The crises in the Mideast just seem to get worse and worse. President Obama has decided to use air strikes against Islamic terrorists in Iraq who have taken over large swaths of that country and continue to threaten minority populations with genocide. The truce in Gaza was broken by Hamas, which launched new rocket attacks into Israel, prompting further retaliation from Israel. Syria remains in a state of civil war.
The core problem, for both U.S. policymakers and for moral analysts, is that there are people who believe violence will aid their cause and are willing to brutalize civilian populations if it serves their strategic interests. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seem to think crucifying Christians an appropriate means of conducting what is, or should be, a political struggle. It is hard to negotiate with people who do such things.
In Gaza, Hamas resorts to methods that are less gruesome but which are similarly at odds with what the rest of the world would consider humane conduct. Israel drops leaflets warning of forthcoming attacks, and Hamas officials tell people to ignore them, knowing that the resulting civilian casualties will tug on the heart strings of the world. In this morning’s Washington Post, Hani Al Masri of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, is quotes as saying, “Hamas’s popularity among Palestinians has dramatically increased [since the fighting began]. Hamas was in a very bad, critical situation. But they proved they were ready for war. They brought the idea of armed resistance back to the Palestinian people.” That is some gift.
The first obligation of any government is to protect its people. But, when governments, and I hate to apply a word that is filled with noble sentiments to a group of terrorists like ISIS and Hamas, use their people as fodder, hide weapons in schools and hospitals, or, like ISIS, are proudly indifferent to human suffering, their failure can strangely embolden the people they are treating so shabbily. As I have observed before, few people on earth have been plagued by a worse set of political leaders than the Palestinians. The Iraqis seem to be giving the Palestinians a run for their money.
But, Israel and the West need to be as clever at creating peace as they are at fighting wars. What is the peacemaking equivalent of a drone strike?
Israel especially must find a way to break the cycle of violence. The eye-for-an-eye mentality must cease because it will drag Israel down to Hamas’ level, not the other way round. The very reasons many of us believe we should support Israel – its commitment not only to democracy but to a humane society – are undermined when Israeli forces end up killing hundreds of civilians. At that point, blaming Hamas for putting those civilians in harm’s way will eventually ring hollow: The bombs being dropped are Israeli bombs. Netanyahu is a smart man. He is capable of finding ways to avert the slaughter not to inflict it and those ways all involve serious negotiations for a two-state solution and an end to settlement expansion. The paths to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are well known and the outlines of a settlement are obvious to all. Indeed, Hamas’ inability to do anything for its people except fight a war gives an opportunity for Abbas to reclaim authority over Gaza and strike a deal with Israel.
The situation in Iraq is more difficult. ISIS forces are not merely terrorists but fanatics. They seem animated by bloodlust per se, no matter whether it helps or hurts their cause. They are, obviously, indifferent to world opinion. In short, their variety of evil is so palpable, I suspect the only thing to do is to resist it. Insofar as the U.S. government can help in that resistance, we should do so.
As Christians, we are committed to the ethical belief that we should love our enemies. As humans, we know that the costs of war are always greater than the costs of peace. But, just as there can be no mercy for someone who is unpenitent, how do we make peace with people who are bent on war, whose nihilism is intertwined with their religiosity? I confess I must leave that conundrum to finer minds than mine.
In Vietnam, America learned that when the only way to “won” the war entails committing genocide, we must be prepared to “lose” the war. Unfortunately, that is a lesson America learned but not the rest of the world. In the Mideast today, key actors are quite willing to sacrifice civilians on the altar of their ambitions. We are in for a brutal few years, or more, I fear. And, we may be largely powerless in the U.S. to do anything but make it worse.