Remember Sarajevo!(Reprinted from the issue of July 27, 2006)
Things certainly happen fast. Issues that were being furiously debated only a few days ago the endless Iraq war, the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, containing Irans nuclear program, dealing with North Korean missile tests have suddenly been eclipsed by the latest war in the Mideast. For a generation journalists have formulaically referred to the region as the war-torn Mideast, and its certainly living up to the cliché.
As I write, the Bush administration is reportedly giving the Israelis its approval for a week of military strikes against Hezbollah in Lebanon, after which the United States will join most of the worlds governments in calling for a ceasefire. And given the U.S. commitment to Israels defense, not to mention Congresss subservience to the Israel lobby, this came as no surprise to anyone.
But of course it raises an obvious question, which has now become practical and urgent: How far does that U.S. commitment go? Will America risk war, possibly even nuclear war, to protect the Jewish state?
This is no longer an idle, academic, or theoretical matter. Our politicians have set no limit whatsoever to that commitment. Their rhetoric implies that it is total and absolute. Few of them even acknowledge the obvious: that there are differences between American and Israeli interests, differences no American president since Eisenhower and Kennedy, least of all
Some pundits are finally raising disturbing but necessary issues. Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, for example, writes that the creation of Israel was a mistake ... an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. He goes on: It is why Israel is now fighting an organization, Hezbollah, that did not exist 30 years ago and why Hezbollah is being supported by a nation, Iran, that was once a tacit ally of Israels.
Its only fair to Israel to note that no other states right to exist at all is so relentlessly challenged. Most are accepted by mere convention; some were created by old colonial powers. If you go back far enough, nearly all of them have rather dubious credentials.
And unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to take the problematic and reckless (indeed, hyper-Wilsonian) view that only a democracy can be truly legitimate and that only the United States, favoring a global democratic revolution, can decide what is truly democratic. This is the real Bush doctrine and, as surely as Marxism, its a formula for endless war and revolution (not to mention hypocrisy).
The next day, on the same page, two other liberal columnists, David Ignatius and Harold Meyerson, writing separate essays, both abandoned the usual analogies to World War II and drew the more pertinent lessons of World War I. The problem in 1914 was not that the great powers refused to intervene; it was that they were all committed to alliances that led to horrors none had foreseen. A single assassination in Sarajevo caused all Europe to explode; one death led to 17 million more.
A Great Miscalculation
All these points were well taken. Cohens is one that I have often argued myself. Could the original Zionists have chosen a less congenial place on earth for a Jewish state than the Muslim world?
We may certainly sympathize with the desire for a homeland, a safe haven from persecution, as well as the long-deferred dream of returning to the Holy Land, and possibly even a separate state (though these are all distinct matters), but what do these entail?
When the United States immediately recognized the new Jewish state in 1948 (soon followed by the Soviet Union), it seemed a simple business. European colonialism was coming to an end, and new states were being carved out of old territories around the world. Few outside the Mideast foresaw that this new state might embroil the great powers in new wars. The United Nations (at that time the instrument of those powers) had approved it, and that, it was assumed, was that. Two world wars had finally brought a new world order, the possibility of lasting peace.
In one of its great miscalculations, the modern West dismissed the Islamic world as hopelessly backward and destined to remain so for the foreseeable future. Hilaire Belloc was a rare exception, a European who perceived that a Muslim revival a violent and menacing one was a distinct possibility. Unlike his friend G.K. Chesterton, Belloc also had deep misgivings about Zionism.
Since 1948, of course, everything has changed. The United States alliance with Israel has grown much stronger. Not only have American politicians pandered to Israels Amen Corner; real affection between the two countries has deepened, especially since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It is hardly an exaggeration now to call Israel the 51st state. Israeli politics, more than those of any other foreign country, make front-page news in America.
In addition, Israel has acquired nuclear weapons, making it the Mideasts superpower. Inevitably, this has caused the hostile Muslim states to covet those weapons, either for deterrence or for the eventual purpose of wiping Israel off the map. A nuclear arms race in the Mideast is another development nobody foresaw in 1948, when the U.S. still held a nuclear monopoly. Even the Soviets didnt get the Bomb until the following year.
The Present Problem
Zionism has even spawned an influential new ideology in America: neoconservatism. The neocons, despite their meager numbers, have done much to promote American intervention in the Mideast; the current Bush administration (unlike the first one) has been guided by them in its foreign policy. Their enthusiasm for war on Iraq has done much to discredit them, but they are far from finished. They argue indefatigably that though they dont quite put it this way whats good for Israel is good for America, even if it turns out to be World War IV.
Whether or not Israel was a good idea in the first place, whether or not it has established its right to exist, even whether or not that right derives from Scripture (as more Protestants than Jews seem to believe), the present problem is how the U.S. government is to deal with the immediate crisis.
Lets hope Bush is mindful of Sarajevo.
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the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
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