With its invasion of Lebanon, Israel is attempting to do what it should already know won’t work.

War cannot defeat terrorism. It isn’t designed to; indeed, it can be argued that terrorism evolved specifically as a countermeasure to the well-financed superpower war machine and actually thrives on war. Tanks, jets, laser-guided missiles and crack troops are fine for defeating rival armies, seizing territory, toppling governments and fashioning empires. They are ineffective against enemies who can disguise themselves by melting into the civilian population, and who don’t care who dies as a result of their efforts.

The Vietnamese by 1975 had beaten a power, France, and a superpower, the United States. Afghan fighters repelled the Soviets in the 1980s. Hezbollah forced Israel to withdraw from its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. Iraqi insurgents have frustrated the most powerful military apparatus ever assembled – ours – for 3½ years with no end in sight.

Despite this evidence of the limitations of war, Israel nevertheless has chosen to react to Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in mid-July with overwhelming military force, destroying bridges, airports, communications networks and other critical infrastructure in Lebanon, killing hundreds, turning hundreds of thousands into refugees, and shattering the peace of millions of uninvolved people. What is that widely quoted definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting different results?

Why do we persist in believing war can succeed against those who are neither afraid to die nor concerned about who else does? Using war to defeat terrorism is like using fire to defeat roaches – which only destroys the house, not the roaches. By choosing full-scale war as its terrorism response of choice, the West is forced to invade nations and imperil their civilians – as it is among civilians where the modern terrorist hides. Once lured into this hapless position, there are only three options: Become a perpetual occupation force in a hostile land, withdraw, or kill everyone – the only sure way to exterminate tomorrow’s terrorist. The first option is untenable, the second unpalatable, the third unconscionable.

Only the most chauvinistic Westerner can’t see how being maneuvered into such a position drastically weakens our world stature and leadership credentials: If we prove better at killing innocent people than the very terrorists we pursue, the mantle of “good guy” becomes harder for us to claim. Without that, we are nothing but global bullies with no moral leverage or ideological superiority – handing terrorist elements the perfect tool for stirring up faithful new recruits.

Israel’s Ehud Olmert, like Britain’s Tony Blair before him, has been infected by the seductive appeal of Bushian neo-conservatism, which arrogantly but naively believes nothing can stop the Western war machine. This assessment disdains wimpy alternatives like diplomacy, international alliances and the winning of civilian hearts and minds, preferring testosterone-pumping displays of military force as the universal solution for whatever ails the world.

That can’t succeed because terrorism feeds on the privations of war. Peace, on the other hand, starves terrorism, just as cleanliness frustrates roaches. Regardless of culture, people everywhere prefer tranquility to turmoil.

The most effective way to defeat terrorists is to deny them their bases of popular support. The West therefore must devise a strategy that employs rapid tactical military strikes against known terrorist plotters and perpetrators wherever they are, but which simultaneously places paramount importance on sustaining and fortifying local civilian tranquility. Terrorists have nothing to offer people who have peace to savor; enforcing and defending peace therefore must be our central mission.

Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bold decision last year to depart the Gaza Strip, each demonstrated how peace can hobble terrorist organizations. Hezbollah, confronted with an increasingly popular peace, faced irrelevancy in Lebanon. Hamas quickly proved it had no useful skills to govern Gaza in Israel’s absence. So each group desperately provoked a revival of war – and Israel, disregarding lessons of its own history, obliged. The Bush administration, stubbornly committed to perpetuating a failed policy, approves.

Fortifying peace, it should be noted, is not synonymous with establishing democracy – Iraq and Afghanistan aptly prove that democracy in the absence of domestic tranquility accomplishes nothing against terrorists. Nor is peace the unilateral renunciation of violence. Defending peace requires the wise application of targeted force, a finely finessed blend of covert operations, intelligence gathering, guile, international cooperation and ruthless retribution against the guilty.

It’s not as viscerally satisfying as blowing things up – but terrorists count on the West’s predictable impatience and cowboy belligerence. They bank on our becoming emotionally distraught and overreacting by unleashing missiles, jets, bombs and soldiers every time a mosquito bites us. So far, regrettably, we’re responding in character.

Robert Steinback is a former columnist for The Miami Herald, now on a one-year sabbatical.


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