What’s this Stuff About the Status Quo Ante?

Steve Morse, Suttons Bay, MI, January 7, 2009

On Sunday, July 18, 2006, about a week after Israel commenced air attacks and ground operations against Lebanon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed overseas for talks, but played down the possibility of an early end to hostilities. Ms. Rice declared that she would not “try to get a cease-fire that I know isn’t going to work.” About two weeks later, on August 3, in an interview on the Sean Hannity Show, she explained this position by stating that, while the U.S. desired an end to the violence, “we just want to make certain that we have principles in place that will not permit a return to the status quo ante. . . .” On September 25, she repeated herself, saying in an interview with editors and reporters of the New York Times that”I would hope that [the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] would interpret its mission in a way that allows it to really do what it is supposed to do, which is not to allow a return to the status quo ante in the south [of Lebanon].” Secretary Rice used the phrase status quo ante almost every time she spoke about the Israeli-Lebanese War of 2006.

On Friday, January 2, 2009, about a week after Israel commenced air attacks against Palestinians in Gaza, Secretary Rice emerged from the White House after meeting with President Bush to tell reporters: “We are working toward a cease-fire that would not allow a reestablishment of the status quo ante where Hamas can continue to launch rockets out of Gaza. It is obvious that that cease-fire should take place as soon as possible, but we need a cease-fire that is durable and sustainable.” Secretary Rice has and continues to use this phrase almost every time she is queried about the current Israeli War in Gaza.

So what’s the big deal about the status quo ante? What does it mean? Why does Secretary Rice use the phrase over and over again? Well, other than to convince us that she studied political science in college, she’s using a diplomatic term of art which refers to the status of balance of power dynamics before the outbreak of a war or any form of hostile conflict. Technically, the phrase is a shortened form of “in statu quo ante bellum” (in the state in which it was before the war) or, more simply, “in statu quo ante fuit” (in the state in which it was before).

Thus when Secretary Rice says that the United States opposes a “return to the status quo ante,” she means that the U.S. favors an outcome that will bring about some kind of change. And, in this context, where the protagonists are a Goliath (Israel) and a David (Hamas/Gazian Palestinians) (excuse the wholly ironic metaphor), change inevitably favors the bigger guy. As a consequence of these power dynamics, the approach the United States took in 2006 and is now again taking in 2009 is to back off, do nothing, speak platitudes, let the two fight it out, and then step back in when Israel has decimated its opponent. As Max Rodenbeck, the Economist’s mid-east correspondent, wrote in 2006: “So it is that American lent its diplomacy not to stopping the fighting as soon as possible, but to providing an umbrella for Israel to ‘finish the job’ of crushing Hezbollah.” By that time, when the status quo ante is nowhere in sight, the U.S. — drum-roll please — can step into the role of the Prince of Peace and, with great grandeur and sublimity, establish a cease-fire.

That kind of a cease-fire of course will always favor Israel. In fact, the whole idea of keeping the United States on the sidelines and everyone else well up in the bleachers, thereby allowing Israel to annihilate the opposition down on the playing field, is precisely how Israel wants the game to be played. It’s no surprise that the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, following a meeting on January 5 in Israel with officials from the Czech Republic, Sweden and France, said:

In other conflicts, countries send in forces in order to battle terrorism, but we are not asking the world to take part in the battle and send their forces in — we are only asking them to allow us to carry it out until we reach a point in which we decide our goals have been reached for this point.

If the world community will just step back and let Israel do the heavy lifting, Israel should have little trouble achieving its goals and to thereby “change the equation” in the region, as Ms. Livni put it. We should admit up front, however, that it’s hard to criticize a goal designed to “change the equation,” or “alter the balance of power,” for no nation ever commences a war without having in mind some sort of change in the status quo; if it were content with the way things were it wouldn’t go to the trouble. Though I personally am close to being a pacifist and oppose most all wars, what I’m critical of here is the attempt by the United States to disguise its alliance with Israel as a sort of benign policy of cool neutrality, which it’s not. The United States is not neutral in this conflict. By trying to make it seem otherwise, the U.S. winds up achieving little more than proving to the world once again that our policy for Gaza is a transparent fraud and that we are, indeed, just a bunch of inept manipulators.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from this. First, it should by now be clear that the policy of the United States regarding Israel’s incursion into Gaza is in perfect lock-step with that of Israel itself. This is so even though we’ll have to await the historical record to learn exactly what our government knew and what it didn’t know in advance of the current incursion into Gaza, just as down the line we’ll have to consult the historians to learn just how complicit our leaders were in the planning and execution of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006. It’s hard to determine sometimes whether the U.S. is Israel’s proxy, or if Israel is ours, though in the final analysis it matters little, for when Israel did what it did, in each instance we were right there to give our unwavering support.

Second, when the U.S. government gives the impression that it is maintaining a neutral “hands off” position, or by saying something silly like, “we don’t have a dog in that fight,” it is being hugely hypocritical. This, for two reasons: number one, our dog has already been there, done its stuff and gone home — which is to say that we’ve already armed Israel to the teeth and, almost on our own, built it into one of the three or four strongest nations in the world in terms of military prowess. Number two, as Foreign Minister Livni candidly admitted, the power differential between Israel and the Palestinians is so great that, unlike other conflicts in the world, Israel has demanded that the U.S. and everyone else stay the hell out of the area, at least for the time being. Israel doesn’t want nor does it think it needs the help of anyone to subjugate the people of Gaza, or even Hamas for that matter (they may be wrong about the latter), and to invite others into the fray would only complicate things and perhaps even require that the Israeli military become accountable. In other words, when playing the role of gentle, benevolent giant and staying out of the “unfortunate mess” in Gaza, George Bush is not doing something high-minded, he’s simply doing what Israel wants us to do.

Third, although Bush, Cheney, Rice et al. are of the view that the U.S. can hide its real intentions behind the smoke screen of pronouncements such as the status quo ante bullshit, the rest of the world has already got the real picture. They see right through the outrageously hypocritical pronouncements our leaders utter that we whole-heartedly support Israel’s “right to defend itself,” and, oh by the way, of course we also “sympathize” with the Palestinian people over the pain and depravation they’re suffering in the event. In this connection, it’s not exactly irrelevant that (as this is being written) it’s reported that the Israeli incursion into Gaza has resulted in the deaths of ten Israelis and 680 Palestinians (mostly civilians), plus substantial destruction of the Gazian infrastructure.

And so once again the Bush administration is viewed around the globe as a sanctimonious, arrogant, malevolent bunch of jerks. In city after city around the world, the popular outrage against the invasion of Gaza has been the focus of demonstrations, not only against Israel, but against the United States. It should come as no surprise that in the Whitehall district of London on January 4, and elsewhere throughout Europe, not to mention the Islamic Middle East, shoe-throwing has now become the demonstration tactic du jour.

We deserve it.


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