Lessons from Hercules, Hydra, and Tom Friedman

Reams have been written about whether Israel's all-out response to the kidnapping of two of its soldiers is justified. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that Israel has all the right on its side. The question then becomes, do the Israelis want to be right or do they want to win?

And by win we mean eliminate the threat of Hezbollah and guarantee their country's security -- indeed its very existence.

This isn't about, are you pro-Israel or are you anti-Israel? -- or about symbolic efforts like trying to get the Prime Minister of Iraq to apologize or Kofi Annan to take back what he said about the bombing of a UN post. It's about results.

And if Israel wants results -- i.e. victory -- it needs to look to an unlikely duo: Tom Friedman and Greek mythology. Friedman explains the futility of pursuing a purely military solution; my ancestors provide the clues to the only way to win.

First, the futility. In Friedman's flat worldview, everybody now has access to the tools of destruction -- whether it's a military powerhouse like Israel or a stateless terrorist organization like Hezbollah (the same dynamic, of course, holds true in Iraq, where the insurgents' IEDs have neutralized -- c'mon, let's say it, beaten -- the world's greatest superpower).

"When the world is flat," Friedman explained to Tim Russert , "everybody's really got access to the same tools... which give them more and more equal power to innovate, operate, communicate and, unfortunately, destroy. So the real question, then, the real variable, is what imagination you bring to those tools."

Tools and imagination.

Friedman's assertion about the pervasiveness of modern weaponry is born out by the Israeli general who told the New York Times that Hezbollah has "some of the best weapons systems that Iran and Syria have" -- including medium-range rockets, laser-guided antitank missiles, and well-designed explosive mines that can cripple an advance tank. The group has more than 10,000 rockets, including Iranian-made long range missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv.

So, when it comes to modern battles, the world really is flat. Everyone is armed with the tools of destruction. As a result, imagination becomes all-important (a very scary thought when you consider the overwhelming lack of imagination that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have shown in the prosecution of the war in Iraq and the wider war on terror).

Tools and imagination. At the moment, Israel, displaying a Bush-like lack of imagination, is only focusing on trying to destroy Hezbollah's tools. Tools that can -- and will eventually -- be replenished.

And, in the process, they are feeding the extremists' imagination. As Wayne White, a State Department analyst until last year, told Harper's: "From a large and enraged Shiite population, surely there will be thousands of recruits ready to replace Hezbollah's losses in personnel...The Israelis have embarked on a campaign that will most likely make matters worse over the long term."

So even if Israel is completely right, its current strategy is having the wholly counterproductive effect of making its people less safe and less likely to achieve the long-term peace and security they long for.

Imagination is a two-edged sword. First we must use our imagination to figure out a better way of taking on the terrorist threat. And we must also find a way, as Friedman puts it to "reshape imagination" -- the imagination of those currently using it "to poison the world."

The template for this two-pronged approach was laid out by the ancient Greeks in the story of Hercules (Heracles) and the Hydra (who knew a thing or two about terrorizing people).

In the beginning, Hercules took the direct, militaristic approach of trying to defeat the Hydra by lopping off its heads one by one (ie trying to destroy all of Hezbollah's rockets). But he soon realized that as quickly as a head was dispatched two others would spring up in its place.

Hercules then had to pull back and rethink his strategy. Using his imagination, he came up with a plan wherein as soon as he cut off a head, his nephew (his version of the coalition of the willing) would use a torch to sear the wound shut, thus preventing the eradicated head from regrowing.

Then came the real challenge: trying to figure out how to neutralize the Hydra's last remaining head -- its immortal head -- which could not be harmed by any weapon. This immortal head is the equivalent of the hearts and minds of those who choose terrorism. Like Hercules, we will never win the war on terror, unless we can figure out a way to capture and bury this immortal head.

It can't be done by using weapons alone. And until the Israelis embrace this lesson -- and deal with both the tools and the imagination of our increasingly connected world -- all their victories will remain pyrrhic.

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