From Liberty Street: Timing

John Turner

When I was in the third grade in Decatur, Georgia, our teacher told us a story about James Oglethorpe, the leading founder of the colony that eventually became our state. At a dinner party in London, a hot-headed nobleman threw a glass of wine in Oglethorpe's face, leaving the young man with the decision of how to respond. If, said our teacher, Oglethorpe had done nothing, he would have been branded a coward. If, on the other hand, he had challenged the nobleman to a duel, he not only would have been viewed as excessive, he would have put lives at risk. So, Oglethorpe simply dashed his wine into the nobleman's face. This, our teacher thought, was exactly the right decision.

So far as I know, my instructor in that ancient classroom was not a foreign policy expert. But she did have a strong sense of propriety.

I've thought of her this week as I've read news stories and columns about Israel's attempt, backed by the United States, to blow Lebanon apart to just the right extent. The story, as I've read it, goes like this. Israel will drop bombs on Lebanon for a certain length of time, to be determined jointly with the United States. Then at just the proper moment, Condaleezza Rice will hie herself to the Middle East, inject herself into the conflict, and work out a cease fire.

Through this process of exquisite timing, Hezbollah will be wounded, the government of Fuad Siniora, though weakened, will be sent a firm message that it must seize control of its own country and replace Hezbollah with obedient soldiers on the Israeli border and, most important, the steel resolve of Israel and the United States will be demonstrated once again to the entire Arab world.

The magic wand that makes this deeply-thought, sweeping policy operable is a fleet of swift, immensely expensive, powerful airplanes armed with even more powerful and expensive bombs. The people who are going to be taught an indelible lesson by this strategy have, of course, no such planes and bombs. If they did, the tutorial might become problematic.

The events that will occur before Ms. Rice makes her finely-timed flight will be, to some extent, regrettable; but they can't be allowed to interfere with the planning of statesmen. Some number of people will be divested of arms, legs, internal organs, and heads. It doesn't much matter what that number turns out to be so long as it doesn't set off PR resonance. A thousand might get there, and five thousand could pose a difficulty for even the best-trained military public relations officers.

All this has been so elaborately designed it seems a shame to raise questions about it. After all, the designers are in command of so much greater intelligence than we are that any non-expert worry about incalculable consequences may be impertinent.

Still questions are doggedly persistent.

Could it be that war planes with bombs delivered to targets uncertainly linked to the propagating incident aren't quite the right instrument for dealing with this provocation? Might there be working, unconsciously, in the minds of the planners, the dysfunctional thought that since we've spent so much money on them, we've got to use them? We know, for example, that American strategists have developed so strong an affection for bombs dropped by big planes that other means of responding to misbehavior have been precipitously downgraded.

One of the less-than-enthralling aspects of wide-spread bombing campaigns is that their consequences are irritatingly hard to calculate. We can't know, for example, whether an enterprising young Lebanese man, having seen his mother's legs ripped off by Israeli bombs paid for with American dollars, might decide to dedicate his life to providing the same experience for mothers in Tel Aviv and New York. The expert response to such a scenario, of course, is that there are already so many desirous of wreaking mayhem in Israel and America, we can't be bothered by adding one more to the number. But, one more might be the proverbial straw. It's possible that you can constrain a thousand enemies whereas a thousand and one could overwhelm you.

Isn't it prudent to keep your dedicated enemies to the smallest number possible? When we remind ourselves of that truth, the question does arise whether our planners are taking it sufficiently into account.

At first glance the response of the past two weeks appears stronger and more lasting than a glass of wine in the face of an obnoxious opponent. But, then, what do we outside the circle of sophisticated intelligence know about such things?



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