Sunday, September 5, 2010

Diplomats' Dilemma: What to Do Other Than Appeasement or War When You're Attacked?

By Barry Rubin

Diplomats, a British ambassador explained several centuries ago, are gentlemen sent abroad to lie for their country. I'd add that the problems start when they start to lie on behalf of other countries, while the disaster begins when they start to lie for enemies of their country.

Stefan Zweig, in a 1930 book, spoke of, “Diplomatists, who form a little understood but extremely dangerous variety of our human kind”

But diplomats and political leaders today also have real dilemmas, in some ways unresolvable ones. Here's an example of how the problem works and bedevils Middle East policy and foreign policy generally.

A year ago, Britain released Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from prison and returned him to Libya. This was done nominally because a doctor said--the British government had to shop around until it found the right doctor--that he was dying. The real reason, apparently, was that this move helped British Petroleum get a big contract with Libya.

Today, though, Megrahi is doing well.  He isn't dying at all. In fact, Libya celebrated the anniversary of his release and he was visited by son-of-dictator (and apparent successor) Saif Qadhafi.

The British government warned Libya that any such celebration would be “tasteless, offensive and deeply insensitive” as well as making it really, really angry. Libya didn't care, ignored the threat, and Britain did nothing.

In short, a Western country looks weak, scared, and corrupt; and a repressive, hate-filled, terrorist-supporting dictatorship looks powerful and in control of the world. The signal thus sent leads to a world where democrats tremble and dictators romp.

Let's take a step back and consider this as a case study. Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was given a 27-year prison sentence in 2001 for involvement in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, murdering 270 people, mostly U.S. citizens.

But of course Megrahi was just a scapegoat. He was acting in his capacity as a Libyan government official and in the end he took the rap like a loyal Mafia soldier. No doubt his family has been well provided for.

Still, the conclusion is obvious: The Libyan government ordered the bombing. Muammar Qadhafi and his regime are responsible for this terrorist act, just as the Iranian and Syrian governments are responsible for directly ordering numerous terrorist attacks.

Indeed, the U.S. attack on the Barbary pirates in the early nineteenth century--because they were attacking American ships and kidnapping those on board--precisely parallels the situation with Qadhafi two centuries later. It is also what the United States did in staging a single bombing raid on Libya in 1986 after that country sponsored a terror attack on a Berlin discotheque that killed two American soldiers and injured 200 people. That didn't stop Qadhafi, but the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003 did frighten him into at least temporary "moderation."

So what's a victim country to do? The traditional response to such behavior is a military attack, perhaps the seizure of part of the aggressive company or even the occupation of its capital and overthrow of the regime. The idea is that the threat is thus removed, the malefactors punished, and an example is given to deter future imitators.

One could say that this is what the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11, with the former a response to the attack on the World Trade Center and the latter to Saddam Hussein's frequent flouting of his previous agreements and reported pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Does this mean that the proper response to the Lockerbie attack should have been a coalition attack on Libya and overthrowing the Qadhafi regime? And what about the Western attitude toward the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip? Compared to Iraq, removing the Hamas regime and putting the Palestinian Authority back in or bringing down Qadhafi would have been far easier and more justifiable, certainly more beneficial for regional stability and enhancing the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Can a country act unilaterally to defend itself from terrorism or even direct aggression (in Israel's case that applies to Hizballah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008). Must it await a UN resolution? Or can nothing be done at all, since avoiding civilian casualties or even violence altogether seems a higher priority nowadays than defending yourself or overthrowing a repressive, aggressive dictatorship. 

These are difficult questions. The nineteenth-century British prime minister William Gladstone, who had to face such problems, remarked: “Interference in foreign countries, according to my mind, should be rare, deliberate, decisive in character, and effectual for its end.” When Sudanese Islamist forces were closing in on Khartoum in 1884-85, set to massacre not only the British-led Egyptian force sent to protect the population there but also thousands of Sudanese Muslim civilians, he didn't want to act.

British public opinion was outraged after Khartoum fell and the subsequent massacre. Later British governments overthrew the Islamist regime and joined Sudan to its Egyptian dominion. That kind of behavior is derided today as imperialism.

A military response is no simple solution. It is expensive, long in duration, and causes casualties. Things go wrong. Military campaigns fail, planes crash, friendly fire kill your own troops, and bombs go astray and kill civilians.  Western news media will trumpet every misdeed or mistake. Violence cannot be used lightly.

Moreover, since deep-seated social and structural problems are at the root of what might be called the "dictator regions of the world" one does not see miraculous transformations. Also given the new kind of asymmetric warfare, radical regimes and movements welcome the death of their people and destruction of their infrastructure as a means of gaining sympathy and mobilizing forces.

Israel, at times attacked from all sides, with a supportive population (public opinion criticized the government response to the Lebanon war in 2006 as too soft),  insufficient international support, and little margin for error has understandably adopted a policy of retaliation to maintain credibility. Generally, this approach has worked.

Recently, an editor of an American newsmagazine, referring to Israel's security fence against terrorism, remarked that "unfortunately" the barrier had worked. Unfortunately? Does he regret that terrorist attacks are foiled and lives saved? Presumably, he only regrets that the kind of solutions he doesn't like does work. If power, force, energetic self-defense (rather than doing away with "root causes" of conflict, which is difficult to achieve when your enemies only want to tear you out by the roots) solve problems I guess he intends to ignore that fact rather than to revise his own views.

Nowadays, Israel taking the necessary steps to protect its security are inhibited not by domestic factors or their views but by an extremely low level of international backing, which would erode even further if Israel hit back too long or hard. In addition, Israel has no wish to retake the West Bank, Gaza Strip, or south Lebanon. And it knows that nothing it can do will end the conflict (through victory) or change the hearts of its enemies (through concessions).

That last point, by the way is generally misunderstood by, respectively, the foreign right and left, both of which entertain fantasies on these points. Neither violence nor peace-making offers a full solution, yet deterrence and credibility really do work, at least for a while. True, Hizballah and Hamas will want to fight again in future but that future can be postponed; Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO were pushed by Israel's military pressure out of the conflict (as much as that can happen), while Syria is too fearful to fight on its own account (thus using Lebanon as a human shield).

The Western situation is quite different. To put it bluntly, governments can justify a policy in which anything short of a September 11 attack can largely be ignored or dealt with through types of appeasement. Accepting some mid-level intelligence guy as payment for Libyan terrorism was a form of appeasement, as were the lessons drawn by Britain and Spain as a result of major terrorist attacks in their capitals.

And while the United States did go to war with both Afghanistan (direct responsibility for September 11) and Iraq (violation of commitments, sponsoring terrorism, believed (rightly or wrongly?) to be developing nuclear weapons) we all see where that ended up. The outcome includes years of war, billions of dollars, and a sharp shift in the political orientation of the United States resulting in its current government.

If one brings in Third World democracies, India was powerless to deal with Pakistan which had obviously sponsored a huge terror attack in Mumbai. South Korea has its hands tied regarding North Korea; Thailand can't do anything to counter support by at least provincial governments in Malaysia for terrorists in its southern region.

So where's the line between going to war and letting aggressors walk all over you? One option is covert, deniable action. But even that seems out of favor in a West that prefers to turn the other cheek in the face of subversion, terrorism, and insult. It is bad enough when a contributing factor here is what might be called, in effect, an ideological fifth column. When that sector has a large measure of hegemony in academia, entertainment, media, and even government then traditional strategic behavior becomes close to impossible.

Yet refusal to react to aggression and terrorist subversion today only means one will have to respond to a greater threat from a more unfavorable starting point in future. Those who believe that "violence never works" are ensuring that it only works for the other side.

What then is the answer? A combination of things: having leaders who believe your country's virtues outweigh its sins and think that its enemies are due more opposition than sympathy; clarity on the issues, a campaign to gain domestic support, verbal toughness, helping the enemies of one's enemies, supporting one's friends including those who are willing to fight in self-defense, sanctions, covert operations, and when necessary appropriate types of military action.

But first you need to know two simple things: you've got enemies and neither flattery nor apology nor concessions nor betraying your friends nor bashing yourself is going to change that fact.

Is that too much to ask?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports, at

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