Lebanon: Bush's Moment of Truth

John L. Esposito

President Bush finds himself today looking at a potential legacy that includes a world in which anti-Americanism will have increased exponentially among America’s friends and foes alike, terrorism will have grown rather than receded, and America will be enmeshed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gaza and now Lebanon provide the Bush administration with a major opportunity to demonstrate its global leadership and its stated commitment to the spread of democracy and promote the Middle East Peace process, policies used by the Bush administration to legitimate the U.S. led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Tragically, the administration has thus far chosen to be part of the problem not of the solution.

From North Africa to Southeast Asia as a recent Gallup World Poll indicates overwhelming majorities (91-95%) said that they did not believe the U.S. is trustworthy, friendly, or treats other countries respectfully nor that it cares about human rights in other countries (80%). Outside of Iraq, there is over 90% agreement among Muslims that the invasion of Iraq has done more harm than good. How has the administration responded? In a world in which the war on global terrorism has come to be equated in the minds of many Muslims (and others) with a war against Islam and the Muslim world, the administration reemphasized the importance of public diplomacy, appointing a talented senior Bush confidante, Karen Hughes, and spoke of a war of ideas.

However, the administration’s responses in Gaza and in Lebanon undercut both the President’s credibility and the war on terrorism. The U.S. has turned a blind eye to Israel’s launching of two wars whose primary victims are civilians. It failed to support U.N. mediation in the face of clear violations of international law and Israel’s use of collective punishment, policies in Gaza that Amnesty International labeled War crimes. It refused to heed calls for a ceasefire and U.N. intervention and continued to provide military assistance to Israel.

America, with its unconditional support of Israel, has become a partner not simply in a military action against HAMAS or Hizbollah militants but in a war against democratically elected governments in Gaza and Lebanon, a long time U.S. ally. The "disproportionate response" to Hizbollah's July 12 seizure of two soldiers and killing of three others has resulted in the death of more than 350, the displacement of more than 700,000 and the destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure; its primary victims are hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians not terrorists.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticism of the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon as "excessive use of force" was countered the next day by the New York Times headline “U.S. speeds up bomb delivery for the Israelis.” Is it any wonder that news reporters in the Arab world speak of the Israeli-U.S. war, a Western Christian religious leader and long-time resident of Lebanon speaks of “the rape of Lebanon,” or that in Southeast Asia, as one observer put it, “Malaysians are telling Bush, forget the war on terrorism. He is inflaming terrorism!”

There are no easy answers but as John Voll has argued, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon some twenty years ago demonstrated that a massive military response is not the solution (See John O. Voll, Massive Military response is not he Solution”). The administration needs to respond in concert with the international community and international organizations like the United Nations. America must lead in the call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and a negotiated settlement as well as be a major donor in the restoration of the infrastructures of Gaza and Lebanon. While nothing should compromise America’s commitment to the existence and security of the state of Israel, America’s national interests and credibility not only in the Arab/Muslim world but internationally will depend on our ability to “walk the way we talk.” U.S. policy should make no exceptions, for the Arabs or Israelis, when it comes to the disproportionate use of force, indiscriminate warfare whose primary victims (those killed, injured or displaced) are majorities of innocent civilians not terrorists, collective punishment and the massive violation of human rights.

John L. Esposito is a University Professor of Religion and International Affairs and the founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.