Saturday, October 2, 2010

Speak Softly and Let Your Enemies Think You're A Great Marksman

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By Barry Rubin

If you want to win a fight, it's always a good thing not to criticize yourself too much, openly declare you fear battle, abandon your friends, or keep making concessions to the other side. These are basic concepts of international affairs often forgotten by Western elites today.

Mark Twain told a wonderful story about a real experience he had that applies well to such situations.

When he was a journalist in the mining town of Carson City, Nevada, during the Civil War one of his best friends got into a quarrel with Laird, a bullying reporter on a rival newspaper, This resulted in a challenge to a duel. Twain's friend didn't know anything about firearms, so Twain took him out for practice.

Before they could start the lesson, they heard Laird practicing in the next ravine.

Twain saw a small bird pretty far away. "Let me have that pistol," Twain told his friend, "I'll show you how to shoot." With one shot Twain blew the bird's head off. At that precise moment, Laird and his second came over the ridge. Without hesitation, Twain pressed the gun in his friend's hand.

"Who did that?" asked Laird's second.

"He did," said Twain, pointing to his friend.

"Can he do it again?"

"Of course," said Twain, "he's a great shot and can easily hit a small target twice as far away."

At which point the other duellist's second said to him: "Laird, you don't want to fight that man. It's just like suicide. You'd better settle this thing now."

And Laird whispered loudly to his second, "Fight! Hell, no! I am not going to be murdered by that damned desperado." He begged Twain's friend for forgiveness, which was granted. The duel was cancelled.

There is clearly a lesson in this for foreign policy, isn't there? In diplomatic terms it's called deterrence, even if your show of power involves a bit of bluff and requires help from allies who are ready and able to defend themselves. Showing your willingness to deter and power to make the other side pay for aggression against your interests is called leverage.

But keep proclaiming that you're weak, and sinful, and apologize for using violence in the past, and offer concessions, and beg those who won't compromise to do so, and you're the one who'll end up like that little bird.

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,

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