Democracy Is Not Impotency
WHEN asked why hostage-taking had become such a prominent tactic among Lebanese Shiite Muslims, one of their leaders, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, reportedly said, "We are mosquitoes defying an elephant."
Well, it's about time the United States brought out the flyswatter. The fact is, these "mosquito bites" amount to more than a minor irritation. They are costing the United States the lives of its citizens, most recently perhaps that of U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, who, ironically, was a member of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Lebanon.
Since the 1970s, American foreign policy has been sharply constrained by its inability to react adequately to the terrorist actions used by radical Arab organizations--and nations--as a tool of diplomatic leverage. During the dark days of the Carter Administration, airplane hijackings and hostage-takings effectively paralyzed a president too pacifistic to protect his own citizens.
Spurred on by their early successes, pro-Iranian extremists have continued taking hostages and killing members of the American military with relative impunity. Despite the tough rhetoric cultivated under former President Reagan, things have not gotten much better.
TWO interrelated factors have contributed to America's inability to deal effectively with terrorism: the trappings of democracy and the spectre of American imperialism.
First, Americans, including members of the United States military, like to see themselves as somehow above the dirty business of terrorism. A prime example of this attitude is the U.S. condemnation of the recent Israeli abduction of Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, the leader of one of the Lebanese extremist groups holding Westerners hostage. Such a moral stance, while fine in a vacuum, fails to take the reality of the situation into consideration.
International affairs, particularily in regions of the world where religion--and ideology--play a dominant role, simply do not fit into neat American conceptions of political tolerance and respect for human rights. Unlike domestic affairs, where the government is (ideally) a disinterested and fair judge of disputes between its citizens, the world arena has no impartial third party actually capable of settling conflicts.
Put simply, it's every country (or alliance) for itself. Israel recognizes this fact--not fair or unfair, simply a fact--and thus is able to deal with terrorism, literally spilling over its borders, better than any other nation.
For the U.S. it's not a matter of resources; it's a matter of attitude. It is time America learned a lesson from the Vietnam War and stopped using conventional methods, military and diplomatic, that do not fit the present unconventional problems facing the nation today. America needs to put up a strong front and start fighting fire with fire.
THIRD World nations, especially those in the Middle East, have long accused the United States of imperialistic tendencies. And history provides them with ample reason to do so.
Recently America, admirably, has tried to tread more softly in its dealing with the Third World. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the factors motivating terrorism--a Palestinian homeland and more congenial U.S.-Iranian ties--should be especially encouraged.
But the need to speak softly on one hand, and carry a big stick on the other, are by no means mutually exclusive. America needs to distinguish between excessive intervention in the internal affairs of foreign nations and its legitimate right, some might say duty, to preserve the lives and interests of Americans abroad. The lives of American citizens, in addition to Carter-esque loss of face, are a terrible price to pay in order to court the good-will of factions showing precious little of it themselves.
Military persuasion, though used intermittently, has in recent crises begun to bear fruit. Despite making little head-way with the hostages, the Reagan Administration successfully defended U.S. economic (oil and shipping) interests in the Persian Gulf by dramatically stepping up the presence of the Sixth Fleet there.
President Bush effectively postponed the murder of American hostage Joseph J. Cicippio not by holding his tail between his legs, but by threatening retaliatory strikes against the Lebanese extremists responsible.
America not only needs to continue such efforts, but to establish a systematic military policy, with the intelligence and political support required, to deal with terrorism. The task of defending America does not end at our nation's physical borders. The lives of its citizens and the right to promote its peaceful interests, free of extortionary influences, must be defended everywhere.