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Issue Date:  July 28, 2006

Mideast crisis also sign of U.S. failure

Israel’s furious response to the kidnapping of two soldiers by the terrorist group Hezbollah has raised the stakes in the Middle East while shining new light on the behind-the-scenes machinery that is fueled and, in the opinion of many, even controlled by Iran.

The new stage of the crisis exploded across Israel’s border with Lebanon and, at the time of this writing, has been going on for more than a week, with Israel, which has vastly superior military capabilities, bombing what it says are Hezbollah strongholds as well as roads in Beirut and the Beirut Airport.

For its part, Hezbollah continued to lob missiles into Israeli cities and towns as far south as Haifa and Nazareth.

It is distressingly clear that Lebanon has no control over Hezbollah militants and that Hezbollah and Hamas are in some ways conducting proxy wars for Syria and Iran. More important, it has illustrated the failure of Bush administration foreign policy, or rather lack of it, and the consequences of its simplistic bad guy-good guy approach to complex problems. In this case the approach has left the United States on the sidelines (save for Bush’s crude comment at a dinner for G-8 participants) and prompted our anti-U.N.-U.N. representative John Bolton to explain that more than two weeks into the latest crisis Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had not yet headed for the Middle East because she was doing a great deal of preparation. It will be a difficult assignment whenever she takes it up since, by policy, we have cut off talking with most of the principals involved in this dispute. They’re the bad guys.

The extent of comment from Bush and Rice was to urge Israel to exercise “restraint” in its response to the capture of the soldiers. Little of any substance issued from other quarters. Pope Benedict XVI, when asked for his thoughts on the crisis, said he was unable to add anything but a wish for prayer to the G-8 communiqué that evenhandedly criticized the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah for fueling an escalation in fighting while urging Israel again to exercise restraint. Among the echoes of that statement were some who, while recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself, urged it to act proportionally. But proportionality is difficult to gauge when bombers take off and missiles begin flying. And it quickly became evident, though not surprising, that by far the majority killed and injured on both sides were civilians.

The tragedy is that the United States has in recent years been so inept and ineffective. It has done little to pursue the policy of a two-state solution. In its disengagement the United States has done little to cultivate leadership among Palestinians who would see beyond victimhood and the solution of sending their young people off packed with explosives. Had we not staked all of our resources and energy on a futile war in Iraq, the United States might even be in position today to pressure Israel into an immediate cease fire and a halt to a bombing campaign that is turning Lebanon -- another “infant” democracy promoted by the administration -- into a recruiting poster for anti-American and anti-Israeli extremists.

As Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister stated in a recent column, “Whatever happens in Israel and Palestine … happens to us all, to most of the globe. By religious tradition. By ethnic heritage. By proxy.” We all call this land holy.

Perhaps she has hit on why, given all else happening on the globe, this relatively minor skirmish has the world’s nearly undivided attention. The stakes are high and the history is so replete with failure to reach peace. The holiness of the land has been relentlessly blasphemed.

Among the bleakest of appraisals was that spoken by Edward Luttwak, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, to a I magazine reporter. “It will never completely cool down,” he said. “When the Israelis have hit enough targets, they’ll be inclined to slow down. [But] these things don’t get resolved.”

The most encouraging short-term movement is that toward a peacekeeping force in Lebanon to provide a buffer along the border. But it would have to be of sufficient size and with a clear enough mandate to take on Hezbollah fighters and their rocket launchers.

What’s missing, of course, is someone to lead the mediation, to use even the Arab world’s fear of an Iran on the rise to leverage some force against extreme Islamic movements and to renew peace initiatives between Israel and the Palestinians, the conflict at the heart of it all. As more than one expert has noted, if that problem were solved, the rest of the tensions would recede quickly from center stage.

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2006

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