Profiles of the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah always describe him as the most "brilliant" or "strategic" Arab player. I beg to differ. When the smoke clears, Nasrallah will be remembered as the most foolhardy Arab leader since Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser miscalculated his way into the Six-Day War.
Yes, yes, I know. I am a too-rational Westerner. I don't understand the Eastern mind and the emotional victory that Nasrallah will reap from all this pain. It isn't whether you win or lose; it's whether you kill Jews. Maybe. But, ultimately, wars are fought for political ends. An accounting will be rendered, so let's do some math.
First, Nasrallah has set back the whole fledgling Arab democracy movement. That movement, by the way, was being used by Islamist parties - like Hezbollah and Hamas - to peacefully ascend to power. Hezbollah, for the first time, had two ministers in the Lebanese Cabinet. Hamas, through a U.S.-sponsored election, took over the Palestinian Authority. And in both cases, as well as in Iraq, these Islamist parties were allowed to sit in government and maintain their own militias outside.
What both Hamas and Nasrallah have done - by dragging their nations into unnecessary wars with Israel - is to prove that Islamists will not be made more accountable by political power. Just the opposite; not only will they not fix the potholes, they will start wars, whenever they choose, that will lead to even bigger potholes.
Does this mean Hamas and Hezbollah will never get another vote? Of course not. Their followers will always follow. What it does mean is that if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or Islamists in Jordan or the Persian Gulf, had any hopes of taking power through electoral means, they can forget about it. I don't see their governments ever allowing elections that might bring Islamist parties to power, and I don't see the United States promoting any more elections in the region, for now. The Arab democracy experiment is on hold - because if Islamist parties can't be trusted to rule, elections can't be trusted to be held.
All Arab dictators say, "thank you, Nasrallah."
On the peace front, let's see, Israel gets out of Lebanon and Gaza, and what is the response of Hamas and Hezbollah? Build schools, roads and jobs in their recovered territories? Nope. Respect the border with Israel, but demand that Israel continue to withdraw from the West Bank? Nope. The response is to shell Israel from Gaza and abduct Israeli soldiers from Lebanon. Hamas and Nasrallah replaced the formula "land for peace" with "land for war," said the former Mideast envoy Dennis Ross.
In doing so, they have ensured that no Israeli government is going to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank and risk rockets on Tel Aviv. Nasrallah and Hamas have brought "strategic territorial depth" back to Israeli thinking. All West Bank Jewish settlers say, "thank you, Nasrallah."
But let's assume Nasrallah doesn't care about democracy or a Palestinian state. He has to care about his own standing. His adventures have led to the devastation of his people - what is happening to Lebanon is a terrible tragedy - with relatively little damage to Israel. He launched a war on behalf of Iran that ruined his people, and the best outcome he can expect is a cease-fire that requires Hezbollah to move away from the Israeli border.
Moreover, Iran gave Nasrallah missiles to deter any Western or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program. By frivolously playing their missile card now, Hezbollah and Iran have exposed and weakened Iran's deterrent. Really dumb.
Can America capitalize on Nasrallah's foolishness? To me, the big strategic chess move is to try to split Syria off from Iran, and bring Damascus back into the Sunni Arab fold. That is the game-changer. What would be the Syrian price? I don't know, but I sure think it would be worth finding out. After all, Syria hosts Hamas' leadership in Damascus. It is the land bridge between Hezbollah and Iran, without which Hezbollah can't survive. And it is the safe haven for the Baathist insurgents in Iraq.
Yes, we have a lot to discuss with Syria. And so do the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Jordanians, who are worried that Syria is paving the way for an Iranian-Shiite takeover of Arab politics.
I'd sure be interested to know if Damascus would respond to a U.S.-Saudi overture - like the one that got Libya to give up its nukes - and come over from the dark side. Unlikely, to be sure, but if the Bush team had the smarts to pull it off - also unlikely - it would be the mother of all defeats for Iran and Nasrallah.
©New York Times News Service