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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Losing Face...the Hard Way

By not losing in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is winning the hearts and minds war on occupation. By not winning in Iraq, Washington is losing the ground and psychological war on terrorism.

Stripped to bare bones, that's the skeletal shape of this century's first titanic struggle. A zealous cause is proving more than a match for history's most powerful nation, its military and its Middle East proxy.

The implications are momentous. A two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is slipping away, militant Islam is gaining at the expense of moderate Arab states and protecting open societies is increasingly problematic.

Much of this can be traced to a willful misunderstanding. In simplifying the motivation underlying the 9/11 shocks, the Bush administration muddied the root reasons why the
U.S. was a target then and Hezbollah is gaining strength now by wrestling Israel to a bloody stalemate.

More than a fanciful clash of cultures, what fuels extremism is foreign boots on home soil. As the University of Chicago's Robert Pape documented in the largest and most profound study of suicide terrorism, 95 per cent of attacks are linked to occupation.
"The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven as much by religion as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory the terrorists view as their homeland," Pape said in an interview published last year.

It's an important if hardly all-inclusive conclusion. Hezbollah and organizations like it usually have religious as well as state connections and don't limit their tactics to suicide attacks.

But it's also true Hezbollah rose to prominence by using suicidal combatants to drive Israel out of southern Lebanon after an 18-year occupation. And it's even more significant that Hezbollah owes its resurgent popularity to surprisingly stubborn resistance to what is widely seen across the Muslim crescent as another invasion of Arab lands.

George W. Bush sees it differently. In a Miami speech Monday, the U.S. president again tossed this Middle East crisis into the blender with good and evil, the war on terror and the Machiavellian regional machinations of Iran and Syria.

That's good politics and some of it may even be true. But seeing the world through a selective prism doesn't change reality or make failing policies succeed.

The reality is that respective military adventures in Iraq and Lebanon have left the U.S. and Israel exposed as weak. A global superpower is fighting a losing battle after effortlessly toppling Saddam Hussein while a regional superpower is, for the second time, making heroes of Hezbollah.

Memorable lessons are being painfully taught. Assumptions that U.S. troops would be welcomed as saviors and that democracy would flourish in the Baghdad rubble have been exposed as delusional. Expectations the fabled Israel Defense Forces would relatively effortlessly degrade Hezbollah militarily and humiliate it publicly have been sharply diminished.

Consider the net result of current policies. Chaos is the common Middle East denominator, moderates needed for peace are being isolated by war and there is no reason to believe North America is safer now than it was five years ago.

If that isn't convincing, add these: Rocketing oil prices (and profits) are one legacy of the Iraq invasion while Israel's incursions into Lebanon first hardened Hezbollah and then helped make it an asymmetrical guerrilla model admired — and easily replicated — from Afghanistan to South America.

Reflection suggests a course change is overdue. Constructive rather than destructive engagement surely couldn't be more damaging than making more enemies daily and would carry with it the unusual satisfaction of doing the right thing for the right reasons.
It would be dangerously naïve to mistake an injection of Boy Scout morality for an instant Middle East fix. Tensions are simply too high, hatreds too old and the situation too precarious.

Still, going back to the future has a certain appeal when the status quo is unpalatable and a military solution impossible. Reversing direction would mean muscling Israelis and Palestinians back onto the road to peace, encouraging democracy with more carrot, less stick and relying on collective international pressure, not brinkmanship, to discipline rogue states.

Canada's minor role should be to re-establish its foreign policy equilibrium. Wise support for Israel includes the persistent reminder that occupation is a cause, not a cure, for terrorism.

Or we can go on ignoring the inconvenient truths about a war against something that is, after all, only a tactic.


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