Monday, November 27, 2006

Bad Things Do Happen in Clusters

Once again, it seems, bad things come in multiples.

Not that three or four (or more) events suddenly transpire without some warning, some hint that the world or some part of it is about to go awry.

In the Middle East/Persian Gulf, in the words of King Abdullah II of Jordan, the world may see three civil wars side-by-side in early 2007: Lebanon (again), Israel-Palestine (still), and Iraq (overlain by coalition forces). There is a fourth candidate for that unwelcome political condition – Afghanistan.

Then there are Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Russian defector and purported double agent Alexander Litvinenko, and Lebanese Minister of Industry Pierre Gemayel, all assassinated between October 10 and November 23. Politkovskaya, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s punitive policy in Chechnya, was set to publish scathing revelations of widespread kidnapping and torture of Chechens by Russian troops occupying Chechnya. The description of her wounds – particularly a bullet in her head – would in any other country, suggest assassination by party or parties unknown. Litvinenko reportedly had been cooperating with an Italian enquiry into KGB recruitment of spies in Italy during the Cold War. British doctors say he died of acute radiation poisoning. Gemayel, Minister of Industry in the Lebanese government and an outspoken opponent of Syria, was gunned down in a classic “hit” as he left his home. Conventional wisdom blames Syria, but no one has produced any evidence or even an unassailable rationale for Syria to be involved.

All this comes to mind because of a letter dated October 30 from a lady who was in Northern Ireland over a dozen times between 1970 and 1989 – that is almost from “Bloody Sunday” in Belfast to the year just before I returned to the UK as Military attaché, in which posting I visited Northern Ireland.

The letter describes not individual assassinations in civil wars but the mass assassinations characteristic of sectarian/religious or tribal/ethnic slaughter that constitute genocide. The writer compares her personal experiences in Northern Ireland with what is happening in Iraq, covering motivations – power, money, inflict fear; affiliations – political parties or pseudo parties that harbor individual assassins, death squads, and paramilitaries and militias; infiltration of state security by insurgents – Provisional IRA into the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Shi’a militia into the Iraqi police; and the selection of victims on personal characteristics such as names, residence, schools, even occupation – countered by having dual identification documents and trading houses so that one lives in the “right” place.

The lesson of Northern Ireland which the author of the letter drew – and which my own experience and study affirms – is that sectarian killings are virtually unstoppable until exhaustion sets in or complete separation is achieved – and even then there can be subsequent smaller outbreaks. Military intervention by an outside power can tamp down genocidal-scale slaughter, but that works only as long as overwhelming force is used. In such cases, the intervening force comes to be identified with one side or the other and itself becomes a target.

That’s another reason why, in the absence of a political resolution and the employment of nonviolent means to resolve lingering disputes, a policy that depends on coercion to stop coercion will inevitably fail.

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