Baqubaaliyussefafpgetty

A reader writes:

Of course you are not anti-semitic. Your increasingly harsh criticism of Israel is of a piece with your general shift toward moral equivocation between the friends and enemies of enlightenment civilization.  You have become virtually unable to make distinctions between initiation of force and retaliation, and thus you must see "cycles of violence" in all conflicts. Keep it up.  It is a useful model for descent into nihilism.

I am grateful for this upbraiding in a way. The truth is: it is extremely hard in a conflict like ours to maintain the proper balance between defending civilization with all necessary will and force - and undermining one's own civilization in a Manichean mindset that sees the enemy as all wrong and us as all right. I don't believe civilization is advanced, for example, if we advance and legitimize torture. I don't believe Israel will be secure if it continues to treat many Palestinian lives as less worthy than Israeli ones. I don't believe human liberation is advanced by creeping colonialism. I do not believe an idea can be defeated by military force alone.

These things we have learned. Adjusting to these lessons, becoming more attuned to the worldview of those to whom the Jihadists appeal, finding ways to neutralize that appeal even as we use legitimate military force against them: these are not easy things.

I do not believe, for example, that Petraeus' outreach to former Sunni insurgents who had murdered Americans and allied with al Qaeda was a descent into relativism and nihilism. I think it was a pragmatic adjustment to advance the core interests of civilization. Similarly, I would like to explore pragmatic ways to ensure that ordinary Persians are not forced into the arms of the worst mullahs. I'd like to see whether we can reach a grand bargain in the Middle East that could deleverage some of the polarization that has taken place. I'm aware, after these last seven years, that the righteous and justified abhorrence of Islamism can sometimes unwittingly empower Islamism.

My own loathing of theocracy - because of my respect for both politics and religion - is unabated. I am fully aware of the distinction between Israel's civil society and Hamas'. But simply reiterating these differences and holding that mere expression of them in military terms will be enough to win this war seems foolish to me. That much I have learned. You could, I suppose, call this a descent into relativism and nihilism, and I certainly see the reason to be vigilant against that. But I would prefer to think of my adjustment as maturity, as long as it too never becomes complacent or impervious to new facts.

(Photo: ethnic cleansing in Baquba, under US occupation. By Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty.)

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.