July 21, 2006

Power hubris in the Middle East

(See part 1 , part 2, part 3, and part 4 of this series.)

Politicians love power. They try to obtain as much of it as possible and think that the more they have, the better able they are to solve any problems and crush any opposition they encounter. But what frequently gets overlooked is that there is only a limited class of problems for which power can provide the solution, but success in this very narrow area often deludes leaders into thinking that they can apply power in all areas.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with military power. In conventional battles involving conventional armies, the side that has more troops, more planes, more weapons, more tanks, and so on, will win. Power works in such cases. This was why there was never any doubt that the US would succeed in overthrowing Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq, once it had committed itself to using its full conventional arsenal.

But raw military power fails to deliver the goods when it seeks to achieve more subtle political goals, such as creating stability and harmony among groups. But politicians seem to never learn this basic truth. Iraq is once again the prime example where power has failed to achieve a post-war peace.

Take, for another example, Sri Lanka. For decades, the Tamil minority had been complaining of discrimination by the Sinhala majority government. The Tamil leadership before 1980 were steeped in Gandhian nonviolent traditions and when it protested, the protests took the form of civil disobedience, such as 'sit down strikes', where large numbers of protestors blocked the entrances of government buildings. The protestors carried no arms and offered no resistance when the police or other authorities carted them off to jail.

The Tamils developed a reputation for non-violence to the point of being considered docile and passive, easily pushed around by the more powerful police and security forces. When a few young Tamils abandoned what they felt was this futile non-violence strategy and launched the movement known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or more commonly, Tamil Tigers) as an armed group willing to take on the Sri Lankan army militarily, it was not taken seriously at first, because the Tamils had never shown any inclination, let alone expertise, towards militaristic actions. When the Tigers launched their first significant military action in July 1983, a bombing that killed government 13 soldiers, they were still a small and seemingly insignificant group.

The Sri Lankan government reacted the way that governments tend to do in such situations when they are confronted by opposition from members of a different ethnic or religious group over which they think they have overwhelming military superiority. They try to exact revenge on the civilian population. The Sri Lankan government instigated attacks by mobs that killed Tamils in the streets, looted and ransacked and burned their houses, bombed Tamil areas, and arrested and imprisoned large numbers of Tamils, and murdered them in the prisons. The idea behind this massive show of force seemed to be to 'teach the Tamils a lesson,' and persuade the Tamil people that it was futile to resist the power of the government, that their best bet was to abandon any support for the Tigers and give up armed struggle in general and go back to pleading their cause the way they had done for decades, even though such methods had produced no meaningful results.

When those measures did not produce any immediate results of the kind they sought, the government then raised the stakes even more and that led to aerial bombing in the Tamil areas that killed and wounded many people, destroyed the infrastructure (roads, hospitals, schools, businesses), created huge numbers of refugees, and made ruins of large areas. (This is similar to what is being currently done in Lebanon, where estimates say that over 300 people have been killed, 1000 wounded and 500,000 displaced. United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland says that nearly a third of the Lebanese casualties are children.)

But the result of this approach was the opposite of what the government hoped. Support for the Tigers, instead of waning, actually expanded and solidified and the Tigers actually grew stronger militarily. Over time they became larger in numbers, more sophisticated in their tactics, and acquired better weapons. As a result we are now, twenty years later, in a virtual stalemate with the Tigers controlling significant portions of land and able to hold its own against the Sri Lankan military. Just last month, the Sri Lankan Army's Deputy Chief of Staff was killed in a suicide bombing by suspected Tigers. (He was another victim of the war in Sri Lanka that I knew personally, since he went to the same school as I did and was just one year my junior.)

The examples can be multiplied. The US in Vietnam and the French in Vietnam and Algeria thought that their overwhelming military superiority could be used to inflict such pain on the civilian population that in despair they would abandon all support for the liberation forces and give up the struggle. The US used carpet bombing of huge swaths of land, defoliants to wipe out vegetation, and napalm, to terrorize villagers, all in an attempt to undermine support for the Vietnamese guerillas. But instead what happened was that the support actually increased, the opposition forces became stronger, and eventually both the US and the French militaries were beaten and had to leave ignominiously.

Overwhelming conventional power can win battles waged in conventional ways but cannot overcome the challenges posed by asymmetric warfare against a hostile population. The Tigers in Sri Lanka and the National Liberation Fronts of Vietnam and Algeria took care to position themselves as defenders of their own people, fighting an alien force, and provided the security, stability, and services that the people were looking for. More importantly, the fact that they were defending themselves and their own people militarily, and were no longer acting like patsies, instilled pride in the people. Thus these opposition forces won the political struggle, which enabled them to neutralize the military advantage of the major powers opposing them.

Israel is the predominant military power in that region but it faces a determined opposition in Hamas and Hezbollah, groups that remind me of the Tigers in their determination. What Israel seems to be doing is falling into the same trap as other powerful governments before them, seduced by their conventional military superiority into thinking that they can 'teach the people a lesson,' that by inflicting severe pain on the civilian populations of Gaza and Lebanon, the people in those regions will abandon support for Hamas and Hezbollah and rally round those political leaders who are acceptable to Israel and the US.

Perhaps there exist some historical examples where (overlooking for the moment its total immorality) this strategy of the military forces of one ethnicity/nationality/religion punishing civilian populations of a different ethnicity/nationality/religion has succeeded in cowing people and destroying support guerilla or insurgent or other resistance forces. I am at a loss of think of any. All the historical examples that I am aware of suggest that the opposite will happen. At most, what you get with such attempts at using military force is a temporary lull in hostilities, while the insurgency lies low and regroups. But they tend to return with greater vigor and more sophisticated munitions at a later time. Witness what is happening now with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the modern world, where all kinds of armaments are easily available in the global black market, the sophistication of the weapons used by the forces opposed to Israel will increase, just the way that the Tamil Tigers improved their weaponry over time and now seem have a wide array of advanced weapons at their disposal, despite living on a island which makes procurement difficult. We are already seeing that Hezbollah seems to have more sophisticated weapons than Israel had anticipated, able to attack Israeli navy vessels and penetrate deeper into Israel than before.

In Sri Lanka, the show of military force by the government resulted in the so-called 'moderate' Tamil leadership, those acceptable to the government and willing to talk to the government on the government's terms, becoming completely marginalized and irrelevant. Eventually, the government was forced to negotiate directly with the Tigers, the very group it had condemned as terrorists and unworthy of being negotiating partners. In the case of Vietnam, the succession of Vietnamese leaders that the US wanted to see as representatives of the Vietnamese people (Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Van Thieu, and Duong Van Minh) were seen as puppets by most of the Vietnamese people, as can be seen by the fact that their governments collapsed as soon as the US withdrew its support.

What amazes me is that this should be seen as at all surprising. After all, the same governments that think that 'punishing' civilian populations will lead to them withdrawing support for their representatives know that when they themselves are attacked, their own populations rally round them. In the US for example, we saw how the attacks of 9/11 caused George Bush's support levels to soar. And he still routinely tries to use the terror threat to rally support for himself. Why would these governments think that the people they are fighting would think and act any differently? As Israeli academic Ran HaCohen says:

As often in war time, most citizens do flock together behind the army, no matter how much they suffer. What Israel fails to grasp is that this simple logic applies to the other side as well: devastating Gaza will only increase support for the Palestinian militants.

Arresting dozens of their Cabinet members and members of parliament is only going to increase Hamas' support even more. In the case of Gaza, we have to remember that Hamas actually won the last elections. Commentator Pat Buchanan looks at what happened in the immediate aftermath of those elections:

To punish these people for the crime of electing Hamas, [Israeli prime minister] Olmert imposed an economic blockade of Gaza and the West Bank and withheld the $50 million in monthly tax and customs receipts due the Palestinians.

Then, Israel instructed the United States to terminate all aid to the Palestinian Authority, though Bush himself had called for the elections and for the participation of Hamas. Our Crawford cowboy meekly complied.

The predictable result: Fatah and Hamas fell to fratricidal fighting, and Hamas militants began launching Qassam rockets over the fence from Gaza into Israel. Hamas then tunneled into Israel, killed two soldiers, captured one, took him back into Gaza, and demanded a prisoner exchange.

Israel's response was to abduct half of the Palestinian cabinet and parliament and blow up a $50 million U.S.-insured power plant. That cut off electricity for half a million Palestinians. Their food spoiled, their water could not be purified, and their families sweltered in the summer heat of the Gaza desert.

The fact that the US and Israel were dismayed by the election results and have since tried to destabilize the Hamas government will only serve to increase the suspicion that the attack on Gaza was meant to nullify the election results. Imprisoning the cabinet members and members of parliament of Gaza is an unmistakable signal that Israel wants to overthrow the elected authorities in Gaza. HaCohen suggests that such a move may have been planned well in advance and was simply waiting for a provocation that duly arrived in the form of the capture of the Israeli soldier.

If I may make a prediction, it is that I fully expect to see at some point in the future, after many, many more deaths of ordinary people on all sides and the consequent immense suffering, Israel (along with the US) sit down with Hamas to negotiate the future of the region, exactly as the Sri Lankan government ended up being forced to negotiate with the Tigers, and the US and French were forced to negotiate with the NLF in Vietnam and Algeria.

Instead of dragging the Palestinian and Israeli people through years and years of suffering, spilling rivers of blood, and destroying families and communities, just to end up negotiating with the people they are currently fighting, how much better would it be if far-sighted leaders skip that bloody intermediate step, save all that unnecessary suffering, and begin negotiating now on creating a just and viable Palestinian state, with security guarantees for all the people and states in the region.

POST SCRIPT: The warmongers are never wrong, are they?

Tom Tomorrow's eerily prescient April 2003 cartoon.


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This reminds me of the passage in "Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula Leguin were she holds that "To oppose something is to maintain it."

Why are we so blind to such a basic truth?

The myth of strength is the most common defense of the arm-chair warmonger... so often I've heard it said (by relatives, local lummoxes, and the likes of Ted Nugent) that we must look strong - that if we let a blow go unanswered, the world will somehow lose respect for us and decide to steal our lunch money. It's completely contrary to reality, but when I try to explain that, all I get is "you're a soft-headed liberal idiot." or such And, alas, the only response I can come up with at that point is "you're the idiot!" - and, ironically, all my opposition does is solidify said lummox in his belief.

Does anyone ever convince someone else? How can anyone hope to make a difference?

Posted by Marie on July 21, 2006 12:56 PM


All you can do is to get people to reflect on their own beliefs. A good way to start that process is to pose to them the question I posed in the post and ask them if they can provide any historical evidence where this notion of punishing the population ever worked.

Posted by Mano Singham on July 21, 2006 01:40 PM

"Perhaps there exist some historical examples where (overlooking for the moment its total immorality) this strategy of the military forces of one ethnicity/nationality/religion punishing civilian populations of a different ethnicity/nationality/religion has succeeded in cowing people and destroying support guerilla or insurgent or other resistance forces. I am at a loss of think of any."

As suggested in your quote above, I'm willfully overlooking the morality on this post, do not interpret this as an endorsement of the acts that I mention.

History has several examples of successful oppression of minority peoples, not in ending revolutionary sentiment, but in creating fantastic material gain for the oppressors over decades and centuries. England could practically write a book on the topic, starting with the initial invasion of Ireland in 1167, and the violent clamping down on the Irish people occurring until independence in 1922. The oppression did eventually fall, but that was after almost 800 years of squeezing the island for everything it was worth, so I'd count that as a success.

Secondly, England maintained control of India for almost 100 years (depending on when you start the count) using extremely violent and oppressive methods. And there's little accident that the independence of India came only after Britian's military force had been ravaged by a war, thus greatly affecting Britain's ability to apply force. Given the amount of wealth that Britain was able to pull out of India during the colonialization, I'd also call 100 years of plunder a Machiavellian success.

In particular, Lord Cornwallis has an entire exhibit in the British museum devoted to his spectacular ability to violently and successfully quash revolts across the British empire. He provides an excellent example, because the one revolution that he failed to quash was the one that he used the softest touch on. The British tactics used against the 13 Colonies were measured and restrained compared against the British tactics used against Irish and Indian revolts. Here is here a specific argument for disproportionate response; a more measured response failed to suppress the rebellion. Charles Cornwallis learned this lesson well on post 1776 revolts in Ireland and India, leading to his fame.

But you are right, the use of violent means to oppress a people is not often effectively used. Instead, the general tactic of a dominant power is to genocidally execute the minority people. Examples abound: US and the native americans, the Japanese and the Ainu, Rome and the Gauls, Israel and the Caananites, Spain/Aztecs, Turks/Assyrians etc. Tragically, in each of the above examples, genocide lead to fantastic material gain for the aggressors.

With a plethora of genocidal and opppressive successes, the method by which violent tactics are used are clear and quite easily to implement, a wonderful example of H.L. Menken's "To each problem there is a solution that is quick, easy, and morally wrong". The deatils of how to implement a peaceful negotiated solution, however, are much more murky, and with much hazier historical precident. Of the three diplomatic examples you cite, Viet Nam, Algeria, and Sri Lanka, two of them (Viet Nam and Algeria) involved giving the oppressed people everything they wanted. Isreal doesn't have the option of giving Hamas everything Hamas wants, because a major demand of Hamas is Israel's destruction. My understanding of the third example, Sri Lanka, is that the situation still unresolved (you'd be the one to correct me on this, so if I'm incorrect, my apologies), so it is early yet to call it a success or a failure.

Posted by Greg on July 21, 2006 04:59 PM


Great comment, making me realize that I was too quick to generalize. You are right that Sri Lanka is still unresolved but in that case my point was that the government is now negotiating with those they called terrorists and swore never to negotiate with.

The colonial occupations are interesting. Countries that plan to colonize others and exploit them over a long period seem to have to either (1) create infrastructure and some development in the country and and some support within some segments of the native population (a kind of "soft" exercise of power that the British were pretty good at in many cases, such as in Sri Lanka and India) or (2) brutalize and terrorize the local population to the point of genocide (like what was done to the Native Americans in the US and blacks in South Africa).

As you point out with Cornwallis (whom I really should read more about, him being largely just a name to me at this point) had his failures when he was in neither camp.

But I think (and hope) that neither of those unpalatable options is possible in this post-colonial age. Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its control over the Palestinian people in those areas is probably an example of a situation as close as it gets to a colonial occupation these days, and the reaction of the Palestinians to that can be seen as part of the historical anti-colonial struggles.

Posted by Mano Singham on July 22, 2006 09:53 PM