State of the Union

ISIS, the Neocons, and Obama’s Choices

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Though Congress and the president are out of town, the final weeks of August have seen the arrival of an unexpectedly critical moment. The brutal beheading of James Foley by ISIS (the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) confirmed that there remains a Sunni jihadist terrorism problem in the Mideast: decimating al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden didn’t end it. It shouldn’t be forgotten that America’s destruction of the Iraqi state in 2003 created the opportunity for ISIS to grow and thrive, as America’s Sunni allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, gave ISIS financial backing.

How to respond? The usually wise Andy Bacevich suggests that ISIS constitutes a negligible threat to America, a superpower an ocean away, that bombing it has become—like bombing elsewhere, America’s substitute for a genuine national security strategy. Bacevich suggests we ought to butt out, except perhaps to give aid to countries genuinely threatened by ISIS. There is much to this argument, as there is little inclination from the American people to send ground troops once again into Iraq. And even if we were willing to reconstitute and send an occupation force, what good would it do? In a similar vein, Paul Pillar argues that overestimating ISIS as a potential threat is perhaps more likely, and dangerous, than underestimating it.

But few are comfortable with doing little or nothing: ISIS is undoubtedly barbaric, with possible potential to spread. In important ways the situation resembles the months after 9/11, in which America were brutally confronted with the sudden emergence of Sunni extremism which had not previously been deemed a major problem.

Then as now, an influential group of neoconservatives, tightly allied with Israel, had a very specific idea of what they wanted the United States to do. The neocons then—and still do—aspired for an almost endless series of American wars and invasions across the entire Middle East. Because in 2001 we were already engaged in a sort of shadow war with Saddam Hussein—Iraq was under a semi-blockade and America was enforcing a no fly zone over the country—Iraq was the logical starting point. But for the neocons Iraq was only a beginning. “Real men want to go to Tehran” was the neoconservative semi-jokey catchword during that time, and they quite seriously expected that after Baghdad was digested as an appetizer, they could steer the United States into war with Iran—then as now a top Israeli priority. That an American war with Iran was an Israeli priority does not mean Israel opposed the Iraq war: polls at the time indicated that Israel was the only country in the world where large popular majorities were enthusiastic about George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, and Israeli politicians were regularly invited to appear as guests American news talk shows in order to beat the Iraq invasion drums. Steve Walt’s and John Mearsheimer’s indispensable book The Israel Lobby, contains pages filled with quotations from Israeli leaders making hawkish pronouncements to American audiences; the quotes are a necessary corrective to present to present Israeli efforts to proclaim that an American invasion of Iraq was never really an Israeli objective.

If ISIS is to be contained or defeated without using American ground troops, it is necessary to examine the regional forces ready to fight it. There are of course the Kurds, a small group which can perhaps defend its own region, if that. The biggest potential player is Iran. With its majority Shia population Iran takes a dim view of Sunni jihadism; the Iranian population was pretty much the only one in the Muslim world to display open sympathy with Americans after 9/11. By the standards of the Middle East, it is a scientific powerhouse, with a large freedom aspiring middle class, and considerable artistic community. According to published reports, Iranian tanks have reportedly engaged ISIS near the Iranian border—probably with American approval. We are likely, I would guess, to hear more about Iranian tank brigades in the coming months, even root for them.

The other serious force willing to fight ISIS is Syria, led by the Alawite Bashar al-Assad. Assad is a dictator, as was his father. His regime is strongly supported by Syria’s Christians, by Iran, and by Hezbollah, the Sh’ite militia in neighboring Lebanon. Syria has been caught up in civil war of shocking brutality for the past four years. The largest faction opposing him is ISIS—and American arms distributed to the Syrian “rebels” have often ended up in ISIS hands. By opposing Assad, the United States has in effect been feeding ISIS. Read More…

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Ferguson: We Can’t Look Away

It’s time once again to bring out the well-worn quote (from Marx) that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce.” No one in my home could take their eyes off the television Monday evening, though all that was on was Jake Tapper marching around Ferguson, Missouri tracking down rumors of fresh violence. It all seemed so scripted. The outside world may be blowing up—major crises in Ukraine, the Mideast, and the South China Sea—which if escalated and spread could bring the world to the brink of global war. But we couldn’t turn away from the rinky-dink St. Louis suburb. Outside agitators—were there not such people, one would be want to put this ’60s era retro-phrase in quotation marks—have purportedly come to Ferguson from as far as New York and California.

There was real tragedy in the first round of American inner city riots—provoked in most cases by genuine police brutality. In 1967, the New York Review of Books ran Tom Hayden’s lengthy depiction of the riot there. Hayden, then a well known New Left figure, knew Newark, had been an anti-poverty organizer there. His sympathies were obvious, but Hayden is no fool, and I’m sure most of the facts are correct. One thing which stands out in those days was the way in which law and order views were expressed in forms indistinguishable from race baiting. Can one imagine the Democratic governor of a major state today saying, as New Jersey governor Richard Hughes did, before calling out the National Guard, “The line between the jungle and the law might as well be drawn here as any place in America.” Hughes, recall, was not George Wallace but a major progressive figure.

The costs of the insurrection to Newark were brutal. In Hayden’s summary

In the carrying out of the Governor’s weekend definitions and policies at least twenty Negroes died, nearly all from police shooting, another 1000 were injured and 1000 jailed; more than 100 Negro-owned businesses were attacked by police and troopers; and hundreds of apartments were fired into along the ghetto’s streets.

The outcomes were comparable in Detroit, in both cities the riots sparking an exodus of white population, with its skills and capital. New York, in great part due to the personal courage of John Lindsay, avoided the hot summer. The riots spurred a major national effort to integrate urban police forces, an effort which evidently bypassed the suburb Ferguson.

In those days the precipitating incidents were, in ways that the Ferguson killing does not seem to be, clear cut cases of racist police brutality. No one who saw the video of Michael Brown robbing a convenience store will think it out of the question that the police officer who shot him 15 minutes later feared genuinely for his life. Of course the shooting should not have happened: police officers have to be able to make arrests without using deadly force—and if they can’t, they should in most cases give way—as Brown’s shooter must surely feel today. But it can’t be easy in the heat of confrontation—just as most highly skilled professionals will make errors under duress, so will an average cop.

To read Hayden’s account is to be reminded that though history may in some ways repeat itself, in America race relations are much better, and feel very different. Read More…

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Hillary the Hawk: Who Will Challenge Her?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In her much-parsed interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Hillary Clinton reveals that she believes nothing in the American political landscape has changed since October 2002. That’s when she cast her vote to go to war against Iraq. That vote gave oxygen to Barack Obama’s campaign against her in 2008, leading to an eight year delay to Clinton’s presidential ambitions. It was a vote to destroy one of the secular regimes in the Mideast, a brutal dictatorship certainly, but one which kept the religious jihadists, including Al Qaeda, at bay. If you believe, as Peter Hitchens put it, that every politician and commentator who supported the Iraq war should have that fact noted, in large red letters besides everything they write and displayed on the podium every time they speak—a penance which can removed when those who were killed and maimed as a result are no longer killed or maimed, Hillary should now be known as the most important Iraq war enabler still active in presidential politics. George W. Bush has retired to portrait painting. Cheney is not running, nor Tony Blair. Of the political pillars of that era, major figures whose collaboration with the neocons helped shut down a meaningful national debate about whether to go to war, Hillary is the most substantial still standing.

When speaking to Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton claimed to be all “hepped up” about the rise of jihadism—particularly the advance of ISIS. But oddly enough, no policy position she staked out in that interview had anything to do with combatting ISIS. Who are the major mideastern opponents of the Sunni jihadist group in the region? Apart from the Kurds, there are two: the government of Syria, which has actually been winning a war against fundamentalist Islamic rebels, and Iran. Like Iraq under Saddam, Syria is a secular dictatorship, strongly backed by the country’s Christians. Hillary laments only that the United States hasn’t done more to overthrow it.

Then there is Iran—the Shi’ite regime which is the most powerful opponent of Sunni jihadis in the region. But Hillary’s stance towards Iran is pure hostility. Seemingly disowning her own record as secretary of state, which paved the way for Iran nuclear negotiations even before the election of the reformist president Rouhani, she stakes out a position adjacent to the hawkish Israeli one. She says “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they (Iran) did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right.” Hillary barely avoids a direct snub of Wendy Sherman and other American negotiators who began speaking to Iran when she was secretary of state, but the thrust of the interview contains the notion that Iran is an evil place which can’t be trusted with enriching uranium. Adherence to this position is a recipe to for war, because Iran quite clearly is not going to stop enriching uranium.

So to sum up: Hillary regrets the lack of American action against Syria, while seeking to lay the rhetorical foundation for a subsequent war against Iran, all the while claiming to be “hepped up” about the rise of Sunni jihadism. Read More…

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The Pyrrhic Cost of Destroying Hamas

Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return

“States are cruel monsters” (attributed to de Gaulle) is one catchword about the tragedy of international politics; another is “who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians” (said by Hitler, as he ordered his armies into Poland in 1939).

Some Americans feel troubled, even outraged, by Israel’s assault on Gaza, but most do not. The Gazans brought it on themselves by voting for Hamas, said a prominent New York rabbi, and a fair number of people agree with him. I’m sure many readers may feel angry and bitter at the sight of Israel using sophisticated American weapons to destroy a nearly defenseless people, but it’s a minority view. People have other concerns; many are actively pro-Israel, and would back Israel no matter what it did.

However there are some hard-headed and non-sentimental reasons to oppose the assault, for those unmoved by photographs of four-year-olds having their legs blown off as their Congress cheers and Israelis invent clever jingles about there being no school in Gaza because they’re no children left to attend. At Aspen over the weekend, at an important national security forum, Lieutenant General Michal Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that if the Israelis succeed in destroying Hamas, something worse will emerge from the rubble. He went on (in the CNN radio excerpt I heard; not cited in the print stories) to say that recruitment to jihadist groups had been spiking in the past weeks throughout the Muslim world, as the jihadis used images of Israeli killing of children to draw in young men from throughout the region. In short, it appears that Israel is acting the world’s principle recruitment agent for terrorism. Four years ago, David Petraeus said the Israel-Palestine conflict endangered American troops throughout the region, and now a comparably top national security figure asserts that Israel is threatening to bring to power worse groups in Gaza while implicitly recruiting terrorists throughout the Middle East.

American leaders certainly would deny they’re engaged in generations-long war against the Palestinians; any establishment figure in Washington would quickly point to the aid we’ve given the Palestinian Authority and the many efforts by the U.S. to facilitate peace negotiations. But one can understand why a Palestinian would come to that conclusion: we shield Israel from international sanction and censure in countless international bodies, give it more aid than we do to all of Africa combined, and provide it with everything from the Iron Dome to sophisticated jets—all to ensure that “qualitative military edge” we are now observing in action. Read More…

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The Dual Crisis

Official White House photo by Pete Souza
Official White House photo by Pete Souza

The two crises are distinct, but there is only one American government to navigate them, and it is doing poorly. Israel caught a good break when (presumably) Ukrainian separatists shot down a civilian airliner over Ukraine: for days it almost completely diverted the world’s attention. The shooting was almost certainly an accident: the rebels had previously shot down Kiev government troop carriers, and would have no conceivable reason to down a Malaysian civilian carrier. Killing 300 non-combatants is a horrific, if not unprecedented, act; the last time a tragedy of this scope occurred was when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner in the Persian Gulf in 1988, mistaking it for a warplane.

Vladimir Putin, whose government supplied to the rebels the anti-aircraft missile, should acknowledge the error, and express regrets. Yet the source of the Ukraine crisis remains exactly what it was before the downing of MA-17: an aggressive Western move to wrest Ukraine into the Western sphere, culminating eventually in Ukrainian NATO membership. It was the West that encouraged and fomented the coup d’etat which ignited the Ukrainian civil war. The ever present-minded media tends to ignore or overlook this: perhaps the only mainstream American or European writer who strives to keep this context in the public mind is the redoubtable Peter Hitchens, whose regular column and blog in the Mail Online is one of the few mass media venues making any effort to understand the crisis historically.

Obama seems shrunken by the dual crisis. On Monday, he publicly hectored Vladimir Putin to compel the Ukrainian rebels to allow free access to the crash investigators (which of course they should); meanwhile the White House is cranking up new sanctions against Russia, whose main fault lies in having taken measures to prevent Ukraine from being turned into a NATO outpost. (Twenty years hence, if China is sponsoring anti-American coups in Mexico, the anti-Putin brigade may get a taste of how Putin feels.) What most grated about Obama’s statement was its patronizing tone. But its implicit assumption, that Moscow bears direct responsibility and should be punished for whatever the Ukrainian rebels do with weapons supplied to them merits some scrutiny.

If Moscow is responsible, how responsible then is America for the death toll Israel is ringing up in Gaza, which includes hundreds of innocent civilians, many of them children? Unlike the Ukrainian rebels, the Israelis are well trained and know exactly what they are doing. Do the senators who pass unanimous (100 to 0, North Korea style!) resolutions supporting Israel bear responsibility for Israel’s actions?

How responsible is John Kerry, who—in what bids fair to be the single most absurd sentence ever uttered by an American Secretary of State, says “Israel is under siege” by Hamas. Do you suppose Kerry knows what restrictions Israel imposes on Gaza, under “normal circumstances”? Israel controls the population of Gaza, deciding literally who gets in and who gets out. It controls whether Gazans can import spare parts for the devices to help purify their water. It controls whether Gazans can build an airport, or whether Gazans can leave to go to a university. Israel controls whether Gazan fisherman can fish in the seas. And yet, America’s leading diplomat, announces, with a straight face, that Israel is under siege by Hamas. Does Kerry realize that Hamas’s official ceasefire demands—which are of course never mentioned by the American media—are almost entirely devoted to lifting Israel’s siege of Gaza?

And yet one can see the glimmerings of an American media jailbreak. Read More…

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Israel Runs Up the Score

At this writing, one Israeli has been killed by Hamas fire; hundreds of Hamas rockets have either fallen harmlessly or been destroyed by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense. The toll among Palestinians in Gaza is roughly 200 dead, and about 1,500 wounded. This then is not so much a war as a high-tech slaughter. Israel could kill Palestinians more rapidly of course, but seems to have judged it can go on at this pace, killing 15 to 2o a day, without provoking an international reaction. For some Israelis it is pure entertainment: yesterday The Independent reported that Israelis had set up couches and were serving popcorn to watch their air force’s destruction of Gaza’s homes from the nearby hills.

It is useful to try to construct a timeline, to understand how we got from Point A, the failure of the Kerry peace mission, to the present. My sympathies are more with the Palestinians subject to bombardment than with the Israelis who are bombarding them, but the timeline to be as objective as possible, so I would welcome reader suggestions of alterations, additions, or changes of emphasis.

1) March: Israel announces settlement expansion while negotiations are going on.

2) April 1, Negotiations break down. Israel refuses to comply with a scheduled and previously agreed-to release of prisoners. PA president Abbas announces PA will apply for membership in 15 UN organizations.

3) Abbas forms a “technocratic” unity goverment with Hamas.

4) May 2, American negotiators both on and off the record blame Israeli settlement construction as the main reason for the talks failure.

5) Both Western European countries and the U.S. ignore Netanyahu’s demands to sever their relations with the Fatah-Hamas “unity” government.

6) May 15, Israeli snipers kill two Palestinian boys in Beitunia, on the West Bank during Nakba day demonstrations. The killing was caught on video.

7) June 1, Netanyahu announces plans for 3,300 new housing units on the West Bank.

8) June 12, three Jewish Israeli teens are kidnapped and murdered on the West Bank. Netanyahu immediately claims Hamas is responsible, but gives no evidence. Hamas denies responsibility for the kidnappings. The Israeli government names two suspects, Hamas members from a Hebron clan which has previously been in disputes with Hamas leadership. It is soon reported that the government has known from the beginning the kidnapped teens have been shot. Israel goes on a campaign against Hamas on the West Bank, arresting 500 and raiding 1,500 schools and businesses.

9) June 30, Bodies of murdered Israeli teens found on the West Bank near Hebron.

10) July 2, Three Israelis kidnap and burn alive a Palestinian boy in Jerusalem. They are arrested within days.

11) July 3, Israeli police are caught on video beating up a Palestinian-American boy, the cousin of the murdered Palestinian. The photograph of his battered face are shown world-wide, and the U.S. State Department protested. Meanwhile several stories are published in Israel and the United States lamenting the violent and deeply racist currents running through Israeli culture, particularly its youth.

12) July 6, Israeli air force bombs a tunnel in Gaza, killing six Hamas men. The bombing ended a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that had prevailed since 2011. Hamas responded with a barrage of rockets, and Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. Read More…

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A Crucial Question for Reformicons

All things being equal, I should be fan of Yuval Levin. I haven’t read his Burke- Paine book, but I’ve read a fair amount of Edmund Burke in my day, and agree with Levin’s take on the importance in intellectual and political history of the Burke-Paine divide. I admire without reservation The Public Interest, the monkish domestic politics quarterly founded by Irving Kristol which made the first large footprints of neoconservativism. Levin has founded a journal, National Affairs, plainly intended to be the heir and successor to The Public Interest, devoted to domestic policy ideas. The magazine is a platform for so-called reform conservatism, a group sometimes labeled “reformicons,” which seeks to rethink conservative domestic policy options in a period of rising inequality and a shrinking and financially insecure middle class.

These are clearly the kinds of problems with which conservatives should be engaged. I concur with Levin and other “reformicons” that domestic conservatism, to be politically relevant, needs to move beyond simplistic tax-cutting and “government is the enemy” notions.

So why does Sam Tanenhaus’s prominently-placed piece about Levin and his cohorts in the Sunday New York Times magazine leave a queasy feeling? Levin  (unsurprisingly depicted as “soft spoken” and “self-deprecating”) is described as “probably the pre-eminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era” by one prominent journalist (Jonathan Chait) and “a one-man Republican brain trust” by another (David Frum). The piece notes reformicon regrets about the defeat of their chief point person in Congress, former majority leader Eric Cantor, and offers a snippet about a New York Historical Society discussion of Levin’s book done with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.

The answer is pretty obvious. Tanenhaus presents to a wide general interest audience the “preeminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era” and yet  erases from consideration the Iraq war or any other foreign policy question. So while it is true that Levin has interesting ideas about what’s wrong with Obama’s health care plan, we are left in the dark about whether he has thoughts about war and peace or America’s role in the world. Perhaps we can infer the answer from Levin’s association with some of the most prominent propagandists for that two-trillion dollar war of aggression, which, more than any war in America’s history, was a war conceived and successfully lobbied by intellectuals based in magazines and think tanks. Does Levin favor, as does Bill Kristol, starting a new American war against Iran? Does he favor, as also does Kristol, an American war against both the Sunni extremists in Iraq and their Iranian enemies at the same time? Would Levin deem such projects “Burkean”? I would be inclined to guess no, but then it is not especially reassuring to find Kristol and David Frum featured so prominently among Levin’s major boosters.

And then there is Eric Cantor. It is apt that the Richmond Republican should be described as one of the leaders of the “Young Guns”–a group of Republican congressmen most receptive to reformicon ideas. But he also holds the distinction of being the first House majority leader in American history to openly collaborate with the leader of a foreign power against the policies of an American president.

My first full-time job in journalism was with The National Interest, a publication founded and published by Irving Kristol as well, and edited by the Welsh-born Australian Owen Harries. The two magazines shared office space. Harries, as it happened, was also an admirer of Edmund Burke. Not infrequently, when the Cold War ended and the neoconservatives began to write chesty pieces about “the unipolar moment” and “benevolent global (American) hegemony” did Harries remind them of Burke’s cautious instincts in international affairs, his dread that Britain be too much feared for its own good.

Of course Yuval Levin, who has lived intellectually with Burke for years (the Burke-Paine book originated as his doctoral dissertation) is, if there can be such a thing, a genuine Burkean. But Levin’s rise in stature in domestic politics cannot help but elevate the reputations of his friends and backers–who seem to be, almost to a man, big backers of the Iraq war and neoconservative foreign policy in general. Virtually every individual mentioned as a Levin associate in Tanenhaus’s piece, save perhaps for Ramesh Ponnuru’s wife April and Michael Strain, was an active promoter of American aggression against Iraq, tub-thumping for the war or writing or editing articles impugning the patriotism of those who opposed it. Thus it is more than a little disconcerting to see neoconservatism be welcomed back into the public square under the false flag of Burkean moderation.

One can understand why neoconservatives and those influenced by them (which would include most of the editors and writers at National Review) are eager to have this history swept under the rug and forgotten. It is less easy to understand why Sam Tanenhaus would honor their wish by writing about the “preeminent conservative intellectual” of our era as if issues of war and peace were of no importance whatever.

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Nixon’s The One

nixon 100

I’ve spent the day reading Pat Buchanan’s The Great Comeback—his history cum memoir of Richard Nixon’s capture of the 1968 Republican nomination, and then the presidency. Buchanan was a key part of this. Hired as a 27-year-old who had spent three years writing newspaper editorials for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Buchanan joined Nixon’s staff in 1966. He traveled with the candidate, handled much of his correspondence, wrote or drafted articles in his name, and wrote Nixon countless strategy memos, which came back with Nixon’s handwritten comments. This trove of historical documents was kept by Buchanan in several filing cabinets in his home, and after literally decades of entreaties by his agent Fredrica Friedman, Buchanan produced this book. It’s probably my favorite of Buchanan’s books, rich in Republican Party and journalistic gossip, full of insight into Nixon, and at the same time deeply personal.

At 27, a time when many young people then or now are in school or trying to figure out what they might really want to do , Buchanan had already compiled a formidable resume as right-wing newspaper editorialist; then in a deftly executed maneuver of ambition and nerve, arranged to meet Nixon and suggest himself for a get-on-the-bus-early campaign role. (He had actually met the former vice president a decade earlier, as a caddy at Burning Tree—a fact which he conveyed to Nixon in that first professional meeting. )

Buchanan was valuable to Nixon in great part as a representative of the New Right, that part of the GOP which had nominated Goldwater two years earlier. He and Nixon saw eye to eye that the next Republican candidate would have to represent the right, but probably not be of it. There was then at least the potential of Ronald Reagan looming, and a subtext of the book is the worry that the charismatic Reagan would somehow get untracked, and a deadlocked convention would be stampeded into going for the movie star governor. Nixon, by contrast, had no political sex appeal: he was deeply intelligent, hard working, fascinated by the issues and personalities of politics. (He seemed bored by the practice of law, and in one unguarded moment told Buchanan that if he had to practice law for the rest of his life he would be “mentally dead in two years and physically dead in four.”)

But one major hurdle to overcome was the sense that Nixon, after the 1960 campaign and his failed 1962 California gubernatorial bid, was a loser who could never win a national election. Liberals hated him for his early campaigns in California, and the left (where they weren’t the same thing) hated him for being right about Alger Hiss. But the right also (correctly) sensed that Nixon was not one of them. Buchanan quotes one Nixon memo where the candidate noted that he disagreed with liberal aides (who were urging him to get to the left of LBJ on various issues.) But he also said (to one of his more liberal aides) that “the trouble with the far right conservatives is that they don’t give a damn about people and the voters sense that.” Buchanan comments that this, too, was “authentic” Nixon. He notes that,

Nixon had grown up in poverty, lost two of his four brothers, one to meningitis, the other to tuberculosis, and likely did not look on the New Deal as taking us ‘down the road to socialism’ but as an effort to help folks like his family.

Part of Buchanan’s job was to smooth out the rough spots between this complicated man and the National Review-reading, Goldwater-admiring, Young Americans for Freedom-belonging Republican right. He did this effectively enough, causing Bill Rusher once to ask him whether he was more the right’s emissary to the Nixon camp, or Nixon’s to the right. The answer: the latter, always.

Romney and Rockefeller were more glamorous Republicans, generally more favored by the East Coast media, and they regularly scored higher in midterm presidential polls. But Nixon outworked them, in a Stakhanovite schedule of campaigning for Republicans in the midterm elections, picking up IOU’s from congressmen and state committeemen all over the country. Eventually Romney and Rocky’s weaknesses displayed themselves. If you were ever of the age to once have wondered how it was that Nixon managed to become the Republican nominee in an era when there were few primary elections, Buchanan’s book is the best possible guide. Read More…

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The Presbyterian Victory

The invective is telling. The Presbyterian Church USA’s razor thin vote to divest from three American companies that aid the Israeli occupation is, opponents of the move tell us, irrelevant, because Presbyterians are irrelevant. The language used to make this point is not particularly ecumenical: here Rabbi Shmuley Boteach inveighs against the PC-USA’s vote by referring to the “rotting corpse of the Presbyterian church.” One suspects that if a prominent Presbyterian cleric used comparable language about a branch of Judaism, it would attract some negative attention.

To influence the general assembly vote of this allegedly “dying” and “irrelevant” denomination, Zionist groups mobilized like mad, chastising the resolution and coordinating with Presbyterian groups created to oppose it, like the misnamed “Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.” Opponents of the resolution more often than not claimed that while they didn’t like Israel’s policies either, they balked at taking even symbolic action to oppose them. Amorphous threats were cast by leading Jewish establishment figures. Presbyterians would become isolated as anti-Semites, some charged. The interfaith dialogue between Presbyterians and Jews would be “called into question.” (One wonders about the value of dialogue with people who consider you a “rotting corpse.”) The Israeli embassy implicitly accused the Presbyterians of supporting terrorism.

Prior to the vote, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, an organizer against the resolution, offered the Presbyterians a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if only they would vote it down. Presbyterian delegates would be able to tell Bibi himself, in person, why they opposed Israel’s West Bank settlement and occupation policies. How this was supposed to be a blockbuster negotiating sweetener somehow escapes. Did Rabbi Jacobs imagine that the Presbyterians believed that Netanyahu was unaware that many Americans opposed the occupation—and his readiness to give 45 minutes of his time to the Presbyterians might indicate an open mind? Please, there are no Presbyterians so stupid.

Internal Presbyterian politics move at a glacial pace, with an almost ponderous attention to procedure and internal democracy. The divestment resolution, crafted to target only three American companies, which directly aid Israel’s illegal occupation, has been in the works for years. Two years ago, it came up short by two votes. Presbyterian concern about the suppression of Palestinian rights is of longer duration, the fruit of fact-finding missions and study groups dating to the aftermath of the 1967 war. Because endorsing even symbolic measures against Israel was such an emotionally wrenching step, it took a very long time for any measures to be taken.

Among the occupation’s defenders and apologists, the most common strategy was to mock Presbyterians as an irrelevant church. Few tried to defend Israeli policies, knowing that they would not be persuasive. But calling attention to the numerical decline of the Presbyterian church touches on interesting subjects. All mainline Protestant churches are in decline since their heyday, which could be loosely dated at sometime between the 1920s and the 1950s. Protestantism, or to be more precise, liberal establishment Protestantism, used to be something of a state religion in America. Protestant clerics were widely quoted, featured on the covers of news magazines. Time magazine (itself widely read) ran a weekly “religion” feature, which more often than not circulated Protestant ideas and covered the comings and goings of mainline church luminaries. Presidents sought their advice, or at least claimed to.

That day is past: Read More…

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“Moral Clarity” on Iraq

A critical moment of the TAC-sponsored New Internationalism conference occurred when Daniel Drezner said that a key debate in the months ahead will be over whether Washington fears more an ISIS state in parts of Iraq and Syria (or even an ISIS seizure of Baghdad) or the rise of Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf. If I had been quicker to the microphone, I would have asked how could this even be a debate? One hears echoes of the phrase “moral clarity,” a neoconservative catchword of the Cold War era, which always made less sense when they sought to apply it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But though a polemical term, it’s not meaningless, and what would it mean here?

It should be obvious: Iran is complex country, with both secular and religious leaders, a semi-democracy whose rulers are influenced by public opinion, where there are meaningful competitive elections. It is certainly not free, there are far too many political prisoners and arbitrary arrests, but its level of democracy compares favorably to, say, China. It is quite modern, has a middle class, a scientific infrastructure, is a producer of world-class films and cuisine.

ISIS is by contrast barbaric, the ideological offspring of those who brought down the twin towers. The group wants to introduce sharia to the regions it rules, and commits mass murder and brags about it. Iran has been long been accused of sponsoring terrorism, but Shi’ite terrorism has always been a different animal than Sunni terrorism, less suicidal, less messianic, more like the terrorism of say, the IRA—brutal means against specific targets for concrete political aims.

People who know the Mideast better than I argue that American air strikes and drone strikes won’t bring the end of ISIS—and there is rightly no desire to re-send an American army to seize and try to hold hold the major Sunni population centers of Iraq. Joint Iranian-American military action would potentially play into the hands of ISIS and al-Qaeda—alienating the many Sunni Muslims who are right now politically on the fence. When Hillary Mann Leverett, the former NSC aide and State Department official, and as outspoken an advocate of American outreach and detente with Iran as exists in Washington, pours cold water on the idea of American-Iranian military cooperation, I tend to listen. Retired ambassador and Mideast expert Chas Freeman makes a similar point: America has no good military options. Rushing arms to Maliki’s government would ensure that they eventually get used against us, captured and/or sold by corrupt Iraqi forces. Read More…

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