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September 01, 2006

Weakness Invites Attack


Actually, the perception of weakness leads to attack.

In the top picture (courtesy of The Jimmy Carter Library via wikipedia) you see the famous attack by a swamp rabbit on then President Jimmy Carter – the only known attack on a president – or perhaps on anyone – by a rabbit.  More seriously, the Ayatollah Khomeini held Americans hostage in our own embassy for a little more than a year during the Carter presidency – freeing them only on Ronald Regan’s inauguration day.

Carter authorized a pathetic sneak rescue attempt by a few helicopters but they got sand in their rotors and had to quit.  With hindsight, the correct response would have been to announce that we would be picking up the hostages at Tehran Airport on a day certain.  They would either be delivered safely there or there’d be no Tehran Airport.  Invading an embassy was (and is) an act of war.  Our failure to act appropriately has cost us dearly by emboldening perpetrators of even worse outrages.

Regan’s own mistake was to pull Americans out of Lebanon in response to the deadly attack on the Marine barracks there.  That attack helped to give the bombers – Hezbollah – their start.  The American pullout added to a perception that Americans would abandon any mission which led to American casualties – a sure incentive to inflict casualties on Americans at any opportunity.

Israel withdrew from it buffer zone in Southern Lebanon in 2000 for a number of reasons – some of them humanitarian.  Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran saw no reason but weakness and were immediately emboldened to create a rocket-launching fortress under the noses of the hapless UN contingent then enforcing the peace.  Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last year similarly emboldened Hamas and probably helped it win an election.  Israel has now suspended planned unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank for fear of exhibiting further “weakness”.

It’s tough when you can’t do the right thing because it’ll provoke attack for the wrong reasons.

The weakness of Western Europe, feckless attempts at appeasement, and isolationism in the US helped cause terrible miscalculations by Germany and Japan. Some of the results of these miscalculations were the fire bombing of Dresden and the nuclear bombing of Japan several years later.  It would have been better for the German and Japanese people if the democracies had stood up to them in the first place.  Democracies are understandably slow to go to war.  When their survival is at stake, however,  they are – or at least have been – capable of doing what needs to be done to win.

Besides the obvious lessons that appeasement doesn’t lead to peace and it’s better to fight before your opponent has a chance to dig in (or acquire nuclear weapons) than after, there’s a more subtle lesson: occupation even with the best of intents is usually a mistake.  After World War II we were willing to be what now seems incredibly harsh to suppress resistance in defeated Germany.  That occupation worked.

But you can’t avoid civilian casualties when you fight a resistance that shelters among the civilian population.  Long term occupation leads to abuse on both sides.  With hindsight, it was a mistake for Israel to occupy the West Bank and Gaza and Southern Lebanon in the first place.  Maintaining an occupation is costly and brutalizing; abandoning it gives a dangerous perception of weakness.

However, the alternative to occupation is ruthless destruction of any site which is used to launch cross-border attacks.  Countries which want to protect their civilians from reprisals have to prevent the attacks in the first place.  Period.  Countries which can’t control their own territory – or deliberately attack or threaten attack from their territory - have no sovereign immunity from self-defense by their neighbors.

Applying the same logic – and same 20-20 hindsight - to the US presence in Iraq still leaves me with no remorse that we toppled Saddam Hussein or that we invaded a country which refused the UN inspections it agreed to and deliberately created an impression that it might have weapons of mass destruction – which it had certainly had in the past.  Our mistake was to take responsibility for putting the country back together again – especially since its sectarian violence had only been subordinated by the greater violence of a ruthless dictator.  Now we have the very real dilemma of how to leave without creating an impression of weakness which invites even more attack.

Already the self-righteous European criticism of  US and British action in Iraq and America’s own desire not to have our soldiers die there is emboldening the rabbits.  See them embrace in Syria.  But Assad and Chavez don’t matter.


Kim Jong-Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad do matter and are clearly emboldened. 

Iraq Kim

Threats of a discussion of the possibility of paltry sanctions by the UN aren’t very scary.  In fact, you could argue that the UN, like the HIV virus, weakens the world’s immune system.  Imagine if our white blood cells had to debate “sanctions” every time a pathogen entered our bodies.

We – that means the US and whatever other countries clearly recognize the threat – need to act against Iran and North Korea. 

Acting probably does mean air strikes against facilities in one or both of these countries although my guess is that we’ll only have to do that once.  There is no good reason to put off that action until they are stronger and better able to retaliate.  Learning the lessons of Viet Nam, Gaza, and Iraq means that we don’t promise to put these countries back together again.  We are not attacking them in order to “bring them democracy”; if we cause regime change, we take no responsibility for what regime follows except the promise that it will not be allowed to be a threat to us.  We will not risk our troops for any goal but our own self-defense.

Ironically, a credible strike against Iran or North Korea probably opens the exit door in Iraq without leaving anyone with dangerous misconceptions about our ability to act.  In general, the enemy of peace and freedom today is Islamic extremism.  But weakness – real or perceived - against that dangerous enemy excites new threats from other quarters as well.

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