The perfect storm that has broken over the Middle East since the back-to-back kidnappings by Hamas and Hezbollah was fed by converging developments, developments that might have been manageable individually but which proved disastrous in combination. A look at the conditions that merged to fuel the typhoon offers a sense of just what it will take to get through the situation.
Aging revolutionary movements feel compelled to prove their continuing relevance and vitality, especially as they begin to fade into a quotidian political landscape. Call it the last fling of a mid-life crisis. The current tempest resulted in part from four such movements going through this phase simultaneously.
In Palestine, elections Hamas had long disdained saddled it with unwelcome demands, like the need to accommodate Israel, while trading the thrill of armed struggle for the delivery of mundane public services. Some of the party’s pragmatists seemed prepared to accept the passing of youth, but others both inside Gaza and out, like Khaled Meshal, were repulsed by the new dispensation and set out to wreck it.
To the north, the halting transformation of Hezbollah into a relatively normal political party, complete with parliamentary representation and responsibility for civilian ministries, spurred the same sort of split. Unable to settle down as ordinary Lebanese concerned with local Lebanese interests, the party leadership opted for its more glamorous role as vanguard of Muslim anti-Zionism. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, certified by the United Nations, evidently encumbered Hezbollah with an identity crisis the party couldn’t quite overcome.
Meanwhile, the Iranian revolution slowly fizzled. Political paralysis, titanic corruption and a stagnant economy sapped the country’s esprit. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rise to power was driven by a commitment to restore Iran’s sagging revolutionary spirit. The initial result was Tehran’s insistence on Iran’s right to enrich uranium, followed by the regime’s encouragement of its militant Lebanese protégé to pick a fight with Israel.
At the same time, the Arab nationalism of the Syrian Baath party, long thought to be dead and buried, found a new voice in President Bashar Assad. While the regime in Damascus is just the sclerotic mob family it appears to be, Bashar himself has revolutionary juices pulsing through his veins. When he hectors his counterparts at Arab League meetings over their betrayal of Arab dignity and honor, he means it. For Bashar, enabling Hezbollah to provoke Israel revalidated a Baath revolution that had ossified long before he was born.
The seven-year revolutionary itch was compounded by a series of serious simultaneous mistakes. Both Hamas and Hezbollah let obsolete ideas about Israel cloud their view of how the Olmert government would respond to their respective kidnapping ploys. Meshal was convinced that Israel would cut a deal and that he would be the negotiating partner. In his fevered imagination, the media image of Israelis dancing to his tune catapulted him into the Palestinian leadership and marginalized hapless pragmatists like Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh and President Mahmoud Abbas.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was evidently seduced by his own poetic depiction of Israeli society as a spider web, intricate and seemingly solid but infinitely fragile. His contempt for his enemy led him to draw all the wrong conclusions from commentator’s clichés about Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s lack of political depth and military experience. Nasrallah’s alleged grasp of Israeli thinking also failed him. An informed understanding of Olmert’s objectives and his political circumstances would have led Nasrallah to anticipate precisely the catastrophe Israel is now visiting on Lebanon.
Assad and Ahmadinejad blew it, too. Both leaders expected to bask in the glow of Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s easy humiliation of Israel’s new leadership. The audacity of their clients’ actions was supposed to enhance Syrian and Iranian prestige and credibility, while it shamed and isolated moderate rulers in Arab capitals. This is not how things turned out.
Although many in the region might applaud the kidnappings, enough people recognize the abductions were recklessly gratuitous for the Saudi and Egyptian leadership to muster the confidence to issue condemnations. Tehran and Damascus have emerged as the isolated regimes, at least for now.
Renewed sectarian rivalry in the Muslim world helped turn the squall into a full-fledged storm. In recent decades, tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have ebbed and flowed. The Iranian revolution of 1979 prompted the previous peak.
Sunnis throughout the region were inspired by the rise of Islamic rule in an important state, but feared the ascendance of an assertive transnational Shiite community. This was especially true in countries where Shiites formed a large part of the population, as in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria and Lebanon. The anxieties generated then spurred a Sunni reaction that included the formation of militant groups like Al Qaeda.
Sectarian tensions are once again on the rise. This time, it is the accession to power of Shiites in Iraq. Just as this outcome of the American invasion has stoked Sunni fears, it has pumped up Shiite confidence and tempted activists to press their advantage.
Hezbollah’s daring, if foolhardy, maneuvering vis a vis Israel both expresses the urge to seize the day and intensifies it. This helps explain Hezbollah’s willingness to sacrifice the interests of its Lebanese host on the altar of Shiite self-aggrandizement. Sectarianism is likely to prolong the crisis, even as it eventually leads Sunni governments to a tacit support for diplomatic intervention that limits Hezbollah’s power.
The wind shift that transformed these conditions into the perfect storm began with Washington’s neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian front. When the cat’s away, the mice will play, and the Bush administration’s unwillingness to manage a dangerous situation gave troublemakers room to run. Washington’s distance goes back to 2001, when the White House declined to mediate after the outbreak of the second intifada. From the administration’s perspective, Bill Clinton had squandered American prestige at the failed Camp David II summit in 2000. The Palestinians, after all, will ultimately have to accept their lot; and American mediation would be less conducive to this recognition of reality than would the prospect of open-ended Israeli occupation.
Meanwhile, the White House had more important things to do, especially after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. While there is some truth to the Bush administration’s claim that the parties were too far apart — and that Palestinians under Yasser Arafat in too much disarray — to permit the United States to broker a deal, steps could have been taken to stave off Hamas’s election and prepare for a Hamas victory if the Abbas government proved unsustainable.
Once the crisis began, immediate American involvement might also have prevented the violence from escalating. This, however, would have required the lines of communication and leverage with the warring parties that the administration’s policies had systematically dismantled.
The perfect storm was made by everything going wrong at once: the sudden thaw of freeze-dried revolutions; multiple, concurrent blunders; resurgence of Shiite activism, and a mutually reinforcing lack of American attentiveness and dwindling influence. To survive the gale, therefore, everything has to go right at once, or more plausibly, in a tight, compelling sequence.
The violence must be brought under control, the captive soldiers returned, verifiable arrangements for Hezbollah’s disarmament put in place, Lebanese army control over the south established, a modus vivendi between Israel and the Palestinian Authority negotiated, and infrastructure rebuilt. Even one or two of these measures would be a massive achievement. To accomplish all seems fantastic.
One thing, however, is certain. These things will not happen spontaneously. They will require the careful blend of planning, pressure and inducement that only a focused administration can supply.
Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a former senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council. He is co-author of “The Next Attack” (Henry Holt, 2005).