Lebanon as a Middle East turning point

Despite two weeks of Israeli bombardment in Lebanon, Hizbullah still rains missiles on Israel. Now diplomacy is afoot to end the conflict and send in a NATO-like force. But would such a force do any better in neutralizing the terrorist group?

The scenario of foreign troops battling Muslim fighters in Near East nations – and not fully succeeding – seems all too familiar.

NATO is still fighting Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan nearly half a decade after a UN-sanctioned invasion to oust the Taliban rulers and Al Qaeda's base camps. In Iraq, American and British soldiers are trying to quell violence by Shiite, Sunni, and Al Qaeda terrorists three years after Saddam Hussein's ouster. In 1982, Israel did oust the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Lebanon but became bogged down in a partial, unpopular occupation for nearly two decades.

Now add a possible new, long-term intervention in Lebanon and a pattern emerges of foreign fighters in Islamic territories dealing with terrorist threats. What's missing from this picture? The weak efforts of West-friendly Muslim leaders to fully suppress Islamic radicals.

The latest example was Egypt's failure to prevent Hamas from firing rockets into Israel and to return two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. In Pakistan, the military may have elements that support the Taliban along the border. Saudi Arabia has yet to do enough to stop exporting Islamic fanaticism to the world. But now a few Arab leaders have a chance to show they are serious about standing up to terrorists beyond those at home and even when their "Arab street" supports Hizbullah's attacks on Israel.

Leaders from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps other Arab nations meet in Rome with Western leaders Wednesday to coordinate an approach to bolstering Lebanon's weak democracy and to demilitarize Hizbullah. They have already criticized the missile attacks. That was a courageous step. Now they must pressure Syria to stop its support of Hizbullah in serving as a transit point for Iranian missiles as well as ending its underhanded influence over Lebanon's government.

With Hizbullah's use of long-range Iranian missiles, these Sunni Arab leaders have seen the stark possibility of Iran flexing its muscle in the region and rallying Shiites. Add to that Iran's ambition for nuclear weapons, and perhaps a stronger Western-Arab alliance against Islamic terrorists will emerge out of this Lebanon crisis.

But sealing off Hizbullah from both Syria and Iran with a foreign force won't be easy without a robust force. Missiles and money may easily find their ways into Lebanon. And Hizbullah is an elected political party in Lebanon. Getting it to disarm and work within Lebanon's splintered democracy will require an internal cultural shift by its radical leaders.

Israel's military would have made it easier for Arab leaders to act more boldly if it had been more careful in avoiding civilian casualties in Lebanon, despite Hizbullah's perverse use of civilian areas for military purposes.

The 2006 Lebanon war could be remembered as a turning point for the Middle East, one in which key Arab players gave a full-throated response to radical Islamists.

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