Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Maliki, Hezbollah and U.S. politics – Time for me to get into U.S. politics a little bit, specifically the controversy over Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki’s address to a joint session of Congress and the decision of some to boycott the speech.

This is a tough one – anyone who thinks it’s cut and dry hasn’t thought long enough about it. I’ve just gotten through excoriating Arab leaders for their historically excessive anti-Israel propaganda. And I should’ve been clear that the U.S. obviously hasn’t put sufficient pressure on allegedly friendly regimes to speak with more balanced tongues. Ultimately, the question here is whether this was the time and place to make a stand. Maliki clearly believes he would have no credibility with Iraqi people if he took Hezbollah to task for their role in initiating this latest spasm of violence along the Israeli-Lebanon border. Indeed Sen. Warner said the Iraqi P.M. faced a great deal of criticism and pressure at home to cancel his trip here because of the Bush Administration’s refusal to call on Israel to cease fire immediately. When Rep. Tom Lantos, a holocaust survivor himself, speaks with confidence about assurances he received in private regarding the Iraqi governments position, it is difficult to criticize him.

In truth, I don’t agree with Lantos’ confidence. This is just another example of Arab leaders assuring Western politicians, in private, that they understand the problems terrorists are causing Israel…another example of those same leaders taking very different public positions meant for domestic consumption, meant to position themselves as champions of some delusional pan-Arab, anti-Zionist cause. They tell Western leaders one thing to reassure us that they pose no threat to Israel, but say all the wrong things at home, which, ultimately, have the effect of inciting and maintaining the continued illusion of the great Arab crusade against Israel. And I believe such open hostility and one-sided criticism of Israel encourages the kind of fanatic militancy that plagues Iraq today. Yes, much of the violence in Iraq is direct Arab-on-Arab sectarian warfare, but it has roots in the paramilitary movements that Arab leaders have encouraged to take the fight to Israel when Arab armies will not. The glorification of assymetrical terroristic acts is coming home to roost in attacks in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and now, Iraq.

On the other hand, there is the question of whether it was appropriate to boycott the speech. The United Sates has brought war to the streets of Iraq. We owe a great deal of respect for those Iraqis who are standing up in hopes of building something of the ashes created by the conflagration we began. They may express disagreement with our policies towards Israel, and may criticize Israel, but that is not necessarily the same thing as voicing anti-Semitism. I wish they expressed a more balanced perspective, and I remain hopeful that one day they will. Right now, their position is extremely tenuous – much more so than the sheikhs in Riyadh. It is very disrespectful to boycott a historic speech by the Iraqi P.M. to the U.S. Congress – that point is obvious. There would be no point in the boycott, unless it was meant as a show of disrespect for the Iraqi’s failure to criticize Hezbollah.

At this historic juncture, though, I think it was an undeserved show of disrespect. I don’t share Rep. Lantos’ confidence in the Iraqi P.M., but I agree with his decision to attend the speech. Sen. Schumer and various other congresspersons chose to skip the speech. Maybe Schumer did this out of deep personal conviction, or maybe it was a political calculation for the Senator from New York. I think that if the latter is closer to the truth, Sen. Schumer has overestimated the importance of the gesture to New York voters. The Congress members were right to criticize Maliki, but they owed him the courtesy of being there. The day will come when it is appropriate for our leaders to make such a public display of criticism for any and every Arab leader that refuses to criticize actions like those of Hezbollah.

For most Arab governments, that day is already at hand. Hezbollah is guilty of terrorism. They also committed an act of war in crossing into Israel to attack and kidnap Israeli soldiers. In targeting civilian areas with their Katysushas, Hezbollah is in breach of the Geneva Conventions' proscriptions against attacking non-combatants. The ball-bearings they put in the rockets’ warheads are an obscenity, meant only to exponentially increase the weapon's lethality and range of destruction. Use of warheads so designed is a clear violation of Geneva’s laws of war. Hezbollah’s provocative actions and their response to Israel’s attacks should be condemned by all sovereign governments.

But, just maybe…for now…the Iraqi government needs to get a free pass on this one. One can hope that the Gulf nations and Egypt might join in issuing a statement rebuking Hezbollah – perhaps then, Iraqi leaders might feel they have the political cover to join in such a communiqué. Without that cover, which does not exist yet, it’s expecting too much from Maliki to think he could take such an unpopular position. That’s why I say boycotting the speech was unnecessarily disrespectful. This time.

Tomorrow: Look for me to get into U.S. electoral politics. Maybe I'll have something to say about Michael Steele's being outed as W's big GOP critic.

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