A proxy war of a different sort
Pro- and anti-Israel wings of the Western political class are exporting their own 'culture wars' to the Middle East.
Why is the Middle East conflict dominating the news and public debate in Britain and the West so completely, generating such intense passions that many will think it outrageous even to ask such a question?
Of course, everybody has been moved by the terrible scenes of dead civilians, many of them children, after the Israeli attack on the Lebanese village of Qana. But put such a loss of life in a wider context, and it becomes clear that the death toll to date is not particularly high by historical standards. Around 550 Lebanese and 50 Israelis are confirmed dead in three weeks of conflict. That is a tragedy for all concerned, but it does not compare to wars and ‘scorched earth’ offensives in the past. Nor would it seem to justify the description (in this case by ITV News, but many have taken the same tack) of ‘Apocalyptic’ devastation. Indeed, as other commentators have pointed out, the daily body count in Lebanon is lower than in other current conflicts, such as those in Iraq and Sudan, which attract far less coverage and concern.
So the death toll alone cannot explain the obsessive Western focus on the Middle East. Nor can the strategic importance of the conflict. Little Israel’s attempts to deal with Hezbollah in littler Lebanon, and Hamas in the tiny Palestinian territories, do not count for much in geo-political terms. This is not the Cold War era, when Israel’s role as America’s gendarme and the Soviet Union’s sponsorship of Arab nationalism made the Middle East a cockpit of global politics.
Of course no conflict in the Middle East will be ignored in the West, given the historical links to the region and the continuing strategic importance of oil reserves. But something else is clearly going on to explain the overwhelming emphasis given to it today – and the shrillness of the debate on both sides.
This has more to do with developments in the West itself than in the Middle East. It appears that more observers in Britain have now identified strongly with one side or the other, and cranked up the importance of the conflict, for reasons largely to do with domestic political matters. There is much talk of the battle between Hezbollah and Israel being a proxy war between Iran and America. It can alternatively be seen as a proxy war of a different sort, between competing wings of the Western political and media class, who are exporting their own ‘culture wars’ to the Middle East.
UK prime minister Tony Blair has just made a speech in which he belatedly sought to describe the confusion caused on both the left and the right by the breakdown of the old political divides. ‘And of course’, he concluded, ‘foreign policy is now creating strange bedfellows across the piece.’ Reactions to the Middle East crisis illustrate those points better than Blair could imagine.
On all sides in domestic politics today there is uncertainty about old principles and an inability to hold the line. In response, many (from Bush and Blair downwards) have sought to project their problems outwards on to international affairs, to find some foreign ground on which they can stake out an imaginary clear line between right and wrong. The Middle East has now become the focus of that displacement activity. In the process, all sides risk reducing this complex conflict to a simple moral parable of good vs evil.
On one side of this culture war stand those, often from the old left but with significant support from elsewhere, who imagine Israel and its American supporters as the embodiment of all that they think wrong with Western values – racist, arrogant, macho, militaristic. These people have long since adopted the Palestinians as the cause célèbre of Western victim-centric politics, exemplified by the popular slogan ‘We’re all Palestinians now’ – a gesture not of political solidarity, but of pity.
The rise of this pathetic, degrading political tendency explains why on spiked, while we have always supported the Palestinian right to self-determination, we have become increasingly critical of the anti-Israeli current in Western and especially European politics (see Turning Palestinians into the basket cases of the world, by Brendan O’Neill). Now many from this side of the culture war have shifted their concerns on to Lebanon, some denouncing Israel’s attacks as war crimes and genocide. This in turn encourages what one American commentator calls the ‘global fad’ of jihad among Muslim youth (1). Those who marched in London with banners declaring ‘We are all Hezbollah’ were only the militant wing of a far wider, more respectable anti-Israeli/American movement.
On the other side of the culture war, we are witnessing a backlash against the anti-Israel backlash. Influential figures from both the old right and left want to stand up for what they believe are the values of Western society, yet find it hard to hold the line on traditional domestic issues. Instead they too have turned outwards, first focusing their concerns on support for the ‘war on terror’ against the threat they imagine from ‘Islamofascism’, and now embracing Israel as their champion against the bogeymen of Hamas and Hezbollah.
Just as some would now depict Israel as the embodiment of all that is wrong with the world, for these supporters it has become the foremost fighter for what is right. As a consequence they sometimes make it seem that, if you want to defend democracy and civilisation, then you have to support bombing raids on Lebanon. In similarly shrill fashion, leading supporters of Israel insist that the drunken outburst by Hollywood star and Catholic crackpot Mel Gibson, about how ‘the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world’, is somehow proof of a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the Western world.
So a local conflict in the Middle East has been turned into a proxy culture war between different wings of the Western political class, the protagonists fighting across the battlefield of the international media. One side imagines itself in the bunker with the Lebanese and Palestinians, the other sees itself standing in the Israeli lines. And both sides become increasingly over-the-top in their protests about the other.
It is striking how the West’s media war over the Middle East has become a grisly auction to depict one side or the other as the real victims. As the stakes are raised, some on either side risk becoming hysterical in their interventions. While the pro-Israeli zealot Melanie Phillips describes Lebanon as ‘an accessory to genocidal terror’, the anti-Israeli zealot John Pilger says the earlier attacks on Gaza are not far removed from ‘the Nazi bombardment and starvation of the Jewish Warsaw ghetto’.
None of this would appear to bear much relation to what is really happening on the ground in Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. Instead it is a bitter war of words being fought for the moral high ground over here. Such a bitter war of words, however, can have real and dangerous consequences. The shouting match is helping further to mystify Middle East issues for a Western audience, making it difficult to make sense of events. Worse, the internationalisation of the conflict can actually intensify it, as all sides in the embattled region try to win over international opinion to intervene on their side.
We have said it before and will keep on saying it: the Middle East is the last place on Earth in need of yet more Western intervention, which has stirred and sustained conflicts there for more than a century. The peoples of that blasted corner of the world should not be turned into stage armies for somebody else’s argument.
It is high time we had a no-holds barred debate about the future of our societies in the West, about what we should believe in and will stand for together. If that is the culture war people want to start, then bring it on – we look forward to exchanging some critical fire with both sides of the existing argument. But let us stop trying to export our problems into the militarised cockpit of the Middle East, and expecting the Israelis, Palestinians or Lebanese to fight our battles for us.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: Middle East
(1) Jihad: a global fad, Jessica Stern, 1 August 2006
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