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Strutting From Tehran to Damascus, From Beirut to Gaza

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You can practically picture them strutting.

In Tehran, for example.

Initially shaken by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the awesome display of military prowess, Iran, with American soldiers on its border, had to wonder if it might be the next target.

Seven years later, the Iranians believe they've turned the tables on Washington.

Seven years of more and more centrifuges. Seven years of nuclear deception. Seven years defying UN Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency resolutions and reports. Seven years of dividing the international community. Seven years of buying time. Seven years of business as usual with much of the world. Seven years of unrestricted participation in the UN, Olympic Games, World Cup, World Economic Forum, and, this year, the Munich Security Conference. Seven years of calling for a world without Israel, interfering in Iraqi affairs, and baiting the United States. Seven years of trampling on the human rights of its own people.

And in Damascus, too.

Like Iran, Syria in 2003 had to be sweating bullets. After all, U.S.-led coalition troops were just across the border in Iraq and the possibility of active measures against Syria must have crossed the mind of President Assad and his handlers at least once or twice.

Not long ago, Syria faced isolation for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, and for allowing jihadist mercenaries to cross the border into Iraq to wage war against U.S. troops, conspiring with North Korea to build a secret nuclear plant, cozying up to Tehran, providing hospitality for Hamas, and shipping arms -- its own and Iranian -- to Hezbollah.

Today, by contrast, Syria can't find enough hotel space for all the Western guests rushing to engage the Assad regime. Of course, each of those guests proclaims an earnest desire to "turn" Syria from hostile to harmonious behavior, even as business deals are being discussed. But the lack of success until now - other than the "apparent" willingness, at long last, of Damascus to acknowledge Lebanon's sovereign independence - hasn't put a brake on the traffic.

And in south Beirut, home of Hezbollah.

Things didn't look so good in 2006. Hezbollah triggered a war with Israel. But when the war ended, Hezbollah was still on its feet, despite the battering it took.

Since then, UNIFIL forces notwithstanding, Hezbollah has not only rebuilt its military arsenal and then some, but has also worked its way back into the Lebanese government, with a virtual veto on decision-making. So, Hezbollah gets to be an integral part of the state, while, simultaneously, running a state-within-a-state, threatening Israel at every turn and operating its sleeper cells throughout Latin America and beyond. And it has avoided inclusion on the EU terrorism list, thanks to certain European countries that argued such a move would be counterproductive (to what?).

Add to that Lebanon's current seat on the UN Security Council, where it deals with issues like Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It simply boggles the mind to think about Iranian-backed Hezbollah's direct and indirect influence on the exercise of power.

Yet, as with Iran and Syria, there are those infinitely hopeful Westerners who believe that engaging Hezbollah can yield benefits. To date, however, the only beneficiary is Hezbollah, which acquires legitimacy from such contacts without earning it.

And, not least, in Gaza.

As I write these words, several members of the "Free Gaza Movement" have been killed on the high seas after provoking a violent confrontation with Israelis seeking to board one of the six ships. It was tragic. Families and friends are mourning their deaths. It was also entirely avoidable.

By its own admission, the flotilla was making a political, not a humanitarian, statement. Israel had offered to transport the supplies over land, but that didn't serve the organizers' purpose. Nor did a request to carry a message to kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held by his captors in Gaza for nearly four years. Nor, it turns out, were all the passengers exactly Mother Teresa wannabes or Gandhi's disciples.

The goal was to break the Israeli blockade and thereby enable the free shipment of anything - yes, anything, including weapons - to the terrorist enclave.

For ruthless, cynical Hamas, the more bloodshed, the better. There may be crocodile tears in public from Hamas leaders for the fatalities, but down deep it's something else. After all, once again the situation puts Israel, not Hamas, in the hot seat.

Think about it.

Here is Hamas, an Iranian-funded, jihadist group anchored in the Muslim Brotherhood. Through its blood-curdling Charter, available for anyone to read, it calls for the destruction of Israel and its replacement by an Islamic, Shari'a-based state.

Hamas has been declared a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. Apropos, FBI director Robert Mueller testified before Congress about its active -- and dangerous -- presence in the United States.

Hamas poses a clear menace to Egypt, which has closed its own border with Gaza and is now building a 10-kilometer steel wall there.

Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in June 2007, after bloody clashes then, and earlier, resulted in several hundred fatalities.

It runs summer camps for children that teach jihad, martyrdom, and martial skills, and condemns UN-run summer camps for mixing boys and girls and allegedly allowing kids, well, to be kids.

That very same Hamas, which brought isolation to Gaza by sticking to its guns, so to speak, and refusing the three conditions for engagement set by the Quartet, has now become the object of sympathy and concern, as evidenced by the flotilla and its admiring backers, including, most notably, Turkey.

And yet it is Israel, seeking to exercise its right of self-defense against a group bent on its destruction, and not the group itself, which today provokes howls of protest. This is also precisely what happened after Israel's patience wore thin in December 2008, and it decided it could no longer accept daily missile and mortar strikes from Hamas-controlled Gaza.

A world gone wobbly at the knees -- increasingly incapable, it seems, of distinguishing between the arsonist and the fireman, the despot and the democrat, the provocateur and the victim, or simply fearful of the consequences of obvious truths -- once again reveals itself.

Where is the Winston Churchill for our time -- the leader who, with clarity and courage, lifts the fog, shines the spotlight, defines the stakes, and summons us to our senses?