IN THE NEWS
The Bush Administration has watched as two cities, New Orleans and Beirut, have been destroyed. I spent the last post talking about a moral challenge, proportionality in warfare. I'll spend this post talking about a different moral question: Which are worse, sins of commission, or sins of omission?
Sins of commission can flatten cities. One cost of the German invasion of the Soviet Union was the devastation of Stalingrad, not to mention other Soviet population centers, and millions of Soviet citizens. The German bombardment of Passchendaele created an icon of World War I, the gradual conversion of a typical Western European town into an unrecognizable collection of craters and rubble.
Sins of omission can be just as destructive. I'll spare the reader yet another recounting of the events leading to the flooding of New Orleans. Suffice it to say that, in the most generous interpretation, a city died because of warning signs ignored, preventive measures not taken, and reactions that occurred far too slowly and incompletely. A year later, New Orleans is still suffering from the indifference of the rest of the country. The next hurricane season easily could undo the partial recovery of a city that was a unique cultural treasure, not only for the United States, but the world.
Beirut, too, has fallen prey to sins of omission. In this case, the Bush Administration's foreign policy made a bad situation worse. The primary responsibility for Lebanon's tragedy lies with Hezbollah and Israel. As I've argued earlier, Israel must defend itself, but in the case of Hezbollah, its chosen methods are neither effective nor justified. Hezbollah is about as monstrously self-absorbed a political organization as you can find in the Middle East, happy to profit from a return to the chaos of the 1980s. As culpable as the two parties are (and it's probably worth throwing a couple of other regional powers, such as Iran, into the line-up of suspects), the United States deserves some blame for how this crime occurred, and how much damage it has inflicted.
This article in Slate pins the blame on the unintended ways in which the Bush Administration's Middle East strategy has helped Iran. I don't disagree with the premise, but I don't think it provides the full explanation of what happened to Lebanon. A more complete picture would include the following elements:
- Although the Bush Administration applauds Lebanon's eviction of Syrian security and intelligence forces, there is practically no American assistance to the Lebanese government.
- Hezbollah, seeing itself as a state-within-a-state, operates without any effective opposition from the Lebanese government. The support it receives from Iran emboldens Hezbollah further.
- Since Ariel Sharon left Likud, the Israel government has focused on creating defensible borders over maintaining its control over the Occupied Territories as a bargaining chip with the Palestinians.
- Returning the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians sparks debate in Israel over how safe Israel will be, once it contracts its borders.
- Hamas' kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, followed by Hezbollah's kidnapping of two more, seems to be the realization of the risks many Israelis feared the new strategy would create.
- The kidnappings, combined with other Hezbollah attacks, poses two challenges to Ehud Olmert. At a national level, he needs to respond somehow, to prove that the strategy he inherited from Ariel Sharon was correct. At a personal level, he has to show that, even without the military background most of his predecessors as Israeli prime minister had, he can handle this sort of crisis.
- Israel assaults both Gaza and Lebanon. In both cases, the Israeli objective is clearly more than just the return of the hostages. The Israeli government either wants to hurt Hamas and Hezbollah enough to deter these groups, or cripple them to the point where they present far less of a threat. In other words, Israeli strategy is trying to change its enemies intentions, capabilities, or, preferably, both.
- In Lebanon, Israel's strategy brings widespread death and destruction. Israel is may be trying to do more than just kill Hezbollah fighters. Israel may also be trying to make people in Lebanon think twice about supporting Hezbollah. The Olmert government may also be trying to drive people out of southern Lebanon, making it harder for Hezbollah to operate in secret along Israel's northern border.
Where does the United States fit into this picture? Here's a quick summary of where the United States could have done more to prevent this crisis, and imposed some constraints on it once it started:
- The United States has mired itself in an expensive, open-ended war in Iraq, reducing American leverage elsewhere.
- The Bush Administration's unilateralist approach to Iraq has made potential allies wary of supporting American initiatives elsewhere in the Middle East.
- However, in the case of Israel, the Bush Administration has chosen not to apply its leverage at all. Instead, the Bush foreign policy has, since the second intifada, given Israel more latitude than any previous Administration has granted.
- The Bush Administration also chose to discard what few sources of leverage it might have had with Iran,
- Hezbollah's chief patron. Iran, is enjoying new confidence, having benefited from the rout of the Taliban, the fall of the Iraqi Ba'athist regime, and the United States' vulnerability in Iraq.
- Iran is accruing new sources of power and influence. Aside from advancing its nuclear capabilities, Iran is also enjoying economic overtures from India and Russia, two countries that the Bush Administration has tried to build "special relationships."
- Once the Israeli assault into Lebanon started, the Bush Administration has done nothing to rein in Israel. In fact, the United States was forced to admit that it was providing Israel with new stocks of munitions while Israeli bombs were falling on Lebanon.
- During last week's multinational efforts to get Israel and Hezbollah to agree to a cease-fire, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice appeared to be interfering with these efforts, preferring to give the Israeli government more time to complete its campaign.
The Israelis suspended bombing after killing 37 Lebanese schoolchildren in Qana—certainly not the intended outcome of airpower in "urban warfare," but certainly a predictable one. In other words, three dozen dead children succeeded in slowing down the Israeli assault, where American diplomacy had failed—or did not even try.
It's disturbing to see the world's only superpower react to the devastation of New Orleans and Lebanon with a shrug. Not only does the Bush Administration's detachment not help the Lebanese now, but it also bodes poorly for the future. Sins of commission inspire people to rebuild; sins of omission cast doubts on whether rebuilding is worth the effort.
After World War I, Belgium committed to rebuilding Passchendaele and the neighboring city of Ypres. King Albert I made invested his own name and clout into the King Albert Fund, designed to attract Ypres residents back to the city. In the process, the King made the reconstruction of Ypres a national priority. Armed with pre-war blueprints, builders re-created as many of the original buildings as possible. Today, many of the medieval buildings in Ypres may not be constructed with the original stones, but Ypres—the buildings and the people—survived the massive artillery bombardments of World War I.
Today, there is nothing like the King Albert Fund for New Orleans. While the reconstruction project may seem daunting, it's by no means impossible. In 1919, Ypres had a population of 40,000, out of Belgium's total population of 7.5 million. In 2005, New Orleans had a population of 500,000, out of the US population of 299 million. In other words, Belgium was able to rebuild a city where 0.5% of its population lived before it was devastated. The United States is certainly capable of rebuilding a city where 0.2% of its population lived, even faced with the unique challenges of the levee system.
If there is no determined effort to rebuild New Orleans, there's even less chance that the US government will be roused to help rebuild Beirut and other Lebanese urban centers. In other words, having been guilty of a sin of omission concerning Israel and its neighbors, there's little chance that the current Administration will feel the need to re-think its approach. After responding to the immediacy of current events, the Administration is more likely to shrug, yet again, and move on.