Don’t celebrate too soon

The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq is eerily reminiscent of previous Middle East conflicts.

Denounced by most of the world as a manifestly illegal imperial tantrum, opposed by a clear majority of the United Nations Security Council, and the subject of a major trans-Atlantic slugfest, it harks back to the 1956 Suez debacle.

Conceived on the basis of a thoroughly bizarre and equally fanciful grand strategy, it reminds not a little of Ariel Sharon’s adventurous attempt to reconfigure the region in 1982.

And ceaselessly advocated by Israel’s ruling circles as the bolt of lightning that will resolve their combined military, political, and economic predicaments, it has much in common with that other famous “liberation” of Arab territory in 1967.

The view that Israel will emerge as the main regional winner of this war, and that its various adversaries will in the process be cut down to size or eliminated, is shared throughout the Middle East. While Israel certainly stands to gain in numerous ways–this is, after all, one of the reasons this war is being fought–celebration seems somewhat premature. Israel’s military victories in 1956, 1967, and 1982, it bears remembering, ultimately resolved nothing. And viewed in historical perspective, they appear dubious indeed.

This is not to make light of the challenges that lie ahead. These will be many, difficult, and violent–perhaps even existential. Using the camouflage supplied by the roadmap, Israel will seek to administer the coup de grace to the Palestinian Authority and consolidate its hold on the occupied territories even further. To the north, a decisive clash with Hizballah is just a matter of time. And as the Sharonistas in Israel and Washington have long since made clear, Syria and Iran are already firmly within their crosshairs.

Terrible as all of this undoubtedly is, it will have unforeseen implications as well. In practical terms, it will amount to a reversion of the Arab-Israeli conflict to that which existed prior to 1967–a zero-sum game to eliminate either Zionism or Palestinian nationalism from the region’s political map as opposed to a struggle to achieve a just and comprehensive peace on the basis of partition. As in the decade that followed the 1948 War, it will be defined by popular and clandestine struggles to undermine Arab governments that serve foreign interests, and the emergence of new movements to organise and sustain such struggles. Regime change, in other words, is not only what Washington decides. It will also take curious twists and turns–a process likely to intensify rather than mitigate conflict, whether with Israel or the United States.

What has been striking so far is the number of fanciful assumptions entertained about the current conflict by its advocates: that the UN and international community will fall into line once Washington demonstrates seriousness of purpose; that Turkish acquiescence is merely a matter of money and time; that the Iraqi military won’t fight, causing the Iraqi regime to spontaneously combust the moment hostilities begin; that the main military challenge confronting US forces is how to prevent the rice and flowers offered by grateful Iraqis from clogging their tank engines.

Assumptions about The Day After, whether within Iraq or the region at large, will prove similarly fantastic. But as the wars of 1956, 1967, and 1982 demonstrate, it can take decades for the appropriate lessons to be learned. The only prediction that can therefore be made with certainty is that we’re in for a very rough ride.

Mouin Rabbani is a Middle East analyst.