The Loser in Lebanon: The Atlantic Alliance

Mark Perry & Alastair Crooke

Asia Times, August 8, 2006

The United States and France have produced a United Nations resolution of sorts aimed at ending the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, but the negotiations between US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton and France’s Jean-Marc de La Sabliere nearly ended in disaster.

Through the course of a single week, the US and France came as close to a bitter split over Middle East policy as they had on the eve of the Iraq war. At issue in the confrontation was a US insistence that an international force (led by France) be deployed to Lebanon prior to the declaration of a ceasefire – a requirement the French thought ludicrous. They weren’t the only ones.

“The position that we’re taking in the UN is just nuts,” a former White House official close to the US decision-making process said during the negotiations. “The US wants to put international forces on the ground in the middle of the conflict, before there’s a ceasefire. The reasoning at the White House is that the international force could weigh on the side of the Israelis – could enforce Hezbollah’s disarmament.”

All of this, this former official noted, “is covered over by this talk about how we need a substantive agreement that addresses the fundamental problems and that will last. But no one is willing to say exactly what this means.”

A former US Central Intelligence Agency officer confirmed this view: “I am under the impression that [President] George [W] Bush and [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice were surprised when the Europeans disagreed with the US position – they were running around saying, ‘But how can you disagree, don’t you understand? Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.'”

The normally taciturn La Sabliere was particularly enraged when Bolton indirectly accused him of naivety. Responding to a reporter’s question about the French position calling for a ceasefire prior to a troop deployment, Bolton was at his arrogant best: “I think it simplistic, among other things. I want somebody to address the problem on how to get a ceasefire with a terrorist organization.”

Bolton then took a leaf from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s 2003 criticism of France and Germany as “old Europe” – calling the French ceasefire initiative “old thinking”. La Sabliere not only bristled at Bolton’s language, he threatened to end all discussions with the US over ending the Lebanon conflict.

While Bolton and La Sabliere eventually buried their differences, the US-French face-off reflected deep-rooted and long-lasting French resentments over America’s apparent willingness to allow the conflict to run its course – under the belief that it is only a matter of time before Israel destroyed Hezbollah.

“The Bush people have never heard a shot fired in anger, and it’s apparent,” an official in the UN Secretary General’s Office noted. “The French were quite fearful that one miscalculation, one stray rocket could set the region on fire. No one in Washington seemed willing to admit that as a possibility.”

Bolton’s continued “cheerleading for Israel” didn’t help, according to this same official. “It’s a real row that started with Bolton’s statement that you couldn’t compare the deaths of Lebanese to the deaths of Israelis,” the official said. “He implied that because Lebanon harbored Hezbollah, Lebanese lives were forfeit. It was a stupid thing to say. It tore the scab off the wound.”

Bolton refused to back down, reiterating that the death of Lebanese civilians, while “tragic and unfortunate”, was understandable considering Israel’s right to “self-defense”. In any event, Bolton went on to say, Israel did not “desire” the deaths of innocents – unlike Hezbollah.

The US press was quick to pick up on this, parroting the administration’s line. Even the venerable Washington Post implied that seven Canadians who had died as a result of Israeli air strikes in the war’s first days were of lesser value than other Westerners – since they were “Lebanese holding Canadian passports”.

The French, as well as the British, also resented what they viewed as Israel’s “high-handed” lecturing of the Europeans on their own constituent problems. The European anger boiled over, according to one UN diplomat, during an exchange between Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman and a French official during a meeting on the composition of a proposed international force.

While the diplomat would not recount the words used by Gillerman, he confirmed that the phrases Gillerman used “he repeated in the media”. The diplomat was referring to Gillerman’s remarks during an appearance on CNN, where he was spurred on by host Anderson Cooper’s comparison of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Adolf Hitler. “I certainly hope the world understands [that] this war is not just about the safety of Israel or the freedom of Lebanon, it is about preserving civilization as we know it,” Gillerman said.

“When you see Hezbollah flags in London and in Brussels and in Paris and you see that most of the demonstrators in Trafalgar Square and in the other cities are Muslims, I would advise these European countries to look very carefully at what is happening in Beirut today because to a very great extent, what they’re seeing in Beirut, what they’re seeing happening in Lebanon, what Hezbollah has done to the Lebanese people is really just a preview of what they may expect if they don’t take care of that problem as they say in this country, soon to be seen in theaters everywhere.”

Even the British were enraged: “Take care of that problem? Take care of that problem? What would Ambassador Gillerman suggest we do with our Muslims? That’s a hell of a thing for him to say,” a British member of parliament sputtered.

Bolton’s inflammatory statements, US insistence on the deployment of an international force prior to a ceasefire, and Gillerman’s offensive hectoring of European diplomats deepened French suspicions over US-Israeli aims at the height of negotiations over a UN resolution.

But despite his offensive characterizations of the Muslim problem, Gillerman is right in one sense – the shifting demographics of Europe, where Muslim minorities constitute increasingly powerful voting blocs, is beginning to exact a toll on America’s long-standing ties with its erstwhile allies. The French, in particular, are painfully aware that their Muslim minorities are capable of making their presence felt, particularly if they believe their political grievances are not being aired.

“The difference between the US and Europe on how to handle the Middle East is stark,” a Finnish diplomat said during a recent private meeting in Washington. “In the US your political parties worry about the Jewish vote – in Europe, political parties worry about the Muslim vote. It’s just that simple.”

Some of these concerns, and the divide that Europe’s new demographics are cleaving between Washington and European capitals, is now finally beginning to make its way into the press. At issue is US and Israeli terminology, which tends to paint Muslims as terrorists and Israelis as Westerners fighting for civilization.

“It’s not helpful to couch this war in the language of international terrorism,” UN deputy secretary Mark Malloch Brown said last Tuesday. His voice edged with anger, Brown hinted that the United Kingdom could be forced to rethink its by now predictable support for the US initiative.

“Britain has tried very, very hard to keep with the US on this; no one respects the reasons for that entirely, but you have a Security Council and international public opinion, while fully understanding what has been done to Israel, now believes strongly in a cessation to hostilities.”

After hesitating for only a moment, Brown issued a warning on a future British vote – stating almost baldly that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government might decide to side with Europe over the United States. “This is where the UK is a crucial swing vote,” he said. “When it comes behind a cessation of hostilities, it makes it that much harder for the last stalwarts to hold out.”

The Saturday announcement that France and the United States had agreed on a draft resolution has not helped to allay these growing fears. The draft resolution finesses the divide between America’s call for the deployment of an international force and France’s call for a ceasefire – saying that there should be a “full cessation of hostilities” prior to the tabling of a second resolution, which will deal with the more difficult political issues posed by the Israeli-Hezbollah war.

In truth, a number of UN diplomats concede that the battle between the US and France inside the Security Council only diverted the attention of both countries from the conflict in the Middle East. Getting Arab nations to sign on to the resolution was postponed in order to get the resolution agreed to. Nor, it seems, were the Lebanese consulted at all during the process. The resolution, in fact, seems to satisfy the French and Americans – but no one else, and so angered Arab diplomats that Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, denounced it publicly, while privately calling the resolution “a surrender document”.

A spokesman for Hezbollah in Beirut was even blunter, saying that the resolution was “dead on arrival”. He added, “The French caved in to American and Israeli pressure. Israel gets to stay on our land. We are required to disarm. Why isn’t an international force deployed in northern Israel? Our arms get cut off and the US gets to fly cluster munitions into Ben Gurion [Airport in Tel Aviv]. Just who do they think is winning this war?”

For now, Condoleezza Rice is hailing the US-French draft as a symbol for US-European cooperation. But for many European diplomats, agreement on the draft resolution has only papered over a deepening rift between the United States and its European partners, with some European diplomats muttering that America’s real goal is to induce the Europeans to wade into Lebanon on the side of a defanged and humiliated Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “bragged that Israel would destroy Hezbollah”, a French diplomat said in Washington, “and if he can’t do it that’s his problem. I don’t care what the secretary of state says, we’re not going to do it for him.”

There are more difficult days ahead – particularly when the US and France square off in the coming week over the draft of a second resolution. With nearly everyone now wondering whether the US position in the Middle East is unraveling, one UN diplomat said the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict may spell the end of an era in which the US and Europe established a tradition of diplomatic cooperation: “We might as well face up to it. Sooner or later the United States is going to have to choose what is more important – its strategic alliance with Europe, or its friendship with Israel.”

No matter what the answer to that question might be, the very fact that it has been asked means that the real loser in the current Middle East conflict is the Atlantic alliance.

This article first appeared in Asia Times.

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