Frustration is not a Strategy

by Kieran Healy on July 29, 2003

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:

bq. 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:

bq. 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.



Chun the Unavoidable 07.30.03 at 2:18 am

I agree very much with your comments, but I think that the psychosexual basis for advocating acts of large-scale destruction against those deemed the enemy is also important to note.

I recently read Den Beste’s (infamous?) piece about his feelings of wanting to kill all the Palestinians. He recognized that this was wrong, certainly, but I think the unacknowledged factor is that he (and Tom Clancy, etc.) has libidnal investment in acts of massive carnage. Its sexiness is related to magical thinking: I recognize rationally that this is a complex problem which my own government (for which I bear responsibility) has certainly worsened, but everything would conform to how I think the world should be if they all died.

There’s a passage in one Clancy novel in which a German prison guard (or detective) shows a Baader-Meinhof prisoner a tape of her children with their adopted parents (bourgeois policeman and wife). She kills herself as a result, apparently, having in this narrative logic recognized the extinction of her struggle; and the joy Clancy invests in this passage is both a microcosmic illustration of the principle (revolution wilts before eternal values) and one of the most sickening things I’ve ever read.

The Turner Diaries, Footfall, Atlas Shrugged, and other rightist apocalypses show the inverse of this scenario.


Robert Schwartz 07.30.03 at 3:15 am

I understood Totten to be arguing for dismantling terrorist organizations, not for genocide. Romantic identification with the “palestinians” seems to be yet another Irish disease, and unlike drink it has no upside.


Unlearned Hand 07.30.03 at 3:27 am

“I understood Totten to be arguing for dismantling terrorist organizations, not for genocide.”

Kieran understood it the same way. He’s just pointing out how “dismantling terrorist organizations” like the IRA and Hamas is a lot harder than Totten makes it out to be.

“Romantic identification with the “palestinians” seems to be yet another Irish disease, and unlike drink it has no upside.”

This doesn’t even deserve a response, but you might consider whether it provides better evidence of your biases than any Kieran might or might not harbor.


Walt Pohl 07.30.03 at 3:41 am

Robert: Are you referring to Kieran’s post, or Chun’s reply? It’s Chun who brings up the genocide comparison, not Kieran. (Or do you know that Chun is Irish? I thought he was from far in the future.)

I think Kieran’s comparison to the Easter Rebellion is possibly apropos. Before the Easter Rebellion, the majority of Irish would have been satisfied with “home rule”; afterwards, nothing but full independence would satisfy them. Why is suggesting that an Israeli crackdown will radicalize the demands of ordinary Palestinians inappropriate?


back40 07.30.03 at 4:54 am

“…hawks often backslide into these kinds of kill-em-all policy proposals.”

I think this is why war critics are so often dismissed as irrational. Totten’s proposal was to defeat, deport, imprison or kill terrorists. Kill was last on Totten’s list but you exaggerated it to be the only entry. This may seem to be just good clean phun, a little sneering to add some bottom to the whine, but that’s not how it is seen by any but the choir.

What Totten proposes is not just angry revenge, it’s a much colder thing. Failure to understand this, and failure to criticize what Totten actually said, suggests that there are no valid criticisms and that critics must resort to emotional display. This weakness of response, and apparent lack of reading and thinking skills, diminishes not only the critic who makes the blunder but also other critics seen to be aligned.

“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.”

Yes, they do, that’s where they get some ideas and why they think they can work. They may be wrong, it doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does and they have examples to back their claims.

It may be that this inability to understand hawks is the glaring blind spot that accounts for the weakness of opposition to them. Here’s a clue: they are people, often bright people, who love their children, feel pain and have the courage (or something else) to imagine themselves in the shoes of their opponents. They study war and have sayings that help them be good at it. “Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer”. They are effective precisely because they dare to imagine themselves and their kin as targets.

“It assumes the number of people you need to kill is fixed.”

No, it doesn’t. It assumes that there is a tipping point where terrorism will be abandoned and folks will drop their guns and go home. This is the first objective of the plan, to defeat, it comes before deport, imprison and kill. It is followed by a program to change the conditions which breed future terrorists.

The failed efforts of the past that you cite were completely different. They sought to use terror to eliminate rebellion and had no second phase of cultural change.

“You can’t treat these kinds of problems as if they can all be solved simply by pulling up the same weed.”

To a great extent you can but the important issue is how you do the pulling and what you do to change the environment. You fail to understand current proposals and simply assume that no one has learned anything, as you have not learned anything.

A more useful criticism is one that reasons in good faith about current proposals such as those of Totten and finds their weaknesses.

One fault is that like insects and weeds terrorists become resistant to “pesticide”. If the effort is not quick and complete then those that remain will have been selected for resistance and their weans will be resistant too. A suite of methods that can be used in rotation are usually required. This is difficult and expensive. It’s not impossible, just less probable.

Another fault is that changing the breeding conditions is a difficult long term activity that crucially depends on the support of external entities. At present other Arab nations and much of Europe assist and support terrorists and do not want peace. They supply money, training and shelter to nurture terrorism. The first requirement of a realistic proposal to alter the situation in the middle east is to alter the situation in Europe. This will not happen, ever.

However sensible and realistic Totten’s proposals may be for dealing with the Palestinian problem as a discreet activity it will surely fail because of lack of international support. The Palestinian problem is unbounded, like the Jewish problem.


Kevin Drum 07.30.03 at 5:56 am

I imagine that Kieran’s example was chosen precisely to illustrate the point that, in fact, there usually isn’t a tipping point. Even massive retaliation doesn’t provoke a tipping, it just makes your enemies madder. There are innumerable examples of this throughout history.

Now, you *can* defeat such an enemy and — maybe — provide the basis for a long term program of cultural change if you are willing to wage an all-out war. Japan after World War II might be considered an example. But I doubt anyone is willing to do this, and in any case this war would have to be with the entire Arab world, not just the Palestinians.

Despite Michael’s protestations, his solution is entirely military in its first phase, and such a solution is doomed to failure unless it really is a kill-em-all strategy. I can only assume that Michael knows this, so characterizing it this way isn’t really the stretch you make it out to be.


Chun the Unavoidable 07.30.03 at 5:58 am


Did you write that “hawks” were “good at war?” Does it take a lot of courage to imagine yourself as a victim?

Totten’s views are difficult for me to understand because he does not accept the definition of terrorism as “politically motivated violence carried out against non-combatants.” Totten’s proposal, not very different from current U.S. policy, would ensure generations of unremitting gore; but the reassuring power of the boot-in-the-face fantasy occludes reason.


zizka 07.30.03 at 6:35 am

The classical approach to this kind of problem was to kill all the men and enslave all the women and children. “They made a desert and called it peace”. I do not regret the fact that contemporary political correctness forbids this method. If the British could have killed ALL the Irish their method would have worked. Perhaps that’s what Kieran is touchy about.


derrida derider 07.30.03 at 6:49 am

chun and Kieran are absolutely right. Short of genocide or near genocide, you can’t defeat a terrorist movement which has the support of a whole population by military means alone – trying to do so strengthens, not weakens, the terrorists.

Let’s not forget that since the beginning of the second intifada the ‘carefully targeted precision strikes’ of the IDF have killed three times the number of civilians that the ‘terrorists’ have. But of course they’re only Arabs.


Walt Pohl 07.30.03 at 7:39 am

Of course there’s a tipping point. The question is: is the tipping point beyond what is morally acceptable, or for that matter, what the Israelis would be willing to do. It’s quite possible that it is.


Dan Simon 07.30.03 at 8:41 am

Healy’s argument amounts to a kind of pacifism. I elaborate here.


John Rynne 07.30.03 at 8:51 am

Speaking of tipping points. Surely the execution of the 1916 leaders was a tipping point … in the other direction. It turned what was by then (after several centuries of repression of varoius sorts) a relatively acquiescent population into one willing to support rebellion.


theCoach 07.30.03 at 1:54 pm

Tangentially, as far as clear differences between Ireland and Palestine, look at a map of the proposed two state solution, and notice how clear the geographical separation is compared to Ireland and England.


Pathos 07.30.03 at 2:49 pm

The problem with many of the comments here is the underlying assumption that there is nothing the PA could do if they really wanted to end or minimize attacks on Israelis.

Of course there can be no government that can COMPLETELY eliminate the attacks, but it is reasonable to assume that a government dedicated to a peaceful solution could seriously reduce the number of attempted attacks.

Syria has, in fact, determined that it is in its best interest to do just that, and as a result we hear very little these days of attacks from Lebanon in the North.

Are the PA the Israelis’ “partners in peace”? There is simply no reason to think so — not because they haven’t eliminated the attacks, but because they have made no substantial moves in that direction other than empty promises.

If the answer is, “No, the PA is not committed to peace in any meaningful way,” then I don’t see how continued negotiations with them can be successful.


brayden 07.30.03 at 3:47 pm

Departing from the serious tenor of the previous comments, I’ll make a vacuous pop culture reference. Recently, I watched the “otherwise-not-so-great” film, Hulk, and couldn’t help but think about the relationship between U.S. terrorism policy and terrorist networks as I watched the Hulk rampage across the screen.

In the movie, the military tries to contain the Hulk by locking him down and incapacitating him. This only makes him more angry, which then drives whatever it is inside of him that makes him get bigger and more powerful. The more the military tries to stop the Hulk, the more angry and menacing he becomes and the less sucessful they are at stopping him.

Okay, so maybe I’m just trying to justify my use of time in watching a summer blockbuster, or maybe this really is a useful analogy of the current situation of U.S. policy and terrorist containment.


markus rose 07.30.03 at 3:48 pm

Pathos, how many attacks have there been BY HAMAS since the cease fire agreement that Abbas negotiated with Hamas?


pathos 07.30.03 at 4:26 pm


The “cease-fire” as you call it, was in fact a temporary suspension (for a limited term of three months) conditioned upon the release of all Palestinian prisoners (which Israel, of course, will not do, and which was not a term in the roadmap).

I have linked to the text of the “cease-fire”, or Hudna, as it is called. The term that is not intended to be implemented is standard in the Hudna, so as to permit the opportunity to break it as soon as is feasible.

“As for Hamas, they have proven time and again their commitment to a tactical hudna — replenishing their strength during the quiet periods, then returning with increased deadliness. As recently documented by The Washington Institute, Hamas agreed to no less than ten ceasefires in the past ten years, and after every single one returned freshly armed for terror. Hundreds of Israeli citizens have paid for these hudnas with their lives.”

Assumedly, Hamas made a tactical decision that it was worthwhile for both sides to cease hostilities while they re-armed and rounded up a new set of suicide bombers.

One month of peace from Hamas — while attacks continue from other groups — hardly settles my concern that the PA is not honestly pursuing peace.


Walt Pohl 07.30.03 at 6:05 pm

Hasn’t Israel already attempted phase one?

“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.”

Other than Fatah, which of these groups has Israel _not_ targeted?


Frank Quist (NL) 07.30.03 at 7:02 pm

I wonder, if the cease fire and roadmap don’t work, and arresting/defeating/eliminating the terrorists isn’t an option, what to do then?


pathos 07.30.03 at 7:51 pm


Have you been paying attention for the past 1,000 years? Muddle is the name of the game. In long-lasting fights of attrition those with the least the lose have the biggest advantage.


PG 07.30.03 at 7:53 pm

Following up on Healy’s remark:
But outfits like the IRA and Hamas bear an entirely different relation to the society they inhabit.

I am not so familiar with the IRA, but anti-Israel terrorist groups unfortunately are embedded within Palestinian society. In some respects, they are the closest the Palestinians come to government agencies.
It’s not Israelis who find housing for widows; it’s people linked to anti-Israel terror. As long as Palestinians

I have to give grudging support to DeLay’s idea of a Marshall Plan for the Palestinian territories. Frankly, the Palestinian leadership has such a bad record with money, none should be given to them directly. We’d be better off giving directly to individuals, and possibly giving goods rather than money (building materials, schoolbooks, medical equipment).

Funding infrastructure and giving start-up money for Palestinian businesses, in order to restore the economy, as well as providing a safe route to funnel Palestinian goods (because Israel’s security policies have pretty much choked off exports) would be an enormous service to the peace process.

Not only would it be a direct help to Palestinians, but it would diminish support for terror organizations; many of the groups involved in terrorism also serve the community through schools, hospitals, charity, etc.
In order to de-legitimize those groups, we have to take their place in providing necessary civil aid.


Frank Quist (NL) 07.30.03 at 11:05 pm


Have you been paying attention for the past 1,000 years? Muddle is the name of the game. In long-lasting fights of attrition those with the least the lose have the biggest advantage.

I haven’t been around for that long. But actually I was – because I am not looking forward to the consequences of the ‘defeat-em-all’ strategy – just wondering if opponents of that strategy had an alternative strategy to offer, besides doing nothing. Like I said, what to do then?. Doing something implies activity. Leaving it as it is could be a very bad thing, I think. I take both sides would radicalize only more. Possibly the conflict could resolve itself when democracy starts to get more traction in the Middle East (because of Iraq for example), which may also freeze the funds flowing towards the terror groups, but if that doesn’t happen the area’s going to not be a very fun place to be.


BAA 07.30.03 at 11:35 pm

Coming late to the party, I know, but I don’t think anyone has picked up the guantlet layed down by back40. Kieren Healy suggests that Totten and other hawks are engaging in a “Boy’s Weekly” fantasy. Instead of fighting Palestinian terror elements, Israel needs to make peace with her enemies. But what supports this?

As far as I can gather, Healy makes the historical argument that a terrorist group with substantial popular support cannot be adequately contained only by acceding to its demands or commiting moral atrocities. I am no historian, but I imagine counter-examples can be found. To be sure, vigorous action against a popular terrorist group can increase the support it enjoys, and hence its strength. But it’s not like this is an iron-clad law of history. Similarly, making concessions to a terrorist group can increase its popularity and strength. It’s case by case, neither view is absurd, and anyone who says the other side just doesn’t get it is talking through their hat.


Robert Schwartz 07.31.03 at 3:45 am

I am still happy with my first comment.

I further point out that Ireland was “neutral” in WWII.

Chun is not Irish, he is a space alien.

The other romanticism going around is 1968 vintage little red book romanticism. The guerilla is a fish who lives in the sea of the people. blah, blah, blah.


mr blue 07.31.03 at 9:21 am

And the implication of Ireland’s neutrality being?


Robert Schwartz 08.01.03 at 3:14 am

Sympathy for the Devil
As the song says:
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair
Which side are you on?, boys
Which side are you on?


gry java 01.13.04 at 9:58 pm

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