Pushing the War Buttons

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Recent editorials by Victor Davis Hanson and Thomas Sowell, while different in content, both convey the notion that war is preferable to peace in the Middle East. What are these intellectuals thinking? What is the deeper meaning of the open worship of power in our media?

Neoconservative Hanson issues bombing threat

In his article "Real Test for Islam: U.S. Patience," it is really neoconservative Victor Davis Hanson who is running out of patience. He’s ready to strike out in fury. He’s ready to hit Iran and Hezbollah "with something greater than a cruise missile." What passions stir such blood lust? I’d guess a pride wounded by its failure to get its way. I’d guess ambition to rule. I’d guess hatred of the obtuse Arabs. I’d guess vengeance for spoiled neoconservative plans.

If there are any well-thought out policy reasons for Hanson’s threat, he doesn’t express them in this article. The main reason, if it can be called that, is that the U.S. has not been able to get its way by any other means.

Hanson says that "an exasperated West is running out of choices in the Middle East." He looks for a "new policy of retaliation" which is "an exasperated return to the old cruise-missile payback." I read his words as revealing his psychology, not that of any particular U.S. policy maker or official, although this is possible. Hanson doesn’t quote or refer to anyone in particular. He’s the one who seems exasperated.

He’s irritated because the U.S. is tied down in Iraq. He’s annoyed because oil prices are already so high. He’s peeved that any further U.S. action will derail the economy and bring profits to nations like Iran. He’s nettled that U.S. action will alienate Arabs, endanger Republican chances in the upcoming Congressional elections, and weaken lame-duck George Bush.

He can’t say so, but his problem is that U.S. policy blunders that were urged on by him and neoconservatives like him have failed miserably. The democracy ducks are not all in a row in the Middle East. Iraq has a civil war. Lebanon has a huge refugee and rebuilding problem not to mention further political instability. Hezbollah will almost surely not be destroyed by Israel’s bombing of airports, bridges, apartment houses, television aerials, bunkers, or its killing of hundreds of civilians. Whatever its own follies of rhetoric, policy, and possible miscalculation, Iran currently benefits at a safe distance. Democratic elections in Palestine have only caused the West hypocritically to repudiate and undermine the winner, the duly-elected Hamas. Hostilities and war in Gaza continue apace. The U.S. has destabilized the entire Middle Eastern region and strengthened fundamentalist Islam.

Like most warmongering ideologues, Hanson can’t see that the other side or sides also think that they are in the right and that their cause is just, which is not to say that blowing up innocent civilians is just. He writes: "Hezbollah and Hamas, and those in their midst who tolerate or vote for them, didn’t so much want Israel out of Lebanon and Gaza as pushed into the Mediterranean altogether." It is a fact that Arab States and Arab movements are divided in their visions of the future Middle Eastern political map, but there remain many that do not accept Israel as a legitimate political entity and/or do not accept that Israelis properly own land they live on and occupy. The persistence of this agenda frustrates Hanson no end. Hanson cannot understand its long historical roots that go back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British mandate, the British foot-dragging when it came to Arab self-determination and independence, the long history of Arab-Zionist antagonisms, and the shaky beginnings of the State of Israel that rest on armed struggle and confrontation. According to the 1959 Encyclopedia Britannica, these include "a country-wide guerilla struggle" and "the slaughter by Jewish terrorists of about 250 Arab villagers, half of them women and children, at Dair Yasin on April 9 [that] precipitated a panic flight from the coastal plain."

And what angers him is that the stubborn Arabs do not respond to inducements. America "has spent thousands of lives and billions in treasure trying to bring democracy to Iraq." America has tried "to end our old cynical support for Middle East dictators." America "has also welcomed the help of the European Union, the U.N., China and Russia in convincing the Iranians of the folly of producing nuclear weapons." Denmark and the Netherlands welcomed Muslims to their nations. Yet to Hanson these ungrateful wretches fail to reciprocate the West’s good acts and gestures. "But like Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran does not wish to parley…" Hanson is saying that we are the good guys, our hands are clean, we are sincere, and they won’t even talk to us. Why don’t they jump at democracy as they’re supposed to?

And so Hanson accuses these intransigent groups of "slowly pushing tired Westerners into a corner." But this is actually how Hanson feels. Although everything he says about the Middle Eastern situations is mostly in the third person, it directly reflects what he personally feels, because in the end, he is the one that is issuing the threats: "If they’re not careful, Syria and Iran actually will earn a conventional war, not more futile diplomacy or limited responses to terrorism. History shows that massive attacks from the air are something the West does well." And, additionally, "…the West would hit back with something far greater than a cruise missile."

Hanson is a clever enough writer to stop just short of fully expressing his blood lust, but he goes far enough to make it clear what he really wants and savors. He’s tired of halfway measures. In the limit, what he calls for, almost hopes and itches for, is Götterdämmerung. An Arab holocaust would not bother him.

Sowell belittles peace movements

Thomas Sowell in his article "Push for Peace Usually Brings Anything But" blames peace movements for preventing wars from achieving their objectives: "An aggressor today knows that if his aggression fails, he’ll be protected from the full retaliatory power and fury of those he attacked because there will be hand-wringers demanding a cease-fire, negotiations and concessions." This is silly. If peace movements have had any serious and systematic impact on war-making by States, it surely has been a second-order effect. The first-order effects are those related to the realities of the war, such as cost, financing, and success in battle. These do include morale of the troops and morale at home, which in turn relate to the moral justifications of the war and other factors. But to argue that war making in the twentieth century has caused cease-fires that in turn produced greater war defies credulity.

His three examples are the Falkland Islands War, Middle Eastern history since 1947, and the appeasement of Hitler. The British disregarded world opinion and took the Falklands. It is far from evident that world opinion has ever held the Israelis back to any significant degree in their numerous military actions. I am sure that Sowell the economist prefers the hypothesis that the British and the Israelis acted in their own self-interest. This implies that they factored in the potential acts and threats of others as indicated by their opinions. But this is surely rational. And Israel surely is not doing anything at present that even hints that world opinion, much less peace movements, are influencing its Lebanon campaign. If and when Israel’s leaders appear to bow to such currents of opinion, the odds are that they will have substantial underlying reasons rooted in political and military realities for doing so.

It seems that those who favor war never tire of mentioning Adolf Hitler and appeasement. To them, appeasement means cowardice and weakness in the face of threats. If that is the meaning of appeasement, then they are correct. Appeasement is a faulty policy of dealing with an opposing and threatening force. But this definition of appeasement over-simplifies political realities. It’s far easier after the fact to see when a State has gone too far, but before the fact there are always uncertainties and many factors to weigh. Each player in the international game has a hard time knowing the true intentions of the other players, what alliances they can call on, what power they can bring to bear, and how far they will go. The chances of judgment errors are large even if the leaders are not cowards or weak. Hitler and Stalin made a number of large errors by misreading the intentions of other nations and in other ways. Leaders can also err on the side of too much force and cause calamity that way.

In the political world that we live in, political control of the earth’s turf is divided among various gangs known as States. When one gang invades the turf of another gang, the remaining gangs have to assess whether the threat to their turf has risen and what to do about the expanding gang. They don’t always judge properly. Weakness and cowardice are but one of many possible sources of misjudgment. Whether or not the British and the French were too weak and cowardly toward Hitler is an interesting historical question, but we cannot automatically draw the conclusion that the proper policy toward an expanding gang or a gang that is talking about expanding is for the United States gang to take some sort of overwhelming military action against that gang. This is a recipe for endless warfare.

Obviously, the notion of not appeasing provides absolutely no guidelines about which conflicts to get involved in or in what ways or how deeply. The resources of any gang are limited, and it requires criteria to decide when, where, and how to engage other gangs. As an economist, Sowell knows this. He knows that "not appeasing" does not provide an optimal policy. I take his use of this example as rhetoric. What he’s really saying is simply that Israel’s demolition of Lebanon should not be constrained by either other States or by vaguer peace movements (antiwar.com?, Amnesty International?). Perhaps he also means that Israel’s leaders shouldn’t be constrained by Israeli public opinion which will harden against the war as the Israeli casualties mount or by Israeli moderates.

Sowell blames appeasement for "never-ending attacks on Israel…" The ideology of those opposing Israel seems to provide a far more plausible explanation. People do not blow themselves up because they know that they will not be punished for their aggression. His suggestion seems to be that Israel should have exterminated or totally suppressed its opposition because he says: "…one of the dangers to the attacker would be the prospect of being annihilated." Wars of extermination do occur, but it is not imaginable that Israel could engage in destroying millions and millions of Arabs or even hundreds of thousands without unleashing a torrent of long-lasting anti-Israel activity.

Sowell concludes that "u2018peace’ movements don’t bring peace, but war." His argument rests on two faulty notions. The first is that peace movements have weakness and cowardice (appeasement) as their motivating factors. As an economist who knows that people are rational, Sowell should know that the far greater likelihood is that those who favor peace estimate, expect, or calculate that peace is far better for them than war. Americans resist some wars and not others. They discriminate. If many resisted the Vietnamese War, it is reasonable to believe that they thought the benefits of the war were outweighed by its costs. If many supported World War II, they thought the opposite.

The second notion is that weakness and cowardice are the important or dominant factors that bring forth war. However, all over the world weaker groups have begun and are fighting wars against stronger groups. And it has always been this way with resistance movements. The American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the War for Southern Independence were fought because of grievances or disputes. Where was the appeasement when the South fought the North? England in the first two cases was the stronger side. Texans fought for and gained independence from Mexico in 1835—1836. Where was the appeasement in this war? Appeasement didn’t drive the Americans back from the Yalu River in North Korea. The Chinese Communists did, and prudence not peace movements made use of the atom bomb untenable in that instance.

Conclusion

In the present instance, the issue is Israel’s use of force in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s use of force to kill and maim civilians in Israel, recently and in the past, is entirely unjustified. Hezbollah cannot help its cause one bit by such morally reprehensible acts. By the same token, if Israel is attacking Hezbollah, then it is unjustified in killing Lebanese civilians and wrecking the country. To justify his acts, Prime Minister Olmert declared that Hezbollah’s acts are "actions of a sovereign state that attacked Israel for no reason. The Lebanese government, of which Hizbullah is a member, is trying to destabilize regional stability. Lebanon is responsible and it will bear responsibility." But this is ludicrous and unbelievable. Israel, like Hezbollah, can only harm its cause by war acts that go well beyond attacking Hezbollah.

Hezbollah and Israel mimic what the major States of the world did during their wars of the twentieth century: unlimited warfare against States and all those living under them. Any peace movement in this world has to condemn unlimited warfare and, at a minimum, push for limits on war. In 1931, Guglielmo Ferrero in his Peace and War wrote of "the increasing subservience towards power that is spreading everywhere, and particularly in the morbid admiration for every adventurer, past and present, who has raised himself to power by the use of force and disregard for law; and in the rage for violence which has seized upon all classes and peoples nearly everywhere as if the only way they could feel their power was by oppressing another class or people."

In the last few years, the deification of power has come out into the open in the media of this nation. It is time for the American people to repudiate it thoroughly, now and forever.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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