Thursday, August 03, 2006

Strangers To Our Own Ways

As I was listening Tuesday night to a discussion on NPR's On Point about the Israel/Lebanon conflict, the talk turned to the historic precedents underlying the current troubles. Much was made of the origins of Hezbollah as a response to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. The rage against occupation by a foreign power was raised as a likely cause of terrorism in much of the Middle East, including a large part of the insurgency in Iraq.

As the discussion progressed towards the issue of a multi-national peacekeeping force being introduced into the region, and the reluctance of the French to agree to such until a ceasefire was in place, one of the panelists, Christopher Dickey of Newsweek, made an excellent point that I think does not get discussed nearly enough in our foreign policy debates of late. Dickey's assertion was that the neoconservative push for invasion/occupation as a foreign policy tool and the French reluctance to engage in a peacekeeping incursion into Lebanon without the guarantee of a cease fire each stem from a sharp gap in understanding between Americans and most of the rest of the world, about the realities of occupation. Cheney's assertion about the expected positive reaction of Iraqis following our invasion (the very well-worn "flowers and candy" canard) is a prime example of this ignorance.

The fact of the matter is, as Dickey points out, that the French remember something we Americans do not: the indignity of occupation. The United States has never been invaded or occupied in modern times. France has, as has most of Europe. And so has Lebanon, which led to the formation of Hezbollah. In fact, most of the Middle East has been under foreign occupation at some point in the last 50-100 years, leading to a strong impression of just how humiliating such is to the occupied peoples. France understands the rage and hatred born of occupation, as it has been both occupier and occupied during the last century. That's why the French government is so hesitant to commit resources to a multi-national force without some agreement on the ground regarding a cessation of hostilities. France has been where the U.S. has not and understands the potential costs.

The lack of understanding by the United States of just how awful being occupied is leads to decisions like Iraq and the delusional belief that any people on Earth would welcome foreign occupation, no matter how good its intentions. There is no justification which would allow Americans to accept, say, the occupation of Oregon by Canada, no matter how noble Canada's intentions might be. Israel understands this as the French do, which is why Israel has no interest in stepping back into Lebanon on a long-term basis.

For all the heinous acts groups like Hezbollah commit, their creation and influence are not generated by a random bubbling up of anti-Western hatreds. Hezbollah, and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, arose as a reaction to the depredations of life under hostile foreign occupation, whether that occupation was justifiable or not. Israel's continued assault, raising the specter of occupation again for the Lebanese, can only strengthen Hezbollah's influence. A push for a militarized Israeli or NATO presence in Lebanon exacerbates the situation and leaves the Lebanese government with little political authority to oppose Hezbollah. After all, if the only success Lebanon has had in staving off Israeli occupation has been due to Hezbollah military action, then how can the Lebanese government even begin to delegitimize Hezbollah in the face of more fighting with Israel? It cannot because the Lebanese people remember occupation.

Worse still are the calls for a widening conflict in the region. Using Lebanon as a staging area for a strong U.S. and Israeli joint force to put pressure on Damascus runs the risk of freezing out the remaining moderates in the region. After all, the voice of moderation sounds awfully weak in the face of an aggressive, implacable foe. American conservatives continue to push for wider U.S. and Israeli aggression in the region without one whit of understanding about the cost. Inexcusable, especially in light of the Iraq debacle.

Again and again the point must be made that the only proven way to stop terrorist groups like Hezbollah is to delegitimize their role in the region and erode their support. Bombing Lebanon to pieces or, in the case of the United States, invading Iraq in some misguided sort of anti-terrorism nation building exercise, only gives militant groups like Hezbollah and Al-Qaida further justification for their existence.

People in America have been extraordinarily fortunate in that we've rarely fought wars on our shore and have not, since early in our history, suffered the reality of foreign occupation. However, that lack of experience has led to a serious misunderstanding, especially among conservatives, about the illusion of benevolence under which they believe the U.S. is operating. The Iraqi reaction towards the U.S., along with the Lebanese reaction that created Hezbollah, demonstrates the motivational onus for violence brought about by occupation. No matter how good the intentions, invasion and occupation are never the best option until they are the only option.

Hopefully we in the U.S. never have to learn about being occupied first hand. But we'd certainly better learn how to deal with other peoples who have. The future of our world likely depends upon it.

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