Archive for July, 2006

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

Watching the Bush Administration purposefully avoid doing anything concrete about the Middle East gives any observer a very clear picture of what their policy is, at least for the moment.  The United States is going to do nothing, because this is consistent with our policy in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The Bush administration believes that democracy, which in America is viewed as just about the best existing system of governance and the one most consistent with our beliefs, is a commodity that can be exported like wheat or Coca Cola.  And, of course, if they are right about this, the successful imposition of democracy on the Middle East would solve many of our problems there.  Unfortunately, there are over a billion Muslims who do not share that belief.  They hold their certainties just as tenaciously as we hold ours.  Their belief system is focused on the Koran, an authoritarian scripture which makes our Bible look like an invitation to misbehavior.

Last year’s elections in Palestine and the growing political power of Hizballah in Lebanon demonstrate clearly that there are a lot of Arabs/Muslims who aren’t really interested in our democracy except insofar as it provides them with the mechanism to gain power themselves through free elections.  Trying to understand why there are souls in the world who are disinterested in democracy is a futile endeavor.   Suffice it to say that they have always existed and are growing in numbers, in some ways thanks to our policies in the Middle East, including our war in Iraq and our disinclination to become involved in Lebanon.

They see our invasion of Iraq as an arrogant American attempt to force democracy on them.  They see our uninvolved posture in Lebanon as yet another American effort to support Israeli tactics in their struggles with Hizballah.  Arabs in particular and Muslims in general see American policy in the Middle East as anti-Arab/Palestinian and Pro-Israel.  One may see this as an unfair characterization, but it doesn’t really matter, because fair or not, true or not, that is their position and like it or not, that is the position we have to deal with.

The Bush Administration has chosen to ignore these realities.  They have said they will not deal with Syria, Iran, Hamas or Hizballah – who are causing all this trouble.   If they remain uninvolved, if there is no resolution of the one major issue that underlies this matter, there will be no peace for the Middle East, and as we already know from 9/11, Madrid and London, for the rest of the world.

The vast majority of Arabs in particular and Muslims in general, want to see a viable, independent Palestinian state living next to and at peace with Israel.  Only a tiny minority seeks to “throw Israel into the sea” and if the Palestinians were ever to get their own state, that hostile minority would quickly be subdued by the majority.  That is the only hope that exists for peace.

This approach does not abandon Israel.  Quite the contrary, it would have to be preceded by iron-cast guarantees of Israeli security.

The problem today lies in Arab desires to destroy Israel and Israeli settlement policy on Palestine’s West Bank.  This is a problem that Americans do not want to hear or discuss.  Significant groups in Israel and the United States support not only Israeli settlement policy, but would like to see Israel expand into the old Biblical lands of Samaria and Judea.  The numbers of Israelis supporting the settlement policy wax and wane with the level of Palestinian threat to their country.  Right now, with Hizballah rocketing Northern Israel, the support is at its maximum.  The wild card in the equation is America’s Evangelical Christian Right which believes that the second coming of Christ will not take place until Samaria and Judea have been reoccupied by Israel.

As long as radical dreamers on both sides can indulge their destructive fantasies – Arabs pushing Israelis into the sea and Israelis occupying Samaria and Judea – there will be war, hate and destruction.

These are extraordinarily difficult issues.   We all wish they would go away.  But they won’t.  As long as there is no peace in Israel/Palestine, there will be no peace in Iraq, the Middle East or the world.  Fair or not, America is viewed universally as the only country that has any hope of addressing this problem, and our current behavior in that area is daily diminishing our credibility and prospects as a peacemaker.  This may be our last best chance to help.  To try and fail would be far better than to sit back, do nothing and watch it burn.

Haviland Smith retired as a CIA Station Chief in 1980.  He served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  He lives in Williston, Vt.

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[Originally published in the Valley News.]

“Asymmetrical war” and “disproportionate response” are terms that entered our consciousness in a big way after 9/11. The reasons are obvious. Terrorism brings an asymmetry that is characterized by a relatively small group of terrorists attacking a far larger group or nation. “Disproportionate response” is and has been the logical response to an asymmetrical attack when the aggrieved nation decides it must undertake military action against the people who attacked it.

The biggest problem with this imbalance is that such disproportionate response is indiscriminate and, even though it may well slow or inhibit the activities of the terrorists in the short run, it is far from clear that the long-term effect will be anything other than negative. The indiscriminate killing of civilians is often seen as collective punishment and has a way of bringing more material and emotional support to the terrorists and new terrorists to their cause.

Witness the American response to the terrorists attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa during the Clinton administration — cruise missiles fired into Sudan with little to no effect and really bad publicity. The 9/11 attack brought our invasion of Afghanistan, a military action that is still going on. Consider Russia’s response to Chechen attacks on its homeland — the invasion of and continuing state of war in Chechnya over the past 15 years.
Similar examples exist in the treatment by France of its North African colonies’ “terrorist problems” — massive retaliation, collective punishment and “collateral damage.” The post-World War II colonial world yields many more examples — in Palestine, Africa and East Asia — where colonial powers were trying to put down home-grown national liberation movements, most of which would now be called “terrorists movements.”

In a non-terrorist context, one can look at the recent history of American military activities in 20th-century Vietnam and 21st-century Iraq. In those two cases, relatively weaker forces fighting in highly unconventional and asymmetrical ways managed to thwart the efforts and goals of the most powerful military establishment in the world, and brought more recruits to their side in the process.

The saddest and perhaps most hopeless example of this asymmetry is today’s struggle between Israel and Palestine which has now been going on without resolution for almost 60 years. In that case, minuscule numbers of aggrieved and angry Palestinians have created a living hell for Israel. Imagine living under the constant threat of random and unpredictable incoming rockets and suicide bombers. At least in World War II London, there were air raid sirens.

How does government protect its people under those conditions? Short of acknowledging and peacefully settling the differences between the two sides, there is no way but asymmetrical response. You simply focus the full force of your military might on the assumed positions of the enemy and turn it loose. When the enemy does not wear uniforms, has no barracks or bases and lives and works in and around the rest of the civilian population, whether in Gaza or Lebanon, there is bound to be a lot of collateral damage, likely to be seen as collective punishment.

In the short run, there is little question that a forceful response will bring relief for the Israeli people who truly deserve to live in peace, rather than as random targets of Hamas and Hezbollah rockets, roadside bombs and suicide bombers. The rocketing will slow and maybe even stop for a while. But what are the long-term effects of that sort of asymmetrical response?

Policies that create hopeless and powerless populations are not good, whether in Gaza or Lebanon. Those are the people who end up strapped into suicide vests or firing rockets. This is a lesson that everyone knows. We know it from Iraq, where we are busily creating the next generation of al-Qaida fighters. Europe’s former colonial powers know it from their struggles with their own independence-seeking colonies.

Israel has to know that truth because it has been pursuing the same asymmetrical policies on and off since 1945 and full time since 1967. At some point, the question has to be asked, “What good it has done?” Have 60 years of asymmetrical response made Israeli lives safer or better? Are their future prospects better or different? Has the terrorism that plagues them been destroyed or disappeared? Even if Israel successfully destroys Hamas and Hezbollah, Middle East realities argue that new terrorists will take their place. To get rid of terrorism, they have to get rid of the conditions that feed it.

If disproportionate response fails, as its own history indicates it probably will, Israel’s next logical step may well be to go after the clearly identified sponsors of the terrorism —Iran and Syria. When and if Israel does that, it will have taken a step the country has never taken before, a step with absolutely unpredictable and not necessarily positive consequences, not just for Israel, but for the world.

Haviland Smith retired as a CIA station chief in 1980. He served in Europe, Lebanon and Iran and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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