The world has been watching northern Israel get pounded by Hezbollah rockets live on TV -- and Israel pound right back. Dozens of Israelis are dead, and so are more than 200 Lebanese. The latter had the bad luck of being in the way of Israeli retaliatory fire aimed at the terrorists, who launched this latest round of warfare with a raid across Israel's northern border in a killing and kidnapping spree.
What's to be done about it?
The Israeli military hopes to use air power and artillery to inflict so much damage on the terrorists in Lebanon that they will no longer have the ability to hurt Israel. The hope is that a weakened Hezbollah will not only be less dangerous to Israel, but also allow the Lebanese government to take control and end the lunacy of allowing this Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist group to take their country hostage.
Taking out Hezbollah is an ambitious project that would obviously enhance Israel's security. But just as important is that if Israel's offensive were to succeed -- and that's not a small "if" -- it would be a significant defeat for Iran, Syria, and the network of Islamist terrorists and their state sponsors. It would further the isolation of the terrorists running the Palestinian Authority, who have created a "Hamas-istan" in Gaza and hope to do the same in the West Bank to pursue their war against Israel.
So the smart thing for the United States would be to do its best to make sure the Israelis had the leeway they needed to get the job done, even though there's no absolute guarantee of success.
And that appears to be what the Bush administration has been doing in the past week, as both the president and his underlings have publicly asserted that Israel has the right to defend itself, and placing the blame for the conflict on the terrorists who started it. It has, at times, echoed the appeals of our European allies for "restraint," but has so far refused to go along with their plans to impose a one-sided cease-fire that would simply aid the terrorists. And it quite properly vetoed a similarly one-sided U.N. Security Council resolution also aimed at hamstringing the Israelis.
Will 'Engagement' Work?
All of this has resulted in an avalanche of criticism from editorial pages and talking heads on television, who've deplored America's "hands-off" approach to the conflict and the administration's unwillingness to "engage" Iran and Syria, not to mention Hezbollah and Hamas murderers. There has been no end of carrying on by the chattering classes about how a more "engaged" American foreign policy could have either prevented the current blow-up or could put an end to it.
Let's hope there isn't much hope that any of the advice offered by the editorial pages of The New York Times or The Philadelphia Inquirer will be taken. But it's worth taking the time to explore some of the assumptions behind this rhetoric.
Chief among them is the notion that as Israel's friend -- indeed, it's only one -- the best thing the United States can do is to not let it "go over the deep end." Those crazy Israelis need us, we're told, to keep them in line so they don't upset the entire Middle East applecart.
The same argument is urged upon American Jews by many on the left, who think that we should use our unique vantage point as supporters of Israel to help bludgeon it into standing down, and absorbing terrorist murders and kidnappings without a strong response.
This egregious advice might have something to recommend it if more American engagement and less Israeli self-defense would enhance the chances for peace. But the problem is that most of the current situation is the result of just such a policy.
Indeed, the period of the 1990s and the record of the Clinton administration was one of unparalleled engagement by Washington, matched by unprecedented Israeli concessions aimed at creating a permanent peace between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.
But did an entire decade of cozying up to Palestinian terror chief Yasser Arafat and ignoring the threat of the Iranian Islamists lead to peace? On the contrary, it only encouraged them to raise the stakes in the conflict known as the "second intifada," sprung in response to generous offers brokered by America.
It is true that many of the brickbats being thrown at the administration in order to prod it into shutting down the Israeli offensive are strictly partisan in nature. But behind those barbs rest a number of false assumptions that need to be punctured.
First is the ongoing notion that Israeli "occupation" is the cause of the conflict. Editorialists who make this argument should listen to Hamas and Hezbollah -- and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. Their goal is the elimination of Israel, period, not more Israeli withdrawals from territory. As long as they hold fast to this goal, which is rooted in their religion and culture, further pressure on this front will only encourage them to keep the fires of burning.
Second is the idea that Israeli self-defense is fine, as long as it isn't a "disproportionate" response. In other words, Israel is obligated to play the game by Hezbollah's rules, and not make them and their sponsors pay dearly for atrocities like the ones that started this latest conflagration.
It was just this assumption that fear of American disapproval would hamstring Israeli self-defense that led Hezbollah and Hamas to up the ante.
What else will prompt the Lebanese and the Palestinians to do something to rid their country of these lunatics? Rewarding them with prisoner exchanges and more concessions -- as Israel has done in the past -- is part of what has led to this morass in the first place.
Third is the advice that only further appeasement of Iran will buy quiet in Lebanon. This thesis is right in that Iran is the prime source of trouble. But "engaging" them is just a code word for appeasement of their nuclear ambitions and support for Islamist terror. Their worst nightmare is an American administration that won't pay that price, and will instead give Israel the green light to amputate one of the tentacles of their terrorist network.
Full Backing Necessary
What a friend of Israel needs to do right now is to give the Jewish state full backing for whatever measures are necessary to eliminate Hezbollah's offensive capabilities. What enemies of Iran -- and all it stands for -- need to do is to heighten that rogue regime's isolation.
Doing this means giving up many of our past illusions about diplomacy and Muslim moderation. It also means having the fortitude to weather the storm of incredible abuse Israel is receiving for fighting back, a characteristic many American Jews seem to lack.
It may be easier for some of us to blame Israel rather than to face the death of our illusions. Let's hope we can improve that situation, and let's also hope that the Bush administration continues to be made of strong stuff.