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What Part of 'War' Don't We Understand?


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July 19, 2006

What Part of 'War' Don't We Understand?

By Robert Tracinski

Political debates tend to be moved forward by new facts generated "on the ground." At these moments, it is far easier to convince people of the truth, because that truth is tied directly to facts people can see out in the world.

Hezbollah's initiation of a war with Israel is one of those moments.

A few of us have been saying for years that the War on Terrorism is not just about Israel by itself or Iraq by itself--that it is a "regional war," as Michael Ledeen has put it, in which the US and its allies are being attacked by an "Islamist Axis" connecting Iran to its network of terrorist proxies across the Middle East.

Now this is everybody's headline.

Last week, for example, a headline in the New York Times admitted "Crisis Is Regional, Not Just Israel vs. Palestinians." This week, Newsweek devoted its cover story to Iran's role as the instigator "feeding the fire" of the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

Condoleezza Rice summed it up when she concluded that the terrorists "have showed their hand. And they've showed that their sponsors are in Tehran and in Damascus. Things are clarified right now." And the real news about President Bush's open mic night at the G-8 summit is not his use of a common vulgarity, but an exchange between Bush and Tony Blair regarding Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

BLAIR: What does he think? He thinks that if Lebanon turns out fine, if you get a solution in Israel-Palestine, if Iraq ends in the right way--

BUSH: Yeah, he's through.

BLAIR: He's had it. That's what this whole thing's about. It's the same thing with Iran.

There's been a lot of talk about the cleverness of the Iranians and about what master chess players they are to outmaneuver the Bush administration. But their strategy turns out to be utterly transparent.

So why is no one prepared to do anything to stop it?

Bush followed his exchange with Blair by adding, "I felt like telling Kofi [Annan] to get on the phone with Assad and make something happen." As we all know, the most fearsome response to an act of war is a phone call from a UN bureaucrat.

A similar paralysis is even holding back some of the most seemingly belligerent commentators. The Wall Street Journal, for example, characterizes the Hezbollah provocation as "Iran's First Strike" against the US--then counsels that we should let Israel do our fighting for us while we seek sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council. Similarly, Michael Oren advocates an Israeli strike against the Syrian military--but only to force the Syrian regime to make a bargain, keeping itself in power by withdrawing support for Hezbollah.

None of these actions matches the problem. If the problem is that the Syrian and Iranian regimes seek to preserve themselves and extend their influence by supporting terrorists across the Middle East, then the solution is to end those regimes--and we should devise a military response directed at that goal.

Syria and Iran cannot be pressured, deterred, or contained, because supporting terrorists is their means of survival. This has been the Iranian and Syrian strategy since 2003: support the insurgency in Iraq, support Hezbollah and Hamas in the Palestinian territories--and keep everything in such turmoil that America will be afraid to take further action, for fear that things will get even worse. But past military action has led to chaos only because we have always left intact the terror-sponsoring regimes in Syria and Iran.

Consider the incentives we have created for these two regimes: the more trouble they cause for us--the less likely we are to attack them. The more they attack us, the more secure they are from our retaliation. This is the opposite of a rational strategy.

What makes this possible is the crippling effect of two fundamental errors in our thinking: myopic short-range Pragmatism and crippling altruistic self-doubt.

Pragmatism doesn't just mean being practical; it's a philosophy which holds that there are no over-arching ideas and principles that can guide our action. The best expression I have ever read of the fractured thinking method of Pragmatism is in the current Newsweek cover story. After showing that Iran is the force behind every major conflict in the Middle East, the authors admonish us: "The Iranian challenge is not a Gordian knot that can be sliced through in one bold stroke. It's a bag full of knots, each of which has to be untied and, if possible, untangled from the rest."

Part of the reason America hesitates to act is because generations of Pragmatists have tried to turn our brains into bags full of knots--making it harder for us to see the big picture and the bold strokes that are actually necessary to defeat our enemies.

Just as powerful is the warped logic of the "suicide bomb morality" of altruism, which identifies self-sacrifice as the essence of virtue. In any conflict, the good guys are expected to prove that they are good by backing down and sacrificing their interests--while nothing is expected of the bad guys, precisely because they are evil. That's why a Los Angeles Times op-ed demanded that Israel "has to be the most responsible party" by declaring an immediate ceasefire. Why should Israel be the first to back down from the fight? The author answers: "What, after all, can we expect from Hamas or Hezbollah?"

Notice the warped psychology this fosters: the onus is always on the good guys to turn the other check and submit to evil. This is a moral outlook that empowers the evil because they are evil and restrains the good because they are good. Should we then be surprised to see the evil emboldened to greater acts of destruction?

There is no longer any doubt what is driving the conflict in the Middle East: it is the Syrian-Iranian strategy of using proxies to strike at the US and extend Iran's fanatical influence over the region. The only question is whether we can stop tying our brains into knots and stop turning the other cheek long enough to strike back and topple these two regimes.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.


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