Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barrie) Times Argus

Sunday November 22nd, 2015 

The terrorists may be winning. But not because of the carnage they inflicted in the past few weeks on Russian, Lebanese, Turkish and French civilians. Several hundred people have been killed in these attacks by the death cult that calls itself the Islamic State.  Yet as horrific as these tragedies have been, they do not represent “victories” for the fanatics.

As we were told countless times in the aftermath of 9/11, the terrorists win only if they spread so much fear that they cause civilized societies to reject the values of their better angels. They win when large numbers of voters in democracies embrace the proponents of fear and self-interest who do not represent those fundamental human values.

There are troubling signs that such a backlash is happening now - especially as it applies to Syrian refugees - in Europe and in this country. Congressional Republican leaders and at least 27 governors strongly oppose President Barack Obama’s modest plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees and want to kill it.

Today, I would like to focus on one aspect of the backlash- the idea that Muslim refugees from Syria should not be allowed into the United States, with an exception for Christians.

During the past week, media magnate Rupert Murdoch suggested that the U.S. accept only Christian refugees fleeing Islamic State. Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz both proposed that Christian refugees be given priority over Muslims. As Cruz said during a campaign rally, “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” Really? Christians are above such behavior?

When I returned to Washington, after a decade as a foreign correspondent mostly working in the Middle East, I was disappointed to discover that most Americans, even a major candidate for president, understood very little about the region. In 1976 I was assigned to cover Democratic Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. Jackson actually won several primaries and for a time was Jimmy Carter’s main competitor.

That spring, the fifteen year Lebanese Civil War had truly begun. One morning the senator departed from his stump speech and began warning that Lebanese Christians were under grave threat. He implied that the U.S. should be prepared to take action, as it had in the past. As I was the only reporter present who had recently worked in the Middle East, I asked him if he meant the U.S. should send in the Marines as President Eisenhower had done in 1958. With the Vietnam War barely over, Jackson began to realize that proposing a new military adventure was not the way to get elected president, so he waffled. And by the end of that day he said the issue should be raised in the United Nations.

That night Senator Jackson sat down beside me on his campaign plane (a DC-3) and asked me to tell him about Lebanon. I gave him a full briefing, starting with how Lebanon’s then political structure was based a delicately balanced, unwritten agreement reached at the time of its creation in 1943. Known as the “Confessional” system, the country’s leadership and its political spoils were divvied up among Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims. And I then explained something which was totally news to him – the Christians were much less threatened by Muslims than by each other.

Christian leaders were like mafia dons who thought nothing of killing each other’s family members including wives and children, in wars over turf. It was about business- usually illegal business- such as who was in control of the ports where millions could be made in smuggling. Jackson didn’t say much about Lebanon after that. I suspect that was because it wasn’t much of a vote getter.

One of America’s enduring myths is that when pitted against an expert, a good person with sound instincts and common sense, will usually prevail. This appears to be based on a widespread belief that the expert gets paralyzed with detail while the non-expert will not be distracted by useless information and will soon get to the core of the problem. I concede there may be times when this may be true. It emphatically is not true when it comes to formulating American policy in the Middle East.

Time and again U.S. policy makers with a fundamental lack of understanding of the region have intervened militarily. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan decided to send American troops into Lebanon amidst its on-going civil war. The U.S. was predictably accused of taking the side of the Christians. In April 1983 a suicide bomber hit the U.S. Embassy, killing 63, including17 Americans. Six months later a truck filled with dynamite slammed into the Marine Headquarters at Beirut airport, killing 241 American servicemen.

In 2003, just weeks before the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush met with Iraqi exiles and opponents of Saddam Hussein, who very much wanted American intervention. But one of these exiles lamented privately, that President Bush did not seem to know the difference between Sunnis or Shiite Muslims. That apparent lack of knowledge dogged the U.S. Iraqi occupation from the outset. Moreover, the removal of secular Saddam, re-ignited the centuries-old Sunni- Shite sectarian divide.

The vying for power between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran is a principal element in much of the current Mideast conflict. So the future of the Islamic State may well depend on the Iranian and the Saudi willingness to join a coalition involving Persians, Arabs, Turks, Europeans, Americans and Russians to defeat it. As unlikely as that may seem, all these peoples have profound interests in not seeing the Islamic State prevail - and this is the only way to stop it.

Meantime America very much needs leaders who have the knowledge to understand the complexities of the region and the temperament to deal with its nuances. What we most certainly do not need are those who are proud of their ignorance or their willingness to shoot from the hip.    




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