Retaliation (Sept. 24, 2001)

A terrible weapon wipes out the most visible landmarks at the heart of a major city. Thousands of civilians die. The targeted nation considers revenge.

What if, instead of revenge, the targeted nation humbly admits it has made some mistakes? What if it draws solace from the fact that reasonable people within the attacking culture will question their own leaders?  What if it gives the world, and the attacker, no new adventure that could shift the focus away from the unspeakable calamity?

Well, one possibility is that, forty years later, the attacked country will have a commanding presence in the attacker’s markets for automobiles and VCRs, not to mention substantial strength in its financial services and sushi bars.

Japan, like a clever cuckold, did not deprive its adversary in 1945 of moral blame by launching into a self-destructive tit-for-tat strategy thereafter.  Long after the fires of war had died down, the children of the generation that dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima still sometimes hoped, nervously, that the children of those horribly burned people were not the type to hold a grudge.  Fifty years later, and despite Japan’s acts of starting the war and killing thousands of Americans, experts still disagreed on whether the Bomb was an absolute necessity or a moral failure.

The land of the Rising Sun taught us a lesson.  We had found a weapon so ugly that we could not bear to use it anymore. That was President Truman’s stated viewpoint after Nagasaki, and that viewpoint became permanent.  By the time of the Vietnam war, there was little doubt that we would rather tear ourselves apart than drop it on Hanoi.  And if we let the story play out as Japan did, that may become the whole world’s overwhelming, knee-jerk reaction to any instance in which anyone, from any country, deliberately flies a loaded jetliner into a building full of people.

President Bush is under great pressure to lash out, now, in some military way. The intensity of the pressure is not due, however, to its wisdom.  It is due, rather, to the nature of the stimulant. Viciously whacking a pool ball with a stick is sufficient to make it bounce and roll around randomly until superior forces of gravity and friction finally drag it to a halt, possibly back where it started.  This would be an odd metaphor for leadership.  Unlike the pool ball, we get to make some choices about what happens next.

Certainly every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction.  The question is whether the reaction must also be immediate and similar.  The Japanese example says no. We are good at geopolitical chess, even though it is sometimes slow and frustrating. So if the terrorist prefers checkers, must we humor him?

As we have contemplated our response, we have seen a marvelous thing. Nations that normally dislike us are lining up to support us.  Who could imagine India, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran all signaling some degree of sympathy with any American military or political initiative in Asia?  A clever chess player would appreciate this opportunity to consolidate our position with these sometime opponents. How shrewd would it be, at a time like this, to play the game that our adversary chose, and to do so in a way that alienates these newfound supporters?

Right now, the Taliban is doing an excellent job of ruining Afghanistan, tainting the purity of fundamentalist Islam, and making enemies around the world.  We have already seen, in Iran and Vietnam, that ordinary people eventually tire of revolution.  Let us not get in the way of these processes.  Let’s not give the Taliban another Caucasian invader against which it can relive the glorious days of its birth during the Soviet invastion a generation ago.

If we see our strength as being primarily a matter of force, then the worst we can do to Afghanistan is to help it become even more poor and war-torn.  But if we see our real strength as a matter of ideas, then we might begin to feel sorry for the people of that country.  Without help from someone like us, they must suffer under a clergy so ignorant that they would blow up the world’s largest statue of the Buddha, as they did earlier this year, when there is not a hick farmer in America who would have failed to see that statue’s potential for providing leverage against (and income from) the tourists and believers who would revere it.

The worst threat facing Afghanistan now is not the American military.  They’re used to that sort of thing.  The worst threat is that “Afghan” will become a worldwide brand name for the Third Reich of this new century. Then, forty years from now, if the witnesses of this holocaust have learned from the survivors of a previous one, the adage “Never forget” will still be in play, and the children of today’s angry Muslims will still be asking themselves whether the terrorists of September 2001 really did consider and pursue all reasonable alternatives.  Like an unfaithful spouse’s network of second-guessing friends, these inquiring minds could impose a more nosy and proud long-term sanction against further illicit dalliances than any “top-this” challenge from an adrenalized adversary.

None of this implies that we should fail to act.  That would be a disservice to the budding New World Order glimpsed by our president’s forbear.  Nobody would have predicted that the NWO would arrive on this particular silver platter, but here it is.  Let us have such overwhelming strength, then, that we can take this blow without losing sight of this opportunity.

Since we must act, let us start by recognizing that the drive to clean up terrorism is not a war. It is a police action. As such, it deserves the same professional, apolitical treatment as any other police action.  The police force may demand suitable training and equipment. It may require officers and even a chief whose ethnicity is familiar to the patrolled territory.  And in some neighborhoods, it may show results only after we commit ourselves to years of expert scrutiny of, and comprehensive attention to, the relevant criminal networks and social factors.

This struggle does not justify us, and it will not reward us, if we use a bazooka on anyone’s front lawn.  Notwithstanding our anger, the long-term game is very different from the short-term one. Rushing into this would be a terrible waste of opportunity. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

(This item was previously posted in my ideas blog.)

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