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Mideast 'Birth Pangs' -- or Defeat?

By Richard Cohen

The "birth pangs'' are over. This was the term used by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to describe the war between Israel (supported by the United States) and Hezbollah (supported by Iran). If she is right, let us see what has come out: a defeat for the good guys, a victory for the bad guys (the "Islamic fascists'' of President Bush's formulation) and some clear lessons. This has been a very hard birth.

It has been particularly hard for the Lebanese, of course, but no fun for Israel, either. While Hezbollah has, as they say, been downgraded, it has nonetheless emerged as the fighting force with the best rep in the Middle East. Not only did it stand up to the supposedly invincible Israeli army, but the proximate cause of the war -- those two kidnapped Israeli soldiers -- remain unreturned, either still captive or dead.

From the start, it seemed that Israel had failed to take due note of the mistakes of Donald Rumsfeld. The longtime and (inexplicably) current secretary of defense propounded the bright idea that Iraq could be conquered and pacified with about 150,000 American troops. Military men of sound mind and vast experience thought that maybe 350,000 to 500,000 troops would be more like it, but Rumsfeld, fearing a quagmire and eschewing nation-building, got his way. The United States is still in Iraq, mired there for the foreseeable future.

Israel tried something similar in Lebanon. It, too, chose to fight an optional war on the relative cheap. For good reasons, it responded to Hezbollah's provocations, but it might well have decided to make a punitive raid or two and then wait for the usual prisoner exchange. Pre-emptive wars have their own rules. They cannot justify high casualties since these will not be seen as commensurate with the threat. The U.S., for instance, could never institute a draft to get more troops into Iraq. Americans would not stand for it. This, among other things, is a lesson of Vietnam -- maybe the only one the Bush administration learned from that painful conflict.

But the lesson of Iraq and, now, Lebanon, is that zealots make tough enemies. It was one thing for Israel to fight apathetic and hapless Egyptians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Syrians and Lebanese. Those armies consisted of the indifferent: sure, these Arabs opposed Israel, but they were mostly unaffected by it and would rather live with it than die fighting it. Even the Palestinians proved to be not much of a foe. This has not been the case with Hezbollah or, in Iraq, the various groups of fanatics who would blow themselves up for reasons that we could not begin to fathom. Hezbollah is now described in terms once reserved for the Japanese army of World War II. "If you are waiting for a white flag coming out of the Hezbollah bunker, I can assure you it won't come,'' said Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of the Israeli army's general staff.

This zealotry, this ideology, this religious fervor is not something we in the West -- and that includes Israel -- know how to deal with. The sheer scale and number of suicide bombings in Iraq was once considered inconceivable. Iraq, after all, was extolled as one of the more secular Arab states, which was among the reasons why some otherwise sane people predicted an easy U.S. victory followed by the national singing of "God Bless America."

This seemingly abrupt shift to the ideological, to the religious, is the most noteworthy and ominous development of recent times. No longer is the fight over territory -- the West Bank, Gaza -- but about the very existence of Israel. The people who seem to hate it most, who will kill to kill it and die for it to die, are not reclaiming ancestral land -- no Iranian pines for his lost orange grove near Jaffa -- but instead cannot abide the very idea of Israel.

Democracies are in a fix. If your enemy will gladly die for his cause while you wouldn't think of dying for yours (not that you even know what it is: freedom? liberty?) then clearly the fight is not to the swift but to the suicidal. The obvious short-term remedy is cold, lethal, technology. But the reliance on high-tech stuff has not subdued Iraq and it utterly failed in Lebanon as well. These are the realities of the new warfare and if they are the "birth pangs of the new Middle East,'' then what is being produced is not some cute, babbling democracies but a hideous monster.

Just wait until he reaches for a nuclear weapon.

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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