Thursday, October 09, 2003
It's always interesting to me how the wrong starting premise will often lead to a pointless argument, which will support a wrongheaded or simply silly conclusion. A lot of these right-left-whatever arguments aren't so much about facts or conclusions; they are about starting premises -- and until we dig up those and examine them, no amount of "exchange of ideas" can get us anywhere. Oftentimes, the starting premises are held rather closely and much emotional investment has been made in them, which makes it difficult if not impossible to dislodge them with mere ideas. Not that there's anything wrong with that: ideas and ideals held sacred are ultimately what defines us as people, and writ large, as cultures and societies. But that doesn't mean that all such premises are equally valid, or that they are not subject to examination.

Sorry for the high-minded spewing of truisms above, but I was just struck by a great example of this reading a post by Demosthenes. It's all about the recent bombing of an empty terrorist training camp in Syria, and Demosthenes begins as follows:

The problem here is relatively simple. Does Israel have the right to enter Syrian territory? If it does, should it have done so? If it doesn't, then does it matter?
And with the first sentence of his post, Demosthenes has already transported the entire argument into the realm of the nonsensical. One simply does not ask if a country has a right to do something. Rights are possessed by people -- i.e. individual human beings -- not countries. Israel can no more have a right to do something than it can have a stomach cramp. The words stick together, but they don't mean anything.

Of course, one could make the argument that this is simply shorthand for, Do the Israeli people, as represented by their government, have the right to enter Syrian territory? I can accept that, but the question has no more meaning under this construction. Israel is a sovereign nation, whose government is answerable only to its citizens, and no one else. As a sovereign power, Israel can do as it please, when it pleases -- and if it wants to invade Syria, or for that matter, Senegal or Slovakia, it can certainly do that. (The same applies to other countries, of course -- if Syria wished to invade Israel, it could go right ahead -- and tried to do exactly that several times. What ultimately keeps whatever shaky peace may exist between two nations is usually not the lack of desire to invade, but the lack of ability to get away with it.) Neither we nor the government of Israel needs to consider whether Israel has the "right" to do something -- whatever it is, as a sovereign nation, Israel has the right to do it.

Not surprisingly, Demosthenes takes the polar-opposite view:

The answer to the first question is relatively simple: No, it doesn't. National sovereignty isn't a grey area; countries are allowed to defend their borders against hostile intruders, but aren't allowed to venture into other countries to pre-emptively attack,
Indeed, national sovereignty is not a grey area, and sovereignty means the ability to take any action at will. Individual human beings, generally speaking, do not have sovereignty: we are all subject to the laws of our national governments, and usually several layers of more and more local authorities. The local authorities themselves are not sovereign; they owe allegiance to the national government. But the national governments are sovereign, and answer to no other authority. (Whatever limitations there are on government behavior in modern democracies essentially come from the body of national law wielded by the governments themselves, not outside agencies.) Demosthenes's language thus turns into nonsense again: countries are not "allowed" or "not allowed" anything, because there simply isn't any higher authority to do the allowing or disallowing. A country -- be it Israel or Lichtenstein -- does as it sees fit. End of story.
else there would be endless "pre-emptive" attacks that are, simply, attacks. (After all, any military you don't control is a potential threat.)
This is entirely true in theory. In practice, of course, attacks on other nations aren't undertaken lightly, for fairly obvious practical reasons: the loss of lives, the possibility of loss, the lack of desire (i.e. effort not worth gain) or the lack of ability. It has nothing whatsoever to do with who is "allowed" to do what. The several times they thought they could win, Arab countries attacked Israel quite eagerly, without bothering to secure any permits. They did not seek leave from the Demostheneses of this world, because they needed no such leave. What stopped them, and discouraged them for the future, was the repeated destruction of their armed forces at Israeli hands. Had they succeeded, what is now Israel would simply be so much Egyptian and Syrian territory, duly recognized by the global community, of course. (And if not, Egypt and Syria would hardly give a rip. Global recognition is not high on their list of priorities for the region.)

This isn't just a moral goal or political theory; it's a core concept of the U.N. Charter, to which Israel (and, yes, the United States) is a signatory (and, therefore, a benficiary).
I'm sure this strikes Demosthenes as authoritative, but it isn't. First, his dichotomy is false: the "core concept" of the UN Charter, and indeed the UN itself and the principles it is based upon, is nothing more than a collection of high-minded moral goals and naive political theories. Second, by signing the Charter, neither Israel nor the United States surrendered their sovereignty to the United Nations or relegated to same their exclusive responsibilities to safeguard their citizens. In a democratic republic, the latter takes precedence over everything else; it's the main reason the government is put in power. (In a dictatorship, of course, the power is the end goal.)

At any rate, the UN Charter, like any treaty, is a pact among equals, not a formation of a meta-government; the group has no authority over any individual member. Naturally, any Charter member can determine for itself whether any other member is in violation of the Charter, and denounce the violator or take other courses of action -- but in no way does this imply that the group is imbued with some kind of automatic authority over any of the members. The Charter is a diplomatic tool, and as such is merely one of many tools a country may use to influence other countries; force is another such tool. Even if a member flagrantly violates the Charter, that doesn't mean the violator has somehow exceeded its "rights" and is now "at fault" -- such concepts do not apply to sovereign nations. Naturally, there can be consequences, ranging from reduced credibility with other nations to outright hostile action by same -- but that is all they are: amoral consequences, not some kind of punishment for a moral default. (Seriously: to speak of any sort of "moral authority" wielded by Syria or the Sudan, is to render the very word "moral" completely useless.)

It doesn't matter whether it's Israel or Syria or Serbia or the Sudan or Jordan or Canada or India or Pakistan or Ethiopia that you're talking about. Crossing borders isn't, well, Kosher.
Once again, note the implied authority. What is or isn't kosher is, after all, a dictum from God, enforced by a group of men of undisputed authority. No such entity -- at least of the non-divine caliber -- is around for Israel to apply or appeal to. Demosthenes tries to create authority out of nothing; it doesn't work that way.

Demosthenes continues:

(Israeli advocates usually interject that the U.N. is hostile to Israel. I don't believe it is, innately, but even so that doesn't get Israel out of its Charter requirements.
On the contrary. Those requirements are not absolute, and the Israeli government isn't allowed to subordinate the well-being (indeed, the very lives) of its citizens to an agreement it signed with a bunch of other governments. If the Israeli government believes that bombing Syria is the way to secure the lives of its own citizens, it must do so, Charter be damned. The responsibility of a government is to its own citizens, not to other governments.

Naturally, one can make the argument (often correctly) that violating peace treaties endangers the citizens more, and should be avoided. Demosthenes applies such an argument to this situation, but not here. Here, instead, he tries to subjugate Israeli sovereignty to a piece of paper. Sorry, but that's not going to fly.

Furthermore, signing the Charter gave Israel certain entitlements -- for example, terminated hostility from other Charter signatories, not to mention UN protection if said hostility continued. Israel received neither: the other signatories are demonstrably hostile, and the UN vascillates between ineffectual empty gestures and outright cooperation with the Arabs. This, in fact, does absolve Israel from having to fulfill its side of the bargain -- the UN and other signatories have clearly failed to do their part. But frankly, the whole point is moot, as Israel is a sovereign nation and its government's only responsibility is to its own citizens.

You have to play by the rules if you want to benefit from them.
First, this is just false. Those who benefit the most under UN rules are exactly those who care about them least, which is why the UN Charter and similar well-intentioned reams of drivel are violated more often than a Bourbon Street hooker. And conversely, of all the member nations of the UN, Israel has arguably benefited least from the arrangement. Despite the fact that its conduct is demonstrably morally superior to that of any Arab country (indeed to that of most non-Arab countries), it has been dumped on, condemned, isolated, criticized, and reviled more than virtually any other UN member. When Israel was weak and called on the UN for help, all it got was admonitions against violence and useless condemnations of its neighbors' aggression -- and that was when the UN was not actively pro-Arab. In 1967, the UN cooperated with Nasser's invasion plan by removing its peacekeepers from the Sinai; today, it loudly condemns every Israeli threat against Arafat, even as it manages to find no human-rights violations in Iran. No, if you really want to benefit from having the UN around, you need to be a mass-murdering dictator who invades two nations and gasses his own villages. The UN will do its utmost to keep you in power.

Socrates understood this when he drank the hemlock, and Sharon should understand that now.
Perhaps the Israelis are not yet eager to commit suicide in the name of international cooperation.
They might also say that Israel needed to act in order to defend themselves. That's fine as an abstract, but the entitlement to *an* act doesn't mean entitlement to *any* act. Israel couldn't nuke Syria either, although that'd certainly solve the problem of Syrian-based camps.)
Again, when Demosthenes uses "entitlement" here, he is implying that some outside authority does the entitling. And again, it's just plain wrong. Israel can indeed nuke Syria; it chooses not to for its own reasons, which have nothing to do with who is allowed to do what. Were Israel Syria's moral equal, Damascus would have been radioactive glass a decade ago.
So, the question is... does it matter? That's tougher. The U.S. is onside, which is unsurprising considering that Sharon is simply adopting the Bush doctrine.
Once again, Demosthenes has a worldview that is, shall we say, interesting. The concept of a nation being willing to attack its enemies without waiting for the first attack predates Bush by a few millenia. Just because some UN document condemns something, doesn't mean it ceases to exist as an option. Israel itself did this to Egypt in 1967, when the creator of the Bush doctrine was attending frat parties. Sharon is adopting nothing; he is doing as he sees fit, which is his job as Prime Minister of Israel. (Actually, it's Sharon and the Israeli cabinet. Let's not conflate Israel with the autocratic Arab hellholes arrayed against it.)

With the U.S. onside, there can't be a security council resolution against Israel, and Israel has a history of ignoring the things anyway.
Which is exactly what they are for. The only way any resolution can be enforced is when other sovereign nations decide to take action to support it. As they virtually never do -- witness Iraq -- the whole concept is meaningless. And if Israel can't count on the UN to protect it from aggression, it correctly sees no need to abide by its edicts any more than its repugnant neighbors do.

Syria can't respond; they don't have the military might.
Yep. They can choose to try, but they know they won't succeed. That's what keeps the Israelis safe, not more UN paperwork and Kofi's impassioned speeches.
The Arab world as a whole could respond, but any real threat to Israel can be (and likely will be) met with a nuclear response.
True -- and this assumes that the Arab world is genuinely interested in risking its own blood and treasure for Syria. They've tried it several times when Israel was nuke-free and it didn't work out; the Arabs aren't about to mount a war they are going to lose -- not when there are still Palestinians to die for them on the cheap. It's not that Arab governments are particularly concerned with doing the right thing by "the world" or the UN; it's simply that they can't do anything without getting turned into rubble and scrap metal. Peace through strength, demonstrated.
The E.U. and the Russians won't be overly happy; the E.U. because they have to keep their large Muslim minorities happy...
Oooh, now this is an interesting line. So, like, why is it that the EU wants to keep its Muslims happy? Is it because they love the Muslim immigrants so much? Hardly -- they simply know that Muslim minorities who are unhappy are likely to riot, burn churches and synagogues, threaten the citizens of their host country, and get radicalized -- basically, what they are doing today, only more aggressively. Terrorist networks would get more members, and when the terrorists get frustrated in their fight against the Yankee Imperialists and the Zionist Aggressors, they might just lash out at the Decadent Infidels that ride with them on the Metro. So it's better to keep them happy, and hope they direct their anger at the Jews and the Americans instead -- after all, what are Jews and Americans going to do? Write a few letters and have a demonstration? Oh well -- at least the store windows remain intact, and that's what's important.

(Remember that bit about having to play by the rules in order to benefit from them? Consider the preceding yet another example to the contrary. The dictum only applies if the rules are vigorously enforced, and the Europeans abdicated on this years ago.)

...and the Russians because they're on the border with Iran and they know that Iran will only further step up its attempts to get the bomb, which is a serious threat to Russian security. That race for the bomb will be the #1 priority for Iran now, and I wouldn't be overly surprised if cash gets funnelled in from other parts of the Middle East to make it happen, because Israel's threat to "hit its enemies at any time in any place" will be taken very, very seriously.
You know, I've read this part several times, and I still don't understand it. Where has Demosthenes been all this time? Aside from the irrelevant points about what makes the EU and the Russians happy -- why should Israel care? -- did he honestly think that Iran had previously been holding back in its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon? The race for the bomb has been the #1 priority in Iran ever since Ayatollah Khomeini took over the Shah's easy chair, and the very Russians who are oh-so-worried about those weapons are the ones building up Iran's nuclear industry. (Which is, of course, really for peaceful energy generation. After all, why else would a poor country swimming in oil spend all that money on nuclear power plants, getting technology from a country with a checkered safety record?) At any rate, the Israelis will have to treat Iran the same way the treated Iraq on this matter -- that is, of course, assuming that the Americans don't do it for them.

Demosthenes seems to view security as walking on eggshells around your enemies, hoping they won't develop the capability to hurt you. It's a fool's dream, and it's not security -- in fact, it's the very opposite of security. There's only one way to achieve true security: by convincing the enemy that by attacking you, he will lose more than he'll gain. And if that fails, and the enemy still attacks, then there's only one way to achieve peace: through complete victory. Any fantasies to the contrary, involving Charters, Understandings, and International Frameworks, are just that -- fantasies. And any arguments based on sovereign nations being "not allowed" to do something, are self-refuting.


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