Glenn Greenwald and Matt Yglesias both have worthwhile posts on Tom Friedman’s latest column, in which he endorses inflicting as much devastation and suffering on the Gazan population as possible to “educate” Hamas. He cites the war in Lebanon as a desirable precedent, so it is worth reviewing what he thinks is acceptable in the name of “educating” a non-state actor: 1,000 dead (almost all civilians, almost all non-Hizbullah), an entire nation’s infrastructure heavily damaged and millions displaced from their homes.
As supporters of the strikes like to point out, Gaza is not Lebanon–unlike the war in Lebanon, which created a massive refugee population, a sustained war in Gaza will likely result in much higher casualties from both military action and disease, because the Gazans have nowhere to go and have limited, irregular means of acquiring humanitarian aid. The goal envisioned by Friedman is that the devastation and suffering will be such that the Gazans turn on Hamas and Hamas has to abandon its confrontational stance, which is a re-statement of the misguided goal of the blockade that has been imposed on Gaza for the last two years: “teach” the Gazans a “lesson” by making them suffer, and Hamas will be the loser. The trouble is that the reverse happens each and every time an outside force tries to “teach” a population such a “lesson.” Instead of saying to their leaders, “What have you done? You must change your ways,” the people in a besieged or bombarded city or country rally to those leaders. Ironically, the less open and less free the society, the more likely this is to happen. Political solidarity is a natural, if not always wise, response to danger, and when it is fortified by nationalism and outrage over being attacked it is even harder to break.
If the “education” process Friedman recommends actually worked, Hizbullah ought to be politically weaker today than it was before the 2006 war, but the opposite is the case. If such “education” worked, Americans ought to have turned on the Bush administration and the entire political establishment with a vengeance after 9/11. Instead, we gave Bush 90%+ approval ratings and trusted the government more blindly than we had done in decades. The reality that this response is irrational and usually leads to bad outcomes is irrelevant–this is the way that people under attack react. It is this reality that makes collective punishment, mass bombing campaigns and sanctions so unusually perverse: not only is it wrong to engage in such practices, but it is almost certain to have the exact opposite effect of the one desired. As a matter of mass psychology, rallying behind leaders, even leaders who are responsible for plunging you into your predicament, is instinctive. Elaborate rationalizations follow–the Germans in 1914 developed what Eksteins called the “ideas of 1914” to rationalize the terrible blunder their government had made by perceiving themselves as the victims fighting a war of self-defense. It is strange that people who witnessed the national reaction to 9/11 do not understand this and think that other nations can be cowed and cajoled with threats and violence into compliance with the wishes of outsiders. Even if the course of action the outsiders want you to take is a good course to take, you will sooner persist in self-destructive folly rather than give in to their demands. It takes all of half a minute’s effort to consider what we would do in the place of people in Gaza to know that the “education” Friedman recommends will not succeed.