After Lebanon

Israel’s ill-conceived and evidently botched effort to destroy Hezbollah forces in Lebanon has ended in stalemate. A UN peacekeeping force of fifteen thousand, led by the French, will now be deployed in the hope of keeping Israel and its adversaries apart. Whether UN troops will be able to enforce the current ceasefire is the immediate question. The more important question is whether Israeli hawks and their counterparts in the Bush administration will continue, in the aftermath of the Lebanon fiasco and the catastrophe in Iraq, to insist that the myriad conflicts now engulfing the Middle East can be settled by military force alone.

An American observer cannot but be struck by the robust, often vitriolic, political debate in Israel concerning its military strategy and performance. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government, besieged from both left and right, appears on the verge of collapse. Unlike the United States, Israel is engaged in an actual struggle for survival, and cannot afford the luxury of political or military incompetence. One wonders how long George W. Bush would stay in office were he faced with the responsibilities of an Israeli prime minister. Only the president’s most fawning acolytes can be oblivious to the wide margin for error Bush has enjoyed in his stewardship of this nation in the five years since 9/11. Perhaps the reemergence of more realistic and moderate leadership in Jerusalem would help awaken the American people to how the actions of this president have made the world a much more dangerous place.

There may be other lessons to learn from the impassioned Israeli debate over national security. No matter how justified, Olmert’s demand that Hezbollah be disarmed was clearly beyond the capacity of the Israeli Defense Forces. It is unlikely that the UN contingent or the Lebanese army will fare any better. At the same time, Hezbollah’s resilience is a reminder that Israel’s attempts to settle disputes with its neighbors unilaterally are doomed to fail. Walls may deter terrorists, but they cannot stop missiles. Israel will eventually have to negotiate with its enemies, beginning with the Palestinians. Hezbollah, after all, came into its own as a political power in resisting Israel’s twenty-year occupation of Southern Lebanon. Israel alone cannot root out or tame Hezbollah, nor is it clear how a destabilized Lebanon serves Israel’s security interests. As David Ignatius of the Washington Post has written, Israel came to terms with a similar political reality after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and with American encouragement, subsequently negotiated a peace agreement with its bitter foe, Egypt. The result has been more than thirty years of relatively peaceful coexistence. What Israeli leaders had the courage and wisdom to do then, they can do again.

If Israel returns to serious diplomacy as part of its own “war on terror,” might President Bush follow suit? Rumblings about the inevitability-even the desirability-of war with Iran are now being floated by Bush’s neoconservative supporters. This is the counsel of hubris and Manichean despair. It is hoped that Bush has learned something in Iraq about the limits of American power, and that he is no longer susceptible to the siren call of the neocons’ apocalyptic vision of a “global war against Islamofascism.” As the recent success of the British in foiling the plot to blow up commercial airliners reminds us, the battle against radical Islamists is foremost a matter of police and intelligence work.

Whether or not “staying the course” means future military misadventures, it is clear that domestically the political strategy of Bush and the Republican Party will continue to demonize critics at home as giving encouragement to “Al Qaeda types.” This demagoguery has worked in the past, and recent polls show the president’s approval ratings have rebounded to nearly 40 percent. Pressing the case for placing the U.S. occupation of Iraq at the forefront of the “war on terror” in his recent speeches and press conferences, Bush appears to have rallied his conservative base. Whether the support of conservative voters will be enough to forestall serious GOP losses in this fall’s congressional elections remains to be seen. What is clear is that whatever Bush decides to do abroad, he plans to keep this nation divided at home to further his own political interests. Five years after 9/11, the country still lacks the leadership it needs in a time of peril.

August 29, 2006

Published in the 2006-09-08 issue: 

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