The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Norton on the war

Forget the talking heads on television going on about Syria and Iran at lengths, and listen instead to the real experts, such as Augustus Richard Norton. Harpers has an excellent interview with him in he makes excellent points, which I agree entirely with:

  • Iran didn't "commission" the attack as some would have you believed. It is a Hizbullah initiative that "was tactically very smart, but strategically they were taking a real gamble." Precisely my original views and the reason for my stupefaction (and anger) when Hizbullah carried out the attacks.
  • Olmert and his pals are not over-reacting because they're not historic military officers in Israel. There is a military / strategic logic to the Israeli onslaught that goes beyond politics and whose aim is total dominance of its "near-abroad" (Norton says it has to do with Iran.) I can't believe how often this one is repeated, apparently to excuse Israel's actions (the perverse logic goes something like this: "Israel is a democracy, so its leaders have be politically savvy, so they can't afford not to look tough, so they have to carry out war crimes, etc. Utter nonsense.)
  • The Israeli attack is completely disproportionate and is a form of collective punishment against civilians. I thought this was interesting as Norton is a Vietnam vet:
I’ve been talking to people in Lebanon and it appears that Israel has established a killing box in south Lebanon, what the U.S. called a “free fire zone” in Vietnam. You establish a zone, which you dominate from the air, and force out civilians—there are already hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who have been displaced. Then you presume anything still moving in that zone is the enemy. This is a recipe for lots of hapless civilians dying, as happened a few days ago when 16 southern Lebanese villagers were killed in automobiles while adhering to Israel’s order to flee their homes.
  • Hizbullah will emerge from this with its stature diminished. I've wondered about this, and a lot of pundits are saying that Hizbullah will emerge stronger. For my part I don't see a solution to this where Hizbullah does not come out weaker, and the Lebanese will (rightly) want to have more say over its actions in the future. One should not confuse support for resistance with support for Hizbullah's political leadership and continued "untouchable" status in Lebanon. Norton says:
Totally disarming Hezbollah is a fool's errand. It’s too easy to hide weapons and there’s too great an incentive to keep them. Hezbollah is facing an interesting dilemma. The more it uses the rockets the more it creates a rationale to keep the time period open. Inside Lebanon there is going to be a readjustment of politics. Hezbollah will be diminished in stature, it won't be able to maintain its privileged position after what has happened.
  • Outcome for Israel and the US will be negative. Two key quotes:
Israel has made a profound mistake.

I’ve been studying American foreign policy in the Middle East for 34 years and I can’t recall any U.S. president who has subordinated American interests to Israeli interests like this one. The administration is being naïve about how this is going to reverberate elsewhere, in places like Iraq.
There going to be hell to pay for this in the long run. I can already imagine Al Qaeda recruiters are working non-stop.

What's missing from the interview, though, is discussion of Syria. I've commented on other blogs about this, so here are my two cents: Syria's weak domestic position (created by Israeli/French/US pressure and its own idiocy and assassinations) makes it actually more difficult to really push for regime change there, as some are advocating. The weaker the Bashar Al Assad regime is, the more careful Israel and the US will be. The majority opinion in the leadership of both countries now is that the regime's fall would either lead to Iraq-like chaos (which would compound Iraq's own problems and naturally affect Lebanon) to relative stability under a new Islamist regime. I think enough Islamists have come to power recently for the taste of everybody in the region right now. So the Syrian regime is reinforced and can be more intransigeant in the current situation, since it is not paying much of a price and most probably won't be challenged.

The caveat is, of course, that the advocates of Syrian regime change will win the argument over Syria and change everybody's mind (or something will happen to make people change their mind.) In that case, don't plan a trip to the Levant for the next 10-20 years.