The following sentence is the most bitter compliment imaginable: The Thursday assassination of Benazir Bhutto is a huge, shocking and possibly even historic triumph for the enemies of democracy. Even worse, the attack was the gruesome culmination of what has been a successful year for them.
It is also not reaching too far to say that the shots that fatally wounded Bhutto in Rawalpindi Thursday also killed off any hope that the Islamic world could find peace of its own accord in the foreseeable future.
The West, too, is more troubled than it has been for a long time. The dismay in the corridors of government is genuine. US President George W. Bush's statement, which lasted little more than a minute, was eloquent testimony to his speechlessness. This world power has rarely looked so powerless -- and Bush has rarely looked so helpless.
Three Lessons to Be Learned
Now, as always when something goes wrong in the world, America is falling back on the rhetoric of violence. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has been saying for some time that Pakistan is the war we must win. The "war on terror" metaphor has long been one of Bush's favorites.
But the failures of 2007 require rethinking. There are three lessons to be learned from the strategy followed by the US to this point.
Lesson one: The conflict with radical Islam is not the hobby of a US president gone berserk. This will become all the more clear next November when American voters go to the polls. Bush, who cannot run for re-election due to term limitations, will go, but the conflict with Islam will remain. In fact, it is growing more intense. That, at least, is what the murder of this exceptionally brave woman in Pakistan has given to the West: a high degree of clarity. The radical Islamists will not tolerate any democrats, even if they come from their own countries. They are looking for a showdown, apparently at any price. They will even accept the failure of a country as big and proud as Pakistan.
Lesson two: Bush will not be in a position to do much to end this conflict. He is a war president and an unsuccessful one at that. Even if he talks about diplomacy, it sounds like preparation for war. His partners in Berlin, Paris and London will have to act cleverly in this difficult situation. Any belligerence or crowing must be avoided so as to not damage the Western position as a whole. As strange as it might sound, this beleaguered president must be ushered into retirement with dignity and civility.
Lesson three: The classic military intervention -- Bush's formula against the danger of terrorism -- has not been successful up to now and will not be so in the future. And the situation in nuclear-armed Pakistan is clearly not one where any sort of military operation should be considered.
Part of Their Lifeblood
But what, then, should be done? The greatest weapon in the war against destructive zealots, as strange as it may sound, is robust, resilient composure, even if nothing is more difficult. The internal contradictions of Islamic states are huge, their economic achievements for most social classes are paltry (with the exception of Iran), and the reflexive way they get carried away with their resentment of the West has become part of their lifeblood.
A look back and the Cold War -- an era full of provocations on both sides -- provides a useful model. In 1953, construction workers building the great Stalin Allee in East Berlin, rebelled against their communist government. Many in the Soviet zone hoped that the West would support their fight against the East German communist dictatorship. In West Berlin, the US propaganda station RIAS became shriller -- but nothing more was done.
In Budapest in 1956 there was the same calm discipline. The armed Hungarian students (this writer's father among them) rebelled against the Moscow puppet regime. They were hoping for Western help, but that hope was in vain. The students saw this as a betrayal. For tens of thousands, my father included, there was nothing to do but flee from the Soviet tanks rolling in.
The West's abstention was painful; in fact, it was unbearable -- but it made political sense.
These provocations continued until the dismal high point -- the military putsch by General Wojciech Jaruzelski in Warsaw in 1981. The armies of the West stayed in their barracks. Soviet Communism broke apart all by itself a short time later.
President Bush would likewise have been better served had he kept the troops home instead of sending them into Iraq. The invasion resulted in high human and political losses, without an identifiable benefit on the other side of the balance sheet. Having marched into Baghdad in 2003, however, the US cannot now leave.
'Better to Jaw-Jaw'
In Afghanistan, NATO would have been well-advised to concentrate exclusively on capturing al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, instead of digging wells, building schools and trying to push the underdeveloped country toward democracy at the barrel of a gun. Such activism has helped few and has done little to promote democracy.
In short, the best argument against military intervention is its record of failure. It is rarely worth the expense and rarely worth the human lives lost and ruined.
But does that mean we should capitulate? Should the West sit on the sidelines sipping tea? Absolutely not.
The West has to protect itself and its people with everything modern technology has placed at its disposal. The West needs to be prepared to talk and negotiate with all those who are willing to talk -- even if they happen to be thugs. And of course there is an important role to be played by the military and by secret services -- but primarily in the service of targeted operations against terror camps and cells. While mass invasions have proven useless, pinprick operations continue to have an important place in the West's arsenal.
And perhaps it is once again time for European diplomacy to open up a new way of seeing things to the Americans. In the altercation with the Soviet Union and the communist bloc, Europe found success. Many in the US were set on a confrontational course while Europeans preferred an easing of tensions. It was the English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, just eight years after World War II ended, who voiced his conviction that, wherever possible, a measured, more patient and less aggressive foreign policy was the way to go.
Speaking before a Congressional group in June, 1954, Churchill said that vigilance was indeed a necessary component of dealing with the Communist bloc. But, he went on, "It is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war."