Israel´s recent holiday assault on the Gaza Strip provoked no dearth of flashbacks in the international press to the summer 2006 assault on Lebanon. The flashbacks, it seems, were triggered not only by indiscriminate bombing and civilian casualties but by other factors as well, such as endorsement of bombing and casualties by the US Senate and tautological clarifications by Condoleezza Rice that the aim of total destruction was to prevent a return to the status quo ante. In contrast with her performance during the Lebanese debacle, however, Rice refrained from characterizing as “birth pangs of a new Middle East” what happened when the Gazan status quo ante attempted to remain the status quo; she conserved additional energy by abstaining from physical contact with the afflicted region.
I explored Rice’s new found succinctness during a visit to the website of the US State Department a few days prior to the inauguration of Barack Obama. A superficial comparison of the transcripts of two press briefings –”Special Briefing on Travel to the Middle East and Europe” of 21 July 2006 and “Situation in Gaza” of 2 January 2009 — confirmed a loss of oratory motivation on the part of the outgoing Secretary. Despite similar passages rejecting ceasefires on the basis that they might not hold for eternity and condemning respective status quos ante for illegal behavior like abducting Israeli soldiers and winning elections, the discourse on Lebanon is far more effective in its metaphorical elaboration, which centers around the two concepts of feet and birth pangs.
The first concept arises due to the fact that Hezbollah has “one foot in terror and one foot in politics,” with the political foot merely serving as a cover for the pair’s true nature. Obstetrics then uncharacteristically intervenes in podiatry and birth pangs arrive to realign the feet, with the interference articulated by Rice as follows: “What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is the growing — the birth pangs of a new Middle East and whatever we do we have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the new Middle East not going back to the old one.”
The cast of characters in Rice’s principal metaphor can be determined if we assume that birth pangs generally occur in the mother, after which it becomes clear that:
1. Lebanese civilians are the mothers of the new Middle East.
2. birth pangs can sometimes occur in the form of aerial bombardments.
3. the US-Israel alliance is the appointed OB/GYN, but still has both feet in politics.
4. argumentative portions of the international community are ambulance chasers.
The minor blunder that occurs while the terms of the metaphor are being established (“the growing — the birth pangs”) might indicate a narrowly averted semantic substitution of “growing pains” for “birth pangs,” as though Rice has temporarily forgotten that the Middle East should not mature but rather be forcibly reborn, possibly via a process of artificial insemination.
Near the end of Rice’s briefing on Lebanon, the new Middle East — here in the form of the Siniora government — skips a crucial stage in its entrance into the world and suddenly appears “in its crib,” where “those extremists want to strangle it.” Chronological incompatibility between birth pangs and cribs notwithstanding, Rice succeeds in masking American geostrategic objectives with sympathy-generating infant-related imagery. Other effective stylistic elements present in Rice’s discourse include: “I´m concerned about civilian casualties because I’m concerned about civilian casualties” and “I’m clearly not going to speculate on something that is just speculation.”
Rice’s 2 January briefing on the situation in Gaza consists of 327 words, which is 113 words more than her statement of 9 January, also featured on the State Department website and entitled “100th Anniversary of the U.S.-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty.” Gaza´s word count is further augmented by a question and answer section, the question being: “Dr. Rice, do you plan to go to the Mideast to broker…?” and the answer: “I have no plans at this point. Thank you.”
A continuation of established metaphors is blatantly absent from the briefing, although Rice does manage to include bits of satire, such as that Hamas “has contributed deeply to a very bad daily life for the Palestinian people,” as well as esoteric vocabulary like tahadiya. The inclusion of Arabic terms for ceasefire is presumably meant to suggest either that Rice has spent a great deal of time consorting with concerned Arabs or that certain parties to the conflict are incapable of understanding the language of diplomacy.
Tzipi Livni, who had more to gain from impending changes of administration than did Rice, compensated for the fact that the Gazans had not been nominated replacement birth mothers of the new Middle East by proclaiming that the road to peace passed through the war on terror. This was essentially a version of Rice´s birth pang theory, according to which the road to new life passed through death. Had Rice had the time to make the theoretical leap, the roads in Gaza may have passed through the “C-section of a new Middle East,” if not the “coat hanger abortion.”
(Aside from imperial connotations of the word “Caesarian”, a number of other symbolic opportunities were contained in the first option, such as that:
1. C-sections are recommended when vaginal delivery proves difficult and/or time-consuming, or when the mother is eradicated during childbirth.
2. C-sections can be planned ahead of time so as not to interfere with foreign inaugural celebrations.
3. Israel has already proved its adeptness at surgical precision.
4. Regional anesthesia has already been administered to Hosni Mubarak.)
Given Rice’s diminished creativity levels, I was surprised when a pop-up appeared over the text of the Gaza briefing on my computer screen, inviting me to partake in a State Department Customer Satisfaction Survey in order to “let us know what we´re doing well and where we need to do better.” Curious as to why customer satisfaction was considered necessary at this late date — and why internet visitors were presumed to have one foot in citizenship and one in consumerism — I clicked on the button to continue.
The survey consisted of 30 questions, the first 10 of which asked you to rate things like “the convenience of the features on this site” and “the speed of loading the page on this site,” as if the only foreign policy errors of the US were in web design. In keeping with systems of government in which public oversight is largely ornamental, only two of the 30 questions allowed you to express yourself directly by keying in an answer. Number 21, for example, asked: “If you answered ‘other’ for ‘what type of difficulty, if any, did you encounter with the search feature,’ what was the other difficulty? Please be specific.” I thus took advantage of the opportunity to voice my complaint, which was that a search of the terms “Caesarian section” merely produced a document from 2004 with the heading: “II. Country Assessments — Ukraine.”
The survey assured me that all results were strictly confidential, such that personal secrets like whether or not you were likely to recommend the site to someone else (question 15) would be safeguarded. Confidentiality quickly became irrelevant, however, when my attempt at democratic participation was met with the invitation to “[p]lease answer or correct the following questions marked (arrow) before submitting the survey: [list of numbers 1-30 with the exception of number 21].” I thus abandoned the project, and wondered if the incoming State Department would retain the same website administrators, in addition to the same commitment to combating the status quo ante on behalf of its citizen-customers.
Delivery room doctors do not generally declare unilateral ceasefires mid-birth, nor is it common to produce a baby with no physical or psychological connection to its mother. It thus appears that a new Middle East may not really be the goal after all, and that the rebirth of the status quo ante will justify operations against it for the foreseeable future.