When Secretary of State Colin Powell returned from the Middle East, the talking heads speculated that his mission had been a failure. They could make a plausible case. The rulers of the Arab world had refused to make any moves to assist him until the Israelis withdrew from the West Bank. Mr. Arafat, though he condemned suicide bombings and particularly the so-called Passover bombing, made no further move to halt the violence, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defied President George W. Bush’s repeated calls for immediate withdrawal from the Palestinian towns. Suicide bombers continued their attacks on Israeli civilians, Prince Abdullah’s peace plan lay in tatters, and talk of a Madrid-style peace conference seemed just one more trial balloon.
Neither Secretary Powell nor any member of the administration addressed the savagery of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield. Billed as an attempt to destroy the infrastructure of terror, it was in fact an unremitting assault on Palestinian society. The destruction was most evident in Jenin’s refugee camp, where missiles and armed bulldozers destroyed an entire neighborhood. The United Nations is now investigating allegations of a massacre in the camp.
Everywhere Israeli troops went they systematically vandalized businesses and social institutions, ransacking files and destroying equipment. In Bethlehem’s Christmas Church, craft workshops for local artisans were destroyed. Even sinks were shot up. Basic infrastructure, like roads, water systems and utility lines, built over the last several years with international assistance, was ripped up. So complete was the assault on Palestinian society that even school records were stolen or destroyed.
Snipers killed the bell-ringer at the Church of the Nativity and an unarmed policeman who tried to put out a fire in the Church of Saint Catherine ignited by an Israeli stun grenade. They also shot dead a woman returning from the hospital in Ramallah where she had gone to have a cast removed from her arm. In Jenin, the handicapped and elderly were unable to escape as their homes were bulldozed. Children as young as nine were shot dead for breaking curfew. The inability of the U.S. administration to speak to these horrors in the same tones of indignation with which it condemned suicide bombings speaks volumes about why it has proved unable to deal with the Mideast crisis.
Powell’s mission proved impossible, not only because the problems were nearly intractable, but because he had no backing from others in the administration. President Bush had sent the secretary of state only under pressure from the world community and threat from the Arabs that they would not continue to cooperate in his war on terror, especially the longed-for campaign against Iraq. Informed sources report the White House offered Powell no backing. He carried with him neither carrots nor sticks. Bush disclosed his own frame of mind when on Powell’s return he described Ariel Sharon as a man of peace. Throughout, the Pentagon persisted in its unrelenting line that Palestinian terrorism was of a piece with the terrorism the United States had set out to eliminate.
For a long time, the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been divided among three centers of power: the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council. For years, the power of the Department of State has been shrinking. It has in fact become the junior partner. Though Bush gave the department an increase in funding during his first year, after Sept. 11 the latest budget again cuts its resources. To fill positions on an economy budget, for many years the department has had to borrow personnel from the Department of Defense and the C.I.A. Now the Pentagon is balking at even that modest assistance. The real failure in the Holy Land was due to the supremacy of defense policy over diplomacy.
The problem is a longstanding one. It has been exacerbated by the aggressive, cocksure team that now heads the Pentagon. Unhappily, they understand only one way to fight terrorby overwhelming force. Their narrow focus has subverted the quest for peace in the Middle East. In the end, it will surely undermine President Bush’s war against terror as well.
For both the success of the war against terror and its justice depend not only on the weapons of war, but also on the effective use of non-lethal means. The elimination of global terrorism entails addressing the causes of discontent, especially in the Arab world. That is the work of diplomats, humanitarian workers, development economists, educators and others. Unless the U.S. government is ready to engage third world discontent and hear the worries of allies, what Tacitus said of Rome will be written of this generation of Americans as well: They made a wasteland and called it peace. It is the kind of peace Mr. Sharon has already brought to the West Bank by Operation Defensive Shield.
In the end, if there is to be victory over terror, it will be Secretary Powell and his successors who will have to win it.