- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Sixty-five years ago today, on a sleepy Sunday morning, Imperial Japan struck the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor, sending much of it to the bottom. America was suddenly thrust into World War II. While history never precisely repeats, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s successor should pay attention to three parallels between Pearl Harbor and the dangers we now face decades later.

First is how bad assumptions produce catastrophe. Second is that even bad deeds can have good outcomes. And third is the necessity for allies in the context of shared vital interests.

The Japanese high command believed that the attack on Pearl Harbor would stun the United States into paralysis, reinforcing the isolationism it had practiced since the end of World War I. Tokyo reasoned that its expansion into Southeast Asia would go uncontested and that America would accept some form of negotiated peace, not despite but because of the loss of its fleet. Japan’s assumptions were colossally wrong. Three years and nine months later, Japan would surrender unconditionally to the Allies in Tokyo Bay aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri.

Japan lost the war. But the occupation and transition from a fascist, autocratic state to a liberal democracy proved more than a blessing. Japan suffered enormously from the war, from the naval blockade that starved its people, from the firebombing and air raids and from two nuclear bombs that, together, killed and wounded millions of the enemy. However, few would not argue that over the long-term Japan has indeed evolved for the better.

Following America’s declaration of war on Japan, Hitler gratuitously returned the favor making the United States full partner with British, French and other Allies that had been fighting since September 1939 and with Soviet Russia, which Germany had invaded in June 1941. Common cause with Britain had been established before the war between President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill with Lend-Lease. However, defeating the enemy Axis was based on strategic partnerships and shared vital interests of destroying the fascist threats in Asia and Europe.

The American public may believe that the U.S. was solely responsible for winning that war. But without Stalin’s Russia bleeding the German Army to death in the east, Churchill’s indefatigable resolution and a coherent strategy, World War II could have been a close-run thing. The Allies agreed that the first aim was to win in Europe and hold in the Pacific while the American arsenal of democracy geared up its vast war production. In Europe, the strategy called for attacking the enemy periphery, first in Africa then Italy, before assaulting Western Europe. Stalin, about whom Churchill would refer by noting that Britain would join with the devil to defeat Hitler, of course lobbied for an immediate return to the continent to relieve the pressure of the German forces on the Eastern Front.

Today, it is painfully clear that both America and Britain blundered badly in miscalculating the difficulties of the postwar period in Iraq. That mistake could prove catastrophic. The question is what if anything can be done to rectify that error?

The answer lies in the two other parallels with Pearl Harbor. A greater good can arise provided American and British leaders recognize that shared vital interests form the essential linkage for an effective strategy, just as they did then. Every state in the Middle East region has important shared interests. A violent, chaotic Iraq that could spill over and infect the rest of the region is not one of them. But a fair and just settlement to the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is.

And, no matter how much the Bush administration pursues regime change as a viable policy choice, as long as that remains a serious option, local states such as Iran and Syria have little incentive to join the Western cause in finding peaceful solutions to ending the violence and chaos.

As the Allies joined together in putting in place a workable strategy in 1942, a similarly sane approach is needed for the greater Middle East. The Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the political center of gravity for promoting any lasting peace and stability. Unless we have the courage to grasp that nettle, along with implementing comprehensive plans for the rest of the region, conditions in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere will deteriorate and could detonate into broader war.

With Mr. Blair leaving No. 10 and Mr. Bush politically wounded over Iraq, timing may not seem propitious. But neither was the time right on Dec. 7, 1941, either. This is a defining moment in history. We can either suffer an ignominious defeat in Iraq and pay the consequences, or we can act. Good things can arise from bad ones. Now is the time to make that happen.

Harlan Ullman, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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