- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

As crises from North Korea to Lebanon, with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan in between, show no sign of diminishing, historical comparisons are inevitable. The good news is that today is not the summer of 1914 or 1939, when two world wars started. The unsettling news is that this could be the geopolitical version of the summer of 1929, when strategic rather than economic forces produced the perfect storm. In 2006, it will not be the stock market that crashes. Rather, the strategic assumptions and calculations of the Bush administration could come tumbling down.

The slugfest between Israel and Hezbollah is exhibit A. Ehud Olmert is not Israel’s first American prime minister. But he is certainly acting like one, embracing the strategic and tactical thinking of George W. Bush. In winning the global war on terror, Mr. Olmert clearly believes that the best defense is a strong offense and the only good terrorist is one who is dead or disarmed. The overwhelming conventional superiority of the Israeli military is being used as the tool to achieve the desired political outcome of a pacified southern Lebanon, by focusing that power through “precise” strikes — first from the air, followed by operations on the ground. This is not quite Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan or Iraqi Freedom to topple Saddam Hussein. However, the playbook is familiar.

Tragically, our strategy and its assumptions are flawed. Worse, the term global war on terror is no longer simply ill-named (and kudos to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in trying to rename it the struggle against violent extremism). It is dangerous.

Immediately after September 11, Mr. Bush’s target was al Qaeda, the Sunni brand of Salafist and Wahhabi extremism — ideologies that clearly had the political motive of turning the clock back centuries and establishing modern-day equivalents of ancient caliphates. The Taliban in Afghanistan were the perverse poster children of that end state. But who are Israel’s foes? They are Shi’ites who come from a Lebanese majority of the nearly 60 percent Muslim community with strong ties to Iran, emerging after the Israeli invasion in 1982 to replace the PLO and redress and seek revenge for the perceived sins of that occupation.

Now, by virtue of a phrase, both Shi’ite fundamentalists and Sunni radicals have been united to make common cause against us, something that our Sunni allies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan feared.

Second, the notion that the best defense is a strong offense is a non sequitur, and the implication that political aims can be met by military means alone is fraught with peril. Defense against what and offense against whom ignore the causes that have set violence in train and address only symptoms. Israel’s offensive is aimed at symptoms.

Finally, it is about time we listened to Colin Powell. Overwhelmingforce, called decisive force by Mr. Powell, only works when it is applied decisively in achieving strategic objectives. Precision in war is an oxymoron when the image of even one dead or dying child is instantly flashed around the world. No matter the rules of engagement or the care exercised in applying force, in urban areas, there always will be collateral damage. One picture is worth hundreds of American Mk 84 bombs in the war of ideas to shape opinion.

During World War II, which was fought with the unflinching aim of the enemy’s unconditional surrender, Dresden, Tokyo and scores of cities were firebombed, immolating hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Today, the fight is different, and, unfortunately, we are losing the battle of ideas by over reliance on military solutions.

Mr. Olmert has made another misjudgment with American roots. Unlike his predecessors (and generals) Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, who sensibly turned blind eyes to similar Hezbollah provocations, Mr. Olmert believes that the invincibility and therefore the credibility of the Israeli military is at stake. As Mr. Bush was advised after September 11 that a powerful response was necessary to placate Arab paranoia over an impotent United States, so too Mr. Olmert sees the destruction of Hezbollah as validation of Israeli invincibility.

No doubt Hezbollah has been damaged. However, what happens when Hezbollah no longer is equipped with World War II-vintage rockets and acquires sophisticated weapons systems or, worse yet, learns to use “information warfare” and computer hacking to do real harm to Israeli infrastructure through electronic attacks?

The Bush team does not appear to have a comprehensive approach for dealing with these complicated and interconnected dangers and opportunities. What happens in Beirut affects Baghdad as well as Damascus and Tehran and vice versa. Unless we come up with a broader approach, what Gen. John Abizaid told the Senate last week about the growing violence in Baghdad will not be limited to Iraq. We could be facing a real strategic meltdown.

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