Forbearance

FORBEARANCE….Over at bloggingheads.tv, Robert Wright mentions something that’s been on my mind for a while. He’s talking with Ann Althouse about the war in Lebanon and makes the following observation:

What I think is actually sometimes the smartest thing to do in response to terrorist provocation, which is forbearance, is very hard to counsel. [But] if you ask what kind of shape would Israel be in if they had done a day’s worth of retaliation, and since then just endured any missiles, and said, “OK, look, at this point there’s no excuse for what they’re doing, we’re not even fighting them,” I think Israel as a nation would be more secure than they are.

But it’s very hard to convince people of that, and I admit that rhetorically it’s hard to make that a winning strategy.

Caleb Carr makes a similar point in Saturday’s LA Times. After describing the escalating cycle of reaction and overreaction by Israel, the Palestinians, and Hezbollah, he asks:

Is there an alternative to this pattern of mistakes and countermistakes? There is, but it involves a quality that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have ever come close to mastering: tactical restraint in order to achieve strategic advantage. Simply put, this involves looking past immediate and all-out retaliation as the best method of countering threat. It is not a call for turning the other cheek; rather, it suggests that savagely swinging back every time one’s cheek is dealt so much as a brushing blow does not amount to effective boxing, much less enlightened belligerent behavior.

It’s human nature to demand action following an attack. Any action. Counseling restraint in the hope that it will pay off in the long run is politically ruinous.

But our lives may depend on figuring out how to make this case. If it wasn’t obvious before, it should be obvious by now that conventional military assaults are usually counterproductive against a guerrilla enemy like the ones we’re fighting now. We can’t kill off the fanatics fast enough to win, and in the meantime the war machine simply inspires more recruits, more allies, and more sympathy for the terrorists. It’s not the case that conventional military force is always useless in these cases ? the Afghanistan war still holds out hope of success ? but as Praktike says, it usually results in a terrorism own goal.

Unfortunately, I’m not smart enough to figure out how to formulate this argument in an effective way. I wonder at times how Harry Truman managed the trick at the dawn of the Cold War, fending off the “rollback” hawks and convincing the public that containment was a more realistic strategy. But despite reading a fair amount about the era, I still don’t know what the key was ? though the presence of a sane faction in the Republican Party at the time was certainly a factor.

Beyond that, of course, actually having a coherent long-term strategy to pair up with a short-term counsel of forbearance would make the job easier. Ditto for a more aggressive short-term approach to homeland security. But neither of those will do the trick alone. Someone has to figure out how to sell the basic plan.

I’m just meandering around the point here, trying to marshal my own thoughts by setting them down on the blog. If that seems a bit pointless, I apologize. But I’m probably going to keep doing it from time to time. After all, I’d hate to think that this is a flatly impossible problem.