Thursday, March 27, 2008

Israel, The Global War on Terror... and Sri Lanka?

Daniel Levy at TPM has a somewhat strange essay on a meeting between the PMs of Israel and Sri Lanka last week:
In a meeting between Wickremanayake and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the two discussed, what else, terrorism and the common threats they both face. Olmert had this unsurprising advice for his Sri Lankan guest: "Do not give in to terrorism because it will only bring destruction to your country. Terrorism must be fought; one must not capitulate to it." OK, no big deal – except that in these days of the dumbed-down war on terror, when the Republican Presidential nominee (intentionally or mistakenly) confuses Iran, their Iraqi Shia allies and Al-Qaeda, the Israeli and Sri Lankan examples can actually be rather informative and worth taking another look at.

The Israeli-Sri Lankan leaders’ tête-à-tête was probably not too illuminating, with lots of platitudes, mutual expressions of support and some kwetching and gewalts and whatever the Sri Lankan equivalents of those are. But the respective challenges posed to Israel and Sri Lanka, especially in the realm of suicide bombings can teach us a great deal— especially when it comes to the tendency here in the US to view terror through the prism of Islamo-fascism and peculiar and perverse shortcomings of Islam.

Since their formation in 1972, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, have waged a relentless insurgency against the Sri Lankan state in order to fulfill their ambitions of an independent state for the ethnic Tamils (the Eelam in the group’s name means homeland). Suicide attacks—which they have carried out over 200 of in the last 3 decades—have been a prominent tactic in their participation in a civil war which has claimed some 60,000 lives in the last two decades. In recent weeks, the situation in Sri Lanka has continued to deteriorate, seeing the assassination of two members of parliament by the Tigers and a concurrent abrogation—by the Sri Lankan government—of the official cease-fire that had lasted between the parties (however tenuously) since 2006.

So are the Tamil Tigers an aberration to the otherwise Muslim monopoly on suicide attacks – or do they perhaps hint at the underlying issues that need to be addressed in successfully confronting the phenomenon? That question really gets to the heart of the critique of the current Global War on Terror that is still insufficiently heard in the US and elsewhere too – that it can after all be about what we do, the policies we pursue (we America, we Israel, we Sri Lanka) rather than about who we are – freedom loving nations merrily going about our freedom-loving business. The GWOT policy cannot be effectively countered without challenging its basic assumptions and narrative, and US foreign policy cannot turn the corner without over-turning GWOT.

That last paragraph hits home and the key to understanding the major flaw in our "war on terror" as well as most of Israel's problems. The "what we do rather than who we are" argument is dead on needs to be heard more often in discussions of our foreign policy and Israel's as well(although our foreign policy is Israel's foreign policy since we give them their army... but we'll get to that later). My main issue with his statement is that I don't think that it applies to Sri Lanka the way it applies to the US and Israel.

The problem that I have is that Sri Lanka falls into a different type of conflict than the "war on terror". The conflict that is discussed as the "war on terror" is actually fairly easy to solve, because it involves immense aggression(through sanctions, wars such as Iraq, military bases where they are not wanted, and military support of a state that has aggressively encroached into the land of other countries half a century) on one side, with retaliation by unconventional means on the other side (Suicide bombings and other violence in Iraq, 9/11, the Barracks in Beirut).

While each of the actions that I listed above were given justifications when they were enacted, they usually weren't particularly good ones or they were trying to hide the real rational for those actions. The other actions were essentially responses to our (or Israel's) action with the means they had available to them. The Beirut bombing as a response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, suicide bombs in Iraq as a response to the US invasion and occupation, and Bin Laden stated that his grievances against the US were our bases in Saudi Arabia, the sanctions on Iraq, and our support of Israel. Although some sort of back and forth of aggressor/retaliation happens in most conflicts, in Sri Lanka (as with most post colonial conflicts) the history with the original aggressor(Great Brittan) makes things much more complex.

The background in Sri Lanka is a pattern similar to many other former colonies. Under the colonial ruler there are often cycles of favor and repression to create and then fuel ethnic tensions, leading to a situation after independence where the once privileged minority often finds itself persecuted by the once persecuted majority. Sri Lanka continued in this pattern when the Sinhalese controlled government passed the discriminatory Sinhala only act, which caused immense anger and resentment in the Tamil community, leading to protests and some violence in the following years. It was only years after these tensions had been growing on both sides that the LTTE was formed, and that the true civil war began.

It's this distinction that is my main problem with the article. Levy is comparing these cases because they have all used suicide bombings, and since that is a military tactic that seems a bit nonsensical. People are more likely to use suicide bombings because they don't have any other means. When you've over powered militarily like the Tamils and the Palestinians (also not a fair comparison because the Tamils are much closer to the Sri Lankan army in strength than the Palestinians could ever be as long as we are supplying Israel), your only option is to fight back a-symmetrically. They are both over matched to varying degrees, and so at times they have each used suicide bombers. The comparisons end there.

One of the more frustrating things about comparing these conflicts in that way is that it seems to equate the degree of difficulty that it would take to solve each conflict, when they couldn't be further apart. Although you will never read this in the paper, or hear it from a senator, republican or democrat(thanks, AIPAC...) - but the truth of the matter is, we could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict starting tomorrow if we wanted to. There are many conflicts in the world that truly keep me up at night, and it's a real struggle to think about how there can be an feasible solution in my lifetime. Sadly Sri Lanka is at the top of that list with so many complexities, horrific levels of violence, and peace structure that would be hard to rebuild when so much trust has been lost on either side. There are many other conflicts that aren't as complicated as Sri Lanka, but they are also problematic because there is virtually no way the US could be any way involved as an even-handed broker. There is plenty of conflicts like this, just not Israel - Palestine.

The ironic thing is that Israel - Palestine would be so much easier to solve simply because the US is such an extremely biased broker. In fact, we're so tilted to one side that we actually hold all of Israel cards... or I at least the only card that matters(the military). Unlike these other situations, we actually can control the negotiations, because for all intensive purposes, we are one of the parties. But this won't happen, because the people in charge are stupid enough to believe that keeping things the way they are is in our national interest, even when all conceivable logic tells us that couldn't be further from the truth.

So, that was kind of all over the place, the original point remains the same. Comparing Sri Lanka's Civil War to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the US "Global War on Terror" is fairly ridiculous, because other than suicide bombings, the situations have very little in common. Random note, there isn't enough room in this post to write more about the details Sri Lankan conflict, but if you wanted to learn more I wrote a pretty long paper on the conflict and possible solutions in college that I could send you're way if you'd like. With everything going on in the world today, I'm hardly expecting anyone to want to subject themselves to 20 more pages on this extremely depressing topic, but hey, I figured I'd throw it out there.


  1. Great post, got to the heart of a very complex problem that affects both Sri Lanka and many other countries around the world. I know you and I have had several conversations about the effects of colonialism and most importantly, the conflicts it has fostered. Sri Lanka's was passed from colonizer to colonizer, the Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British. It is important to note that Tamils have lived in Sri Lanka as long as the Singhalese, and therefore it is not fair for anyone to classify Tamils as not "Sri Lankan" even though I have heard numerous Singhalese people do so. The point is that some people may regard colonialism as a way of distracting from the current issues, it is ultimately vital to discuss the issue. The Sinhala laws enacted after independence were a direct attack on policies favored by the British during their occupation of Sri Lanka (and yes I will call it occupation). While I find the policies completely discriminatory (I am Singhalese by the way) towards Tamils, I see where the hatred grew from. It is still no excuse for the discrimination that continued throughout Sri Lanka's post independence history, but without colonization, who knows exactly what would have happened. Sorry for the long comment, I always get riled up on the issue. But great post JJ and I'm sorry I have not posted earlier. I always read the blog but I never get a chance to post.

  2. its ok J, you know a lot about things being all over the place...

    another clear example of the situation in Sri Lanka is the civil war that broke out in Rwanda, again with the british favoring one "ethnic group" (race is a social construct anyway) during their occupation and then leaving with the other under severe discrimination. although there were many different issues with the African colonies (corruption and utter depletion of natural resources) its sad to see these parallels all over the world between many colonized nations.

    its also good to push these discussions to the forefront, as well as get people to re-examine the US's relationship w/ Israel

  3. Guys, good stuff, I learn a lot every time I read this blog.