Sunday, January 28, 2007

If we could bind together all the rhetoric over the Middle East it would fit neatly into the Old Testament’s Book of Jeremiah. Beware, beware, beware.

Americans are only beginning to appreciate the issues there, and what they mean to us. We’ve been asleep, occasionally stirring only long enough to hit the snooze button. Before September 11 few of us had heard the words al Qaeda, jihad, wahabi, intifada. We’ve had to learn them, like it or not, and parse their ominous overtones and threatening syllables of doom.

If our prophets once wandered in a wilderness of irrelevance, now they’re roaring through a desert without directions or even a road map. (The “road map to peace,” as we’ve learned, is but a chimera.) Arabic has replaced Russian as the language to learn in self-defense. A survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that the United States is disliked most by Muslim countries. That’s no surprise, and the feeling is mutual, but we’ve lately realized that Islamist attitudes can be easily turned into action.

Newt Gingrich, the new Jeremiah, warns that Israel faces nuclear holocaust and the danger doesn’t stop at the shores of the Dead Sea. The United States “could lose two or three cities to nuclear weapons, or more than a million in biological weapons,” he says. The West has put itself at risk: “We don’t have the right language, goals, structure, or operating speed to defeat our enemies.” The former speaker of the House, who may be a candidate for president, has never minced words. But rarely has he been so outspoken about how our liberties are threatened: “Our enemies are fully as determined as Nazi Germany, and more determined than the Soviets… freedom as we know it will disappear, and we will become a much grimmer, much more militarized, dictatorial society.”

The former speaker joined several other big names to speak by video to the Herzliya security conference outside Tel Aviv — a Mecca, you might say, for foreign policy experts and politicians eager to talk about the new threat to the West. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who also yearns to be president, echoes the Gingrich analysis. He calls Islamic jihad “the nightmare of the century” and warns against comparisons to the Cold War: “For all of the Soviets’ deep flaws, they were never suicidal. Soviet commitment to national survival was never in question. That assumption cannot be made to an irrational regime that celebrates martyrdom.” He’s talking about Iran.

Sen. John McCain prescribes strengthening Israel’s ties to NATO. “American support for Israel should intensify,” he says. “The enemies are too numerous, the margin of error too small, and shared values too great.”

John Edwards of North Carolina, a seeker of the Democratic nomination, urges tougher sanctions against Iran coupled with the threat of military force, but undercuts his tough message with the naive suggestion that more blather is the best medicine. This reprises Hillary Clinton’s scolding of President Bush for his reluctance to “talk to bad people.” The president talks to bad people all the time, but there are limits in what any president can say to them. “You know one of the first rules of warfare is know your enemy,” says Hillary, as if affecting her best West Point expertise, “and we’re flying blind because we won’t sit down and try to figure out what these people really want, who’s calling the shots, how we can better deter them.”

If Sen. Clinton has been paying attention, she already knows what “these people” really want. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, has been clear enough. He jeers that the annihilation of Israel is at hand, and throws in the United States and Britain for wicked measure.

Bernard Lewis, a keen analyst of the Middle East and Islamic radicalism, told the Israeli conference that the danger from Iran is real, and particularly lethal because the Shi’ites believe an apocalypse is near. Given the Iranian leadership, “mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent but an inducement.” Apocalypse now, on a worldwide scale edges toward probable.

President Bush made this clear in his State of the Union address, observing that Shi’ite and Sunni radicals seek to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East and develop weapons to subdue everyone else. “Our enemies are quite explicit about their intentions,” he said. “They want to overthrow moderate governments and establish safe havens from which to plan and carry out new attacks on our country.”

The president, like many of those who yearn to succeed him, is like Jeremiah, an unpopular prophet. But Jeremiah, as ancient Israel learned, knew what he was talking about. There’s a lesson here.

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