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February 27, 2006

Embracing a Lethal Tar Baby


by Michael Scheuer

America's Sunni Islamist opponents must be ever more strongly sensing that Allah truly is on their side. Currently, this perception is due not only to the recent victory of the Islamist party Hamas in Palestine's parliamentary elections, but more especially because of the U.S. reaction to that success. That reaction probably has polished off any remaining belief in the Muslim world assuming there was any that the United States is sincere about building democracy in the Middle East. The reaction likewise has validated Osama bin Laden's repeated warning that the hypocritical West supports democracy only if elections further its plans to dominate and secularize the Islamic world.

The Palestinian election could have been the break in the Middle East that America has needed, but so far Washington's bipartisan governing elite has kicked that gift horse squarely in the chops. The from-all-reports fair and democratic election of Hamas should have been a U.S. propaganda triumph, as well as a chance for Washington to exit the morass of Palestinian-Israeli affairs. An aged, incompetent, and putridly corrupt PLO was democratically defeated by Hamas, an organization well-versed in delivering many government services. In this scenario, the United States had a golden opportunity to show respect for a culturally compatible democratic process in the Muslim world and to detach itself from the snare of an endless war in which it has no interest. After 30-plus years of America exposing itself to steadily increasing danger and expense because of the infantile inability of Israelis and Palestinians to live together, we had a chance to walk away and let the cards fall where they may. True, it surely would not have been fair to both sides to do so; after all, the Israelis have a conventional army and a large, undocumented array of weapons of mass destruction, while the Palestinians have AK-47s, the less-than-mighty Qassim missiles, and a steady supply of martyrs and rocks. Life is always tough, however, and the elimination of one or both sides would have no discernible impact on life in North America.

Sadly, the opportunity went a-glimmering because of the three standby myths that dominate what passes for thought among America's bipartisan foreign policy, academic, and governing elites. The first holds that the survival of Israel and/or a Palestinian state is a central national-security interest for the United States. The second argues that all states have a "right" to exist. The third is that no state is "legitimate" if it refuses to accept the existence of a second state or argues that the second state should be destroyed. The three myths amount to a comprehensive attack on the common sense of the average American, as well as on U.S. national interests.

The first myth is insupportable in terms of the correct definition of national interests: that is, issues that are matters of life-and-death for a nation. If our elites' favorite analytic frameworks of saintly-or-evil Israelis, or saintly-or-evil Palestinians, is avoided, and an effort is made to write down a list of the genuine U.S. national interests not emotional, religious, or ethnic interests that are at stake in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the result would be a completely blank sheet of paper. This little exercise simply shows that if both the Palestinians and the Israelis erased each other from the face of the earth tomorrow, it would have no notable impact on America. Indeed, that result would save a lot of U.S. money and get a lot of Americans out of harm's way.

The second myth is goofier than the first. No state Palestine, Israel, America, or Belgium has any sort of a God- or man-given right to "exist." States exist because they can defend themselves against predators, produce a viable economy, and prevent terminal, internal societal rot. If every state had a "right" to exist, the West would have kept the Soviet Union alive and would be working feverishly to resuscitate such long-gone states as Siam, the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, Sparta, and the Italian city states of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa.

The third myth is an absurdity of more recent vintage: A government is only legitimate, and can only be dealt with, if it renounces violence and recognizes the right of all states to exist. In practice, this means that Palestine's new Hamas government must unilaterally disarm in the face of a demonstrably brutal enemy backed by the unqualified support of the world's only superpower and willingly turn its back on a duty (jihad) that it believes derives from God's word. In commonsense terms, this sort of voluntary national suicide and mass apostasy seems a bit much to ask and, even more, to realistically expect to achieve.

For the United States, moreover, these demands are nothing short of nonsense in terms of our nation's historical experience. What American, for example, has not seen the film of a premier of the Soviet Union pounding his desk with a shoe and stridently vowing that the USSR would ultimately "bury" the United States? As if this denial of America's right to exist was not clear enough, all Americans knew that that particular Soviet leader as well as his predecessors and successors believed in the "science" of Marxism-Leninism, which long-ago determined that America and all capitalist states would be annihilated. Faced with such a foe, as I recall, America did not demand that the Soviets unilaterally disarm, renounce their Marxist-Leninist faith, and avow America's right to exist and flourish. Instead, we accepted the reality of the USSR's existence as a mortal foe, armed to the teeth, and dealt with Moscow in a way that protected U.S. national interests and led eventually to the demise of the Soviet Union.

As U.S. history shows, we are seeking to impose on Israel's foe unachievable conditions that we have never sought to impose on our own enemies. Insistence on these unattainable conditions along with demands based on the other two myths will only serve to prolong the conflict and involve America ever more deeply in what is, for the United States, the distinctly peripheral Israeli-Palestinian issue. It also will eventually elevate Hamas to what it has not been and is not now a threat to the United States.

 

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Michael Scheuer is a 22-year veteran of the CIA and the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror.

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