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VDH: Middle East like a Quentin Tarantino movie


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February 03, 2006, 8:07 a.m.

Three Pillars of Wisdom

Finding our footing where lunacy looms large.

Public relations between the so-called West and the Islamic Middle East have reached a level of abject absurdity. Hamas, whose charter pledges the very destruction of Israel, comes to power only through American-inspired pressures to hold Western-style free elections on the West Bank. No one expected the elders of a New England township, but they were nevertheless somewhat amused that the result was right out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Almost immediately, Hamas's newly elected, self-proclaimed officials issued a series of demands: Israel should change its flag; the Europeans and the Americans must continue to give its terrorists hundreds of millions of dollars in aid; there will be no retraction of its promises to destroy Israel.

Apparently, the West and Israel are not only to give to Hamas some breathing space ("a truce"), but also to subsidize it while it gets its second wind to renew the struggle to annihilate the Jewish state.

All this lunacy is understood only in a larger surreal landscape. Tibet is swallowed by China. Much of Greek Cyprus is gobbled up by Turkish forces. Germany is 10-percent smaller today than in 1945. Yet only in the Middle East is there even a term "occupied land," one that derived from the military defeat of an aggressive power.

Over a half-million Jews were forcibly cleansed from Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and other Arab cities after the 1967 war; but only on the West Bank are there still refugees who lost their homes. Over a million people were butchered in Rwanda; thousands die each month in Darfur. The world snoozes. Yet less than 60 are killed in a running battle in Jenin, and suddenly the 1.5 million lost in Stalingrad and Leningrad are evoked as the moral objects of comparison, as the globe is lectured about "Jeningrad."

Now the Islamic world is organizing boycotts of Denmark because one of its newspapers chose to run a cartoon supposedly lampooning the prophet Mohammed. We are supposed to forget that it is de rigueur in raucous Scandinavian popular culture to attack Christianity with impunity. Much less are we to remember that Hamas terrorists occupied and desecrated the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in a globally televised charade.

Instead, Danish officials are threatened, boycotts organized, ambassadors recalled — and, yes, Bill Clinton steps forward to offer another lip-biting apology while garnering lecture fees in the oil-rich Gulf, in the manner of his mea culpa last year to the Iranian mullacracy. There is now a pattern to Clintonian apologies — they almost always occur overseas and on someone else's subsidy.

Ever since that seminal death sentence handed down to Salman Rushdie by the Iranian theocracy, the Western world has incrementally and insidiously accepted these laws of asymmetry. Perhaps due to what might legitimately be called the lunacy principle ("these people are capable of doing anything at anytime"), the Muslim Middle East can insist on one standard of behavior for itself and quite another for others. It asks nothing of its own people and everything of everyone else's, while expecting no serious repercussions in the age of political correctness, in which affluent and leisured Westerners are frantic to avoid any disruption in their rather sheltered lives.

Then there is "President" Ahmadinejad of Iran, who, a mere 60 years after the Holocaust, trumps Mein Kampf by not only promising, like Hitler, to wipe out the Jews, but, unlike the ascendant Fuhrer, going about the business of quite publicly obtaining the means to do it. And the rest of the Islamic world, nursed on the daily "apes and pigs" slurs, can just scarcely conceal its envy that the Persian Shiite outsider will bell the cat before they do.

The architects of September 11, by general consent, hide somewhere on the Pakistani border. A recent American missile strike that killed a few of them was roundly condemned by the Pakistani government. Although a recipient of billions of dollars in American aid and debt relief, and admittedly harboring those responsible for 9/11, it castigates the U.S. for violating borders in pursuit of our deadly enemies who, while on Pakistani soil, boast of planning yet another mass murder of Americans.

Pakistan demands that America will cease such incursions — or else. The "else" apparently entails the threat either to give even greater latitude to terrorists, or to allow them to return to Afghanistan to destroy the nascent democracy in Kabul. American diplomats understandably would shudder at the thought of threatening nuclear Pakistan should there be another 9/11, this time organized by the very al Qaedists they now harbor.

The list of hypocrisies could be expanded. The locus classicus, of course, is bin Laden's fanciful fatwas. Oil pumped for $5 a barrel and sold for $70 is called stealing resources. Tens of millions of Muslims emigrating to the United States and Europe, while very few Westerners reside in the Middle East, is deemed "occupying our lands." Israel, the biblical home of the Jews, and subsequently claimed for centuries by Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Ottomans, and English is "occupied by crusader infidels" — as if the entire world is to accept that world history began only in the seventh century A.D.

The only mystery is not how bizarre the news will be from the Middle East, but why the autocratic Middle Easterners feel so confident that any would pay their lunacy such attention.

The answer? Oil and nukes — and sometimes the two in combination.

By any economic standard, most states in the Middle East — whether characterized by monarchy, Baathism, dictatorship, or theocracy — have floundered. There are no scientific discoveries emanating from a Cairo or Damascus. It is tragic and perhaps insensitive, but nevertheless honest, to confess that the contemporary Arab world has lately given the world only two new developments: the suicide-bomb belt and the improvised explosive device. Even here there is a twofold irony: The technology for both is imported from the West. And the very tactic arises out of a desperate admission that to fight a conventional battle against a Westernized military without the cover of civilian shields, whether in Israel or Baghdad, is tantamount to suicide.

Meanwhile, millions of Africans face famine and try to inaugurate democracies. Asia is in the midst of economic transformation. Latin America is undergoing fundamental political upheaval. Who cares? — our attention is glued instead on a few acres near Jericho, the mountains of the Hindu Kush, the succession patterns of Gulf Royals, and the latest ranting of an Iranian president who seems barely hinged, and without petroleum and a reactor would be accorded the global derision once reserved for Idi Amin.

So take the dependency on oil away from Europe and the United States, and the billions of petrodollars the world sends yearly to medieval regimes like Iran or Saudi Arabia, and the other five billion of us could, to be frank, fret little whether such self-pitying tribal and patriarchal societies wished to remain, well, tribal. There would be no money for Hezbollah, Wahhabi madrassas, Syrian assassination teams, or bought Western apologists.

The problem is not just a matter of the particular suppliers who happen to sell to the United States — after all, we get lots of our imported oil from Mexico, Canada, and Nigeria. Rather, we should worry about the insatiable American demand that results in tight global supply for everyone, leading to high prices and petrobillions in the hands of otherwise-failed societies who use this largess for nefarious activities from buying nukes to buying off deserved censure from the West, India, and China. If the Middle East gets a pass on its terrorist behavior from the rest of the world, ultimately that exemption can be traced back to the voracious American appetite for imported oil, and its effects on everything from global petroleum prices to the appeasement of Islamic fascism.

Without nuclear acquisition, a Pakistan or Iran would warrant little worry. It is no accident that top al Qaeda figures are either in Pakistan or Iran, assured that their immunity is won by reason that both of their hosts have vast oil reserves or nukes or both.

The lesson from all this is that in order to free the United States from such blackmail and dependency, we must at least try to achieve energy independence and drive down oil prices — and see that no Middle East autocracy gains nuclear weapons. Those principles, along with support for democratic reform, should be the three pillars of American foreign policy.

Encouraging democracy is still vital to offer a third choice other than dictatorship or theocracy — especially when we now recognize the general Middle East rule: The logical successor to a shah is a Khomeini; a Zarqawi wishes to follow a fallen Saddam; a propped-up Arafat ensures Hamas; and a subsidized Mubarak will lead to the Muslim Brotherhood. Puritanical zealotry always feeds off autocratic corruption — as if lopping hands and heads is the proper antidote to military courts and firing squads.

And we also know the political blame game at home: Past realist failures at propping up dictators are postfacto reinvented as sobriety, while the messy and belated democratic correction is derided as foolery. Even the election of Hamas and the honesty it brings are welcome news: Support the process, not always the result, while stopping the subsidy and dialogue if such terrorists come to power. Let them stew in their own juice, not ours.

In the meantime, until we arrive at liberal and consensual governments that prove stable, there will be no real peace. And if an Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Syria obtains nuclear weapons, there will be eventually war on an unimaginable scale, predicated on the principle that the West will tolerate almost any imaginable horror to ensure that one of its cities is not nuked or made uninhabitable.

Yet if billions of petrodollars continue to pour into such traditional societies, as a result they will never do the hard political and economic work of building real societies. Instead their elites will obtain real nuclear weapons to threaten neighbors for even more concessions, as they buy support at home with the national prestige of an "Islamic bomb." Saddam almost grasped that: Had he delayed his invasion of Kuwait five years until he resurrected his damaged nuclear program, Kuwait would now be an Iraqi province, and perhaps Saudi Arabia as well.

In the long-term, democratization in the framework of constitutional government has the best chance of bringing relief. But for the foreseeable future the United States and its allies must also ensure that Iran, and states like it, are not nuclear, and that we wean ourselves off a petroleum dependency — to save both ourselves, the addicts, and even our enemies, the dealers of the Middle East.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.

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