Wednesday, July 26, 2006

U.S. foreign policy implements a domino effect for Islamic fundamentalists

The recent conflict in Lebanon took me by surprise. I have to admit I haven't paid much attention to Lebanon for about 20 years, but I have always had some interest in the country because when I took a History of the Modern Middle East class in college, I was assigned Lebanon to study. Each student in the class had to read up on the recent history of his or her assigned nation and make an oral presentation.

One of the neat things about that class was that the professor invited some Palestinian students to speak to us about their situation. At the time, we didn't know much about the lives of the Palestinians. On that particular campus, they were often greeted with suspicion by American students in part because they tended to be very cliquish. The Iranian Islamic revolution was only a few years old at the time, nd I suppose many Americans looked at Middle Eastern student groups as potential radicals with a political agenda. In that sense, the 60s were not very good to us (to steal a George Carlin line).

In a world where your people are constantly greeted with distrust and only viewed through the eyes of those who have been harmed by rogues and radicals, there are probably only a handful of ethnic groups who can understand the transformation of Palestinian society. Ironically, two of those groups are Jews and Gypsies. To this day, Gypsies have no national homeland, and are not likely to get one. But the Jewish people took back Israel after the Second World War -- with the blessing of the United States and other western nations -- and in doing so created the Palestinian Diaspora.

Displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could not have had anything but a negative impact on U.S. foreign policy. Even though by the 1980s many Palestinians had come to accept the fact that Israel would not go quietly into the night, they still insisted they had a right to a nation of their own. After all, they had lived together in the region for more than a thousand years. They had earned some sort of right of nationhood if we Americans had earned one with less history and ethnic homogeneity behind us. The students who spoke to our class said they only wanted a homeland, and they could live beside Israel if that was the most equitable solution to be worked out.

In reality, the Palestinian students on U.S. campuses were not responsible for designing and implementing Palestinian international policy at the time. Some of those students may be today's Palestinian leaders, but they shape their policies in the wake of current events. One of the options that Palestinians have always held out for is compensation by Israel or by someone (like the United States) for the land that their families lost when the state of Israel was formed. The problem is, if you just dump billions of dollars into bank accounts for Palestinians around the world, it's almost guaranteed that much of that money will be transferred to organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

That's a bad thing, especially for the Palestinians. While they may have grievances they feel can only be resolved through warfare, the truth is that if they were given such compensation, if they were permitted to squander it in a hopeless war to destroy Israel, they would forfeit all future right to sympathy and assistance. We would not simply be funding terrorism and a war against Israel, we would be turning our backs on the Palestinians by buying them off, turning our backs, and saying, "Now behave or we'll punish you."

An ultimatum like that can only lead to disaster.

But what does that have to do with Lebanon? Well, one of the chief causes of the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s was the Palestinian issue. The influx of Palestinian refugees proved to be very destabilizing for several Arab countries, including Lebanon and Jordan. King Hussein of Jordan got so fed up with the Palestinian Liberation Organization that he threw Yasser Arafat and his followers out of the country.

Lebanon, which at one time had been touted as the jewel of the Arab Middle East, lacked the resolve and the resources to maintain its authority. The civil war ultimately spurred the rise of militias to protect and advocate the policies of each of more than a dozen ethnic and religious groups. The Palestinians therefore found a refuge in a war-torn country where they could develop their military power and threaten Israel.

In my oral presentation, I surveyed the stronger militias (I identified over half a dozen strong ones but about 15 altogether) and concluded that it would take about 50,000 foreign troops to restore order in the nation. One of my classmates asked me where I thought those troops should come from. I felt the United States and Israel would not be able to impose order. "Maybe Syria," I suggested. But I didn't really know much about Syria at the time.

Well, as things turned out, Syria did send about 50,000 troops into Lebanon (at the time of my presentation, they only had a military presence in the Bekaa valley). And Israel subsequently created its buffer zone in southern Lebanon to counteract Syria's influence and to hold hostile militias at arm's length. The resulting division of Lebanon into client regions really only created a new problem, and did little to solve the old problems. Israel's withdrawal in 2000 created a vacuum that Syria was quick to fill.

Still, when the Lebanese people demanded that Syria withdraw its troops, and Syria complied (thanks to growing international pressure), I held out private hope that we might actually see some improvement in Lebanon. After all, the United States has long since given up its official "We don't engage in nation-building" position. Maybe we would turn our resources and experience gained in Afghanistan and Iraq to helping the Lebanese people.

In a nation like Lebanon, which was not being ripped apart by warring factions, I thought, maybe we could refine our nation-building skills without having to worry about creating yet another political drama here at home. And yet, the Bush Administration (perhaps for good reason, given Arab distrust of U.S. foreign policy) seemed uninterested in helping Lebanon rebuild its military and other institutions to a level capable of managing the nation.

As in Somalia, where President Clinton threw away an opportunity to not only help a people truly in need but also to help stabilize a nation which has had an increasingly destabilizing influence on nations around it, President Bush allowed the Lebanese situation to deteriorate to the point of disaster.

Today, Somalia is falling under the control of the Islamic Courts Union, which has chosen as its leader a man who is believed to be a supporter of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It's only a matter of time before the United States sends troops back to Somalia. The only force standing between us and Somalia is Ethiopia's army, which may be more powerful than the Islamic Courts Union's militia, but as Ethiopia becomes drawn further into Somalia's conflicts, Eritrea will become increasingly anxious not to allow Ethiopia to create a client state. Worse, Ethiopia has no incentive to help Somalia establish a strong central government, since Somalia actually invaded Ethiopia in order to help ethnic Somalis living inside Ethiopia.

Historically, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea are politically insignificant players in the United States' foreign interests, but their squabbling has led to the formation of a wild, degenerate non-state in Somalia that has fostered anti-American sentiment and an environment ripe for breeding new terrorist camps and campaigns. If Osama Bin Laden can figure out a way to slip past the Pakistani military, how long will it be before he heads to Mogadishu? And how long would it be before we send in marines to find him?

Lebanon's situation looks grim right now because Israel is destroying the country's communications and distribution infrastructure to prevent Sryia and Iran from resupplying Hezbollah. As in Somalia, the United States is only proposing to send in relief supplies and hoping the rest of the world will deal with the problem. But what are we going to do if the other old militias reactivate? Many of their former leaders are still alive. And though today they are supporting Hezbollah because Israel appears to be punishing Lebanon indiscriminantly (for refusing to disarm Hezbollah as the United Nations called upon Lebanon to do), eventually even the most hard-core Sunnis, Druze, and other groups are going to get fed up with Hezbollah congratulating every Arab martyr it creates and decide to do for themselves what Israel really cannot do.

Our nation-building campaign in Afghanistan has been somewhat effective, but not entirely so. The failure of the Afghan National Police to form an effective organization is largely our responsibility. We have, for reasons no one can really explain, handed off the issue to the U.S. Department of State, which had neither the resources nor the qualifications for creating a national police force. What undermines our efforts most in Afghanistan is the fact that the Afghan National Army cannot perform the role of a police force. To maintain civil order, Afghanistan needs a reliable police force that can defend itself against insurgents.

Iraq has struggled with similar issues. At least in Iraq they have more recruits to throw at the problem. The Iraq army is already twice as large as the proposed size for the Afghan National Army, which was projected to be 70,000 strong. The first time I read that only 70,000 troops would be authorized for Afghanistan's defense forces, I thought to myself, "Huh? How can they possibly take care of business with so few troops?"

On the surface, it seemed like Afghanistan's neighbors (especially Iran and Pakistan) did not want a large armed force in the region. Their foreign policies had been shaped by decades of civil strife which kept Afghanistan weak and focused on its own inner turmoil. Why create another powerful nation in the region? And the Afghan ethnic groups themselves find it difficult to work together, although they once had a very stable government and society under the former Pashtun monarchy.

I have always felt Afghanistan needed at least 150,000 soldiers, and as the Taliban continue to disrupt the stability of Afghanistan's new society, I'm beginning to think that maybe 200,000 would be better. But right now Afghanistan only has about 30,000 soldiers. They are better equipped, trained, and led than the 15,000 militia the Northern Alliance had when the United States led an international coalition to invade Afghanistan, but those 30,000 soldiers simply are not capable of handling the Taliban. And until Afghanistan can deal with its internal threats without international assistance, we'll continue to send soldiers to Afghanistan. In all likelihood, we'll maintain a military presence there for at least the next 10-to-15 years, if not longer, even if only in an advisory and training capacity.

Iraq's problems are more complex than Afghanistan's. Although Afghanistan has to contend with Al Qaeda as well as the Taliban, Iraq has to contend with an insurgency led by Saddam Hussein's former military, Al Qaeda, Iranian interference, and now sectarian violence incited by Al Qaeda's constant bombing campaigns. The United States has concentrated more resources on building Iraq's army and national police because the situation there is more dire. Iraq has become the center stage of the war on terror because a horde of terrorists have slipped into Iraq in the hope of dying on U.S. bullets.

If we refuse to turn back to Somalia, problems in that region will continue to grow more complex and draw more nations into strife. The increasing piracy along Somoalia's coastline will continue to threaten international shipping. I suspect it's only a matter of time before a permanent international naval force is set up to protect the shipping lanes. Ethiopia and Eritrea may eventually go to war to prevent each other from controlling Somalia. And Al Qaeda's influence in Somalia may increase to the point where they can actually set up new bases.

We need to stop being so timid in our foreign policy. I have long criticized the United States' forign policy for creating more problems than it solves, but my point is that we have to engage fully in nation-building programs. Lebanon needs to get rid of Hezbollah as soon as possible, and the best path to ridding Lebanon of that evil plague is to enable the Lebanese government to undermine popular support for Hezbollah by taking way their social functions. Lebanon needs more than just a robust economy. It needs a social safety net, a welfare system to take care of its poor people.

And when we go back into Somalia, probably under a Democratic President (I seriously doubt that the American people will allow the Republican party to retain control of the White House after Bush leaves office), we need to quit being so squeamish. We also need to send in people who understand Somali customs and who are capable of building rapport with the Somali people. They are not going to be very happy under the thumb of the Islamic Courts Union for very long. As the Afghan people learned, and as many Iranians have long known, allowing Islamic Fundamentalists to form a government is a formula for ensuring that people will be oppressed, tortured, and deprived of basic human rights for a long, long time. We'll have one more opportunity to work with the Somalis to show them really, truly mean them well and only want them to be able to live in peace and security and to prosper as a nation.

We need to stop pretending we're too big to mess around with smaller nations. We have a long guilty conscience about how we interfered with smaller nations from the Phillipines to Nicaragua, but look what we accomplished in Europe after the Second World War. Look what we accomplished in Japan. If we set out to do things right to begin with, we can achieve immense success. We didn't colonize those nations or turn them into puppet states (West Germany notwithstanding, when the time came for reunification, Germany took the initiative and pretty much ignored U.S. reservations over the possible consequences).

For now, U.S. foreign policy is creating new breeding grounds for terrorism faster than we can send in the troops to squash the terrorists. We need to stop doing that. We need to reshape our foreign policy so that we effectively engage with the Arab and Islamic nations that truly need our help and show them that we aren't just arrogant conquerors. The next time a nation starts to slip into anarchy and chaos, we need to take some pre-emptive action to help its government build up resources so that we don't have to go in and rebuild them.


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