War and Democracy in the 21st Century
A late-night conversation with Tasha serves as the foundation for this post. If I go astray from what I said last night, she'll set me straight.
War is hell and I don't like it. That admission may shock some of the polemics who read this blog. Many of us who have supported the removal Saddam Hussein and are now defending Israel in its war against a terrorist network that seeks to eliminate it are often unfairly accused of being warmongers who support American imperialism and sleep with a George W. Bush doll at our sides. We're also charged with being indifferent to the humanitarian suffering that occurs whenever there is a war between a democracy and either a non-democracy or a sub-state terrorist organization (sometimes the two even come together, a la Afghanistan). And of course we're also slapped with attempting to impose our worldview on other people, supposedly people for whom democracy can't work. All three of these charges are, of course, patently false and utterly ridiculous. No principled democrat (which I consider myself) wants to see civilians being killed, the weapons of war being employed, or considers liberation as imperialism. I'd like to discuss each of these topics over the coming paragraphs, which will often blend together responses to the charges.
First, the warmongering thing. I will reiterate: I hate war. I would like to think that the obscene amounts of blood spilled in two world wars and the numerous other conflicts of the 20th century would have been enough to convince people that it's not worth it anymore. But that would be unrealistic and I don't have my head in the clouds when it comes to matters of state. Democracies loathe war and seek to exhaust all diplomatic options in order to avoid it. That being said, the extent to which some who call themselves "liberals" will contort themselves into positions of appeasement undermines their own tradition of occasionally resorting to force when it was the right and only option available to permanently resolve a problem. There are some personalities in the world who seek to use force as a first option; democracies are not among them. Terrorists and tyrants are, however.
The rise of informal violence--that is, violence committed against civilian populations of a state by non-state actors such as international terrorists--has dramatically altered the playing field and skewed it so as to be inherently unfavourable to democracies. These actors are people for whom the traditional strategies of diplomacy do not apply. Terrorists, have no fixed address, cannot be contained. Those who would be "martyrs" do not subscribe to deterrence theory; their perceptions of temporal life are not shared with ours. This results in asymmetrical warfare.
States, especially democratic ones, have a difficult time with asymmetrical warfare. Trained to fight other legitimate armed forces on established battlefields, they are often ill-equipped for counterinsurgencies and guerrilla warfare. This is changing as military training is adapted to meet the new environment, but we are still behind the curve. Terrorists such as Hezbollah see everything as a battlefield. They don't believe in a Plains of Abraham setting. Where they are at any given moment is a potential site for war. That includes apartment buildings, cafes, discos, schools, hospitals, and places of business and commerce. Osama bin Laden has stated that he does not see the need to distinguish between what we consider "civilian" and "military" targets.
This raises a major problem for a democratic state. Because democratic governments conduct wars simultaneously with an election cycle, force is an option that must be undertaken after grave consideration. Because of our free press, any tactics that result in the loss of life will have consequences on our television screens and newspapers. Our enemies know this, and that is why they exploit the tragic deaths of innocent women and children. They do not do so out of legitimate concern, they do so for propaganda purposes because they know that democratic citizens will recoil in horror at the sight of charred, bloody bodies. Golda Meier's famous saying is so true: "I can forgive them for killing my children. I cannot forgive them for forcing my children to kill theirs."
This is an important distinction to make, one which is not made with enough regularity or fervour: democracies steadfastly seek to avoid killing civilians and deeply regret doing so, but terrorists deliberately kill civilians and establish their positions where they know civilians will be killed in order to exploit their deaths. Hezbollah's "guided tours" of bombed-out city blocks demonstrate this all too well. They say, "Look, Israel is killing Muslim women and children." What they don't say is that Hezbollah chose the apartment right below the one that housed those women and children in order to use them as human shields. This is a deplorable tactic, and one which Israel seeks to work around, at considerable cost to its own people. Often, instead of using aerial bombardment against a target, the IDF will fly in a handful of commandos so that they can directly target the handful of terrorists that they seek to kill. In this seek and destroy missions, Israeli soldiers are often killed en route to achieving the objective. Israel knows that it could simply have dropped a few bombs from the sky and demolished the site, killing the terrorists and sparing Israeli soldiers' lives, but it also knows that the terrorists will use the incidental killing of civilians for propaganda purposes.
Compare the actions of democratic Israel with the Rwandan civil war. In that horrific genocide, civilians were deliberately targeted. I still recoil with horror the memory of some of the things I have read about Rwanda: forces invading a village, raping and mutilating all the women in front of their husbands, who were then killed; entire villages whose people had their left arms cut off as a demonstration of terror and fear; child soldiers being recruited and forced to kill their own tribespeople. Those are war crimes. Crimes against humanity. Crimes that should make every single person's stomach turn with disgust that people could treat their fellow human beings with such brutality and callousness. That people attempt to conflate Israel's actions with those of such war crimes is deeply unsettling and disturbing.
Democracies are always wary of war, for these very reasons. It is why the United States does not recognize the International Criminal Court; America has many enemies who would use that body to advance an agenda to hamstring the United States and prevent it from undertaking the legitimate actions of a sovereign state to protect itself and its allies. It is why many have responded with opprobrium for Louise Arbour's statement and why many have scratched their heads when Kofi Annan lambastes Israel but remains mute on Hezbollah's tactics.
Democracies are held to a higher standard and hold themselves to a higher standard. This is eminently appropriate. It would be highly unbecoming of a democratic state to engage in similar tactics to those used in Rwanda. But the portrayal of democratic states' actions in 21st century war raise a spectre so high and insurmountable that it weakens the collective will to do what is right. We are right to deplore the killing of civilians. We are right to question why our governments commit our young men and women to kill other men and women. We are right to mourn every flag-draped coffin that is displayed on television.
But we must retain our resolve to do what is right for the world. Just because we stand down and are wary of war, our enemies are not. They see the constraints we place upon ourselves as a weakness, and they exploit it. They manipulate our compassion and respect for humanity to muddy the waters and lead us to forget, even if just for a moment, that the responsibility for those dead women and children in the streets of Beirut, Baghdad, Kabul, Kandahar, Basra, Qana, Gaza City, and elsewhere, is theirs. They put those women and children in a position of being shields, from which they thrust their sword and then retreat to hide behind innocent people so that they are killed instead.
No matter how "smart" or "precision" the bomb is, it still isn't smart enough to kill only terrorists and not blow up a hospital in the process. The alternative to this is a ground war and occupation, which can be no less bloody or gruesome. Peace is always the objective for a democracy, but a democracy realizes that peace cannot be achieved until those who would destroy the peace are eliminated or neutralized. The objective of a terrorist is always terror, and thus they will ensure that if a democracy seeks to end terror they will have to kill innocent lives along with those of the terrorists.
The terrorists thus hold hostage civilians and non-combatants, who only want to live in peace and freedom. Nobody wants to live under oppression and tyranny. The notion that liberty, democracy, and the rule of law, not individual men, are not suitable for people in other regions is absurd. Voices across the Middle East are screaming--via the Internet and other silent channels--for liberation from their dictators and the terrorists who hold them hostage. They cannot achieve this on their own, and it would be a disastrous shirking of our responsibilities as leaders and democracies to not reach out to them and give them the support they need and deserve. Sometimes that will mean force must be used. A dictator doesn't voluntarily walk away from power. There is no Cincinnatus (go look it up, I'll wait) in Tehran, Damascus, or Pyongyang. We, as democracies, love peace, but we must do what is necessary in order to ensure that the peace we cherish is durable, sustainable, and not susceptible to backsliding at the whims of those who inherently reject peace.