David Brooks devoted his entire Sunday New York Times column to a truncated verbatim text of an interview he had on background with a Bush Administration "policy maker" on our Middle East foreign policy. It reveals several shrewd assessments, but also an undeniable air of unreality and defeatism. If the comments are a true reflection of President Bush's views, then one is obliged to re-assess virtually every word the administration expresses on the topics of the Middle East and terrorism.
I will not play the game of trying to guess who the background "policy maker" is. But I know Mr. Brooks to be a highly ethical, fully professional moderately conservative journalist. It is inconceivable that he would devote his entire Sunday N.Y. Times column to the verbatim comments of some disgruntled GS 16 at the State Department. Moreover, he characterizes the words as "shed[ding] light on where we've been and where we're going." Thus, I take the words seriously. So should you.
There are two passages that particularly disturb me. Here is the first: "In Lebanon there will be a truce that will leave the current armies in place (which the Israelis won't like). Then we can insert an international force. We won't be able to disarm Hezbollah, but we may be able to help the Lebanese Army secure the border. The thing to understand is that the international force may never materialize. The key is Hezbollah. If they decide to harvest their gains by becoming a peaceful player in the Lebanese government, then the international force can come in. But if they decide to destabilize the government ... then there'll be no force. Israel would have to find a way to withdraw at a time of its own choosing. But if Hezbollah keeps fighting, it will have accepted responsibility for breaking the international deal, and Israel will have greater freedom to act."
Egad. Does the "policy maker" really believe that Hezbollah may "harvest their gains by becoming a peaceful player"? This is a pathological case of wishful thinking. Not much more realistic is the later statement that if Hezbollah keeps fighting, "it will have to accept responsibility for breaking the international deal ... ." Have to take responsibility? They will be bragging across the Middle East of their victory to the only audience they care about -- the Arab street (and the broader Muslim world).
In either contingency that the "policy maker" suggests, Israel will be politically badly damaged, Hezbollah will be strengthened, radical Islam will have a new triumph to tout to their growing army of Muslim recruits around the world -- and the United States will have been dealt another body blow in the war against radical Islamist aggression.
The second part of the text is even more disturbing:
"The odds are there will be sanctions against Iran by the end of the year, though how strong I don't know. We're trying to build a successful government in Iraq. We have to get out from under the blow to our authority caused by the torture and detainee issues. And we have to get aggressive on the Palestinian problem. That's essential to strengthen moderate [Muslim] regimes.
We're not going to be spending as much blood or treasure as over the past few years. We have to make up for it with diplomacy backed by a hint of steel."
I should add that the "policy maker" had previously said that our strategy is to strengthen and gently reform weak moderate Middles East countries. That is a perfectly sensible objective.
But the fuller text -- particularly that jejune and flaccid bewailment that we must "get out from under the blow to our authority caused by the torture and detainee issues" -- suggest that we intend to subordinate firm military or even firm diplomatic action to winning the love of the Arab Street. Really. When? Next Thursday?
Winning hearts and minds is a valid long-term aspiration. But it is a dangerous fantasy to think it will be achieved any time soon. Or, to be more specific, Iran will surely get nuclear weapons, and Hezbollah will surely gain dominance over poor old Lebanon long before the Arab street starts holding pro-America and pro-Israeli marches.
In the short and early middle term, a policy of appealing to the hearts and minds of the Arab street (i.e. "getting out from under the blow to our authority caused by the torture and detainee issues") will be indistinguishable from a policy of appeasement to radical Islamist sentiments. (Of course, "leaning on Israel" is always well received on the Arab Street.)
And, oh dear, that last phrase: "We have to make up [for not spending so much blood or treasure as over the past few years] with diplomacy backed by a hint of steel." More likely a hint of lavender. Somehow, I doubt that Hezbollah, al Qaeda Hamas and their fellow cutthroats are going to take the "hint."
Reading these assessments from someone very high up in the Bush foreign policy hierarchy, it is hard to take in the distressing conclusion that even now, after all we have seen and been through these past five years, it is still believed that we can somehow finesse radical Islamist terrorism with sweet talk. This is going to be a bloody fight to the death between civilization and Islamist barbarity -- made more bloody the longer we wait to take the threat seriously.