Sunday, May 18, 2008

Negotiations vs. War

Gitta Sereny once asked Franz Stangl, erstwhile commander of the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps, if there was anything the Jews could have said to him that would have influenced him to allow some of them to live. It was 1971, Stangl had already been convicted for mass murder and sentenced to life in prison, where Sereny was interviewing him. You might have expected him to have snapped out of the world of 1942 by then. But no, not really: Not only did Stangl have no satisfactory answer to the question, he couldn't understand it at all, and was quite incredulous when Sereny insisted. "What could they possibly have said to me that would have made any difference?"

So when President Bush states, in his speech before the Knesset the other day, that
“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along"
this could have been accepted as a banal statement about one of the fundamental truths of human relations: that some differences between people or groups cannot be resolved by talking.

The Obama campaign responded sharply, and the American media seems to have spent an entire news cycle deliberating the pros and cons, and much hay was made by all sides. That's politics, and everyone had fine fun, which is OK. I'm not against politicians making hay.

My problem is with the underlying issue. With the assumption, by now it's actually an article of faith, that any international problem can be dealt with through intelligent diplomacy of some sort, and that anyone who says otherwise is a warmonger. Many otherwise reasonable people believe this claptrap, in spite of the fact that the history of the human race has been unequivocal: sometimes, group A wants X, and group B wants the opposite of X, and no compromise can be found to make either of them accept less.

Rather than denying human nature, better one should concentrate on the real challenge: how to tell when your enemy is implacable and cannot be bought off by words, and when he actually could? Because history is also full of the second form, when group A wants X, Group B wants anti-X, and some external impulse can change the equation without the need for any violence. That's the real art of diplomacy: figuring out the full possibilities of avoiding violence while never flinching from the use of force when there is no alternative. To complicate the matter further, it's people we're talking about, not mathematical equations, and since people make choices all the time, their implacable position of last year could theoretically have changed by now, or might change next year.

War is hell, and also a terrible waste. Refraining from it is always better than engaging in it - except where the alternative is worse. Figuring out which is when is one of the hardest tasks leaders, or their peoples, can be faced with. Pretending otherwise is foolishness.

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