Monday, 12 January 2009


The post-WWII international order is changing warfare. In many ways, this is good. Yet it's not unreservedly good. One institution that was certainly meant to be good but in reality is problematic is the internationally imposed ceasefire.

Wars have always been part of the human story, and I see no reason to expect this to change. In the past, wars were fought until one side won by destroying the ability of the other side to fight, or the other side sued for peace, or, rarely, a third side convinced the warring parties to desist. In all three scenarios, someone came away from the war with some achievement: the instigators with what they initially intended, or the defenders having proven to the instigators that they couldn't have what they wanted. I realize this is an oversimplification, but it's essentially true none-the-less. The British didn't want a French-dominated Europe at the turn of the 19th century, so they stopped it from happening. (Whether this was "good" or not, I can't say). The Northern states wanted to retain the Union, so they battled until the South agreed to stay put. The Reds wanted to control Russia and call it the Soviet Union, so they battled the Whites until Soviet domination was solid. And so on and on and on.

Countless millions of people lost their lives in these wars, and the suffering was immeasurable. Yet the clarity resulting from the end of hostilities wasn't always bad. Freed slaves were better off than before the war, no matter how you look at it; within the span of human memory the Union contributed to the defeat of the less nice side in the Great War, and at the very edge of living memory, some children who remembered Gettysburg lived to see VE-Day.

The combination of the United Nations Security Council and modern technology that can bring the horrors of war into faraway living rooms mean that many wars are no longer allowed to rage until one side wins. Not all wars, mind you: the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were mostly resolved on the ground before the world got around to stopping them; the Russians in Georgia last summer stopped inflicting pain when they felt like it, not when anyone stopped them; and the wars of Africa go on, and on, and on.

Those African horrors demonstrate that the international mechanisms work only when there's a will to enforce them. The case of Israel's wars may hint that sometimes, the international determination to enforce ceasefires actively prolong the conflict, since the Arab side knows that Israel won't be allowed to do what would have been obvious throughout history: decisively win. As Tzipi Livni told Newsweek the other day:

Hamas's strategy is resistance and survival. As long as they survive, this is a victory. When they know the international community is putting pressure on Israel, they can hold out, waiting for Israel to be stopped. It is a pity … [But] I cannot tell you that this is the last operation. If they target us again, we will act again. Strongly.

None of us truly doubt that there will be additional rounds, sometime down the road. After all, what do our enemies stand to lose? Or more accurately, what do they stand to lose that would hurt them enough they won't take the risk?

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