Richard Reeves

Big Nations and Long Little Wars

WASHINGTON -- President Bush was wise and cautious when he began the new war on terrorism by saying it would be a long one. But I doubt he ever really believed it would be so complicated and essentially insane that within a few months he would have to come before the American people, as he did last Thursday, and almost admit that it was spinning out of control. He certainly did not realize that he would soon be criticizing an ally, Israel, to try to save Yasser Arafat, whom the United States has known was responsible for the terrorist killings of American officials for almost 30 years now.

It is odd to say that we are in over our heads for the moment because we are so much taller than everyone else in the dysfunctional regions of the world. "Enough is enough," said the American leader. Yes, for us. But for them, the secret killers in endless wars in far places, it is never enough. The retaliation, the revenge, the killing of children and the turning of children into killers goes on for generation after generation -- and we are usually too big to bend down far enough to do anything about it.

Twenty years ago, I was standing just outside the doorway of a clinic in a Palestinian refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, when a baby was born. As the doctor, a Palestinian paid by the United Nations, slapped the baby boy on its little rear, he said, looking in my direction, "Another fighter for Arafat!"

The remark was not meant for me, though. It was directed at the man next to me, an Israeli army officer.

"What do you think when you hear that?" I asked the Israeli.

He answered: "I wonder if that baby is the one who will kill me."

Perhaps he has. Or perhaps he has killed that officer's child, or even a grandchild.

In the years that followed, I occasionally had great optimism about that part of the world. Israel's economy boomed a couple of times, and many Palestinians shared in that. Many Israeli parents began to question the brutalization of their children as they served as an occupying army in hostile regions so close to their own homes. Enough already. The Israelis also periodically encouraged education in the occupied territories on the theory that educated young men and women would leave the poverty of the camps and make new lives in the West or in Arab countries. Many did, but they sent the money back into the terrorities -- and those remittances kept the cause, and terrorism, too, alive over the years.

So I was wrong. I was just another overoptimistic American, confused and offended by what seemed to be the senselessness of it.

Then, I put some faith in old men, thinking that there would come a time when the generation that made terror -- on both sides -- would close the circles of their own lives by making peace, showing that the struggle was worthwhile and that young and violent death was not in vain. I was wrong again. It came down to Arafat, the terrorist who never changed and was too cowardly to make a half-decent peace with American help, and Ariel Sharon, who never stopped believing in force above all.

Sharon, I think, thought what he called "the path to peace" would be made by bulldozers and tanks, reoccupying land that had been turned over to Palestinian authority in the crumbling peace process -- and he began that campaign by doing his best to provoke uprisings to be crushed with his bully visit to the Temple Mount in early 2000.

And Arafat. Has he changed from the man American radio and telephone intercepts recorded in March 1973 ordering the killing of Cleo Noel, the U.S. ambassador to the Sudan, his charge d'affairs and the Belgian ambassador to that country? The actual killers -- named in diplomatic files kept secret by the United States to try to mold Arafat into a peacemaker -- were Black September terrorists who kidnapped the Western diplomats in a failed plot to free Palestinian terrorists in European jails and Sirhan Sirhan, the killer of Robert F. Kennedy, in jail in California.

They are a despicable pair, Arafat and Sharon, useless now but still dominant in pathetic ways. President Bush knows that now, too, I guess, and he must despair that the two old men have hijacked the war on terrorism that seemed difficult but possible only a few weeks ago.

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