For many years, Europeans and North Americans have largely been insulated from international turmoil. Although targeted by a few horrendous terror attacks and buffeted by oil shocks, the numerous wars and outbreaks of violence in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East generally did not reach the West.
As a result, many came to believe that they were the leading edge of a historic and universal revolution, in which the remaining pockets of war would be isolated and then eliminated. In universities, students were taught that violence between nations, including terrorism, could be cured, like a disease, by overcoming economic, social and psychological “root causes.” Belief in international law and negotiations, regardless of the situation, replaced the practice of meeting force with force, while defence and deterrence were said to be passé and unacceptable. Well-intentioned westerners projected their own limited experience on the rest of the world, assuming that tolerance and empathy were universal.
In this spirit, western journalists who wrote about conflicts (particularly involving Israel) focused on human interest stories and victims, reinforcing the dominant mythology. The reality of warring nations and religions, motivated by incitement, hate and revenge, was ignored or self-censored. For example, after adopting the image of Palestinians as victims, thousands of terrorists and rocket attacks were reported only in passing.
As a result, when faced with the brutal war in Syria that triggered the massive outflow of refugees, western leaders have only been able to shake their collective heads and call for calm. Numerous peace conferences and lofty United Nations resolutions ended, predictably, without impact.
In Europe, where most of the refugees land after crossing the Mediterranean, the debate focuses on helping the victims. But the generous immigration policies, including the agreement of the United States and Canada to accept a few thousand refugees, are little more than Band-Aids. As long as the war between the Assad regime (aided by Hezbollah, Iran and Russia) and the Sunnis led by ISIS (with help from Qatar and Saudi Arabia) continues, there will be many more casualties and refugees.
However, the wishful thinking that erased war and deterrence from policy options available for western democracies remains a major problem. In other parts of the world, and the Middle East in particular, the inherent anarchy of international politics – what the 16th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “the state of nature” and the “war of all against all” – continues unabated. The calm that characterizes Europe and North America are exceptions, reflecting the devastation of two world wars and the horrors of the Holocaust.
In contrast, in the Middle East, Asia and other regions of the world, the best that can be achieved is a stability based on strong armies and mutual deterrence. The deadly anarchy in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other areas neighbouring Israel demonstrates that weak and isolated peoples and nations become inviting targets for destruction, as in the case of the Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities. Sunnis living near Shiite power centres, and Shiites caught in the path of ISIS, are equally vulnerable, and have joined the flood of refugees seeking to survive.
This has always been the reality that Israel has faced, and is the main obstacle to a serious and stable peace, as imagined by western diplomats, academics and other well-intentioned analysts. For most Israelis, who can watch the attacks and counterattacks between the various armed groups and terrorists along the Syrian and Lebanese borders, the importance of a strong defence is obvious. And while the military regime in Egypt is criticized for violating human rights, the priority of effective responses to terrorist groups that control large parts of the Sinai is also understandable. As the impact of these wars spread to the West, and the comfort zones based on myths of universal peace begin to crumble, perhaps the reality that Israel faces will be better understood.