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Monday, Nov. 4, 2002

Greatest generals gave peace a chance


LOS ANGELES -- Sometimes the vital struggle for peace and stability is too important to be left to civilian "experts," especially when there are exceptional generals to help save nations from disaster. That was patently the case after Japan's crushing World War II defeat: The Japanese certainly benefited from Gen. Douglas MacArthur as their transition governor. Later, a triumphant America derived a sense of sensible-shoes steadiness from the Asian-like serenity of President Dwight Eisenhower, the brains behind the allied victory, who as president took a very dim view indeed of military adventurism.

Indeed, when genius generals take off their uniforms and rejoin the secular world, good things often happen. That was certainly the nostalgic story line Oct. 27 in New York City when a huge dinner crowd feted the memory of Yitzhak Rabin -- a moving annual event aided and abetted by former President Bill Clinton and CNN's Larry King, America's new toastmaster general (and both were at the top of their form).

In 1967, Rabin was the brilliant Israeli chief of staff who sensed the gathering clouds of war and masterminded the pre-emptive strike that smashed Israel's enemies before they ever knew what hit them. Yet, just one year later -- rewarded with the ambassadorship to Washington -- the once-hawk was arguing that Israel should withdraw from all of the Arab territories it won during the war in return for peace.

That, alas, never happened. The Middle East remains a basket case, and now Israel is headed by a former general who is little more than a "naked power" militarist in civilian clothing. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is no Yitzhak Rabin, the latter tragically assassinated in 1995 by Israeli extremists frightened by Rabin's passion for peace. These are exactly the kind of people now behind Sharon.

In his keynote address at the Waldorf Astoria charity dinner, Clinton ineffably managed to toast Rabin in a way that careered beyond the hotel's satin walls and across the globe to the blood-soaked beaches of Bali, to the bombed buses of the Middle East and, of course, to the ghost town of New York's Twin Towers just a few kilometers away.

It is so much easier to wage war, Clinton wryly suggested, when you are able to look at "them" (the enemy) as subhuman. To be sure, the terrorists who attack tourists and innocent workers are subhuman. But they are hardly remotely representative of the rest of the great Islamic world. The late former President John F. Kennedy said: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." Too many armchair generals in Washington want to neutron-bomb every potential site for extremists, whether in Indonesia, Pakistan or Iraq, and get those subhumans "dead or alive."

There is a subtler perspective, and it's the Asian one, though this may be overgeneralizing. Drawing on their own recent experience, Asians find it difficult to recall any powerful examples of beneficial wars. "The use of military means has never achieved anything worthwhile and long-lasting in Asia," flatly claims Serge Berthier, the publisher of Asian Affairs, in the current issue of the well-connected Hong Kong-based political quarterly. "That is probably why Asian politicians are today more inclined toward diplomacy coupled with confidence-building measures as a means to achieve peace and development than to use brute force."

But in America now, diplomacy is too often equated with appeasement and a negotiated settlement dubbed the suspicious symptom of flaccid manhood. The chemistry of U.S. diplomacy these days is all testosterone and Viagra.

America, get a grip: For all the horrible carnage of 9/11, in a sense, the biggest victims of the extremist terrorism have been Islam and the Muslim world itself. "We need global powers with global vision and with global interests at heart," warns Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah A. Badawi. "Powerful states that pursue very narrow interests do not attain global leadership. They forfeit it."

Badawi, who is to succeed longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad next year, understands why history's greatest (and often most restrained) military superpower would revert to a call to arms when wounded. "But when terrorism springs from massive discontent and mass perception of manifest and blatant injustices, punitive action alone will not work. It will only intensify the anger and the rage and swell the ranks of potential terrorists."

Let's face it: Ugly racist attitudes exist on both sides of the Islamic/Western divide. Some people just never get it, whether they be extremist Palestinians, extremist Israelis, hate-filled Muslims or well-meaning but not-all-there American triumphalists. Their poisons wash over the reality of our common humanity, with all its flaws and virtues. The truth is, we all inhabit this same tiny globe, and we are all in desperate need of each other. Rabin got it; and so they got him.

There is an answer. For starters, the greatest military power in history needs to invest a lot less on weaponry and more on defending the Rabins of the world. For no missile defense system can save more lives than leaders like Rabin with the vision to see beyond their noses, not to mention their rifles. The Rabins get it.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a columnist with the Honolulu Advertiser, The South China Morning Post and The Straits Times. Copyright 2002 Tom Plate


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