Thursday, August 03, 2006

[Israel-Lebanese War]

The Morality of No Sides.

Where, exactly, do you date the start of the Muslim-Israeli conflict? The answer to this question has a lot to do with how you characterize the morality of the conflict. If you go back 3,000 years, you probably side with the Israelis, who saw their homeland shrink due to incursions by neighboring tribes and eventually, the Romans, who expelled the Jews in 132 BCE. (Who was there 3,001 years ago? History does not record.) If you date it to the 1947 UN Partition of Palestine, you probably support the Palestinians (and see later seizures of Egyptian, Jordian, and Syrian, and Lebanese land of evidence of Israeli illegitimacy).

The history of humans is one of war and conquest, of displacement and subjugation. The entire New World has risen on the burial mounds of great nations. There is precious little land in Europe, Asia, or Africa that has not seen the race, language, or religion of its leaders change violently under this commonplace historical upheaval. Yet we move on, burying the bloody hands of our ancestors, if not our memory of their struggles. From time to time, the memories overwhelm a region and we witness, mouths agape, atrocity we didn't remember humans had the capacity to commit.

In most of these cases, the rest of the world has the remove to avoid taking sides. It is obvious that trying to sort out who committed the first offense is beyond our legal and historical capacity. Not so with Israel. As I watch the horror unfold, I rarely see anyone exercise this remove. Worse, this is one of the few global conflicts where people seem to have forgotten that it is possible not to take sides: you're either "for" Israel and its "right to defend itself" or you're against it. I have watched as liberals, who cannot sanction so much of what Israel has done--the wall, the subjugation of Palestinians, the displacement of Palestinians, the use of illegal settlements, and now the indescrimante bombing of Lebanon--go mum because neither can they sanction a terrorist organization like Hezbollah.

Good liberals, more than ever, are the hope for peace in the Middle East. Bush and his neocon advisors have an Old Testament view of foreign policy: for them, violence is itself a cleansing moral act. "Terrorists" must not only be vanquished, but punished. It is not enough to reach a peace, we must have absolution. It is a mindset that demands taking sides--there can be no "moral equivalencies."

But it's the idea that there is a moral player in this mess that is at fault. No one's hands are clean, inside or outside the Mideast. Almost every nation on the planet has participated in this disaster, and we are all culpable for the deaths that have resulted. The only path out is serious, painful diplomacy that has at its core the fervent belief that punishment cannot be a part of the solution. The problem is taking sides. The solution is abandoning them. If there is any chance for the cycles of retribution to end, it's not in finding the source of the intial slight and righting historical wrongs, it's in finding our common humanity, putting aside the identification with the hatred, and agreeing to forgive and move forward.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with your thesis: everyone is at fault, and playing the blame game will not help attain a solution.

I'd just like to add that there are many people who do start the Israeli-Muslim/Arab narrative at 1947 and still believe that Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself. Let's recall that by 1947, there were nearly as many Jews living in Palestine as Arabs; that British control of Palestine was legitimate post-World War I; and that the U.N.'s partition plan -- which Israel accepted and the Arab world rejected -- was a legally and morally sound order. It was the Arab world that declared war on Israel in 1948 and again in 1967.

You may believe that this comment just falls into the same "blame game" trap. That's not my intention. I don't think any of this history is relevant to finding a solution in the Middle East -- either in the short-term or the long-term. I just thought it important to set the record straight that many of those who consider only recent history still support the right of Israel's seven million citizens to govern themselves and to live free of terrorism.

Idler said...

What's wrong with taking the side of a liberal democracy that would be happy to get on with business rather than waste its resources on war rather than a theocratic, mysoginistic, homophobic, warlike, organization that misses no opportunity to inflict casualties on civilians and is dedicated to ethnic cleansing, and not surprisingly is hostile to the open society we enjoy in the West?

And how, exactly, do you arrive at the statement that Israel is bombing indiscriminately?

Chuck Butcher said...

I have no desire to be snide or cynical, but what players in the region would support a pragmatic solution? The Lebanese govt. would fall if they did, Israel can't, Hezbollah has no reason to. At this point the inflammatory rhetoric has pushed the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians into a corner. I proposed on my Blog that Syria might be the one with something to gain if the other Sunni nations could see their way, but they now look cornered, to me.

I don't think I can say pragmatic and Bush Administration in the same breath without choking...gggaaarkkk...

Jeff Alworth said...

Idler, on bombing indescriminately: Qana. As to your other questions, they're manifest in the post. You many not agree with them, but I don't see how your questions aren't addressed there.

Chuck, your cynicism is hard to refute, and yet I am hopeful. When serious people sit down to broker peace, it can be done. Carter showed us that with Egypt, and we nearly saw a Palestinian peace brokered under Rabin. So it's not out of the question. It IS out of the question for the Bushies to broker--thanks to Iraq, we are toxic to the process now.

Idler said...

You're simply wrong, Jeff. As in the case of the "carpet bombing" comment, your use of language is careless at best.

Indiscriminate means making no distinction between military targets and civilian ones. Israeli rules of engagement make such distinctions. Obviously Hizbollah does not.

The Qana attack was aimed at a rocket battery operating in the immediate vicinity of the building hit. Tragic mistakes happen in warfare, and they happen more frequently when one side shields itself with civilians.

I don't understand why you are so resistant to acknowledging the differences between a force that kills civilians when it misses and one that kills civilians when it hits. Hizbollah continues to rain hundreds of rockets on Israeli cities in truly indiscriminate fashion. If they discriminate at all, they do in that they are actually attempting to hit civilian targets specifically.

Jeff Alworth said...

I don't understand why you are so resistant to acknowledging the differences between a force that kills civilians when it misses and one that kills civilians when it hits.

Because that's the ax you're grinding, not me. I am firmly not taking sides (you might have guessed that by the title. You might also have read what I wrote:

"No one's hands are clean, inside or outside the Mideast. Almost every nation on the planet has participated in this disaster, and we are all culpable for the deaths that have resulted. The only path out is serious, painful diplomacy that has at its core the fervent belief that punishment cannot be a part of the solution. The problem is taking sides."

I get it, you're for Israel. Rock on, brother. I'm not. Nor for Hezbollah. Pick your battle: mine is against partisans. I think you worsen the problem and doom those you seek to help. I think the good intentions by folks like you--or far worse, George W. Bush--doom Israel and doom the Muslim world.

[Interestingly, as I write this, I've got one eye on McLaughlin Group, and center-right pundit Mort Zuckerman just described Israel's attacks on Lebanaon as "carpet bombing." He, unlike me, was not using language for effect.]

Chuck Butcher said...

The differences that generate my cynicism in regard to Egypt and Palestine/Rabin is that in both cases there were clear wins to be had. Egypt lost an implacable dangerous foe and Israel lost a continuing irritation/threat. Palestine and Rabin both had gains to be had (what motivates Hamas v Israel evades me - they'd gotten most of what they wanted - and threw it away in exchange for destruction). There are 2 winning scenarios I see - Iran with Syria piggybacking shows its clout and secondly, Syria could be drawn back into the "Sunni fold" with things like Golan Heights, guaranteed American non-interference in domestic affairs, openings in trade, etc. The problem is that Bashar is an "American villain" and the anti-thesis to Democracy and regime change neo-con policies. I'm not suggesting the old policies of supporting "our bad guys" v "their bad guys", but for pete's sake, creating an atomosphere of threat to the guy has succeeded in worsening his behavior rather than any positive effect.

Look here, I have no sympathy for anybody who thinks you can "play" at war. That idea leads to wars too easily and pretends that it can be done "nicely." Its a nasty brutal wasteful process, always was and will always be. Trying to bomb civilians into submission has not ever worked, but bombing the hell out of everything remotely military has an undenialble atritting effect and the eventual serious degradation of war effort. Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally scared hell out of the political entity - securing quick peace - but the strategic bombing of all industrial facilities (including civilian dispersed ones) broke the Japenese & German military machines. But regardless of the intended targets there are going to be horrific civilian casualties - the Germans and Japanese mastered the art of civilian dispersal.

The US has pretended you can do it nicely and the resulting casualties are a PR nightmare, Israel has taken followed that lead and the attending PR fallout shows how well it works. If a nation figures it has to go to war, then they'd better just do it. "We're going to blow hell out of everything in our way and if you get near it, you've got a problem." Sherman's march across Georgia didn't demoralize the South, it killed its resource base, it's intended target, but plain folks sure suffered for it. War sucks big time, it should never be engaged in without that acknowlegement, which means almost never.

BTW, you know carpet bombing has a specific meaning and its name is apt, nothing left standing in a specified broad area, we did it to the Iraqis in Kuwait with B52s and they're damn good at it and trying to live through it would be unimaginable. There's a huge difference and the exaggeration minimizes both the effects of such a bombing and also the suffering endured in targeted bombing, a different critter. I understand the temptation, but you are both a clearer thinker and better writer than that. Besides, it encourages arguments that have nothing to do with the actual point at hand.

Idler, a liberal democracy?? Give me a break, they don't look liberal even next to George II and they're even more theocratic. That's the same wishful defining that the other side of that argument engages in, they're both shitheads and deserve what they've gotten, problem is, a lot of people outside of power are the ones getting screwed, I suppose there's something new in that...

Anybody still noticing how many people are dying in Iraq?

Idler said...

Chuck,

If your bluster and “cynicism” is meant to make you seem sophisticated, I regret to inform you that it has the opposite effect.

If you think it’s “wishful defining” to draw a sharp contrast between Israel and Hizbollah, you lack the most elementary power of discrimination.

I invite you to describe life in Israel under that country’s government and life under Hizbollah. Perhaps you could specifically refute my claim that Hizbollah is a “theocratic, mysoginistic, homophobic, warlike, organization that misses no opportunity to inflict casualties on civilians and is dedicated to ethnic cleansing, and not surprisingly is hostile to the open society we enjoy in the West.”

Jeff,

Impartiality about parties is one thing, impartiality about the facts of the case is another. And even impartiality about parties is questionable as in the case, say, of a dispute between the KKK and the NAACP, to draw a hypothetical case.

The “ax” I’m “grinding” is to point out what I believe should be obvious about Israel and its enemies particular its terrorist enemies and how this ought to influence our thinking about disputes between those parties, as well as a larger strategic context within which they appear. Perhaps I should be happy with the fact that a man of the left actually expresses disapproval for Hizbollah’s methods. That’s progress. I believe in this case it also shows a measure of independence and courage, though social pressure moves you to limit yourself to a posture of equivalence and an abandonment of consideration of the merits.

It’s one thing to recommend that in the interest of peace one should negotiate despite the vileness of one side of a dispute. Again, I credit you for at least recognizing the vileness of Hizbollah, if only in a rather general fashion. But then you willfully avoid drawing any meaningful ethical distinctions between the parties. That’s not impartiality, it’s imbecility; and wrapping it up in noble sounding language doesn’t make it any less an abdication of reason and morality: “One side strictly observes the Geneva Conventions and the other violates them at every turn? Be that as it may, we shouldn’t play favorites!”

Anyway, we wouldn’t be having this discussion if you had simply avoided expressing an opinion. Rather, you chose to express judgments about Israel that are open to dispute, to say the least.

If you want to argue that my position has the tendency to “worsen the problem,” I welcome your attempts to demonstrate it. In order to make that case you have to grapple with the facts of the case rather than simply withdraw and wash your hands of the matter.

Let me just say in closing that I agree that the solution is “not in finding the source of the initial slight.” However, Israel’s terrorist enemies show no interest in finding the common humanity of Israelis/Jews. They’re all about the hatred, and they have their gaze set on the long-term goal. The other day Iran’s president Ahmedinejad said “although the main solution is for the elimination of the Zionist regime, at this stage an immediate cease-fire must be implemented.” He could hardly have made a clearer appeal to buy time while building strength (in the form of a nuclear deterrent from interference at the very least) for a final victory. What does this mean for the possibilities of negotiation, and about the hazards of failing to pay close attention to the character of any given side of a dispute?

Jeff Alworth said...

Idler, if this is your idea of objectivity:

though social pressure moves you to limit yourself to a posture of equivalence and an abandonment of consideration of the merits.

and

"That’s not impartiality, it’s imbecility"

then I guess our discussion is done here.

More to the point, this blog isn't about convincing you of anything ("If you want to argue that my position has the tendency to 'worsen the problem,' I welcome your attempts to demonstrate it.") My post--still--speaks for itself. The ax you don't think you're grinding is everywhere evident in your post. The "facts" you cite are interpretive at best and--again--beside the point.

Idler said...

My entire post is void because I use rhetoric to make my point? Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone!

Great excuse to cut off the discussion, since that's what you most seem to want to do. My point is that you want to avoid serious consideration of the facts. This only demonstrates further that inclination.

I was perfectly explicit about the ax I have to grind. The scare quotes are only to distance myself from your choice of metaphor (one example of your rhetoric). What's your reason for choosing equivalence over making significant ethical distinctions?

You say the facts are "interpretive at best" but you don't hesitate to make your own determination. You don't seem to keen to have it challenged. But the facts are actually not so interpretive. The differences between Israel and Hizbollah (among other terrorist organizations) are obvious, starting with Hizbollah's stated intention of killing civilians.

Presumably your post is meant to persuasive to somebody. It's certainly a big success if it aims not to convince me.

Chuck Butcher said...

Idler,
You get your knickers into a bunch and can't read. It's wishful defining to call Israel a "liberal democracy" and it's wishful thinking to call Hizbollah something other than a terrorist adjunct of Iran. Israel is not LIBERAL except maybe in comparison to some of its neighbors. Telling some one in OR that it's liberal is nonsense, unless you define GWB as a liberal...