Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Weakness as Political Power

In today's New York Times, Thomas Friedman has a very interesting column (sr) about how Israel, the US, and the EU should deal with Hamas. Here's the crux of the argument:

Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians have a chance, not perfect, not ideal, but the best chance ever to build something decent of their own, without any Israeli occupation army breathing down their necks, and what are they doing? Mostly fighting each other and lobbing Qassam rockets into Israel, prompting increasingly iron-fisted Israeli retaliations.

Even the E.U. has decided to withhold aid money to the new Hamas-led Palestinian government, and when the Europeans get tough on the Palestinians, you know they really must be acting foolishly. The E.U. said it will not give the Hamas government direct aid or money for the salaries of Palestinian public employees as long as it refuses to abide by previous Palestinian decisions to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

What if Israel, the U.S. and the E.U. are right on principle, but that leads to an even bigger disaster in practice?
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So let's just starve them of money until they come to their senses, right? But what if that leads to massive unemployment in the West Bank? Sure, it's Hamas's fault, but Israel will suffer the consequences of having a desperate Palestinian population on its doorstep. Or what if starving Hamas drives it deeper into an alliance with Iran to pay its bills? Can that be in Israel's interest?
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So, yes, in principle, Hamas doesn't deserve to be treated like a democratic government. But in practice, Hamas has something Israelis badly want: a cease-fire — not recognition. Israel chose to destroy Yasir Arafat's government and got Hamas. What if it destroys Hamas? What will it get then? I don't know, but the answer is not simple. Designing the right policy to deal with a democratically elected terrorist group that deserves to be spurned but has something you want is not in the textbooks.

Friedman is here identifying one the critical problems in foreign policy: How to deal with an enemy that has something you want. In essence, this is part of almost all foreign policy dilemmas; if a country has nothing you want, it's probably not important enough to be an enemy. So, because Israel (and the US and the EU) ultimately want something from Hamas (Hamas exerting control over the militas and terrorists and maintaining the existing cease-fire), Friedman suggests thatpunishing Hamas for its present behavior may not be the best idea.

This same problem rears its head in other cases as well. Should the US continue to provide food and humanitarian assistance to North Korea? According to a CRS report available here, between 1995 and 2003, the US provided over $1 billion to North Korea, 60% of which was food and the rest in energy assistance. The aid is highly controversial as it no doubt helps the tyrannical regime of Kim Jong-Il maintain his grip over the country. But what might happen if the US was to cut off that aid? Would the regime collapse, flooding China and South Korea with refugees? Would North Korea sell a nuclear weapon or something else equally as dangerous to raise money? Would it lash out with a military strike? The fear of the unknown can be scarier than the danger of the present, making such decisions extremely difficult. Much of the time, existing policies, even if ineffective, are left in place for fear of the results of change.

There is no answer or good suggestion as to how to make decisions such as these. But understanding what makes them difficult is a key step in understanding why politics is such a nasty game. Ultimately, it all comes down to two things: An assessment of national interest and the level of risk-acceptance of the decision makers. Should Israel deal with Hamas before Hamas extends the cease-fire or recognizes Israel, or should Israel cut off funding to the organization hoping that it chooses to moderate itself to win back the money rather than turning even more towards violence? There is no easy way to answer that, but the process has to begin with a conception of national interest and an honest evaluation of the possible consequences of actions on either side.

In this case, it seems to me that giving Hamas a chance to moderate itself and behave like a responsible political party hold little risk for Israel; funds can always be cut off later and Israel enjoys a massive military and strategic advantage over Hamas. At worst, Israel might suffer an extra suicide bombing or two before it could punish Hamas. But starting off by trying to coerce Hamas to overtly change its stripes risks making conditions even worse in Gaza and the West Bank, touching off a third intifada, and scuttling any chances at moving the peace process forward. Let's hope that whatever decision is made, Hamas manages to find away to maintain its actual pragmatism, even in the face of its public rhetoric.

1 comment:

JasonSpalding said...

Why do the unemployed Palestinians stay living in a battle zone?