15 and Counting

Washington’s official response to the killings of five Americans at Hebrew University can be summed up largely in a word: words.

True, the attacks came as Congress is in recess and President George W. Bush is between vacations. After a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, a day after the bombing, Bush said he was "just as angry as Israel is right now" and said the United States would work to track down the Americans’ killers. He also sent a handwritten condolence message that was read aloud Wednesday at a memorial ceremony in Jerusalem for the bomb victims.

In his public statements following the bombing, Bush pointedly did not warn Israel to refrain from escalating tensions. To some, Bush’s words meant Israel was free to launch a reprisal unchecked by American criticism. "That was a strong signal," Warren Bass, a terrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me.

Bush also directed the FBI to send officials to Jerusalem to help Israelis investigate the bombing, the second time America has done so since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000. The FBI team arrived in Israel on Monday.

But that, folks, is all.

Many experts, Bass included, see these steps as significant. Military action would be all but preposterous, he said. What could the United States do on the ground that Israel isn’t doing already (often with United States-made hardware)? We have troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we’re gearing up for something with Iraq. We can’t be everywhere Americans are killed. Sending American troops to root out Hamas terrorists? "I just don’t see it," said Bass.

But short of stronger action, the American response has left many Americans who happen to be Jewish wondering if the president’s war on terror extends to them. Last week’s Hebrew University bombing brings to 15 the number of U.S. citizens killed by Palestinian attacks over the last two years, according to the U.S. Embassy. Some 26 have been wounded or maimed. In response, Bush has listed Hamas as a terrorist organization and closed down United States-based charities funneling monies to the group. Is it enough?

"Our feeling is that there have been numerous American deaths, and holding Palestinian killers of Americans to different standards than other killers of Americans doesn’t help bring peace to the region and help the United States fight terror," Rebecca Needler, a spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

More than a few Jews are wondering if the American response would have been different if the the five Americans killed had been non-Jews studying in Europe or, say, Grenada. In 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan ordered a U.S. invasion of that tiny Caribbean country, claiming that a coup there threatened the lives of American students studying at St. George University medical school. The fighting that ensued left 64 dead, including 19 U.S. soldiers.

Many historians claim the threat to the American students in Grenada was just a pretext for invasion.

Now, administration officials are debating whether Hamas is targeting Americans, a claim Hamas has denied. But waiting for a declaration of policy from a terror organization seems superfluous when not five Americans are threatened, but 15 are killed and 26 wounded. That’s not pretext, that’s proof.

The fear in Washington, of course, is that taking a more active role in combating Palestinian terror will threaten America’s role in any peace process. But it is unclear how any peace process would involve Hamas. Its spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was quoted in the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera on why students at Hebrew University are ripe targets. "They are considered by us to be enemy soldiers," he said. When a reporter asked Yassin whether Hamas would accept an Israel in its pre-June 1967 borders, Yassin said, "Israel was born in violence and it will die in violence. The Jews have no right to the land of Palestine."

Hamas is a group that, unlike the Palestinian Authority, has never recognized Israel’s right to exist. This is a group bent on the destruction of Israel and its allies. Perhaps Hamas’ destruction was Israel’s problem — now, according to the Bush Doctrine, it should be America’s problem, too. "The military must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world," Bush told cadets at West Point last year. "All nations that decide for aggression and terror will pay a price."

When Washington returns from vacation, Jewish groups will rightly keep an eye on what further concrete steps the administration and Congress take in response to the slaughter of Americans abroad. Will they push for the extradition of Palestinians accused of terrorist acts against Americans to the United States? Will they crack down on Saudi Arabia, which according to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has provided "very ample funding" to Hamas? Will they make a strong statement by sending a handful of American forces in to engage Hamas terrorists?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. The truth is, I haven’t thought through all the ramifications of this whole Bush Doctrine.

But I wonder, has Bush?