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We need a new word. Something that describes intelligent people urging the stupid use of force. If you were feeling temperate, you might want to call it pundofallacy, but I’m not and I don’t.

What brought this on is an article in the TimesOnline, “It sounded so good to start with. But where did it all go wrong, George?” by Gerard Baker, Aug 18 2006.

…as the world contemplates the nervous breakdown of American policy in the Middle East, it is something President George Bush should surely be asking himself, or at least his fellow Americans. How’m I doin’?

Let’s see. You invaded Iraq because you argued you would be able to bring about a peaceful, democratic society in the heart of the Arab world, a step vital to the eradication of modern terrorism. Many of us supported the project because we believed the stakes were so high that you would not stint in committing the resources necessary to achieve it.

But you tried to do it on the cheap. If many of us miscalculated the scale of the threat Iraq posed, there was no excuse for the woeful lack of preparation by your Administration for the task of pacifying the country.

So far, so good, assuming by “resources” he means keeping order until people without guns, including women, had a voice. Assuming he means intelligently applied, uncorrupt resources for rebuilding the mess left after Saddam and over a decade of sanctions. But the reasoning floats into fantasy after this.

…you supported and perhaps even encouraged Israel to invade Lebanon last month, after repeated provocations by terrorists. The aim — a good one in principle — was to crush Hezbollah, weaken its Syrian and Iranian sponsors and put Lebanon on a path to long-term, terror-free stability.

There’s the old “crush the terrorists” dream. Yes, it would be nice if you could just stomp them like so many cockroaches. Have you ever tried to get rid of cockroaches by stomping them? I mean, to really get rid of them all, not just one? Of course not. It would be idiotic. The intelligent application of force in that case involves cleaning the kitchen. “Crushing” terrorists makes as much sense as crushing an oil spill.

There was a saying in the sixties, “If it feels good, do it.” This works for some things–sex, for instance–but it falls down badly as a method of anger management. Everybody hates people who hurt them. Everybody wants to hurt them back. It feels good. It just doesn’t happen to work as a way of stopping people from hurting you.

That point bears repeating. It does not work. It’s not that it’s unkind, or that I feel sorry for the poor terrorists in some liberal, pinko, namby pamby way. It’s that it does not work. The real cowardice is to avoid the facts–which are, I repeat, that it does not work–and to avoid effective action. That action may be something deeply unsatisfying, like cleaning the kitchen in the case of cockroaches, or paying the economic price in the West of having actual human rights in the Middle East.

That said, there is one way in which crushing enemies can work. Every last one of them has to be crushed. There are no terrorists among the Tasmanian aborigines because there aren’t any Tasmanian aborigines. They were all killed in a literal genocide. People convinced of the pundophallacy that brute force should work have to remember that it only works when the enemy is eliminated, culturally or literally. They should stop hiding behind limp-wristed, liberal ideas like democracy if they really believe in force.

(None of this is to say that strength is totally useless. Every village needs its policeman, and the global village is no exception. But that’s intelligently applied force, and it’s applied to exceptional cases that stand out on a background of law-abiding people. Police forces are never effective when whole populations are breaking the law, and our current intractable terrorist problems are embedded in widespread popular support in their communites. … Widespread, and getting wider.)

Further in the article, Baker continues:

The common critique of US foreign policy these past few years has been that it was insufficiently multilateral. That if only the US would work a bit more with the French and the Russians, be a little bit warmer to the Palestinians, sign up to international treaties, say nice things about the United Nations, the world would be a much safer and calmer place.

I always found that a slightly old-fashioned critique. The events of September 11, taken together with the other, steadily escalating acts of terrorism committed against the West in the past 30 years, required a radical new departure for the international system. Preventing the lunatics from blowing us all to the hereafter was going to require that the US, the only country with the power to stop it, break a bit of crockery.

And through the rest of the piece to the end:

… [T]he US could take the risk of alienating the world and discarding international law only if its leadership was going to be effective …. [I]t went all mushy and multilateralist …. [T]the world’s only superpower,… pinned down like Gulliver, tormented by an army of fundamentalist Lilliputians. … I don’t truly see how the failings in the Middle East could have been avoided by Washington’s being nicer to foreigners. What’s been missing is resolute leadership.

He starts with a different fallacy in that section. Russia has as much “power” to blow things up as the US. Russia, China, and India have plenty of men under arms. Europe, Japan, China, India, and Brazil have plenty of economic power, and enough, if they worked together, to force action even from the US.

So, no, the US is not the only country with the power to stop it. The US is the single largest concentration of power, and the US has the easiest time exercising that power. But using that fact as a reason for inaction, especially on the part of a European, is pathetic. Europe definitely had enough power, in any sense of the word, to get in there and start cleaning the kitchen. Of course, now that the US has tipped a pig’s breakfast onto the floor, I can see where the Europeans might want us to clean up our own mess first, but that’s a different matter than saying the US is the only country with the power to do anything.

Otherwise, it’s the same fallacy repeated. “Breaking crockery” will prevent “lunatics.” It might, or it might not. It depends on the relationship between the crockery and the lunatics. Since in actual fact the relationship seems to be that lunatics feed on broken crockery, this is one more example of dreaming that force will solve something because it feels so good.

“Effective” (read “strong”) leadership is useless if the strength is applied to bashing your head against a wall that you’re building yourself.

“Pinned down like Gulliver.” Of course they’re pinned down. The intelligent application of strength wins every time.

“I don’t truly see how” anything could be solved by “being nicer to foreigners.” Well, the British could have not invaded Iraq for its oil at the beginning of the First World War. The CIA could have not overthrown democratically elected Mossadegh and installed the Shah in 1953. The US could be not supporting totalitarian, torturing dictators in Saudi Arabia. Little things like that.

The core problem of terrorism is the lunatics. Removing what they feed on by paying the price of real human rights is part of the solution. Another equally difficult and unglamorous part is recognizing that the specific lunacy in question, fundamentalism, is everywhere. It is used by politicians to gain power everywhere, and has the same effect everywhere. Fundamentalism spreads intolerance, which ends in killing, wherever it goes. We need to deal with the theocrats–our own as well as everyone else’s. It’s the separation of religion and state we need to achieve–in our own governments as well as others’.

Nobody wants to hear that. It’s much easier to blow things up.


Baker ends with this, which is wrong on every level.

“It is hard for me to recall a time when the world was such a scary place.” Balderdash. I remember all too well those years and years when the whole world could have been obliterated in half an hour. The whole world. The entire planet. The only thing that comes close for scariness is global warming.

Then: “No one should rejoice at America’s weakness. The world is scarier still because of it.” I don’t know about that. If the US is going to be a pro-torture country that detains people without trial, it can’t get weak enough for me. The US has some distance to go before becoming a global dictator, but dictators are preferable only to total destruction. Those are not our only choices.

Aug. 22, 2006 Tom Tomorrow says it much better.