Monday, July 31, 2006

Sistani weighs in

The Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani weighs in demanding a ceasefire (HT: Sullivan):

``Islamic nations will not forgive the entities that hinder a cease-fire,'' al-Sistani said in a clear reference to the United States.

``It is not possible to stand helpless in front of this Israeli aggression on Lebanon,'' he added. ``If an immediate cease-fire in this Israeli aggression is not imposed, dire consequences will befall the region.''
This is an important development, as Sistani had been instrumental in helping the U.S. maintain calm in Iraq and getting the Iraqi elections to happen. It cannot be good when such a figure starts warning of "dire consequences".

It must be very frustrating to be Israel right now. Sort of like being the United States after 9/11. Who do you get to hit back? How do you fight an opponent who scores point when it kills your civilians, but also scores points when you kill its civilians? (Or rather, nearby civilians. Since Hezbollah isn't a state, I don't think they get to have civilians.) That hardly seems fair. Hezbollah wants the destruction of Israel. It cynically uses the Lebanese population as human shields and uses their corpses as propaganda tools, but it doesn't seem to actually take steps to ensure they don't suffer. Israel has every right to defend itself from daily rocket bombardments.

On the other hand, just because you're in an awful situation doesn't mean stupid actions become smart ones. I would have a much easier time supporting Israel if its actions seemed at all capable of achieving its strategic objectives (which I understand to be neutralizing Hezbollah's ability to launch attacks on Israel). The bombing of Lebanon and these sporadic incursions and withdrawals just seem to be vengeful lashing out without any thought to the long-term consequences. The strategic objectives I've heard aobut (e.g. the 2 km buffer zone) seem to be tacked on post-hoc justifications for what are essentially revenge attacks.

It's hard to believe that just a short time ago a lot of Arab governments were condemning Hezbollah for its attacks. With a little more patience, Israel might have been able to build its case against Hezbollah and have been able to proceed militarily with enough legitimacy (or at least a willingness to look away) that it could have made some kind of progress. Or they might have been able to use Hezbollah's attacks to turn world opinion against Syria and Iran. But by inflicting such horrendous slaughter on Lebanese civilians, they are simultaneously lowering themselves morally and making themselves look weak.

I used to joke that the US invaded Iraq becaue we envied the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. Now it seems that Israel is sort-of invading Lebanon because they envy the US-Iraq quagmire.

The United States desperately needs a leader with a greater understanding of what is going in the Middle East, and one who is willing to use every tool (diplomatic, economic, rhetorical, and yes, military) to cobble together a "least bad" situation. Unfortunately for us and the world, we have the exact wrong person for the job.

Many historians have argued about the "Great man theory" of history. This theory states that one should look at the personal characteristics of leaders when studying history rather than broader social, religious, economic, technological, military, demographic, or geographic trends. I've always shied away from the Great man theory, but maybe I'd be willing to subscribe to a "Great idiot theory". The Middle East would certainly be rife with hatred and violence no matter who was president of the United States. But I bet it does make a differnce if POTUS is trying to calm things down rather than cheering on the violence.