Posted on July 17, 2006 in Washington Watch

Escalating violence and expanding conflict in the Middle East threatens to spin out of control into the broader region. It is a worrisome situation fraught with grave danger, a clear example of competing and unchecked pathologies.

While Europe expresses concern and the UN sends a delegation to mediate, the US, the only country that can provide needed restraint has so far appeared to abdicate its leadership role.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has unconvincingly urged restraint, but does little to back up that call. Meanwhile, President George Bush has sounded more like Israel’s coat holder and cheerleader, alternately pointing fingers at Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, appearing to give Israel “carte blanches” to “defend” itself. Thus the damage done by Israel’s asymmetric power edge has been amplified by our own asymmetries of compassion and pressure—Israel gets the compassion, while pressure is reserved for the Arabs.

Pointing fingers in every direction may be a valid exercise, but it accomplishes little. There is clearly enough blame to go around, with reckless provocations abounding. The capture of Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian extremist group and Hezbollah have served only to aggravate an already volatile situation, providing Israel with the pretext to justify its now three week old destructive campaign in Gaza and its massive devastation of Lebanon’s infrastructure. Self-defense is one thing, but collective punishment is quite another matter.

Urging restraint and support for moderates, while doing nothing to accomplish either objective, only results in no restraint and a weakening of those for whom we have declared support.

Some cynics believe that the US and Israel really have no intention of stopping, thinking that these campaigns will end terror, once and for all, and defeat Hamas, Hezbollah, et al.

One would hope, however, that Israel had learned a lesson or two from its many brutal campaigns in Lebanon or its three decade long effort to suppress Palestinian resistance to occupation. Or that the US might have been cured of its similar delusion by the chaos and violent insurgency spawned by its Iraq debacle.

Equally dismaying are the fanciful notions that exist among some on the Arab side who celebrate as bold and heroic the exploits of the bombers and kidnappers whose only accomplishments have been to provoke devastating attacks and deadly repression.

As past cycles of violence should have taught us, when the dust settles, and the blood and tears have dried, all that is left is sorrow over the loss of those whom we loved, destruction that must be rebuilt, and anger, hatred and extremism.

This round of violence, however, if left unchecked, can become more dangerous than past cycles, because the regional setting is so much more volatile.

Iraq is in a fragile state, on the verge of civil war, and Iran has been emboldened and empowered by US miscalculations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, deep fissures that plague the Lebanese polity remain a concern, as should a profoundly enflamed Arab public opinion that can become a destabilizing factor throughout the region.

What can be done?

The Bush administration showing some signs of being chastened by its international isolation, needs to shake off the last vestiges of its neo-conservative thinking, “creative chaos” which they once believed would usher in democracy has instead brought only chaos. And the fanciful notion that overwhelming violence would defeat all enemies and be a transformative force, has instead, only yielded more violence and anger in its wake.

Clearly a new direction is required.

What is urgently needed is the appointment of an empowered envoy dispatched to the region to make and enforce calls for restraint. The prerequisite to strengthening forces of modernization and democracy in Lebanon Palestine is to stop the Israeli assault and to work with moderate leadership, empowering them to meet their peoples’ needs. Massive amounts of aid will be required for Palestine and immediate reconstruction is now needed in Lebanon. Negotiations, like those that were nearing completion among Palestinian leaders, before the capture of Shalit, need to be restarted. It is important to note that since the 6/25 capture was designed to abort those talks, Israel’s response in Gaza, in fact, only served to reward this ploy. Similarly, Israel’s systematic destruction in Lebanon, has only served to deepen divisions in the country and weaken efforts at national reconciliation, thereby rewarding the actions of the provocateurs.

To undo the political, human, and economic damage created by the past three weeks will entail heavy lifting. To strengthen the moderate majority, while isolating the extremist tendencies will require both finesse and incentives. All will necessitate a skilled and engaged mediator and US leadership.

The sooner we act, the better. If the current situation is left unchecked, and if, God forbid, Israel draws Iran and Syria into the fray, the consequences will be with us for a long time.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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