November 21, 2001
I don't necessarily consider John Hume, the prominent Northern Ireland politician who was co-recipient (with "moderate" Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble) of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, a source of wisdom on ultimate principles. But he has experience with conflicts in his part of the world that might be useful in other parts of the world.
Hume was in Southern California this week to deliver the Lee A. DuBridge Distinguished Lecture at Cal Tech's Beckman Auditorium. In an interview Monday on Pasadena-based NPR station KPPC he offered some observations on Northern Ireland that just might hold important lessons. The implications for Afghanistan – drawn by me rather than by Mr. Hume – are hardly optimistic in the short run. But it is important to be realistic.
In the wake of the unexpectedly swift apparent collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan hopes are running high in certain American circles that even more aggressive application of American military forces will soon accomplish virtual miracles in the struggle against terrorism. Former Navy Secretary John Lehmann was on one of the Fox News shows Monday night absolutely brimming with war fever and enthusiasm.
Now that the Taliban is yesterday's problem and we're likely to have Osama's head in a sack by Christmas, he said, it's time to go after Saddam. Iraq will fall like a domino, with all the people eager to oust the evil Saddam once they know they'll have serious American help. Then Iran will fall into line, becoming our friend and ally with maybe no shots being fired. And all the other terrorist groups and sponsors, inasmuch as they only respect and worship power and the willingness to blow things to smithereens, will be only too eager to become American allies and lackeys.
And a new day of justice and fellowship will dawn.
I paraphrase, but I exaggerate the sense of optimism, of the possibility of improving the world through massive application of American military power, only slightly.
Mr. Hume, founder of the Social Democratic Labor Party, generally perceived as a moderate influence on the Roman Catholic side of the religious/political divide in Northern Ireland, might offer a bit of perspective in the face of such wildly optimistic expectations. He was generally optimistic about what he called "normal politics" – which he views as more-or-less ideological or interest-driven positions on concrete policy proposals – becoming more significant than the old religious/ethnic absolutism that has been the norm for decades.
But he warned that there would be problems and "hiccups" along the way, as has been the case in recent months over the Irish Republican Army "decommissioning" its weapons. The process has taken a long time to get to the point where he can be modestly optimistic and there's still a long way to go. He spoke of a "healing process" that could take a generation or more.
He agreed, for example, with Kevin Cullen, former Belfast and London bureau chief for the Boston Globe, who was also on the Cal Tech program, that peace essentially came to Northern Ireland as long ago as 1994, when the Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries agreed to a ceasefire.
The Good Friday Accords of 1998 – four years after an effective ceasefire – created the framework for election and power-sharing. But it would have been impossible if the 1994 ceasefire had not held (with the exception of a few isolated outbreaks of violence).
Optimists like Mr. Hume believe Northern Ireland is now well on the way toward a politics defined by negotiation and power-sharing rather than by violence. But even optimists believe there will be substantial problems along the way.
Thus, it has been seven years from the establishment of a reasonably effective peace to reasonably promising and effective moves toward normal governance. This is in a country with a tradition of parliamentary governance and a culture of quasi-democratic politics going back centuries, aided by constant help (and prodding, scolding and lecturing) from the Irish, English and American governments.
One could draw lessons about how long it is likely to take to establish non-absolutist governance in Bosnia or Kosovo. Or Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, despite the recent apparent dramatic military successes of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, it is likely to be a long while before an effective ceasefire is in place.
Although some efforts are currently under way by officials from the United States, other countries and the United Nations to begin the establishment of a "power-sharing" government, those efforts are unlikely to amount to much until a ceasefire is in place and Afghans have at least a reasonable hope of living without constant violence for a substantial period of time.
It took seven years in Northern Ireland to put the country on the brink of normalcy, and it could take another generation for economic development to allow peace and civility to be viewed as normal. How long will it take in Afghanistan to reach a similar position?
It is at least as possible that Afghanistan will break up as a country as that it will develop into peaceful, democratic, multiethnic state of the kind Tony Blair seems to think can be created with enough money and Western social worker/bureaucrats. The current war may well ensure that Afghanistan or whatever entity claims to rule in that intransigent part of the world will not be a safe haven for terrorists like Osama bin Laden. But it is unlikely that a Western European-style nation-state with all the positive and negative trimmings is in the offing.
Although he himself might not concur, the implicit message from Mr. Hume about the difficulty of building peace in strife-torn regions applies to the Middle East as well. Unfortunately, the United States never seems to learn this lesson.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has announced a renewed push by the United States to jump-start a ceasefire and peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. While the impulse behind this new effort – which includes sending retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to the region for several days of intensive talks on security and diplomatic issues – might be benevolent, it is difficult to understand what U.S. officials think can be accomplished now that was impossible to accomplish earlier.
It is probably too much to hope that the envoys and the US government will be cold-bloodedly realistic in their assessments and defer major US commitments until both sides are so firmly committed to real progress toward peace that they would get there with or without US help. It is more likely that the two sides, smelling large infusions of US taxpayer money in the offing, will pretend to cooperate and to respect the US effort.
It is quite possible that there is semi-rational hope behind the impulse to get more involved. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11 commentators of all stripes have noted that unsettled and mutually violent relations between Israel and the Palestinians have been used by terrorists as an excuse for hating the United States, and are a constant source of friction in the Muslim world. A certain hope exists – pretty much around the world – that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be settled, or at least toned down, the threat of terrorism might recede.
In addition, the terrorist attacks have caused some serious rethinking in a few parts of the world riven by ethnic and/or religious conflict. Russia under Vladimir Putin seems to have moved toward closer relations with the West and with the United States in particular (though a wise policy would look at permanent interests rather than Bush-Putin bonding over horseshoes). In Northern Ireland, as noted, the Irish Republican Army began turning over weapons earlier than most observers had suspected they would, giving new life to a stalled peace process.
The stark contrast between the ferocity of terrorism and the hopes possible under relatively civilized regimes seems to have stirred antagonists around the world to consider the benefits of peaceful resolution of disputes.
Unfortunately, the impulse to seek mediation does not seem to have affected the antagonists in the Middle East. Suicide attacks (viewed as terrorism by many) from Palestinian militants, countered by Israeli military incursions into Palestinian territory (viewed as terrorism by others) have continued since 9/11.
It seems likely, as Ted Carpenter, head of defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute told me, that "We [the United States establishment] seem to care more about a peaceful settlement than the Israelis and the Palestinians do. That's a weak position even for an honest broker to be in. And because of our past support of Israel the United States is widely viewed as something other than an honest broker."
It is also difficult for the United States to develop a coherent policy position on the Middle East, in part because of domestic political constraints. Secretary Powell and President Bush have gone further than previous US top leaders in stating that a formal Palestinian state is part of the ultimate "vision." But for every commentator like Robert Novak and Jude Wanniski who want to "give Israel a push" toward reasonableness, there are others (including 89 US Senators who signed a letter urging President Bush not to meet with Yasser Arafat) who urge unstinting support of Israel and a hard line toward the Palestinian Authority. It is difficult to see a real consensus in this country beyond hopeful platitudes.
When the Bush administration came to power it seemed to realize that with the Cold War over the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was less geostrategic – and that intensive involvement by the United States had not only done little to make things better but might have made things worse.
One can understand a hope that renewed concern about terrorism has opened a window of opportunity. As they hope for the best, however, US diplomats should remember that until the two parties are genuinely war-weary enough to come to the table US poking, prodding and bribing is likely to bring only a temporary facade of peace. Investing a great deal of US time, attention and money to produce a facade is not a good use of resources.
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