23 July 2006


A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In a famous ancient Greek myth, the hero Heracles must kill a multi-headed, venomous water serpent called the Hydra. After engaging the beast in battle, Heracles discovers that for each of the Hydra’s heads he chops off, two more grow in its place, thus revealing that his initial, conventional approach is having the reverse effect; an entirely new strategy is needed. Heracles is ultimately victorious with the help of his nephew, as the two collaborate on removing the Hydra’s heads and then cauterizing the stumps to prevent regrowth; the final blow is delivered with an arrow dipped in the serpent’s own venom. (For more on the story of the hydra, see the Wikipedia entry.)

As I read the news these days – about the growing, unconventional war the Israelis are engaged in with Hizbollah and with Palestinian terrorists, and about the continued “insurgency” (which has long looked more like several, separate insurgencies) that the United States and the nascent Iraqi government face across that nation – the myth of the Hydra is increasingly on my mind. The conventional approach taken by the U.S. in Iraq has not worked, aside from the initial slice that decapitated Saddam Hussein’s government. Look what grew back instead. For all that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has talked about a new, unconventional, and more strategically-empowered American military, the result is essentially the same: traditional military engagement, in which soldiers and their arms are used to fight, control, and kill our enemies. There has been no paradigm shift in the process of war-fighting, or even of evaluating the conflict, and the ongoing problems in Iraq – and Afghanistan, and with Iran and North Korea – reflect the simplicity of American thinking under the Bush administration.

One might argue that the U.S. could have learned a few things from Israel, which has been battling an evolving enemy almost since the state was established in 1948 and with greater resolve as the challenges of terrorism have grown in recent decades. In a certain light, the Israeli approach might be cast as unconventional: targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders or other radical dissidents, a persistent willingness to uproot civilians in order to unearth enemies, and in recent years, a unilateral approach to solving problems, including withdrawals from southern Lebanon and the Gaza strip, and the ongoing creation of a border wall. However, none of this is particularly daring or different, even recognizing the occasional successes; the current situation, including the strengthening of Hizbollah, makes quite plain that the long-term gains of Israeli policy have been limited.

The more radical and unconventional approach Israel once took is also the one so many now seem to have abandoned: the slow, careful, quiet, and behind-the-scenes peace talks that eventually culminated in the Oslo Accords. Those talks are now considered to have failed, but they represented the biggest shift in the Middle East peace-making strategy since the 1967 war. Recreating them may be impossible – times have changed – yet that does not mean that a different, similarly-groundbreaking effort could not be made. The aging Shimon Peres, for example, has been a consistent voice for a more realistic economic engagement, arguing that if the opportunities for life for ordinary Palesinians improve, the rationale behind a policy of death-through-terrorism becomes less attractive.

Such cooperation will not, on its own, solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or resolve border disputes or governance issues, but it would be a step, a move away from the gut reaction to hit back and towards a new and different kind of policy. Similarly, Israel’s (and America’s) instinctive rejection of Hamas’ election victory in the occupied Palestinian territories was a gut response with negative consequences, reaffirming Hamas’ own self-righteousness (in all the wrong ways). Instead of seeking a partnership, of whatever kind and in small steps, the message from Israel to the Palestinian people was an implicit rejection of their democratic choice. How ironic then that Israel’s long-term attempts to chop off the Hydra-head of Palestinian terrorism have, in fact, only supported Hamas’ growth, culminating in its eventual electoral victory.

For the U.S., it is hard even to grasp what an unconventional approach to Iraq, Iran, or North Korea might mean. In Iraq, America may – unfortunately – be stuck, paralyzed, committed to sustaining the new government until some other opportunity presents itself. Perhaps the U.S. should consider separating Iraq into three nations, formalizing the current, informal division known as Iraqi Kurdistan, and creating Sunni and Shia Iraqi states; separation is what the people seem to want, and American nostalgia for our own melting pot may be getting in the way of clearer vision and better policies. The nuclear challenges presented by the other two countries are more complicated. But the U.S. has struggled with North Korea since the 1950s, and with Iran since 1979, which means there has been plenty of time to explore the unconventional. Overthrowing the governments of both countries is neither practical nor original, and our success rate in this arena – given Iraq, or the ongoing challenge posed by little Cuba, a mere 90 miles away, since 1959 – leaves much to be desired. Surely there is a better way, one that does more than create new heads for this ugly Hydra with each successive American action.


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