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Axes of Fable

A woman holds a sign depicting US President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft as the "axis of evil" as thousands of anti-war demonstrators gather to protest a possible war in Iraq October 6, 2002 in New York City.  (Keith Bedford/Getty Images)
A woman holds a sign depicting US President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft as the “axis of evil” as thousands of anti-war demonstrators gather to protest a possible war in Iraq October 6, 2002 in New York City. (Keith Bedford/Getty Images)
The decade following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States produced two defining mythologies in American and Arab political culture: the “axis of evil,” and the “axis of resistance.” Both of these mirages have been subsequently abandoned by their erstwhile constituents, or proven nonsensical by events. Yet the ideas which informed them continue to reverberate in relations between the United States and the Arab world, in the form of both repudiations of some of the core concepts and the rehabilitation of others. The axes are dead, at least for now. But aspects of the tensions they embodied persist, particularly regarding American relations with sub-national groups, above all Hamas and Hezbollah.

In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, American President George W. Bush singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” which he accused of supporting international terrorism and seeking to proliferate weapons of mass destruction. The phrase invoked two key connotations in American political culture. First, it called to mind the “axis powers” of the Second World War: Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy. Second, it echoed US President Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.”

Yet almost from the outset, many questioned the coherence of such a formulation. Iran and Iraq, after all, had recently fought a decade-long war in which at least 1 million people had been killed. Neither country was particularly closely aligned with North Korea. The idea that the troika formed any kind of “axis”—a word strongly suggesting an alliance—that was operating as a global menace sounded far-fetched, if not ridiculous, to many. The concept was further damaged when it served—in part—as the justification for the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was frequently cited as a response to the 9/11 attacks, even though the government of Saddam Hussein was in no way connected to Al-Qaeda.

The “axis of evil” never made any sense, politically or strategically. But it accurately reflected the emotional state of the American people: they had been confronted by an evil force that, they thought, could not simply be sub-national. The notion that the closest thing to a state agency that might have been involved in the attacks would be elements within the Inter-Services Intelligence wing of a long-term ally, Pakistan, was not seriously considered until much later. Even now, after Osama bin Laden was killed in the Pakistani military city of Abbottabad, surrounded by the Pakistani military and intelligence elite, this possibility remains mired in hushed whispers in Washington DC.

The “axis of evil,” therefore, had an extremely short shelf life in American politics. It has been rarely mentioned since without embarrassment, both because it was such a crude phrase and because it made no strategic sense. Moreover, the primary action it did seem to inform—the Iraqi fiasco—is now universally regarded as a disaster.

The counter-concept of an “axis of resistance” proved much more durable in Middle Eastern political culture. The phrase was apparently coined in 2002 as well, in direct response to Bush’s speech, by the Libyan newspaper Al-Zahf Al-Akhdar. It was subsequently widely adopted in Iranian rhetoric regarding the insurgency against the American occupation of Iraq in the following years. The phrase got further traction with the July 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon, which briefly made Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, popular figures throughout the Arab world.

But since the focus of the “axis of resistance” was rhetoric employed by the Iranian-led (and therefore primarily Shi’a) alliance, the enthusiasm of many Sunni Arabs for the “axis” dampened. What solidified the idea in much of Arab political culture for a brief time was the 2008-2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza. This assault foregrounded Hamas’ role in the “axis of resistance,” thereby undermining the notion that it was essentially a vehicle of Iranian foreign policy and Shi’a sectarian interests.

Indeed, the mythology of an “axis of resistance” that could combine an Iranian-led alliance that primarily consisted of non-Sunni powers such as the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, with a Muslim Brotherhood party, Hamas, was solidified during the Israeli attack on Gaza. Much of the sectarianism of previous decades was briefly overcome as large numbers of Sunni Arabs embraced the idea that it was politically possible for Hamas to be both a member of the Iranian-led alliance and a core Muslim Brotherhood organization, and that perhaps the rhetoric of Tehran that it was leading an “axis of resistance” against Israel had merit. This alliance managed to placate, however briefly, a great deal of Sunni Arab popular opinion about the rise of a Persian and Shi’a power in the region, particularly under the rubric that it was leading the fight against Israel.

This was all, however, a myth. Iran was using Hamas and Hezbollah, and its claim to be the leader of “the resistance,” and even Holocaust denial, to outbid everyone in posing as the champion of the Palestinians. Even a few months after the end of the invasion of Gaza, one could begin to see the fraying of the mythology as Arabs began to remember that their interests and those of Iran were not synonymous. Yet it took the tumultuous events of the “Arab Spring,” and especially the emergence of the war in Syria, to expose the absurdity of the “axis of resistance” myth to most of Arab public opinion.

The Syrian conflict forced Hamas to choose between the benefits it received from its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and, especially, Syria (where its political bureau was headquartered and much of its financial holdings were invested) and its core identity as a Sunni Islamist party. With the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria being a key player in the uprising against Bashar Al-Assad, Hamas could not remain neutral. And, in the end, they had no choice but to reaffirm their Muslim Brotherhood identity, which meant leaving Syria altogether, and beginning their ongoing struggle to find new patrons and headquarters.

American relations with Hamas and Hezbollah

The United States has maintained a fundamentally hostile, but also somewhat nuanced, relationship with Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, the complexity is such that anyone—and this is very common in the United States—who mentions Hamas and Hezbollah in the same sentence as if they were a single or highly comparable entities reveals their lack of knowledge about the details of these policies. The defining feature of relations with both groups, however, is common: both have been Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations since the State Department first issued a list of such organizations in 1997, pursuant to a 1996 law making it a crime to provide any “material support” to such groups, including nonlethal and otherwise lawful aid.

However American policy towards Hamas and Hezbollah is not the same. Hezbollah has been part of almost every Lebanese government since 2005. The American policy throughout has been a simple one: the United States regards Lebanon (somewhat tentatively) as a friend and provides aid to the government even though Hezbollah ministers serve in it. However, American officials will not formally or officially meet or deal with Hezbollah ministers or parliamentary deputies.

The situation was somewhat different when the Palestinian Authority (PA) experienced a brief period of cohabitation after Mahmoud Abbas won the presidential election in 2005 and Hamas secured a parliamentary majority in 2006. The period of cohabitation between a Fatah president and a Hamas-dominated parliament between 2006-2007 led to a series of devastating sanctions implemented by the Middle East Quartet, including the US, as well as Israel. Sanctions were lifted on the PA in Ramallah after the split between Gaza and the West Bank in the summer of 2007, but tightened on Hamas.

The United States has never given Hezbollah any indication of under what circumstances it might be considered a legitimate actor. Presumably, it is seen primarily as a cat’s paw for Tehran, and relations with it depend mainly on the state of US-Iran relations. In the context of Lebanon, it is tolerated but ignored. In the event of direct conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the United States invariably sides with Israel, but only within a given framework of acceptable actions and for a limited period of time.

Hamas, on the other hand, has been given a very clear framework by the United States and the Middle East Quartet for gaining “legitimacy”: renouncing violence, accepting the Palestine Liberation Organization’s recognition of Israel (or at least the goal of a two-state solution), and accepting the binding quality of existing PLO agreements with Israel. These are essentially also the conditions that the PLO has set out for Hamas to be considered acceptable as a counterpart in Palestinian politics.

However, Hamas cannot agree to these conditions without losing its primary distinction from Fatah: that it takes a more strident line on Israel. Otherwise, the two parties would be essentially pursuing the same goal for national liberation—a two-state solution with Israel—and Hamas’ main appeal would be its religiously-inspired social conservatism. This is highly unlikely to be a path to majority status among Palestinians. Moreover, Hamas is increasingly being outbid on its political and religious right by Islamic Jihad, which has maintained and is strengthening relations with Iran.

Elements within Hamas, including politician Mahmoud Zahar and paramilitary chief Marwan Issa, have attempted to maintain relations with Iran. They have succeeded, to some extent, on the military front. And, following the ouster of former Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi, they are now trying to rebuild political relations. With Mursi gone, Hamas finds itself more isolated than ever, and embarrassingly dependent on Israel for all of its basic supplies and needs, as well as relying on Ramallah for paying the salaries of most public employees.

American relations with both Hamas and Hezbollah, while different, are unlikely to improve as long as both groups remain on the terrorism list. As noted above, relations with Hezbollah are understood in the context of Lebanon’s precarious equilibrium of unstable elements, which the United States generally supports. In that context, Hezbollah is tolerated but kept at arm’s length. Hamas has been given a clear path to legitimacy, but it is one it cannot yet take.

The rise of Muslim Brotherhood parties in post-dictatorship Arab societies, especially Tunisia and Egypt, but also to some extent Libya, produced an unexpected about-face in the Washington policy community’s attitude toward nonviolent Islamists. Beginning with the Tunisian Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, a whole string of Islamists from North Africa were welcomed by the most prominent American think tanks and institutions. Moreover, they were treated with deference, protected from difficult questions, and generally treated—not as the persona non grata they would have been a few years earlier—but as honored and fascinating guests. It would appear that many American “experts” believed that Islamists, particularly Muslim Brothers, were the authentic representation of majority Sunni Arab public opinion and the legitimate new face of post-dictatorship Arab politics.

Hamas, of course, was not included because of its violent tendencies and its inclusion on the terrorism list. Hezbollah was correctly seen as operating in a space more closely aligned with Iran. However, a significant and growing minority of voices, some of them influential, insist on the legitimacy of Hamas and the need to include it in any kind of peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Most American observers, and certainly the US government, realize that the Palestinians cannot have two “legitimate representatives” to represent them diplomatically. But some American policy-framers have been so enamored with Muslim Brotherhood parties as “legitimate” and “authentic” that they have also taken up the cause of Hamas. The collapse of the Mursi government in Egypt after less than a year, and to enormous popular acclaim and support, has baffled many of them, since it upends their assumption that, left free to vote for whomever they please, most Arabs will ultimately wish to be governed by Islamists, especially of the Muslim Brotherhood variety.

The future of US relations with Hamas, Hezbollah and “resistance”

The “axis of resistance” is dead for the foreseeable future, replaced by a very different Middle Eastern political landscape in which it is no longer possible for a group like Hamas to be both a Muslim Brotherhood party and part of the Iranian alliance simultaneously. One of the main results of this dissolution is that American policy towards Hamas and Hezbollah is more distinct than ever. Hezbollah, as noted above, whether in Lebanon, Syria or in conflict with Israel, will be essentially seen in the United States as an extension of Iran. The future of US-Hezbollah relations will be a function of the outcome of the US-Iranian interplay over the latter’s nuclear program, and other crucial issues.

The future of Hamas-US relations is also likely to be dependent mainly on not only Hamas’ behavior, but also which parties finally become Hamas’ primary patrons. The current Egyptian government could hardly be more hostile to Hamas. A wide-ranging rapprochement with Iran appears unlikely. Potential patrons such as Qatar, Turkey or Jordan would all likely ameliorate the aggressive behavior of Hamas, but would be unlikely to convince the group to accept the Quartet conditions. It is therefore likely to remain on the terrorism list, and the United States will deal directly with the Palestinians through the PLO and the PA.

The American position, fundamentally, is that the violent “resistance” to Israel or American targets or interests in the region is unacceptable, and that is not going to change. Should regional strategic realities change sufficiently, the potential for a resurrection of the “axis of resistance” is conceivable, even with a much larger and more empowered Islamic Jihad replacing Hamas, or, perhaps, with radicalized, violent Muslim Brotherhood factions disenchanted with democracy and politics seeking some kind of an alliance with Iran and its clients. But for now, that seems at best a distant possibility.

“Resistance” to the Israeli occupation, however, is not utterly rejected by the United States. Nonviolent protests are seen as legitimate, and are gaining steam. Boycott movements, particularly those that target the occupation or the settlements—such as the new European Union occupation guidelines—but not Israel itself, are not fundamentally opposed by Washington. In short, in so far as “resistance” is seen as synonymous with “terrorism,” we are still in a post-9/11 environment in terms of American attitudes. It will be rejected out of hand.

And yet in Arab political culture there still seems to be an empty space which the “axis of resistance” used to falsely occupy: not a yearning for Iranian hegemony or terrorism, but an active campaign to combat Israel’s occupation in the territory seized in 1967. Here, it would seem, lies a real opportunity for whoever could take advantage of mobilizing popular support that eschews terrorism but confronts the occupation with real, powerful resistance that is truly nonviolent.

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Hussein Ibish
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He is a regular contributor to many American, British and Middle Eastern publications. Ibish served as executive director of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American Leadership from 2004-2009. From 1998-2004, Ibish was communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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