The Oct. 7 slaughter of Israeli innocents by Hamas and the ensuing war in Gaza that Hamas cynically welcomes is a tragedy full of lessons that Israel and the U.S. should have learned long ago.
Prince Talleyrand, the diplomatic genius who served four successive French governments in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, summarized the key lesson. As he reportedly told his master Napoleon, “You can do anything with bayonets, Sire, except sit on them.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wing have tried to sit on bayonets for over 20 years, and Oct. 7 and the Gaza war is the result.
I saw the U.S. version of sitting-on-bayonets during three years in Vietnam as a young Foreign Service officer. The South Vietnamese government wanted no negotiations with its domestic enemies. What it wanted was U.S. help to crush them — the older and more northern Viet Minh and the largely southern Viet Cong. The Vietnamese government’s position prevented the U.S. from trying to play on the two groups’ differences. Moreover, the U.S. then like the right-wing in Israel today with respect to Hamas — did not understand how deeply the Viet Cong had entrenched itself over the years.
In Ba Xuyen Province, where I spent a year passing out cement, fibro-cement roofing, and rebar for schools, dispensaries and the like, the Japanese occupiers during World War II had broken up big rice-growing estates owned by Chinese and French landlords and given the land to former sharecroppers. The French sought to return that land to the former owners, but neither they nor the Vietnamese government ever regained full control of the countryside. Fifty-seven thousand Americans then died trying to achieve with bayonets what many of us who were out there thought would be impossible.
The U.S. after Vietnam got pulled into other futile wars where we sought military victory rather than political solutions. In Iraq, for instance, it was our own neo-conservatives who fantasized that American bayonets and good intentions could turn that country into a democracy. The U.S. did kill Saddam Hussein, a tyrant, but it was he and Sunni Iraq who were keeping Iran’s Shiite mullahs in check. Instead of the kind of balance of power that the realistic Talleyrand achieved through diplomacy, the U.S. got an ascendent Iran and a powder keg of continuing problems.
American experiences in Vietnam and Iraq are not to say that the U.S. should give up in the face of the current foreign policy disaster. Nor is it to say that a U.S. commitment now to a two-state political solution will succeed quickly. It is to say that a military victory in Gaza is not a solution.
What the U.S. needs to do is take a long-term view the way Talleyrand did. Wellington and his allies had defeated Napoleon and France at Waterloo, but Talleyrand, Klemens von Metternich of Austria and Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Minister believed that defeated France still had to have a place in any durable European peace to prevent czarist Russia and a powerful Germany from dominating Europe. They achieved a workable balance of power on this basis despite fierce political opposition, especially in Great Britain.
The aftermath of World War II is also a guide. The U.S. created a postwar alliance system that continues to benefit everyone involved. These alliances, knitted together and supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, contained the communist threat, reintegrated Germany and Japan into the world political community and produced an unmatched prosperity.
This success was achieved because farsighted American military, political and diplomatic leaders worked patiently after World War II to find leaders in Europe and Asia to work with. Among the key Americans in this effort were generals George Marshall, future president Dwight Eisenhower, and Lucius Clay, who led the U.S. occupation authority in Germany. Many on their staffs had fought in the war and knew the history of European rivalries and American isolationism that were contributing factors.
The Americans built rosters of sometimes difficult foreign leaders who could deal with their own strong communist parties and fractious domestic politics. These included Conrad Adenauer in Germany, Charles De Gaulle in France, Alcide De Gasperi in Italy, Paul Henri Spaak in Belgium and Jean Monnet, often called the father of the European Union. There were also thousands of European civil servants who shared the U.S. vision and helped persuade and cajole others into cooperation rather than conflict.
The bottom line is this. The U.S. is the only country that has the weight to work with Israel and the Palestinians toward a balanced peace even after Oct. 7 and Gaza. It is hard to imagine disparate Middle Eastern countries, China, Russia or even our friends in Europe bringing the Palestinians and Israelis into a successful negotiation without committed U.S. involvement. In dollar-and-cents terms, it is a very cheap role for the U.S., especially compared to the alternatives.
Paul A. London, Ph.D., was a senior policy adviser and deputy undersecretary of Commerce for Economics and Statistics in the 1990s, a deputy assistant administrator at the Federal Energy Administration and Energy Department, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. A legislative assistant to Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) in the 1970s, he was a foreign service officer in Paris and Vietnam and is the author of two books, including “The Competition Solution: The Bipartisan Secret Behind American Prosperity” (2005).
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