International Roles in the Middle East

by Christopher Preble | July 20th, 2006 | |Subscribe

As the human tragedy unfolds in Lebanon — by at least one estimate, one out of every eight Lebanese has been displaced by the fighting — Americans are struggling with our role. Should we attempt to broker a ceasefire? Should we join a UN peacekeeping mission in the region? Should we expand the war to Syria or Iran? Should we do nothing at all?

That last option appears to be the Bush administration’s policy. The president and his advisers have repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. They have discouraged talk of a ceasefire, and they seem equally skeptical of an expanded role for a UN peacekeeping force that has been in southern Lebanon since 1978. They have yet to publicly embrace a war with Syria or Iran, perhaps recognizing that the U.S. military has its hands full in Iraq right now.

For many Americans, choosing not to do something implies that the U.S. government doesn’t care about what is happening. But that isn’t accurate. Our government has a responsibility to the U.S. citizens there, and is actively involved in helping to extricate any who wish to leave. Other countries are doing the same for their citizens in the region. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I also believe it is in the U.S. interest to avoid further military involvement, and I am particularly skeptical of calls to widen the war to Syria or Iran.

My friend and Cato colleague Leon Hadar has written two books on U.S. policy in the Middle East, and, as coincidence would have it, he’ll be discussing Sandstorm at a Cato book forum next week. Leon often makes the point that the Middle East is Europe’s backyard. The Europeans have strong cultural ties to the region. The Middle East and Europe are closely linked economically. And yet, Europe has often taken a backseat to the United States, deferring to U.S. pressure, or waiting to see what the United States does, and then following our lead.

That might be changing. As the Washington Post noted today, our European allies are far more inclined than the U.S. government to seek a ceasefire, and they don’t appear willing to back down in the face of U.S. opposition. UN Ambassador John Bolton threw cold water on a proposed UN Security Council resolution that would condemn “extremist forces” for threatening Israel and Lebanon, and calls for the release of Israeli prisoners by Hezbollah, the disarming of Hezbollah’s militia and support for Lebanese sovereignty.

“I am not sure that conventional thinking about a cease-fire makes any sense when you are dealing with a terrorist group that fires rockets at civilian populations and kidnaps innocent Israelis,” Bolton said.

Fair enough. That is the Bush administration’s position.

Not to be outdone, this also seems to be the Washington Post editorial board’s position, which today warned that ending the fighting would “reward the aggressors.” And there is bipartisan opposition in Congress to anything that smacks of criticism of Israel.

The relevant facts are these: 300 fatalities in Lebanon, including 20 military; 27 fatalities in Israel, including 14 military. Up to 500,000 Lebanese displaced. Tens of thousands of foreign citizens fleeing the country, or trapped in a war zone. The legitimacy of the democratically elected Siniora government is smashed.

No one should question Israel’s (or any other country’s) right to defend itself. Everyone should question whether military action is proportional to the provocation, and whether the resulting civilian casualties are justifiable under any reasonable reading of the laws of war. If the U.S. government will not pose these questions to the Israelis, perhaps our allies and other leaders in the international community will.


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