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Tuesday, July 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Guest columnist

A paralyzing doctrine of swagger

Special to The Times

The tragedy of the current bloodshed in Lebanon is that it might have been prevented — or stopped — by the United States, if we were not hopelessly mired in Iraq.

George Bush's Iraq adventure has paralyzed our nation in the Mideast, and scuttled four decades of American efforts to be the moderate peacemaking force in the world's most-volatile region.

We are trussed up and immobilized by the mess in Iraq. It is unthinkable that we open another front — by confronting Hezbollah, or Iran, or Syria, however culpable they might be. On top of that, Bush is not willing to utter any appeal for restraint by Israel. American swagger has produced American paralysis.

America will pay for Bush's arrogance with new decades of profound Arab resentment. For half a century, a generation of American leaders, including Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Cyrus Vance, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, tried to knit together the forces of moderation and compromise, gradually shifting the parties toward talking, not killing. They found unlikely allies, like Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and King Hussein of Jordan. The Saudis, despite their rabid Islamic fundamentalism, agreed to moderate their voice. Arab moderates wanted peace, and would work with the U.S. and Israel to achieve it. It was a bumpy road, but it saved lives and kept the oil flowing.

Bush has given the back of his hand to those statesmen, advancing a grotesque new theory of politics, a kind of military Darwinism: "Let them duke it out, and let the tough guys prevail."

If George were a tough guy, he would apologize to the grieving Lebanese mothers wailing outside hospitals in Tyre and Beirut. If he were a tough guy, true to his avowed commitment to human life, he would be saying "Halt the deaths!" In the 1970s, Kissinger made scores of trips of patient shuttle diplomacy between Arab capitals. Bush and Condi Rice say they will not launch similar diplomacy.

The tragedy of the Bush presidency is that it has created for this country an arrogant and bullying countenance that has done lasting damage to our hopes of having or winning friends in the Arab world. Israel, like it or not, is seen as an American surrogate in Mideast politics. Every Israeli action, justified or not, goes to the American bottom line. When Israel acts, Arabs see the U.S. It is simplistic and wrong, but that is how they perceive Israel, as an American base in their midst.

It is unmistakable, and outrageous, that Iran has a hand in encouraging and supplying the current attacks on Israel. What is an appropriate Israeli response to Hezbollah's murderous rocket volleys? It is clearly to destroy the rockets, and punish Hezbollah fighters. The lesson from the 1982 war, however, is that Israel applied force disproportionate to the threat. And thousands of Lebanese non-belligerents were killed in the crossfire.

None of Israel's wars has produced a lasting political solution. Only Camp David, a diplomatic rather than military landmark, actually increased Israel's security. It was an astonishing outcome, and Sadat's extraordinary trip to Israel broke a quarter-century of deadlock. Camp David was not accomplished with tanks, but at the bargaining table.

There are eerie echoes of 1982 in today's Lebanon. The Israelis advanced a similar, seemingly reasonable rationale for their action then: Israel had to make itself safe from the 15,000 Palestinian fighters scattered around south and central Lebanon. But the unintended consequence was to require a nearly two-decade occupation of south Lebanon. And Israel learned, to its horror, that a democratic nation loses support at home for occupation when the security rationale for its presence lessens.

America should pay attention. The military historian Richard Gabriel has written a book on Israel's 1982 war that is astonishing for its prescience about today's American presence in Iraq.

Gabriel writes, "Paradoxically, in a condition of low-intensity conflict ... the problem increases, since it appears to the public and to the policymakers that the gains are not worth the deaths and injuries incurred in keeping the force in place." It happened to Israel in Lebanon.

Israel did not foresee the staggering costs and frustration of occupying Lebanon, any more than the Bush hawks anticipated the quagmire that is Baghdad today.

Where am I going with this? To say that abandoning internationalism (by unilaterally invading Iraq), and staying silent while our principal Mideast ally repeats a tragic mistake, are symbolic of Bush's abrogation of U.S. leadership. We were once an acknowledged moral force for Mideast peace, and for diplomacy to avoid the explosion of force. No longer. I weep for my country.

And I fear that it will take another oil crisis like that of 1973 to remind Americans how our energy future is tied to steady and moderate diplomacy in the region. A cold winter in New England and a shortage of heating oil, or $5 gas, may be necessary to get America's attention.

The Bush doctrine (call it the swagger doctrine) is tragically bankrupt.

Jim Compton was the NBC correspondent in Beirut during the 1982 Israel invasion.

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