Memo to Condi: On Your Next Trip to the Middle East, Read Camus' The Plague

07/31/2006 05:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For a heady few moments this morning, I actually thought that Condi had taken my advice.

In two successive blogs this month, one posted seven days into the bombing of Lebanon and the other a week later, I proposed that Israel should unilaterally suspend its airstrikes for 48 hours in order to test Hezbollah's response--and should THEN start negotiations on all issues. And voila! Yesterday, under heavy pressure from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who must have been feeling excruciating pressure from our Middle East allies (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to a 48 hour halt in the airstrikes starting at 2:00 A.M. today. He was pressured to do so, of course, only after Israel's 20-day bombardment of Lebanon culminated in the killing of at least 34 children and 12 women in the southern Lebanese village of Qana.

Cheering as it was to fantasize that my advice had finally been taken, I couldn't help wondering how far we have come since that legendary day--more than three thousand years ago--when the ancient Greek king Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter to gain fair winds for the voyage to Troy, where he and his men launched the long and bloody war that ended in the immolation of that city. In our own time, I presume, no king or president would sacrifice his own child for the sake of a war, but other people's children are a different matter. Even after Hezbollah offered to stop its rocket attacks in return for an immediate cease-fire, it took the deaths of more than a hundred children (including those already killed in Lebanon before last Sunday) to precipitate even a brief pause in Israeli airstrikes.

So much for the pause. Now we learn that within hours after the airstrikes were suspended, they have resumed. Their first victim was a Lebanese soldier killed near Tyre by an Israeli rocket aimed at a car that was suspected of carrying a senior Hezbollah official but was actually carrying a Lebanese army officer and soldiers. "They were," the Israeli army says, "not the targets and we regret the incident."

Regrettable indeed. Besides all the other regrettable deaths caused by Israeli airstrikes, they have now killed one more member of the army that--in Condi's vision of the "new Middle East''--is supposed to supplant Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and help to restore order in that shattered country. So what now, Condi? Where do we go from here?

Since you've apparently seen fit to take one piece of advice from me, here's another. On your next trip to the Middle East, read Albert Camus' THE PLAGUE.

It was written during the Second World War, when--not satisfied with the ten million deaths achieved by the first one--the most powerful nations of the world were doing their best to kill even more. Camus' novel had a different agenda. Published in June, 1947, barely two years after the war ended in Europe, it says nothing directly about the war, but in showing what a Bubonic plague does to the coastal Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s, it symbolically represents what war did to Europe in the same period. At one point, in fact, the narrator of the novel openly compares plagues to wars. Both, he writes, take us equally by surprise, and both commonly last longer than we expect them to. Also, neither one is ever wholly defeated. Like the plague, war always comes back.

But this is only a part of the final message of the book, which is narrated by a doctor who tells his own story: a doctor who sees his patients dying all around him and yet who never stops trying to save and comfort them, and never stops inspiring others to do likewise. In the end, he says, his tale records what had to be done and what must be "done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts." If those words seem uncannily prophetic, consider what he says about HOW the fight against terror should be waged. "Despite their personal afflictions," he says, it must be waged "by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers."

Ever since 9/11, we as a nation have striven to be anything but healers. Given a seemingly divine right to retaliate against terrorism, the global enemy that came along just in time to fill the gap vacated by communism, we have relentlessly spread the plague of war across the Middle East: first in Afghanistan, where we killed some 4000 civilians in order to liberate the country from the Taliban, who--nearly five years later--are still wreaking havoc in the country; then in Iraq, where we have killed over 30,000 civilians to establish a government that cannot even manage Baghdad, where killings now average 100 a day; and now in Lebanon, where Israeli airstrikes--fueled by our money, carried out with our bombs, kept up with our blessing--have killed over 500 people in the past twenty days, most of them civilians.

Am I forgetting the viciousness of the 9/11 hijackers, the heinousness of Saddham Hussein, or the ruthlessness of Hezbollah militants who deliberately aim their rockets at Israeli civilians? Absolutely not. But can anyone show me that what we call "terrorism" can be conquered by force of arms or crushed by the imposition of what we call "democracy" in the Middle East?

Consider just the war in Lebanon. If Israel thought that its airstrikes could crush Hezbollah once and for all or rouse the government of Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah's fighters, it has had a rude awakening. Over two weeks into the war, Hezbollah is still firing its rockets into Israel at the rate of over 100 a day and has made itself the champion of the Arab world. against what even Jordan's King Abdullah II--one of our staunchest Arab allies--calls "Israeli aggression." Just when Hezbollah's star within Lebanon was starting to fade (chiefly because of its support for Syria when the Lebanese drove the Syrians out), Israel has made it burn more brightly than ever. Aside from holding thirty percent of the seats in Lebanon's parliament and enjoying the support of its speaker, Nabih Berri, Hezbollah now has the overwhelming support of the Lebanese people---for the simple and obvious reason that they believe it is fighting for them against a brutal and far more powerful adversary. (Yes, I know that many of the Christians in southern Lebanon bitterly resent Hezbollah for launching rockets from their neighborhoods, but that doesn't lessen their rage against Israel.) When Condoleezza Rice declared in Malaysia last week that "the key [to a cease fire] is the extension of Lebanon government authority throughout the country, the ability of the Lebanese government to control all forces, all arms in their country," what had she been smoking? Does she not know that Israeli airstrikes have demolished radio and television stations, crippled electric power, closed Beirut Airport, made major roads all but impassible, killed Lebanese army soldiers, and displaced over twenty percent of the population? Under these circumstances, how could any Lebanese government-let alone a government as new and frail as that of Faoud Siniora-take control of the only forces that are fighting for Lebanon right now?

When are we going to realize that we will never "win" the war against terrorism until we stop thinking in bi-polar terms, stop believing that anyone who attacks us or one of our allies is a terrorist who hates freedom and must be obliterated, never an Iraqi or a Palestinian or a Lebanese who simply resents the brutal occupation of his country and wants freedom on his own terms--not ours? In response to last week's broadcast by Ayman al-Zawahri, deputy leader of al-Qaida, who denounced the "Zionist-Crusader war" on Lebanon and Palestine, President Bush said, "Zawahri's attitude about life is that there shouldn't be free societies. And he believes that people ought to use terrorist tactics, the killing of innocent people, to achieve his objective. And so I'm not surprised he feels like he needs to lend his voice to terrorist activities that are trying to prevent democracies from moving forward."

Does President Bush forget that Hamas and Hezbollah--the "terrorist" organizations that Zawahri supports--have both achieved political power by means of democratic elections? And why is it damnable for them to kill innocent people to achieve their objectives but permissible for Israel to do the same--by a multiple of more than 8 to 1 in Lebanon right now?

With no convincing answer to that question, we have lost whatever credibility we might once have had to broker a peace in the Middle East, and we are fast losing whatever is left of our moral authority in the world at large. At this perilously late stage, we can salvage it only if we begin to exercise our imaginations, to break the stranglehold of bipolar thinking, and to talk to our adversaries instead of demonizing, threatening, and trying to annihilate them. The families of the two Israeli soldiers captured earlier this month by Hezbollah guerillas-in a raid that precipitated this war--have urgently pressed the Israeli government to consider an exchange of prisoners, which would mean of course negotiation. Yes, the unspeakable N word. Even Richard Armitage--second-in-command at the State Department under George W. Bush, ardent supporter of regime change in Iraq well before 9/11--thinks that Condoleezza Rice should talk to the Syrians. Is it sheer folly to think or hope that one day Israel might be willing to talk to Hamas or Hezbollah? And if you ask how Israel could even consider talking to an organization that denies its right to exist, don't you think Hamas and Hezbollah could ask exactly themselves the same question? How many more innocent people on both sides will have to die-in Lebanon and Israel-before we stop fighting each other, stop denying each other's right to exist, and start fighting the plague of war itself?

Perhaps Camus can tell us.