It must have been nearly 26 years ago, in the spring. On a Saturday, I was playing golf with my new boss, Owen Harries, editor of The National Interest. We were puzzling over Gorbachev, who was sounding and acting so damned reasonable. “It’s just counterintuitive” said Owen, and I of course concurred. Gorbachev’s behavior seemed to contravene everything I had learned in my fifteen or so years of reading intensely about Soviet communism, and Owen’s education was of course deeper still. That long bibliography, passionately devoured and fervently embraced: Adam Ulam, Medvedev, Orwell, Koestler, Raymond Aron, Solzhenitsyn, Nadezdha Mandelstam, dozens of articles in Commentary, Encounter, National Review-–all soon to be shifted to my mind’s attic. My Columbia University dissertation devoted to some minor but fascinating corner of the cultural Cold War, suddenly as timely as if it concerned the War of the Roses. I had come to The National Interest (then published by Irving Kristol) in no small part to fight communism, and now what was I going to do?
And yet of course, one couldn’t deny what a blessing it was. Suddenly the United Nations could get things done; we weren’t going to have an accidental civilization ending war; and Russia (Tolstoy, vodka, etc) could be appreciated without being some sort of dupe. On the first day the subway opened after 9/11, I overheard a young pretty blonde woman, Russian accent, flirting with her American beau as they stood in line to buy farecards. “So, ve are now going to be allies.” Poignant and delicious. And yet sad were the Yeltsin years: Russia seeming to disintegrate into alchoholism, falling birthrates, a great civilization, a core part of everyone’s mental architecture of the world, coming apart at the seams.
Looking around the American media in the past few days, I realize I am not very much in step with my countrymen. Stephen Cohen makes some sensible points about Putin’s obligations to Russia on PBS, saying basically, look Putin is not entirely the bad guy here, and no one should be trying to push Western institutions right up to Russia’s borders, and any responsible leader would have acted similarly , and the reaction–look at the comments!– is a kind of full-blown of rage. What drives it? Or more precisely, what is the motivation to try to drive the sphere of Western influence right up to Russia’s borders? Is it because our ambitions (and whose, exactly?) are insatiable? Because that seems to be it: we aren’t satisfied with the liberation of the satellites of Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, former Cold War flashpoints and now NATO members; with the reunification of Germany and under Western auspices, so that Berlin is now a virtual capital of Nato; with the Baltic states as NATO members too. There seemed to be no end to it. We have learned from Robert Gates’s memoirs that at the time, Dick Cheney was advocating not only for the dismantlement of the Soviet empire (accomplished) but of Russia itself. Cheney then lacked the power to try carry this out, but what would have been the plan if he had? Read More…
I don’t recall ever feeling such ambivalence about a major political event. Of course it is impossible to not feel exhilarated at the toppling of a corrupt and mendacious Ukrainian autocrat Victor Yanukovich, his flight to parts unknown with his much younger mistress in tow, impossible not to enjoy the press accounts of Ukrainians free to wander about and ogle his palace—the gold toilet, the imported exotic birds, the private golf course, the ridiculous furniture—this caricature of vulgarity, and given the circumstances which financed it, robbery as well. Of course there is much to admire in the young men and women who both waited it out and fought in Kiev’s Maidan, eventually triumphing when the police were no longer willing to defend the Yanukovich presidency. Most Ukranians—a distinct majority—want to move their country towards Europe; they see, and rightly so, post-communist Poland as a huge success. More naively, they believe that the West is a big candy mountain of capitalist plenty, ready to envelop their country into a cornucopia of prosperity.
Ukraine of course had its anti-Russian revolutions before, only ten years ago in fact. The makers of the Orange Revolution made such a mess of things with infighting and corruption that Yanukovich was legitimately voted into power in 2010. Now he has been ousted by young revolutionaries, but if you are a Russian-speaking Ukranian,—perhaps a third of population—you might well think of the Maidan crowds as street mobs with no legitimacy.
Today I attended a lunch forum, a Ukraine policy debate of sorts, at the Council for the National Interest. Speaking for Russia’s perspective was Andranik Migranyan, a “unofficial” advisor to the Putin government and director of a Russian foundation in New York. Representing the American side was Paula Dobriansky, a former ambassador under George W. Bush who in today’s Times lamented the Obama administration’s “absence of strategic vision, disinterest in democracy promotion, and an unwillingness to lead.”
Dobriansky was essentially using Weekly Standard talking points 101. Trouble is, there really is no more certainty that Ukraine would be any more democratic than Iraq. I suspect, without being prepared to debate the point, that Max Blumenthal is far too broadly negative in his portrayal of the Ukranian revolutionary movement as honeycombed with modern day neo-Nazis. But the fact is that Ukraine, for most of its recent history, has had a frightful political culture: basically the country has served as a hothouse and battleground to most some of the brutal forces in world history—communist and fascist both. The title of Timothy Snyder’s celebrated Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin gives a reasonable impression.
That history by itself would make the triumphant integration of “democratic” Ukraine into Western Europe an unlikely proposition. That would be the case whether Europe abrogated its own membership rules to give Ukraine membership on a fast track or left the country on an indeterminate candidate membership period.
But there’s another problem: much of Ukraine, perhaps a third of it, identifies not with the West, but with Russia. And vice versa. Read More…
We seem to be witnessing the remarkable early stirrings of a reevaluation of Zionism among American Jewish intellectuals. This process is parallel and perhaps symbiotic to the rethinking of America’s foreign policy relationship with Israel sparked by the best-selling The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy. But Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer, as fairly standard two state solution advocates, don’t differ very much in their prescriptions from views typically expressed by State Department or most postwar American presidents. Now however, there’s a new phenomenon. The past months have seen publication of Max Blumenthal’s excoriating journalistic portrait of the advance of a quasi-fascist Israeli Right in Goliath; the New York Times‘ spotlighting of a small but important group of religious and orthodox Jews who are non-Zionist or nearly so; and now John Judis’s remarkable analysis of the forces converging on Harry Truman at the time of Israel’s birth in Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict. These are all the work of American Jews questionning whether Israel should exist as “Jewish state” with all that entails for the systemic violation of Palestinian rights. The very intensity with which the enforcers of mainstream “pro-Israel” orthodoxy have responded to this wave is itself a sign that the new voices have something of a tailwind behind them and are likely to be an increasingly important part of both the American Jewish and the broader American debate.
I would assume that much of the attention devoted to Judis’s work will be directed towards his portrait of President Truman and his ambiguity about supporting the particular Jewish state to which he served as midwife, as well to the unrelenting and crude political pressures the President was subjected to by the Zionist lobby. As Judis notes, Truman was a practical politician with ample experience in race relations and ethnically divided political communities. He favored without question the opening up of Palestine as a refuge for the tens of thousands of Jews languishing in displaced person’s camps after World War II. But he was not initially in favor of a Jewish state, in part because his top foreign policy advisors worried about antagonizing the oil rich Arab world and also because of his own sense of the American experience. Truman was, Judis relates, “a Jeffersonian Democrat who rejected the idea of a state religion—state religions were what had caused centuries of war in Europe. He didn’t think that a nation should be defined by a particular people or race or religion.” But he was also, as Judis makes very clear, a politician committed to his own reelection and that of his fellow Democrats. Reminders from the Zionists on his own staff and those outside the White House of the political dangers which would flow from refusing to accommodate Israel’s ever-expanding list of “asks” arrived relentlessly, and in the end Truman always bowed to them, protesting all the way. Read More…
Eli Lake here does a micro-analysis of AIPAC’s failure on its Iran sanctions bill. The timeline is confusing: AIPAC supported (and probably drafted, that’s how it’s usually done) the Kirk-Menendez-Schumer legislation designed to scuttle Obama’s Iran negotiations; then it appeared to back off, signaling through many channels that it wasn’t necessary to bring the bill (which gained 59 co-sponsors, a majority but not enough to break a filibuster or override a presidential veto) up for a vote immediately. This wasn’t AIPAC’s only mixed signal: AIPAC also appeared to attack Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic Congresswoman (and pro-Israel stalwart) representing an AIPAC stronghold in South Florida for not facilitating companion legislation in the House. Then it backed off from the attack and defended her. All this took place amidst an unprecedented public debate about sanctions and Iran diplomacy which put the organization under a spotlight; AIPAC lobbying for the bill was reported openly in the New York Times, an extremely rare occurrence. As a group which prefers to work behind the scenes and win its votes by overwhelming margins, this was a doubly uncomfortable situation.
Lake doesn’t try to draw big conclusions, but it is time for a reassessment. Is the eight hundred pound gorilla of Capitol Hill really weakened? On its way out? Was AIPAC always a bit of a paper tiger, which could be blown away as soon as an American president set his mind to it? These are critical questions, whose answers will shape American mideast policy for decades to come.
Between Obama’s phone call with Rouhani in October and the end of January, the nation’s key foreign policy players—lobbyists, legislators, journalists, indeed much of attentive public—fought an intense battle, set off by Bibi Netanyahu’s claim that the proposed interim deal with Iran was “bad and dangerous,” a great deal for Iran, terrible for everyone else. Netanyahu spoke before the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, urging American Jews to “stand up and be counted” against Obama’s effort. Israeli ministers flew to Washington to lobby Congress, joined by Israel’s ambassador Ron Dermer. Two months ago, Foreign Policy reported that Israel seemed to be winning an information war on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers spouted Israeli talking points (considered factually incorrect by the administration) about details of the interim deal with Iran. After a few weeks and several false starts, the Bibi-led forces coalesced behind the Kirk-Schumer-Menendez bill, a poison pill designed to ensure the Iran negotiation’s failure. And yet, after six weeks of intense maneuvering, AIPAC, whose leaders had once boasted of being able to round up seventy Senators in a single day, were unable to get past 59.
Over the past few months, AIPAC faced, for the first time ever, a broad and multilayered coalition of old and new forces. Read More…
Writing in Tablet, Weekly Standard editor and neoconservative Lee Smith sounds an alarm about the rising influence of realism in Obama’s foreign policy. He goes about this rather creatively. He claims, with literary-historical license but no grounding in actual fact, that Harvard Professor Stephen Walt has become this generation’s Mr. X, the George Kennan figure who can produce a strategy that makes sense of the chaos of international events and provides a guide for how the United States should act. Many have aspired to be the new Kennan—Richard Haas, Fareed Zakaria, Anne Marie Slaughter he mentions—but Walt has somehow succeeded.
One must note here that Walt, along with his co-author John Mearsheimer, plays a unique role in neoconservative demonology. They are the top professors who produced a beautifully researched and written argument claiming that the United States’ Mideast policy was tilted askew by the Israel lobby, to the detriment of American interests. When I wrote an essay praising The Israel Lobby, one neoconservative intellectual—an author who had been a friend for 20 years (and who was relatively tolerant of my opposition to the Iraq War) asked me how I could “praise such filth.” For this man who had fought every ideological battle imaginable both as a communist and an anti-communist, America’s special relationship with Israel merited its own special pedestal, beyond the politics of Right and Left. It couldn’t be questioned.
So perhaps by invoking Walt, Lee Smith may be using a kind of code, warning a pro-Israel Jewish audience—Tablet, I’m sure, has readers of many faiths and tendencies who find it interesting, as I do, but it is a Jewish interest webzine—that Obama may sound pro-Israel but his real views are tinged by hostility. (During the 2008 campaign, Obama took pains to denounce the argument of The Israel Lobby, while making clear he had not and would not read the scary book.)
What is the evidence, if any, for Smith’s claim about Walt’s influence? First he summarizes some of Walt’s ideas, mainly that the United States would do better to be an offshore balancer in the Mideast (rather as it was during the Cold War) than to maintain an visible and intrusive presence tied to its “special relationship” with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Walt also favors diplomacy to ramp down the hostility with Iran. And lo and behold, Smith discovers, citing an interview Obama gave to David Remnick in the New Yorker, Obama believes the same thing! Obama tells Remnick he favors a kind of equilibrium in the Persian Gulf, where the Sunni and Shi’ite countries balance each other out. Surely, Smith reasons, that’s more than a coincidence.
My reactions to Lee Smith’s claim are twofold: “Would that it were true!” and then, “Maybe, there’s something to this.” Steve Walt has no connection to the Obama White House, but he does have a blog at Foreign Policy and writes fairly incisive pieces about foreign policy on at least a weekly basis. I doubt the gap between Walt’s clarity of thought and persuasiveness of prose and that of his peers is as marked as that between George Kennan’s voice in 1946 and ’47 and others trying to make sense of American foreign policy at that time. But Walt is pretty compelling. Perhaps people in the White House read him. I hope so. Read More…
Like many committed to a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, I feel an ambivalence about the John Kerry mission. The leaked contours of the “framework” agreement seem lopsided in favor of Israel, especially if Israel is allowed to keep the major settlement blocs of Ariel and Ma’ale Adumin. These settlements were designed in part to divide the West Bank into non-contiguous cantons and to cordon off Jerusalem from major Palestinian population centers—i.e., to prevent a viable Palestinian state.
Nevertheless, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority may be sufficiently worn down by the peace process to accept less than a viable state. Abbas has limited legitmacy—his party lost the last election (in 2006) it allowed to take place. But other Palestinian options are not great: they can embark on a long game, hoping that the boycott and divestment movement (BDS) against Israel continues to grow, and that an internationally isolated Israel will be compelled to negotiate on a more level field. But that’s a generation-long struggle, with no certain result. Meanwhile the degree of Palestinian suffering right now should not be underestimated; the Israeli occupation regime of checkpoints, home demolitions, imprisonment without trial, destruction of water resources, settlers destroying Palestinian crops with impunity, etc. is a constant grinding pressure on Palestinian life, and the rationale for any Palestinian leader to make a deal that could alleviate much of it is obvious. To be added, of course, are the blandishments of possible enrichment through crony capitalism: you can be sure that every member of the extended families of every key Palestinian negotiator are aware that a signed deal might put them squarely in the path of an international money stream. The Palestinians long ago agreed to accept half a loaf—a state on the West Bank and Gaza and a shared Jerusalem. Will they now go for the quarter loaf—a trisected and unviable territory they can call a state, in lieu of something better?
For his troubles, Kerry has received unprecedented abuse from the Israel right, a reaction which illuminates how little Israelis think of the United States as any sort of genuine ally. The composition of his negotiating team, described in some detail in a recent article in the Guardian, implicitly acknowledges that his mission is based almost entirely on placating the American Israel lobby and critics on the Israeli right: not only does it lack any Arab-Americans, or Muslims of any sort, but also seems astonishingly thin on American Catholics and Protestants. As a team which “looks like America” it certainly fails, but it is likely that the key constituencies in Congress and public opinion which have to be brought on board probably don’t care that it doesn’t. Kerry needs to be able to state that his diplomacy is good for Israel, and has negotiated accordingly. Even so, it’s not clear whether he will get Israel to agree to the terms he proposes. But if he does manage to produce an agreement loaded in Israel’s favor and squeeze acquiescence to it from Abbas, it remains an open question whether it will actually resolve the conflict, or be vulnerable to campaigns to reopen the negotiations, which will seem more reasonable as recognition of the unviability of what the Palestinians have actually gained inevitably sets in.
Andrew Sullivan here sums up the monumental sense of inevitability surrounding Hillary Clinton’s capture of Democratic nomination of 2016. He quotes Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan from the Washington Post, and their numbers sound pretty convincing:
Clinton stands at an eye-popping 73 percent in a hypothetical 2016 primary race with Biden, the sitting vice president, who is the only other candidate in double digits at 12 percent. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has signed a letter along with a handful of other Democratic senators urging Clinton to run, is at 8 percent. And that’s it.
That lead is almost three times as large as the one Clinton enjoyed in Post-ABC polling in December 2006, the first time we asked the 2008 Democratic presidential primary ballot question.
Yet no one I know in progressive circles is the least bit excited about Hillary. Either she seems too old (which she may well be) or too much a captive of Wall Street neoliberalism (American inequality began to accelerate during the Clinton era) or is too close to the Israel lobby. Her refusal to endorse Obama’s diplomacy with Iran is suggestive evidence of the latter.
I would conclude that her hold on the nomination is solid, if she wants it, if there are no scandals surprises or health problems. Still, someone could make a real name for him or herself running against her from the Left. It’s not going to be Howard Dean, who is no spring chicken himself and has his own Israel lobby related problems, having opted to serve as an occasional spokesman for the Iranian terror group MEK. (Or, as it were, the organization, “formerly designated as” a terror group.)
But it could be someone younger, who also opposed the Iraq war and who (unlike Dean) stands against the various efforts to maneuver the United States into war with Iran. Such a candidate almost certainly would not win, but because the press needs a horse race, they would garner a massive amount of attention and emerge as a major national figure.
The obvious precedent is Pat Buchanan’s campaign against George H.W. Bush in 1992. It was obviously doomed not to succeed, running against a president whose approval ratings eighteen months before the election were sky high. But the campaign succeeded fabulously in building an organization and staking claim to an interrelated series of issues (in PJB’s case, non-intervention, immigration restriction, trade protectionism, as well as the “culture war” stuff.) There was plenty of running room on these issues, and the campaign set the stage for a much closer run in 1996. But a Democratic “progressive” in 2016 would have far more traction going up against Hillary. Who is going to take advantage of it? That’s one of the more interesting questions of next few years.
During my time in New York City journalism, I had at least a passing acquaintance with two mayors. Ed Koch mostly—he wrote (and I lightly edited) a weekly column for the Post after he left City Hall, and we’d discuss the column frequently. I may have had four or five meals with him: once the two of us, other times in small groups. I’m not trying to suggest any real closeness, but Ed was a man I knew and liked. Rudy Giuliani was less likable, but he was friendly with the Post editorial page in the 90′s as both a candidate and mayor, and I was in small meetings or dinners with him at least a half dozen times.
Both were strongly pro-Israel: Ed as a Jew saw the emergence of Israel as a necessary and just response to the Holocaust. With Rudy it’s more difficult to say, except being pro-Israel was part and parcel of the neoconservative political views he held as mayor (with great success) and as a presidential candidate (with less success). Is it possible that Giuliani’s pro-Israel views were forged as a kind of compensation, a defense response to the whispered (and quite unfounded) imputations of anti-Semitism which swirled about him as a U.S. attorney who prosecuted Wall Street malfeasance in the 1980′s? Yes, quite possibly. I don’t think many kids emerge from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School saturated with intense Zionist commitment. Let us say Giuliani was completely sincere in his belief that it was better to be a very pro-Israel mayor of New York than a US attorney without pronounced views on Israel one way or another.
Be that as it may, Koch’s and Giuliani’s affection for Israel was public and obvious and in New York City politics, altogether unexceptional. And yet for the life of me, I cannot imagine for a second either man saying in public what New York mayor Bill de Blasio declared in a secret speech at AIPAC last week. In that speech de Blasio declared:
There is a philosophical grounding to my belief in Israel and it is my belief, it is our obligation, to defend Israel, but it is also something that is elemental to being an American because there is no greater ally on earth, and that’s something we can say proudly.
With one or two important exceptions, discussed below, reaction to this wild speech has focused exclusively on the secrecy. The event was not posted to de Blasio’s schedule, the press was not informed. The reporter from a small news outlet who managed to get inside to record it was later escorted from the room. De Blasio campaigned in part on bringing greater openness and transparency to City Hall, and here, barely two weeks into his mayoralty, he is discovered giving a secret speech to a high donor crowd. The landslide winning new progressive may still be in the honeymoon of his administration, but a stench of hypocrisy has begun to rise. Read More…
It is too early to celebrate, but historians will note that the gears of history shifted during the past month. The United States and five major nations finalized a significant door-opening agreement with Iran. Despite mounting a substantial campaign, Israel and its American lobbyists (AIPAC, along with a large neoconservative and Israel-hawk media section) have thus far not managed to abort the diplomatic opening. The events signal not only an important opportunity towards forging a new relationship with Iran, an heretofore enemy and one of the largest and most advanced nations in the Muslim world, but signal a critical defeat for AIPAC, Washington’s most powerful foreign affairs lobby. The pro-Israel lobbying group has lost before, failing to block a major U.S. weapons sale to Saudi Arabia during the early years of the Reagan administration. But that defeat in the end mattered relatively little.
This month, the Menendez-Kirk-Schumer bill, the “bipartisan” legislation designed to scuttle the Washington-Tehran negotiation by requiring the administration to seek impossible concessions, stalled at less than sixty votes, well below a veto-proof threshold, in the Senate. As it was examined and discussed, the bill became increasingly mocked in the mass media—both for the fact many senators who signed up to support it hadn’t actually read it, and as nakedly a project of “the great state of Israel”—as Jon Stewart ironically put it. Never in American history has AIPAC-favored legislation been openly debated, scrutinized and criticized like this.
There is probably no more eloquent argument against Kirk-Menendez-Schumer than here, by Jessica Tuchman Mathews in the New York Review of Books. She covers all the terrain, from an opening paragaph which sets the scene:
In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, for the first time, have broken through more than a decade of impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Significant differences remain, but at long last, both governments appear ready to work their way toward a resolution. Yet the US Congress, acting reflexively against Iran, and under intense pressure from Israel, seems ready to shatter the agreement with a bill that takes no account of Iranian political developments, misunderstands proliferation realities, and ignores the dire national security consequences for the United States.
Mathews moves to a nuanced discussion of what the more than forty-year-old Non Proliferation Treaty does and does not say, noting it provides no legal basis for restricting Iran’s nuclear program to zero enrichment, provided the program is peaceful. The “zero Iranian enrichment” option demanded by Netanyahu and his allies in the Senate is thus not only a non-starter in negotiating terms, but is not grounded in international law. One must assume that the AIPAC folks who wrote Kirk-Schumer-Menendez understood this, which is why they wrote their bill the way they did — not to “aid” Obama in negotiations as some senators often disingenuously claim, but to kill the negotiations. Importantly, Mathews also notes that the six-month interim deal which went into operation early this week (giving Iran access to some of its own money which had been held in foreign banks) is weighted heavily in the West’s favor, and makes sense for Tehran only if it paves the way to a larger agreement granting major relief from sanctions.
Mathews then comments about the “Go to war for Israel” part of the bill: Read More…
To be honest, apart from scanning for tidbits on a particular topic, I haven’t read a “big” Washington insider memoir at the time it came out since Henry Kissinger’s. I was glad then to see that veteran journalist Tom Ricks describe Robert Gates’s Duty as “probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever” because my reading in it made me wonder whether I’d been missing something important all these years. Gates’s book is extremely good, full of detail, knowledge, and apparent candor. Gates is an exemplar of a national public servant, patriotic, not flashy, makes no effort to present himself as a big conceptualizer, but someone who is able to generate informed opinions and options on an wide array of complicated subjects, while being able to get along with others at the highest levels of government. He’s the smart guy in the room who doesn’t seem to have his own agenda. He’s been in the room (as “notetaker”) when Zbigniew Brzezinski was trying to negotiate with the revolutionary government of Iran in 1979, and thirty years later as Secretary of Defense, alongside Ben Bernanke as the most important holdover from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
Early attention devoted to the book has focused on Gates’s claim that Obama seemed less than enthusiastic about the “mission” in Afghanistan, while deferring in practice to the military’s judgement about what should be done. Despite inevitable denials, the truth of this assertion seemed almost too obvious, perhaps to Obama’s supporters most of all. Would it really have served Obama’s purposes to pick an open fight with the the top brass over Afghanistan early in his administration? Of course not. He went along with what the generals wanted.
What struck me as most important in Gates’s memoir were the frequent references to the dangers of allowing the United States to get sucked into into wars serving other country’s agendas, especially in the Mideast. These are, remember, the concerns not of a peacenik professor but a veteran Cold Warrior after a long career at the center of the American national security establishment. They make up an extremely important data point about where mainstream American security professionals see danger arising—and one which varies quite a bit from ostensible concerns of Congress or the most influential national media. I would argue that worry about being drawn into wars on behalf of allies, (or perhaps “allies”) is (alongside such estimable things as duty, honor, country) the central theme of Gates’s work.
Here is a sample of the passages pushing this theme: Read More…