West's patience with Islamists is wearing thin

Turmoil In The Middle East

July 21, 2006|By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON

The conventional wisdom is that the United States is so tied down that it can't do much about the rocket attacks on Israel, the blatant sponsorship of terrorists by Iran and Syria, or the Iranian nuclear program.

Oil prices are already sky-high. Any unilateral American action might disrupt tight global supplies. That would derail the economies of our Western allies and only further enrich enemies with windfall profits.

Trying to win hearts and minds for the fragile democracy in Iraq also means we can't afford to offend Arab sensitivities elsewhere. And a lame-duck President Bush, low in the polls and facing uncertain congressional elections this fall, certainly doesn't want to involve the American taxpayer with more costly commitments abroad.

But despite that sound conventional wisdom, an exasperated West is running out of choices in the Middle East.

For years, the Arab world clamored for the Israel "problem" to be solved. Then, supposedly, peace and security would at last reshape the Middle East. The Western nations understood the "problem" as being Israeli retention of lands it had captured in Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza, Syria and Lebanon after defeating Arab forces bent on destroying the Jewish state.

But after the Israeli departure from Sinai, Gaza and Lebanon, and billions of dollars in American aid to Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, there is still not much progress toward peace. Israeli magnanimity was seen as weakness. Now Israel's reasoned diplomacy has earned it another round of kidnapping, ransom and rocket attacks.

Finally, the world is accepting that the Middle East problem was never about so-called occupied land - but only about the existence of Israel itself. Because there will be no second Holocaust, the Israelis may well soon transform a perennial terrorist war that they can't easily win into a conventional aerial one against a terrorist-sponsoring Syria that they can win.

For its part, the U.S. has spent thousands of lives and billions in treasure trying to birth democracy in Iraq. We wished to end our old cynical support for Middle East dictators that earned us such scorn and instead give liberated Iraqis a choice other than theocracy or autocracy.

In multilateral fashion, America has also welcomed the help of the European Union, the United Nations, China and Russia in convincing the Iranians of the folly of producing nuclear weapons. But Iran does not wish to parley - just as the beheaders and kidnappers in Iraq don't, either.

Yet, for all their threats, what the Islamists - from Hezbollah in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley to the Iranian government in Tehran to the jihadists in Iraq's Sunni Triangle - don't understand is that they are slowly pushing tired Westerners into a corner. If diplomacy, or aid, or support for democracy, or multiculturalism, or withdrawal from contested lands does not satisfy radical Islamists, what would?

Perhaps nothing.

What, then, would be the new Western approach to terrorism? Hard and quick retaliation, but without our past concern for nation-building, or offering a democratic alternative to theocracy and autocracy, or even worrying about whether other Muslims are unfairly lumped in with Islamists who operate freely in their midst.

If they are not careful, Syria or Iran really will earn a conventional war - not more futile diplomacy or limited responses to terrorism. And history shows that massive attacks from the air are something that the West does well.

So in the meantime, let us hope that democracy prevails in Iraq, that our massive aid is appreciated by the Middle East, that diplomacy ultimately works with Iran, that Syria quits supporting terrorists, and that Hamas and Hezbollah cease their rocket attacks against Israel - more for all their sakes than ours.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His e-mail is author@victorhanson.com.

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