Sunday, July 30, 2006

Remembering Nothing: Ccommon thread of administration’s policy in Iraq and Lebanon is an ignorance of history and willful disregard of its lessons

Remembering Nothing
The common thread of the administration’s policy in Iraq and Lebanon is an ignorance of history and a willful disregard of its lessons
By Eleanor Clift

July 28, 2006 - President Bush has this annoying tendency of enlarging problems, thinking that makes him a bold and visionary leader. An ordinary ceasefire that stops people from killing each other isn’t good enough for Bush and his diplomatic automaton, Condoleezza Rice, who sees the violence in Lebanon and Iraq as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

Secretary of State Rice is holding out for “a sustainable ceasefire,” which reminds me of the old Gershwin tune, “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” A grand bargain that can last into the future is a laudable goal but well out of reach for an administration that is weakened and isolated on the world stage. Why not settle for what every American government has done until this one? Stop the fighting first and then resolve the conflict as best you can.

Living from crisis to crisis is no fun, but it’s better than the alternative of maimed children, hundreds of thousands of displaced Lebanese refugees and a million terrified northern Israelis confined to bomb shelters. The Bush Doctrine in the Israeli-Hizbullah conflict is an extension of the theory applied in Iraq: that anything is better than the status quo. Bush’s worldview emanates from a childish need to do everything different from his predecessors. He operates from a gut belief that if he dares to reshuffle the deck in the Middle East, the result will be better than the hand American presidents traditionally play. The reverse is happening. Iraq is on its way to becoming the next Lebanon, and Lebanon is descending back into the hell that made its very name synonymous with sectarian warfare.

Four years of Bush-style wars have made Americans wish they could wash their hands of the rest of the world. A New York Times/CBS News poll found a strong isolationist streak emerging, with 58 percent saying the United States has no responsibility to resolve the conflict between Israel and other countries in the Middle East, and 56 percent supporting a timetable for getting out of Iraq. A substantial majority of 62 percent say the Iraq war has not been worth it in terms of lives lost and dollars spent. Yet there are no signs the administration is backing away from its determination to stay the course in Iraq and to give Israel the room it needs to inflict more damage on Hizbullah.

The common thread in both these conflicts is an ignorance of history and a willful disregard of history’s lessons. Some problems have roots deeper than any army can destroy. I spent the past week at a retreat in Abiquiu, N.M., called Ghost Ranch. Set in the midst of the desert landscapes made famous by the painter Georgia O’Keefe, it is a place to come for contemplation and spiritual rebirth. “Welcome to liberal Presbyterian heaven,” a gray-haired volunteer said as I checked in for my room assignment. Ghost Ranch is under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church, but other faiths and nonbelievers are welcome. I was there to participate in a seminar called “Discerning the Signs of the Times,” and much of our discussion centered on the Middle East. A fellow presenter, Dale Bishop, taught Iranian studies at Columbia University and for 20 years served as Middle East area executive for the United Church of Christ. He spent much of his time reminding us of Lebanon’s bloody history and how Iraq seems destined to go down the same path.

Both countries are artifacts of the colonial era. Winston Churchill drew the border lines for Iraq. The first Iraqi king was a Saudi-born royal who had not set foot in the new nation until he was installed. Lebanon was carved out of Syria by the French, who wanted a place for the Christian population. “It wasn’t totally whim, but it was a lot whim,” says Bishop. Lebanon has 17 sects, including a variety of Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Druze, and they fought a prolonged civil war that didn’t end until 1991. It was said that the fighting would continue until only a single Lebanese was left, and he would look at himself in the mirror and shoot the mirror. U.S. troops were in the middle of that mess until 241 American servicemen were ambushed and killed in their barracks in 1983. That was enough for President Reagan. He pulled out U.S. troops and launched a little war in Grenada to save face.

The Lebanese continued to fight it out without U.S. forces, an outcome Bishop believes will eventually happen in Iraq. “And it’s not going to be pretty,” he says. “We walked into a huge mess, and we’re not going to achieve a military victory—and our pride prevents us from just leaving. We have to cover it over …” Here he paused a bit mischievously, mindful of his audience. “Maybe another aircraft carrier appearance saying ‘It’s over. We won. Goodbye’.” If making problems bigger doesn’t work, there’s always the option of walking away. Either way, it’s a new Middle East that’s being born, and it’s Bush’s baby.