If you want to put out a fire, stop pouring oil on it. But as George W Bush prepared for his trip to the Middle East this week, he proclaimed that he was ready to pour weapons on yet another conflict.
It is Lebanon this time – a country that has, in the past week, suffered probably the worst sectarian violence since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990. In an interview with the BBC, President Bush told the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora, a Sunni Muslim, that ‘the United States is prepared to help strengthen the Lebanese army, so it can disarm Hezbollah’ – the pro-Iranian Shi’a movement. Hezbollah has acted against its own people, Bush declared, and is destabilizing Lebanon.
This is the latest among recent revelations about America arming one faction, only to use that faction to crush an adversary. Washington funds Sunni groups in Iraq, called Awakening Councils, to counter Sunni Al-Qaeda, as well as pro-Iran Shi’a groups. Other Sunni groups, including the influential Muslim Scholars’ Association, have complained that Awakening Council militias are being used to weaken ‘legitimate resistance to American occupation’. With US help, these Sunni militias draw recruits from other resistance groups like the Iraqi wing of Hamas and the Islamic Army, which have turned against Al-Qaeda. They are also used to fight Shi’a militias that may or may not be allied to Tehran, but oppose the occupation of Iraq.
The Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, acknowledged in March 2008 that, in the Palestinian Territories, America armed the Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas, specifically to drive out the democratically-elected Hamas administration. Rice asserted that the situation had called for it. The American decision backfired, leading to the Hamas seizure of Gaza.
The rise of the Taleban and Al-Qaeda is a direct result of America’s decision to supply billions of dollars worth of weapons to the Mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan’s decision gave America the victory over the Soviet Union in the Afghan war, after which the Soviet state collapsed. But once the United States had walked away from the Afghan front, the Mujahideen and Al-Qaeda turned against America. The chaos of the Afghan civil war left in its wake an even more lethal phenomenon, the Taleban, who turned Afghanistan into a terrorist haven, from where Al-Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks.
Time and time again, Islamist groups which America helped with weapons and money to fight for its interests have turned on their masters. Does the current American administration not know history? Has George W Bush not considered the possibility that the militias armed by the US today could turn against it in future?
It is worth reminding ourselves of how the latest violence broke out in Lebanon. It started when the pro-US government in Beirut, representing only a fraction of Lebanese society, tried to shut down Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and remove the chief of security at Beirut airport, accusing him of being a Hezbollah sympathizer. Hezbollah responded by seizing control of West Beirut, crushing Sunni gunmen loyal to Prime Minister Siniora. A pro-government television news station was shut down and all roads to Beirut airport were closed. The fighting then spread north to the city of Tripoli.
These events have left the pro-US Lebanese government humiliated and American policy there in disarray. Prime Minister Siniora knows the situation on the ground better than President Bush and has little appetite for conflict. Siniora was quick to announce that his government would never declare war against Hezbollah. And it was left to the wholly inadequate Lebanese national army to find a face-saving formula. The immediate confrontation subsided only when the army said the government orders to close the Hezbollah communications network and remove the chief of security at Beirut airport would not be carried out.
As the veteran British journalist, Robert Fisk, said in a report from Beirut in the Independent newspaper, this war is not about religion. It is about the political legitimacy of the Lebanese government, which has a narrow base, and American support, which Iran challenges through Hezbollah. The truth on the ground is that Hezbollah is only one of numerous factions, albeit with considerable power and popularity, in a country ravaged by internal conflict, fuelled by foreign intervention – not only by Iran and Syria, but also Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. Lebanon is a theatre of proxy war between regional and international players, who manipulate Lebanese groups to their own ends.
In responding to current challenges, the Bush administration continues to use tactics that are dangerous today. They could create monsters tomorrow. In Lebanon, as in the Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, the focus should be on building state capacity – a difficult task, but one that surely has more promise.
The above commentary was published in the Online Journal on May 15, 2008.