Muslim World: A match made in hell

By implying that it may be open to dialogue with Hizbullah, the US administration appears to be masking its dominance in the region through outreach to hostile elements. But such outreach could end up placing that dominance in jeopardy.

May 28, 2010 15:37
4 minute read.
Hizbullah members parade 248.88

Hizbullah members parade 248.88. (photo credit: )


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Last week, John Brennan, adviser to US President Barack Obama on counterterrorism and homeland security, made a strange statement recommending that the US government seek to strengthen “moderate elements” in Hizbullah.

“There are certainly,” Brennan said, “elements of Hizbullah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements.”

A number of commentators have observed that this statement is of particular interest in that it is impossible to identify whom Brennan might be referring to. Observers of Hizbullah – of both the pro- and anti- variety, come together in rare consensus in the view that the movement is a centralized, Leninist-style affair. It does not contain identifiable factions, and it does not speak with many voices. It was generally concluded that Brennan was therefore delivering a coded message which, if deciphered, in fact indicated his support for the opening of a channel of communication between the US and Hizbullah as a whole.

Such statements and initiatives may ultimately have little practical import. They do, however, serve to convey a by now familiar sense of weakness and hesitation on the part of the Western-led regional bloc vis-a-vis its enemies. It is not clear what the US administration thinks it gains from projecting such a stance.

The US remains in material terms without peer as the strongest power in the Middle East and elsewhere. Statements like Brennan’s, however, seem to indicate that the current administration, or parts of it, feel uncomfortable with this reality and thinks there are advantages in disguising it.

THIS DISCONNECT between impression and reality has a direct and symmetrical parallel on the opposing side. There, regimes and movements which are objectively far weaker than those they seek to challenge engage in intoxicated hubris. This hubris was on display in public statements this week by two of the “Resistance Bloc’s” most prominent figures: Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Nasrallah delivered a speech to an enthusiastic Beirut crowd to mark the 10th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon. In his address, he seemed keen to claim a new mantle for himself as a master of naval warfare. He promised that in the event of a new war, his organization would destroy ships on their way to Israel, and said that “when the world sees how these ships are destroyed, no one will dare go [to Israel].”

The south Beirut crowd reacted to the message with enthusiasm. Their belief in their leader appeared in no way dampened by the fact that he was able to appear before them to celebrate their defeat of Israel by video-link only – because of his fear of Israeli assassination.

But the more detailed display of the hubristic thinking at the heart of the Resistance Bloc was offered by Assad in his interview with La Republica.

Assad summed up the analysis of regional processes which lies at the heart of the Iran-led bloc’s perception of the region. He spoke of an “epochal change” sweeping the Middle East and the world. He outlined a new alliance, consisting of “Syria, Iran, Turkey. But also Russia. These are all countries that are linking themselves to one another, even physically, through gas and oil pipelines, railways, roadways, and systems for transporting electricity. One large perimeter links five seas: the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Arab Gulf and the Red Sea. We are talking about the center of the world.”

This “new geostrategic map,” in Assad’s view, brings with it new possibilities. He welcomed the emergence of a new regional cold war, saying that the “Cold War never really ended.” And that the new regional situation is a natural reaction to America’s attempt to “dominate the world.”

The problem in both Nasrallah’s and Assad’s case is the shortfall between perception and reality. They sound like victors dictating terms to a vanquished enemy. This, of course, is not quite the case. The Iran-led bloc is trying to reshape the regional balance of power. Against a lackluster West, it has achieved a series of gains in ultimately peripheral areas over the last couple of years. It has succeeded in destroying the fledgling democratic trend in Lebanon and in engendering what looks like a permanent rift in the Palestinian national movement.

Its appetite and sense of well-being has been further increased by the match made in hell of its meeting with a US administration convinced of the benefits of conveying false weakness.

Assad and Nasrallah are aware of their own objective disadvantage compared to their enemies. But they believe, fundamentally that the greater will and determination and patience of their side will serve to negate this imbalance.

Belief in the power of the will, however, is a tricky business. A stronger power may choose to retreat in the face of ideological fanaticism from areas of secondary interest to it. But it will not have the luxury to do so if faced with threats to its cardinal interests. The empty space where the Syrian plutonium reactor at al-Kibar used to be is an indicator of this. But the growing hubris of the Iran-led bloc is likely to lead it to miscalculations that somewhere down the line could ultimately cost it – and the region – very dearly.

In this regard, the most effective way for the US and its allies to guarantee continued regional quiet would be the projection of strength and the consequent achievement of deterrence. One of the ways not to achieve this was displayed last week by the president’s adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security.

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