Saturday, May 5, 2007


When two sides have an issue to resolve and one side has great military superiority, it is tempting for that side to rely on force to decide the issue. In the days of the Roman empire, this approach worked quite effectively. Such is no longer necessarily the case, but the post-9/11 tendency in various capitals to engage in such behavior suggests that many politicians still do not understand the risky nature of their traditional approach to foreign policy.

A recent example was reported by the pro-Israeli website DEBKA, Apr 16: "In the face of negative Arab responses, prime minister Ehud Olmert again proposed at the weekly cabinet session in Jerusalem Sunday, April 15, that Israel enter into talks with any available combination of Arab governments. That same morning, Dep. PM Shimon Peres said he objects to contacts with any of the Arab League members before they recognize Israel."

Presumably, at least for peace-loving Israelis (as opposed to those who prefer expansion), Israel’s ultimate goal is Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Yet here we have an Israeli leader demanding Israel’s ultimate goal before Israel even sits down to talk with its opponents, i.e., total surrender by the Arabs of their complete negotiating position first, and then…what? Assuming the Arabs totally trusted Israel’s good will and gave Israel everything it wanted before negotiating, then, what would there be to negotiate about? Why would any Israeli leader make concessions to its neighbors after it had already realized its maximum goals up front and for free?

Two obvious alternative interpretations of this idea of getting total surrender by the opponent before the competition even starts exist: 1) there is no logical foundation whatsoever for the policy or 2) the whole point is to avoid agreement, to force the opponent to adopt a hardline stance.

Now, if an outsider can see the implications of demanding "surrender first, talks later," what must Israel’s opponents think of it? Can anyone seriously expect that such an attitude is likely to persuade an opponent to take a trustful, compromising stance? Preconditions to talks may have their place when they are small steps taken by both sides to build trust, but when the militarily dominant side demands that a weaker opponent surrender its major card for nothing except the "privilege" of being invited to the table, the offer is clearly insincere. The expectation is that the weaker player will reject the offer, leaving the dominant side free to continue its policy of violence.

To naïve, trustful voters, "give me everything I want up front and then I’ll condescend to talk to you" may sound like, "I am willing to talk because I am a man of peace," but in fact, it surely means "Surrender or fight: the only language we speak is violence." More to the point, whether that is the real message or not, that is exactly how it will be understood by the other side and by neutral observers.

The comment reportedly made by Peres is a relatively minor issue. The point of drawing attention to it lies in pointing out the implications of this kind of behavior. Whether Peres in this instance truly believes he had morality on his side and was thus justified in taking such a hardline stance, the fact remains that such behavior--which is all too common--has costly long-term implications and goes far toward explaining why it is so difficult for countries to adjudicate their differences in a civilized manner.

Efforts by the militarily dominant (in a traditional force-on-force sense) to win the contest either through force or the threat of force rather than meeting at the negotiating table in a sincere effort to achieve a negotiated compromise that would leave each side at least minimally satisfied sets up a dangerous cycle. The weaker side learns that the strong "understand only force," are unwilling to compromise, and have no interest in understanding the grievances of the weak.

In truth, the weak might well be satisfied if treated with respect. Many Palestinians, for example, might well be satisfied with the "right" of return to their homeland, never having the slightest desire actually to live there now that it is controlled by Israel. Many Iranians might well be satisfied with being invited to regional discussions and consulted on regional issues regardless of the details of the actual decisions reached. In other cases, respect plus some minimal concession might suffice. Many more Palestinians might well be satisfied with the "right" to return plus a token monetary payment for the home they lost in return for a promise not to exercise that "right" of return. Many more Iranians might well be satisfied with being consulted as an equal on regional issues plus some verbal recognition of the logic of their point of view. For example, "we recognize your desire for secure borders and we ask that you help ensure the security of Iraq’s border as well. Now, how can we put these fine words into practical, day-to-day policy?" Moreover, those hardliners unwilling to compromise would then have a much harder time gaining political control.

When such a conciliatory stance is replaced by threats and demands for major concessions up front, on the other hand, the weak will search for alternative methods of fighting back. This in turn will persuade the strong that "the weak only understand force." With everyone now pointing to evidence that the other side only understands force, the cycle of rising violence is set in concrete.

The event reported above is only the latest of a string of such demands by the strong in recent years that the weak "give up in advance." The battle between military superpowers (and Washington-supplied Israel without doubt is one in the Mideast) and militarily weak opponents is asynchronous: the weak, unable to compete in traditional military terms, search for nontraditional ways of strengthening their hand.

In other words, when the strong take advantage of their strength, they teach the weak to be creative. Rubbing your opponent's nose in your superior strength may work if it works quickly, but the longer the opponent is able to resist, the greater the likelihood that, like vaccinations, the experience will only strengthen the weak. This is not very smart policy for the strong.

If all sides agree that violence is to be avoided, then the UN can play an invaluable role by putting weak and strong on the same playing field (each side speaking in turn at the General Assembly). But if the militarily dominant insist on using that military power, they essentially compel the weak to find a different weapon. In the contemporary age of terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and vulnerability of infrastructure in economically advanced countries, military superpowers may come to wish they had renounced using their military force, granted their opponents "moral equivalency," and met them for an equal contest of words in the General Assembly rather than insisting on deciding the issue by mortal combat.

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