Morality and power

July 29, 2006

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AS the Israeli destruction of Lebanon continues unabated, it is clear that the international community has decided to play the role of spectators. The conference in Rome was doomed to failure, given the unstinting support of the United States for its ally’s latest adventure.

Nothing new here, not even the Muslim world’s complicit silence. By pulverising Lebanon and killing hundreds of civilians, the Israelis are doing nothing more than reminding us of their power, as well as their contempt for Arab lives. But by responding to Israeli aggression, and standing up to the mighty Israeli army, Hezbollah is showing the world that the Jewish state’s regional monopoly on armed might is slipping away. While Israel’s Arab neighbours were hammered into submission years ago, it has taken a non-state actor to serve notice that power is transient, and that relative strength is temporary.

But although history is full of such lessons, generals and politicians of every era and every region think that somehow, they are exempt from the fundamental law of the rise and fall of empires. Within my lifetime, the mighty British Empire, on which the sun famously never set, has shrunk back to its island base. This is also true of the other, lesser colonial powers. None of their leaders could have imagined that the Second World War would have swept their neat division of the globe into the dustbin of history.

Then came the rise of the superpowers, and the Cold War came to represent the seemingly permanent balance of power between the two. In this neo-colonial era, both Washington and Moscow controlled much of the world through proxies, and it seemed this confrontation would last well into the future. But below the surface, the mighty Soviet Union was being eaten away by its inner inefficiency. When it finally imploded, the United States seemed destined to remain the sole hyperpower for the rest of my generation’s lifetime. After 9/11, like a wounded giant, it demonstrated its immense power. Without any countervailing forces, it seemed that Washington could not be challenged.

And yet, just as pyjama-clad Vietcong had defeated American forces in Vietnam, the might of the United States is now being confronted by rag-tag Taliban in Afghanistan, and by a coalition of Iraqis resisting occupation. Globally, China is on track to compete economically with America, and it is only a matter of time before this economic strength is translated into military power. With the phenomenal rise in the price of gas and petrol, Russia is seeking to reassert its influence. Suddenly, American authority on the global stage is being questioned and challenged by state and non-state actors.

After the carnage of the Second World War, there was a genuinely idealistic attempt to bring about peace in our lifetime. The United Nations and its various organisations were the practical manifestation of this dream. Unfortunately, superpower rivalry soon laid this utopia to rest, and now the UN has become a talk shop, and the occasional instrument of the United States. Thus, in the run-up to the first Gulf War, the UN Charter was invoked by the elder Bush because Kuwait had been occupied by Iraq. But by the second conflict in the region, the UN was marginalised as the war launched by the younger Bush was clearly illegal.

And now we have the spectacle of Israel invoking a Security Council resolution calling for the disarming of Hezbollah, while conveniently forgetting all the resolutions it has contemptuously rejected when they demanded that the Jewish state vacate the territory it had forcibly occupied in 1967. Talk about the devil quoting the scriptures.

The truth is that over the centuries, there has been little morality in international affairs. There is a saying in Urdu that captures the essence of this law of the jungle: “Jis ki lathi, us ki bhains.” (“He who has the stick owns the buffalo.”) And thus, Israel with its big stick has been getting its own way since it came into being nearly 60 years ago. The Americans have been throwing their weight around for years. Morality and international law are clearly for the weak, while the strong get what they want by hook or by crook.

This is a lesson now being applied by terrorist and resistance groups. While Hamas is mercilessly hounded by the Israelis, Hezbollah is showing that in order to stand up to a regional bully, you have to acquire power. But power does not always mean expensive, high-tech weapons systems. Al Qaeda and similar groups have shown that dedicated (and occasionally brainwashed) individuals can be transformed into smart bombs. Suicide bombing has been condemned by sane people, but it remains the great equaliser: without recourse to the sort of weaponry available to powerful states, terrorist groups feel they have no option but to send out volunteers to blow themselves up, taking as many of the enemy with them as they can.

Terrorism has been called the weapon of the weak. But the oppressed feel they have no choice but to use whatever means they have to confront their oppressors. For years now, Israel has deliberately dragged its feet over negotiations. Clearly, it does not wish to return much of the territory it has captured. And when it withdrew from Gaza, it did so because it did not want to maintain a large garrison to protect 8,000 Jewish settlers. Under these circumstances and under international law, the Palestinians have the right to resist the occupation of their land.

Another aspect of asymmetrical warfare is that all too often, the weak have far less to lose than the strong and the wealthy. The one common feature between Tamil, Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian suicide bombers is that they are from poor families, and their survivors will be looked after by their respective organisations. If their families are promised, say, $500 when they have completed their deadly missions, this is more money than they would probably see at the same time in their whole lives.

Then there is the anger caused by the actions of the strong: a Lebanese boy who has seen his family wiped out by the current Israeli bombing will be a willing volunteer for Hezbollah, just as an Iraqi will turn to violence to avenge a brother tortured to death by the Americans in Abu Ghraib.

The only way out of this endless cycle of violence, utopian though it may sound, is a return to morality. Double standards just do not work: who will listen now to American lectures on the rule of law?