The Region: It's time the West tried tough diplomacy

Vegetius wrote wisely, 'Let him who desires peace, prepare for war.'

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Shortly before the Iraq war began in 2003, I made a proposal which unfortunately went unheeded by both sides in the Western debate over that crisis. The idea was that President George W. Bush should tell the Europeans that he really wanted to invade Iraq, but could be dissuaded by tougher sanctions and a real effort to counter that regime's threat. Those Europeans and others who wanted to avoid a war would agree to be strong and consistent in pressuring Saddam Hussein to keep his commitments. Iraq could have been successfully deterred and lots of problems and suffering avoided. That basic idea is still a sound one. The Roman author Vegetius wrote wisely, "Let him who desires peace, prepare for war." This meant that being strong and being viewed as determined was a tremendous deterrence to prevent others from attacking you. That concept is apparently forgotten by those in the West who believe that the best way of persuading radical movements or regimes from aggression is to prove how much it wants to avoid fighting. Sadly, this stance is just asking for trouble. The opposite is true. "Speak softly and carry a big stick," said president Theodore Roosevelt. But one of the main requirements for that strategy's success is to let everyone know you have a big stick. Putting all your effort into proving that you are a nice guy who means nobody any harm is an excellent idea if the other party is also nice. When the competition is a bully, an ideological extremist and an aggressor such an approach is disastrous. Yet here I want to focus on an additional, though related, point. The burden on those who want to avoid violent conflict is not just one of criticizing those who are more assertive. You have to provide an alternative way of dealing with a threat. And if your approach doesn't work, you have to be ready to face the consequences. CONSIDER, for example, Iran's drive for nuclear weapons and the missiles to fire them a long way away. Iran has invested a huge amount of resources and political capital for this goal and is not, as the history of the last three years shows, going to give that up lightly or due to the force of Western words. It is clear that soft diplomacy is not going to work. Is there another option? Many people, and for some good reasons, think it would not be a good idea for Israel or the United States to attack these facilities. Presumably, they would also not like Iran to use these weapons in the future to attack Israel, the United States, Gulf Arab states, and others. But unless they can find something other than diplomatic measures so soft that they are a joke - merely appeasement with the slightest veneer - an extremely unpleasant outcome will ensue. Wishful thinking about Iranian intentions is hardly productive. Iranian leaders continue to threaten what they will do when they have these weapons. One recent example is a January 22 editorial from the newspaper Kayhan, stating: "The American soldiers [in Afghanistan and Iraq] are in range of our fire. [When] the mighty missiles are launched from Iran, Israel will become a scorching hell for the Zionists." (MEMRI translation) The only alternative is to persuade Iran that the West is tough and that China and Russia and most Arab governments are ready to support serious sanctions and penalties for Iran unless it stops shoveling coal into a speeding locomotive that is going to pull the train of world politics into a chasm. This means such things as an end to European government giving companies commercial trade guarantees to do business with Iran; signs of supporting the internal opposition to the Teheran regime; stepping up oil production and bringing down prices to cut the ground under the Iranian economy. Such a systematic strategy is the only way to prevent, at worst, a serious military conflict and, at best, a decisive shift in the balance of power in favor of radical and terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere. THERE ARE many parallels to the three other main conflicts in the Middle East. A refusal to use tough diplomacy with Syria, due to its terrorist activities in Lebanon, and the Islamist forces there are going to bring about a new Lebanese civil war, a new Lebanon-Israel war, or both. The UN forces and the West have stood by while Hizbullah rearms. It may not be long before "mysterious" - Hizbullah and Syrian-backed - terrorists start attacking the UN troops in southern Lebanon to panic the contributing countries into running away. Tough diplomacy is needed to stabilize Lebanon, show the radicals the world will not countenance their takeover, and stop Syria's subversion. Regarding the Palestinians, the West has generally stood firm in refusing to provide direct aid to the genocidal Islamist group Hamas. Yet it is no secret that most European governments have been straining to hand over money to that group, which would use it to launch terrorist attacks and teach Palestinian children that Jews are animals to be exterminated - and that might sound like exaggeration, but it isn't. There are many other examples of this kind of situation. Even when Western states do the right thing, those governments - and large parts of their elites - make it so clear that they really want to give in, or do nothing, that the extremists are convinced that if they only wait long enough and make big enough threats the democracies will give in. For those who do not want a war sparked by either the radicals' aggression or their intended victims' possibly misguided defensive reactions, there is no substitute for tough diplomacy, real material sanctions or punishments, and building an image of steadfastness in order to press the extremists to change their policies and tactics. Warfare kills, but so does appeasement and passivity.