Smarter (and certainly better paid) people than I have been writing about the impact of the recent conflict and ceasefire in Gaza from a variety of angles.
Each of these analyses is based on a specific frame of reference which those of us who fight against the propaganda arm of militancy directed at Israel (a propaganda arm that just gets warmed up during conflicts like last week’s) need to understand.
First off, there is the “Who Won/Who Lost” political frame that tends to get picked up most by a media obsessed with both Israel and with winners and losers.
Groups such as Hamas take as a reference point the abject defeat of the Arab states during the 1967 Six-Day War, a defeat so all-encompassing that no amount of spin could present it as anything else. Given this context, anything short of Israel completely crushing an opposing military and controlling its territory is defined as a “win” by the militants.
For those of us old enough to remember the 1982 Lebanon War, when Yassir Arafat and his PLO troops were routed and shipped off to Tunis, the story he told was that he had survived Israel’s onslaught for far longer than six days and should thus be hailed as an Arab hero.
Not too many people bought that story back then, but today credulity seems in long supply given that the leaders of groups like Hamas can spend a war they triggered hiding in bunkers beneath hospitals, mosques, and nursery schools only to emerge after others have done the killing and dying for them and declare themselves courageous victors.
Then there are political frames that tend to get constructed around events of this type within democratic polities. Thus, here in the US, we tend to look at the story in the context of what it means with regard to the recently re-elected President Obama’s direction vis-à-vis the Jewish state (i.e., is he making up for mistakes of the past?, creating an Israeli debt that will have to be paid back later? or defining some new Obama Doctrine?). Similarly, in Israel (and abroad) it was hard to avoid every twist and turn in this month’s war being interpreted in the context of upcoming Israeli elections.
But there is another frame that we Americans tend to be less comfortable discussing: the frame of “Great Game” global geopolitics.
The “Great Game” refers to centuries of European colonization of vast parts of the world where major powers such as France, England and Russia (reading from Machiavelli’s rulebook) played local elites and tribes/nationalities against one another and against their European rivals. It was a challenging and cynical game, one that Americans from both the isolationist right and internationalist left either avoided, deplored or played badly.
But today, it turns out to be many of these former colonies that are playing a new Great Game with each other. Specifically, in a rapidly Islamizing Middle East you’ve got three major rivals for all-out power: the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (now headquartered in Egypt), the Shiite Persians of Iran, and an increasingly Eastward looking Turkey wondering if there is room for some Neo-Ottoman expansion of influence in a region now completely up for grabs.
As with most imperialist movements, vying brands of Islamist totalitarianism create strange bedfellows. Which is why Syria (a Sunni country ruled by a “heretical” Alawite minority) has acted as the bridge between Shiite Iran and the Shiite Hezbollah minority that all-but-rules neighboring Lebanon. It’s also why Turkey can play tough with Syria (for killing thousands of its citizens) while also putting out feelers to Syria’s key Iranian ally.
This type of dosey-do explains why Hamas, an offshoot of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, will act as Persian Iran’s surrogates while also calculating emerging relations with Islamizing Sunni Egypt and non-Arab Turkey into their decisions regarding whether or not to trigger the next war.
In this case, it is Israel that must navigate the ambitions of multiple would-be imperialists, many of whom also suffer from the most frightening dose of fantasy politics we’ve seen since Europe in the 1930s. For it is this fantasy framework that can help us understand why groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the nations backing them are ready to deploy limitless violence against anyone (Arab, Christian or Jew) standing in the way of holding onto or increasing their power in the age of a fantasized “New Caliphate.”
Under such circumstances, interpretations like this one which look at last week’s conflict through the lens of actual, volatile power relationships (vs. simply who won or who lost, or who is up and who is down in the most recent American or Israeli opinion polls) provide the most insight, even if it tells us something we’d rather not have to deal with.
Smaller nations in the past have managed to survive Great Game politics and even come out ahead if they are ready to be patient and make decisions based on how the world really is (vs. how they’d like it to be). In fact, given that the Arabs got 22 countries out of playing this game skillfully (vs. the Jew’s one obtaining one), there seems to have been at least one point in time when all the nations of the Middle East were ready to make political choices grounded in reality.
Sadly, it is in those very 22 countries where fantasy politics have led to dreams of empire, with all of the misery that is likely to entail. And one can only hope that leaders in Israel, the US and elsewhere can demonstrate the patience and wisdom needed to avoid behind burned as the fantasists work tirelessly to light the world on fire.