Diplomats, a British ambassador said a few centuries ago, are gentlemen sent abroad to lie for their country. I’d add that the problem is when they start to lie for other countries, while the disaster is when they start to lie for enemies of their country.
Stefan Zweig, in a 1930 book, spoke of “diplomatists, who form a little understood but extremely dangerous variety of our human kind.”
But diplomats and political leaders also have real dilemmas, in some ways unresolvable ones. Here’s an example of how the problem works and bedevils Middle East policy and foreign policy generally.
A year ago, Britain released Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from prison and returned him to Libya. This was done nominally because a doctor said — the British government had to shop around until it found the right doctor — that he was dying. The real reason, apparently, was that this move helped British Petroleum get a big contract with Libya.
Today, though, Megrahi is doing well. He isn’t dying at all. In fact, Libya celebrated the anniversary of his release and he was visited by son-of-dictator (and apparent successor) Saif Qadhafi.
The British government warned Libya that any such celebration would be “tasteless, offensive and deeply insensitive” and would make it really, really angry. Libya didn’t care, ignored the threat, and Britain did nothing.
In short, a Western country looks weak, scared, and corrupt; and a repressive, hate-filled, terrorist-supporting dictatorship looks powerful and in control of the world. The signal thus sent leads to a world where democrats tremble and dictators romp.
Let’s take a step back and consider this as a case study. Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was given a 27-year prison sentence in 2001 for involvement in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, mostly U.S. citizens.
But of course Megrahi was just a scapegoat. He was acting in his capacity as a Libyan government official and in the end he took the rap like a loyal Mafia soldier. No doubt his family has been well provided for.
Still, the conclusion is obvious: The Libyan government ordered the bombing. Muammar Qadhafi and his regime are responsible for this terrorist act, just as the Iranian and Syrian governments are responsible for directly ordering numerous terrorist attacks.
So what’s a victim country to do? The traditional response to such behavior is a military attack, perhaps the seizure of part of the aggressive company or even the occupation of its capital and the overthrow of the regime. The idea is that the threat is thus removed, the malefactors punished, and an example is given to deter future imitators.
One could say that this is what the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11, with the former a response to the attack on the World Trade Center and the latter to Saddam Hussein’s frequent flouting of his previous agreements and reported pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Does this mean that the proper response to the Lockerbie attack should have been a coalition attack on Libya and the overthrow of the Qadhafi regime? And what about the Western attitude toward the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip? Can a country act unilaterally to defend itself or must it await a UN resolution, without which nothing can be done at all?
These are difficult questions. William Gladstone, the nineteenth-century British prime minister who had to face such problems, remarked: “Interference in foreign countries, according to my mind, should be rare, deliberate, decisive in character, and effectual for its end.” When Sudanese Islamist forces were closing in on Khartoum, set to massacre not only the British force sent to protect the population there but also thousands of Sudanese Muslim civilians, he didn’t want to act.
British public opinion was outraged after Khartoum fell and the subsequent massacre. Later British governments overthrew the Islamist regime and joined Sudan to its Egyptian dominion. That kind of behavior is derided today as imperialism.
A military response is no simple solution. It is expensive, long in duration, and causes casualties. Western news media will trumpet any misdeed or mistake. Moreover, since deep-seated social and structural problems are at the root of what might be called the “dictator regions of the world,” one does not see miraculous transformations. Also, given the new kind of asymmetric warfare, radical regimes and movements welcome the death of their people and destruction of their infrastructure as a means of gaining sympathy and mobilizing forces.
Israel, at times attacked from all sides, with a supportive population (public opinion criticized the government response to the Lebanon war in 2006 as too soft), insufficient international support, and little margin for error, has understandably adopted a policy of retaliation to maintain credibility. Generally, this approach has worked.
Nowadays, though, it is inhibited not so much by domestic factors but by an extremely low level of international backing, which would erode even further if Israel hit back too long or hard. In addition, Israel has no wish to retake the West Bank, Gaza Strip, or south Lebanon. And it knows that nothing it can do will end the conflict (through victory) or change the hearts of its enemies (through concessions).
That last point, by the way, is generally misunderstood by, respectively, the foreign right and left, both of which entertain fantasies on these points. Neither violence nor peace-making offers a full solution, yet deterrence and credibility really do work, at least for a while. True, Hezbollah and Hamas will want to fight again in the future but that future can be postponed; Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO were pushed by Israel’s military pressure out of the conflict (as much as that can happen), while Syria is too fearful to fight on its own account (thus using Lebanon as a human shield).
The Western situation is quite different. To put it bluntly, anything short of a September 11 attack can largely be ignored or dealt with through types of appeasement. Accepting some mid-level intelligence guy as payment for Libyan terrorism was a form of appeasement, as were the lessons drawn by Britain and Spain as a result of major terrorist attacks in their capitals.
If one brings in Third World democracies, India was powerless to deal with Pakistan which had obviously sponsored a huge terror attack in Mumbai. South Korea has its hands tied regarding North Korea; Thailand can’t do anything to counter support by at least provincial governments in Malaysia for terrorists in its southern region.
So where’s the line between going to war and letting aggressors walk all over you? One option is covert, deniable action. But even that seems out of favor in a West that prefers to turn the other cheek in the face of subversion, terrorism, and insult. It is bad enough when a contributing factor here is what might be called, in effect, an ideological fifth column. When that sector has a large measure of hegemony in academia, entertainment, media, and even government then traditional strategic behavior becomes close to impossible.
What then is the answer? A combination of things: having leaders who believe your country’s virtues outweigh its sins and think that its enemies are due more opposition than sympathy, clarity on the issues, a campaign to gain domestic support, verbal toughness, helping the enemies of one’s enemies, supporting one’s friends, sanctions, covert operations, and when necessary appropriate types of military action.
But first you need to know two simple things: you’ve got enemies and neither flattery nor apology nor concessions nor betraying your friends nor bashing yourself is going to change that fact.