The Region: This is a victory?

Restored Arab pride wears out faster than un-refrigerated milk.

barry rubin column 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin column 88
(photo credit: )
The Arab world professes to be amazed that Hizbullah soldiers did not drop their guns and run away but actually managed to kill some Israelis before suffering far more casualties and having their operational area overrun. If this is defined as victory, obviously expectations are rather low. But to understand the bizarre mind-set in place, here's my favorite quote about the war: "The Lebanese people may have lost a lot of economic and human resources... but [aside] from figures and calculations, they have achieved a lot of gains," wrote a Kuwaiti newspaper columnist. Lebanon's "heroic resistance fighters have proven to the world that Lebanese borders are not open to Israeli tanks without a price. Lebanon was victorious in the battle of dignity and honor." In other words, what's $5 billion in damage and the loss of however many Lebanese were really killed if it makes you feel good? And, even then, he couldn't say that Lebanese borders are closed to Israeli tanks, it's just that they cannot enter at no cost whatsoever. More than usual in the Middle East - and that's not easy - things are said which, on serious examination (unfortunately too rare), quickly collapse. For example, what's the actual material significance of all this talk of Hizbullah's victory? Answer: near zero. What's going to change in the Middle East as a result? Is Iranian influence increasing in any meaningful way? The only places with significant Iranian influence are Iraq, where events in Lebanon are irrelevant, and Lebanon, where opposition to Iranian meddling has skyrocketed. Meanwhile, Arab regimes are mobilizing to oppose the Iranian threat. The Sunni Islamist rank-and-file may sing Hizbullah's praises for a few weeks, but their leaders still hate Shi'ites. OR TAKE another endlessly repeated line. Arabs say Hizbullah has restored their honor and showed Israel as vulnerable. Sound familiar? This was claimed in the late 1960s with the PLO; after the 1973 war; accompanying two Palestinian intifadas, and on other occasions. And, after all, if Arabs believe Hizbullah forced Israel out of south Lebanon and Hamas did so out of the Gaza Strip, how's this new? And what of the eternal Arab inferiority complex? Nothing seems to heal it. Restored Arab pride wears out faster than un-refrigerated milk. Of course, the real ego-booster should be a productive economy, higher living standards, a free society, and good educational and health systems. Yet these things are not on the agenda. In fact, the philosophy of resistance actually breeds resistance to the changes the Arab world really needs. What truly counts is this: Israel will get the Nautilus anti-rocket system, improve its tanks' defenses and fix other shortcomings. Meanwhile, Syria and Lebanon have no serious air force, air-defense or coastal defense system. This is not going to change. Israel will rebuild the north quickly without foreign aid. In Lebanon - despite international funding and Iranian money to Hizbullah - the damage will probably remain unrepaired for years. Is this a victory? IF YOU THINK in 1930s terms about the current situation, we are now in the phase of the united front against fascism. As bizarre as it seems - and despite lots of verbal appeasement - all Arab regimes but Syria now have parallel interests to Israel and the West in opposing the Iranian-Syrian axis of Adolf Ahmadinejad and Benito Bashar. For Arab liberals, this situation poses a great dilemma. Most are now turning to support their regimes as the lesser of the two evils. Between the regimes' suppression and the Islamists manipulation, elections and democracy seem neither likely nor attractive. The closing of ranks is particularly visible in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, the regime wins elections, but experience with terrorism and dictatorship makes people there unenthusiastic about the new Islamist alliance, parts of which are blowing them up on a daily basis. In Lebanon, the Christian-Druse-Sunni Muslim majority are not thrilled at the "gifts" Hizbullah gave them. Yet why should people in the Middle East risk their lives to fight tyranny (or at least an even worse tyranny) if they know the West won't support them? Iran, soon to have nuclear arms, and Syria backs Hizbullah, so who stands up for the Lebanese opposition? We are used to the impulse to betray Israel in exchange for supposed economic or strategic benefits. But now Lebanon plays the role of Czechoslovakia, dangled as a prize if Damascus and Teheran just promise to behave. That is why a key element in our seemingly eternal regional tragedy is the Western intellectuals and politicians who think the world is living in the Age of Aquarius, when it is actually stuck in the Era of Ahmadinejad. Nevertheless, the adversary's nature is a source of hope. It will not let those Westerners rest on their illusions but keep pushing until they are forced to understand and fight back. Of course, many look for easy solutions: Perhaps Syria can be separated from Iran, or vice-versa, or Hamas and Hizbullah can be made moderate? These are futile hopes because they run against not only the extremists' ideology but also against their interests and current sense of confidence. Ironically, appeasement is at its most dangerous when extremists are ready to make a deal on favorable terms for themselves. If Saddam Hussein had been ready to bargain in 1991, he would have gotten many billions of dollars and a slice of Kuwait. If Arafat had made an agreement with Israel in 2000, he would have had a Palestinian state and $20 billion. These dictators could have used such gains as a springboard for more aggression. Fortunately, they - and their current avatars - don't think like this. The new conventional wisdom that Hizbullah won and everyone must rush to beg the radicals to accept concessions is not reality. Remember the last two "victorious" restorers of Arab pride: Saddam Hussein (in his cell), and Osama bin Laden (in his cave). The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, and Journal Editor of Turkish Studies.