- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

What a difference one week can make. Almost from one day to the next, moderate Arab governments reluctantly switched sides — from deploring to applauding Hezbollah’s “heroic” stand. The anti-Bush invective and pro-(Hezbollah chief Hassan) Nasrallah hosannas reached new lows and new highs.

On the floor of the Egyptian parliament, Mustafa Bakri set the tone for the media in a country normally friendly to the U.S.: “Condoleezza Rice is a murderer, just like [Israel’s Ehud] Olmert and Bush. She has come to ruin and destroy. We must stop pinning our hopes on these people. These are our true enemies. America is the head of the serpent, and the greatest enemy we must confront. … Nasrallah is reviving the history of Saladin and Gamal Abdel Nasser…. You can come and see the pictures of Nasrallah in our homes… and in our streets…. It is our hope Nasrallah will be the leader of this nation, who will unite it, Allah willing.”

Sheik Nasrallah, a Shi’ite cleric, was rapidly displacing Osama bin Laden, a Sunni, as the Arab world’s new terrorist poster hero. In Washington, President Bush stood behind Israel’s right to bomb Hezbollah targets anywhere in Lebanon — and then to invade Lebanon to destroy what the smart bombs had missed.

Intentionally or not, Mr. Bush jettisoned any future role as honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians for the rest of his administration; his campaign for freedom and democratic transformation lost in the sands of Araby. Arab editorial writers asked what would have happened to Mel Gibson had he spewed his drunken venom at Muslims instead of Jews.

In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shi’ite spiritual leader who still stands in the way of a total meltdown, said, “We will not forgive anyone who opposes a cease-fire in Lebanon.” One important pro-American Arab ambassador in Washington said, not for quotation, “The United States and Iran are now at war through surrogates — Israel for the U.S. and Hezbollah and Syria for Iran.”

The International Crisis Group’s monthly “CrisisWatch” report, dated Aug. 1, said July was “the grimmest month for conflict prevention around the world in three years.” In 36 months of publishing, ICG “has not recorded such severe deteriorations in so many conflict situations as in the past month, and several have regional and global implications.”

Not only had the Middle East erupted yet again with “full-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in south Lebanon,” but there was also “major escalation in Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza — both fronts threatening further regional destabilization, insecurity and sectarian violence in Iraq, claiming over 100 civilian lives daily … and a 40 percent increase in major attacks in Baghdad.”

The Horn of Africa also showed ominous signs of breakdown, CrisisWatch reported. “Somalia sits on the brink of all-out civil war, which is drawing in the wider region.” The July 11 Mumbai bombings that killed more than 200 also had wider implications for the normalization process between India and Pakistan, the latter accused yet again of being soft on terrorism.

At the same time, tensions rose dramatically on the Korean Peninsula after Pyongyang, taking advantage of the Bush administration’s travails in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, fired seven test missiles. ICG listed “deteriorated situations” in Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, India (non-Kashmir), Iraq, Israel/occupied territories, Kashmir, Lebanon, North Korea, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan.

Following last week’s aerial pounding of Hezbollah targets around Baalbeck, the most spectacular Roman ruins in the Middle East in the Bekaa Valley 12 miles from the Syrian border, heli-transported Israeli commandos swooped down on a hospital to capture wounded Hezbollah guerrillas and fly them back to Israel. There was little doubt that if Syria sent troops across the border to help their Hezbollah allies, they would quickly become targets for the Israeli air force. What Iran would do to assist its Syrian allies could rapidly escalate to a U.S.-Iran showdown through Israeli and Syrian proxies.

U.S. military attempts to secure Iraq’s fragile young democracy are seen throughout the region as a test of wills with Iran. Shi’ite militias in Iraq and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon are birds of the same Iranian revolutionary feather.

Iran has now been given a new end of August deadline to suspend its nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities or face sanctions. Tehran will continue to insist its nuclear program is dedicated entirely to developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. And the U.N. Security Council will then probably deadlock over the nature of sanctions to impose on a recalcitrant Iranian regime.

A worst case scenario has Iran retaliating against draconian sanctions by sowing mines in the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea through which 15 million to 20 million barrels of oil transit daily, worth more than $1 billion. Countries whose oil must pass through the Strait include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iran. Bandar Abbas, Iran’s naval base that commands Hormuz’s narrow bottleneck, is home base for fast, small mine layers.

Defense News (July 31 issue) described the paucity and obsolescence of the U.S. Navy’s minesweeping capabilities in the Gulf and Arabian Sea. Inside the NATO mutual defense family, the U.S. deliberately relinquished minesweeping to the tiny Dutch and Belgian navies.

If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s voice prevails over some of the less fanatically motivated senior ayatollahs, World War III (or IV, depending whether one counts the Cold War as a global conflict) could come perilously close, pitting the U.S. and Israel against Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraq’s Badr militia and Mahdi army, al Qaeda and the streets of Arab capitals. Far-fetched? For a mind steeped in Cartesian logic, yes. For a mind poisoned by hateful slogans about the U.S.-Zionist conspiracy, probably not.

For Mr. Ahmadinejad, present reality is merely an illusion pending the death and destruction that will sweep the globe before the return of the 12th imam, who will lead what’s left of humanity to salvation under the banner of Islam. Aug. 22, the day he said Mr. Bush would receive a reply to his carrots-cum-sticks letter, is also the 27th of Rajab on the Muslim calendar. That’s the day after Muhammad made his nighttime journey to Jerusalem and then took off from the Temple Mount for his trip to heaven, bathing the holy city in blinding light in his wake.

After all, Osama bin Laden, were he in a position to do so, wouldn’t hesitate to detonate a weapon of mass destruction in a major U.S. city killing tens of thousands of Americans. And Mr. Ahmadinejad wouldn’t hesitate to do the same in Israel.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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