As bombs continue to drop on Lebanon and rockets on Israel, the West has begun to lose its resolve. On July 14, French president Jacques Chirac condemned Israel’s military action as “completely disproportionate.” Russian President Vladimir Putin called Israel’s “use of full-scale force” unacceptable. While President George W. Bush stood firm in his moral clarity, the State Department was more cautious. “It is extremely important that Israel exercise restraint in its acts of self defense,” Condoleezza Rice told reporters on July 13.
Some U.S. politicians sought to capitalize on the latest violence for political gain. Senator Hillary Clinton blamed the Bush administration for the outburst of violence. “We’ve had five and a half years of a failed experiment in tough talk absent diplomacy and engagement. I think it’s time to go back to what works, and what has historically worked and what can work again.”
Clinton should go back and reread her history. Premature recourse to diplomacy backfires. Bill Clinton’s diplomatic efforts were well-intentioned but they resulted not in peace, but in a far more violent conflict. The fault for this does not lie with Clinton, but rather with an Iranian and Arab leadership that had not abandoned violence as a mechanism to achieve their goals.
Still, the Clinton administration trusted Arafat as a partner far longer than the evidence warranted. They were not alone. Often in Washington, politicians become so wedded to the success of their policy initiatives, that they ignore the reality of its failure.
The Bush administration was not as willing to accept Yasser Arafat’s duplicity. While in December 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell held out hope that Arafat’s call to end armed struggle against Israel was sincere, his decision to withhold judgment was wise. As Arafat won European praise for his ceasefire, Iranian and Hezbollah officials were loading 50 tons of weaponry onto the Karine-A, destination: Gaza. Throughout the intifada, Arafat’s diplomacy was insincere. He, like other terrorists and rogue leaders, ran to diplomats and the United Nations when he feared retaliation, the playground equivalent of sucker-punching a classmate when the teacher’s back is turned, and then crying for intercession as the victim fights back.
Arafat and many Hamas leaders paid the price for their strategy: It was not diplomacy which ended the intifada. Rather, the U.S. and Israeli quarantine of Arafat and Israel’s targeted assassination campaign against other terrorist leaders created accountability and broke the back of the terrorist campaign.
It was at this point, though, that both Ariel Sharon and George Bush snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Politicians should never reward violence and non-compliance. The second intifada which followed Ehud Barak’s May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon made the violence which engulfed Gaza after Sharon’s unilateral disengagement predictable. Bush’s mistake was rewarding Iran’s noncompliance. Just days after he reversed his policy and rewarded Iran, Iranian Supreme Leader ridiculed U.S. weakness. “In Iraq, you failed. You say you have spent 300 billion dollars to bring a government in office that obeys you. But it did not happen. In Palestine, you made all attempts to prevent Hamas from coming to power and again you failed. Why don’t you admit that you are weak and your razor is blunt?” he declared on June 4, 2006.
The problem with the West’s policy in the Middle East is not lack of diplomacy, but rather failure to allow retaliatory violence and impose accountability. During the Clinton years, terrorists believed they could strike U.S. interests with near impunity. In 1996, Clinton failed to respond to Iranian planning, training, and supply for the terrorists which struck the Khobar towers, in 1998, U.S. retaliation in response to al Qaeda’s East Africa embassy bombings was weakwristed, and in 2000, the response to the U.S.S. Cole bombing was nonexistent. Israel too suffered from and erosion of its deterrence.
Not only is vengeance against terrorism sometimes necessary, but it is more likely to bring peace if it is disproportionate. The Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was not to bring down a couple buildings in Kabul or Qandahar, nor shoot missiles at empty buildings or training camps, but rather to launch war on al Qaeda and bring the Taliban government to its knees.
For the West, moral equivalency is also a handicap. True, terrorists may also argue that the way to alter Western policy is through violence. But that is all the more reason why the West must ensure its own victory first.
When academics and commentators decry disproportionate force as an obstacle to peace, they replace analysis with platitude. Lasting peace is seldom made between equals, but rather between strong and weak. The United States ended World War II precisely because it was willing to use disproportionate force. In doing so, it allowed Japan to rebuild and thrive. England and France did not pull back from Germany and allow the Nazi regime to re-arm and try again. Wars are fought until they are won. Among Israel’s neighbors, only Egypt and Jordan have accepted peace with the Jewish state. In 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat sought peace only after a disastrous attempt at war. King Hussein of Jordan also accepted peace — not as formally at first — after understanding the price of war. Negotiations between Jerusalem, Cairo, and Amman succeeded because they accepted that violence could not achieve their aims, an epiphany still lost upon many in the Arab world and Iran. The irony of the Oslo Accords was that those that fought the first intifada were not those handed the reins of leadership. Both U.S. and Israeli leaders enabled the Tunisia-based faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization to take control. Arafat viewed his chairmanship over the Palestinian Authority as an entitlement, without understanding his responsibility.
Diplomacy that preserves a status quo in which terrorists win concession through violence ensures future bloodshed. Hezbollah is not a movement whose existence diplomats should intercede to preserve. While world leaders condemned Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and threats to eradicate Israel from the map, they ignore that on April 9, 2000, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared, “The Jews invented the legend of the Nazi atrocities,” and argued, “Anyone who reads the Koran and the holy writings of the monotheistic religions sees what they did to the prophets, and what acts of madness and slaughter the Jews carried out throughout history… Anyone who reads these texts cannot think of co-existence with them, of peace with them, or about accepting their presence, not only in Palestine of 1948 but even in a small village in Palestine, because they are a cancer which is liable to spread again at any moment.” Nasrallah has made his aims clear. That anyone would intercede to enable someone whose goal is genocide to continue is irresponsible, if not hateful. Nasrallah later provided an answer to those progressive tempted to argue the problem to be Israel’s existence. To the Hezbollah leader, Israel is just one part of the fight. On October 22, 2002, Hassan Nasrallah told Lebanon’s Daily Star, “If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them world wide.”
There will be a role for diplomacy in the Middle East, but it will only be successful if it commences both after the eradication of Hezbollah and Hamas, and after their paymasters pay a terrible cost for their support. This does not mean that Israel is without blame. Lebanese politicians may have been cowardly in their failure to exert sovereignty following Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The State Department and European foreign ministries were negligent in their failure to keep up the pressure on Hezbollah, Damascus, and Tehran following the Cedar Revolution. But there will never be peace if Syria and Iran are allowed to use Lebanon as a proxy battlefield safe and secure in the knowledge that they will not pay directly. If the peace is the aim, it is imperative to punish the Syrian and Iranian leadership. Most Lebanese are victims, too.
– Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of Middle East Quarterly.