Frame Game

The Sharon Doctrine

Three months ago, when President Bush declared war on terrorists who had struck the United States, he framed the conflict to his advantage in three ways. He broadened the definition of the American side, narrowed the definition of the enemy, and asserted a tough standard of culpability that gave regimes an incentive to police terrorists within their borders. Yesterday, after Hamas bombers killed two dozen Israeli civilians and wounded hundreds more, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon adopted Bush’s strategy. He is trying to make Israel’s war as compelling as, and identical to, America’s.

Bush’s first task in his Sept. 20 address was to give other nations a stake in the war against al-Qaida. The simplest way to do this was to underscore how many countries had lost citizens in the Sept. 11 attacks. It didn’t matter that some of these countries had lost just one or two citizens apiece. Breadth, not depth, was the dimension that suited Bush’s purpose. Accordingly, he vowed not to “forget the citizens of 80 other nations who died with our own” and declared, “What is at stake is not just America’s freedom. This is the world’s fight. This is civilization’s fight.”

Bush’s second task was to make the war easier by persuading Osama Bin Laden’s potential allies to stay out of it. Bin Laden wanted all Muslims to feel threatened by Bush and to side with al-Qaida. To avert this, Bush told Muslims that the United States wasn’t their enemy and that Bin Laden wasn’t their friend. “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam,” said Bush. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends.” Even in Afghanistan, the president argued, the threat to ordinary Muslims came not from the United States but from the Taliban. “The United States respects the people of Afghanistan,” said Bush. “But we condemn the Taliban regime,” which is “repressing its own people.”

Bush’s third challenge was to establish an accountability system for battling terrorism. While terrorists hid in the shadows beyond the reach of their victims, the regimes from whose territory those terrorists operated denied responsibility for their acts. The former couldn’t be punished effectively; and strictly speaking, the latter couldn’t be punished morally. Bush solved the problem by asserting a new moral principle, now known as the Bush Doctrine. “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” he declared on Sept. 11. Nine days later, he added, “Any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”

In his speech yesterday on the Hamas bombings, Sharon copied much of Bush’s oratory. He stressed that the terrorists’ objective was “to bring us to total despair,” that “our spirit of resistance is firmer than they ever could have imagined,” and that while Israelis should “not be misled by promises of immediate results. … We will pursue them until we catch them, and they will pay the price.” But Sharon’s speech was more notable for the ways in which he modified his previous rhetoric to incorporate Bush’s three key strategies.

In previous speeches, Sharon had spoken of Israel’s lonely suffering and lonely virtue. Last May, he boasted that “the Zionist revolution … may be the only true revolution that took place in the last century” and that “maybe the Israeli armed forces are the only real people’s army.” Five days after Sept. 11, he clumsily sought American sympathy by touting Israel’s unique claim to victimhood: “The State of Israel has been fighting Arab, Palestinian and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism for over 120 years. Thousands of Jews have been murdered in terrorist attacks.” On Oct. 4, he infuriated Bush by warning the United States not to abandon the true victim again: “Do not repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938, when enlightened European democracies decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a ‘convenient temporary solution.’ Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense.”

Not until yesterday did Sharon snap out of this funk and present Israel’s casualties as part of a global toll of terror. Terrorists “continue to slaughter children, youth, men and women, citizens of Israel and other nations,” he observed. That universalist message was rewarded this morning, as Bush, announcing a crackdown on organizations that funnel money to Hamas, charged that “Hamas is guilty of hundreds of other deaths over the years, and just in the past 12 months, it killed two Americans.” Framed as a terrorist threat to its occupier, Hamas can survive. Framed as a terrorist threat to other countries, it’s in deep trouble.

In previous speeches, Sharon described anti-Israeli terrorism in ethnic or religious terms. He blamed it on Muslim fundamentalists, “Arabs,” “the Palestinians,” and “our neighbors.” But a day after Bush’s speech to Congress, Sharon began to distinguish more carefully between terrorists and the good “Palestinian people.” On Nov. 18, he urged Europeans to direct financial aid to these “people” rather than to their regime, which he said would spend the money on violence against Israel. Yesterday, he completed the argument, calling “the Palestinian people … the primary victims of the current situation brought about by [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat.” Sharon seeks to pit Palestinians against their government in the same way that Bush pitted Afghans against theirs.

In previous speeches, Sharon sometimes accused Arafat of masterminding terrorism and sometimes accused him merely of failing to prevent it. Sharon never proved the former charge and never explained why the latter would justify a military crackdown on the Palestinian regime. The Bush Doctrine fixed that problem. “In choosing to allow the ruthless killing of innocent civilians, Arafat has chosen the path of terrorism,” Sharon concluded yesterday, as he launched strikes against Arafat’s government buildings. “We will pursue those responsible: the perpetrators of terrorism and the supporters.”

Winning support for a campaign against Arafat will be much harder than winning support for a campaign against Bin Laden. Israel has a lot less might than the United States does, a lot more enemies, and a context of occupation that makes the morality of its case a lot more complicated. If Sharon tries to do to Arafat’s regime what Bush has done to the Taliban, dovish parties may leave the Israeli government. But in terms of world opinion, Sharon is a lot better off today than he was two days ago. Maybe, as Sharon put it yesterday, “Everyone is discovering the real Arafat.” Or maybe they’re just seeing him from a new angle.