing of Shi'a by Sunni and vice versa?
First, it is important to observe that much of the militia killing is committed by thugs on both sides. It is a war of thugs (who benefit from a power vacuum and easy access to resources) against innocent civilians who are becoming hostage to sectarian grouping. Second, the Sunni violence of the insurgency against Shi'i communities is partially a strategy of punishing politicians for not rebelling against the "foreign” occupation. On both sides killing is not religious; it is a political strategy, albeit cruel and counter productive.
An honest reassessment of Iraq would lead the U.S. to change the course of its foreign policy. The report of the Iraq Study Group that is expected to be released in early December is a first move in the right direction.
In Lebanon, the war of words is also now in play in the analysis of the escalating political crisis. Oversimplifying the situation, Western media tend to portray Lebanese politics as a struggle between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian parties. In the so called "pro-Syrian coalition,” Hizbullah, General Aoun's party and other opposition groups are lumped together. Similarly, in the "anti Syrian” coalition Prime Minister Siniora, a large segment of the Christian community and the Druze leader Walid Jumblat are fused together.
Syria emerges in this analysis as the mother of all evils in the Lebanese domestic conflict. Since Syria has a bad reputation worldwide, maybe for valid reasons, any Lebanese party that is anti-Syrian is automatically favored. Pro-Syrian Lebanese are inaccurately positioned on the wrong side of a media-created and -sustained battle between "evil and goo.d”
The Syrian branding of Lebanese politics is misleading because the primary identification of Hizbullah is not with Syria or Iran. Hizbullah is focused on gaining political power for its Shi'a community in a country whose power is arranged along an outmoded and problematic sectarian formula. Hizbullah's second aim is protection of the country from Israeli forces that are still active inside Lebanese territory and within its air space. The fact that Syria provides support for Hizbullah, and that Hizbullah reciprocates, may be a temporary marriage of convenience. The same relation exists between Hizbullah and Iran. The important point is that Hizbullah is a national movement that is ideologically anti-Western, socially bent and religiously motivated. But Hizbullah has lost some of its sectarian fervor and it is increasingly moving in an ideological direction. Its alliance with the secular Aoun is an indication that reform-minded Arab Christians and Shi'a have found a formula to reform Lebanon along a secular approach. Other approaches of Christian politics in the past have weakened the status of pluralism. Leaving Hizbullah alone in its political struggle would reduce its inclination to demilitarize in the foreseeable future.
A more objective conceptualization of the Lebanese crisis would reveal that both sides of the current conflict need to accommodate to achieve national unity, reinforce security and bring about radical political reforms.
A third war of words is now raging in the Palestinian context. Former president Jimmy Carter has just introduced a provocative book on Palestine under Israeli rule. Carter's "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" is starting a hot and needed debate about the harshness of the occupation. The book argues that by annexing 1967 Palestinian land and taking away the civil rights of Palestinians Israel is behaving like South Africa during apartheid. Is Israel democratic or apartheid?" Carter asks. The much neglected Israel/Palestine debate in this country would make Americans better realize the severity of the occupation. However the war of words over apartheid vs. no apartheid may lead nowhere. If the debate is stuck in a linguistic moral framework the impact of the discourse will soon expire. Hot moral debate about Israel has never in the past led to conclusions because Arab society is full of moral problems, albeit unrelated to the Palestine issue. The debate on Palestine should focus on how to promote peace, how the U.S .should avoid siding with one nation against the other and how to facilitate a lasting justice for all sides.
Categorical moral analysis about the civil war in Iraq, about Syrian branding in Lebanese politics and about apartheid in Palestine oversimplify the fundamental issues surrounding these three current crises in the Middle East. Iraq is a war of thugs, not a civil war. Lebanon is essentially in a domestic power sharing conflict that becomes regional and international to the extent that the Lebanese are afflicted with poor leadership. Whether Palestine/Israel is an apartheid system or not is hard to answer. Moral arguments have their limits in reaching practical political solutions to the crippling and enduring conflict. One of the major barriers to peace negotiations is the tendency for each side to claim to be on the right side of morality, history or religion. Semantics may obscure analysis.
The writer is an independent Arab American commentator

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