Fault lines and folly

If nothing else, the newest crisis in the Middle East the most dangerous fault lines in that fractured part of the world.

It’s now clear, for instance, that democracy is at best a relative term there. Lebanon and Palestine are both fledgling democracies, but both have been hijacked by heavily armed militia groups, Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas is now, as a result of recent elections, the ruling party in Palestine, and Hezbollah holds a number of seats in Lebanon’s parliament.

Hamas and Hezbollah are participating in the democratic process, but they are fundamentalist Shiite, anti-Israel zealots using the democratic process to further their anti-democratic purposes.

Until recently, Syria occupied Lebanon and was able to hold Hezbollah in check. Last year, under pressure from the United States and the European nations, it withdrew from the country. The irony—and unintended consequence in this land of unintended consequences—is that Hezbollah now feels free to attack Israel.

This would not bother other nations in the region if it were only about confronting Israel. But the overarching historical conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is beginning to dominate regional politics. Iran, a Shiite country, is exerting increasing influence, arming Hezbollah and Hamas as well as Shiite militias in Iraq.

This has the leaders of such Sunni countries as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, as well as those of several Persian Gulf states, concerned—to the point where last weekend, at an emergency Arab League meeting in Cairo, they took the rare step of publicly rebuking Hezbollah for “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts.” Wary of Iran’s ambitions, they fear that the Sunni-Shia conflict will erupt into a regional conflagration and destabilize their own autocratic regimes.

These developments have to be especially disconcerting for the Bush administration. Now that furthering the cause of democracy in the region has become its primary rationale for the occupation of Iraq, it must be cringing to see how these militant groups—and, by proxy, Iran—are using democracy for their own theocratic purposes.

This is especially true in Iraq. The country has had some success in creating a multi-sectarian government, but it’s largely ineffectual at this point. Meanwhile, the two most important institutions, the police and the army, are deeply infiltrated by Shiite militia members whose main goal is to kill Sunnis and foment civil war. As a result, Sunni leaders in Iraq, who last year at this time were cheering on the insurgency, are now asking the United States to stick around and protect them. This particular irony would be almost humorous if it weren’t so tragic.

In the meantime, even if Iraq defies the odds and makes the transition to democracy, the Shiites, who constitute 60 percent of the population, will remain in power and are likely to continue developing close ties with Iran, the chief sponsor of Islamist fundamentalism and terrorism in the region.

The Bush administration could have foreseen these developments had it studied and understood the Middle East more deeply before invading Iraq. And it probably could have contained the insurgency there had it sent in enough troops immediately after the 2003 invasion to establish law and order before the looting broke out. It did neither, and so here we are, up to our eyeballs in a sinkhole of religious sectarianism, ancient grudges and cruel, indiscriminate violence.

The greatest irony in all this, however, is that the country that has benefited most from these developments, including the occupation of Iraq, is Iran, America’s sworn enemy in the region and a member of President Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil.” When the ayatollahs who rule that nation look out upon the region, they see a resurgence of fundamentalism everywhere they look. Their good friend Osama bin Laden must be rejoicing up there in his cave.