In an early chapter of Michel Houllebecq’s best-selling novel Soumission, the laconic, alienated but professionally successful narrator (François, an expert on the 19th-century Catholic writer Huysmans) explains his lack of interest in French contemporary politics. “A center-left candidate is elected, and governs for one or two terms depending on his degree of charisma; for obscure reasons he is never elected to a third term. The populace tires of the candidate and more generally of the center-left, and one observes the phenomenon of alternance démocratique, and the electors bring the center-right to power, for one or two terms depending on the individual candidate. Oddly enough, the Western countries were extremely proud of this system which was in effect nothing more than the sharing of power between two rival gangs, and occasionally started wars to impose it on countries which didn’t share their enthusiasm.”
As readers of the novel or its reviews are aware, this system was soon to be upended in France—yielding an election in which the much-reviled nationalist-populist, right-wing National Front presidential candidate faced off against a politically agile and globally ambitious Muslim, the son of an immigrant grocer and a graduate of the top French administrative and political school, who had bested his center-left rival in the French version of the primary election. Such a disruption was inevitable, as Houellebecq’s narrator points out in one of his sociological asides, as the demographic and social system which served as the foundation of alternance démocratique was gradually rotting away at its foundations. The patriarchy of previous generations, for all its constraints on individual autonomy, had at least the benefit of being able to reproduce itself, yielding families, which reproduced children and created new families, which reproduced families, for century after century. Post-1968 France, not so much.
France is probably still an election cycle or two away from the political scenarios sketched out in Soumission. But one element of the Houllebecq scenario has already come to pass, at least in part. The Front National has become the largest and most interesting element in the political conversation. A visitor to Paris is struck almost immediately by the fact that virtually all the political commentary seems to be about Marine Le Pen and the party she inherited from her father and is trying to transform. Both because the National Front has a past as an extremist party, and because it threatens the alternance democratique as sketched out by Houellebecq, nine-tenths of the commentary falls on a continuum between the mildly hostile and the rabidly negative. Nonetheless, the party—a marginal political group 40 years ago—has grown. In the first round of last week’s departmental elections—local elections for positions about which very few people understand the actual responsibilities—the National Front produced a very respectable 25 percent score, exceeded by the center-right coalition party of former president Nicholas Sarkozy but comfortably ahead of the ruling socialists. The vote total equaled the FN’s score in the European legislative elections last year, which was considered a major breakthrough. Four years ago, the FN scored 15 percent in the local elections, so the FN can point to a clear and seemingly unambiguous rise towards major party status.
This is the legacy of Marine Le Pen, since 2011 the FN’s president. She is in her mid-40s, twice divorced, three kids, attractive and charismatic with a straightforward manner. She has the look of a woman who may have partied more than studied in her youth, with the husky voice of someone who has smoked her share of cigarettes. She possesses some odd political talents. A regular and quite justified complaint made by the FN is that the center-right only talks about immigration as an issue during the run-up to elections; in power (and Sarkozy or his predecessors have been in power a lot in the past 30 years) the center-right does absolutely nothing to address an issue which, in the opinion of some, has the potential to bring to an end France as an historic and cultural entity. The most recent campaign was no exception: suddenly, days before the election, French TV screens filled with Sarkozy-aligned candidates demanding, in a transparently anti-Muslim gesture, the end to the serving of pork-free meals in school cafeterias. Several years ago, when Marine Le Pen was in the process of emerging as the major public figure of the FN, a TV interviewer asked her about a similar rise in Sarkozyite anti-immigrant rhetoric. She paused, smiled into the camera, and broke into an effective rendition the song “It’s Only Words” by the late and much beloved Franco-Egyptian torch singer Dalida.
Unlike Sarkozy’s, Marine Le Pen’s party has never had the power to change the immigration system, but she is able to address the subject with insight and tact. A few days before the departmental vote she went on the TV program Toutes Les France, hosted by Ahmed El Keyy. She arrived in a large studio set up as a living room, where about 20 college or graduate-school age students awaited her.The students, presumably chosen as representative of a multicultural French future which Marine Le Pen rejects, were by my estimation about three quarters of color. Madame Le Pen had walked into the lion’s den. One fully expected the session to disintegrate—as it would with any American politician—into a mouthing of defensive and politically correct platitudes. A young black woman, an engineering student, asked her what kind of place did her version of France have for her. Marine replied, first of all, by asking “Are you French?”—and when the reply was affirmative, said that was wonderful and it was great she was becoming an engineer, and she wanted to protect French jobs and French culture. Alright, but then came the follow-up. Marine’s party opposes birthright citizenship, whereby children born in France automatically receive French citizenship. And the host raised the fact that the FN has historically opposed immigration, and if Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had any say over the matter in the 1990s the parents of this young engineer of Senegalese background wouldn’t have been permitted to immigrate to France. That rhetorical game is now a near-constant in French politics—how do Marine’s views differ from her father’s? Can she be cornered into repudiating her father? Scholars at top universities have written book-length semiotic analyses exploring whether the language of Marine’s FN is really different or only appears to be. (The conclusion is a bit of both, but Marine has avoided any actual repudiation of her father.) In any case, for the candidate it seemed a potentially tricky moment.
Marine repeated that she was delighted that this young woman was French, was planning to have here a career as engineer. And then—offered the chance to separate herself from her father’s views—she refused. It would not be terrible, she continued, addressing the young woman, if you were an engineer in the country of your parents, Senegal, which also needs engineers. Indeed that might be a good thing. And in fact, she opposes the policy of Sarkozy and others to skim off the intelligentsia of the various former French colonies and bring it to France—it probably does more harm than good to world economic development. That process is part of the mondialisation sauvage–savage globalization; it sounds better in French—which she and her party strongly oppose.
Of course, regardless of whether or not it would be better for more people if engineers of Senegalese background made their careers in Senegal, smart young people of color graduating from good French schools and working in France is not what makes immigration a major French concern. The worry is the far larger number of second- and-third generation immigrants who are not well integrated into middle-class careers. One can point to any number of dramatic indicators: the weeks of rioting and car burning which erupted in the suburbs surrounding Paris 10 years ago; the population of the French prison system; the murders of Jewish students in Toulouse last year, the Charlie Hebdo assassinations and the killings at the kosher supermarket. These all have combined aspects of a religious conflict with militant Islam and elements of a growing underclass problem—the fact that it can be both at the same time expands it exponentially, making it far more challenging than anything Americans now face.
One can take the subway from Paris to the Basilica of Saint Denis, a magnificent and vast cathedral constructed in the Middle Ages, an awe-inspiring monument to peak Christendom, a place where dozens of French kings, princes, and princesses are buried. A quarter mile from the church you are in the streets of Saint-Denis, once part of the Red Belt and a communist stronghold, now an impoverished Third Worldish urban zone. I walked the length of the main market street at three in the afternoon, and it felt not threatening, though I probably was the only white person. Two hours later, a considerably greater number of of idle and tough looking young men were hanging around. Much is made of the contrast between Texas and Mexico, the much storied border between the developed and undeveloped world, but Texas and Mexico and New Mexico and Arizona are essentially part of the same civilization. Walk the three football fields from the Saint Denis Basilica to the streets of the town, and, quite simply, you cross from a monument of one civilization to a new world that is completely different.
The National Front has made immigration a key issue since the birth of the party. It has long been a question whether the origins of the National Front disqualify it, or should disqualify it, from a role in French political life. The FN was created from a coalition of various right-wing currents in French life in the ’60s, all which had been on the losing side of major conflicts. At the FN’s birth one can find neofascists, political descendants of the proponents of Petainism (a sensibility which comprised, in 1942 or thereabouts, a rather large percentage of Frenchmen) and of collaboration. One could also find those who rebelled, sometimes violently, against De Gaulle’s negotiation of independence for Algeria—whose sense of betrayal by the general was intensified in many cases because of their previous reverence for him. You could find many hardline anti-communists, opponents of détente and frank admirers of Pinochet and Franco. Jean-Marie Le Pen, a rakish, charismatic, former Poujadist deputy, operated comfortably in these milieus and was able forge them into a semi-serious political party and make it into a vehicle for his own political career. The senior Le Pen’s discourse was populist and often racialist; his anti-Semitic remarks, sporadic, probably calculated, and usually ambiguous, have been well documented. Jean-Marie Le Pen was able to run several moderately successful presidential campaigns, achieving a status as France’s principal right-wing tribune, but he could never, ever be president of France or part of a governing coalition.
Marine Le Pen’s ambition is to overcome that. The rhetoric of the party has changed: gone are any racially tinged or anti-Semitic remarks. About a dozen of the 7,000 candidates the FN ran for the departmentals were compelled by the party to withdraw—often for expressions of the kind of juvenile racism or homophobia that crops up with relative frequency in the Facebook postings of low-level Republican officials in the U.S. The French liberal press did a major investigative sweep of all the FN candidates’ social media presence, and they of course found some crude banana jokes or remarks conflating homosexuality with bestiality—but overall it seemed somewhat surprising how little of it there was. This is now a much bigger party than Jean-Marie Le Pen’s, one that runs candidates for every elective office in France and is extremely reliant on people who have not been professional politicians. But its overall extremism level seems, at least impressionistically, a good deal lower than the Tea Party’s.
So if the FN no longer promotes a racially tinged nationalist populism what does it stand for? Essentially, the FN has become the party which questions French integration into Europe and opposes an Anglo-Saxon dominated global marketplace in which France which has lost control of its own economic destiny. Marine Le Pen’s most important speeches have targeted what she calls mondialisation sauvage, or sometimes totalitarianism mondialiste. The bête noir of the FN is ultra-liberalism (in the European sense), an unrestrained capitalism which destroys everything in its path—families, communities, nations. She denounces the G8, the G20, the IMF; she opposes the “ultra-liberal diktats of the high priests of the EU.” She calls for economic patriotism, adding if economic patriotism doesn’t please the EU, we will do without the EU. She has promised to put France’s adhesion to the European currency to a referendum. More generally, though, the FN has been muted on foreign-policy questions, her party has opposed foreign intervention in Afghanistan and Syria, and is far less anti-Russian than the other major parties.
In other words, under Marine Le Pen, the FN has embraced opposition to economic globalization as its major theme, relegating everything else to secondary or tertiary positions. While the FN of her father was fully in favor of free enterprise, she is not. It is perhaps not surprising that many of the FN’s new pockets of support comes from depressed industrial regions that once voted communist. The voters of the National Front may have more in common with the voters of the various left socialist parties than they yet realize.
This emphasis on the global economy has coincided with the thoroughgoing de-racialization of the FN’s political agitation. The shift was foreshadowed several years ago, when Marine Le Pen served as the director of strategy of her father’s last presidential campaign, in 2007: one Marine-inspired poster showed a young French/North African woman, dressed in tight jeans, a little exposed skin of an outthrust hip, flashing a thumbs down sign: “Nationality, Assimilation, Upward Mobility, Laicism: the (establishments of the) Left/Right have BROKEN THEM ALL.” The thoroughly assimilated beurette becomes for Marine Le Pen’s National Front a stand-in for Marianne, the feminine symbol of La Republique, which the left-right globalist establishment is in the process of destroying.
Another French political tradition the new FN has partially succeeded in appropriating is Gaullism. The irony in this is beyond obvious: Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National had connections both to Petainists and to the French right-wing elements that considered de Gaulle a traitor over Algeria and tried to have him killed.
But nearly 45 years after de Gaulle’s death, what party in France does approximate a modern version of what the general might have stood for? The nominal heritors of Gaullism, the center-right parties of UMP, represent essentially France’s winners, its businessmen and those who are comfortable enough with globalism, with an increasingly European rather than a French identity, the Davos men and women who make up the ruling class in much of the capitalist West. And they do have a certain claim to de Gaulle. But there was much to de Gaulle that was also reactionary, extremely prickly about Anglo-Saxon power, fiercely protective of French sovereignty. Would de Gaulle, who called for a “Europe of nation-states,” have embraced the euro? Would de Gaulle be lining up under Washington’s leadership to impose sanctions on Russia? On Iran? It is far from obvious that he would. Marine Le Pen’s claim that the FN has become France’s Gaullist party is not absurd on its face.
The new, nearly mainstream Front National remains a very young party–still trying very hard to attract capable, highly educated people to its ranks. Marine Le Pen can go head to head in debate with anyone in France and hold her own; so can any of a dozen or so new National Front figures she has recruited or attracted to the party within the past five years. But one senses this is still an organization with a weak bench: on TV on election night, the FN seemed sometimes to be represented by very young people, somewhat fearful of saying the wrong thing, who were overshadowed by the more experienced and telegenic personalities of the center-right and center-left.
That said, the FN’s upside potential is truly vast. Marine Le Pen’s National Front is far and away the largest party in a major country to challenge the Washington-dominated, neoliberal, globalist consensus. It is easily the largest anti-immigration party to emerge in the West, and one which is clearly striving, with not inconsiderable success, to navigate the narrow shoal between national self-preservation and racism. For the first time in many years, political events in France merit close observation, for Marine Le Pen’s success, hardly foreordained, but hardly impossible, could rewrite the history of a decadent West.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Unlike the New York-Washington corridor, France seems not to be especially obsessed by the Netanyahu speech and its reverberations.
This came as a surprise, as I somehow assumed everyone must. But in the days preceding the speech, French interest in the much-analyzed Bibi venture was probably outranked (among America-related topics) by Hillary’s e-mail troubles, the question of whether the homeless man killed by the LAPD was French or not, and Madonna’s invitation to National Front chief Marine Le Pen to “prendre un verre.” In the French daily press, there was next to nothing on the matter. Ah, but what of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, center-left or left, depending on how you calculate, and always home to lively polemics about newsworthy subjects? There was indeed a smart and substantive essay on whether Iran and the U.S. are turning away from “the period of hate.” It was by Trita Parsi, an Iranian-American author and activist, Washington-based. I know Trita and admire him tremendously, but for a French perspective, not so much.
By the time of the speech, there appeared stories in all the papers, either leading with it or including a reference on the front page. But it was generally just that, news coverage—supporters and critics of Netanyahu were quoted, it was repeated (with wry astonishment) that only Winston Churchill before him had addressed the American Congress as often. On its website, Le Monde Diplomatique eventually had some fun quoting American right-wingers who wished they had Netanyahu as their leader. In the few areas where there were analyses and opinions, the writers tended to go into areas beyond the Obama and Kerry, right or wrong discussion. Éric Zemmour, author of the best-selling conservative book Le Suicide Francais, addressed the issues in his widely listened to morning radio program. Zemmour is Jewish, right-wing on social issues, a descendant of refugees from Algeria, not a neoconservative. Not knowing his views in any nuanced way, I had no idea what to expect. What followed was down-the-middle analysis of the speech and reaction, coupled with the expectation that the United States and Iran would indeed come to an agreement, and the recognition these sort of grand diplomatic shifts occurred no more than once or twice a century. He mentioned as examples Nixon and Kissinger’s outreach to China (of course) and Louis XV’s alliance with Hapsburg dynasty in the 18th century. “Such acts are attempted for the judgment of the history books, not of daily media outlets. Great risks are taken, established arrangements are destabilized, violent reactions from allied countries and even allied peoples are stirred up…”
But the loser in Zemmour’s analysis was not Israel—”a protege America will never abandon”—but quite possibly Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia does not have this guarantee of eternal alliance. Or at least doesn’t have it any longer. It’s done everything to make a rupture happen: for 10 years, this so-called great friend of the West has subsidized every Islamic movement, from al-Qaeda to the caliphate … . with friends like that, who needs enemies?” (Translations, with apologies, are mine)
The other early analysis of note appeared on France-Info, the widely-listened-to state-sponsored radio show, which included prominently in its coverage a link to Netanyahu’s 2002 speech to a Congressional panel, where he assured the Congress with absolute certainty that Saddam was pursuing nuclear weapons, that he would pass them to terrorists, and that if the United States invaded Iraq everything would be so much better. John Kerry made a passing reference to this speech, and of course Netanyahu’s opponents in the U.S. have quoted it repeatedly. But it has not been featured prominently, if at all, in the mainstream American media. In France, it is one of the first things widely disseminated.
The regular French diplomatic reporters covering the Iran talks tend to cite anonymous French sources, who stress how large the remaining gaps are between the P5+1 and Iran, and how slow the negotiations are going. I would guess that France will be reluctant to concur with whatever Kerry and Iran come up with, or at least will make a show of objections. France still seeks to be a major player on the world stage, and in any case there is no French faction which will permit itself to be seen as America’s silent junior partner.
At the same time, I’m not hearing fierce French opposition to the talks from any quarter, right or left. It was France’s previous president, the fairly conservative Nicholas Sarkozy who was caught on a live mike telling Obama that Netanyahu was a liar; the American could only plead that it was he who had to deal with him all the time. The left, equally pro-Israel but not crazy about it, is not going to try to sabotage a deal for Bibi’s sake. The currently surging Front National is probably the least pro-American major faction in France, but commenting one way or another about the Iran negotiations does not seem to interest its main leaders.
France historically of course was very much involved in the Mideast, and in some dimensions still is. French technicians were critical to the construction of Israel’s first reactor at Dimona, and thus indirectly to getting its nuclear weapons program off the ground. France was Israel’s major arms supplier up through 1967. Charles de Gaulle’s famous November 1967 press conference, stressing France’s split with Israel, marked a shift: the French president was disappointed that Israel had started the 1967 war, violating his counsel, and was disappointed that Israel showed itself set on seizing more land in 1956. His depiction of Jews as an “elite people, self-assured and domineering” was the subject of extensive criticism.
But that seemed to end it; France has since been little obsessed with Israel. Not hostile, not overly friendly. It is, now, and for the foreseeable future, obsessed with its relationship with Muslims, seemingly having been taken completely off-guard by the fact that the descendants of the immigrants France took in to do low-wage jobs have turned into an often alienated, sometimes hostile, and very occasionally terrorist population. Compared to this, France’s relationship with Israel is not complicated: Paris supports the two-state solution, and it will support a negotiation with Iran, after ostentatiously making sure that its concerns are taken into account in any negotiated settlement. But for French commentators, it’s not the biggest subject. Whether Marine Le Pen will sit down and have a drink with Madonna may be more interesting.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Whatever Benjamin Netanyahu says when he addresses Congress will likely be overshadowed by the controversy his speech has already generated.
John Boehner’s invitation to the Israeli leader has become a partisan issue; several Democrats have announced they will avoid the speech, and countless more will simply not show up. Neither Obama, nor John Kerry, nor Vice President Biden will meet with the Israeli prime minister. “The lobby is a night flower. It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun,” AIPAC’s former research director Steve Rosen wrote in a memo to a new employee in 1982. Rosen recognized that the more Israel’s influence on Capitol Hill and the Executive Branch was acknowledged, the more vulnerable it would be to challenge. Netanyahu and his ambassador, by arranging the invitation, have inadvertently put Israel’s influence on the Congress under a bright light.
It was supposed to work differently. For instance: In 1958, John F. Kennedy met with Philip Klutznick, a major figure of the Presidents Conference of Major Jewish Organizations. Kennedy, who had traveled in Palestine as a young man, expressed concern about Palestinian refugees. Klutznick set him straight: if he planned to talk like that, he shouldn’t count on any financial support from Klutznick or his friends during the presidential bid Kennedy was contemplating. JFK got the message and dropped the refugee topic for the duration of the campaign. This was early Israel lobby, the night flower at its classic best: a quiet behind the scenes reminder, a potentially nettlesome subject disappears from political discussion, the public none the wiser.
Instead there is this: more than a month of media debate over Netanyahu’s speech; obvious contempt flowing between the Israeli government and President Obama. Dueling full-page newspaper ads. State Department spokespeople openly mock the Israeli leader’s comments about the Iran negotiations. Netanyahu plunges ahead; for him the speech has become central to his own election campaign, and to postpone it might show weakness.
The Israel lobby is far from slain. AIPAC is closely involved in lobbying for Senate legislation designed to blow up the Iran negotiations, and is within shouting distance of securing a veto-proof majority. And yet a generation ago, an Israel lobbyist famously boasted he could get 70 senators to sign a cocktail napkin in a day’s time. Here with a Republican majority determined to undermine and embarrass President Obama, plus a number of Democrats who are either reflexively pro-Israel or dependent on Israel lobby funds, the Kirk-Menendez legislation has 60-odd supporters, after months of work.
What will Netanyahu say? He surely will claim Iran is pledged to Israel’s destruction, that it is a messianic, apocalyptic regime whose nuclear aspirations pose an existential threat to Israel. Israeli leaders say this again and again. Existential, a big word so significant in Western intellectual life in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so laden with profound and mysterious connotation, but hard to truly grasp. (“Shoot the Piano Player” is an existential movie, a girlfriend told me at 17, as if that was supposed to clear it up.)
But here the meaning is simple, that a nuclear Iran threatens Israel’s existence, or as it is often put, its “very existence.” James Fallows is one who has addressed this claim lucidly:
We’ve reached the stage where a particular word obscures more than it clarifies about Iran and its nuclear prospects. That word is “existential,” as in this now-standard formulation from Prime Minister Netanyahu: “A nuclear Iran is an existential threat on Israel and also on the rest of the world.”
I have learned in seeing mail that if the first paragraph of a message includes the word “existential,” I know 90 percent of what will come next. In this context an existential threat, literally a challenge to continued existence, means implicitly likening Iran to Nazi Germany—or explicitly equating it, as Netanyahu has done for many years.
By definition an existential threat justifies any action that might forestall it, from preemptive military strikes to efforts at torpedoing an “unacceptable” diplomatic deal. It makes all compromises suspect. And it means that opinions from other countries lack moral standing, because after all their existence is not on the line.
Fallows goes on to make several strong points. In the nuclear age, we are all under an existential threat. Americans have been so ever since they lost their monopoly on nuclear weapons. South Korea is probably the most existentially threatened nation on the planet right now—as its enemy, North Korea, regularly brandishes its arsenal and makes terrifying threats. But for some reason the South Korean president isn’t invited to address Congress.
There is no valid comparison between the situation Israel might face with a nuclear-capable Iran and Nazi Germany. In 1938, Germany had the most powerful army in the world. Iran’s is nowhere near the top 10. In a nuclear war with Israel, Iran would get incinerated, because Israel is a nuclear power with a substantial arsenal. The 1938 analogy doesn’t withstand the most basic scrutiny.
Does Netanyahu realize his open fight with the administration risks damage to Israel’s special relationship with the United States? The Israeli press is full of such musings. Why does an Israeli leader savvy enough to be elected several times not recognize the danger? I would surmise that the answer lies in his supreme self-confidence, which has never failed Netanyahu in the past. He knows the United States well, having attended high school and graduate school here, and speaks English fluently. In countless interviews on American television, he seems never to have faced a well-informed opponent. He aligned himself early on with American neoconservatives, a tough and intelligent group whose influence seemed to know no direction but up from 1975 onwards.
His past appearances in Congress have been hugely successful. In 2002, stated before a Congressional hearing that Saddam Hussein was “pursuing with abandon, with every ounce of effort, weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons … Saddam is hell-bent on achieving atomic bombs as fast as he can.” Bibi went on to charge that Saddam has sprinkled Iraq with “nuclear centrifuges the size of washing machines” and that nothing short of an American invasion or regime change would stop Saddam from passing out nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. An invasion, he concluded would work out swimmingly. “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you it will have enormous positive reverberations around the region,” he concluded.
No one sought to bring these predictions up when he was invited again in 2011, receiving 29 standing ovations for explaining that Obama’s efforts to forge a two-state solution were a nonstarter. Years earlier, before these speeches, in a private meeting with right-wing West Bank settlers, Netanyahu had boasted that “America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.” How could his Capitol Hill experiences fail to confirm this view?
But things have actually changed in the United States. Not a lot, but somewhat. The neoonservatives remain entrenched in the think tanks and the GOP, and are hardly without influence. But they are broadly distrusted in ways they weren’t before the Iraq war. When you hear “Paul Wolfowitz” you don’t think smart guy, hawkish; you think architect of the Iraq disaster.
The issue, too, is different. It is not fairness or a sliver of justice to the Palestinians, of whom it could be said possess few resources beyond their patience and capacity for endurance. It is Iran. And make no mistake, Netanyahu is asking America to prepare for war against Iran. Had the war with Iraq gone swimmingly, his case would meet less resistance. But it didn’t. The cost of Iraq was a wrecked country, hundreds of thousands of destroyed lives, trillions of dollars wasted, and the rise of ISIS. Iran is four times bigger.
Before the Iraq war, the eminent diplomatic historian Paul Schroeder in this magazine mused that one of the unspoken but important reasons for the war was that it would benefit Israel. This circumstance of a great power fighting as a proxy on behalf of a small client state represented something that Schroeder found “unique in history.” It is true that if it happened once it could happen again. But Netanyahu may not recognized there is organized pushback that did not exist 12 or 13 years ago. There is a professionalized pro-peace constituency in D.C., far larger and more organized than the justice for Palestine or anti-Iraq war elements were. In America at large there is inchoate and perhaps exaggerated fear of Sunni Muslim extremism, of ISIS risen from the ashes of destroyed Iraq. But with that fear it is dawning on Americans that Iran is perhaps the only state in the Mideast both willing and able to fight ISIS. The American military certainly understands this.
Finally, Netanyahu probably fails to realize that Israel itself is simply not as popular as it once was. The decades of occupation have taken a toll. Grassroots Democrats (the delegates at the 2012 convention) oppose the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. Most Americans want the United States to be neutral between Israelis and Palestinians. Most Americans disapprove of the invitation for Netanyahu to address Congress without consulting the White House. The world has shifted in the last few years, not greatly but not trivially, in ways Netanyahu does not appreciate.
I hope Netanyahu goes ahead with his speech. I hope he’s re-elected. He has become a polarizing figure, a walking billboard for an Israel that foments war and rejects compromises for peace, a potent symbol for all those who think the United States is too close to Israel for America’s own good. God willing, Netanyahu won’t succeed in bringing about a war between the United States and Iran. He’s not popular enough. But he is making more and more Americans question the special relationship. Go Bibi Go.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
On NPR someone wistfully dropped the name of George Kennan, in the context of “Wouldn’t be nice if there was some profound strategic thinker in government who could guide the administration through the multiple escalating crises?” Looking at a lineup consisting of Susan Rice, Ashton Carter, and John Kerry, the impetus for the remark seems pretty plain.
In Ukraine, longstanding Western efforts to bring the border state into the Western fold have provoked a violent Russian reaction, which has erupted into war and could escalate into a nuclear exchange. Regarding Iran, the administration, in close cooperation with its Western allies, is seeking an agreement to slow and monitor Tehran’s nuclear potential, preventing an Iranian advance to nuclear weapons status. The government of Israel, for many in Washington America’s most treasured ally, is working hard to wreck this negotiation by mobilizing its American supporters and leaking classified information, and could conceivably launch an attack on Iran, or possibly somewhere else, to thwart Obama’s diplomatic efforts.
Meanwhile, much of the Arab world is falling into an expanding civil war, and the fundamentalist and barbaric Islamist group ISIS has seized a territory the size of Britain in Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate. ISIS is opposed diffidently by other Arab governments, and more forcefully by Shi’ite forces from Iran and Lebanon, as well as the Syrian government. Israel has at least tacitly sided with ISIS forces opposing Syria, which is allied with both Moscow and Iran.
These three conflicts overlap in ways that no one fully understands—the facile analogy might be three-dimensional chess, as if anyone knew what three dimensional chess is and how it is played. The nearest analogy in postwar history would be the autumn of 1956. Eisenhower was aged and ailing at a moment when his top foreign policy aide, Secretary of State Dulles, was undergoing emergency cancer surgery. Yet he faced the simultaneous events of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which had overthrown its pro-Soviet Communist party, and the Israeli-British-French campaign to topple Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser and seize the Suez Canal, recently nationalized by the popular Egyptian nationalist. But that only made for two simultaneous crises. Obama has three erupting at once.
As we began with Kennan, it ought be acknowledged that he was one of relatively few prominent men in Washington who foresaw the Ukraine crisis, or some variant of it, emerging from the American decisions to expand NATO after the Soviet collapse in the Cold War. Writing in 1997, Kennan warned that expanding NATO was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-war era.” That would include, of course, Vietnam, where America lost more than 50,000 dead, but does not take into account the second Iraq war, the neocons’ war, which set the stage for the rise of ISIS by destroying the Iraqi state. Kennan predicted that NATO expansion would inflame Russian nationalism, and enhance the anti-Western and militaristic tendencies within Russia, as it certainly has.
The difficult Iran negotiations are complicated by Israel’s special relationship with Washington, demonstrated by the extraordinary prospect of the Israeli prime minister’s planned trip here to lobby openly against the negotiations, with the support of many in Congress. That Iran’s drive to become a state with latent nuclear capability is motivated at least in part by Israel’s flouting of its own (once professed) nuclear nonproliferation promises and its subsequent successful clandestine push to acquire nuclear weapons seems obvious, if seldom discussed.
It is becoming increasingly plain that Ukraine that has the potential to spark a nuclear war: here the German magazine Der Spiegel has an alarming account of how moribund are the Cold War nuclear crisis channels designed to keep the two superpowers mutually informed and far away from the brink, post-Cuban missile crisis. The paranoia in Russian circles about Western encirclement and aggression is thick and may seem irrational, but it has to be acknowledged that the NATO enlargers really do mean to encircle Russia, at least on its western and southern borders. The reasons for such an encirclement they have never made clear. One has to hope, pray even, that there are influential people in the U.S. government who realize that pulling Ukraine into the Western defense and financial system is not worth a single hair on the head of a single American child—much less the destruction of the United States, which Russia could accomplish if it wanted to badly enough. One percent of Russia’s nuclear arsenal could destroy about 60 American cities.
In November 1956, Eisenhower faced a situation where adversaries and allies were on the march simultaneously. As the world woke up to Kruschchev sending 200,000 troops supported by tanks into Hungary, Britain and France were joining Israel in a move to seize the Suez Canal and potentially topple Nasser. Ike had little choice but to keep cool about Hungary: he knew it was in Russia’s sphere of influence, that there were no American or allied armies in position to contest it, and perhaps, that Soviet dominance wouldn’t last forever. Eisenhower would write a stiff letter to Soviet premier Bulganin, expressing “shock and dismay” at the Soviet action in Hungary, urging the Soviets to withdraw immediately and permit the Hungarians basic and fundamental human rights. But he made no threats, deployed no condescending John Kerry-type language, did not even threaten to take the matter to the UN.
The crisis did force Eisenhower to concentrate on keeping the Russians out of the Mideast, where they were nominating themselves for a peace-keeping role to stem the French-British-Israeli attack on Egypt. Here Ike, heart weakened, at the end of an election campaign, top foreign-policy aide in the hospital, had to maneuver simultaneously against the Soviets and against his closest allies. He cut Britain off at the legs and supported UN resolutions against the three-pronged invasion, which he proclaimed contrary international law, while issuing stiff warnings against Soviet meddling. Eisenhower was surprised that Britain and France would bring down upon themselves all of the Arab hostility to Israel. But ultimately he saw international law as clear guidance to the crisis, and the attack on Egypt was simply illegal.
These positions were hardly popular in Washington. Many wanted the United States to stand more forcefully on the side of “freedom”. Hungary really was a captive nation; American propaganda and Radio Free Europe had helped encourage the Hungarians to revolt by giving the impression that American support for an anti-Soviet revolt was forthcoming. Egypt’s Nasser was a dictator whom Britain’s prime minister Eden likened to Hitler. James Reston, New York Times columnist and nationally prominent purveyor of the conventional wisdom, wrote about the crisis under the headline “Washington Loses Grip,” charging that Eisenhower had “lost control of events in areas vital to its security.” The president, he added, “could no longer speak as keeper of the peace and leader of a unified alliance,” then, as now, a widely echoed charge. Much of America’s WASP foreign-policy establishment was aghast at Ike’s letting Great Britain hang out to dry.
Regrettably, the present situation seems more dangerous than 1956. Everyone’s nuclear forces are now on quicker triggers, rockets instead of bombers. Eisenhower was more popular than Obama, and was genuinely respected by the military. He was thus able to dispute his generals with confidence, if need be; the experience of having victoriously commanded armies in a major war is something no civilian president can ever match. Obama faces three crises, not two: even if the ISIS doesn’t have serious weapons or hold strategic territory, it has captured imaginations throughout the world of Sunni Islam. But almost certainly the best thing Obama can do vis-à-vis ISIS is to avoid getting drawn into a war against Iran.
At one point early on in the Suez crisis, Eisenhower contemplated intervening in support of Egypt against Israeli aggression. As the crisis unfolded, Eisenhower became a de facto protector of Nasser, not of the policies of Britain and France. He recognized that America’s interests did not lie with blind and unconditional support of an ally. This is perhaps the most critical lesson Obama could draw from 1956, and he should make it very clear that an Israeli attack on Iran would be viewed as direct threat to American interests, and the United States might counter it directly, by military means, if necessary.
An underlying lesson of 1956 is that America’s geographic position enables it to watch events and not rush into precipitous action. What seemed an earth-shattering crisis was, in fact, not one. Britain and France got over it. Their imperial pretensions, which Eisenhower always thought ridiculous, were doomed anyway. NATO survived, and thrived. The man accused by the Washington commentariat of not “leading” and acting forcefully has gone down in history as America’s most successful postwar President, alongside Reagan. There is much Obama can take from that.
A joke currently going around the chanceries of Europe is that Washington, having missed out on the beginnings of World Wars I and II, wants to be in right at the start of World War III. It is mordant, the darkest of gallows humor. But Obama has it well within his power to put this joke to rest.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell inform us on “Meet the Press“ that there is complete Republican and Democratic unity on Ukraine policy. Who can doubt the assertion?
On the Sunday talk shows, all of them, virtually no one argues against American military escalation of the conflict by sending arms to the Kiev government. True, on “Meet the Press” the English journalist Katty Kay uttered a few sentences to counter the combined hawkish barrage of Todd, Mitchell, and David Brooks, and on Fareed Zakaria’s show “GPS”, Stephen Cohen—also one against three—was given 40 seconds to point out that Ukraine was a visceral strategic issue for Moscow and not for anyone else. But there’s virtual opinion unanimity: red-blooded American straight-shooters want to stand up and make Putin pay a price for aggression. The only substantial disagreement, it would seem, comes from those lily-livered Europeans, France—the well-known surrender monkeys—and Germany’s Angela Merkel, who speaks so diplomatically in public that differences between her and the administration are difficult to discern.
During the Cold War, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman published a book called Manufacturing Consent describing how the media always slanted the news to favor the right wing in any left-right dispute. I was a cold warrior and am glad that communism, a terrible and murderous social system, is mostly gone. But I didn’t anticipate that the same process of “manufacturing consent” would continue its forward march after the Cold War was won, not by slanting the news against leftist insurgencies in the Third World, but rather by slanting it always in favor of aggressive American meddling, including military intervention, seemingly everywhere. The monopoly capital explanation, favored by Chomsky and Herman, certainly can’t account for it in this instance. Most American corporations gained little from the Iraq war, and probably more would gain than lose from continued detente with Putin’s Russia than a new cold war. So what is the answer?
First let’s narrow the question a bit more. In the narrative now favored by virtually everyone in Washington, Putin is committing aggression against Ukraine, first by annexing Crimea (which, despite its Russian population and longstanding ties to Russia, was “given” by Krushchev to Ukraine one night in 1954) and secondly by giving weapons and other military assistance to anti-Kiev pro-Russian separatists. According to these narratives, the history of Ukraine and Russia begins sometime in February 2014. But in the view of everyone else, in Ukraine, in Russia, and among those lily-livered European appeasers, history starts well before that. One relevant starting point can be found in the first plans to expand NATO up to Russia’s borders. As Steve Walt helpfully reminds us, the very think tank people now assuring us that escalating the conflict by arming the Kiev government will cause Putin to back down are the same people who told us in the 1990s that expanding NATO eastward would cause no difficulties with Russia at all.
It begins also with the longstanding campaign, openly boasted about by the neoconservative Victoria Nuland, the former Cheney aide who remains on John Kerry’s staff, to channel billions of dollars to Ukrainian dissident groups so that Ukraine could freely choose “the European future they deserve.” These moneys were supplemented by unofficial funds (grants from George Soros and the National Endowment for Democracy) and open side-taking in Ukraine’s political crisis by American politicians, all leading up the ambiguous and still mysterious revolution/coup d’état of February 2014. Any historically minded person will have some understanding of the depth of Ukraine’s anti-Russian sentiments: it is a land of deep-rooted hatreds, and Ukraine in the 1930s and ’40s, tossed between Stalinism and Hitlerism, was the most blood-soaked place on the planet. In any event, the history didn’t all begin last year—except, apparently, for American decision-makers inside the Beltway.
The best explanation for the Beltway unanimity now expressed by members of Congress, journalists, and think tank people is the career ambition and the groupthink encouraged by the imperatives of the deep state. The last is a term for that large, many-layered complex: the top officers of the armed forces, top career officials of the intelligence agencies, defense contractors, and think tanks that perpetuate themselves and maintain their budgets by overstating threats and never, ever getting caught underestimating them. The best current analysis of how this works come from Tufts professor Michael Glennon, in an important essay that deserves wide attention. One conclusion Glennon draws is that the only way you can advance to a bigger, more influential job is to be seen as “hard-hitting” and “tough minded.” And that means you can never ignore a foreign policy problem, or argue that an issue really isn’t such a big problem, or, perish the thought, muse that “this is not really our concern” in an official meeting and expect to be taken seriously in Washington.
The most compelling explanation of why the Obama administration seemed to be shifting towards a more hawkish policy (arming the Kiev government now) is that key players in the administration have begun maneuvering for jobs in a future Hillary Clinton administration. Reflexive (but not shrill) hawkishness a necessary form of careerism in the foreign policy bureaucracy set. As an explanation for important events, it’s a close cousin to Hannah Arendt’s observation that Eichman was a banal and mediocre figure. Personally, I would prefer that the Chomskyite monopoly capitalism explanation was more credible. If we’re going to risk armed conflict with Moscow on Russia’s borders, which brings into play the possibility of nuclear war and the incineration of our civilization, the underlying causes ought to be grander than Michele Flournoy’s job aspirations.
Orwell’s 1984 character Winston Smith wrote that if there is hope, it must lie in the proles. For us, it must lie in the Europeans. Not with Donald Rumsfeld’s “New Europe”, those former Soviet satellites so eager for American acceptance that they embraced the Iraq war with enthusiasm and readily hosted CIA torture sites. But Old Europe, grown skeptical and crusade weary. German chancellor Angela Merkel does not favor arming Kiev, and advocates patience and sanctions. But she has no public persona in America; in Washington she speaks through a translator and and takes pains to minimize differences with the administration. France’s President Hollande, a far less powerful figure than Merkel, does not favor escalation either. France’s largest party in the polls, the much-maligned National Front, is increasingly pro-Russian and anti-NATO, or at least many of its foreign policy intellectuals are.
Perhaps most interesting is Nicolas Sarkozy, former president of France and still the best-known figure of the French center-right. At a conference of his UMP party last weekend, Sarkozy told the audience that France and Russia shared a common civilization. He made reference to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and said, essentially, that Russia is linked to France in a way China and Vietnam are not. He added that the Crimeans had every right to choose to link their future to Russia; that if we supported independence from Serbia for Kosovo, there was no legitimate reason to deny the same right to the Crimeans. The assembled delegates of this very establishment party applauded enthusiastically.
America had different interests than Europeans, Sarkozy stated, but “We do not want a revival of the Cold War between America and Russia.” Kiev, he continued, pointing towards the obvious diplomatic solution of a neutral Ukraine, ought to be a bridge between Russia and Europe, and is not destined to join the European Union.
European politicians have a sense of tragedy that comparable American figures mostly lack; they recognize that civilization-destroying wars can begin over seemingly minor matters; they are almost all better educated; and having parents who experienced Hitler, they aren’t given to facile analogies between Putin’s demographically shrinking Russia and expansive Germany of the 1930s.
The beltway consensus that Russia is a totalitarian state on the march, that Ukraine is an aggressive Vladimir Putin’s first morsel before marching on Poland, is widely shared but not deeply felt. American politicians’ first political instinct is cowardice on foreign policy questions—there is no political percentage in challenging the consensus. But that consensus seems powerful only because it has not been challenged. If European leaders speak out forcefully—sketching out clearly the risks of war, the necessity of a negotiated settlement, and the absurdity of starting a war with Russia over a region vitally important to Russia and of little concern to the U.S., Americans must make every effort to amplify their voices here.
Much is at stake. Even if we assume that escalating the war in Ukraine (as the think-tankers urge: increase the pain for Putin by increasing Russian casualties) does not lead to a tragic escalation, the ancillary consequences border on the ridiculous. Already the United States has ceased cooperating with Russia over securing its loose nuclear material. Is that an American interest, to make an enemy of an important player in any nuclear non-proliferation program? Is it in America’s interest to push Russia closer into China’s orbit? Are either of those outcomes, already well underway, balanced by the theoretical gain of incorporating Ukraine into the Western bloc, an outcome which, to be honest, very few European taxpayers desire?
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.
What if Vladimir Putin really was tough? What if he would prefer to fight to the death rather than see his country humiliated by the West or his regime collapse into chaos—outcomes he likely regards as equivalent. Is this not possible? There is no shortage of American politicians ready to attribute the most vile traits to Putin: Hillary Clinton, far from America’s most extreme rhetorician, likened him to Hitler. It’s not, of course, a remotely legitimate comparison. But if Putin were one-tenth as reckless as he is commonly depicted, what conclusions ought we to draw?
Leading papers of the Anglosphere are now promoting American plans to escalate the fight against Russia and its Ukraine intervention. Former government officials, polishing up their tough-minded credentials in preparation for their next administration job, recommend we begin major weapons shipments to Ukraine. Are trainers and advisers on how to use them included as well? Strobe Talbott in the Washington Post, Ivo Dalder in the Financial Times, the Washington Post editorial board, other major figures from Clinton-land and the permanent government are all on board for a major roll-out. Their idea is to make Russia pay a higher price in casualties if it continues to intervene on behalf of anti-Kiev rebels in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Mr. Putin “will settle only when the costs of continuing the war are too high” says Dalder. Supplying arms will “raise the costs” to Russia thereby leading to a settlement. Strobe Talbott says the same thing in the Washington Post—”further aggression” must be rendered “so costly” that Putin is deterred. Nowhere in these admonitions is there a suggestion that a negotiated settlement might include a codification of neutral, non-aligned status for Ukraine. The Russian leader who is regularly likened to Hitler is expected apparently to own up to his mistake and allow the country that has countless times served as an invasion route into Russia to be incorporated into NATO.
Here’s a thought experiment—not original to me. I heard it voiced last week at a Washington think tank; it was expressed by a Russian immigrant to America, a man I know to be well informed about the thought processes of Russian leaders. What, so the idea was presented, would happen if the tightening economic sanctions, in conjunction with the collapsing oil prices, really did bring about a crise de régime in Moscow? Faced with hard currency shortages and galloping inflation, would the Putinites say simply, “OK NATO You Win. The Ukraine is Yours”? Or would they contemplate measures that might totally rejuggle the underlying realities?
Take, for instance, the price of oil. It’s low, it’s collapsing. It’s the major source of Russia’s fiscal difficulties. Would it remain low if Israel launched an attack on Iran? The hawkish Israeli foreign minister Avigidor Lieberman was warmly received in Moscow last week. I don’t think Netanyahu would require much in the way of encouragement to launch an attack, and the promise of the backing of one major outside nuclear power might suffice. Or, playing the other side, would the oil price remain depressed if Saudi Arabia’s monarchy—we all know how stable monarchies are—began facing an armed insurgency, potentially targeting its oil rich eastern provinces? Take your pick, the Islamic State or Shi’ites, it’s not hard to find people who need little encouragement to fight the Saudi monarchy. Could Russia accelerate such insurgencies? Surely a desperate enough Russia could try.
Or consider this scenario, the most shocking thing suggested by my Russian emigré interlocutor. Which Baltic country, in the midst of some manufactured crisis between pro- and anti-Russian elements, would be the best place to try out a tactical battlefield nuclear weapon? I can’t imagine such a thing happening—it would certainly be the most alarming event in international politics since what—the Cuban missile crisis? But, to say the least, one such explosion would pretty rapidly put an end to all speculation that Putin and his government are going to meekly comply if we only “raise the cost” to Moscow of intervening in Ukraine.
I’m not a Russia expert, though I’m not really persuaded that Ivo Daalder and Strobe Talbott and company are either. But they, like much of the Washington political class, are convinced that it is their God-given role as elite Americans to manage the world, to bend it to our neoliberal capitalist sense of what the good society is. They are part of the seamless Washington web—the term military-industrial complex hardly seems adequate anymore—whose role it is to continuously expand the range of human activities that are supposedly Washington’s business, our ” vital interests”—invariably presented as what is best for everyone else.
The Ukraine crisis originated, of course, with the efforts of various American and European elites to exploit longstanding historic resentments in that tragic land in order to count up a win for the West, a defeat for Moscow. Billions of dollars were spent laying the groundwork for a coup d’état and popular revolution—the Maidan campaign was a bit of both—and the efforts were successful. Bravo, said everyone. “It’s one for the history books” said our meddling ambassador after last February’s coup. Then Russia responded, and Washington and all the chanceries of Europe were taken aback by the vigor and violence of the response.
So now they plot how to respond to Russia’s reaction. If the West amplifies the pressures just a bit, “raises the price” to Putin for trying to keep NATO out of his backyard, he surely must then submit and bless the transfer of Ukraine into the Western alliance. It’s logical that he would, just as it was logical that the North Vietnamese would submit to Washington’s carefully calibrated escalations of bombing of their homeland. Doesn’t Putin realize that he is up against a superior, more advanced social system?
But what if Putin doesn’t respond as all the think tank warriors say he will, then what? Has anyone thought about that?
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.
Some interesting polls form a background to the collision of major historical forces unleashed by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to solicit an invitation to address the U.S. Congress in March.
First, released several days ago, is a Bloomberg global poll of investors, traders, and financial analysts. One can make one’s own assumptions about how representative this group is, or of what: I would take it to be part of the international capitalist business class, but not necessarily its top echelon. The group ranks geopolitical threats to world markets as follows: Global terrorism 26 percent; Russia-Ukraine 26 percent, Cybercrime 13 percent, Not Sure 10 percent, Islamic State 9 percent, South China Sea 6 percent, Major Weather Changes-climate change induced 6 percent, Iran 2 percent … equaled by Israel-Palestine 2 percent and exceeding Ebola at 1 percent. In other words, Iran is barely on the radar as a threat to peace and economic stability.
Several months ago, the Brookings Institution released a major poll of American attitudes towards Israel supervised by University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami. One question asked of respondents was what outcome they wished for the Israel-Palestine conflict. A plurality of Americans supported the Obama administration’s efforts to push Israel and the Palestinians towards a two-state solution. A nearly equal number favored a one-state solution in which everybody, Israeli and Palestinian, had equal rights and could vote in all of historic Palestine. Only 22 percent of the sample supported the options favored by Netanyahu’s present ruling coaliton, either annexation of the West Bank without giving citizenship the Palestinians or the continued status quo of Israeli occupation.
The poll showed that the 16 percent of the sample who rated Israel/Palestine as one of their three top issues of concern were somewhat more “pro-Israel” than the overall group but not overwhelmingly so. Of this group, 55 percent wanted the U.S. to favor Israel, 39 percent wanted the U.S. to be evenhanded towards both sides, and 6 percent favored the Palestinians.
No one could look at these poll numbers and fail to conclude that the current stance of Congress, which skews towards unconditional backing of the Israeli right, does not come close to representing the sentiments of the American people. Indeed it is one of those situations that call for a market correction: everything seems like it never is going to change, until one day, to everyone’s surprise, something happens and it suddenly does. Then everyone can go back and point out how obvious it was that the previous status quo was unsustainable and correction inevitable.
John Boehner and the Republican leadership in Congress, in close consultation with the Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer (formerly a Republican operative from Miami Beach), arranged an invitation to Netanyahu to address the body. The subject of the Israeli’s speech will not of course be Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, which Netanyahu dearly wishes that the world ignore. It is the so-called Iranian threat, and indirectly America’s and the P5 + 1 countries negotiation with Iran, which he hopes to derail.
The invitation, solicited and accepted without consultation with the White House, has had the interesting effect of causing discord all around, outside the Israel lobby and within it as well. The Obama administration was predictably livid, seeing the speech as a blatant move by Israel’s government to subvert the administration’s diplomacy by giving a boost to various bills in Congress designed to thwart the negotiations. The administration announced that neither Kerry nor Obama would meet Netanyahu while he was here. Quotes from an unnamed American “senior official” who spoke to Haaretz revealed a degree of anger at the Israeli leader’s maneuver: “We thought we’d seen everything. But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave.”
Even a number of Netanyahu’s most reliable backers wonder whether the Israeli has overreached. Michael Oren, a right-winger who served four years as Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, said the invitation smelled of a “cynical political move” which could actually “hurt our attempts to act against Iran.” Commentary worried that Israel’s blatant disregard of normal protocol could give some Democrats cover for supporting the negotiations and that the whole episode seemed to muddle as much as buttress Israel’s case against the Iran negotiations. Ron Radosh—not before accusing Obama of “verging on” anti-Semitism for using that well known code word “donors” when asking his fellow Democrats to refrain from backing diplomacy-busting bills—came down on Oren’s side. On the other side, Norman Podhoretz’s son-in-law Elliott Abrams backed Netanyahu, quoting in his favor this four-year-old passage from historian Walter Russell Mead:
Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America.
Stirring words, surely, if you are a right-wing Zionist. But I don’t think anyone can look at the recent polls, such as Telhami’s cited above, or others which correspond to it, and think they describe contemporary American reality. There are surely some Americans who love Israel in this sense, but the far larger sentiment, nourished out of long frustration with Israel’s stonewalling of the peace process and the brutality of its military campaigns against Palestinian civilians, is a good deal more complicated. What remains is the power of the Israel lobby, exercised in great part through Congress by the leverage exerted by major donors.
The stakes are greater than a test of one’s affection towards Israel, the Zionist project, or the belief (or lack of it) that the Palestinians should have any rights at all in their native land. They are greater than whether Congress should be meddling in American diplomacy by passing sanctions legislation in the middle of negotiations, or whether those sanctions would actually “throw a grenade” into the talks, as Mossad chief Tamir Pardo described it. They are really over whether the United States should go to war against Iran at Israel’s behest. War is off the table for now—though it was less than eight years ago that leading neoconservatives were pushing loudly and openly for George W. Bush to attack Iran. But there is every possibility that the next president, a non-Rand Paul Republican or Hillary Clinton, would be far more amenable than Obama to Israel’s war entreaties.
The bills now working their way through Congress are an intermediate step, a threshold before war, after which the following steps would likely ensue: a blow up in the negotiations—hawkish Arkansas senator Tom Cotton said this was “very much the intended consequence” of the legislation—the reintroduction of more severe sanctions, which may hurt the Iranian people but will likely convince Iranian leaders that negotiation with the United States is futile; an end to the intrusive inspections mandated by the existing provisional agreements between the P5+1 and Iran, further advances in the Iran’s ambiguous nuclear program, leaving the next president with the option of containing a nuclear capable Iran or going to war. Netanyahu and the neocons believe that under such circumstances, the choice would be war.
If that juncture is reached, we can expect the neoconservatives to claim the war will be a cakewalk. They’ve had practice with their lines. Charles Krauthammer, their best polemicist, has been sounding the tocsins lately about “Emerging Iranian Empire.” Here’s some of what he had to say about invading Iraq in 2003:
Hence Iraq. This is about more than the terrible weapons. It is about reconstituting a terrorized society. A de-Saddamized Iraq with a decent government could revolutionize the region. It would provide friendly basing not just for the outward projection of American power but also for the outward projection of democratic and modernizing ideas, which is why the Administration plans an 18-month occupation for a civil and political reconstruction unlike any since postwar Germany and Japan. If we succeed, the effect on the region would be enormous, encouraging democrats and modernizers — and threatening despots and troglodytes — in neighboring Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and beyond. To do this, however, America must give up patrolling from over the horizon. It must come ashore.
Americans don’t like that. They do not hunger for exotic lands. America is perhaps the only hegemonic power in history in constant search of “exit strategies.” But Sept. 11 taught that what the U.S. needs in the Arab world is not an exit strategy but an entry strategy. Iraq is the beckoning door.
The Arabs fully understand this historic shift from containment to construction. They see that pan-Arab reformation is the deepest meaning of an American entry into Iraq. That is why the Arab League so strenuously opposes the intervention. The rulers of the 22 Arab states — not a single one freely elected — understand that Iraq is only the beginning and that reformation ultimately spells their end. Not a happy prospect for them, but a real hope for their long-repressed peoples — and for those threatened by the chaos and fanaticism bred in that cauldron of repression.
Obviously the invasion, which has smashed Iraq, killed hundreds of thousands and created perhaps a million refugees, cleared the stage for ISIS, and left Iraq vulnerable to an al-Qaeda-style takeover, did not work out quite as Krauthammer forecast. Nor was there any prospect that it would.
So now the neoconservatives are laying the ground for their next war. Bombing Iran won’t do the job, say defense analysts like Kenneth Pollack (a somewhat chastened Iraq hawk.) We will need to occupy the country—four times as large as Iraq, with two and a half times the population. If you liked the occupation of Iraq, you’ll love war against Iran.
The weird thing is that such a war is totally unnecessary. Iran is actually our ally against the fundamentalist jihadis of ISIS and actually the only Middle East country using any real muscle to combat ISIS. It’s a country with a fashionable, culturally pro-Western middle class which lives in uneasy coexistence with a fundamentalist regime that is about as well-respected as the Brezhnev era communist party was in the Soviet Union. The revolution, the hostage crisis, were more than 35 years ago. Anti-Americanism in Iran is more or less dead as a mobilizing force. Yet this is the country that Netanyahu and the neocons want us to bomb and invade.
I believe Obama can win his showdown with Netanyahu, win it decisively, and in so doing forever transform the relationship between the United States and Israel. But he can’t do it without laying his cards out very clearly, in a major speech, probably a televised speech. The points made would resemble those suggested in a seminal article by Robert Merry in The National Interest two and a half years ago. He would have to explain that the United States’ national interests on Iran have diverged from those of Israel, and why, and iterate that his constitutional duty is the protection of America’s national interest. He could explain that a war against Iran would quadruple the chaos in the Middle East, abort the economic recovery, and sever the United States both from its allies in Europe and its more ambivalent strategic rivals/partners, Russia and China. The only countries that would be pleased would be Israel and the Saudi princes. The American military, exhausted from 15 years of war, would face another 15 years of occupation duty. The jihadist Sunnis, ISIS and all the rest, Iran’s fiercest enemies, would of course be delighted at the destruction of the Shi’ite regime they view as apostate. But who else would be?
Above all, Obama could stress that as president he will no longer stand for American policies being subject to manipulation by a foreign power. In speaking in terms of American national interest, he will find reservoirs of support Democrats haven’t touched in many years. As Merry makes clear, the pushback would be fierce. But a president who explained his decisions in terms of refusing to concede the country’s sovereign command over decisions of war and peace to a minor foreign power would be victorious.
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.
Over 40 years ago as a college sophomore, I read with pleasure some of Robert Dahl’s works on the functioning of American democracy. The books themselves have left my possession long ago, but I have warm recollections of the precision and elegance of Dahl’s arguments. They were an antidote to the SDS/Marxist theory of a corporate oligarchy which controlled America, a notion of American society then still influential on elite campuses, but one which, as the revolutionary ’60s burned out and gave way to the ’70s, had begun to seem jejune if not actually apologetic for communist brutality.
Essentially—and I am relying on Wikipedia and not memory—Dahl contended that the United States was a polyarchy, a plural society where discrete formal and informal power structures competed and compromised over political outcomes. It wasn’t perfect democracy, but it was more than decent by historical and comparative standards. Today left-wing analyses are better remembered, C. Wright Mill’s interlocking Power Elite, and William Domhoff’s series of works, depicting American society in the iron grip of a mostly malevolent and self-serving WASP ruling establishment. I’m sure those works have been superseded, and am not certain that anyone even talks about Robert Dahl anymore, though he was president of the American Political Science Association and a highly regarded figure at Yale.
To what extent has academic political science has caught up with contemporary power in America? Certainly neither Dahl, nor Mills nor Domhoff had room in their conceptualizations for phenomena like this, in which billionaire George Soros invested $33 million to turn Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson from a small police blotter item to a national cause-célèbre. Of course the story is slightly more complex than that (Snopes gives it a mixed partially true rating); what it means is that the Soros-funded Open Society Foundation streamed $33 million to “grass-roots” activist groups from all over the country which then engaged efforts to take the Ferguson protests national and keep them at the center of national attention. The Open Society Foundation had given money to such groups before, and according to its director did not directly supervise their agitation over Ferguson. But anyone curious how hundreds of professional activists could decamp from New York and Washington and elsewhere and stay for months in Ferguson (don’t they have jobs to get to? who pays for their meals?) now has an answer.
Thirty-three million dollars, even if allocated to groups which have other agenda items than Ferguson, goes a long way in paying salaries, producing media content, organizing bodies to show up at demonstrations, etc. One blogger suggested that it will be interesting if the people whose businesses were burned down in the social justice looting which followed the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson were to depose the people whose funds kept the Michael Brown affair at boiling point for months. So, too, the family of the Bosnian man beaten to death with hammers on a St. Louis street because he was white.
Relatively small amounts of money can go a long way in organizing a protest and keeping it going. Most politically competent people have jobs and family responsibilities, and can’t devote much time to serious activism, certainly not in Ferguson, Missouri. So the ability to pay full time activists can entirely shift national perception of an issue, or even turn the direction of an entire country. The so-called Maidan revolution in the Ukraine was the culmination of years of funding by the U.S. government, government sponsored NGO’s, and private groups, including a major one, the International Renaissance Foundation, founded and controlled by George Soros. Victoria Nuland, the administration’s point person in organizing the Ukrainian revolution, boasted in a speech two years ago that the United States had spent $5 billion since 1990 trying to bring “European democracy” to the Ukraine. This is a high figure, and probably includes some crony capitalist deals which didn’t work out. But in a poor country relatively small amounts of money can go a long way—paying journalists, training people to set up internet TV stations, and equipping and staffing them. The Maidan Revolution certainly would not have occurred without hundreds of salaried and trained “pro-democracy” cadres. Vladimir Putin’s reaction, and the war which ensued have cost many lives and many billions more than the initial Western investments.
If one examines very rich people wielding enormous power, it isn’t fair to concentrate only on Soros, funder of left-liberal causes in the U.S. and more ambiguous ones abroad. Sheldon Adelson is the major funder of United Against Nuclear Iran and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, two “think tanks” which generate an impressive amount of agitation inside the Beltway against the administration’s Iran diplomacy and in favor or an American military strike on Iran. (Adelson has urged an American nuclear strike on Iran as a “demonstration” that we mean business.) Together Adelson’s groups help contribute to an inside the Beltway near-consensus that American military action against Iran is a perfectly plausible, sensible option, which could be carried out with little cost to the United States. Since Adelson is a major Republican donor as well as think tank sponsor, he stands a fair chance of getting his hawkish policies translated into action.
Now is perhaps not the place to argue in favor a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear aspirations, though one seems to be in reach: nor to stipulate that if Michael Brown had simply raised his hands up, or not tried to assault a police officer, he would be alive today. But I do wonder what contemporary political science has to say about the truly mammouth influence of rich individuals on the American political system. Their businesses are, so far as I can see, immune from popular pressure: most of Adelson’s money comes from casinos in Macau, where China has granted him a kind of monopoly; Soros made his billions on currency bets. Americans of great wealth have sought political influence before, of course, but what is now going on is on an altogether different scale. Henry Ford in his business prime published an anti-Semitic newspaper, but pressure from Jewish groups and the threats of boycott against his car business compelled him to desist and apologize. Warmonger Adelson; social justice agitator Soros have few or no American customers, and operate well beyond such social and economic constraints. (For what it’s worth, I find Soros far the more congenial; I’ve met him and found him wry and charming, which I doubt is true about Adelson.)
But America really is in a new era. The much-vaunted separation of the 1 percent, or 1 percent of the 1 percent, from the rest of society doesn’t mean simply that some people have many more homes and cars and planes than the rest of us; nor does it mean they can simply finance an insurgent candidate who might not otherwise be viable (as was the case with some antiwar Democrats in the late ’60s). It means they possess a truly enormous power to shape perceptions in our society, to bend democracy more than was possible before. What can we call such a system? Clearly Robert Dahl’s “polyarchy” concept needs serious revision. Who might undertake it?
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.
Obama is taking heat for not rushing to Paris to preen besides other heads of state in the Je Suis Charlie march. The president was correct not to go. The jihadist murders were vile, horrific, and inexcusable, as the deliberate murder of civilians always is. France’s task of dampening (it will never extinguish) the terror threats it faces will be long and arduous, and hopefully will entail a shrewd combination of wisdom and tough measures, and the United States should and will behave as a steadfast friend and ally of France.
However the Je Suis Charlie march was too freighted with blatant hypocrisies. Sending an ambassador, visiting the embassy, (as Obama did) were appropriate gestures; so too is tighter coordination with France on monitoring jihadists. But as Christopher Caldwell pointed out in a smart column, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not an attack on French values, it was an attack on the French state.
Terrorists could—and have—committed murder in Moscow or in China, and those attacks are not viewed as an attack on Russian or Chinese values. Neither country has any qualms about defending itself. France was attacked last week, in its capital. Because it counts among its inhabitants at least hundreds possibly inclined to commit similar murders, its domestic security agents will be busy for a long time. (It was reported that a twitter message expressing enthusiasm for the attacks received 18,000 retweets.)
But the French seem determined to interpret last week’s attacks as an assault on their values, foremost among them freedom of expression. This is a value today’s France honors quite selectively. Muslim inhabitants of the Paris suburbs have ample reason to believe that France is far more committed to the defense of free speech which insults them than it is to free speech in the abstract. Charlie Hebdo was free to plaster on newsstands all over Paris vivid cartoon depictions of Mohammed as an eager homosexual bottom, but five years ago when one of its cartoonists wrote an item suggesting that a son of the president was making a good career move by converting to Judaism he was summarily fired and put on trial for “inciting racial hatred.” Literally, put on trial. The country of Voltaire, yup.
Last summer, as Israeli tanks and planes were smashing the defenseless population in Gaza, France became the only country in Europe to ban demonstrations against the assault. Those who marched in, or even advertised anti-Israel demonstration on social media faced a year in prison and hefty fines—which virtually guaranteed that those who insisted on demonstrating nonetheless would be ready to engage in criminal acts. It is well known that the popular French-African comedian Dieudonne is forbidden to perform in France because many of his jokes are anti-Semitic. In a more elevated vein, last December the distinguished University of Tel Aviv post-Zionist Shlomo Sand was barred from speaking at the University of Nice, after he was invited to lecture there. Sand is part of a considerable list of academic anti-Zionists who have been barred from speaking at conferences in the French university system.
It is unlikely in the extreme that the killers of January knew or cared that Shlomo Sand was barred from speaking at a French university, but they could hardly have failed to absorb that the storied liberties of France are differently allocated according to what group one belongs to.
Adam Shatz noted that the Je Suis Charlie slogan expresses a “peculiar nostalgia” for 9/11, a time of Western innocence and “moral clarity” before the destruction of Iraqi state under false pretenses, the torturing at Abu Ghraib, the renditions, and all the rest which has tarnished the American self-image of utter righteousness. Le Monde actually ran a headline proclaiming that the Paris attacks were “France’s 9/11″—and one can only hope that that doesn’t mean France is going to go berserk as America did and invade countries that had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks. Shatz observes that prominent liberal hawks have been quick to warn Americans against asking any questions about what might have radicalized the young men on their path to murder last week. (One of the Kouachi brothers was apparently set on his path to jihadism by outrage at Abu Ghraib, and initially tried to go to Iraq to fight Americans there.) Nope, they say, forget all that, it’s just radical Islam, the evil ideology.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his entourage are reinforcing this message. The task is complicated for the Israelis, and their American neoconservative friends—their primary wish is for a Western war against Shi’ite Iran, and Sunni radicalism is definitely a distraction. So Netanyahu (the Israeli left is having fun with images of him elbowing his way to the front of the Je Suis Charlie march, his bodyguards pushing aside French culture minister Fleur Pellerin so Netanyahu could get on the dignitary bus before her) is making a strenuous effort to conflate them, Shia, Sunni, groups which celebrated the attacks, groups which instantly condemned them. In his Paris speeches, Netanyahu stated that the Israel and the West’s common enemy consists of terrorists driven by an implacable hatred of our freedoms, and a desire to return the world to medieval darkness. (Surely it must be Iran’s hatred of modernity which requires Israel to assassinate Iranian scientists). In any case, this argument worked well enough in the aftermath of 9/11: Americans became convinced that secular Iraq should be destroyed to punish Al Qaeda radicals. Under the Je Suis Charlie banner we are supposed to go off to war again, against the Sunni extremists of ISIS and all radical Islam, and also the Sh’ites (Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, and Iran) who collectively are ISIS’s primary enemy.
One can be critical of the Je Suis Charlie ideology and hope that it doesn’t become a 9/11-level galvanizing force for a new wave of futile invasions, and still recognize that France has an Islam problem. France’s freedoms were not attacked, but France was, and Parisians cannot feel comfortable knowing that quite possibly one in a hundred French Muslims—more than 50,000 people that is—harbor some degree of sympathy for the January killers. One can dispense with the talk about France’s glorious freedoms, and still realize that there is a France, a blood and soil country of shared history and culture—which is threatened by mass immigration, especially by immigrants who lack the means or will to fully blend into that culture.
The one party in France which seems fully to recognize that—the Front National, was not invited to participate in last Sunday’s Paris march, despite the fact the Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen, leads or close to it in virtually all opinion polls for the next presidential election. This was a curious exclusion for a so-called national unity march. Still, Le Pen’s party—despite the many racist or unsavory remarks made in past years by her father—seems to be on to something important: there is a France which people don’t want to vanish (I fully share that sentiment), and that France is threatened by transnational commitments—such as the EU’s commitment to open borders—quite as much as it is threatened by jihadist murderers.
The way out of the French dilemma almost certainly involves some disconnection—far less Western military engagement in Muslim lands, far less Muslim immigration to what we can no longer call Christian lands. This recommendation unfortunately is the exact opposite of the liberal internationalist agenda, which if it can be boiled down, seems to be more immigration and more war. Early on in the crisis the blogger Steve Sailer wrote something which strikes me as quite true: an arrangement of 200 separate countries is not the worst way of organizing the world, in a world where different people have different cultures and needs. It is preferable to grand transnational and multicultural enterprises which have the almost impossible task of formulating cultural rules which make sense for everyone.
Despite serious efforts, France has been failing in that endeavor—though the failure is far from absolute. There are, it should be noted, millions of quite French, quite assimilated, and relatively secular French Muslims. The prospect of a French total war against “radical Islam” coupled with continued high levels of immigration cannot possibly make their lives any easier.
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.
Last Friday, Israeli settlers attacked the vehicles of American diplomats on the West Bank with stones, clubs, and axes. American security personnel accompanying the two cars reportedly drew their weapons but did not use them. The American consular officials were trying to investigate the the destruction by Israeli settlers of Palestinian olive trees—on land owned by a Palestinian-American. (In an amusing sidebar to this not especially funny incident, the Israeli Defense Forces apparently took down from its website a video link describing rock-throwing at cars as “terrorism”—it had been put up to justify harsh Israeli military response to Palestinian boys who throw rocks at Israeli settler cars.)
The Obama administration’s response to the incident thus far has been timid, almost apologetic in tone; it released a statement by a minor State Department spokesman saying it was “deeply concerned” by the attack and was “working with Israeli authorities” in their investigation of the incident. One might think that a non-lethal assault on American diplomats in the Mideast would attract some American media attention, especially one carried out citizens of “America’s greatest ally.” But there has been little coverage: a short paragraph in the Times, some minor additional mentions, that’s all.
The incident serves as sort of coda for the holiday season: over the break, American diplomats worked feverishly to beat back a Palestinian-sponsored UN resolution calling for immediate negotiations to establish a Palestinian state within a one-year deadline, and for Israel to end its occupation. Their efforts succeeded: Nigeria unexpectedly abstained at the last moment, depriving the measure of the nine votes it would have needed to pass the UN security council. The U.S. might then have vetoed it anyway, but a veto would have embarrassed an administration that claims to favor a two-state solution.
Meanwhile as Congress recessed, AIPAC bragged how it had shepherded through Capitol Hill three resolutions increasing, if such a thing was possible, American support for Israel. One designated Israel as a “major strategic partner”—a designation, AIPAC reminded everyone, not given to any other country on the planet.
Israel’s relationship to the American Congress is truly something to behold. Visiting Israel over the break, Sen. Lindsey Graham came up with an interesting formulation to describe it. In an interview with Sheldon Adelson’s Israeli paper, Graham assured Israelis that the much-described chilliness of President Obama’s relationship with prime minister Netanyahu was actually of little consequence: “Presidents come and go. Bush 41′s administration had problems with Israel’s policies. In business terms, the anchor tenant is the Congress.” It’s a revealing metaphor, suggesting Israeli ownership of the American-Israeli relationship. Americans pay rent, which Congress is always willing to do.
At a joint press conference with Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, Graham assured Netanyahu that Congress will “follow your lead” regarding American negotiations with Iran. What a remarkable statement from a critical American legislator—essentially conferring leadership on a vital national security issue to a foreign country! This too was barely noted by the American media, which is a bit of a surprise as it is widely understood that Netanyahu wants American negotiations with Iran to fail, so better as to draw the United States into a war with the Persian state.
The ability of Netanyahu to supervise American Congress is all the more remarkable in view of how generally ambivalent the American public has become about Israel. This is not to say of course that most Americans are hostile to Israel; most are supportive. But recent polls indicate that most Americans generally want Washington to be even-handed between Israel and the Palestinians; one surprising recent finding was the surging number of Americans who favor a “one-state solution” in which both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have civil and voting rights in historic Palestine. It’s less shocking than it seems: Americans are making a go of multiculturalism at home, though its a route few of them would have chosen 50 years ago. According to a one recent poll, recently presented at the Brookings Institution by the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami, 73 percent of Americans favor either a two-state solution or one-state solution with equal rights for both peoples—a figure roughly three time times the combined number of those who favor either Israeli annexation of the West Bank or a perpetuation of the status quo of Israeli occupation, occasionally punctuated by bouts of let’s pretend peace talks.
Generally younger people and Democrats are more favorable to the Palestinians than the Republican and the elderly. And pro-Israel voices are more passionate (and donate far more campaign money) than other Americans.
The point however is not that the American public is divided—though it is, or that public sentiment is shifting inexorably away from strong support for Israel to a more neutral stance, though that is true as well. It is that the actual sentiments of Americans are almost completely unrepresented in the American Congress, which has recently vowed—by almost unanimous votes—to back Israel’s right-wing government whatever it does. Perhaps it is too much to now expect a Congressional resolution apologizing to the Israeli settlers for the efforts of American diplomats to investigate their destruction of Palestinian olive groves, but would such a resolution really be surprising?
Twenty-four years ago, Pat Buchanan, in an off-the-cuff quip on TV’s “McLaughlin Group,” described Capitol Hill as “Israeli occupied territory.” He once told me the words “just came out.” But TAC‘s co-founder was never more on target, and more important words were never uttered on that entertaining program.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
One reason for the continued vital role for TAC is that the left makes itself so difficult to identify with. Here is a personal example: white male, late middle age, Christian background, Obama supporter (volunteered in both campaigns) believes that major problems facing this country and the world are global warming, accelerating inequality, the outsourcing and general drying up of middle class jobs. Opposed the Iraq war from the moment the neocons began to push for it (September 12, 2001?); opposes the militarized war-as-first-or-second-resort mindset so dominant within the Beltway; supports Obama’s effort to explore detente with Iran. Supports a reduction in defense expenditures–the savings could be spent on infrastructure, debt reduction, education, health care subsidies. Pretty much a portrait of a 100 percent liberal Democrat, no?
Yet a person like this encounters at every step prominent purveyors of the dominant liberal narratives who spare no effort to repel him. If our would-be liberal is, as mentioned, white, Christian by background, male, he may know that he, or his male children are intended as the indirect targets of public shaming by Lena Dunham, the newly anointed “voice of her [millennial] generation.” Dunham writes in her highly praised best-selling memoir that she was sexually assaulted by a conservative Republican named “Barry” at her private college.
The account of the assault isn’t, I don’t believe, central to the book; it seems to be thrown in like a ketchup pack with the burger takeout. Of course she was sexually assaulted. Aren’t most coeds? Isn’t that what conservative Republicans do? As it happened, there was a guy at her college named Barry who fit Dunham’s description, and he and his lawyer have gotten together, to, I hope, sue the author and her publisher for libel. But the very casualness of Dunham’s lie is telling—the rape accusation is put forth unthinkingly, as if it is simply expected by her intended readership. She couldn’t bother to take the time to invent some details to avoid a potential lawsuit. One begins to get the idea that for the liberal cultural elite it is natural to lie about campus Republican rapists. Haven’t Obama and Biden both said that 20 percent of women on campus are raped by white Republicans? Or by white somebodies? Well, there is an actual statistic of one-half of 1 percent of women raped or sexually assaulted annually, or roughly one-tenth the rate claimed by Biden and the president. Far too many of course. But why bother with accuracy when the point is to defame an entire group, and no one will challenge the defamation?
Dunham’s book was only an amuse-bouche for the season’s hammer blow against white male “rape culture,” Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s eviscerating (but as it turns out, largely fanciful) indictment of the University of Virginia, centered on the brutal gang rape of a coed named Jackie. Rolling Stone which published the mis-reported piece, has acknowledged its error, though there is underway a widespread effort to turn the fiasco into a journalism school how-to tale about how many voicemails a prudent reporter must leave in an effort to contact the accused. If you read the piece, you may not have noticed the details which didn’t make sense or hang together, but cannot fail to recognize who the bad people are. Erdely had earlier considered basing her “rape culture” narrative on events at other colleges, but chose instead to do her “reporting” at a place where the perpetrators could unambiguously presented as white Christian males—a group which would likely be underrepresented at any other prestige college. So amidst the misreporting, there were many hate-signifiers—”the toned, tanned, overwhelmingly blonde” members of the UVA student body, the “genteel” aura of the college, which reeks of “old money” and “privilege,” a place where “social status is paramount.” The students, Erdely claims, all admire Thomas Jefferson, even to the degree of calling him by the familiar “TJ”: where else but in the epicenter of gang-rape culture would an American Founding Father be so revered?
The centerpiece of the piece was, it turns out, a lie—there was a Jackie, but she never was raped. But there is a truth which can be extracted: Sarah Rubin Erdely, who took the trouble to misreport the piece, really really despises the type of people whom she feels predominate at the University of Virginia, and Rolling Stone was very happy to give her its not-unimportant platform. And squadrons of Democratic bloggers—I’m waiting for someone to compile a list—were eager to publicize and amplify the group libel.
Of course the enemy is not only white male “rape culture.” It’s also the police, with their unrelenting murderous targeting of innocent black men. It seemed as if an unconscious wave swept through the major media in August, reporting on the major international event going on at the time was no longer enjoyable. There was a minor police blotter item, a young black man committed a robbery, got in a fight with a cop, and got shot. But Jake Tapper and co. arrive on the scene with camera crews, and all the world is presented with Ferguson, Missouri as Selma, Alabama. The story eventually becomes twinned with another, in New York, when an ostensibly amiable black man with asthma is told by the cops to stop selling loose cigarettes, refuses to do so and is taken down, stops breathing and dies. Nobody who saw that Eric Garner video thinks this guy should be dead, including most emphatically the cops who tried to arrest him. There are two main prisms through which to view the tragedy: a) the difficulty of making arrests of suspects who are noncompliant and have serious health problems, or b) racist white cops intent on murdering innocent black men. Which version comes closest to the truth? Which version is the one embraced by the Democratic media, and hammered at us 24 hours a day?
And make no mistake, the target is white police officers. In the ’60s, the looney left called them pigs, and advocated their murder. I once believed those days would never return, but in the day of outrage which took place over the weekend, one could see photos of demonstrators recreating the pig meme with masks and other accessories. The left’s dehumanization of the white police officer has a broader cultural significance; the police of course are men and women with jobs to do, but more broadly represent law and order: when they are repeatedly vilified by dishonest claims that they are waging “war” on black males, it means something far more serious than a desire for precisely calibrated policing is intended.
In recent days two important essays have been published analyzing the disconnect between the Democrats and the white working class—a disconnect which may have fatal consequences for the Democrats in the coming years. In the Times, Thomas Edsall systematically goes through the sources of the erosion of white working-class life in America: the collapse of the industrial job market is the main thing, but was surely exacerbated by the simultaneous Democratic party effort to aid and empower other previously disenfranchised and impoverished groups—except white working-class males. The fact remains that no group in America is on a steeper downward trajectory economically—not blacks, not Hispanics, not women. Edsall cites a slew of comparative polls of whites and blacks demonstrating both greater improvement of black income from generation to generation and greater optimism about the future. There is, literally, no program put forth by any major party to do anything about the collapse in white working-class incomes.
A more pointed statement comes from the international affairs blogger John Schindler, a former Naval War College professor whose views about Russia I mostly disagree with. But Schindler describes powerfully his sense of political homelessness, with which I can very much identify. About the Democrats, he writes
I worry deeply about rising inequality in America, which has been growing my whole life and shows no signs of abating, rather the contrary. It is making the country something very different from what it was for several happy generations. Accepting that mass prosperity, which peaked in the middle of the last century, making us the envy of the world, is gone for good will change American politics in ways that we can only yet see in outline. We cannot stop globalization and technological changes that promise to up-end the economy, nor should we try to, but wise and compassionate politicians will seek to soften their impacts on fellow citizens.
The obvious home for socio-economic reform, the Democrats, once the proud party of working people like many of my forebears, has lost its way. Its emphasis on identity politics at the expense of basic socio-economic fairness has driven away countless average people who are struggling and want justice, yet don’t like being lectured endlessly about how racist, sexist and cisnormative they are.
Schindler gives good TACish reasons for skepticism about the Republicans: free-market absolutism and the neoconservative foreign policy adventurism are now deeply embedded in the GOP. But the essay closes with a pointed warning about complacency—we tend to think the continued, unrelenting immiseration of the working class, combined with exploitation of every identity politics issue to shame and humiliate a selected target group can’t possibly have bad consequences. He continues:
Moreover, having spent quite a bit of time in the Balkans, I have an acute sense of how fragile civilization really is. Beneath the pleasant surface there lurk monsters, and those monsters are us. In a few short years, Yugoslavia went from being a success story, a benign socialist regime with a high standard of living and apparent amity among its photogenically diverse peoples, to a charnel house of terror. Economic decline and ethnic resentments, combined in evil fashion, led to war and genocide. It’s nice to pretend this can’t happen, but history shows plainly that it can. After all, American optimists in the 1850s, the TV talking heads of the day, considered the Civil War that was looming ominously to be impossible — right until cannons roared at Fort Sumter.
Schindler is on to something here, something which few have acknowledged. The current trends in America, Wall Street getting richer, everyone else getting poorer, politicians of both parties feeding brazenly at Wall Street’s trough, the party of the Left in full blown attack gear not on inequality, which it has done nothing to address, but picking at and rubbing raw the scabs of identity politics—this can’t keep going on indefinitely without something really bad happening.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Jacob Heilbrunn’s “The Myth of the Liberal New Republic“ is a welcome corrective to the thundering herd of independent progressives lamenting new owner Chris Hughes’s stewardship of the magazine. It is hardly surprising that present and former editors would disdain Hughes’s plans to digitize the magazine, reduce its frequency of issues, and try to transform TNR into a vertical digital platform (whatever that is, adds Heilbrunn). The retreat of the masters of old media—the long-form essay, the important little magazine—is, if perhaps not on the par with the demise of the yeoman small farmer, something genuinely to be regretted. The gutting of major daily newspapers, the loss of hundreds of capable journalists is probably a more serious loss to the the country’s public discourse than the end of the weekly magazine as an essay platform—but still. Everyone who grew up reading magazines has a spot in their heart for their favorite one; nothing on the web will ever be quite the same.
Still, there is widespread misreading of what made the The New Republic important, and this letter signed by many of its former editors and writers exemplifies it. They write:
From its founding in 1914, The New Republic has been the flagship and forum of American liberalism… . It is a sad irony that at this perilous moment, with a reactionary variant of conservatism in the ascendancy, liberalism’s central journal should be scuttled with flagrant and frivolous abandon.
First the letter implies a kind of continuity in The New Republic‘s ideological mission which simply didn’t exist. TNR in the thirties was Stalin apologetic; in the fifties it was edited by Michael Straight, later found to have been a Soviet agent. It had become more respectably liberal before Peretz bought it in 1974, after which he subsequently purged the editor and his top staffers.
Once I began to read The New Republic regularly, in the early 1980s, it became my favorite magazine. This was a time when I was a more or less a card-carrying neoconservative, writing regularly for Commentary, eventually joining the New York Post editorial page. TNR represented a unique blend: it had the outer sheen of a liberal magazine, critical of Reagan and Republicans generally, supportive of Democrats. But its core, the core I was most interested in, concerned foreign policy, and here TNR was generally neoconservative. It hemmed and hawed but ultimately supported the contras, the Reagan sponsored anti-communist guerillas in Nicaragua. It backed, like I did, the invasion of Grenada. (Charles Krauthammer memorably quipped that we were in danger of losing “MOHGROland” that is, moral high ground land.) It opposed the nuclear-freeze movement and the general campaign to end the upgrading of American nuclear forces. TNR was, as has been widely remarked, very pro-Israel, but in the ’80s this was hardly exceptional. Experts in the area recognized by then that the PLO had embraced the idea of a two-state solution, but this guerilla/national movement’s politics were still murky, and it was possible—reasonably—to believe that the PLO was simply waiting for the chance to destroy Israel.
TNR thus positioned itself as a kind of ideological cop within the Democratic Party. It was thoroughly liberal and Democratic, especially on social issues like abortion, but promoted core parts of Reagan’s agenda. Liberals who went too far—either wanting to live and let live with the Sandinistas or find an accommodation with the Russians—would be red-baited. Supporters of American pressure on Israel to accommodate legitimate Palestinian aspirations could be marginalized as anti-Semites. All this would done by a self-proclaimed “liberal” magazine, dutifully policing the boundaries of responsible liberalism. They were boundaries that I, and other neoconservatives, very much approved.
My close friend and eventual New York Post colleague Eric Breindel was also a big New Republic fan. He was personally close to Peretz (whose tri-city life seemed to provide endless fodder for delicious gossip). On many of the issues of the day—Russia, communism, the Cold War—Peretz was as right-wing as we (Breindel, myself, Commentary) were. So one major test of whether a conservative argument could fly in the mainstream was whether it could be packaged for TNR. Of course, liberals edited the magazine, and they usually didn’t reach out to neocons like us. But Marty did. There would always be a kind of back channel—you didn’t send your piece over to Hendrik Hertzberg, but instead faxed it to Marty’s private fax number. (Josh Muravchik, who wrote a few such pieces, once joked that our pieces had to be delivered to the TNR offices in a “plain brown wrapper,” at a certain time of day, with no identifying marks from the sender, presumably so that liberal TNR staffers wouldn’t mislay them.)
I wrote one such piece—countering a dominant narrative about a racial incident at Columbia University, where after much delay I was finally putting my dissertation to bed. Breindel wrote a lengthy piece examining the sudden proliferation of accusations of police brutality in New York City—we were then at the early part of the wave which would make Al Sharpton famous. Later Breindel and I collaborated on another one, critiquing multiculturalist changes in the New York State school curriculum. (TNR‘s liberal editors engaged in what I assumed to be a gesture of disdainful protest by not bothering to write a headline for it. “Head to Come” read the title as printed in the magazine.) And in a way, TNR‘s standards were higher than elsewhere: as I recall, these were well-reported pieces bringing fresh information to bear on a broader national issue. To be published in Commentary was good, but this was better.
As Heilbrunn points out, the usefulness of this role (liberal mostly but not always on domestic policy, essentially neoconservative on foreign policy but never calling yourself that) began to wear thin after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Heilbrunn notes that the magazine became increasingly right-wing on foreign policy. I’ve noted previously the disdain TNR showered on TAC when we first started: the idea of opposing the Iraq War was considered too stupid even to argue with for the bien pensants who ran TNR. But of course, one might ask—of the many signers of the anti-Hughes letter—wasn’t raising questions about the wisdom of invading Iraq something that “liberalism’s central journal” should have been doing, instead of trying to present war skepticism as beneath contempt?
Peter Beinart, who edited the magazine at the time, has performed upon himself a sincere and searching self-criticism. But Franklin Foer, who penned the dismissal, certainly has not. So, no, don’t count me among those who mourn TNR‘s demise as a neocon journal in liberal disguise. It was terribly effective in that role: Peretz was a great judge of talent and for a while at least had the magazine thumping away on all cylinders. But America’s foreign-policy debate will be improved without “even the liberal New Republic” holding Democrats’ feet to the fire to support hawkish or neoconservative foreign policies.
One more thing, on another subject. I wouldn’t write anything about the Eric Garner case if I hadn’t written previously about Michael Brown. But I want put on the record how different they seem. I don’t think a reasonable person can look at the Garner “I can’t breathe video” and not conclude the cops committed a horrific transgression, indeed probably some kind of crime. Garner was clearly non-threatening and not particularly belligerent—anyone who has spent any time in New York can recognize that. If he needed to be arrested, then another way had to be found to do it. I’m not a lawyer or legal expert, but there surely is a sort of “general will” in which regular people who generally appreciate the police can look at an event and somehow judge whether cops are maintaining order in a reasonable fashion.
This doesn’t come close.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
In the morning e-mail came something from the activist group CODEPINK, headlined “From Ferguson to Palestine, Come Out to Join Us.” Listed were various events: a vigil for Michael Brown at the Justice Department, a meeting of “fighters for social justice” at a popular Washington cafe the following evening, similar events in that vein. Also on the list was a talk by professor Richard Falk, formerly UN special rapporteur on Palestine, to discuss Israel’s latest land grab around Jerusalem.
CODEPINK is not alone in seeking to connect Ferguson to Palestine: pro-footballer Reggie Bush tweeted something about it over the weekend, and Annie Robbins of the important Mondoweiss website publicized the Bush tweet. Then there’s this: a post by a board member of the right-wing Zionist group StandWithUs, connecting anti-Palestinian Israelis with the Ferguson police, both holding the line of civilization against peoples full of rage and an unjustified sense of their own victimhood. There was some Twitter pushback against the StandWithUs post, and the Times of Israel eventually removed it. The pro-Palestinian website Electronic Intifada portrayed this as some sort a victory, rather as if the Palestinians had won the right to possess Ferguson as “their” symbol. Rania Khalek writes that “Zionist organizations are rattled by the growing displays of solidarity between people in Ferguson, Missouri, and Palestine.” While it’s true that such such displays are growing, I doubt seriously that any Zionist organizations are rattled by them. If they have any political savvy, and they surely do, they would instead welcome it—as did the StandWithUs board member.
Why? Well, for starters, Palestine really is occupied, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have no political and civil rights, and those who reside in Israel proper are now being told that Israel can take away their citizenship at any time.
Ferguson, by contrast, is a complicated situation. The one simple thing about it is the fact that if Michael Brown hadn’t leaned into a police cruiser in order to assault a police officer and to try to seize his gun, he would be alive today. As always there is a broader social and historical context: a considerable amount of police brutality directed at blacks, exemplified by episodes like this, on top of many layers of American history in which blacks were enslaved, and after emancipation, subject to fierce legal and customary discrimination. I largely agree with John McWhorter, who asserts that throughout America there are large segments of the black community who consider the police morally bankrupt, and that this is a huge national problem. It is certainly a problem with no easy answer. There wasn’t one in the 1960s when finding a decent, family-sustaining job was achievable for most people willing to work regular hours, and it is no easier now in an economy far far more geared to rewarding the very rich, highly skilled, or very talented, while the working class has lost ground steadily for 40 years.
The thing about Palestine, however, is that it is actually not that complicated. Resolving the issue in a fair and practical way is of course difficult. But it has long been an article of faith among pro-Palestinian activists that if Americans could see the land-grabbing, see the checkpoints Palestinians are subjected to, see the difficulty of trying as a student to commute through roadblocks and checkpoints to Bethlehem University from Ramallah, they would understand that Palestinians are subject to a blatantly unjust and racist regime, facing conditions no American would put up with for a moment without resisting. And they would see that this Israeli regime—heavily subsidized by American tax dollars—is animated by ideologies sharply at odds with American values, at least with how those values have evolved over the past 50 to 100 years. Perhaps Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians resembles South Africa under apartheid, perhaps it resembles the American South of the pre-civil rights era; perhaps it is worse than both. It does not, in any way, shape, or form, resemble Ferguson, Missouri, where all American-born blacks possess the same constitutional and civil rights as white Americans.
To the extent that the American left succeeds in creating an impression of some sort of rhetorical and moral equivalence between Ferguson and Palestine, describing both venues as places where a virtuous, oppressed people confronts brutal and murderous white racism, they will harm the prospects of Palestinian struggles ever being considered sympathetically by a critical majority of Americans. For the fact is, the more Americans learn about Ferguson, the less sympathy Michael Brown and his cause receives. The young man surely should not have been shot to death—Officer Darren Wilson probably blundered in a dangerous and chaotic situation. But to hold Brown blameless is something that most Americans won’t do.
Before the grand jury decision was announced, a Huffington Post YouGov poll indicated that only 22 percent of whites thought that Officer Wilson was culpable, versus 64 percent of blacks. After the release of the the grand jury report, after Ferguson residents showed their displeasure by widespread looting and burning, after mainstream news shows showed the Brown family lawyer getting decimated in on-air debates about the facts in the case, after Michael Brown’s stepfather mounted a podium to tell Ferguson residents to “burn the bitch down,” the poll numbers are not going to shift more in favor of the racist whites versus innocent blacks narrative. That the United States is so divided racially, on this issue and others, is, of course a national problem. But it is surely not one which Palestinian activists should seek to exploit by linking their cause to the losing side.
In all of this, of course, are echoes of the American 1960s. The activism of that decade began with a movement of civil rights activists, white and black, risking their lives to secure for blacks in the South their fundamental constitutional rights. It expanded with opposition to the Vietnam war. It reached a crisis point when liberalism, the dominant ideology of the age, had to confront the reality of black rioting in northern cities, demonstrating how complex the racial issue was, how difficult it would be resolve it. Part of the Left soon embraced the idea that any black demand, any black behavior, was justified. Some New Left theorists advanced the notion that ghetto blacks were a revolutionary vanguard in the mother country. “Off the Pigs, Power to the People” did, really, become a New Left slogan. (“Pigs” was the common epithet for police officers. “Off” meant kill.) Black Panther chic advanced to the salons of the Upper East Side. It wasn’t especially obvious to everyone at the time, but these were sign posts that the movement had imploded, had driven itself mad, and was so committed to hating “whitey” that it was on the road to becoming essentially irrelevant to any serious politics in America.
There are more than a few whiffs of that era in the current Michael Brown madness. Most Palestinian activists realize that if they could win for their people in historic Palestine the rights possessed by each and every black citizen of Ferguson they would have gained a victory of world-historic proportions. Nevertheless one can understand the temptation of connecting to a movement in America that does at this moment seem energetic and hip, which seems to be treated with enormous deference and respect in the dominant media, and which must seem for all the world like an unstoppable emergent groundswell. Added to this is the important if seldom-noted fact that black members of Congress have, on average, been far more ready than their white colleagues to see the need for justice in Palestine, and have been more willing to question and challenge the self-righteousness behind America’s blind and often murderous policies in the Mideast. The connections emerging from those sentiments should, of course, be welcomed and nurtured.
Ferguson however is a bridge too far. Nothing could please the Likud coalition more than to see the Palestinian cause linked, in the minds of the average, mainstream American, to that of the Ferguson rioters. For the pro-Palestinian left to work to reinforce exactly that linkage will be seen as dreadful mistake, for which Palestinians will surely pay a higher price than American leftists will.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
How bad is the political news?
First one tried to rationalize, and discount, the Republican victories in the midterms: of course they did not signal a return of the neocons, no way. Indeed none of the new senators campaigned on foreign policy. But that conclusion requires overlooking the fact that Tom Cotton is an unadulterated hawk, one who can’t be derided as a chicken hawk, and he made his foreign policy views clear. And then one has to acknowledge that no Democrats, defeated or victorious, mentioned foreign policy either. If Obama deserved credit for at least seeking a fair settlement in Israel and Palestine and a detente with Iran, Democrats running for office surely didn’t want to campaign on it. Mark Udall, aka Mark Uterus, seems to have run a Senate campaign focused entirely on the fanciful notion that abortion might be once again made illegal.
Was hyping the Michael Brown matter also a Democratic strategy, to boost black turnout? If so, it was a bust—and someone may have noticed that immigrant shopkeepers, and their friends and families, also vote. Perhaps not unrelated to the Michael Brown as victim of racism strategy was the Republicans’ success in recouping roughly a 50 percent share of the Asian vote, which they used to get before the George W. Bush era.
President Obama, I reassured myself, could still ignore the election results and maneuver towards a detente with Iran. Franklin D. Roosevelt after his 1938 midterm election rebuke could serve as a role model. The president has more sway over foreign policy than any domestic matter, and could probably carry the country with him. Instead Obama decided first to pick a fight with Congress over immigration, inviting the mockery of even liberals at Saturday Night Live. If he needs to confront Congress, why choose a matter in which public opinion is well informed, fairly passionate, and not terribly malleable? Whether they favor some sort of amnesty or not, Americans tend to know what they think about immigration. Indeed, talking about the adverse wage consequences for American workers of a mass influx of unskilled immigrants has become a Republican talking point. (As someone who was involved in the immigration restriction movement in the 1990s, then grew somewhat bored with it, I had despaired that the GOP would ever grasp this simple concept of supply and demand.)
By choosing immigration as a battleground, did Obama narrow his maneuvering room in the Iran negotiations? I await publication of further details, but I had assumed—as had most people trying to follow the talks closely—that an agreement on the essentials, such as roughly how many centrifuges Iran might keep and what the schedule of sanctions relief would be, was pretty much in hand. Now from most accounts it appears that the gaps remained wide and that each side was assuming the other would make a significant concession in the final week. I don’t think the details of the agreement are that important, and they would soon have been overshadowed by the transformations which followed Iran’s re-entry into the world economy. But a weakened Obama had perhaps less room to put some distance between the United States and the expressed desires of Israel and Saudi Arabia. (Basically the two countries want Iran to be permanently isolated, if not broken up and destroyed.)
Iran’s negotiators were on a comparatively short leash; there are powerful constituencies there that want no concessions on the nuclear issue whatsoever, and their psychology is not hard to understand if you try to imagine how Americans, or Chinese, or French, or Israelis would feel about international inspectors combing through their top scientific programs. The failure of the negotiations, (and I don’t see any factor which would make them more likely to succeed in the ensuing seven months) will bring other elements into play: military threats from Israel (which were started up again before the negotiators even reached their deadline) and the erosion of the international sanctions regime, already foreshadowed by the barter agreements Iran has signed with China and Russia.
The prospect of war seems distant now, but it did not seem so three or four years ago, and the optimism which has surrounded American-Iranian relations for the last year may soon seem evanescent. Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s two “allies” in the Mideast, will do everything they can to increase antagonism and possibly incite a war between the U.S. and Iran, and the termination of negotiations gives them more room for mischief making than they’ve recently had. The combination of eroding international sanctions, a weakened president, war-mongering allies, and who-knows-what political instability in Iran promises an uncertain and perhaps chaotic diplomatic environment, in which very bad things could happen inadvertently.
Compared to this prospect, the end of Chuck Hagel’s tenure as Secretary of Defense seems a small event. Given the heated battle over his confirmation, few would have predicted that. But in the end, confirmation was the main event: after it Hagel was submissive, seemingly cowed by the ordeal. On the particular policy difference which provoked his ouster, I would side with Obama and his White House staff: Hagel wanted a clear strategy to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the White House seem to realize that Assad is far from the most dangerous element in the Mideast, and very much someone with whom it is possible to negotiate and coexist. But on most issues, Hagel was a non-factor: no one would have anticipated the most salient moment of the entire affair might have been the Saturday Night Live skit (rehearsed but never aired) that mocked the Senate’s subservience to the Israel lobby, but it was.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Surely a few foreign policy realists have flipped through George W. Bush’s portrait of his father for hint at what a third Bush presidency would be like. It’s a move born largely of desperation: Hillary for the moment seems unstoppable, and as Glenn Greenwald and others have documented, all signs are that she would usher in a new neocon presidency, albeit under the guise of “historicfirstwoman, etc.” Rand Paul might beat her, but the odds don’t favor him having the opportunity. Pro-Hillary quotes from the likes of Max Boot and Robert Kagan speak volumes, as does Hillary’s record as secretary of state (backing the war on Libya, the elevation of Cheney aide Victoria Nuland to a critical position, violent threats against Iran, likening Vladmir Putin to “Hitler”, etc.) Those of us whose whose early public impressions of Hillary, for better and worse, were colored by images of bell-bottoms and the 1972 Democratic Convention had best get over it.
I’ve flipped through Bush 43′s new book, hopeful that his portrait of George H.W. Bush could yield a window of sorts into the current family mindset. The issue has a kind of dialectical shape. George H.W. Bush was the last Republican realist and extraordinarily successful in foreign policy; his son George W’s name is indelibly linked with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, and Wolfowitz, trillions of dollars expended and thousands of lives pointlessly destroyed. Where lies Jeb on this family continuum? Might this book by his candidacy’s most prominent public supporter hold some clues?
To the critical period of 1991-1992, when President Bush went from stunningly favorable approval ratings after the Iraq war (70 percent in September 1991, six months after its end) to losing the presidency, Bush the son devotes a coy chapter with one very revealing gap. He writes that in the “early fall of 1991″ he told his father that he was worried about the re-election effort. He urged a shakeup of the White House staff. He then goes on to portray the difficult political landscape Bush 41 faced that fall: resentment from the GOP base over the breaking of the “no new taxes pledge”; the economy in recession; a somewhat dysfunctional White House political operation; the “unexpected” defeat of Dick Thornburgh in Pennsylvania’s special Senate election. And then, as the election year commenced, Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge, the relative success of which encouraged Ross Perot to undertake his own independent candidacy.
Buchanan never posed an electoral threat, though it is plausible that his run prevented Bush from “consolidating the base” before the convention. Perot was another matter; he ended up taking 19 percent of the vote in November—probably 2/3 of them Republican voters. Bush the author quotes his Dad: “I think he cost me the election.”
But Bush’s account skips over one major additional controversy. In the spring of 1991, the administration got into a major conflict with Israel and its American lobby over loan guarantees and expanding West Bank settlements. Israel asked for, and fully expected, the United States to guarantee $10 billion in loans to help Israel with absorbing new immigrants from the Soviet Union. Under the right-wing Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir, Israel had commenced building West Bank settlements at breakneck speed: Shamir was a fierce partisan of “Greater Israel” and hoped, he later acknowledged, not only to claim the occupied territories for Israel but to foreclose permanently the emergence of any self-governing Palestinian entity. President Bush and his secretary of state James Baker were optimistic about an eventual final peace agreement between Israel and all Arabs, including the Palestinians, and certainly did not want the United States to be seen as subsidizing Israel’s West Bank annexation project.
In May 1991, both Bush and Baker publicly called the settlements an obstacle to peace. In response, under AIPAC’s prodding, Congress began pushing Bush to release the loan guarantees on Israel’s terms, meaning Israel could use the money to build wherever it wished. On September 6th, Bush asked Congress for a 120-day delay before considering the Israeli loan request. AIPAC pushed back, flooding Capitol Hill with lobbyists. On September 12th, Bush called a press conference and denounced both Israeli West Bank settlements and the Israel lobby. He told reporters he was “up against some powerful political forces” designed to thwart him., adding that “a thousand lobbyists” were working the Hill, while he was “one lonely guy” on the opposite side. This pushback was initially very effective: rapid polls showed a large national majority in favor of the President and against the Israeli request, and Congress agreed to a delay.
But the fact of the public pushback stirred up what would be a very effective reaction. J.J. Goldberg introduces his book Jewish Power, a down the middle portrait of the Jewish political establishment, with a chapter on the September 12th press conference and its aftermath. He depicts Jewish leaders as shocked at the President’s words. By the next evening the Presidents Conference, a umbrella body representing major Jewish organizations, had agreed upon and drafted a public reply to the president. The letter called Bush’s remarks “disturbing and subject to misinterpretation”—a euphemistic phrasing. Privately, some Jewish leaders were claiming that Bush had attacked Jews and threatened their political rights. It’s seldom clear in such cases to what degree the outrage was felt genuinely versus feigned as a political tactic; surely there was some of each. But a battle with organized Jewry was the last thing Bush wanted and the White House was alarmed by some phone line support which whiffed of anti-Semitism. Displays of contrition quickly followed. Within less than a week, Bush had written a “Dear Shoshana” note (to Shoshana Cardin, the President’s Conference Director) stating that he was “concerned that some of my comments … caused apprehension within the Jewish community” and claiming further that his references to lobbying and powerful political forces “were never meant to be pejorative in any sense.”
But the damage was done. AIPAC leader Tom Dine called September 12th a “day of infamy.” A major American Jewish Congress figure said “September 12 will go down in Jewish history as the day of the great betrayal. [Bush's] statement was a disgusting display of, if not anti-Semitism, then something very close to it.” One activist said, “it set off a lightbulb. People everywhere began to mobilize.” The administration sought to make amends, but to no avail. Bush traveled to New York to meet with the Conference of Presidents. But he stuck to his guns on the loan guarantees.
As Goldberg notes, the important off-year election was the Pennsylvania Senate contest, where moderate Republican and close Bush ally Richard Thornburgh held a 44 point lead over Harris Wofford in mid-September. Within 10 days, money began pouring into Wofford’s inert campaign and the Democrat began to rise in the polls. In the final weeks Wofford was raising money at twice Thornburgh’s pace. After he lost by 10 points, Thornburgh told Bush he was the “canary in the coal mine.”
How much did this have to do with Bush’s defeat the next year? The president performed poorly in heavily Jewish precincts, but not enough to be decisive in any state. It would be too speculative to connect the settlement controversy to the transformation of Bush’s public image from the masterful diplomat who had put together an anti-Saddam coalition in 1991 to the out out of touch preppy of a year later. But clearly this face-off counted for something. George W. Bush may have signaled this without really acknowledging it when he states that he began to be worried about his father’s campaign in “early fall”—i.e. well before the Buchanan and Perot challenges had materialized.
And what does the father say? We know from Michael Desch, who formerly taught at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, that Bush 41 himself blames the Israel lobby at least partially for his defeat. Desch cites comments that Bush made to students when visiting the school in February 2005, when he decried the power of the Israel lobby. Thomas Friedman seems to agree: he recently alluded to the election when he said that after Bush’s defeat, Republicans vowed they would never get out-Israeled again.
And of course they have kept their word. George W. Bush made it clear, beginning with a 1998 helicopter tour around the West Bank with Ariel Sharon as his guide that he would shy from challenging Israel’s leaders. His first administration was stacked with prominent neoconservatives, with consequences lamentably familiar. One can see in Bush’s second term some indications that Bush eventually came to feel that he was too quick to jump into the neocon car: he reportedly began referring to Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer as “the bomber boys”; privately I have heard that the younger Bush asked his dad, in the summer of 2004, to explain what a neoconservative was. Dynasties are complicated, with dynamics difficult for an outsider to plumb. Where Jeb fits in, we don’t know—though his apparent readiness to jump through Sheldon Adelson’s hoops is hardly encouraging. If Bush 43 senses the answer, he doesn’t let on in this book.
The issue of this quarrel, the settlements, is now largely moot, resolved in favor of “Greater Israel.” James Baker and George H.W. Bush genuinely believed a peace agreement between Israel and the Arabs was possible, and in both Israel’s interest and America’s. With roughly six times as many settlers on the West Bank now as then, the prospect of two state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has probably vanished forever. In the near term it is not clear how Israel will be anything but an apartheid state. A President Jeb Bush would face a different set of questions about “the special relationship”. Would he respond like his father or like his brother? From his recent book we learn mostly that George W. Bush doesn’t want to talk about the issue.
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.
No one was surprised to see Republican hawk Lindsey Graham, or even Mitt Romney, line up to kiss Sheldon Adelson’s ring at the Israel-American Council conference in Washington last weekend. Adelson has urged that the United States drop nuclear weapons on Iran as a “negotiating” tactic; he dreams that his son will be a sniper in the Israeli army; he is basically the kind of hawk with maximal loyalties to Israel and minimal ones to the United States that one might wish held no position of honor in the Republican Party. But alas he does. In a better world a Sheldon Adelson event might receive no more attention from prominent Republicans than a David Duke conference, but we’re long past that point. The Romney and Graham speeches blasting Obama’s diplomacy towards Iran received headlines of the dog bites man nature.
But the Twittersphere was set aflame at the Sunday plenary session, where Adelson held court with fellow billionaire and Israel supporter Haim Saban. Saban does not have the public persona of Adelson. The Power Ranger mogul is a major Democratic Party donor, perhaps the largest of all. He sponsors something called the Saban Center at Brookings, which provides a think tank gloss to pro-Israeli perspectives, but also funds some genuine scholarship. He is on first-name terms with the liberal hawk or liberal internationalist elite, “Tony” and “Shimon” and of course “Hillary.” You can get a sense of Saban’s world from the fulsome video made to introduce Hillary when she spoke two years ago at the Saban Center—where she received a parade of warm endorsements from Israeli politicians well known in the U.S. It was the first concrete sign, many noted, that Hillary was really interested in running for the presidency in 2016.
But last weekend here was Saban, Democratic mogul, on stage alongside Sheldon Adelson, the two performing sort of duet: One could title it “Pity the Zionist Billionaires Who Can’t Always Get What They Want.” Adelson claimed the Palestinian were an “invented people” Saban came back with the retort that in the event of a “bad” Iran nuclear deal, Bibi “should bomb the living daylights of the sons of bitches [the Iranians].” When Saban mentioned that there were actually a lot of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, Adelson retorted with “So Israel won’t be a democratic state, so what.” (One might at least credit him with candor not usually evident among Israel’s most vociferous right wing supporters, fond of touting Israel as a democracy which shares American values.) The two talked of measures to squelch the rapidly expanding BDS movement, movement to boycott Israel either in full or part to pressure it to end the occupation. (The First Amendment might pose a problem here.)
The two naturally agreed that the American media was terribly biased against Israel, except for maybe Fox News, and that they discussed whether they could buy the Washington Post or New York Times to correct the problem. This aspect of the performance was comic, the lament, commonplace enough among neoconservatives, that the American press is biased against Israel. Consider that the Washington Post runs (the Wall Street Journal aside), the most neoconservative major editorial page in the country, and it’s been a long time since someone that one can even conceive of being slightly sympathetic to those subjected to Israeli occupation (perhaps the late Mary McGrory?) has written there. The Times is more diverse and makes occasionally sincere efforts at both balance and objective journalism, but if one looks at the roster of Times-men who regularly cover Israel, one could conclude that having a child serving in the IDF is a job requirement.
Sheldon and Haim then amused themselves and their audience by talking about taking over the Times and Washington Post.
The whole affair might have been comical but for the serious issues it raises for presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Haim Saban is her close friend and major financial backer: one could go so far as to say that he and his donor circle constitute her “base” or at least a significant part of it. One question any inquisitive journalist might ask of Hillary is: What does she think of Haim Saban’s wish that Israel “bomb the daylights” out of Iran if Bibi doesn’t approve of a nuclear deal reached with Tehran by the United States and the other P5+1 countries? Since Bibi’s disapproval is virtually guaranteed (Israel insists that it be the only nuclear-capable country in the region), would she have that the United States support and even assist Israel bombing the daylights out of Iran, right after the United States signs a deal with the Iranian government? Or does she reject the counsel of her major backer? Saban’s partner on stage has urged that the United States drop nuclear bombs on Iran as a negotiating tactic. What does Hillary think of this?
Hillary has never paid a political price for her ties to right-wing Israel supporters, though she has reaped the usual benefits. Might the American political culture be ready to turn on this, at least to the extent that she will no longer get a free pass? The Twittersphere agog at the Sheldon and Haim show was largely a liberal Jewish one, journalists and writers who are hardly hostile to Israel, but are increasingly dismayed as the Israeli right wing entrenches itself in power while becoming ever more extreme. Its numbers are small, but it speaks for an influential slice of Democratic Party elite opinion—supportive of the two state solution, of negotiating with Iran. A recent J Street-sponsored poll found that 84 percent of American Jews backed an Iran deal which restricts Iranian nuclear enrichment and subjected Iran’s nuclear sites to inspection. But Adelson and Saban do not.
Where does Hillary stand, with her financial backers or the more mainstream opinion of the Democratic Party? It’s a question worth watching in the presidential year to come.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
If President Obama wants to find solace from American history, he might look to the 1938 midterm elections. The Republicans, benefitting from disgust with Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme and another economic downturn, picked up eight Senate seats, 81 House seats and 13 governorships. The Democrats maintained a formal congressional majority, but a not real one, as many conservative southern Democrats opposed Roosevelt and the New Deal.
But the political coalition he lost for his domestic agenda, Roosevelt eventually recouped through his foreign policy—eventually dying in office and becoming renowned in history as his nation’s leader in “The Good War.” That option—emerging as a widely beloved “total war” leader is not open to Obama. But making a big mark in foreign policy is—and remains the only route redeem his presidency.
On Election Day, the Washington Post published a useful effort to explain the decline in Obama’s popularity from his re-election in 2012 to the midterms. To those who aren’t political junkies, the collapse is a bit of a mystery, as the president is pretty much the same man as the one who defeated a quite capable Mitt Romney two years ago. By then he had long been stripped any magical “hope and change” properties voters might have ascribed to him in 2008. Instead he campaigned with his limitations known: a good orator, not especially deft at managing the power levers of the presidency, reluctant to pick fights, insular in his choice of advisors, moderate, and prone to compromise. A liberal Republican perhaps, in a multicultural, third-worldist packaging?
In the Post’s telling, small events piled up to undermine Obama’s authority in the last two years: an ultimately futile effort to get a gun control bill passed after a horrific school shooting; the botched website on the Obamacare rollout; the crisis of the border crossing children; Ukraine; Ebola. Of these, I would argue that only Ukraine was truly bad presidential policy, a result of leaving neocons in charge of the State Department’s European desk, who then proceeded to foment a coup d’etat in Kiev without considering Moscow’s reaction. But the lesser missteps created the impression of an unsteady hand on the tiller.
Yet the Washington Post story skips over the most important initiative in Obama’s second term. Obama has pursued, carefully and methodically, an Iran detente, a course impossible while Ahmadinejad was president and Iran was imprisoning Green Movement leaders. But once it became possible, Obama and his diplomats advanced forcefully, forging at least in outline an arrangement that would limit Iranian enrichment and open the country to international inspections in exchange for a loosening of the sanctions imposed on Iran for nearly a decade.
The negotiation is technical and complex, and the deadline—extended once for six months, looms in less then three weeks. Both the P5+1 powers (the U.S., France, Britain, China, Russia, and Germany) and Iran are maneuvering hard for an advantage—either concerning the provisions of the final deal, or possibly for the high ground in placing blame if the negotiations fail. It is not known whether Iran has now or ever did have a policy of seeking nuclear weapons: the Iranians deny it, claiming that weapons of mass destruction are contrary to Islam, and they did not develop chemical weapons even while they were being assaulted heavily with Iraqi chemical agents during the Iran-Iraq war. American intelligence agencies don’t think that Iran seeks a bomb. It has been noted that the countries most loudly accusatory about the Iranian nuclear program (Israel and the United States) are themselves nuclear-armed states with a record of attacking Muslim countries. Presumably their strategists assume that, given the threats it faces, it would make sense for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons deterrent.
Complicating the negotiation is Congress, which contains a powerful claque which views all international developments through the prism of what it perceives as good for Israel. Israel has made clear its opposition to any arrangement that permits Iran an active nuclear industry, whether or not it develops weapons. The administration has made clear that if it reaches a deal with Iran, it will not seek Congressional approval, which would probably not be forthcoming. The American sanctions on Iran are backed by legislation passed by Congress, but they include a provision allowing the President to waive them. The Iranians naturally worry that if sanctions are “waived” rather than terminated, a more hawkish or Israel-centric president would simply re-impose them.
If a deal that constrains but does not terminate Iran’s nuclear industry is arrived at, the battle between Obama and Congress, or more precisely, between Obama and the Israel lobby and its backers in Congress, will likely emerge as the centerpiece of the final two years of his presidency. It is likely to loom larger in significance than any foreign policy battle between president and Congress in the postwar era; to find a parallel, one might have to return to FDR’s effort to outmaneuver a hostile and generally isolationist Congress in order to support Britain and eventually enter World War II. In that battle, as this one, Congress held many of the cards: the neutrality acts passed in the 1930s genuinely constrained Roosevelt, and public opinion was initially heavily on the side of Congress’s isolationists.
A major distinction of course is that FDR was trying to maneuver the country into war with Germany, while Obama seeks a peaceful detente, and possibly even a de facto alliance with Iran. But the significant parallel that Obama can take solace from is that in both cases the international climate shifted rapidly to provide a tailwind for the President. Roosevelt had to combat the perception (reasonable enough) that the oceans provided America ample security from Europe’s wars, and Asia’s as well. But that perception grew weaker once Hitler broke the bounds of Munich, and then in 1940 invaded France and the low countries. American public opinion in early 1941 was far more open to intervention than it had been two years earlier.
In the case of Iran, much has changed since Congress imposed sanctions. First of all Iran has changed, or partially changed, its leadership. President Rouhani—elected in a vote that was free and competitive by Mideastern standards, is not, like his predecessor, a belligerent who plays footsie with Holocaust deniers. He clearly rode the vast wave of young educated Iranian opinion that wants an end to the country’s isolation, and seeks a rapprochement with America. That doesn’t mean submission to American demands—and Rouhani’s political leash from a conservative Iranian parliament and the country’s Supreme Leader Khamenei may be shorter than Obama’s. But he certainly represents an Iran that wants to turn the page.
Secondly, even the initial agreement signed last November has opened up Iran to some Western journalists, who are bringing reports of a young, urban Iran, which seems attractive, interesting, and latently quite friendly to the United States. This was communicated clearly in Steve Kroft’s visit for CBS’s “60 Minutes” last spring, and perhaps even more so in Anthony Bourdain’s recent visit. Bourdain is a roving food and travel writer, his Parts Unknown show seen by more than half a million viewers: it would be difficult for anyone who viewed the hour-long program on Iran to think of the country as an enemy.
Thirdly, the rise of the Sunni extremist group ISIS has demonstrated how thin and unreliable America’s existing alliance structure is in the Mideast. While ISIS is a small, underarmed force, its success in seizing territory rapidly revealed how few Sunni states really oppose Islamic extremism. Saudi pilots have refused orders to bomb ISIS forces—which speaks volumes about the hearts and minds inside the kingdom. Turkey opposes its own Kurdish population more than it does Sunni extremists. One expects, or at least must hope, that Sunni opinion will evolve and become more resistant to ISIS fanaticism. But until and probably after then, Iran looks awfully good by comparison.
Fourth, Israel has been losing influence as an ally, if not decisively in Washington, then certainly among America’s partners in imposing Iran sanctions. Americans may have shrugged off Israel’s assault on civilian targets in Gaza, but Europe, where Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians are viewed increasingly with repugnance, has not. The continent is moving inexorably towards recognizing Palestinian statehood, ignoring Washington’s constant admonishments not to. Britain’s Parliamentary vote to recognize Palestine was a landmark in evolving opinion, and will inevitably be followed by comparable moves in France and even guilt-ridden Germany. Israel’s ability to hector, persuade, or guilt-trip Europeans into supporting its policies, whether anti-Palestinian or anti-Iran, is approaching its sell-by date.
Finally, America’s technical ability to impose sanctions and have them followed by the P5+1 is slowly disappearing. The sanctions regime depends on Washington’s ability to monitor and punish dollar-denominated transactions with Iran. But Russia and China have already initiated barter agreements with Tehran, and European businesses are chafing to enter Tehran’s markets. If Washington tries to keep the sanctions on, or ratchet them up, as the Congress’s Israel faction demands, it may one day find itself brandishing a very wet noodle.
There is little doubt that if Obama reaches a deal, Israel and its advocates will be able to generate a seemingly massive Congressional uproar to undermine the President’s diplomacy. But larger forces, both inside and beyond the Beltway, line up on Obama’s side. The Pentagon, it was reported recently, has been seeking to make deals with Iranian companies in order to stabilize Afghanistan. Will the U.S. military brass, having expended large amounts of blood and treasure to wrest Afghanistan from the Taliban, wish to see it revert to Islamic extremism because Israel doesn’t want Iran involved in stabilizing the country?
Maneuvering for an Iran deal will take all the political acumen Obama can muster, and more than he has demonstrated in previous dealings with Congress. And in terms of political skill and appeal, Obama is no Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the president has powerful cards to play, and will have the support of much of the world if he plays them well. One day peace with Iran may seem as inevitable as did war with Germany. Even though he was drubbed in the midterms, Obama’s chance to forge an historic and positive legacy still lies very much before him.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Much is written about Israel/Palestine, but fresh insights are rare. Whether the subject is the endless and barren “peace process” or the fact that Israel responds brutally to Palestinian street protests, there are few surprises. It is somewhat unusual when the 14-year-old shot by an Israeli sniper at a West Bank demonstration turns out to be an American citizen, but the fact is America officially doesn’t care very much when Israel kills its citizens, requests for a “speedy and transparent” investigation of the incident notwithstanding. When Israel pummels Gaza on flimsy pretexts, this too we’ve seen before–mowing the lawn, as the Israelis say.
So there was something genuinely unique about this short piece by economist Robert Wade in the London Review of Books. Written with an economist’s eye but in non-specialist language, it gives an informed sense of how the occupation burdens the daily lives of Palestinians on the West Bank, beyond the sporadic flashpoints and confrontations. And it is shocking.
Israel seems to be the only country in the world which makes a systematic effort to keep impoverished part of the population it governs. The average Israeli income is $4ok a year, 11 times the average for a West Bank Palestinian. The Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman recently said that no independent Palestinian state would be possible until average Palestinian income rises to $10K a year, a figure which presumably would give Palestinians vested material interest in making sure the provisions of a settlement would be maintained. But the catch is that Israel’s occupation policies are designed to thwart Palestinian economic development and ensure that level can never be reached.
Wade gives numerous examples. He begins in Hebron, the important West Bank town where a handful of Israeli settlers control the apartments overlooking the once thriving central market, regularly emptying their garbage on the Palestinians below. Palestinian access to the market is controlled through certain checkpoints (so the settlers never have to cross paths with Palestinians). He describes one scene where market-bound canned goods are transported by cart to one side of an Israeli barrier, raised by a pulley over the barrier, then loaded onto a a cart on the other side. The transaction costs are obviously passed on to Palestinian consumer. Later he describes a farmer, who has to cross the security barrier–through a gate Israel opens only three times a day,–to reach his crops and fields. To pass, he needs an Israeli permit, which has to be renewed every two months. Last year when he applied, during the harvest period for his crop of green tomatoes, Israel delayed granting of the permit for 40 days. The tomatoes rotted.
In Area C of the West Bank, controlled by Israel, goat herders are not allowed to build toilets without an Israeli permit. Nor repair a water cistern. Nor use solar energy panels. The permit system goes all the way up the economy. After the Oslo agreement of 1992, the Palestinians supposedly gained the right to construct their own telecommunications system. But the small print said that Israel would allocate the frequencies. Unsurprisingly, Israel has not done this generously. Palestinians have difficulty accessing the internet or email on their phones because Israel has not allocated the frequencies need for 3G, for “security reasons”. Of course Israel’s West Bank settlers have access to 3G networks. Telecommunications equipment the Palestinian Authority purchased from Ericsson languished for two years in Israeli customs, while Israelis performed “security checks” on it. West Bank trade with Jordan has actually diminished, because Israel controls the only bridges which cross the Jordan River. The occupied West Bank may be the only place in the world with a smaller amount of foreign trade as a proportion of GDP than 20 years ago.
Wade’s conclusion about the overall economic impact of the Israeli occupation is devastating. While the separation wall, and the land seizures which went along with its building are relatively well known in the West, Wade adds:
[T]he restrictions also cover the movement of people, the import and export of goods and services, investments, and access to basic infrastructure (electricity, water, sanitation). They are so pervasive and systematic that it almost seems as if the Israeli state has mapped the entire Palestinian economy in terms of input-output relations, right down to the capillary level of the individual, the household, the small firm, the large firm, the school, the university, so as to find all possible choke points, which Israeli officials can tighten or loosen at will.
Robert Wade is a prominent, widely traveled, developmental economist of vast experience, a winner of the prestigious Leontieff prize, a top award in the field. He concludes that the restrictions Israel has imposed on Palestinian economic life are unlike anything he has ever seen anywhere else in the world.
The ideology of the free market is as popular as ever in the Republican Party, and few would be so foolish as to deny its usefulness and explanatory power. So here is a wishful fantasy: that some of the “young guns” of the House Republican caucus, acolytes of Milton Friedman to a man (or woman), might read and contemplate Wade’s analysis—a prime example of the anti-market impediments in action, in a far-from-insignificant part of the world, where the United States spends a great deal of blood and treasure. Of course this is highly unlikely; it would it raise for them questions which are too politically uncomfortable. They, like most of their Democratic colleagues, prefer to cover their eyes and ears while pledging more American taxpayer dollars to Israel, the so-called ”start up nation.”
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Obama might have been able to find a prominent public health expert with gravitas and television skills to tap as the administration’s new Ebola tsar. He was probably wise to choose a political operative instead. For a political operative is more likely to convey to the White House that Ebola is not only a potentially very serious health problem, but a watershed for his administration—one with the potential to end the Obama presidency.
Should we assume that the chances of another Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian whose arrival here resulted in the infection of two nurses, are fairly small? Perhaps such a traveler would be screened under the new procedures and quarantined after arrival at an American airport, but why would he have been? Duncan’s temperature was supposedly normal when he boarded the flight from Liberia and was likely normal a day later, when, via Brussels, he arrived at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. He apparently flew during the latency period between infection with Ebola and the advent of discernable symptoms. What are the chances of that happening again? Well, negligible perhaps. But there are, according to the Center of Immigration Studies, more than 13,000 people from the three largest Ebola countries with visas to travel to the United States. How many of those might profile like Duncan? By continuing to allow flights from the Ebola countries, the Obama administration is placing a very steep wager that the number is zero.
One can notice that the broader political atmosphere has changed already. Granted, the Republicans were long favored to make off-year election gains; the president’s party almost always loses ground after six years. But the GOP had few serious issues to campaign about. Benghazi and the Affordable Care Act were, literally, the major GOP talking points for most of the past two years. The ACA is at worst a decent effort to mitigate a major problem that Republicans did nothing to address when they held the presidency and both houses of Congress, and Benghazi is a nothing burger if there ever was one. The GOP has no more persuasive answers to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria than Obama.
But now Republicans can talk about Ebola. Already there is a sea change in the political atmosphere; In The Weekly Standard, Jonathan Last has published an excellent article about the Ebola crisis; highly readable Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan effectively deconstructs the patronizing rhetoric coming from the Washington Ebola establishment. Many who are not fans of either publication will find the pieces compelling. When, in a widely watched, highly competitive swing state senate race, a Democratic incumbent feels the need to break openly with Obama’s “let the Liberians fly in” stance, it should signal to the White House that its position is politically untenable. That is, assuming the White House is sufficiently open to unpleasant political information to read the tea leaves.
Obama would upset virtually no one if he said, until things are under better control, no travelers from the most infected countries will enter legally through American airports. There really is no serious constituency opposing a temporary flight ban. Because the severely affected countries need help, the administration can and should arrange charter flights to fly health care workers in and out. A flight ban would not be the kind of “error on the side of prudence” (like, for instance, interning Japanese Americans during World War II) that violates the rights of American citizens. The fact is, West Africans have no “right” to fly here. The science about the disease’s transmission (as Jonathan Last points out) is more murky and less reassuring than the administration claims. But even under best-case assumptions, if someone like Thomas Duncan, a symptomless Ebola carrier arrived here tomorrow, there is no way he would be stopped or quarantined. To regular Americans, including most Obama supporters, this seems like dogmatic adherence to abstract principle (America’s borders should be open to the world) over simple common sense. If more Africans from the three infected countries fly here and make more nurses sick, there is a fair likelihood that Obama would be successfully impeached.
I write, it could be noted, as an Obama supporter, as someone who volunteered in both presidential campaigns. His nearly six years in office have been somewhat of a disappointment, but my expectations were always modest. Obama steered the country fairly successfully through the mortgage crisis, following Wall Street friendly policies—to the monumental chagrin of some of his most eloquent backers. He tried to push Israel and the Palestinians towards a two-state solution, eventually realizing that his leverage to bend Israel towards justice was not up to the task. He has been unable to stand up to the defense establishment on the issues of torture or domestic surveillance. But more often than not he has tried to resist hawkish policies; we haven’t started a war against Syria, we haven’t started one against Iran, we haven’t started one against Russia. There is a powerful permanent government in Washington whose default position on all international crises is always hawkish, and Obama—if he hasn’t defeated it, has managed with some success to rope-a-dope it. Before the hawks, Obama has bent but not broken.
Moreover, I believe there is at least a 50 percent chance Obama will be able to do something truly historic—forge a new relationship with Iran, that will be a strategic boon to the United States and may even change—for the better—the trajectory of the Islamic world. This is no easy matter; it will require, for instance, effectively circumventing the wishes of the Israel lobby in ways no president has even thought about in more than 20 years. But there are grounds for optimism, and a detente with Iran will be as game changing—and necessary—as Nixon’s opening to China. Hillary Clinton would not have done this, nor John McCain. Obama may, and it will give a permanent luster to his legacy.
So I’m hoping that even if Ron Klain knows nothing much about Ebola, his counsel about American politics will be persuasive. I would now wager that the United States will suffer well less than a thousand deaths from Ebola before it’s over, that the disease never blossoms into the feared pandemic. Of course it might turn out worse, through no fault of the administration. About the politics, I’m far more certain. If Americans die because West Africans are allowed to continue flying here legally during the heat of the crisis, Obama’s presidency will be toast.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
The ISIS rampage through Iraq and much of Syria, roiling Washington and other world capitals, gives rise to an interesting question: Who would win a contest to be named America’s most worthless Mideast ally? Competition is fierce, but three countries are clear frontrunners.
There is Saudi Arabia, whose princely emissaries to Washington have been confidants of presidents and fixtures on the Georgetown party circuit, a country whose rulers and princes possess seemingly unlimited amounts of discretionary income. They have used this wealth to subsidize worldwide the teaching of the most extremist and intolerant variants of Islam, but also to prop up the US defense industry by buying at every opportunity the most elaborate weapons systems we would sell them. It isn’t yet known whether Saudi pilots can actually effectively fly these advanced fighter aircraft under combat conditions. (There is sufficient evidence however that even relatively untrained Saudis can learn to steer a fully loaded 747 into a fixed ground target.)
What do the Saudis do with their shiny F-16′s and spanking new tanks? One might have hoped to see Saudi forces in action against ISIS—which really hasn’t had any success against a military formation that has been systematically trained and adequately armed. But this isn’t happening, probably because Saudi leaders realize that a great many Saudis (a majority?) actually agree with the ISIS ideology, and there is no guarantee they wouldn’t defect to ISIS if called upon to battle it. Among the best few sentences written since the onset of the crisis comes from veteran observer William Pfaff, who pointed to the stakes:
Moreover, is it fully appreciated in Washington that the “New Caliphate” has every intention of taking over the existing role in Islamic society of Saudi Arabia? It wants to conquer and occupy Mecca. If it succeeds, the Saudis themselves will be submitted to the ferocious discipline the ISIS practices. The Saudi ladies who now complain that they are not allowed to drive cars will find themselves in a new world indeed!
Then there is Turkey, an actual NATO member, a Muslim majority country which bridges Asia and Europe, a country with a considerable middle class and millions of educated and highly trained citizens. There are smart people in Washington and beyond who have held great hopes for Turkey: that it might solve the seemingly intractable riddle of how to combine Islam with modern democracy; that it might provide meaningful diplomatic support to the Palestinians; that it could both restrain America from disastrous blunders (as it tried to do in Iraq) and exert its growing influence on behalf of social and scientific progress in the region as a whole.
I shared those hopes, but have to admit they now seem pretty naive. Faced with an aggressive extremist Sunni movement beheading people on its borders, Turkey’s leaders choose to focus on the alleged dangers posed by its own long-restive Kurdish minority, while remaining obsessed with the Alawite (i.e. not Sunni Muslim) regime in neighboring Syria. Turkey has allowed ISIS to be replenished by allowing its own territory to be used as a transit zone for jihadist volunteers. If, as seems plausible at this writing, the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani falls while Turkey’s powerful NATO-armed military observes placidly from just over the border, it will be a long time before anyone in Washington will be able to say “our ally Turkey” with a straight face again.
Then there is Israel, usually touted as the best of American friends in the Mideast, if not the best ally any nation has been blessed to have, ever. Recipient of nearly as much American foreign and military aid as the rest of the world combined, Israel, with its crack air force and large stockpile of nuclear weapons, stands unchallenged as the region’s dominant military power. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu shows up on American news talk shows more than leaders of the rest of the world combined; were it not for John McCain, he would surely log more “Face the Nation” time than any American politician.
Once again, events illustrate what utility Israel has as a regional ally when the crunch comes. Faced with a unforeseen, rapidly moving, and dramatic crisis, Americans watch as Israel does absolutely nothing except antagonize the Muslim world further by announcing new land seizures so more illegal settlements can be built in Jerusalem. Of course this isn’t without precedent; Israel was of no help in the first Iraq crisis, and of course no help in the second—beyond providing a parade of prime-time cheerleaders to encourage George W. Bush in his lurch into war. Indeed, almost by definition Israel is no help in any regional crisis. The Israeli military may well remain formidable, though it is hard to be sure, as its most recent campaigns have been conducted against essentially undefended civilian populations.
What distinguishes Israel from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is that no one is particularly surprised that it gives no help; it is not expected to do so. Congress will respond anyway with new resolutions demonstrating to major campaign donors its absolute submissiveness to Tel Aviv; perhaps Israelis will be permitted to travel to the U.S. without visas while Israel doesn’t reciprocate the favor, or the Pentagon’s replenishment of Israeli military stocks, exhausted by Gaza bombardment, will be prioritized.
Might there be a silver lining in all this? As we witness the emergence of a violent new force, simple realism forces upon us the fact that the friends we’ve been wooing for decades just don’t see it that way. They may not like ISIS, but for various reasons they have other fish to fry. That should tell us something about the strategic vision underlying our policies for the past two or three decades. (I would give a passing grade to the American Mideast policies pursued during the heat of the Cold War, when strategists considered keeping oil flowing and the region out of the communist orbit to be a pressing national priority, superseding all other considerations. In this they succeeded.)
What silver lining? It’s rooted in the fact that the Mideast may now actually matter much less than we think it does. We do have the option of pretty much ignoring it, if we choose. Its contribution to the world economy is negligible. Its oil will reach the market one way or another. The security and well-being of the American people is not linked to the survival of a Shi’ite regime in Baghdad, a medieval monarch in Riyadh, or, for that matter, a Jewish state in Jerusalem. Recognition of this fact is only beginning to seep into the discourse: Justin Logan argues persuasively here that virtually nothing that goes on in the Middle East can threaten us very much, that no country in the region is worth starting a war over, and that the amount of money we’ve spent combatting terrorism in the region is wildly disproportionate to the actual threat. (It goes without saying that American bombing, with its inevitable “collateral damage,” will create a growing class of Muslims who have concrete reason to want to harm Americans.) In an recent interview, Francis Fukuyama elaborates on this view. 9/11 didn’t “change everything” as many claimed, or shouldn’t have; it was essentially a lucky shot.
“These are really marginal people who survive in countries where you don’t have strong states … Their ability to take over and run a serious country that can master technology and stay at the forefront of great-power politics is almost zero,” he says. Elsewhere he notes that the crisis over ISIS is really a subset of the Sunni-Shia civil war, and America’s ability to have any lasting impact on that is also almost zero.
This perspective—that the Mideast isn’t actually all that important to American security and we should pay much less attention to it—should now become a critical part of the American conversation. The thinkers cited here—Logan and Fukuyama, and one should add the popular blogger Andrew Sullivan, also writing along these lines—are far from knee-jerk “isolationists.” Fukuyama posits particularly that we should use military offshore balancing to ensure that no single power controls the oil fields; and obviously Iran would not want or allow ISIS to shut off its ability to export oil. But beyond that, we can afford to take the region much less seriously.
Unfortunately, there are no major American politicians now ready to make this argument. Rand Paul, regrettably, seems to have folded into a “me too” ISIS hawk after the first atrocity appeared on television, and the entire debate in Washington is now between neocons who want to send American ground troops now, and Obama establishment figures who hope, against much persuasive evidence, that some combination of bombing and special forces and our “coalition partners” will halt the ISIS advance. This narrowing of our true choices is madness.
There is a third, quite realistic, option: ISIS doesn’t matter all that much, and in any case if our “allies” don’t want to fight it, there’s very little we can do about it. If it one day rules Mecca, more the pity for the Saudi women and their driving aspirations. But the impact on American life will be minimal.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.