Nicholas Kristof: In Lebanion, echoes of Iraq

In Lebanon, Echoes of Iraq?
Published: July 25, 2006

The U.S. position on the fighting in the Middle East is essentially: “Stop the killing. But not yet.”

Washington is resisting an immediate cease-fire so as to give Israeli forces more of a chance to destroy Hezbollah. But more time isn’t likely to accomplish much militarily, while every day of grisly photos on Arab television strengthens hard-liners – and Iranian and Shiite influence – throughout the region.

The Israeli offensive and the American support for it seem to reflect the same misguided thinking that led to our Iraq war. It’s a utopian notion that every outrage must have a solution, and that armed intervention is a useful way to reshuffle the Arab political stage.

Israelis are brimming with moral clarity, as we Americans were after 9/11. And they’re right: the Hezbollah attacks on Israel were particularly contemptible because they followed Israeli withdrawals from both Lebanon and Gaza. Israel should have been rewarded for those withdrawals, not subjected to rocket attacks and cross-border incursions.

But one of the oldest lessons in international affairs is that not every problem has a neat solution. The first rule in foreign policy, as in medicine, should be “Do no harm.” Unfortunately, the legacy of today’s Lebanese adventure, like the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and our invasion of Iraq, may be plenty of strategic damage.

Granted, there’s a counterargument that fills my mailbox and goes like this: What else can a country do when it is subjected to rocket attacks and cross-border raids by a terrorist organization committed to its destruction? If that terror group finds a safe haven just across an international border, and the government and the army there cannot control it, then what other option is there but to destroy that menace?

Uprooting Hezbollah may inadvertently cause some civilian casualties, so the argument goes, but the number would be unnoticed if the victims had died at the hands of an Arab government (so far, 1,000 times as many Muslims have died in Darfur as in Lebanon). In the end, sitting ducks have to fight back.

The problem with that argument is that it’s wrong.

One day before the Hezbollah incursion that provoked this war, terrorists bombed train lines in Mumbai, India, killing nearly 200 people (about 10 times as many as had been killed in all the Hezbollah attacks on Israel since the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, until this month). The Mumbai bombings were the latest in a string of attacks against India that have gone on for years, at the hands of terrorists operating with support from across the border in Pakistan.

Many Indians complain that their prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has been too wimpish in responding (a previous prime minister threatened war with Pakistan after a major terror attack in 2001). Yet Mr. Singh has wisely recognized that military action would only make the problem worse.

And there’s another example: Israel itself, in the past. Under both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, Israel responded with restraint to attacks by Hezbollah. That’s one reason Hezbollah was on the defensive politically, and one reason Sunni Arab governments have criticized it.

For now Israel’s Lebanon adventure is playing out a bit like America’s Iraq adventure. It is bolstering hard-liners (like Bashar al-Assad of Syria) and undermining moderates (like King Abdullah of Jordan), while handing propaganda victories to Iran and Shiite militants.

Arab television channels have shown an unending stream of pictures of dead Lebanese children. We put our Arab allies in an impossible position when militants ask how they can work with a U.S. government that supplies the munitions that kill those children.

“Those of us who had welcomed Bush’s vision of democracy in the Middle East still believe in the promise of a free Iraq and a free Lebanon,” The Daily Star of Lebanon wrote in an editorial on Monday. “What a pity to see Bush’s vision engulfed in the flames of the current shortsighted American foreign policy. What was once a dream of democracy is fast becoming a nightmare of unstoppable civil war and terror.”

President Bush never became minutely engaged in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or oversaw shuttle diplomacy to Damascus the way Bill Clinton did. It’s true that the Clinton efforts in the end didn’t achieve much. Nor did the dovish efforts of Barak.

But we may end up nostalgic for American and Israeli diplomatic efforts that never accomplished much, for they work out far better than military interventions that leave us worse off than before.

The Discussion: 2 Comments

What makes him conclude that Pakistan based terrorists were behind Mumbai bombing? India has over 100 organizations/movements fighting Indian Government for rights/autonomy/independence, few of them muslim.

Mumbai bombing could be the work of any of them. An interesting fact is that bombs only targeted upper class sections of the trains.

July 28, 2006 @ 8:06 pm | Comment

Mr Kristof, you like other reporters and journalists conveniently forgot to mention thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Nothing is safe from Israelis – Palestinians have no life, no dignity, no freedom …

Listen to Israeli scholars and others to learn the truth about the plight of the Palestinian people.

August 6, 2006 @ 12:37 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.