The lessons of history

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CONSTANTINE, ALGERIA: – History is consequence of consequences.  Barbara Tuchman, Pulitzer prize-winning historian, pointed out history might also be a “march of folly.”

Fifty years ago this month Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian dictator, unleashed a torrent of rhetoric in nationalizing the Suez Canal.  The soldier-politician carried his country and Arabs beyond Egypt’s borders on a tide of nationalist sentiment to the high noon of pan-Arab politics.

Nasser’s rhetoric brought a few months later the tripartite response of Britain, France and Israel in the Suez War of October 1956.

Egypt was rescued from humiliation of military defeat by the U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower due to requirements of the Cold War politics in a world then divided between Washington and Moscow.  But Nasser learned very little from the episode of which he was the architect.

There is a disconnect between the rhetorical flourish out of which Arabs fashion an imaginative world of their making – according to many astute observers of Arab culture such as Sir Hamilton Gibb, Raphael Patai or Fouad Ajami – and the reality surrounding them.

In a world contrived by demagogues unreality prevails since connection between cause and effect are denied, responsibility never assumed, and results contrary to imagined expectations are viewed always as faults of others or conspiracies of the wicked.

Nasser remains the archetype of Arab demagogues despite his legacy of defeat.  Most Arabs recall Israel’s stunning victory in the war of June 1967 provoked by Nasser’s folly as a catastrophe, but for nearly forty years and counting the Egyptian dictator’s pale shadows – such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Gaddhafi, Palestine’s late Yasser Arafat, Syria’s Assads (father and son), Algeria’s late Houari Boumeddiene – have loomed large among Arabs as they suffered repeated self-inflicted disasters.

Nasser’s Arab progeny turned Islamists, envied the cult of Khomeini in Iran, and learned the rhetoric of mullahs (clerics) to provide demagogic legitimacy to terrorism they adopted as weapon of war against the civilized world.

I am among Algerians in Constantine, a city named for the Roman emperor.  Lebanon is a continent away, but the criminal folly of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah – a petty warlord in the service of Iran’s brutal clerical regime – provoking Israel’s retaliation is writ large across this North African state recovering from the madness of its own savage war of the past decade.

In Algeria the military met the Islamist challenge with ruthless force.  Some Algerians privately complain of military excesses in defeating terrorists, but the majority is relieved with an end to violence that turned Algeria into a killing field during the nineties.

Algeria’s lesson is simple.  There can be no negotiated settlement with terrorists.  Any such effort only extends legitimacy to terrorists and erodes the civilized community’s will to eliminate evil from its midst.

Lebanon’s malaise for the past thirty years has been its failure to deal with demagogues and warlords.  Its wounds are self-inflicted as it willingly became staging grounds for those waging war against Israel with impunity.

Lebanon cannot be healed, or Lebanese find release from demagogues and warlords unless Algeria’s lesson is applied.

The incapacity or reluctance of Lebanese authority to eliminate warlords within its borders has compelled Israel to punish Nasrallah and his thugs for their unforgiving provocations.

Now any effort by western democracies to appease the unreal world of Arab politics by negotiating a diplomatic settlement will only prolong Lebanon’s agony and rescue a petty demagogue from the consequences of his folly.

Salim Mansur
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