Everyone seems to be clamoring for the United States to "do something" about the carnage in the Middle East. Demands for action are ringing out from the pacifists on the left to the "national greatness" crowd among the neo-conservatives on the right.
Whether in domestic policy or foreign policy, few things have led to so many disasters as the notion that we have to "do something." No nation and no individual can simply do "something." Whatever action you take has to be specific -- and what matters are precisely those specifics and their specific consequences.
The fact that American intervention has always hovered in the background of the relations between Israel and the enemies by which it is surrounded has itself made aggression against Israel safer than it would have been otherwise. In the absence of the prospect of outside intervention, anyone contemplating unleashing a wave of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians would have to think twice if that meant facing the unbridled fury of the Israeli military, unlimited in time or scope by outside pressures.
Pacifist movements, "world opinion" and the prospect of intervention by either the U.S. or the U.N are an aggressor's ace in the hole. The force needed to deter aggression is often more than squeamish people can stand watching on their TV every day. When contemplating terrorist attacks, Arafat and the Palestinians know that it's usually a case of heads I win and tails I get saved by "world opinion."
What does winning mean in this context? It means gaining a series of piecemeal concessions from launching successive attacks on the Israeli population, without ever having to grant peace and normal relations. It means destroying Israel on the instalment plan. If all it takes is talking peace in English and urging war in Arabic, why not?
While we fight the war against terrorism all out, the way we fought World War II, we seem to be insisting that Israel fight its war against terrorism the way we fought Vietnam -- restricted by political considerations and pulling our punches to appease those who indulge themselves in kibitzing from the sidelines about life and death issues that they have never bothered to study seriously.
People safely nestled in the Berkeley Hills or Parisian cafes can engage in moral preening about Middle Eastern problems, without having to worry about the consequences. For such people, pious phrases like "the peace process" or "trading land for peace" have great appeal. Too often, foreign policies have been made in response to such uninformed pieties that disregard brutal realities.