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Gloom and Doom, but Not Despair

By David Warren

While I do not wish to be the principal conveyor of doom and gloom in these pages, the deteriorating state of the Middle East, and quickly growing isolationism in the United States, can end only in an unpleasant reckoning. Cheerful as I may wish to be, I would mislead my reader by sticking a happyface on the Pandora's Box that is opening.

"Isolationism" remains a dirty word in the U.S., almost as bad as "liberal", so it should go without saying that few American politicians and pundits will admit to the condition. They are looking for a new term to describe their desire to withdraw from Iraq, and other security commitments. The world as they see it -- correctly -- is not currently full of friends and allies.

Whereas Europeans have largely decided -- incorrectly -- that they no longer need American protection, and France will probably continue to lead international efforts, through the U.N. and otherwise, to undermine U.S. and allied interests. They may genuinely think their own policies of judicious appeasement, and selective surrender, are the most comfortable way to deal with the radical "Islamist" menace that is growing even within their borders.

But it is worth listening to recent remarks by, for instance, Britain's Tony Blair, repeating what his own security services are telling him: That radical Islamist cells are proliferating in immigrant neighbourhoods. That domestic terror threats are spreading, with links across Europe, even while the general public continue to subscribe to the media assumption, that what happens in the Middle East is somehow detachable from what will happen in the West. It is a dream world we will not be able to inhabit much longer.

One cannot appreciate what is happening inside a pressure cooker, until one takes the crimps off the lid. It is because the Bush administration has been reasonably aggressive in confronting the Taliban, Saddam, Iran's ayatollahs -- and in staring down crazies in two dozen other places -- that we have had something resembling peace.

Somalia is turning into the new Afghanistan; Sudan vies with it. "Moderate" governments in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and elsewhere are fraying under the pressure of "Islamism" from below. Libya, and other despotic polities that swayed because the wind was blowing westward, are now swaying back. Iran grows more bellicose and better armed by the day, on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power with long-range missiles. And in every location, the perception that the U.S. will not stay the course in Iraq, and will no longer consider military intervention as a last resort in other crises, feeds the ambitions and opportunities of the people we would least like to see in power.

Our worst fear is that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could trigger full civil war between Sunni and Shia forces. But much worse is possible: for such a conflagration is likely to mutate into something larger, with Iran intervening directly to support the Shia, followed by various Arab countries to support the Sunnis. To hope for this would be to repeat the fallacy of the 1930s, when the old fogeys actually hoped for a war in which the Stalin and Hitler regimes would destroy each other. Such fantasies are irresponsible.

But the most immediate prospect of fresh open warfare continues to be around the borders of Israel. The U.N. has, as we expected, turned a blind eye to the rearmament of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, concentrating its energies on protesting Israeli attempts to monitor this rearmament. Hezbollah's political power-play within Lebanon has been proceeding in its theatrical way. Meanwhile, Hamas has been building a more powerful rocket inventory in Gaza. Rocket attacks on Israeli schools and other targets in Sderot and the western Negev are stepping up again.

It is the consensus of most intelligent observers that Israel will have no choice but to resume large-scale attacks in Lebanon in the near future, possibly before the end of this year. But it will be a war in which Syria and Iran see better prospects for meddling, knowing that Israel's security guarantees from the U.S. are in a state of flux, and that Israel is thus now easier to isolate.

Gloom and doom make good sense, under these circumstances. Despair never does. As the late Abba Eban, once Israel's foreign minister, used to say, "History teaches us that men and women behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives." As he didn't add, this is invariably after the prospective catastrophe has vastly increased in scale.

© Ottawa Citizen

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