He who is kind when he should be cruel, will be cruel when he should be kind. If you could point to a single ironclad rule in history, this Talmudic dictum would be it. The specific context for the quote was the Biblical reign of King Saul. Ordered to annihilate the kingdom of Amalek, Saul instead spared the Amalekite king, Agag, and allowed his troops to take back plunder which had been specifically forbidden to them by the prophet Samuel. This misplaced act of kindness, motivated in large part by Saul's chronic inability to resist the whims of his subjects, ended up destroying the legitimacy of his rule. David was anointed as king in Saul's place; and as Saul became increasingly paranoid of a rebellion by his young captain, he massacred the priestly city of Nov, who were innocent of any crime.
Again and again throughout history, leaders have confused moral cowardice and political fecklessness with mercy, or as the present odious parlance would have it, "restraint." Again and again, it is the innocent who pay the price. Munich 1938 comes to mind, of course; but more immediately, we have two seemingly unconnected cases who are drawing ever more intertwined.
The Iranian stooge Muqtada as-Sadr, let us remember, first became news when he ordered the murder of elder Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei. At the time, the Coalition Provisional Authority (an embarassingly feckless body if there ever was one) shied from arresting him; Sadr controlled a militia of some few hundred men, after all, and there was no point in stirring up trouble. Never mind that an Iraqi judge had issued a warrant for his arrest.
In retrospect, the insanity of this decision is easily apparent, given the tremendous power that Sadr has now amassed, and the rivers of blood his men have shed, Iraqi and American. But even without the benefit of hindsight, this should have been an easy call. By refusing to enforce justice immediately, the CPA taught Iraq that all that you needed in order to murder people with impunity was a gang of thugs at your back. Was it really so difficult to imagine what would happen next?
Now, Sadr is flexing his power by lending his movement to the cause of Hizbullah in Lebanon, the other case of misplaced "restraint" I have in mind.
After the pullout from Lebanon, Israel committed the cardinal blunder of allowing Hizbullah to periodically shell her cities, across an international border, with near-impunity. Oh, there would be periodic artillery duels, and the occasional airstrike. But these are all of minor tactical significance.
With the exception of the abortive Operation Grapes of Wrath (terminated after the accidental strike on the Qana civilian shelter, which happened to be just where Hizbullah decided to set up its weapons... as in the present war), there was no attempt made to change the fundamental strategic problem. Hizbullah fired rockets for years running, in twos and threes, all the while building fortifications and amassing more powerful weaponry. And Israel did nothing, mostly in deference to the everpresent, unidirectional delicacy of world leaders.
Worse, when Hizbullah kidnapped and murdered three IDF soldiers in 2000, Ariel Sharon did not retaliate. Indeed, he freed 400 Hizbullah members in exchange for three corpses, along with the now-disgraced Col. Tannenbaum who had also been kidnapped. This capitulation, as we now know, persuaded Nasrallah that he could kidnap Israelis at will, without consequenses. The bloodshed that is now ravaging Lebanon and the north of Israel is a direct consequence.
Because the CPA did not uphold the law when it was inconvenient to do so, America's position in the Middle East is uncertain where it could have been much firmer. Even barring an arrest, we have had many chances to put a bullet in Sadr's brain. That we did not, and do not, is inexcusable. That man should be dead, and every day he draws breath he draws more blood, most of it innocent civilians. Because Israel refused to uphold its sovereignty in the face of the first Hizbullah pinpricks, it invited the far heavier toll we see today, and was forced in turn to take much innocent life along with the guilty.
As Machiavelli said, wars can almost never be avoided. They are instead deferred, to the benefit of the aggressor.
Why do we continue to make the same mistakes, year after year? Has it become so easy to take the cowardly way, huddle up under the covers and hope that the bad men vanish like bad dreams?
Some seeming cruelty can be the greatest kindness of all. Justice and the right of self-defense are rarely set aside without great woe in the end.