The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Why terror won’t work in the war on terror

July 31, 2006

Sad news in the Israeli-Hizbollah conflict. As most of you already know, or will know soon, an Israeli air strike killed at least 34 children.

The raid on the southern village of Qana — the bloodiest single attack in Israel’s 19-day-old war on Hizbollah — aborted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s mediation efforts. Lebanon told her she was unwelcome in Beirut for talks.

Israel announced a temporary suspension of air strikes, presumably in hope of giving a lift to Rice’s efforts.

Israel has agreed to suspend its aerial bombardment of southern Lebanon for 48 hours to allow for an investigation into the attack, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told a briefing in Jerusalem.

He said Israeli authorities will also coordinate with the United Nations to allow a 24-hour window for residents in southern Lebanon to leave the area if they wish.

But Rice went home to focus attention on the Security Council.

The scene is quite grim.

Rescue workers dug through the rubble with their hands for hours, lifting out the twisted, dust-caked corpses of children.

Jonathan Eddelstein explains how much damage this does to the incipient peace process.

This would have been the time for Israel to avoid taking risks and let diplomacy work. Israel could have accepted Jan Egeland’s proposal for a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire, which would have given it an honorable way to stop fighting while holding the prospect of renewed hostilities over Hezbullah’s head. Failing that, the IDF could have concentrated on major targets and avoided risky operations against marginal targets in civilian areas, lest something happen to inflame the situation. There are plenty of precedents for inopportune IDF strikes derailing diplomatic progress, so this risk was hardly something the IDF couldn’t have anticipated.

Instead, an attack on a civilian building that may or may not have been used to fire rockets. At least 57 dead. Most of them children.

The gain: if that building was indeed a launch site, it isn’t any longer. Israel doesn’t need to worry about rockets being fired from there for the duration of the war, and the damage it’s taking might be reduced by a couple of tenths of a percent. The loss: the Siniora plan is now dead in the water. After the attack, Siniora thanked Hezbullah for its sacrifices on behalf of the Lebanese – the first time he has ever characterized Hezbullah as fighting for Lebanon – and said there was nothing to talk about except an unconditional ceasefire.

Hezbullah is now unequivocally calling the shots in Lebanese domestic politics. Nasrallah is king. And after an attack like this, on a place like Qana that has such symbolism to the Lebanese people, it could hardly be otherwise. Abu Kais, who is one of the sanest commentators on this war and is no friend of Hezbullah, puts it this way:

If you’re the prime minister of Lebanon, and your people are being killed by an arrogant force of false virtue, and when thousands of your angry citizens are shouting outside your window, you find yourself forced to make a choice until the brilliant minds of this world regain their humanity. Siniora’s choice has always been Lebanon, but today, under the threat of Israeli guns, he was forced to choose between Israel and Hezbullah. Siniora is Lebanese, and those who were killed were Lebanese, and Hezbullah is the only weapon against an aggression of this proportion.

Israel and the United States, through ignorance and disregard for human life, are pushing Lebanon into Hezbullah’s camp. Well done.

The attack has, in effect, blasted away domestic political constraints while tightening both the domestic and international ones on Israel. That may not be fair, but these are the conditions Israel has to fight under. It knew those rules going in, and ignored them at its peril.

A Lebanese foreign ministry official told an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council that more than 60 people were killed, mostly women and children. But police in Lebanon put the death toll at 54, including 37 children.

The news all over the right-wing blogorama has been, naturally, about pictures apparently confirming what any sane person already knows: Hizbollah is doing its best to ensure civilians suffer from Israeli retaliation. The New York Times recently ran a story detailing how this works.

But for some of the Christians who had made it out in this convoy, it was not just privations they wanted to talk about, but their ordeal at the hands of Hezbollah — a contrast to the Shiites, who make up a vast majority of the population in southern Lebanon and broadly support the militia.

“Hezbollah came to Ain Ebel to shoot its rockets,” said Fayad Hanna Amar, a young Christian man, referring to his village. “They are shooting from between our houses.”

“Please,’’ he added, “write that in your newspaper.”

All of this conntects, oddly enough, to an incoherent Mark Steyn column defending the fighting keyboarders. Steyn pontificates that:

War is not like firefighting: It’s not about going to the burning house, identifying what needs to be done, and doing it; it’s not a technical solution to an obvious problem. And, if you think it is, you find yourself like George Bush Sr. in 1991, standing in front of the gates of Baghdad and going, “Er, OK. Now what?” Some people look at the burning house and see Hezbollah terrorism; others see Israeli obduracy, or a lack of American diplomacy, or Iranian machinations, or a need to get the permanent Security Council members to send peacekeepers, or “poverty” or “despair” or an almighty pile-up of abstract nouns. You can have the best fastest state-of-the-art car on the road, but, if you don’t know where you’re going, the fellow in the rusting ’73 Oldsmobile will get there and you won’t. It’s the ideas that drive a war and the support they command in the broader society that determine whether you’ll see it through to real victory. After Korea and Vietnam and Gulf War I, it shouldn’t be necessary to have to state that.

No one can argue with U.S. military superiority. America has the most powerful armed forces on the planet. The Pentagon is responsible for 40 percent of the world’s military spending, and outspends the next 20 biggest militaries combined. It’s responsible for almost 80 percent of military research-and-development spending, which means the capability gap between it and everyone else widens every day.

So why doesn’t it feel like that?

In Iraq, the leviathan has somehow managed to give the impression [ed: the impression???] that what previous mid-rank powers would have regarded as a little light colonial policing has left it stretched dangerously thin and bogged down in an almighty quagmire. Even if it were only lamebrain leftist media spin, the fact that it’s accepted by large numbers of Americans and huge majorities of Europeans is a reminder that in free societies a military of unprecedented dominance is not the only source of power. More importantly, significant proportions of this nation’s enemies also believe the spin. In April 2003 was Baby Assad nervous that he’d be next? You bet. Is he nervous now?

We live in an age of inversely proportional deterrence: The more militarily powerful a civilized nation is, the less its enemies have to fear the full force of that power ever being unleashed. They know America and other Western powers fight under the most stringent self-imposed etiquette. Overwhelming force is one thing; overwhelming force behaving underwhelmingly as a matter of policy is quite another.

So even the most powerful military in the world is subject to broader cultural constraints. When Kathryn Lopez’s e-mailer sneers that “your contribution to this war is limited solely to your ability to exercise the skillset provided by your liberal arts education,” he’s accidentally put his finger on the great imponderable: whether the skill set provided by the typical American, British and European education these last 30 years is now one of the biggest obstacles to civilizational self-preservation. A nation that psychologically outsources war to a small career soldiery risks losing its ability even to grasp concepts like “the enemy”: The professionalization of war is also the ghettoization of war. As John Podhoretz wondered in the New York Post the other day: “What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?”

That’s a good question. If you watch the grisly U.S. network coverage of any global sporting event, you’ve no doubt who your team’s meant to be: If there are plucky Belgian hurdlers or Fijian shotputters in the Olympics, you never hear a word of them on ABC and NBC; it’s all heartwarming soft-focus profiles of athletes from Indiana and Nebraska. The American media have no problem being ferociously jingoistic when it comes to the two-man luge. Yet, when it’s a war, there is no “our” team, not on American TV. Like snotty French ice-dancing judges, the media watch the U.S. skate across the rink and then hand out a succession of snippy 4.3s — for lack of Miranda rights in Fallujah, insufficient menu options at Gitmo.

I think Steyn’s argument is that the J-Pods, K-Los, and Jo-Bergs perform, through their frenetic one-paragraph snippets of Algonquin Roundtable-esqe wit, the crucial service of shoring up the home front against those who would stab it in the back.

This is, of course, patently absurd. The mess the US faces in Iraq and the Middle East has squat to do with a lack of moral clarity on the home front and everything to do with gross errors of judgment and execution on the part of our political leadership. The Corner’s reach, no matter how much it dwarfs our little blog, is insignificant in the scheme of things. And so on and so forth.

But there’s a bigger problem here. Steyn and Podhoretz can wring their hands all they want about how the US/Israel/Western Civilization’s lost its stomach for genocide mass slaughter as a form of imperial control, but a bit more National Review style “moral clarity” won’t solve the underlying problem: mass communications and transnational forms of collective identification make “exemplary displays of force” (intentional or, as I’m sure was the case above, unintentional) strategically stupid: the blowback effects outweigh, in general, the benefits. This is an important insight from Harold James’ book–about which I have otherwise mixed feelings–The Roman Predicament. Empires are often accompanied by “extraordinary levels of violence…usually remembered as a series of spectacular brutalizations: the Athenian destruction of Melos, the Roman eradication of Carthage, Oliver Cromwell at Drogheda on September 11 1649, the German genocide of the Hereros in Southwest Africa, or the Armritsar massacre of 1919.” Frequently, these acts served to frighten locals into submission. But, when “the images of violence are distributed very widely, as they are in a modern imperial age, they undermine rather than strengthen the imperial power” (pp. 113-114). The United States, in general, exercises less and less control of the flow of information—and the interpretation of that information—about its bargains and activities around the world. Since the stability of empires (formal, informal, quasi-, or whatever) depends, in no small measure, on the continuing legitimacy of imperial bargains, growing hostility towards imperial cores comprises a demonstrable threat to imperial order.

The same goes, I think, for the (non-imperial) dimensions of the war on terror. Steyn and company “get” that the war on specific classes of terrorists is a war of ideas, but then they immediately forget that any war is “politics by other means.” So the “war of ideas” becomes just about shoring up the US (or the West) against assorted internal foes–multiculturalists, leftists, defeatists, objective pro-terrorists–and somehow planting the magic “democracy bean” and watching the giant utopia beanstalk grow. But we are in a war of ideas, and that has important implications. Most notably, no matter how culpable Hezbullah is for using civilians as shields, American-made Israeli weapons are the ones killing children. The problem isn’t that insufficient numbers of Americans don’t blame Hezbullah, the problem is that Steyn’s and K-Lo’s opinions don’t matter for sh*t in the Arab world–except as evidence of the West’s “Crusader” mentality. These advocates of American terror strategies live in the age of the Mongols and Romans, but, unfortunately for them, this is the 21st century.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.