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The Perils Of 'soft Power'

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December 8, 2003 -- WHAT would you do if you opposed the war to liberate Iraq and yet did not wish to join the Marxist-Islamist anti-war coalition? You might well present "soft power" as an alternative to military intervention.

The first time I heard the term "soft power" was in 1994 during a visit to Oslo to interview Norway's leaders. They were then on top of the world because they believed they had solved the Palestinian problem by organizing secret deals between Yasser Arafat and the Israeli government then headed by Yitzhak Rabin.

By 1995, the term had entered the diplomatic jargon. Others, including German and Japanese politicians, used it in their quest for a niche in global politics. Now the French use soft power as a code-word against America, the epitome of "hard power."

Soft power, however, is as old as history. The payments of tribute, and exchange of gifts, including hostages and slaves, are forms of soft power used throughout history. Semiramis and Cleopatra used another form of "soft power" by enticing enemy generals into their beds. Machiavelli's Realpolitik cocktail was a mixture of persuasion (soft power) with coercion (hard power).

Needless to say, it is preferable to achieve one's goal with soft power rather than hard, which could include war. The problem, however, is that many individuals and regimes regard the use of soft power by an adversary as a sign of weakness, and are thus emboldened in their deadly enterprises.

The use of soft power did not prevent Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia and the end of the League of Nations. Soft power extracted a "peace in our time" from Hitler in Munich, but accelerated the advent of the Second World War.

There are more recent examples of soft power producing disastrous results.

Between 1980 and 1988, Germany and France used soft power to persuade the mullahs of Tehran to agree to a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war. The mullahs saw those efforts as a sign that a weak and divided West would do nothing to stop the hoped-for march of Khomeinist "volunteers for martyrdom" to Baghdad and thence to Jerusalem. By 1988, Iran was firing missiles at Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and sending warplanes on intimidation missions in the Saudi airspace.

All that was stopped only when the United States, then led by Ronald Reagan, decided to use a small dose of hard power to knock some sense into the mullahs' heads. A U.S. task force was sent to the Gulf, where it managed to sink half of the Iranian navy in a few minutes.

The mullahs understood a message that France and Germany had tried to impart for seven years, with no success. A shaken Ayatollah Khomeini appeared on TV to announce that he had "swallowed the poisoned chalice "by accepting an end to the war.

Another example: For 12 years ,Turkey used soft power to persuade Syria to close the bases of Kurdish terrorists on its soil. The Syrians simply mocked the Turks. Then one day in 1999 a Turkish army appeared on the Syrian border with the mission to go and close those bases. The Syrian rulers instantly backed down, closed the bases and expelled the Kurdish Marxist rebel leaders.

The anti-war crowd forget that soft power was used on both Saddam Hussein and Afghanistan's Taliban.

In 1990 when Saddam invaded and annexed Kuwait, he was offered a range of soft power goodies in exchange for withdrawal. One formula worked out by French President Francois Mitterrand and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev was to extend the Iraqi coastline on the Persian Gulf by 25 kilometers at the expense of Kuwait. Saddam was also to receive the Kuwaiti islands of Warbah and Bubiyan plus the entire Kuwaiti part of the Rumailah oilfields.

Saddam refused. He saw all this as a sign of weakness and was persuaded that, if he was being offered so much as a reward for aggression, there was no reason why he should not keep everything.

Until his overthrow last April, Saddam continued to laugh at soft-power attempts at curbing his murderous excesses. The 18 United Nations resolutions that he ignored represented so many attempts at "soft powering" a situation that required hard power.

The world had a similar experience with the Taliban. By the end of 2001, it was clear that if they did not hand over Osama bin Laden for trial on charges related to the 9/11 attacks, Washington would have no choice but to use force. They were offered a range of inducements, including diplomatic recognition by the European Union and a massive package of aid. One of the only two Arab states that had recognized the Taliban even offered Mullah Omar and his cohorts a special sweetener in the form of $300 million in cash.

Those efforts only confirmed the Taliban in their belief that the West would not have the stomach for a real war. "The fact that they are all begging at our door shows what cowards they are," said Taliban Information Minister Mullah Muttaqi in December 2001.

There are individuals and regimes that would not stop unless they hit something hard on their path. A world without hard power would be a paradise for bullies, tyrants, terrorists and other aggressors. With soft power, Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein would still be filling mass graves.

The Oslo Accords, the most praised fruit of soft power, led to years of intensified conflict in which more Palestinians and Israelis have died than in the whole of the preceding 50 years. (As discussed yesterday, the so-called Geneva Accord can only have similar effect.)

Bill Clinton's soft-power approach to North Korea gave Kim Jong-il four years in which to develop his nuclear arsenal and continue to thumb his nose at the world.

And will not the compromise negotiated by the European Union with Tehran persuade the mullahs to speed up their plans to develop nuclear weapons?

Whenever I hear the term "soft power," I am reminded of one particular scene.

It is 1995 Srebrenica, a Bosnian city under U.N. protection. The ethnic Serb army arrives in the mainly Muslim town and begins to round up all Muslim males aged above 12. In four days, some 8,000 men and boys are forced into a makeshift camp held by the Serbs. On the fifth day, the Serbs start killing the captives. It takes them five days to kill everyone.

All that time the U.N. protection force, a contingent of Dutch blue berets, is cantoned in its quarters just a mile away, doing nothing. Well, not quite: Some of the Dutch soldiers turned up their radios and cassette players to the maximum to drown the cries of Muslims being massacred by the Serbs.

The Dutch blue berets were there on a soft-power mission. When their commander asked the U.N. headquarters in New York what he was supposed to do, the answer was chilling: Observe and report.

E-mail: [email protected]

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