US Good Cop, Israel Bad Cop

US-supplied Israeli Cluster Munitions.  Photo by HRW.In its bombing of Lebanon last summer, the Israeli military liberally sprinkled the notoriously deadly cluster bombs throughout populated areas. The funny thing is, the United States is now saying that “Israel violated American prohibitions” on the use of the weapons “against populated areas.” Why is the Bush administration showing such concern over Israel’s use of US-supplied weapons, even suggesting sanctions?[1]

The bombs, each of which spreads 88 submunitions over a large area, are nearly always used to terrorize civilian populations, since their imprecision makes them hard to target. Furthermore, their up to 14% failure rate turns 12/88 of them into future landmines when fleeing civilians return to a war-strewn area. So the weapons are universally condemned by human rights groups.

I don’t believe the critique of Israel is serious. Washington itself uses cluster munitions all the time. In fact all its major recent military operations – the US/NATO attack on the former Yugoslavia, the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq war – featured civilian deaths due to cluster bombs. According to Human Rights Watch,

the use of cluster munitions in populated areas in Iraq caused more civilian casualties than any other factor in the U.S.-led coalition’s conduct of major military operations in March and April 2003, killing and wounding more than 1,000 Iraqi civilians. Roughly a quarter of the 500 civilian deaths caused by NATO bombing in the 1999 Yugoslavia war were also due to cluster munitions.[2]

It is likely there won’t be any real action against Israel other than the current “preliminary finding” that Israel “may have violated” US law. The New York Times says, “Any sanctions against Israel would be an extraordinary move by the Bush administration, a strong backer of Israel, and several officials said they expected little further action, if any, on the matter.”

Still, even a pretend-critique of Israel’s conduct of the war is more than usual, and I’m not exactly sure where this is coming from. It’s possible that there are a few elements of the Administration that don’t agree with what has been standard US policy for decades, namely using Israel as a tool of US foreign policy in the Middle East and backing Israel without question when it behaves brutally (like its mentor).

Or maybe this is just the standard “good cop/bad cop” routine, where the scary Israeli military (which would be nothing without Washington’s support) is counterbalanced by a more reasonable US State Department to try to coerce the Lebanese people into accepting US stewardship. Clearly, Washington sees the current turmoil in Lebanon between its friends in the government and the extremely popular Hizbollah and other Shiite movements as a test of its ability to trump Iran as the biggest influence in Lebanon. According to the Associated Press, “[Prime Minister Faoud] Saniora stands between the West and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants trying to bring down his government.” The recent Western donor’s conference that pledged $7.6 Billion for Saniora’s government “had an urgent tone, with some diplomats and leaders hoping to give Saniora tangible bargaining power in his power struggle with Hezbollah.”[3]

So maybe this tepid and hypocritical “outcry” against Israeli brutalities is another attempt to persuade the Lebanese people that George W. Bush is On Their Side.