The Region: Redefine 'collective punishment'

Helping to keep radical Islamists in power is the worst thing you can do to an enemy population.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
Ironic, isn't it, that radical forces threaten violence, sanctions and other actions against democratic states while insisting - along with their Western apologists - that any attempt by their victims to put pressure on them is useless. Think about it. Every time someone proposes, say, economic sanctions (on Iran or Syria), an international tribunal investigating its involvement in terrorism (Syria), military operations or killing terrorist leaders (Hamas, Hizbullah, Iraqi insurgents, al-Qaida, the Kurdish PKK, or the Taliban), diplomatic isolation, or even not giving financial aid (Hamas), a chorus of voices says: It won't work. The extremists, you see, are tough. They believe in their cause. They will not be deterred from their course. So, we are told, we must engage them, hear (and presumably respond to) their grievances. Presumably, thereafter, the West supposedly must give way; Israel allegedly has to make concessions. The smug, over-"educated," and those trained in "conflict resolution," who never seem to resolve any conflict, view the normal procedures of diplomacy, strategy and power politics with contempt. They maintain that correcting misunderstandings and employing kind words turn adversaries into friends. Pressure only unites the dictator's subjects into unity fueled by patriotic zeal (which sometimes, of course, does happen). But their sole remaining strategy is to give away assets in order to buy (or, more likely, temporarily rent) immunity from imperialist-minded regimes and single-minded revolutionary groups. Even, however, if one assumes radical forces will not disappear under pressure, sanctions, military operations, and other efforts can achieve a number of worthwhile goals. They can: • weaken radical forces so they are less able to murder people or destabilize societies; • discourage states from helping extremists and encourage them to be more cautious in their international adventures; • undermine their internal base of support, a long-term project; • persuade others not to join them. COSTS HAVE consequences, and they are not merely to make people who hate you angrier. Which brings us to the new propaganda technique of collective punishment. Radical regimes, Saddam Hussein's in Iraq, for instance, are taught to believe they can continue extremist policies while holding their own people as hostages: "Throw down your weapons or I'll starve my citizens!" Supposedly, the new rules are that Hamas, for instance, can teach children to view themselves as a master "race" licensed to kill sub-human others and wage war on its neighbor, while Israel must provide all of Gaza's needs or be guilty of war crimes. As if that weren't enough, the demand is for Western governments to subsidize that program. But, guess what? Living under a repressive dictatorship is the most terrible type of humanitarian disaster, helping to keep it in power is the worst form of collective punishment, and letting it commit aggression against you imposes both of these states on your own people. If Western people and governments accept this kind of argument, how can the radicals possibly lose? Certainly, Middle East states don't hesitate to use every bit of leverage of their own, especially when it is totally cost-free. For example, there's the revelation that a high-ranking Saudi officials threatened not to alert British intelligence about pending terror attacks in the UK unless London stopped investigating their personally stealing hundreds of millions of dollars through bribes. Britain acceded, no doubt fearing retaliation or the loss of future trade more than preserving a democratic system of laws. WHY SHOULD we believe that sanctions only work in one direction, against the West? In contrast, economic pressures on Iran regarding its nuclear program are really biting. In a report for MEMRI, economist Nimrod Raphaeli analyzes the statistics and concludes that Teheran is doing very badly. Even Chinese banks have joined "almost all" Western and Japanese banks in cutting business relations with Iranian counterparts. The central bank of Iran admits that "no direct foreign investments are coming into Iran." People in Iran can see that the ultra-radical policies and hysterical threats of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have a cost. "Operating under the weight of UN, but more potent, US sanctions, Iran is going through hard economic times despite the quintupling of oil prices in the last three years," Raphaeli concludes. There are costs for Iranians in this situation. "Inflation was running at more than 19 percent in 2007 compared with 12 percent in 2006; unemployment is high in general... 50 percent of the population is poor and more than 20 percent live below the poverty line." This does not mean the regime or its policies will change, but they are far more likely to be weakened and reconsidered than if no such sanctions were in place. At any rate, it is one of the best ways to combat "collective punishment" by Iran on other countries. ON ANOTHER front, Syria's apologists say that economic and political sanctions won't work, so we might as well give up and let them devour Lebanon. Yet Syria itself uses economic sanctions as part of its campaign to take over Lebanon. The US government has just put restrictions on Rami Makhlouf, President Bashar Assad's cousin and Assad-in-chief for corruption. Here's just one of his tricks: Mercedes was barred from bringing spare parts into Syria until it made him sole agent. The regime isn't interested in reforming the economy, only in looting it. On February 21, the US Treasury "designated" him and other Syrian economic gangsters and their Lebanese accomplices, meaning he cannot do any business or have accounts in the United States. The Syrian regime and its lackeys insisted this was meaningless - though the loudness of their howls showed just how much it hurts them. But if radicals disregard Western pressures, it is due to optimism, not bravery. They think the West has no guts or staying power. Muhammad Habash, one of the Syrian parliament's sleaziest members (competition for that title is intense) mocked: "We are expecting a lot of such measures in the next six months, but this will not affect Syria's policy... There is no solution with this American administration, and we have to wait for the next president." Radicals seem to expect that the next president will keep all his or her powers locked up in the barracks; that they don't need to gain victory but only have to await surrender. That strategy fails much of the time; yet there are all too many cases where it has worked, and will work. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest book is The Truth About Syria.