What Luttwak Didn't Say

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Edward Luttwak
is right that the middle east is not important enough to fight over.
That’s why the US should withdraw from Iraq and stop providing aid
to Israel.

Over the past few weeks,
American planes have landed at Beirut airport with arms and ammunition
for the Lebanese army. The army’s battle with a small Islamist militia
in a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon has galvanised the
Bush administration to support a middle east army in crisis. But
what does Lebanon have to do with the US and its national interests?

Even if Lebanon
connects, however tangentially, with the twin western concerns of
Israel and oil, there is no strong case for America to involve itself
in Lebanese affairs. As Edward Luttwak said – arguing in the May 2007
issue of Prospect that the west should start to take the middle
east less seriously –"Strategically, the Arab-Israeli conflict
has been almost irrelevant since the end of the cold war… And
global dependence on middle eastern oil is declining."

I am not denigrating
the seriousness of the violence in Lebanon and its potential to
push the country back into civil war. Nor do I lack passion for
Lebanon, my home for many years and birthplace of my maternal grandparents.
Its politics fascinate me, in part because the country governs itself
much as it did in Ottoman times-with tribal leaders seeking outside
protection, allying with one another and, occasionally, battling
old friends. Lebanon, like the rest of the region, masked its conflicts
in the garb of the cold war when it needed to, and it is adept at
portraying itself as a battleground between secularism and Islamic
fundamentalism now. The game, however, has always been local–which
pasha or bey will dominate which hilltop, which tribe will take
the larger share of the trade in banking or hashish, which local
commander will pledge his men to which regional overlord. Lebanon
happens to be significant to me. But it is not important to the
US.

Supporters of American
intervention in Lebanon may contend that, without US military support,
Syria will come to dominate the country. The Shia Hizbullah will
gain the upper hand against the Sunnis, Druze and Christians. Israel
might have to invade again. These outcomes are possible, perhaps
probable, but, unless you are Lebanese, so what? America approved
the Syrian interventions in Lebanon in 1976, 1986 and 1990; it may
well approve the next.

The US need
not play every political game on earth. Half a million American
troops are losing a war in Iraq, the US is waging war in Afghanistan,
and it has troops stationed in a majority of the world’s countries.
It is taking part, covertly and overtly, in small wars in Colombia,
the Philippines and a dozen other places. It provides training and
matériel to governments around the globe, usually unelected,
to keep the peasants down, drive them from the land, sustain local
clients and ensure American business pride of place at trading tables
everywhere.

Lebanon is one of the
most telling examples of the futility of America’s global policies,
and the hell of it is that America has been in Lebanon before. In
1982 and 1983, the US stationed marines in Beirut, ostensibly to
protect the Palestinian refugee camps from further massacres of
the type that Israel and its Lebanese Christian allies inflicted
in September 1982. It also sent military advisers to train the Lebanese
army, whose commanders understood American support to mean they
could arrest, torture and otherwise dispose of their enemies. But
the US could not hold the Lebanese army together, the Lebanese government’s
opponents drove the marines out of the country in February 1984
and for seven years American citizens could not walk the streets
of Beirut without being kidnapped or killed. President Reagan once
said that the future of the free world depended on the ability of
the Lebanese army to hold out in the mountain village of Souk el-Gharb.
Souk el-What? Despite
US intervention, Souk el-Gharb fell. The US survived. And in 2007,
whether the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp falls will not affect any
American’s safety or livelihood.

Edward Luttwak’s otherwise
snide and patronising critique of a region for which America has
displayed an exaggerated imperial interest makes the valid observation
that the middle east is not important enough to fight over. But
Luttwak did not carry his argument to its obvious conclusion: if
the mideast is no big deal, the US should cut all arms sales and
military aid to the region. That means withdrawing from Iraq; closing
bases in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain; ending arms deliveries to the
reactionary monarchy in Saudi Arabia; and cutting aid to Israel.

Why should the American
taxpayer give $5.5bn in total aid to Israel every year so that it
can dominate a region of diminished strategic value? If the US doesn’t
give Israel cluster bombs, Israel won’t drop millions of them all
over south Lebanon. And why send arms to Saudi Arabia, a country
that has never fought a war? The Congressional Research Service
reported this year that the US had delivered $17.9bn in weapons
to Saudi Arabia between 1998 and 2005. If the US didn’t give Saudi
Arabia the advanced tanks and jet fighters that it can never deploy,
there would be no danger of the weapons finding their way into the
hands of Islamist militants. The US is arming Israel, Egypt, Jordan,
Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and the Fateh
portion of the Palestine authority. In whose interest is that? The
US should introduce a resolution in the UN security council to enforce
an arms embargo on all states in the middle east –at least until
they resolve their disputes without benefit of the American firepower
that makes their wars all the more destructive. That would make
the region-and the rest of us-safer.

July
6, 2007

Charles
Glass [send him mail]
is the author, most recently, of The
Northern Front
. See his
website
.

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