November 6, 2023The Intersectiongeopoliticspluralism

The negative externalities of the war in West Asia

The effectiveness of mass terrorism, the acceptance of collective punishment and the West's loss of credibility will cast a long shadow on the 21st century.

Mint This is an unedited draft of The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

The externalities of Hamas’s perverse terrorism and Israel’s massive military retaliation will haunt the whole world for at least another generation. The conflict is still in progress but its course over the past month has already given us three terrible assessments.

See some tentative lessons from Hamas’s raid of Israeli territory in this blog post.

First, Hamas demonstrated that terrorism can succeed in advancing political objectives. In this it has reversed the post-9/11 strategic consensus that terrorism is not only ineffective as a political strategy but can delegitimise the political cause it seeks to advance. The world had forgotten the Palestinian cause. A month ago, Israel was close to a rapprochement with the Arab powers, Western powers were focused Russia, China and Iran, and Palestine was off the global agenda. Yet even before the Hamas invaders were beaten back, the two-stage solution’ — meaning the creation of viable Palestinian state — was back in circulation. A month later, there is global acknowledgement that ensuring that genuine Palestinian grievances must be addressed and that the two-state solution must be considered with greater urgency.

Hamas killed over 1400 Israelis and bears responsibility for the over 9000 Palestinian deaths from the Israeli retaliation that it knowingly and wilfully provoked. The mind-boggling human suffering — thousands of Israeli families shattered, Gaza reduced to rubble, its own liquidation — is the cost that the Hamas leadership accepted as the price to achieve its political goals. That such a murderous, collectively suicidal strategy turned out to be effective is what should worry the rest of the world.

Second, the international acquiescence of Israel’s collective punishment over 2 million Gazans has destroyed humanitarian norms against the targeting of civilians. Almost every conflict has violated those norms — a clean military-to-military combat exists only in theory — but preventing civilian harm (or collateral damage) has been a consideration that weighed on the minds of war planners and the international community. It is understandable that few world leaders rebuked Israeli leaders’ calls for collective punishment in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s terrorist attack. Western leaders are expressing more concern for humanitarian issues now, but it is an inescapable fact that Israel’s retaliation has already destroyed Gaza and inflicted immense pain and suffering on its population.

We need not lapse into the hopeful line that the people of Gaza are not all supporters of Hamas. Even if they were — and I will not be surprised if most of them are — the line between civilian non-combatants and fighters is distinct in common sense, law and morality. Reversing over a century of development of international norms against the targeting of civilians at a time when even the weakest country possesses formidable firepower (which becomes all the more formidable when used against civilians) will make this a bloodier century.

I think the idea of a geo-moral balance” is interesting to explore. It is an outcome of the contestation of grand narratives and shapes contextual epistemology of populations and their leaders.

Third, the United States and Europe have destroyed their credibility as proponents of the much-lamented rules-based international order. It is not lost on large parts of the world that the West is currently demanding that everyone support Ukrainian freedom and oppose Russian attacks against civilians but the very opposite with respect to the Palestinians and Israel. Russia, China and Iran are not losing the opportunity to point this out and will benefit from this shift in the geo-moral balance.

Realists do not put much stock in claims that international relations are driven by values and will argue that that the West has always been hypocritical just like everyone else, and morals are just a fig leaf. Yet the fig leaf does make a difference, if not to one’s attire, to the tactical opportunity of being able to point out that one’s adversary is stark naked. If the United Nations was fighting for relevance before this war, the indignity that it has been subjected to in the past few weeks opens it up to further insult.

When we analysed this conflict using a complexity lens at Takshashila we found that its outcome will hinge on the suffering of civilians, both Israeli and Palestinian. It is the extent of their suffering and the reaction it elicits from their leaders, regional powers and the international community that will determine the future. Watching a humanitarian tragedy unfold before our eyes can create popular pressure for de-escalation and diplomacy. At the same time, visible suffering can just as likely trigger greater escalation when parties seek to punish others and exact vengeance. The question is how many times the cycle of violence must turn before the parties acknowledge the reality of compromise. The answer, as Bob Dylan wrote, is blowin’ in the wind.

PS. India’s proposal for a federal solution and the protection of minority rights in undivided Palestine was dismissed as hopelessly idealistic at the United Nations in 1949. It is perhaps even more dismissible today, but we must not stop dreaming of a better world. As I argued in my previous column, pluralism is better than self-determination in the Information Age.

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