A Real October Surprise: War in the Gulf, Part II

Dead 12-year-olds, lynched soldiers, a sunken Dow and-far worst of all-17 American sailors killed by sneak attack: This was not the October surprise that pundits foresaw, or that Bill Clinton anticipated when he hoped to give himself a legacy, and his wife a campaign contribution.

The time of troubles began with the usual pistarckle in the Middle East, and our efforts to resolve it. America is good at negotiating with other people’s lives. We did it for South Vietnam, where we had a right to do so, since we had put thousands of our own lives on the line. In the Clinton years we have negotiated, with no such justification, with the lives of Irishmen and Yugoslavs. Months ago, we shoved a pile of Israelis on the table, and started drawing against the house.

Our role as peacemaker required us to be even-handed. In troubled families, there is always a person of genial temper and weak mind who says, “There is wrong on both sides.” That is almost always literally true, but what the faintheart really means is that there is equal wrong on both sides, which is hardly ever true. Nevertheless, we said it.

When the talking ended in futility and riot, the American media initially kept up the pretense. Last week a friend called me about a cartoon in the Los Angeles Times : the Wailing Wall, composed of huge stone blocks spelling “HATE”; two rabbis bowed in front of it; the caption, “Worshipping Their God.” By the next day, when I logged on to the Times’ Web site, the cartoonist had posted a hasty explanation. His praying figures were not two Jews, but a Jew and a Moslem. And indeed, however much a wall of letters cues the Wailing Wall, the worshippers were a standing Orthodox Jewish man, bent over a book, and a man in a keffiyeh, kneeling as if towards Mecca. So the good news is, the cartoonist wasn’t a Nazi. The bad news is, he was stupid. The West Bank isn’t in flames because a minority of Israelis are crazy bitter-enders. It’s in flames because all Palestinians are.

Israel, meanwhile, is experiencing the even-handedness of intellectual paralysis. Both of the warring ideologies have lost their coherence. The right believed in fighting the intifada forever, but the country wearied of the struggle. The left believed in negotiating a peace, but that option vanished with Intifada, the Sequel. Israelis were tired of fighting, and the Palestinians wanted only to fight. Israel is fighting now, but with the thoughtlessness of instinctive self-defense.

Some Israeli leader (probably not the incumbent) will have to adopt a Plan B, actually his Plan A, which will consist of his judgment of a defensible West Bank perimeter. When whatever cease-fire negotiations he engages in fail, he should pull back to it unilaterally, defend it, escort all Palestinians who will not swear loyalty beyond it, and then recognize what he has ceded as a country with a capital, which will serve as the post-office box for whatever complaints (deliverable by radar) about Palestinian behavior that Israel should make. At which point, fighting would resume, of course, but in a clearer context. Process and negotiation don’t work; Israel will have to forsake a desert, and call it peace.

Meanwhile, what should Americans think? I am not a member of what might be called the Jonathan Pollard Fan Club. Foreign-policy realists know that nations do not feel emotions like gratitude, and that therefore Israel is no more bound to us than any small state is bound to a large ally. We have more in common, historically and practically, with Canada and Mexico, to say nothing of Britain and France. The strained chumminess of New York, where every hack from Al D’Amato to David Dinkins marches in Israeli Day parades and every pundit writes about Bibi and Arik and Vyzoso as if they were old friends, is particularly galling.

But all of Israel’s presumption and all of our infantilizing encouragement of it takes place in a context: the context of the Arab world. Where Israel is concerned, the Arabs are the original brats, a grand alliance of cry-babies and psychotics. They had their chance in 1948 when they tried to push Israel into the sea. They failed; sensible men would have adjusted their expectations, as George III did after Yorktown, as the Union would have done if General Pickett had won his charge. Some Arab countries-notably Egypt and Jordan-seem to have stopped dreaming of total victory. Not the Palestinians, who use their rights within Israel and seek independence beyond it, only to destroy the Israeli state.

The worst scenario does not depend on what Israel or the Palestinians might do, or even on what terrorists do to our soldiers and sailors, but on what Saddam Hussein will do. He is already complaining about Kuwaiti thefts of his oil; he poses as champion of the Palestinian cause. The real October surprise may be a second Gulf War, in the name of Palestinian aspirations.

In all these scenarios, it would be consoling to have adults in the White House, which is one reason that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney may win. George W. may look and act like a Little Rascal, and his closest view of the fog of war was from the Texas National Guard. But he is comfortable in his own skin, which means he is willing to take advice. The first adviser he tapped, his running mate, was an excellent choice. If the Middle East blows up, Dick Cheney as VPOTUS could simply dust off his old playbook.

The contrast with the Democratic ticket is painful. Senator Joseph Lieberman is a lightweight who never met a position he liked well enough to keep. He would kiss Suha Arafat if the campaign focus groups told him it would win votes in Michigan. Vice President Gore has been a heartbeat away for almost eight years; is this a recommendation? His boss’ diplomacy added its mite to this mess. Unlike Mr. Clinton, however, Mr. Gore is moralizing and rigid. He has the seriousness of a divine, and the pride of an assistant professor. There has not been a President so self-righteous since Woodrow Wilson, who managed to ruin the world without even having atomic weapons. The Clinton administration has been a playland of post–Cold War ease, and America has played in it. If we are heading for worse, let’s put serious men in charge.

A Real October Surprise: War in the Gulf, Part II