Paul Scham is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and formerly a research associate at the Truman Institute for Peace of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is co-editor of “Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue.” He is “convinced that this war is against Israel’s long-range interests. At some point, ‘collateral’ damage goes beyond the collateral and is a major impediment to the war aims, and I think Israel has passed that point.” The following article is published today in the Newark Star-Ledger and has been offered to us by the author, who signed off, “despondently, Paul.”
Numerous pundits – not to mention government officials and generals – talk of “eradicating,” “cauterizing,” or “surgically removing” terrorism in one country as if once the last terrorist is removed, then a healthy polity can rejuvenate. In fact, there is not a single instance in which Islamist-based terrorist groups or ideologies have been eradicated by campaigns of this sort. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip come quickly and uncomfortably to mind.
These references have proliferated in Israel’s current campaign against Hezbollah, and, incidentally against the people and infrastructure of Lebanon in which it is embedded. Many Israelis have described it as eradicating the “cancer” of Hezbollah (echoing, perhaps unconsciously, the words of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who refers to Israel as a “cancer” in the Muslim world), and have emphasized the “surgical” nature of Israeli air strikes, despite the hundreds of thousands of refugees they have produced. The strategic tragedy, alongside the human one, is that a campaign reflected in unrealistic metaphors used to describe it, is almost certain to fail.
Presumably the medical metaphors are meant to show that if the terrorist cancer is not completely removed, it will grow back rapidly. Half or 99 percent measures will not help. Thus, drastic military action is the only kind that will allow a healthy organism to rejuvenate.
Like many organic metaphors referring to political life, this is based on reasoning that is fallacious – often dangerously so. If there is one thing that the twentieth century should have taught us, it is that ideologies cannot be stamped out militarily. This does not mean, of course, that countries cannot be utterly defeated, especially when their ideologies are peculiarly nationalistic. Thus, Germany and Japan were successfully subjugated in World War II and were moved, initially by force, onto the path of democratic development and full participation in the international community. But communism, for example, was a much more widespread ideology that could not be crushed by purely military means, and it finally collapsed primarily through its own contradictions. It was contained and fought with varying degrees of success, but never eradicated until the vast majority of its adherents finally concluded it simply did not work.
Violent Islamism is even more difficult to combat, since it is embedded in a huge, ancient, and legitimate religion. The Islamist strategy also includes various positive political and social facets, especially the provision of desperately needed social services that are rarely provided by corrupt and dictatorial regimes. Apart from these positive aspects, the negative elements of hatred of the West, Jews, and Israel, and a conspiratorial explanation for Islamic and Arab decline and weakness, all provide a worldview that fits the existing perceptions of many Arabs and Muslims.
It should also be remembered that Shi’ite Islam – and Hezbollah is a Shi’ite organization – has historically thrived in adversity since its origins in the seventh century. And Lebanon’s population is estimated as 40 percent Shi’ite.
None of this is meant to imply that violent Islamism is not dangerous or cannot be fought. It is dangerous and must be combated. But the idea that a “surgical” operation based primarily on military force can have a significant effect on it, even in one country, is simply wrong. There is no successful example that can be adduced.
Thus, the Israeli campaign is likely to backfire.
Presumably, it will significantly reduce the number of Iranian-supplied Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel, which is not bad. But the cost – of making Hezbollah and similar Islamist groups an even more important force in the Islamic world – may vitiate much of this. Given the weakness of the Lebanese government and its army, it is hard to imagine that the borders of Lebanon can be hermetically sealed against a new flood of weapons coming through Syria, whether or not Israel eventually accepts an international force as part of an eventual cease-fire.
What Israel did not do before launching its campaign was to try to make common cause with the majority of Lebanese who are vehemently opposed to Hezbollah. Of course, there was no guarantee that this would have succeeded, but it would have created much more understanding, had a military campaign followed. Instead, however, Israeli actions have made the ideological fight against Hezbollah and its sister organizations much more problematic and difficult in the long run.