The last several weeks of warfare between Israel, on the one hand, and the Hezbollah coalition on the other hand (Lebanon, Syria, and Iran) has been of greatest value for the way in which it has exposed the core assumptions, normative framework, and patterns of logic of Western governments and the elites which claim a power to shape (or represent) democratic public opinion. The purpose of this essay is to explore the character and consequences of those assumptions, frameworks and patterns of logic by carefully parsing through a recent and representative editorial appearing in the New York Times (“A Truce for Lebanon,” The New York Times, August 7, 2006, at A20). This newspaper and this editorial were chosen as representative of something close to the center of Western norms (the New York Times is seen by many as politically liberal in the United States, and politically conservative outside the United States).
The purpose of this essay is not to advocate a particular political position or even a particular political result. The essay is grounded in an indifference to the outcome. But the process by which outcomes are generated, by which choices are made among parties to a dispute, and the way policy is shaped, reveals the way in which certain assumptions—really certain ideologies—tend to color the perception of any conflict and substantially affect the way in which the West (in this instance) responds to organized violence, and especially organized violence by non-governmental entities. The editorial serves as a reflection not only of the way in which the West judges this particular conflict (Israel-Hezbollah-Lebanon-Syria-Iran) but the way it has approached other conflicts it has deemed to be similar (Ireland-Basque Country-Bosnia-Kosovo-Chechnya-Iraq). It evidences the strange combination of fatalism and a merchant’s mentality, of power and impotence, and of formalism and legalism, that has defined Western policy making for the last several decades. This essay will sketch the contours of this framework through a close analysis of the editorial “A Truce for Lebanon” and suggest that while these assumptions are perhaps as good as any, they are neither inevitable nor necessarily effective.
The editorial starts with a slew of assumptions masquerading as statements of fact or as adjective laden description:
“It is now 26 days since Hezbollah and Israel began their latest combat—a very long time for the world to allow such a deadly conflict to rage in the Middle East powder keg. Yet the fighting still continues. Diplomats still dither over cease fire details. Innocent people still keep dying.”
“Enough. This is the week that the international community must impose a truce, to be followed, in short order, by a political settlement and the dispatch of a robust international force to patrol Lebanon’s oft violated border with Israel.”
The editorial then describes the nature of the settlement being negotiated for the combatants through the United Nations organized in two sets of resolutions.
“The first, based on an agreement over the weekend between the United States and France, would call on both sides to stop fighting, with their forces, at least for now, remaining in place. The resolution would also outline steps for achieving a permanent cease fire along with a more lasting political settlement. For now, the truce would be monitored by a beefed up version of the weak United Nations monitoring force already present in south Lebanon.”
“The second resolution, meant to follow in two to three weeks, would fill in the details of the political settlement, to be worked out in consultation with Israel, Lebanon and Syria, and would authorize the long tem international force.”
Well, that seems simple enough. But the editorial notes four difficulties which it styles “crucial details” that “remain to be worked out.”
1. Israeli forces remain on Lebanese soil until the new international force is deployed. This is a problem because it “has sparked sharp opposition in the Arab world.” In addition, it is bad because Israeli troops on Lebanese soil act as a “magnet for renewed Hezbollah attacks. Israel would, of course, respond, and that would be the end of any truce.”
2. The political settlement to be worked out must be “comprehensive” and “lasting.” The editorial identifies “such festering issues as Hezbollah’s refusal to heed U.N. requests to disarm, and Hezbollah’s claim, contrary to U.N. findings, that some of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is not part of Syria.”
3. “Troops must be lined up for the international security force.” But there is a rub of sorts. No nation will send troops to a combat area. So the area must be made combat free before military personnel will be committed. “None of these countries want to send soldiers if either Israel or Hezbollah is going to keep shooting. Therefore the political settlement has to be packaged so that both sides can claim some sort of victory.”
4. The last difficulty is describing the sort of settlement that might permit Israel and Hezbollah to claim a victory of sorts. For Israel, “that must include some assurance that Hezbollah will no longer be able to cross into Israeli territory and kidnap Israeli soldiers or launch its rockets against Israeli towns and cities. Hezbollah will probably claim victory from the fact of having stood up to a four week onslaught by the region’s mightiest army.”
Having offered no solution to these crucial issues, but apparently with every confidence that all can be resolved in a robust and effective way, the editorial concludes on a high note of sorts.
“This ugly war has already killed about 700 Lebanese and more than 90 Israelis. Close to one out of every four people in Lebanon has been routed from their homes. With the human price so high, this settlement must be built to last.”
Wow. So sure. So commanding. So clear. So simple. But when these statements are more carefully parsed they reveal a complexity and ambiguity far greater than the string of simple declarative sentences might suggest.
1. War is a transaction that must be carefully managed. The West now has a model for an ideal war—the war against Serbia for the liberation of Kosovo in the 1990s. That war was fought at a distance. It required little exposure to combat for the combatants. It sought to inflict tremendous physical destruction while managing casualties among the civilian population, that is, among the population that would have to survive in place after the end of the conflict. Killing by state actors is to be discouraged in war. Even those who “lose” the war might not be killed, They are better treated as criminals who ought to be captured and tried for the edification of the victors. The trial of Slobodan Milosevich provides the model. Targeted destruction, intense action over a short period of time, a focus on a state actor, and the imposition of a settlement appear to provide the outlines of a “legal” or at least close to ideal war. Deviation from this model becomes extremely costly for state actors—from Israel, to Sri Lanka, or the United States in Iraq. It is in this light that the nature of the condemnation implicit in the editorial can be understood: “It is now 26 days since Hezbollah and Israel began their latest combat,” “innocent people keep dying,” “this ugly war has killed about 700 Lebanese and more than 90 Israelis,” “one out of every four people in Lebanon have been routed from their homes.” War is not the problem, the management of the war is the issue for the West.
2. Violence is a necessary predicate to negotiation, especially for non-governmental organizations. Non-governmental organizations do best when they are capable of mounting some sort of sustained military operation. This is an old principle. Ironically enough, it was first successfully deployed in modern times was in North America, when the American colonists engaged in a primitive sort of guerilla war (for which Americans remain justifiably proud) that eventually brought a positive settlement of their conflict with the United Kingdom upon the intervention of France. The de-colonization movements in Latin America in the 19th century, and in Asia and Africa after 1945 also seemed to deepen this pattern. This was a key element of the IRA’s successful campaigns in the north of Ireland (see my Jerry Adams in Barcelona essay, ). The assumption implicit in the editorial appears to be that any combat that cannot be managed (see assumption 1 above) produces legitimacy in the group that cannot be managed sufficient to compel negotiation. Negotiation thus is a means by which conflict that deviates from the ideal may be managed further, a sort of second step in the rules of conflict. In this case, Israel’s inability to destroy Hezbollah within the time allotted and in the manner permitted must lead to the second stage—negotiation. The same rules, of course, apply to the United States in Iraq, Indonesia in East Timor, and to Sri Lank and the Tamils. The rule applies irrespective of ideology, underlying grievance, or unique history leading to the conflict.
3. Violence is a necessary predicate for legitimacy for non-governmental organizations. Just as violence is a necessary predicate to negotiation, so it appears to be a necessary predicate to legitimacy. Not so many months ago Hezbollah was vilified as a terrorist organization. Now, the Western media views it as a a significant and legitimate political player, as long as “Hezbollah’s refusal to heed U.N. requests to disarm” are eventually addressed. This is also a pattern well known in the West. Not only with respect to the situation in Ireland, but now also with the shape of negotiations and ultimate legitimization of ETA as a political actor in the Spanish Basque region. Thus violence serves not only as a way to manage conflict (principle 1 above) through negotiation (principle 2 above) within the community of states, but more importantly, it serves as the principal basis for legitimating the status of non governmental or quasi governmental combatants as actors about or with which these negotiations must occur. Thus the very curious turn of the editorial. It starts with a reference to a war between a state actor and a non state organization (treating it, in a sense, like a state actor for purposes of conflict management), and then suggests that there is a place for Hezbollah within the governance of Lebanon (perhaps as a political party, like Sein Fein). Indeed, though the editorial speaks of a political settlement with Lebanon, it focuses on the need for Hezbollah to “claim a victory.” And the nature of that victory is telling, “the fact of having stood up to a four week onslaught by the region’s mightiest army.” Here is conflated the first principle on managed warfare, the second principle on the relationship between conflict and negotiation, and on this principle on violence as a predicate for legitimating of non state actors.
4. “Innocent people” do not exist in total war. I have been struck by the increasing habit of Western elites to treat the ideal of the innocent civilian as a fetish at the same time that the West has constructed an internal mythology of total war against a common foe in which an entire nation rises to fight the enemy. The management of violent conflict, and its memorialization as the rules of war and humanitarian law, is predicated on the ideal that conflict is a bifurcated affair between an active and well identified military force and a more passive civilian population ready to accept the results of any conflict in a peaceful way. I have written about the western cultural roots of this notion of the innocent civilian, the sheep, to be managed and protected while the wolves fight among themselves according to rules meant to protect the property over which they fight. Larry Catá Backer, The Fuhrer Principle of International Law: Individual Responsibility and Collective Punishment, Penn State International Law Review, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 509-567, 2003, . At the same time, and especially since the Second World War, the West has been filled with the images of the great resistance fighter—in France against the German army, in the Philippines and China against the Japanese aggressor. Movies were produced in the United States, for example, lauding the way in which the population of a place could rise up and work together to defeat the enemy. Civilians shield combatants and fighters against the forces of the enemy, give them aid, and supply new recruits for the war effort. Even such benign movies as “The Sound of Music” suggest the necessity for total commitment, as the nuns hide the von Trapp family from the Nazis and help the family escape into Switzerland. Indeed, after the First World War, the West came to understand war, especially war between parties with irreconcilable objects, as involving the total commitment of their respective populations. It is true that, to some extent, the laws of war and human rights law were crafted thereafter to avoid the total war scenario, but still, those images linger.
5. Non state organizations that can engage in violence cannot be defeated. Underlying the editorial is the critical assumption that Hezbollah cannot be defeated. This is an assumption that underlies much of the discussion about the insurgencies in Iraq, the conflict in Sri Lanka, in East Timor and other places. Critical to this assumption, of course, is the understanding derived from principle #4 that in an era of total war, there are no innocent civilians. The Palestinians have proven this time and time again through their not well publicized and usually “unofficial” executions of “collaborators” and others deemed insufficiently wedded to a cause. The Viet Cong were also quite effective in this sort of total warfare. Hezbollah itself has suggested, as a defense to its targeting of Israeli civilian target (including areas populated by Muslims) that there are no innocent civilians in its war with Israel). Officially the Western media rejects this line, but in its editorials the same media implicitly accepts the logic of this understanding. Where a non-state actor merges with the people in the conduct of violent conflict, the assumption is that victory is impossible. The notion of total war, and of the commitment of the non military population to the goals and objectives of conflict, and to the duty of the non military segment to provide such aid as they can to the combatants, also suggested that, short of extermination or pacification, combat in such circumstances could not be won. The specter of post colonialism also contributes to this assumption of invincibility. But now this specter is substantially uncoupled from the de colonization movements from which it arose. The West continues to seek to expiate its guilt over a colonial period and the difficulties of de colonization during the middle half of the twentieth century. But now everything smacks of the colonial. It has become common to assume that it is natural, right and inevitable for even the smallest nation to win its independence from even the mightiest empire through violent action and the less violent expression of the will of those peoples for independence. Groups seeking self-determination have become adept at invoking the imagery of post colonialism to legitimate their enterprise. It has been especially effective in suggesting that the conflict cannot be contained. Wars of liberation, wars invoking postcolonial rhetoric are conflicts translated into Western sensibilities as violence backed by the mass of non-combatants. When localized violent conflict serves as the expression of the will of the non-combatants, the conflict can neither be contained nor the group defeated. Thus, Hezbollah will win for the same reason that the Viet Cong won in Vietnam, that the African insurgency movements were successful, that ETA might win in the Spanish Basque region or that the Tamils may not be defeated, or that Iraq will not be pacified by principles of democracy and pluralism. On the other hand, the peoples of Dafur may sink into oblivion because the Sudanese state is able to manage the conflict. Hezbollah will win because it is deemed to reflect the will of the people among whom it operates and through which it derives a substantial amount of its support. Hezbollah, in a sense, is Lebanon. It will not go away. It might be disarmed, but even that is hardly a necessary condition to its make up after its conflict with Israel is managed. The editorial thus speaks of “addressing” a “refusal to heed the U.N,’s requests to disarm.” It does not speak of an obligation to disarm, or the necessity of disarming for purposes of the greater part of the settlement. The process of disarming is sufficient to claim that a long-term solution has been found. This is the Irish solution in a context in which there is no claim to territory, other than the assertion by Hezbollah, as a sort of third party combatant, to seek the eradication of one state on behalf of another. But none of this is unique. Just distorted to suit the circumstances on the ground. This is a pattern of thinking that pervades Western responses to all expressions of self-determination by armed groups. In this sense, the global network of militarily capable non-state actors with political aspirations has the right of it when they understand that once the West believes that an insurgency group has become naturalized within the territory of a state, it will be impossible to defeat. These groups cannot be defeated precisely because they make it impossible to conduct a war against them within manageable limits. And such a war becomes unmanageable because of the ambiguity between combatants and non-combatants. The only solution is negotiation. And the reward to the non state actor is a certain legitimacy to proceed to the preservation of its ultimate goals.
6. International relations is predicated on the “Munich” principle—large states, or large blocks of states may always determine the fate of small states, especially when these are perceived to affect the interests of the larger states. In an ironic twist of sorts, the ghost o Adolph Hitler, and Hitlerian international relations theory, continue to haunt the Israelis. The principles of the 1938 Munich Conference—that the fate of small states can be determined by bargaining among larger states—appears to be alive and well among the media elite. I am not making the usual and silly analogy to Munich—an analogy highlighting the folly of appeasement in certain circumstances. Instead I refer to the far more robust principle that survived Munich and became entrenched in international relations and international law to some extent—the notion that third party states may impose settlements on others. In this case, of course, the third parties including France, Lebanon’s old colonial master, the United States, Israel’s patron, and bits and pieces of the Muslim nation, all of which seem to have a claim on the territory that includes the State of Israel and some of whom stand as patrons of Hezbollah within Lebanon (but not of Lebanon itself). Thus, “the international community must impose a truce,” and the principals must be “consulted.” Since the principals are incapable of managing their conflicts in a manner acceptable to the rest of the world community, then others will undertake that management function on their behalf. That the management involves non state combatants, states that are incapable of asserting power within their territories, states with ambiguous territorial borders, and states in gestation, makes no difference. Indeed, this state of affairs may make it even more tempting to interfere. The difficulty, of course, is that while states may like to interfere in the affairs of others, they tend to like to commit their own resources to the management of those conflicts without either some great reward or the assurance of little damage. Thus, soldiers will not police a truce that does not hold and negotiation must be structures to provide the possibility for both sides to “claim some sort of victory.”
7. Political settlements are transactions that can be managed, even in the face of irreconcilable positions. This reference in the editorial to the need to find a means of permitting the parties to a violent conflict to claim victory as a predicate to the continuation of the conflict through non violent means opens the most interesting window on Western thinking when it turns to the proposed methodology of conflict management. Management comes in two stages (a typical pattern of Western thinking). In the first, the violent expression of the conflict is stopped. In the second, the bargain to be struck among the relevant parties is negotiated. The format privileges the absence of violence. It privileges process—negotiation in this case. It privileges non violent arenas for conflict—the media (naturally enough), diplomacy, cultural manipulation of subject populations, propaganda campaigns to exert pressure on other states through a direct appeal to foreign citizens to begin to conceptualize a conflict in one of any number of plausible ways. But it does not directly privilege resolution. It can’t. Resolution requires belief that parties with deeply held irreconcilable positions can somehow overcome culture, education, interest, politics and advantage to haggle over a resolution the way merchants haggle over a transaction in fungible goods. This seems natural enough from a merchant culture, like that of the United States, built on principles of exchange, negotiation, fungibility, compromise. The editorial makes the assumption, so common in the West, that irreconcilable differences can be reconciled, that deeply held religious ideas about the shape of the world and the rights of people to occupy certain portions of it can be treated as an object for negotiation. But for non-state actors, for guerilla organizations, for states with deeply held views, that sort of negotiation is impossible. For these groups, negotiation provides a breathing space. It provides a venue for the articulation of beliefs on a broader stage. It provides a means of extending the conflict to political terrain. It does not suggest a place where ultimate goals are modified in the face of the needs of other groups. The IRA and ETA understand this sort of meaning of negotiation. The West does not. Or maybe it does but is willing to live with this ambiguity because it manages to purchase management in lieu of violence. That may be enough for the West. Time, demographic shifts, the results of warfare fought in the culture, religion, social and political spheres may serve to end the conflict as effectively as a war. And there will be no physical destruction to repair, and more people to continue to utilize in the situation that emerges. All the better. The West is convinced that cold war works best—we can outlive, outspend, outbreed, outculture the opponent. That was how the Soviets were defeated, so some have come to believe. Those principles can be generalized. Thus, the editorial can support a truce that puts ending physical violence as essential the sole practical goal. Negotiation then provides the cover for engaging in warfare by other means. Negotiation management thus does not require a commitment to reconciliation. It does not require a commitment to political settlement. It requires only a willingness to divert the conflict.
8. The United Nations provides an adequate cover for cold war activities among combatants during periods in which unstable settlements remain in effect. With negotiation a goal in itself, the West tends to look to a method of managing this form of conflict containment. Thus it comes as little surprise that the editorial would reflect the assumption that a multi national force can serve as a veil behind which conflict can be managed well. For that purpose, the U.N. has served well. But it remains only a veil. In Lebanon, the U.N. provided a cover under which Hezbollah was able to build a state within a state in southern Lebanon. It provided the cover necessary for the peaceful transfer of sovereign authority from Serbia to Kosovo. The U.N. provides protection for all parties and serves to create the space necessary for the continuation of conflict by other means.
9. Peace is the new form of war. Ultimately, the editorial reveals the fundamental turn of modern international approaches to conflict—peace is the new war. Perhaps this is both a welcome and inevitable consequence of the principles of conflict management that the editorial reveals. If conflict is inevitable, if negotiation might not lead to resolution of disputes, then an alternative method of conflict might better serve to minimize the effects of conflict on the management of productive populations. In a world in which conflict resolution is impossible, and the global exploitation of labor, capital and resources becomes an increasingly important component of international relations, the deflection of violent conflict into other forms of battle becomes a paramount interest of the global community. A political settlement is hardly important. Truth, fairness, right, justice become the forms through which the battle is fought on the fields of law, religion, culture, society and politics. The ultimate aims of the combatants are also irrelevant. Hezbollah and Israel would like to see each eradicated, though in truth Hezbollah is thinking in terms of large scale murder and Israel in terms of cultural or religious obliteration. Still, those are relative exterminations to a West now committed to a different model of peace, one in which a form of amorality has become necessary to preserve the structure of wealth maximizing systems being constructed on a global scale.
Thus, the New York Times editorial presents, unconsciously to be sure, a sort of Management Model of international relations and law. Its principles are efficient. Having determined that there is no worse thing than violent conflict, this Model constructs a basis of international relations in which conflict management is set as the supreme value and everything else is bent to the need to prevent war. It is a system with a moral compass, but one very different from that usually associated with the conduct of state relations. But ironically enough, it retains a twist of social Darwinism, without regard to moral value, it ensures that the strongest will ultimately win. Strength, however, may now be measured by means other than military capability where such capability is not sufficiently powerful to blast an opposition to extinction quickly and with a minimum of fuss. The future will reveal just how well this sort of system will work and the sort of character the world will take. What is clear, however, is that, slowly but without substantial impediment, global institutions are arising to create an institutional basis for implementing this Management Model of International Relations. The United Nations system, the internationalization of criminal and human rights law, the creation of an International Criminal Court to prosecute violations of those statutes, and a framework for the global regulation of economic activity all speak to a time when management without regard to values will dominate the approach to the resolution of disputes.