And complicating the geopolitics even more are profoundly new circumstances, a very few good (Libya neutered, the Saudis seriously scolding Hezbollah) but mostly not—the U.S. decides to trade stability for democracy in the Middle East, yet instead of taming the ascendant Islamists in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, the new democratic contagion emboldens them to become more impossible than ever; Israel, having tried walking away from its enemies and some of its victims in Lebanon and Gaza, is victimized by rockets and kidnappings. What are the Hebrew and Arabic for “No good deed goes unpunished”?
So at this time of staggering new complexity comes a two-front Israeli war—which temporarily serves, like all wars, to make a complex situation seem simple. Some on the right are pleased because (like Islamist radicals) they are bloody-mindedly eager for a wider war. The Weekly Standard suggested last week that the U.S. should use “this act of Iranian aggression”—that is, Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel—as a pretext for “a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?” “It’s World War III,” Newt Gingrich declared, a wishing-for-1914 mantra that half the Fox News stars masturbatorily repeated. And Gingrich, shrewd and frank, was clear about his rhetorical intentions in painting a stark, black-and-white, Manichaean picture. “The minute you use the language,” he explained, the discussion becomes, “Okay, if we’re in the Third World War, which side do you think should win?” To insist wishfully that World War III has started—to try to recast a trope as a fact—is hideous. However, that such a proposition can be bandied about on network TV by a national politician (and former historian) gives even sober people the willies. Might the Israeli soldiers’ capture turn out to be our century’s assassination of an Austrian archduke...?
And in New York, even liberals, when it comes to an Israeli war, default to the kind of hoo-ah rhetoric that obliterates careful thought and evenhandedness. Addressing a pro-Israel rally outside the U.N. last week, Anthony Weiner, the Democratic congressman from Brooklyn, slagged people who regard the Middle East and the fighting in Lebanon as “a complicated issue, a nuanced issue,” because “this is not a time for ambiguity.” To the same crowd, Hillary Clinton offered a Gingrichian analogy: “If extremist terrorists were launching rocket attacks across the Mexican or Canadian border, would we stand by or would we defend America against these attacks?” Sure, we’d send the F-18s to blast Toronto and Nuevo Laredo, and rightly so; maybe the most salient analogy, however, is not fantasy attacks on America in 2006 but our Indian Wars of 1876—and is there any Hillaryesque Democrat who would cheer retroactively about our Christian nation and its Army of the West defending white settlers by exterminating Native Americans? Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t support Israel; it’s simply another inconvenient truth we’re obliged to acknowledge.
Like the question of proportionate response in the campaign going on now. If Israel manages to weaken Hezbollah significantly (its full-time guerrillas number only in the hundreds) and to reestablish meaningful deterrence against attacks by Hamas as well, so much the better. But the Lebanese people are being punished wholesale, which the Geneva Conventions do not permit. The kill ratio in Lebanon and Israel last week was running ten-to-one in Israel’s favor—and much higher than that if you count only civilians.
The Israelis, far better than us, are able to admit and discuss such ugly realities. Indeed, it was Ariel Sharon’s clear-sightedness about the existentially inconvenient truth facing his country that led him to forge a new party and security strategy: Israel could either continue to occupy Gaza and the West Bank (with or without removing the Palestinians) and thus cease to be a democracy, or it could withdraw to its established borders. Would that the Palestinians (and the Lebanese, and us) had a head of state prepared to make and enforce the equivalent tough national choices.
How long and how ferocious should the incursion by our ally into Lebanon and Gaza be? The deaths of how many innocents and the destruction of how many Lebanese homes and businesses and bridges and roads should we condone? “It’s the Middle East,” the Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni said last week. “It’s always choosing between bad options. And that’s true for the international community, too, and not just for us.” Exactly right: Such is the nature of inconvenient truths.