Karate lessons and the Mideast

In almost every kung-fu/karate/samurai movie I have ever seen, there is usually one scene where the master teacher instructs the younger student in one of the key concepts of these Eastern fighting techniques. Paraphrasing, it goes something like this:

“You must learn to use your opponent’s strengths against him. If a bigger opponent comes lunging towards you, don’t stand your ground. That’s how you lose. Instead, step to the side at the last second, grab his arm and continue to pull him forward. That will cause him to accelerate his forward motion beyond his control. The next thing he knows, he will slam his head into the wall behind you.”

There are other variations of this theme. But you get the idea. Often, in these cases, the object of such deftly administered defeats is some lumbering Western fighter, trying to use old-fashioned boxing techniques, or simply wild punching, in the erroneous belief that size and muscle power advantage will inevitably determine the outcome.

The message behind these lessons is that you don’t have to be bigger and stronger than your opponent to beat him. Sure, you have to be in good shape, but after that, it’s more how you use what you have that matters. Take advantage of every weakness of your opponent and capitalize on all of your strengths. Don’t fight the battle that your opponent is prepared to fight; fight the one he does not expect and can not win.

All of this comes to mind in recent weeks, as I continue to watch the deteriorating situations in Iraq, especially the escalating violence in Baghdad, and in Lebanon-Israel.

In both cases, the traditional Western power (the U.S. in one case, Israel in the other) expected its size advantage and superior weapons to carry the day.

In the case of Iraq, the Bush administration could not have been more wrong. With generals now admitting that the country is already in a state of civil war, and the prospects for peaceful future looking bleaker than ever, our hopes for anything that resembles a “victory” are fading fast. It almost brings me to tears when I think of the damage that Bush has done both to our country and to the world at large in pursuing his misguided foreign policy: alienating friends, creating new enemies, weakening our domestic resources, destroying our civil liberties and polarizing our citizens—while lost in some deluded world where flying a “Mission Accomplished” banner could ever be seen as reflecting reality. The Bush administration simply did not have a clue as to the consequences of their actions in Iraq. And they continue to fail at every attempt to tilt the situation to their favor, precisely because they continue to lunge forward while the opponent steps to the side.

Israel now finds itself in a similar predicament in their fight against the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Air superiority and a well-trained superbly-equipped ground force have been unable to stop the enemy. Hezbollah rockets continue to pummel the Israeli landscape. And Hezbollah continues to win the political war. Despite the fact that their rockets deliberately target civilians, while Israel is at least attempting to stick to military targets (while admitting the difficulty of doing this when the enemy intermingles with the civilian population), it is Israel that receives the brunt of the world’s criticism for civilian deaths. As with the U.S in Iraq, Israel lumbers forward while Hezbollah steps to the side.

As others have pointed out, we are in a new generation of warfare. And western powers must learn to adjust, learn the new rules, or perhaps learn that their is no longer a fixed set of rules, if we are to come out on the winning side.

Still, returning to movie metaphors that led off this piece, I am reminded of the endings of many of these movies, such as The Last Samurai or even the non-Eastern but similar in theme Dances With Wolves. In these movies, while the Samurai/Indian strategy worked in small battles and even succeeded for awhile in larger ones, eventually it was doomed. Eventually, the sheer numbers and overwhelming firepower of their enemies carried the day. Today, the Indians and the Samurai no longer exist as powerful forces within their countries.

Perhaps, the same fate eventually will come to Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East. Perhaps, a generation from now, the “war on terror” and its related battles will all be relevant only in history books.

Or perhaps not.

Every great and powerful civilization in the past eventually met its downfall, from the Greeks and the Romans to the British Empire. Perhaps, the time of our own downfall is near. Personally, I doubt it. But I suppose that’s the way Romans felt before the fall as well.

But one thing I am certain of. A sustained peace is nowhere on the horizon. We have never lived in peace for long and I doubt we ever will. In the last hundred years alone, the U.S. has fought in at least seven “wars” (WWI, WWII, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Gulf War I and Gulf War II). The number of others wars that have gone on during this period, ones where we were not a major participant, probably number in the hundreds. There must be some irony in the fact that, despite all the technological and biomedical advances of the last century, our political world remains as bloody as ever.

The Islamic fundamentalists may some day fade into history. But, if they do, another “enemy” will soon take its place. Battles may end. Wars may end. The fighting never ends.

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