10 April 2007 - The persuasion of power
George Orwell observed that many of the pacifist intellectuals on the British left in the 1930s and 1940s admired Hitler—not because they shared his ideas, which most did not, but because they were in awe of his power. That insight remains relevant. Despite the fact that people like to take the side of the perceived victim or underdog, they are also more likely to do so if it has displayed military prowess.
Thus it was that during the Lebanon War last year, outrage at the deaths and injuries to Lebanese civilians was accompanied by no small degree of admiration for the Hezbollah forces that had put them in harm’s way. Israeli civilians received more coverage, perhaps, but also received less sympathy. Their misfortune was not only that they were perceived to be on the stronger side, but also the losing one.
My argument stands open to the criticism that to obsess about which side suffered more, and which was stronger or weaker, is to fall victim to what Orwell identified in all nationalism—namely, the fascination with “competitive prestige.” My point, however, is simply to illustrate that the “soft power” of political persuasion is not always opposed to the “hard power” of military force. It may, in fact, depend on it.
Marvin Kalb and Carol Saivetz of Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy recently produced a paper entitled “The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media As A Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict.” They explore how various media—especially satellite television and Internet blogs—impacted on the outcome of the war by affecting (or manipulating) public perceptions of the conflict.
They conclude: “If we are to collect lessons from this war, one of them would have to be that a closed society can control the image and the message that it wishes to convey to the rest of the world far more effectively than can an open society, especially one engaged in an existential struggle for survival. An open society becomes the victim of its own openness.” It is a deeply disturbing conclusion.
However, the conclusion should not be that open societies have to be less open in order to win conflicts with terror groups. Take the recent crisis over the arrest of British sailors by Iran. The Iranian government used psychological torture to extract confessions from their prisoners and to make them play roles in a bizarre propaganda pantomime that was aired to the world on state-controlled television.
But the events might not have happened if the British sailors had enough firepower to resist the Iranian ambush at sea, as American paratroopers had resisted a similar attempt last September near the Iraqi town of Balud Ruz. And now that the hostages have been returned, it is Iran’s turn to suffer embarrassment as the sailors recount the story of their confinement to the free media of Britain and the West.
Not all of the details of the sailors’ story will reflect well on Britain or her leaders. There have already been criticisms in the British media of the sailors’ failure to resist or evade capture, and of their behavior in captivity. Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton accused the British government of “weakness,” a sentiment shared by other observers, who have criticized the British rules of engagement.
But the stories are being told, and no one is trying to suppress them (though the British government did hope to stop them from selling their stories). This kind of openness is not a form of weakness. The criticism will—or should—prompt Britain to change its rules of engagement and improve the training of sailors. What is most important is to prevent or deter Iran from trying a similar stunt in the future.
Israel’s weakness in the Lebanon War was primarily military weakness. It allowed soldiers to be captured in cross-border raids on two fronts. It had no effective defense against incoming Katyusha rockets. It backed away from a full-scale ground assault that could have uprooted Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. And it resorted to cluster bombs in the closing days of the war, which did little but hurt civilians.
Eight months later, Israelis are still insecure about their ability to defend themselves. And that anxiety, rather than giving pause to Israel’s critics, has emboldened them to demonize it further. Israel’s military failures have also weakened the moderate Arab states that opposed Hezbollah’s actions and were quietly hoping Israel would smash the Iranian-backed terror group once and for all.
Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the greatest admirers of American democracy, noted that one thing democracies do not do well is conduct foreign policy. The fractious nature of democratic politics, the weakness of the central government (which he believed was a good thing overall), the difficulty in exhorting people to submit to the discipline of a common national undertaking were all deep and possibly fatal flaws.
Churchill, too, worried about Britain’s complacency in the face of rising fascim in Europe in the 1930s. FDR struggled to win popular support for the Allied war effort until Pearl Harbor suddenly brought the U.S. into the conflict. But once roused, the democracies proved that they had greater energy and endurance. They were willing to fight for freedom, once they were sure it was freedom they were fighting for.
Why is military strength important to peacemaking? Why is someone interested in negotiations and conflict resolution stressing the ability of open societies to wage war successfully? Partly the answer is that I want the democracies to survive, and prevail. But I also believe that peace cannot succeed unless all sides are willing to stop using force, even temporarily, to pursue their aims, and negotiate sincerely.
I have noted that the use of public negotiating forums was a common factor in the success of South Africa and Northern Ireland, and a missing element in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But another factor in the successful examples was that the parties had reached a military stalemate, in which they had not yet laid aside their weapons but were also unsure they could achieve a victory by force.
Today, Iran is vigorously developing its ability to threaten the U.S., Israel, the region and the world. Through its terrorist proxies in Lebanon and Palestine, it is preventing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from moving forward. Until it faces a deterrent, the prospects for peace in the region will never be secure. That is why the open societies must be strong; they need not give up their openness to be so.