- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, Hamas kidnapped one Israeli soldier. Israel responded by sending tanks into Gaza, killing people, taking prisoners and blowing up a major power station, cutting off electricity to hospitals, and work places as well as people’s homes. Hezbollah responded by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers.

Now the Middle East, once again, is in flames, with Israel waging war on Lebanon until they get their hostages back, Hezbollah has taken more hostages and is firing rockets deep into Israel, killing Israeli citizens. The annual G-8 summit meeting, which was meant to focus on other pressing needs, has been overwhelmed by the perception that they must do something, even if nobody knows what, about the Middle East.

In 1979, Iranians took 52 Americans hostage and kept them for 444 days. President Carter responded by virtually shutting down all other U.S. government initiatives and focusing what remained of his presidency exclusively on dealing with “The Hostage Crisis.” In 1983, Hezbollah killed 241 U.S. Marines in their barracks in Beirut. President Reagan responded by pulling all American troops out of Lebanon.

What lessons has the Middle East learned from the U.S. and Israeli responses to kidnapping and other acts of, for lack of a better term, “terrorism”?

From President Carter, they learned they can paralyze a superpower by kidnapping a handful of our diplomats. From Reagan, despite his robust talk, they learned there is no price to pay when you kill a bunch of Americans, because we cut and run.

Are these the lessons we want them to learn?

A silly movie, “Crocodile Dundee II,” teaches a different lesson. Some bad chaps (“evildoers”) kidnap Dundee’s business partner and threaten to kill him if Dundee doesn’t surrender himself. Dundee responds by shooting his business partner — wounding him, if only slightly. Of course, the partner lives, and Dundee eventually captures all the villains.

I am not suggesting we shoot any hostages, ours or anybody else’s. But we and the Israelis care too much, and we make it obvious that we care too much. Not as individuals; it is good that we care as individuals. As individuals, our hearts should bleed for the innocent victims. But the morality of states is different from the morality of individuals. It is simply wrong for the Israeli government to sacrifice the interests of 7 million when one soldier gets kidnapped. The same is true for the U.S. government to compromise the interests of its 300 million citizens when 52 diplomats get kidnapped, or even when 241 Marines get killed.

Even more important: The responses — Israel’s and ours — obviously do not work. They simply result in more individuals getting kidnapped and killed.

It is one thing for a government to use the misfortunes of individuals as a pretext for taking actions they really wanted to take all along — one thinks of Adolf Hitler’s destruction of Czechoslovakia based initially on his professed concern for the plight of the Sudeten Germans. It is completely different for a government genuinely to distort policies designed to defend or advance the interests of millions in a misguided and ultimately self-defeating effort to help a few individuals.

The source of the problem is the democratization of foreign policy — at least in a few countries like the United States and Great Britain. In England in 1878, a music hall ditty stirred up the masses for a possible war against Russia:

We don’t want to fight

But, by Jingo, if we do,

We’ve got the ships,

We’ve got the men,

We’ve got the money, too.

Thus “jingoism” entered the language and became a staple for politicians to exploit to advance their own, private interests. Theodore Roosevelt was a master of it. In the election year of 1904, a former U.S. citizen, Ion Perdicaris, was kidnapped by a Berber bandito named Mulai Ahmen er Raisuli, who demanded $70,000 in ransom. The U.S. government thundered, “Perdicaris alive, or Raisuli dead,” and dispatched a fleet to threaten the sultan of Morocco. On June 21, in secret, Raisuli got his ransom, and he released Perdicaris. Perhaps by coincidence, the Republican National Convention opened later that same day, and TR went on to triumph, thanks, in part, to public enthusiasm for his bombastic verbiage.

How do we get away from this? Of course journalists are largely to blame. We find it so much easier to focus on personal tragedies than on complex issues. Politicians are to blame, because they cannot bring themselves to suffer the consequences of being responsible. Ultimately, however, the public is to blame. Politicians rely on jingoism because it works. The New York Times reported July 16 that Hezbollah and its supporters in Syria and Iran are delighted and energized by the recent turn of events, and Israeli Prime Minister Yehud Olmert’s political standing has been strengthened by his government’s attacks on Gaza and Lebanon.

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington D.C. and Florence, Italy.

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