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Identity-based conflicts and the case for unity in diversity

An interview: Steve Coll, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Staff Writer, 'The New Yorker', former Managing Editor, 'The Washington Post' and author, speaks to the 'Daily News', in this interview on Asia's identity-based conflicts and their containment. He also provides insights into some contentious issues in US foreign policy.

Coll delivered the seventh Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture in Colombo on July 29 at the invitation of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust. His topic was: 'Terror and Democracy: Notes from America Since September 11'.


Steve Coll: Consider constitutional systems
Pic. by Sudath Nishantha

Q: In your opinion what are the causes for the explosive emergence of identity-based conflicts in the Asiatic region?

A: I think it's part of a global pattern. After the end of the Cold War, after the end of the bipolar world, many of the countries who failed to resolve identity politics were left on their own to resolve such conflicts.

In this Post Cold War world, not only in Asia, but Africa and Latin America, and even in Europe, we saw a resurgence of identity-based conflicts. Asians who were held together by the ideology of the Cold War, struggled with new questions of identity and borders. What has been happening in South Asia is of the same pattern.

Q: How do you think such conflicts could be contained?

A: Through constitutional systems that create unity through diversity, and through the convergence of grievances about territory and ordinary politics. I think that is one way in which these conflicts could be resolved in the long run. There is not a solution that is available in the short run. But in the long run there is only one way to resolve such conflicts which is through a constitutional system which creates a space and citizenship for more than one nationality within the same borders.

I think the nation state system we had at the end of the Cold War, obviously contained some colonial borders that were difficult and created some unresolved conflicts. But the world is now averse to changing borders all the time. The more long-lasting solutions come through constitutional systems, that negotiate diversity.

Q: Do you think there is hope to resolve such problems politically and not militarily given the tendency on the part of some world powers to persist with the military option?

A: It is a most discouraging time because America and some of its allies are compelled to relearn the lesson that even the most powerful military force has its limits; that the conflict to which military force is applied has a strong political component.

In Iraq, the US has suffered from many failures of anticipation and strategy. But one of the greatest failures of the US has been to attempt to solve a political problem through the use of military force. And in Iraq, the US has tried to learn that lesson and adopt a more political strategy. Sometimes conflicts of this kind do have a military dimension. I am not suggesting that there are no circumstances in which military force is not necessary.

But there are two lessons. One an old one and the other a new one, of how military force is a wounded instrument in the times we live in now. The old one is the one we just discussed of how most of these conflicts are political and of how military force be linked to a political strategy and often it is the political side which produces the solution, reinforced by the military strategy rather than the military strategy creating that solution.

The new lesson is the role of the media and the need for transparency in the conduct of warfare today. Often political wars involving identity politics take place among civilian politicians. Fifty years ago you could wage such a war, and no one would know what was going on. The humanitarian aspect of war was not something that was publicized, it was not a source of political pressure for any government or insurgent group waging such a campaign.

Today anyone who points at a civilian area does so under a looking glass. The world has access to virtually every square foot of this planet and there are so many NGOs and so many mini organisations that are prepared to continually monitor the conduct of these campaigns in these civilian areas and to speak out for the civilian victims of war.

Places so far away to get at, such as Sudan, get more attention because of the plight of civilians in the war zone and governments everywhere should know if you are going to conduct a war in a civilian area you might as well consider yourself as being on live TV.

This is the problem the Israelis are facing now in Lebanon. They are probably conducting their campaign now with a memory of how the public reacted about 20 or 30 years ago to similar campaigns.

The intensity of the rest of the world's participation in that war through television, through other media, is much greater now than it was even 10 or 15 years ago. To some extent, guerrilla groups understand this more than governments do. They use their websites, they use their media strategy very effectively, whereas governments are slow to understand that they are really operating in an aquarium with the world watching.

Q: Would you consider the US foreign policy as aggravating such conflicts in the Middle East and Iraq?

A: I think that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. I think it damaged the interests of the US. Rather than making the US safer it created more dangers for the Americans and also for the Middle East itself.

So, in that sense I think American foreign policy has aggravated the situation in the Middle East. I also think the US in the last four years has created an impression, perhaps deliberately, perhaps inadvertently in some respects, that military solutions are available in political conflicts.

This has encouraged some of its allies and independent governments around the world to undertake military campaigns, whereas in the past, the US may have cautioned that military solutions are not available.

Now it is sending a signal through its own actions and policies that military force could solve the problem, for instance, of terrorism. Military force is essential to defeat terrorism but it is not adequate by itself. And that is the question that the US - I am afraid - has begun to learn.

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