Magical thinking and the Mideast

The recent reaction from American political commentators and opinion leaders—on both the Right and Left—to Israel’s aggressive response in Lebanon and Gaza to Hezbollah and Hamas terrorism has been striking in its reliance on magical thinking.

Whether it is neo-conservatives angry at President Bush for what they see as his less-than-muscular foreign policy, or those on the Left decrying what they regard as Bush’s retreat from multilateralism, shuttle diplomacy and the Mideast “peace process,” these commentators share an assumption that American power (diplomatic or military) can, and should, be rapidly exercised to bring about a “Mideast solution.”

This is magical thinking at its best (or worst). Children are often prone to magical thinking, believing that their own thoughts can influence events. Magical thinkers confuse correlation for causation: the notion that thinking something will happen can make it happen. This is on full display in the commentary on the turmoil in Israel, Lebanon and the Gaza. There is also a characteristically American spin to the debate: a muddled understanding of the historical and cultural context, an impatience for results, and an overreliance on rationality.

Many on the Right don’t, or won’t, recognize the limits of American power (or the costs of exercising it). Yes, we are the last superpower with the world’s most powerful military, but we are learning—in Iraq and Afghanistan—that an asymmetrical balance of power carries it own burdens. Some aren’t receptive to the lesson: the Washington Post reports that conservatives are in open rebellion over Bush’s foreign policy:

Conservative intellectuals and commentators who once lauded Bush for what they saw as a willingness to aggressively confront threats and advance U.S. interests said in interviews that they perceive timidity and confusion about long-standing problems including Iran and North Korea, as well as urgent new ones such as the latest crisis between Israel and Hezbollah.

There is a disconnect here between ideology and reality—a reflection of a form of magical thinking. What are the costs and benefits of unilateral military action? What about the Weinberger Doctrine and its tests for the introduction of American military force? Those neocons eager for confrontation with Iran and North Korea are dismissive of that calculus—but seeing the use of the military as a last resort, as Weinberger did, is more in keeping with American history and values than the Lone Rangerism they advocate.

In contrast, some on the Left refuse to acknowledge the repeated failure of multi-state diplomacy in the Mideast and the clear impotence of international bodies like the United Nations in peace-keeping or nation-bulding (vide: Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Israel/Palestine, etc.) They seem to believe that more “jaw jaw” is all that is needed for the lion to lie down with the lambs. They don’t seem to have considered the fact that “good-faith” negotiation might not work with Islamic extremists (after all, for secular Western liberals everything seems negotiable.) Thus we have Robert Scheer in the Nation assigning blame to President Bush for not following the diplomatic path of the Clinton years.

…Bush’s complete disinterest in the Mideast peace process—especially as an “honest broker” between Israel and the Palestinians—since the Supreme Court handed him the job in 2000 has paved the way for this moment.

But should we be surprised at Bush’s poor grasp of the world he supposedly leads? After all, the blundering of the Bush Administration has seriously undermined secular politics in the Mideast and boosted the religious zealots of groups like Hezbollah to positions of pre-eminence throughout the region, from savagely violent Iraq to the beleaguered West Bank and Gaza.

But what is truly “ironic” is that the Bush Administration, having overstretched our military and generated no foreign policy ideas beyond the willy-nilly “projection” of military force, has become a helpless bystander as the entire region threatens to burn.

Of course Scheer ignores the reality that the Mideast “peace process” has been more about “process” than peace. Indeed, it could be argued that the very sort of “honest brokering” Scheer advocates is what put a corrupt Yasser Arafat in power and led to the rise of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and in Lebanon, allowed the existence of Hezbollah rockets within striking distance of Haifa.

In fact, President Bush is guilty of magical thinking himself, as evidenced in his widely-reported remarks (“See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it’s over”); there is a dynamic to the situation in southern Lebanon that may very well be out of the control of Hezbollah’s patrons in Damascus and Baghdad.

For that matter, there is also the implicit assumption by commentators of all political stripes that Israel will immediately follow whatever policy line Washington decides upon. This is just not realistic. Israeli leaders can not be expected to endorse any “solution” that leaves Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem open to future missile salvos.

There is an antidote to American magical thinking. It is to step back and look at the historical context, to recognize that there has been progress in the Mideast (Egypt and Jordan are clearly sitting this crisis out, each satisfied with its separate peace with Israel), but that progress has come fitfully and often because of battlefield realities—the “facts on the ground”—and not because of any grand diplomatic process.

Solutions to the current crisis that sound reasonable in Washington may not make sense in Jerusalem or Beirut; we would be well served to remember the consequences of a hasty American intervention may be greater than we realize. But that does require some humility.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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