Wednesday, April 26, 2006

When Will We Learn?

Since 1979, every American president on one level or another has had to address our relations with the nations that comprise the Middle East. Aside from Egypt and Israel, however, the revolving door of leaders and regimes in that region have reliably been unreliable, inconsistent, and extremely volatile. And with each Presidency, from Jimmy Carter's to George W. Bush's, a good chunk of each President's successes and failures are directly linked to the events in the region.

Over the past year or so, we've been forced to witness the rhetoric and the rancor of Iran's recently-installed President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In addition to Mr. Ahmadinejad's inexplicable, baffling behavior vis-a-vis nuclear technology, whether for weapons or civilian-intended energy, and his blunt verbal attacks on Israel, it's fairly clear Iran's stances have created a hot spot in that region; considering the entire Middle East is a "hot spot," anything that instantly and inarguably ratchets up the heat is notable. And lest we forget, a literal stone's throw from Iran's diametric opposition to International Atomic Energy Agency conformity, there is the ongoing, no-end-in-site Iraq war.

With President Bush's approval ratings plummeting, many of his critics -- and there are many -- mostly point to the war in Iraq as the flashpoint which lit the fuse on his ticking Presidency. And while I agree with many of his critics that he has made several key errors in policy, both commission and omission, I can't help but wonder why people have become so galvanized against the war.

If the war was started simply because of this nation's interests in cheaper oil, then I could understand why the war itself was morally wrong. But even as simple and unintelligent as Bush may be, I don't believe that that was the imperative for this nation to go to war. And as we absorb story after story regarding suicide bombers, attacks on soldiers, and news accounts revealing bin Laden ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's latest attributed attacks, the one thing I wonder about is if these attacks -- and the war in Iraq -- wasn't happening, what would the "insurgents" in Iraq be doing? Where would they be? And what would they be planning elsewhere if not for the streets of Baghdad, Jordan and elsewhere? Put another way, if they were not being drawn to fight the West in Iraq, how many of them would be strapping on explosive belts and blowing themselves up in Tel Aviv or New York or Washington?

Whether or not the Bush Administration expected this contingency, ie that Islamic extremists would gravitate to Iraq to fight the West, is not irrelevant, but whether or not they forecasted this phenomenon is secondary to how it seems to be playing itself out. And inasmuch as the conflict has confined itself, thus far, largely to Iraq is interesting.

What I also found equally interesting, however, is the newly-elected leadership of the Palestinians. The group Hamas, which has been conducting terror operations in Israel for the past 15 years, has not used flowery language to hide the fact that they want to destroy Israel. However, yesterday an interesting news items was published on CNN here, in which Jordan discovered Hamas was smuggling weapons to be used for terror plots against Jordanians by Hamas. Of course Hamas denied the charges, but as Jordan described how Hamas members in Syria were stockpiling these weapons on Jordanian soil, and then invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to inspect the weapons, the situation prompted him to describe the situation as increasingly "dangerous and ugly."

It seems to me the point of these two stories, in tandem with Iran's desire to obtain nuclear technology, suggests that the doors, as Warren Zevon opined in his final album, are coming off the hinges. Iran, incidentally, has called for the dissolution of Israel and has threatened, if hit with sanctions over its "non-military" nuclear program, to both share the nuclear technology with other nations and to target US interests if military force is used against its nuclear production site.

Things are never simple in the Middle East, and while I understand -- on some level -- that the war in Iraq has shifted the focus, in one sense, to Baghdad and not to Tel Aviv, Washington, New York or Los Angeles, it seems to me that the heat is ramping up. Friday is the deadline for Iran to dismantle its nuclear program, which is clear it will not do voluntarily. So two days from now we'll see where this is going next. The one thing that is beneficial over this escalating situation is that we haven't heard a thing about North Korea's nuclear ambitions, which means that the spotlight -- and the pressure -- is off Kim Jong Il to quietly dismantle that nuclear program without losing face. In either case, the worry should be that men with ill will and some semblance of irrational behavior have the technology at their disposal to attack neighbors not with conventional military options but those which could eradicate cities, not in a matter of days or months but minutes.

Now, more than ever, duck and cover seems increasingly less an option and more a luxury that we don't have and never will again.

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