Every year, when Yom Kippur rolls around, Jews around the world recite prayers of contrition. The prayers take many forms, but most contain something like the following language:
- “[W]e are not so arrogant and stiff-necked that we should say before You, 0 Lord our God, . . . that we are righteous and have not sinned. For we have sinned. We have trespassed . . . . [W]e have transgressed; we have oppressed.”
This confession of humility and error is the highlight of the Jews’ holiest of days, the Day of Atonement.
To anyone who sees it, this prayer of contrition evokes important questions. Why only on a single day? Any why only before God? Doesn’t humility make miracles every day, in the course of ordinary human relations? Haven’t simple acts of humility reconciled families, business rivals, and even nations?
The greatest political “miracle” of the twentieth century was the fall of the fearsome Soviet Union, without anyone firing a shot. Yet that blessing was not a miracle in any supernatural sense. It was the result of consistent, patient, and intelligent policy, plus a bit of humility.
The policy stood on two legs. First was our strategic deterrent, which kept Soviet leaders from acting out their fantasies. Second was the Russian people’s intelligent self-interest, informed in part by decades of professional reporting from the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
Yet there was also a third factor: humility on our part. We recognized an undeniable fact: the Soviets had an arsenal of nuclear weapons that could annihilate us, if not the world. So we went to talk to them about the possibility of slowing the arms race.
The Soviets were aggressive and blustering. They threatened to replace our capitalism with Communism, worldwide. They tried hard to realize that threat with a combination of revolution and conquest. Nikita Khrushchev said they would “bury” us. Yet we swallowed our pride, fear and resentment and went to talk with them.
The Russians, too, were fearful. Their long and bloody history included invasions from every direction but the frozen north. In last two centuries alone, they had been attacked four times from the west (twice by Napoleonic France, twice by Germany) and twice from the east (both times by Japan). The last invasion, by the Nazis, had killed 20 million of their people and produced casualties in virtually every surviving family. Nevertheless, their leaders came to talk with us, their “enemy.”
Eventually, marginally successful arms-control talks became summits between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. With his legendary charm and affability, Reagan managed to convince Gorbachev that the United States had no designs on his nation, his people, or their territory. Gorbachev was intelligent and far-sighted enough to draw the right conclusions.
The rest is history. Within a few years, there were solid, verifiable and substantial mutual reductions in nuclear arms. A few years later, the fearsome Soviet menace was gone forever. Relieved of the millennial stress of fending off repeated invasions, the Russian people could devote their energy to turning their nuclear-armed Sparta into a modern, prosperous state. None of this would have happened had we not sat down to talk with them.
The most bewildering aspect of today’s international relations is our failure to follow this golden example, despite its spectacular success. We won’t talk with Iran or (directly) with North Korea. We won’t talk with Syria. The Israelis won’t talk with Hamas or Hezbollah, and so won’t we. The very Jews who annually recite the prayer of contrition are too stiff-necked to sit down with their enemies, and we follow their bad example. Stiff-necked diplomacy has infected us like a plague.
If the truth be told, no intelligent or thoughtful policy lies behind these refusals to talk. Their source is the same arrogance that the prayer of contrition warns against.
We talked to the Soviets because we had to. The risk of mutual nuclear annihilation made us humble, and so we talked. The result was a more glorious conclusion than anyone could have imagined at the time.
In contrast, we don’t talk with Iran, North Korea, Hamas, or Hezbollah because we think they are weak. Deep down in our unconscious forebrain, we think of our nuclear arsenal and say to ourselves, “Don’t these idiots realize that we could wipe them out by pressing a button? Why aren’t they more pliable?” That arrogance---not any rational policy---keeps us from sitting down with them as we sat down with the Reds.
We do have ultimate power of life and death over these enemies. A single nuclear submarine, armed with multiple thermonuclear missiles, could turn Iran or North Korea into a radioactive wasteland, uninhabitable by man or beast for thousands of years. A single missile would do for Hamas or Hezbollah. Our technology has given us the destructive power of the Old Testament’s God.
Yet we won’t and can’t use that power. Why? Because we are human and civilized. We know that any such act of destruction would be a grievous and irretrievable moral wrong. It would contravene our laws and moral code, to say nothing of our various religions. It would taint our history with a stench of evil that time could never wash away.
The days are gone when a Cato the Elder, crying “Cartago delenda est!” could whip the Romans into such a frenzy of destruction that they not only murdered Carthage’s people, but burned the city to the ground, tore down its walls, and sowed its fields with salt. Today we see that sort of behavior as barbarism. For us that kind of act is inconceivable.
So we won’t use our ultimate power because we are both human and civilized. We know, deep down, that our enemies are human, too. Our acknowledgement of their humanity stays our nuclear hand but won’t let us talk with them. Isn’t that a contradiction?
Our main excuse for stiff-necked diplomacy is that our enemies should take the first step. But why should they? With the possible exception of Iran and Syria, all of them are weak. Without exception, all of them are much weaker than we. Should we expect the weak to show good sense and reason, when we, the strongest, fail to do so?
The weakest, of course, is North Korea. Despite its formidable army, it can’t feed its people. It can’t produce anything that that rest of the world wants. It has to import its food, its energy and its “Dear Leader’s” luxuries. It doesn’t even enjoy the sympathy and respect that Hamas and Hezbollah engender throughout the Islamic world. Its neighbors on all sides fear and loathe it. It is an object of global derision.
From a human standpoint, North Korea has no leverage over anyone at all, save this: it can threaten. It threatens Seoul---a gem of modern Asia---with destruction by 10,000 conventional rockets poised to launch. Now it threatens the world with nuclear fire and crude missiles.
That’s all it has, nothing else. Yet we expect it to give up its threats---its only leverage---before we even come to the table. How rational a policy is that?
Now take Hamas and Hezbollah. What power do they have? They can send their youth into Israel strapped with explosives to blow themselves up. They can use foreign money and weapons to create havoc, as did Hezbollah in last summer’s war. But with what result? Hezbollah’s so-called “moral victory” left southern Lebanon in ruins and Hezbollah’s compatriots deeply suspicious and resentful of Hezbollah. It may take decades for Hezbollah’s political capital, let alone southern Lebanon’s infrastructure, to recover. And still Hamas wallows in the isolated poverty of Gaza.
For both Hamas and Hezbollah, words are a key source of power, for talk is cheap. By threatening to destroy Israel, they maintain the respect of the frustrated and oppressed Palestinians and the admiration of an increasingly militant Muslim world. With that respect, they attract money, attention, and arms. Their threat to destroy Israel is a key source of what little power and influence they have in the world. Yet we and Israel expect them to give up that power before we’ll even come to the table. How rational is that?
Iran and Syria are a bit different. Like it or not, both are viable, apparently stable states with strong armies and functioning economies. They do not need to rely on threats as sources of power, and so their threats against Israel and sponsorship of terrorists are more troubling.
Nevertheless, they and we have common interests. As a secular, relatively prosperous but repressive autocracy, Syria does not want an Al-Qaeda base on its doorstep in Iraq. Nor does it want a widespread civil war that could spread across its borders. Despite its regional ambitions, Iran has similar interests. There may be those inside Iran who are willing to gamble security for regional power, but there are many cooler heads as well. Iran has not been aggressive and expansionist since the old Persian empire, and it suffered terribly in the eight-year war with Saddam’s Iraq. Many inside Iran rightly fear a regional conflagration more than we do. After all, they will be much closer to it. Don’t these common interests give us something to talk about?
Strong we have been since World War II. Once we were also clever, patient, and wise. Those qualities helped us “conquer” what might have been the most fearsome “evil empire” in world history, without the nuclear holocaust that everyone feared. If we summon up the same qualities again, surely we can neutralize or contain the much smaller threats of today’s petty tyrants. Yet we can’t even begin until we abandon stiff-necked diplomacy.