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Hobbes and the Middle East By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 23, 2002


DISCUSSIONS of the Middle East situation inevitably seem to at least allude to the idea that because Israel is founded upon conquest, its territorial integrity and legitimacy as a nation are somehow impugnable. So let’s get three things perfectly clear:

  1. Israel was founded upon conquest, a bald fact that no verbal manipulation of history can disguise. Let’s just admit it.
  2. So was the United States.
  3. So were most nations.

It is time, that is, to squarely confront the ancient and time-honored political doctrine of the right of conquest.

The basic historical facts are plain: Ottoman Turkey backed the wrong horse in WWI, Britain took her empire, and then promised part of it to organized Jewry in exchange for support at a desperate moment in the war. Britain gave it to them because a) the Jews wanted it so badly and b) the British figured they would make a better colony out of it than the Arabs. When the Arabs made a larger objection to the Jews than expected, it became clear that the Jews were a liability to the British position in the Middle East, so the British wanted out, being by this time bankrupt and soured on the whole idea of empire. So they reneged on their promise of a Jewish state and tried to abandon the whole thing. WWII and its attendant horrors supercharged the Jewish desire to get one and won the sympathies of the world. Israel won its war of independence against five invading Arab armies and has militarily vindicated itself ever since.

It follows that the Israelis hold their land in title derived from the British abandonment to them in 1948, at which point they conquered it against the Arab attempt to do the same. The British title derives from the surrender of these lands by Ottoman Turkey. The Ottoman title derives from the fact that the Ottomans were the native inhabitants of the territory, but of course it doesn’t, because they weren’t. They were invading Turks, no more native to the area than the British. They, in fact, conquered it from the Mamluks in 1517. Who conquered it from the Crusaders in 1291. Who conquered it from the Fatimids in 1099. Who conquered it from the Seljuks in 1098. Who conquered it from the Abbasids. Who conquered it from the Byzantines. Who inherited it from the Romans upon division of the Empire in 395. The Romans had conquered it from the last Jewish kingdom in 63 BC. The Jews had originally conquered it from the Canaanites. Before that, it had also been under the ownership of the Egyptians, who conquered it around 1450 BC, and then the Assyrians, followed by Persians and Greeks. Some of these conquerors were mere military overlords, some of them deeply penetrated the social and demographic fabric of the area. All came and went, to varying degrees.

It is also worth recording at this point the origins in conquest of the Arab and Muslim presence in the Middle East. It is no accident that while "Arab" is the first part of the word "Arabia," where these people are originally from, Arabic is spoken throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This is the product of waves of conquest starting in the 7th Century. The same goes for Islam. For Arabs or Muslims to complain about imperialism is inconsistent to say the least. The Arabs should start by giving up Egypt and the Muslims by giving up Constantinople. Then we can start talking about really big things like getting the influence of Muslim conquerors out of India. For that matter, the Japanese should give Hokkaido back to the Ainu and the Russians, Siberia back to the Chukchi. All persons of Spanish decent must leave Latin America. For that matter, the Anglo-Saxons should give Britain back to the Britons and Celts. I think you get the point I’m trying to make about who has title to this land as the original owner.

Theological arguments for ownership are fair game for religious belief, but cannot be expected to be treated as normative for international relations among parties who do not share the beliefs in question. If you want to assert that this is wrong because God really did give the land to the Jews, you are entitled to do so, but this is a theological argument that must exist independently, above and beyond whatever mundane logic dictates. Its validity is in the same class as that of your religion generally, i.e. a controversy in which you may be right but which cannot resolve the present dispute.

So the present-day Israeli occupation of Palestine is legitimate by right of conquest. This is not a fashionable thing to say, but the validity of the right of conquest is an essential foundation of world order and should be respected. Begin, of course, with the fact that the United States is itself founded on this same principle. The Indians never consented to our establishing this nation. If the right of conquest is illegitimate, the United States is an illegitimate nation. Some far-left lunatics do, of course, believe this, and it has real-world implications in the American Southwest for the Aztlan fanatics (despite of course the fact that Mexico only has what it has by right of conquest, too, as did the bloody imperialist Aztecs before it.) I find it an exquisite but predictable irony that the same administration that is trying to make Israel give territory back to the Palestinians is also surrendering Texas and California to Mexico. The warped consistency of the decadent and guilt-ridden is amazing.

It must also be pointed out that the sole cause of the persistence of the Palestinian problem is the failure of the Arab nations to resettle and integrate the refugees from the Israeli conquest. Roughly a million Jews were expelled from the Arab nations after 1948; Israel has absorbed and integrated them all. The Arab nations could have done the same with their own refugees, but chose instead to sequester them in squalid refugee camps that would nurse their grievances. These are people of the same ethnicity, the same religion, the same language, and there is no reason they could not have been absorbed into the Arab societies. If this had been done after 1948 and 1967, there would be no Palestinian problem. Many of these people’s ancestors migrated into Palestine only after the Jews started developing it after WWI, anyway: they have no deep-seated claim to the place.

Frankly, what puzzles me most in this whole situation is why Israel hasn’t just annexed the West Bank and set about the gradual humane repatriation of the Arab population to the Arab countries. The powers that be in Israel must make up their minds whether this land is rightfully theirs or not. If not, they should give it back; if so, they should take it and integrate it fully into Israel. The present half-measure of military occupation plus settlement without annexation simply gives the impression to the world that Israel concedes some guilt about holding the territories. Annexation may be considered an extreme solution by some, but there is the precedent of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights in 1981, after which the sky did not fall. It is simply an honest and explicit way of carrying forward the same historical process that has shaped the Middle East from time immemorial.

It also holds out the possibility of achieving an armed but real peace. There is never going to be an unarmed peace between parties with incompatible aspirations but there can be a cold military peace between parties who dislike each other intensely but maintain stable frontiers. Get the Palestinians out of the West Bank and the problem becomes a purely military one of guarding frontiers. Keep them there, and you have the never-ending mess there is today.

The root problem with the so-called peace process is that peace is not a process. Peace is a state of international relations free of armed conflict. So long as the Palestinians want something the Israelis cannot accept, namely the eventual handing over of their country to them, there is no conceivable arrangement, no matter how much negotiation is done and diplomatic cleverness expended, that will satisfy both sides sufficiently that they will lay down their arms. There is simply no way to divide the pie such that both sides will accept it and stop fighting. If there was a formula to be found, it would have been found long ago. The peace process is just an excuse to stage a pantomime of pretending to have a solution in the wings in the vain hope that somehow one will appear by the time the bill comes due. But all these peaceful gestures do not have the power to alter the fundamental facts. Absent capitulation of one side or the other, there is not going to be a peace along these lines.

People are likely to make three objections against squarely facing the legitimacy of the right of conquest:

  1. It creates an incentive for war.
  2. It rewards violence.
  3. It validates any international arrangement.

On the first count, it must be realized that the incentive to make war, self-interest, is there whether conquest is recognized or not. The disincentive, a well-defended neighbor, is also there. The reality is that the world does in fact accommodate itself to conquests after they occur, because it cannot ignore the realities of power and wishes to get on with business as usual. Read the novel Fatherland for a depiction of just how banal our relations with Nazi Germany might have become if they had won. All over the world, the United States and the international community recognize borders that were fixed by conquest at some point or another. Some of these conquests are ancient history, some of them, like the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, are recent. Until we were actually at war, we recognized the USSR and Nazi Germany as legitimate governments with valid claims on their territories. Right of conquest is, de facto, a settled and accepted part of international law and political practice. There are a few cases, like the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, in which we have made an exception, but vanishingly few, and we didn’t really do that much about it. If you want to tell me right-of-conquest is an illegitimate principle of international order, you are going against our own government and the rest of the civilized world.

Does this validate any international arrangement, i.e. reality the way it is? Well, what would you propose? Are you really going to invade Tibet to expel the Chinese? Invade Brazil to expel the Portuguese and their descendants? If you won’t accept sovereignties that are founded on force, this means rejecting the political legitimacy of half the world. If you’re serious about this and willing to follow it to its logical conclusion, this means refusing to have relations with these powers or otherwise tie them into the international system. This would result in undoing the forces that keep the world at peace. In other words, it means chaos. Which only means more force and more conquests. Even if you want to espouse an anti-conquest value system, you have to accept, de facto, the right of conquest or you get more of the conquests you hate.

The political philosopher who figured this out was Thomas Hobbes, in the 17th Century. He was principally concerned with the chaos resulting from civil, rather than international, war, but the point is the same. Unless one is willing to place oneself into a continual state of war with most of the rest of the world, one must accept the right of conquest. International order, like domestic social order, must be based on things as they are.

None of this should be construed as implying that conquests are a good idea. The fact that we recognize conquests after the fact does not remove the fact that they are bloody, inhumane, and violate previously recognized sovereignties. Conquerors may deserve our recognition, but not our admiration or encouragement. Conservatives should know the difference between accepting the realities of the way the world works and endorsing them as positive goods. But accepting international reality is a prerequisite of maintaining international order, which is a positive good.

It may also be objected to what I have said that it implies that if Israel were to fall to some Arab coalition and an Arab-ruled state were put in its place, this logic would give just as much legitimacy to this successor state. This is true. But the chances are 99% that our own government would eventually work out a modus vivendi and recognize this state, just like it recognized the Soviet Union and the Chinese occupation of Tibet. And seriously speaking, what else could we do under the circumstances? Will anybody other than a few extremists even advocate anything different? History suggests not, which I take a concession of the validity of this recognition.

Better to hope we don’t ever get to that particular dilemma. Possession is still nine-tenths of the law.




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