A War of Her Own

By Eugene Robinson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 28/07/06):

Lebanon has now become Condi’s war.

You can argue whether legal title to the tragic mess in Iraq properly belongs to Rummy or Cheney or to the Decider himself, but as far as Lebanon is concerned, it’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who has stepped front and center to handle the crisis and show the world who’s boss.

It was Rice who waited more than a week, giving Israel time to pound the daylights out of Lebanon, before finding time to visit Beirut and Tel Aviv and attend a crisis summit in Rome. It was Rice who spent her trip categorically ruling out a quick cease-fire, which made one wonder if she really needed to travel at all, since she could have just thumbed out a text message: “2 soon 2 stop boom boom.”

The most significant development from Rice’s swing through the region was that she took personal ownership of the bloody, escalating war between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas with a single breathtaking pronouncement:

“It is time for a new Middle East. It is time to say to those who do not want a different kind of Middle East that we will prevail, they will not.”

Take a moment to absorb those two sentences. The bit about how “we will prevail” is just standard chest-thumping from the Bush administration, the equivalent of George W. Bush’s “bring it on” challenge to the Iraqi insurgents. It’s the “new Middle East” part, which she repeated at every opportunity, that makes this Condi’s war and that should send shivers down the spine of anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of the region.

What secretary of state hasn’t dreamed of a new Middle East where peaceful, democratic nations live in harmony? They all have, I suspect, but any utopian fantasies they might have entertained inevitably ran smack into dystopian realities. The current-model Middle East is replete with legitimate grievances, non-negotiable demands, ancient resentments, Machiavellian alliances, religious fanaticism and modern weapons of war. The idea of a grand stroke that would somehow create a “new” model is not just unrealistic, it’s downright frightening.

Rice’s predecessors have all discovered that containment, incrementalism, trust-building and similar unglamorous, snail-paced measures are the worst way to handle the Middle East — except for all the other conceivable ways.

Rice prefers glamorous, though. And her boss remains convinced that grand gestures change everything — witness how the Iraq invasion and occupation have persuaded Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to bring out their guitars and join in chorus after chorus of “Kumbaya.”

Does Rice envision that in her “new” Middle East, Palestinians will somehow develop amnesia and forget their aspirations for a viable independent state? Does she believe the autocrats in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere will allow free and fair elections — and that voters will reject the militant faith-based factions that for years have been providing needed services that corrupt governments can’t be bothered with? Does she think anyone is going to see the uncontrollable Frankenstein’s monster we created in Iraq as a model to emulate?

The one thing that’s clear so far is that Rice believes that allowing Israel to decimate Hezbollah and drive what’s left of the group out of southern Lebanon is such a valuable step toward her “new” Middle East that it’s worth crippling a nascent Arab democracy with hundreds of civilian casualties and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure damage.

At least that’s what she believed before her trip. If at this point she isn’t rethinking the whole thing, given the trouble Israeli forces are having with Hezbollah, then we’re really in trouble.

Other stalwarts of the Bush administration’s grandiose schemes seem exhausted — Rumsfeld is more philosopher than conqueror when he talks about Iraq these days, while Cheney bizarrely sticks with the story that everything’s just fine. But Rice’s life story — little black girl from Birmingham rises to become secretary of state, somehow becoming a hawkish Republican along the way — and her obvious potential in politics still make her an intriguing figure. I personally know three people who are writing books about her.

Now, in her first real test as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice will be judged on more than her impressive résumé, her obvious intelligence, her poise on the world stage and her fashion sense. Now she has her own war to sort out, and all she’s done so far is scare people with her talk of somehow making the world’s tinderbox into something “new.”

She should remember the famous dictum from philosopher Rumsfeld, which I paraphrase: You go to war with the Middle East you have, not the Middle East you might want.