Thursday, August 17, 2006

The fallacy of the strong response to terror

Hardly had the dust and the debris settled after the multiple terror strikes on the Mumbai trains on 07 July, that certain media pundits began pontificating about the role of Pakistan and whether a retaliatory strike inside Pakistan would be an apt response. Even as the investigations are yet to make headway and shed light on the actual perpetrators, arguments have been made about the necessity to stand up as a “strong” state that sends out a robust message to Pakistan. India, it is being suggested in these circles, has become a “soft” state. Israel -- in particular, its military action in Lebanon in response to the Hezbollah kidnapping two of its soldiers -- is cited as an example of the resolute way in which strong states deal with terrorism and threats to their security. This is nothing but a dangerous self-deluding fallacy.

One month after Israel started pounding Lebanon, it is clear that its strategic objectives remain unachieved. The Hezbollah continues to put up stiff resistance and the rockets keep coming down on Haifa and other places in northern Israel. What is more, the anger and resentment it has aroused among the Lebanese and the wider Arab and Islamic world will ensure that in the days ahead, Hezbollah will never be short of funds and recruits to replenish its ranks. So far, the fighting has killed over a 1000 Lebanese civilians – a third of them children -- and close to a million are homeless. On the Israeli side, 120 people have died, the majority of them being soldiers and army reservists. Not that the financial implications are any the less grave. According to the Israel’s finance minister, the war has already run up a cost of $ 1.6 billion and it may just be the beginning. The minister has also asked the government to cut $650 million from the 2006 state budget to help pay for the war (Israel's total budget for 2006 is $56 billion).

The wider question to be asked at this point is whether all this has done Israel any good. Even assuming that at the end of the current operations, Israel succeeds in destroying the Hezbollah’s military power and in securing its northern border – and this is by no means certain – in the long run it may not prove of any significance. After all, in 1982 Israel had invaded and occupied southern Lebanon to root out the PLO which had then also become a state within Lebanon. While the PLO was indeed forced out, what followed in its wake was the birth of the Hezbollah. Something similar happened in Palestine where the combined Israeli- American vilification campaign Yasser Arafat has now thrown up an even more extreme challenge in the form of a democratically elected Hamas. The underlying principle then, is not hard to grasp. Violence begets violence, more violence begets more.

The greatest success a terrorist can hope for is not when a bomb kills and maims many but when democratic societies respond by altering their behaviour to indulge in or condone violence against the innocent and when in the name of national security, they begin to hack away at the rights of the individual, in the process narrowing the difference between terrorism and its victims. Indeed, it does not take much thought to realise that while Al Qaida succeeded in knocking out the twin towers of the WTC, the damage that America has subsequently inflicted upon itself – in the name of a strong, robust response to terror, i.e. the war on terror – has been far greater. After all, the unfinished business in Afghanistan, the mess in Iraq, the blow to American credibility (or perhaps American pretensions) caused by Gauntanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, the scores of Iraqi civilians routinely shot and killed at check posts across Iraq etc. are all the consequences of this misguided brand of the strong response to terrorism.

The true strong state then, is the one which can in the face of extreme provocation retain sanity and composure. It is the weak state that feels the overwhelming compulsion to prove a point by lashing out in the general direction of an amorphous enemy branded as terrorist, sometimes for little more than expediency. Indeed, it may well be said that the distinction between the soft state and the strong state is of little relevance when what is needed is a “smart” state that can bide its time and not lose its cool.

It is not often that one gets a chance to say this. But the fact is, for a change, India has done well


At 7:11 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...,00300003.htm

Kushwant Singh's take on Israel.


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