Kevin Drum reports an exchange he had with Michael Totten. In a TechCentralStation column Michael says “The Palestinian Authority should be given one last chance to eliminate terror.” If they “fail,” the U.S. must classify the PA as a terrorist organization, “Declare ‘regime change’ in the West Bank and Gaza the official United States policy” and basically get rid of everybody:
The first phase would not be complete until the enemies of peace are defeated, deported, imprisoned, or killed. These include Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It may also include the Palestinian Authority.
Kevin complains that, despite paying lipservice to the complexity of the problems, hawks often backslide into these kinds of kill-em-all policy proposals. Having grown up in Ireland, I can sympathise with the “Scorch the Earth and Salt the Fields” reaction. It’s a natural expression of justifiable anger and frustration. But the hawks never seem to pause to think how they might react if they and their kin were the targets of the kind of policy Totten advocates.
It is possible to destroy an entire terrorist organization, if it’s of the right sort. You can exterminate freefloating gangs like Bader-Meinhof, say. But outfits like the IRA and Hamas bear an entirely different relation to the society they inhabit. The the idea that you can just “defeat, deport, imprison or kill” everyone in these organizations is a Boys’ Weekly fantasy. It assumes the number of people you need to kill is fixed. Irish history is stuffed with examples of British administrators or soldiers who thought they could just get rid of “the rebel element” one way or another. Usually their policies had precisely the opposite effect. Lieutenant General Sir John Maxwell was the military commander who made sure the leaders of the 1916 Rising were executed one by one. I believe he said at the time that he intended his actions to ensure that “no whisper of rebellion would be heard in this country for a hundred years.” John Dillon, a politician who’d worked his whole life for a political solution to Irish self-determination, saw things more clearly:
You are letting loose a river of blood … What is happening is that thousands of people in Dublin, who ten days ago were bitterly opposed to the whole of the Sinn Fein movement and to the rebellion, are now becoming infuriated against the Government on account of these executions …
This sort of approach often has the side-effect of making agents of a supposedly legitimate democratic state do some of the same sort of things as the terrorists they are supposed to be supressing. The news that the U.S. Army has has been kidnapping the wives and children of Iraqi army officers (and even leaving ransom notes: “If you want your family released, turn yourself in”) fits with this pattern.
It ought to go without saying that the Middle East of 2003 and Ireland in 1916 are different in all sorts of ways, but to fend off any “moral equivalence” jack-in-the-box I suppose it needs mentioning. In a way the differences are precisely the point. You can’t treat these kinds of problems as if they can all be solved simply by pulling up the same weed. You have to make peace with your enemies, not your friends. That’s why it’s hard.