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War

by PAUL De ROOIJ

Many words in political discourse are used unquestioningly, as if they represented a black or white situation, e.g., war or no war. However, in many instances fuzzy political notions, like war and gradations of war, are often more appropriate and revealing.

Last year at a social event in London, an American diplomat answered a question about the war on Iraq with a sneering “the war in Iraq already started” [1]. It was impossible to get this gentleman to clarify his remark, but it does suggest that some concepts used in everyday discourse may be misleading if used as black or white concepts instead of fuzzy ones. The US and UK, have continually bombed Iraq for the past ten years, imposed devastating sanctions under a UN guise, and so on. In ordinary discourse, it is generally understood that war in Iraq hasn’t broken out yet, but this is clearly deceptive. A more useful interpretation is to utilize a fuzzy war classification of the intensity of war on Iraq; during the past decade, it may be described as a “low intensity” war, and maybe ratcheting up to a “medium intensity” war in recent months. The importance of this distinction is that a low-level conflict may not register on the political or media radar screen in the US, but it certainly has devastating consequences in Iraq. For this very reason activists may not react as quickly as the situation merits to reduce the civilian suffering.

Another reason to utilize a fuzzy concept for war is that policymakers themselves have moved in this direction. As an example, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and some other well-known figures are known to be admirers of von Clausewitz, the pseudo-scientific Prussian war strategist, and are perhaps better known as neo-Clausewitzians. She once stated: “We are talking about using military force, but we are not talking about a war… I think that this is an important distinction” [2]-she has made war into a fuzzy concept. Neo-Clausewitzians view wars in utilitarian terms, and understand that there are gradations of war that are dependent on technology and the possibilities to intimidate an opponent. It is perfectly accepted within such circles to think of war, or just enough war, to reach their aims. The Reaganites’ affinity in the 1980s for the “low-intensity conflict” concept comes to mind. If policymakers think in these fuzzy terms, then it behooves the activist community to think in similar terms.

The means for war also have become fuzzy. While in the past sword or cannon defined the implements of war, now other implements are wielded that fit in to the more complex nature of modern warfare. Some measures may not constitute weapons of war in and of themselves, but they also have devastating effects. IMF, World Bank or WTO policies are some of the more obscure formal instruments that cause capital flight, serious currency devaluations, and even famines–countries can be brought to their knees without a shot being fired. The armory of the Albrights or Rumsfelds of this world is varied, containing what erstwhile may have been considered innocuous implements.

The fact that the US Congress voted to remove itself from having a final say in the declaration of war on Iraq is also insignificant if war is a fuzzy concept. War is already being waged under the radar screen. Either its current intensity is very low, or its means are not conventional, so that to wait until Congress gives a green light for the real fireworks to begin is immaterial–most of the casualties will die beforehand in any case. The only way Congress could have a meaningful role in controlling the warmongers is if it intervened much earlier–when not even a shot had been fired. However, it is difficult to countenance such intervention. Military strategists talk in terms of “ladders of escalation”, and Congress may step in just at the last step on the ladder.

Just as war should be viewed as a fuzzy concept, we should view peace, the opposite side of this coin, as fuzzy too. If the intensity of war is “medium”, then one cannot expect peace to be more than at the same level. It is simply erroneous to think that if a few conditions change, then true “peace” will break out. If we admit to using a fuzzy term for peace, then there is an obvious follow up question: what type of peace?

A clear example of the importance of fuzzy political discourse can be found in Israel/Palestine today. Three Israel political parties have already openly called for the implementation of “transfer”, i.e., the obscene euphemism for the mass expulsion or ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Unofficially, many more Israeli politicians approve of this, e.g., by attending seminars, etc., on this issue. An Israeli academic, Prof. Illan Pappe, has stated recently that the policy of transfer is a centrist political position in Israel today. Activists may be lulled into downplaying the possibility of an expulsion, i.e., a “Nakba II”, perhaps because the horror of the situation makes us want to think that it is highly improbable. This happens to be Amnesty International’s position on this issue, and thus it doesn’t seem to think that a statement or position on this issue is necessary [3].

However, the fuzzy version of “transfer” is far more useful in assessing what is going on. Every day houses are destroyed, neighborhoods bulldozed, people killed, and so on. Armed with a fuzzy interpretation, one can only conclude the policy of “transfer” has already begun. It may not be at the “high” levels as encountered in Kosovo, or Palestine itself in 1948, but one could perhaps rank the current ethnic cleansing as “low to medium” intensity. Once again, this does not register in the political discourse in the US, and the US media will not recognize it as a major event; but for the Palestinian population that has endured massive repression for decades, only to see it intensified in the past two years, this is an ongoing disaster. On January 16th the village of Al-Daba in the Qalqilya district will be flattened by the 60-ton American-made armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozers [4]. The inhabitants of the town will have to endure the bitter cold in tents–if they are allowed in. This is ethnic cleansing in slow motion, a ratcheting up of ethnic cleansing to a “medium” level. How else can one categorize such actions?

There are also some nontrivial implications of the fuzzy terminology on the political discourse within Palestine. It is convenient to use shorthand terms to describe the situation; sometimes this is helpful, but in the current situation in Palestine, it is counterproductive. The Palestinians have borrowed terms coined during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. One often hears references to “Israeli apartheid” measures implemented against Palestinians. For some time Israeli planners actually toyed with apartheid policies, but that has given way to the ethnic cleansers. It is clear that the intent by Israelis is to create conditions that will facilitate the mass expulsion of the population. On the other hand, apartheid implied a separation of people, a dependent black economy, and that there is a certain acceptance of a demarcation line between two societies–the Bantustans were supposed to have boundaries. The term apartheid may be too static for a historical condition that wasn’t as acute and serious as the situation in Palestine today. In the current context, the borders are being constantly redrawn by settlers and the army, and it is perhaps better to jettison the apartheid concept altogether in the Palestinian context–it is long overdue. In its place, there is a need to coin a new Palestinian-specific term like “genocide in slow motion”. Whatever new term is used, it needs to be understood as a fuzzy concept.

War crimes and crimes against humanity are concepts that also would benefit if interpreted in a fuzzy context. The risk with waiting for crimes to occur on a massive scale is that nothing may be done to stop horrendous acts when done on a lower scale in the meantime. War crimes are in fact being committed in Israel/Palestine today–the distinction, is that they may be conducted at a “medium” level. Policymakers are acutely aware of a threshold they can get away with without significant international scrutiny or pressure. Likewise, the newly instituted International Criminal Court will not institute an investigative team in this matter because there are legal reasons why the ICC may not have jurisdiction; it may also be because the crimes aren’t thought to exceed an unspoken threshold. There is no official UN body collecting data on Israeli war crimes today!

The danger with viewing crimes against Palestinians and the war in Iraq as on or off conditions is that activists will wait too long before acting on the severity of the situation. This is perhaps an intended reason behind the slow escalation of the measures taken against the Palestinians. By staying below a given threshold, which itself may be increasing, the sordid nature of the actions taken remains outside the common political discourse or the media. Certainly, the US regime couldn’t get away with attacking Iraq a year ago, but it has carried out low-level operations, like throwing a 500kg concrete-filled bomb into a school.

The emergence of Fuzzy Logic as a mathematical concept has itself had an impact on philosophy and engineering in recent times. Control engineering was revolutionized by looking at the world in overlapping shades of gray. On the political front, the most important implication for us today is that fuzzy concepts of aggression require gradual but pervasive action when facing changes in the underlying state of the world. The alternative is to view the world as black and white, with the consequence that action often comes too late and is ineffective. In other words, it is necessary to act based on a perceived level of violence today instead of delaying action to the point where the threat of all-out war or genocide may render late responses meaningless.

PAUL de ROOIJ is an economist living in London and can be reached at proox@hotmail.com.

Notes:

[1] Private communication; the US diplomat wishes to remain anonymous. He also insisted on retrieving his business card after I asked him if I could quote him!

[2] Andrew J. Bacevich, “Policing Utopia, The Military Imperatives of Globalization,” The National Interest 56 (summer 1999) 7. There is another useful treatise about this concept: BM Blechman and SS Kaplan: “Force Without War: US Armed Forces as a Political Instrument”; Washington 1978.

[3] Discussion conducted with Donatella Rovera in Oct. 2002, where she was asked if AI would issue a statement about the impending threat of “transfer”. On January 16, 2003 she stated: “In October 2002 AI did not feel there was an imminent risk of mass expulsion/forcible transfer. We continue to monitor the situation and, needless to say, our assessment is subject to change depending on developments.” There hasn’t been a statement yet.

For more information on AI check out: www.counterpunch.org/rooij1031.html.

[4] Dr. Robert Younes, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Press release, Jan. 14, 2003.

 

PAUL de ROOIJ is a writer living in London. He can be reached at proox@hotmail.com (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.)

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