The Limits of Power

It has become a truism to say that the events of the last week have changed the world. On everyone's lips is talk of a new evil that needs to be wiped out through a global war against terror. In America, there is a newly-rediscovered unity, patriotism and willing for self-sacrifice, embodied best in Bush's jingoistic statements in New York made to a crowd shouting "U-S-A-U-S-A." Against that backdrop, some quieter voices are calling for restraint and greater self-criticism. These refer to the inevitable 'collateral damage' that military action will bring to innocent lives and some even suggest an examination and subsequent addressing of the political issues which motivated the attacks.

In order to move beyond these positions, born either out of a primitive desire for revenge or equally blind appeasement, the main question that has to be asked is: What is in the best interests of the civilized world? And how can it be achieved?

For any democractic country, the best interests of its citizens constitutes and defines the best interests of the country itself. So the only sane answer can be: peace and security. That exact same thing which Americans took almost entirely for granted until 8.58am on Tuesday, Eastern time.

And how can this be achieved? First, something must be done about those whose central ambition is to deny the privilege of security to the free world. Assuming the American security establishment's analysis is correct, that entails the uprooting and destruction of Islamic (and any other) fundamentalist groups. The fundamentalist has no desire to negotiate or compromise and, inasmuch as they believe their cause is worth dying for, it is entirely rational for them to commit suicidal terrorist acts. Since most in the West believe their security is also a cause worth dying for, it is also entirely rational for our soldiers to risk their lives in the pursuit of these terrorists. Putting morals aside, it's a simple fight for the death between two opposing and absolutely irreconcilable world views. I hope the war can be won as quickly as possible, while our side still has the upper hand.

What of the collateral damage? To a significant extent, any government which knowingly harbours and, after the event, refuses to extradite terrorists, is also a guilty party. So I would not shed too many tears if the Taliban's infrastructure is destroyed and they are driven from office. Further, to a lesser extent, the population under such governments can also be held responsible since, one way or another, people choose their leaders. But we cannot ignore the fact that, in Afghanistan for example, the choice was made after a prolonged, destructive war and under probable threat of death. The most one can really say is that the population demonstrated a lack of moral consciousness in not demanding democracy through bloody revolution. I wonder how many of us would pass that test.

So perhaps there is some validity to those who say that the whole bloodbath might be avoided by America withdrawing support from Israel, taking its troops out of Saudi Arabia, removing the sanctions and military activity against Iraq and ceasing to shore up undemocratic oppressive regimes in the Arab world. Maybe America has an inability to see the world beyond terms of power and force and should (as a Buddhist might suggest) not further stoke the fires of conflict by retaliatory attack. Perhaps terrorists might respond to reasoned argument, backed up by a display of genuine desire to understand and change.

The reason why this viewpoint is incorrect has nothing to do with religion, terrorism or fundamentalism. It is naive and foolish simply because no organization or country ever gives up on anything unless it is forced to. To do so is just not in the nature of things. In the context of evolutionary theory, we can understand how forces of natural selection have honed individuals to act in self-interest. Yet, the exact same logic applies to groups of individuals - both because they are composed of self-interested elements and because the same forces of natural selection also apply to them, on a collective level. Even though suicidal terrorists seem to have a rather perverse view of self-interest, it is by no means incoherent - they are acting in the manner which they believe will earn them favour (and 70 virgins) in the world-to-come.

So while this argument makes it clear that terrorists must be fought to the death, it does not exactly exempt the United States from criticism. Many times, American policy has sacrificed matters of principle at the altar of self-interest. I need only recall Bush's recent withdrawal from the Kyoto environmental protocol, citing the economic difficulties it would cause. This, despite the fact that the USA, with just a few percent of the world's population, generates 25% of all its pollution and has the strongest economy in the world. In time, the failure of the world's governments to preserve the environment may kill more people than every conflict and war in history combined.

Therefore, it is not enough to view the USA as the good side and hope for its victory against the bad. While this may be true with regard to terrorism, it is plainly false in many other respects. To give America carte blanche to pursue its own self-interest may ultimately entail destruction for us all. Is there any way in which a more long-term solution can be established for the woes of international relations? Are we doomed to have whichever country is strongest at any particular period define and shape the world around us?

In a different realm, the conflict between the unbridled pursuit of self-interest and some kind of universal moral code has been solved. Within democratic countries, the rule of law has been mostly established, upheld by mostly impartial judges and courts, such that most of the time, most of the individuals within are secure and able to pursue most of their self-interest. Does it not seem logical to apply the same sort of system to the world as a whole, considering countries as individuals and the United Nations as a forum for justice and judgment?

Consider for a moment how the present-day rule of law-and-order arose. It did not come about overnight. Usually, it began via autocratic rule, where a powerful minority imposed their will on the majority. In most cases (where there was no revolution), this rule become more universal and democratic over a period of hundreds of years - leaders became subject to the same laws as everyone else, blacks were unenslaved, women received the vote and, finally, colonialism was ended. It looks like our faltering steps towards initiatives such as the International Criminal Court are following the same path, with certain countries not yet willing for it to have jurisdiction over their leaders.

We should also not forget that there is an element of oppression in every democracy - what right does a country have to demand that its citizens pay taxes, serve in the military or send their children to school? From first principles, I don't see why my having been born in a particular part of the world entails a duty to cede control of my money, children's minds and, in the case of an army call-up, possibly my life. Nonetheless, the vast majority of us seem willing to go along with the system and to see those who refuse locked up in prison. We appreciate the overall benefit of governmental control, even with its incursions into our personal territory. Modern democracy seems the most practical way (of those tried so far) of ensuring maximum security and freedom - as the Talmud says, "Be thankful for the government - if it was not for them, people would eat each other alive."

The sorry fact is that the world is not yet ready for a similarly-structured global system of law and order to be imposed. The perceived sovereignty of each country over what happens within its borders is deeply engrained - nobody, least of all America, is willing to submit to a higher authority. In any event, there is not yet enough in common between the Westerner, African, Arab and Chinese for them to agree on a single set of principles to which all subscribe. The United Nations, as witnessed by the recent (anti-)racist conference in Durban, is too often swayed by groups with narrow political interests and cannot impose its will on world powers such as China, America or Russia. To draw out the parallel, the world is still in the phase of warring tribes engaged in shifting coalitions, where some kind of inter-tribal committee attempts to maintain order but meets with mixed success. We are simply not ready to apply the intra-state solution to the inter-state problem.

In the meantime, we are left with America and, to a lesser degree, the Europeans as the world's policemen. Like the wealthy landowners of yesteryear, they have a vested interest in the stability of the fray and harbour enough good spirit and education to set some sort of limit on the abuse of their own power. While I shudder to think what the world would be like if their role was played by someone else, let us not extol the West's virtues too far. Europe's colonial powers had to be driven out of many countries which they occupied and while America was willing to wage war until it redeemed Kuwaiti oil, it stopped short of ensuring Iraqi human rights.

Of course, nowhere are these issues more pointed than in the Middle East, with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is caught in the same dilemma between going all-out against unmoving Islamic terrorism and caring for the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Let us not forget that the suicide bombings began almost immediately after the Oslo accords and are not only a result of the current impasse. The same questions as to the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority and population arise as those for Afghanistan. Both America and Israel sometimes need to be saved from the perils of their own strength (witness the wars in Vietnam and Lebanon respectively). Just like the USA's continuing war on Iraq, Israel conquered the territories as a response to aggression and never quite set in place a system that would enable it to leave.

The Oslo process was supposed to be about Israel gaining security in return for the Palestinians gaining respect and freedom. In retrospect, it is trivial to see how it went wrong. The Palestinians had precious little interest in giving the Israelis the security they wanted and dealt intermittedly with Islamic Jihad and Hamas, as suited by the political context. Similarly, Israelis had no interest in giving the Palestinians respect or freedom and so continued building settlements and dragging their feet on withdrawals, for as long as America would let them. As in almost every other conflict in history, both sides pursued their own self-interest to the maximum and had little care for the interests of their opponent. Each could only gain leverage on the other by moving backwards - the intifada is simply the Palestinians taking away Israel's security in order to demand greater respect and freedom than the Israelis were willing to give. Israel's response is to take away all the Palestinians' semblances of respect and freedom in order to demand back their own security. Without a structure within which common interests can be shaped, it is easy to see the current conflict going nowhere.

Therefore, the only way out is for a settlement to be imposed from outside. Ideally, by an incorruptible international court - in practise, by a mixture of America, Europe and the United Nations. The wealthy landowners with a vested interest in stability are going to have to force the warring tribes into a deal. While I wouldn't suggest this be carried by military means (for one thing, kill ratios in recent exercises suggest Israel's warplanes could down America's entire air force), it might be achievable by a combination of an economic carrot and a sanctions stick. In fact, the stage has already been set - both sides have agreed to the Mitchell/Tenet Plan. Let the international community demand each side keep to it, then deal with anyone who breaks their half of the deal. This will probably play into Israel's hands, since it has a type of centralized military control which the Palestinians lack. But instead of a Palestinian failure to achieve 'total quiet' being met by their wholesale condemnation, let the same world coalition that is now being formed against terror be used to target terrorists based within Palestinian jurisdiction. And let them also target those settlers who carry out drive-by shootings or other violent acts on innocent civilians (that, after all, is what 'terror' is).

However, this still leaves open the question as to the nature of the final deal. It seems this will also have to be imposed from the outside, on the basis of the various UN resolutions passed over the years. While the United Nations is far from perfect, it constitutes the only framework within which there is any hope of a fair solution based on common ground. The Palestinians understandably reject America as being too pro-Israel and the Europeans on their own simply don't have the necessary clout to force the sides together.

But I would draw one exception to the wholesale imposition of UN resolutions, namely regarding the Palestinian refugees. This is first and foremost for practical reasons - there is simply no way that the resettlement of millions of Palestinian refugees within Israel's legal boundaries will lead to peaceful consequences, as the resolution in fact demands. They will form either a destabilizing minority or an oppressive majority - one should not forget the civil war up to 1949 which led to the current mess. Palestinian objections to the making of any exception to UN resolutions deserve a skeptical response - their refusal of the UN partition plan in 1947 led, through a near-inevitable series of causes and effects, to their current plight. As one retired commander has said, "Once the war started, it was them or us that had to go." And it might serve to recall that the UN's form of democracy is not exactly balanced in Israel's favour, with dozens of Arabs or Muslim states unconditionally supporting the Palestinians and only America consistently at Israel's side.

Furthermore, the imposition of law and order has always taken significant account of the status quo - just as no landowner has moral justification for the ownership of their plot, no country has moral justification for its existence. In each case, the map was drawn after a drawn-out conflict in which there is no such thing as primal ownership by divine or universal right (clearly, the religious beliefs of one side or another can have no role in the solution of a conflict.) If Israel were to let millions of Palestinians in, it would either cease to be democratic (solving nothing) or cease to be Israel - and the question as to whether it has a right to exist can be pointedly answered by highlighting the history of America, Australia or most countries in Europe. Where there are humanistic considerations, let individual Palestinians come back within the Green Line - the rest can find homes in a new Palestinian state and receive suitable compensation for their material and emotional losses.

As for the Palestinian state to be formed, there should be no illusions as to its likely nature. No Arab state in the world has a parliamentary democracy and one can expect Palestine to be no different. While this should worry the international community as a whole, it should not worry Israel in particular. The only way a Palestinian state could ever be stable is within the context of a new global anti-terror coalition, ensuring that rejectionist fundamentalist elements within Palestinian society will be driven out from without or within. In that case, Israel will have little reason to fear, since a more conventional organized war carried out by the State of Palestine on Israel would be deterred for the exact same reason that Syria is holding its guns - fear of crushing defeat. In other words, the rational pursuit of self-interest.


© Mayim, 2005.