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July 26, 2006

Retaining the high ground

Posted by Phil on July 26, 2006 8:26 AM

Nicholas Kristof (sub req) says what I was saying, except better, shorter, and with historical examples:

Israel believes that it is improving its long-term security by attacking Lebanon. And once again, I believe, that will prove counterproductive. Israel is likely to kill enough Lebanese to outrage the world, increase anti-Israeli and anti-American attitudes, nurture a new generation of anti-Israeli guerrillas, and help hard-liners throughout the region and beyond. (Sudan’s cynical rulers, for example, will manipulate Arab outrage to gain cover to continue their genocide in Darfur.) But Israel is unlikely to kill more terrorists than it creates.


[T]here are two democracies that endured constant and brutal terrorism and eventually defeated it. Neither Spain nor Britain was in a situation quite like Israel’s (Palestinian terrorists have been more brutal in attacking civilians), but they still offer useful lessons. And both the Northern Ireland and Basque problems were often considered insoluble a couple of decades ago, perhaps even more than those in the Middle East today.

Spain could have responded to terror attacks by sending troops into the Basque country, or by bombing the sanctuaries that ETA guerrillas used just across the border in France. (France was blasé about being used as a terrorist base.) Instead, Spain gave autonomy to the Basque country and restrained itself through gritted teeth, over the objections of those who thought this was appeasement.

Likewise, Britain endured constant bombings by the I.R.A., which enjoyed support in both Ireland and the U.S. and obtained weapons and Semtex plastic explosive from Libya. Yet Margaret Thatcher didn’t bomb Dublin (or Boston), nor even the offices of the I.R.A.’s political wing in Northern Ireland. When she saw that Britain’s harsh tactics were strengthening support for the I.R.A., the Iron Lady moderated her approach and negotiated the landmark Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. At the time, that agreement was widely denounced as rewarding terrorists and showing weakness.

Frankly, neither British nor Spanish restraint was a huge or immediate success. Spain had hoped that democracy would end Basque terrorism; instead, it increased. And Mrs. Thatcher acknowledges in her memoirs that her results were “disappointing.”

Yet in retrospect, the softer approach gave London and Madrid the moral high ground and slowly--far too slowly--isolated terrorists and made a negotiated outcome more feasible. That’s why Britain and Spain are today peaceful, against all odds.

That admirable restraint should be the model for Israel, with the aim of making a comprehensive peace agreement more likely--in 2010 or 2020 if not in 2007. The record of Spain and Britain suggests that restraint and conciliation can seem maddeningly ineffective--but they are still the last, best hope for peace.

A lot better hope than killing hundreds of civilians and bombing a fledgling democracy into rubble. World War II is bathed in glory, but to me it begins to seem like an anomaly from which we've learned a lot of bad lessons. In most of history, war has never brought peace. Brief lulls and cease-fires, maybe, but the only thing that brings real, secure, lasting peace is justice.

Restraint and forbearance aren't just noble virtues to be invoked but never employed: They're actually pragmatic and effective over the long term. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon, the path of collective punishment will only bring more and deeper aggrievement. Again, you can choose whether your casualties come to civilians or soldiers, at home or on foreign soil, but one kind of loss is at least not destructive, while the other almost always is. Killing hundreds of civilians because eight soldiers were killed and two kidnapped is destructive to your own goals. Killing tens of thousands of civilians because three thousand of your own were killed is destructive to your own goals.

But make no mistake: It is a long-term strategy that offers little to slake the thirst for revenge or shocking and awesome displays of power. But Iraq isn't exactly looking like the quick fix we were sold; wisdom should have suggested that a more long-term strategy was in order, anyway. But wisdom has been in short supply.

I'm not saying this only works when your opponent is rational and civilized, which terrorists are definitively not. I'm saying that, regardless of your enemy, your choice is either restraint, through gritted teeth if need be, or total war, endless war, annihilation, and, frankly, genocide. No one in Lebanon whose child was killed by Israeli bombs will mistake Hizbullah for the killers; and if you kill the parents, then you must kill the child, for he will, with only a few rare and heroic exceptions, be your enemy forever.

Human nature is what it is; it's supposed to be the nature of societies, of nations, to lift us above ourselves, into a community. When a society is functioning, it works. Absent such crimes against them, most people just want to live and raise their children in peace. We accept constraints upon our own desires in order to be protected from the desires of others. Functioning societies have a collective authority that rewards good actors (or at least leaves them alone) and punishes bad ones.

Of course, there has to be an authority to which one can appeal. Sixty years ago, the nations of the world themselves created a society to provide that same collective authority and security on a global scale. It's not perfect; no society is. But America, which has been arguably the closest thing to a perfect society in history, has a ruling party that has decided that we don't have to accept constraints from that community of nations. As a result, no other nation feels bound to honor it in any meaningful, which is to say, occasionally uncomfortable way, either.

The United Nations, and the very concept of a community of nations and the authority and restraint it might have imposed on both state and non-state actors, has atrophied. America's supposed conservatives are delighted, but can't understand why nations are running amok, driven by the anarchy of human nature. But anarchy tends to favor the powerful, and if it doesn't, then America's supposed conservatives believe they know what the answer is: World War III. Because even if the worst happens, America's supposed conservatives believe they are all going to Heaven.

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