US President George W. Bush finds himself today looking at a potential legacy that includes a world in which anti-Americanism will have increased exponentially among America's friends and foes alike, terrorism will have grown rather than receded, and America will be enmeshed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gaza and now Lebanon provide the Bush administration with a major opportunity to demonstrate its global leadership and its stated commitment to the spread of democracy and promote the Middle East Peace process, policies used by the Bush administration to legitimate the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Tragically, the administration has thus far chosen to be part of the problem not of the solution.
From North Africa to Southeast Asia, as a recent Gallup World Poll indicates, overwhelming majorities (91-95 per cent) said they didn't believe the US is trustworthy, friendly or treats other countries respectfully nor that it cares about human rights in other countries (80 per cent). Outside of Iraq, there is over 90 per cent agreement among Muslims that the invasion of Iraq has done more harm than good.
How has the administration responded? In a world in which the war on global terrorism has come to be equated in the minds of many Muslims (and others) with a war against Islam and the Muslim world, the administration re-emphasised the importance of public diplomacy, appointing a talented senior Bush confidante, Karen Hughes, and spoke of a war of ideas.
However, US responses in Gaza and in Lebanon undercut both the president's credibility and the war on terrorism. The US has turned a blind eye to Israel's launching of two wars whose primary victims are civilians. It failed to support US mediation in the face of clear violations of international law and Israel's use of collective punishment, policies in Gaza that Amnesty International labelled war crimes.
America, with its unconditional support of Israel, has become a partner not simply in a military action against Hamas or Hezbollah militants but in a war against democratically elected governments in Gaza and Lebanon, a long-time US ally. The "disproportionate response" to Hezbollah's July 12 seizure of two soldiers and killing of three others has resulted in the death of more than 400, the displacement of more than 750,000 and the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure; its primary victims are hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians not militants.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's criticism of the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon as "excessive use of force" was countered the next day by the New York Times headline "US speeds up bomb delivery for the Israelis". Is it any wonder that news reporters in the Arab world speak of the Israeli-US war, a Western Christian religious leader and long-time resident of Lebanon speaks of "the rape of Lebanon", or that in Southeast Asia, as one observer put it, "Malaysians are telling Bush, forget the war on terrorism. He is inflaming terrorism!"
There are no easy answers but as John Voll has argued, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 demonstrated that a massive military response is not the solution. The US needs to respond in concert with the international community and international organisations like the UN. America must lead in the call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and a negotiated settlement as well as be a major donor in the restoration of the infrastructures of Gaza and Lebanon.
America's national interests and credibility not only in the Arab/Muslim world but internationally will depend on our ability to "walk the way we talk". US policy should make no exceptions, for the Arabs or Israelis, when it comes to the disproportionate use of force, indiscriminate warfare whose primary victims are majorities of innocent civilians not terrorists, collective punishment and the massive violation of human rights.
- Professor John L. Esposito is Director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.