Calibrated violence fails to achieve its goal

April 25, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The dangerous idea that force can be measured, controlled and precisely applied not only for direct but indirect political effect, was born in American think-tanks of the 1950s and 1960s.

It was born because it was needed. The American style of war always before was that of unconditional surrender -- after which peace could be reconstructed on a foundation swept clear of all that had been there before. When nuclear weapons arrived, this style of war no longer was thinkable.

War was re-thought on the model of economics. The new strategists based their work on the assumption that all parties to a conflict would be rational actors, maximizing advantage and minimizing ''pain.'' The limitation to this kind of thinking was its assumption that there is only one kind of rationality, that of the strategic thinker himself -- or his sponsor.

Via Lebanon to Syria

Israel is a victim of this thinking. Its attacks in Lebanon over the last two weeks, originally against Hezbollah targets, were subsequently directed to provoke an exodus of refugees from northern Lebanon so as to embarrass and encumber the Lebanese government, and set back Lebanon's national reconstruction.

Inflicting this ''pain'' on the Lebanese was supposed to make Syria ''see reason.'' It was meant to force the Lebanese to demand that their Syrian occupiers clamp down on Hezbollah.

This has failed, as should have been foreseeable from the start, and not merely because of the civilians who became its victims. What Israel accomplished was to reinstate Syria's President Hafez el Assad as the regional strongman with whom everyone else must deal if a form of peace, or ''peace process,'' is to be restored between Israel and its neighbors. This is not what Prime Minister Shimon Peres wanted when he launched this ill-fated campaign.

Peace through ''pain''

Some Israelis and Americans now suggest that ''pain'' has to be applied to Mr. Assad himself -- by an extension of the violence to Syria, presumably. Experience does not recommend that course. Since Israel was founded in 1948, and the Arab powers declared war on it, both it and its American ally have repeatedly struck at Israel's tormentors. Thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have suffered. Israel has not found security.

Israel today is in no danger of military conquest. The Katyusha rockets Hezbollah fires from Lebanon, and the suicide bombers inside Israel, are not a mortal danger to the state. They are a moral threat, because they inculcate the fear that the nation will never be left in peace. They fuel the internal conflicts and hatreds that afflict Israeli politics and produced the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin earlier this year.

Israel's successive victories over the Arabs have each generated new insecurities. The threat from Lebanon was relatively small until two weeks ago. Hezbollah's resumed attacks were supposedly retaliation for a civilian death which Hezbollah blamed on the Israeli army.

They were also a Syrian answer to the pressure put on Syria by Israel and the United States in the diplomatic struggle over the future of the Golan Heights. President Assad, thanks to Hezbollah and Israel, has now reminded everyone that he is a power player. He has succeeded in his aim, whereas Mr. Peres has failed in his.

Too late for compromise

In March I wrote a pessimistic column about Israel and the Palestinians, saying that by ignoring every earlier chance to compromise, both sides, weakened, had arrived at a point where compromises were too late. The outcome for Israel promised to be permanent insecurity and frustration, with all that implied for the future of the Jewish state.

In response I had a quite unexpected letter from the crown prince of Jordan, El Hassan bin Talal. He said that I expressed ''a sense of despair that is shared by many in the Middle East,'' but argued that this was exactly the sentiment the ''rejectionists'' on both side wanted to promote.

He of course is right. Hezbollah on the one hand, its sponsors in Iran, and Israel's own unconditional opponents of any concession to Palestinians, Syrians or to Lebanon, are objectively allied in their resistance to a political settlement.

Jordan, Israel, the PLO and Lebanon itself have a common interest in such a settlement. Renewed destruction in Lebanon, inevitably with still more innocent victims, like the blind rocketing by Hezbollah of Israeli villages, simply produces a new generation to go into the future dominated by hatred.

The only solution

Political compromise is the only solution. Israel is in South Lebanon because Hezbollah is there. Hezbollah is there because Israel is there. Syria is in Lebanon because control of that country and of Hezbollah is an important instrument in President Assad's pursuit of his own and Syria's interests.

In principle, Israel's security on its northern fronts -- and Lebanon's security -- are negotiable problems. In practice they may prove not to be. National security, control of water resources, prestige and domestic politics all are at stake in the Golan for both Israel and Syria.

Neither Secretary of State Warren Christopher nor his European and Russian diplomatic competitors have anything yet to show for their efforts.

Nor does Israel, from its escalation of the violence. Once again, any compromises, if any come, may come too late.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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