State of the Union

Obama Bombs Blind

By bombing ISIS units in Syria, the United States has turned a new page in its long-running conflict with the Arab world. I share the pessimism of those who predict the bombing won’t work, in which case this president or the next will come under intense pressure to commit ground troops in order to avoid a humiliating defeat. American allies in the region, who might be expected to contribute ground troops to the fight, have all refused—though jet planes from “several Arab allies” did strike targets in Syria. Presumably that’s an improvement over the Iraq invasion: the regional disdain for “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was perhaps best captured in a priceless scene from Oliver Stone’s “W.”, in which the Condoleeza Rice character tells the President that Morocco has promised to contribute thousands of monkeys to aid the American war effort.

Nathan Brown’s article in Monday’s Washington Post conveys a sense of the region’s ideological and political complexity in a period of great flux and despair—and how little it is understood in Washington. But armed with our ignorance, we are embarking on a multi-billion dollar campaign that will kill thousands of people—most of them, quite innocent—for reasons we have not thought through at all. Indeed, there seems to be something like an official government policy on not asking too many questions. For instance, we all seem to understand the thread leading from 9/11 to the Iraq invasion, to the creation of ISIS from the remnants of Saddam’s army. But where does the thread actually begin?

I recently read The Eleventh Daya gripping book by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swann on the 9/11 attacks. It’s a detailed account of what happened that day, based on painstaking analysis of the known record, including hundreds of interviews carried out by the authors and others. (For what it’s worth, it’s not a “truther”-friendly book.) One point which emerges very powerfully is the many layers of interaction between our Mideast ally Saudi Arabia and bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the 9/11 hijackers. A substantial part of the Saudi ruling family is “bin Ladenist”—perhaps not surprising for a group with piles of money and no responsibility, almost invariably a recipe for bad behavior. Not only were most of the hijackers Saudis, but Bin Laden raised most of his money through Saudi charities and individuals. These observations are included in the publicly released 9/11 Commission report. Not included are some more specific points, including facts which raise the possibility that two of the hijackers were in rather more direct contact with and given substantial assistance by officials affiliated with the Saudi embassy. Many of the loose threads are gathered up and detailed in a 28-page segment of the 9/11 Commission report.

Curiously, President Bush ordered those 28 pages classified, so that no one without extremely rare security clearances could read them. Former Senator Bob Graham of Florida is one person who has read them, and who then pressed hard for deeper investigation of the Saudi role. Said Graham, pondering Bush’s role in keeping the Saudi information under wraps: “It’s as if the President’s loyalty lay more with Saudi Arabia than with America’s safety.” Obama promised to release the classified material shortly after his inauguration, but has not done so. One official who read the classified material is quoted by Summers and Swann: “If the twenty-eight pages were to be made public, I have no question that the entire relationship with Saudi Arabia would change overnight.”

There is a presently a House bill to declassify the 28 pages, introduced by Walter Jones and Stephen Lynch; it is bipartisan and now has 17 cosponsors. Perhaps the ISIS crisis will generate some curiosity about what those pages say.

The boots on the ground component of  Obama’s anti-ISIS campaign involves the training of “vetted” Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia. Clearly the Saudis are playing a complicated game—training the anti-ISIS rebels, perhaps out of fear that their own population might be attracted by ISIS. Is it possible, or likely, that Saudi princes have been helping to finance ISIS? It would be hard to see why not. But while Americans know the crux of the president’s current anti-ISIS strategy involves close cooperation with the Saudi regime, might they also ask whether this involves cooperation with Saudis whom some (those who have seen the classified report) believe were engaged in financing and assisting the 9/11 hijackers? That’s what this administration, like the last one, doesn’t want you to speculate about.

The famous Founding Fathers’ warnings against entangling alliances are often considered pertinent for America’s ties to Israel, and of course they are: one point Summers and Swann make is that all of Saudi Arabia—from the top government ministers to the 9/11 hijackers—was enraged and repulsed by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and America’s complicity in it. (This fact was considered but watered down in the 9/11 official report, out of fear that it might cause some to question the value of the “special relationship” with Israel.) But it seems obvious that a Saudi “special relationship” may be just as detrimental to America’s real interests. In any case, it should be up for discussion. For starters, before we bomb anyone, let’s unclassify the 28 pages of the 9/11 report, and discuss the nature of our ties to Saudi Arabia. Then we can decide how much to rely on Saudi Arabia as our principle Muslim ally in combatting ISIS.

Or perhaps we should just go ahead and bomb first, then ask questions about who or why later. The Obama administration has already made its choice.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Why Christians Are Criticizing Cruz—and Israel


What is there to add to the extremely rich vein of commentary elicited by Ted Cruz’s  shameless Israel lobby pandering at a Washington forum intended to call attention to the plight of Mideast Christians in the age of ISIS? The pieces by Ross Douthat, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and the several posts by Rod Dreher say a great deal of what needs to be said, making many points I would likely never have thought of.

One takeaway from the controversy, which continues to reverberate around the conservative blogosphere, is how many socially conservative/Christian/Republican-leaning thinkers have sensed, perhaps for the first time in their relatively young careers, how morally flawed is the entire Christian Zionist/McCainist/Commentary/Washington Free Beacon/Likudnik group, whose views have long driven “mainstream” conservative foreign-policy opinion in Congress and the GOP presidential primaries. I think this may grow into an important schism on the right, one that weakens neoconservatism, to the Republican Party’s long-term benefit. I don’t want to ascribe views to people who don’t necessarily have them, but when I see young conservatives reacting viscerally against the tweets from the Breitbart site and other movement conservatives, tweets putting scare quotes around the word “Christian” in order to denigrate the Mideast patriarchs and bishops and other figures who attended the gathering, attacking them because they failed some sort of “stand with Israel” litmus test, it feels like a kind of Kronstadt moment. This sentiment also comes when I see the disgust felt when Weekly Standard editor Lee Smith implies that Mideast Christians are simply a kind of ISIS lite. I witnessed personally a comparable repulsion a year or so ago, when an old friend, long a prudently neocon-friendly author and Wall Street Journal writer, reacted to the smearing of Chuck Hagel by the same group. It’s as if the Israel lobby has grown so accustomed to the deference accorded it by everyone else in the American political system, it has lost any sense of its own limits.

Still there are other points to be made. Several of Cruz’s critics responded as if the Mideast Christians who came to the gathering deserved a sort of indulgent understanding for their lack of enthusiasm for Cruz’s admonition that Israel is their greatest friend. It was sometimes noted as historical fact that most Palestinian Christians live under Israeli occupation, and that others were ethnically cleansed by Israel in 1948; that the Lebanese Christians had once been Israel’s allies, which had not worked out well for them: in other words, all these groups had understandable excuses for their chilliness towards Israel. These Christians are, according to this discourse, genuinely vulnerable—they can be forgiven for not loving Israel. But this argument—and there are elements of it in most of the conservative pieces which chastized Cruz—scants the fact that Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestine is also opposed, often quite publicly and with increasing energy, by ever growing numbers of non-Mideast Christians.

I wonder if Cruz would similarly walk out and denounce Pope Francis as an anti-Semite, considering the new Pope visited the Holy Land and expressed his wishes for dignity and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians and said a prayer outside the Israeli wall that severs Bethlehem from neighboring Jerusalem and has largely rendered the town of Jesus’s birth a walled off ghetto. (The Israeli right went into conniptions about the Pope’s visit, with the incomparable Caroline Glick accusing the Pope of licensing “Holocaust denial” by his prayer at the Bethlehem separation wall.) If there is an argument that the Pope, with his stand in support of peace and dignity for both peoples in the Holy Land, is some kind of outlier among Catholics, I have not yet heard it.

Then there are the Presbyterians, who last summer voted to divest from several American companies profiting from the Israeli occupation, and the United Methodists, who nearly did so two summers before and are edging towards a successful divestment vote in good time. These are mainstream and mainline American Protestants, not the historic peace churches. Lutheran World Service runs a hospital in Jerusalem, designed to serve Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, that is engaged in a constant tension with the Israeli authorities who want to isolate it from the population it is meant to serve. One could go on: consideration of the European or South American churches would hardly alter this analysis.

Simply put, the Mideast Christians who gathered in D.C. to express their fears and ask for support when threatened by an inflamed Muslim fundamentalism are—in their nuanced attitudes toward Israel—far more representative of Christian opinion as a whole than is the belligerent Christian Zionism expressed by Ted Cruz.

Finally, I see that one avenue of response to Rod Dreher in Commentary is to tar him with association with the views of other TAC writers, including yours truly, who are accused of “clear anti-Israel bias.” I probably should resist taking this as an invitation to respond, but I won’t, and my guess is that Rod, who is surely less cool towards present day Israel than I am, might welcome some clarification from his colleagues.

Generally my own view of Israel and Palestine is summed up (more pithily than I would be capable of) by Bradley Burston in a recent Haaretz piece:

 If somebody tells me that Israel alone should keep the West Bank and East Jerusalem forever because God said so—or even “Just because it’s ours”—my feeling is: This is this person’s honest belief. I don’t share it, by any means. But I respect it as true faith, without an effort to whitewash, misdirect, or misrepresent.

I feel the same way about the opposite side. When someone, usually someone Jewish, says that in their view, there should be no State of Israel because it’s an illegitimate, militarized ethnocracy, I appreciate their candor in spelling out what they want to see, and I respect as an expression of true conviction their telling me what they want to see politically or otherwise euthanized. Even if it’s me.

In that spirit, I make no special claims for my desire to see—and my perhaps messianic belief in the possibility of—partition of the Holy Land into two independent states: Israel and Palestine.

Burston uses these words as a prelude to exposing the dishonesty in a recent piece by Elliot Abrams that attempts to whitewash Israeli settlement building. But his overall perspective is one I share: that is, I believe in the two-state solution as the most likely way to deliver peace and dignity to Israelis and Palestinians. I am not sure how I would have felt in 1947 and 1948, but I suppose there is good chance I would have believed as Truman did, that establishing a Jewish state in Palestine would be the source of unending religiously-based strife. He hoped for some kind of non-faith-based federation that might accommodate Jewish refugees and the Palestinian Arabs then living there. I might also have agreed with George Marshall and other members of the American diplomatic establishment who opposed American support for the creation of Israel for strategic reasons. Truman eventually threw up his hands and let domestic politics trump his ethical and strategic concerns, which he in any event had no plausible way to forge into policy.

The American diplomats who feared the consequences flowing from the establishment of Israel have been proved partly right, partly wrong. At this point, that’s water under the bridge: the question is how to seek the greatest measure of peace and justice now and in the future.

In the past 20 years, I have had to recognize that the possibility of a two-state solution has receded dramatically—from, I would estimate, probably more than 60 percent to less than 20 percent. For this I hold successive Israeli governments far more responsible than the Palestinians. The latter have revised the PLO charter to recognize Israel, and most of their leaders have told their people and behaved as if they they wanted to build a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. The major Arab countries formally put forth a peace initiative in 2002, reaffirmed five years later, offering Israel full diplomatic recognition in return for giving up the occupied territories. For their efforts, and for America’s long-term diplomatic campaign to cajole the Palestinians into accepting a small state on the 22 percent remainder of historic Palestine, Israel has responded by building settlements and more settlements on the remaining land, slicing it up in non-contiguous cantons, divided by military checkpoints, armed settlements, and Israeli-only roads. In the process Israelis have elected a right-wing government formally pledged to deny Palestinans a state on the West Bank. In other words occupation now, occupation tomorrow, occupation forever—that is Israel’s current policy. At the same time, Israel has ignored, refused even to acknowledge, the Arab peace initiative, refused even to discuss it. Have these developments over the past 20 years influenced my opinion of Israel? Of course they have. Have they changed my sense of the two-state solution? Well, it certainly seems unlikely, but I’m not sure of a better answer.

There’s another, more self-interested, part of my overall view. As someone concerned with foreign policy, I cannot help but note that Israel’s self-proclaimed friends in America, and often Israeli officials themselves, play a very large role in lobbying for American to fight wars in the Middle East. They did so in Iraq—after 9/11, Israeli officials flooded the American media talking about the necessity of destroying the government of Iraq, complementing the efforts of their friends at Commentary and The Weekly Standard. They got their wish, as they often do—and the destruction of Iraq played no small role stirring up the potentially genocidal crisis Mideast Christians face today. And now the Israelis are doing it again, trying to foment an American war with Iran. I understand that Israel feels it to be in its own national interest to have a regional monopoly on nuclear weapons. But I don’t think it’s an American national interest to fight continuous wars to maintain Israel’s monopoly. So this too makes me less warm towards Israel than I was 20 or 30 years ago.

Of course there are many kinds of Israelis. I’ve taken two trips to Israel and have met quite a few—liberal Zionists is probably the most accurate term—who are actively striving towards a just peace with the Palestinians and believe in an Israel in which the country is fully integrated, peacefully, into its region. They are, regrettably, a minority in Israel now, and perhaps they never had much influence. But for me they represent an extremely attractive side of Zionism—sophisticated, broad-minded, non-bigoted people, often possessed of extraordinary courage, energy, and talents. When I think of being supportive of Israel, they are people I would happily support, and I do and will continue to do.

Others are free to their opinions whether this view constitutes “bias” against Israel or makes me an “anti-Zionist.” It is certainly based on on far more reading, knowledge, and personal experience with the Mideast than went into the presumably “unbiased” view I held 20 or more years ago, when I was a neoconservative in good standing and a fairly regular contributor to Commentary.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Obama’s Amnesty-Inequality Trap

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

Such inconvenient things, elections. So much the better if the elites of both parties could quietly meet in a plush and smokeless private room to decide what’s best. That, anyway, is what the “immigration reform” establishment must feel after the President Obama announced he was backing off his announced intention to push amnesty by executive order prior to the November election. As the New York Times reported:

What had once looked like a clear political imperative for both parties—action to grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants—had morphed instead into what appeared to be a risky move that could cost Democrats their majority in the November midterm congressional elections.

The Times went on to explain how years of the highest level of elites lobbying the Republican Party to understand that amnesty was in their interest were undone by a few weeks of the southern border seeming out of control. Polls showed that voters somehow perceived what the Washington consensus refused to admit—that the prospect of an imminent amnesty made illegal border crossing more attractive, both to the coyote smugglers and to would-be illegal migrants themselves.

It’s been more than a decade since immigration was a major concern of mine. I can think of numerous reasons why diverse multicultural immigration has been or might eventually be quite okay, even on balance beneficial. Most importantly, it could raise some political roadblocks to unwise military interventions, as the war as first resort coalition is generally white and Protestant, and the diminution of that bloc’s influence is perhaps a blessing. I would wager also that immigrants from all regions are somewhat closer to the global consensus, more resistant to the “Israel right or wrong” ideology now regnant in Congress. But this is supposition, based on present voting patterns and cultural assumptions, not yet tested by events.

Still, it’s hard not to be struck by the failure of the immigration debate, on every side, to touch on the heart of the matter. The heart of it isn’t the end of white cultural and political dominance (the end of America, as some would have it) though that is surely an element behind some immigration restriction sentiment. It’s that mass immigration is a frontal assault on America as a country with a fair degree of social equality; a characteristic that nearly defined the country of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the decades of the baby-boomer’s youth. The writer and speaker who now carries forth this argument best, indeed practically the only one, is Mickey Kaus, author, one of the America’s first important bloggers, quixotic one-time California Senate candidate.

Last year, Kaus spoke at the Center for Immigration Studies, where he analysed the broader effect of mass immigration on the economy. Some excerpts:

And it’s not because I think immigration overall will be a drag on the economy as, as some argue, the third generation of immigrants sinks into single parenthood and dependence. That might happen, but I assume for the purposes of this argument that, overall, immigrations bring a drive and a work ethic that will boost overall gross national product, dynamic scoring. Unfortunately, gross national product isn’t everything. It also matters how it’s distributed, at least and certainly at the bottom of the income distribution.

And this is the beginning of the problem, the first big problem with amnesty, because it’s very hard to believe that uncontrolled unskilled immigration won’t hurt the very people who have been screwed the most over the past three decades. That is unskilled workers, especially young people, especially high school dropouts, and especially men. They are the people who have been hurt the most by the outsourcing trend as unskilled jobs have moved abroad. Now we’re saying those unskilled jobs that have to be performed here, you don’t get those either because we’re importing people from abroad to do them.

He continues:

I spent a lot of time—I drove up from Florida these past few days. I spent a lot of time listening to country music, both good and bad, and the theme of about half the songs, I’d say, the ones that aren’t about true love or cheating on your true love, the theme is something like this: I may not be very sophisticated, I may drive a truck, but I go to work every day and I feed my family, and it’s not easy, and there’s a dignity in that and that makes me a hero just as much as you, buddy.

That’s basically a lot of what—the sentiment that those songs appeal to, and it’s a good sentiment. The idea is that a full-time job enables a life of dignity even if it’s not an affluent life. And that assurance is what uncontrolled immigration would erode. Even if some people make the most it—even if a lot of people make the most of it—even if some waiters can make more money in tips because they have busboys filling the water glasses, they can serve more tables; even if some drywall installers open up a drywall-installing shop and employ people making $9 an hour, lots of people won’t do better.

Kaus went on to argue that mass immigration undermines the key premises of welfare reform, the important and quite conservative Clinton legislation of the 1990s. Welfare reform essentially encouraged (or compelled) recipients to get jobs, and most of them did, and did better. It was part of a moral argument that it is better in almost almost every way to hold a steady job than to hustle in the illegal economy, or commit serious crime. Welfare reform aimed to combat the pervasive notion that minimum wage jobs were “chump change” and not worth the bother. But obviously if you tilt the labor market against the poor by bringing in more and more unskilled workers, the low salaries will remain low. That is what has happened in the past two decades, which have seen almost all national income gains go to the most successful.

When I was a kid (and spending nearly half the time in a very well-off family) one could often hear grownups complaining almost continually about how hard it was to get good help—for gardening, or pool cleaning, or whatever. It must have been tough, but somehow the rich survived it. One virtually never hears such complaints now. Instead we have an economy where tens of millions of people at the bottom are continuously teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, loss of health care, etc. But upper middle class teenage girls can get their toenails tended at a spa without great expense.

I would submit that a country where the rich have to complain about their difficulty getting good help is morally superior to one where the working class is under constant threat of falling into dire poverty. This is a kind of philosophical prejudice, difficult to argue conclusively. One can of course point to ways in which the lives of upper middle class and above Americans are enriched by the existence a large class of poorer immigrants. The freedom of American women, indeed of almost all “first world” women, was surely enhanced with child care options made possible by an influx of poorer immigrant women. Nonetheless, there are probably better ways to solve child care problems than eliminating the border.

It may be a stretch to say that some inarticulated upsurge of the general will, a sentimental nostalgia for a more socially equal America, forced Obama to scale back his amnesty promise. Most analysts point to White House fears of the amnesty issue’s effect on Senate races in the Midwest and upper South, where Obama’s intention threatened to brand forever the Democrats as the amnesty party among its white voters. No matter how much sympathy the stories of individual illegal immigrants might evoke, the amnesty issue gives the indelible impression that the “immigration reform” crowd wants simply to erase the southern border. For what does having an amnesty every 20 years mean, except that you find border inconvenient as a measure of controlling the movements of peoples?

If Mickey Kaus is the most prominent figure to make the explicit linkage between growing inequality and mass immigration, it won’t be enough. And so far, there are few prominent Democrats ready to make the case. One wonders why, for if ever an issue called for a “Third Way” pro-middle and working-class Democrat to make some waves, it is this one. Immigration remains singular as the issue where there is a large discrepancy between the popular sentiment and the elites of both parties. In the parliamentary systems of Europe, slow-down-immigration sentiment can at least express itself politically. In the U.S., when John McCain is allied with “liberal” Chuck Schumer, and Bill Gates and Sheldon Adelson have spoken with one voice, what chance to do proponents of a more socially equal America really have?

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative

Washington Puzzled as Putin Doesn’t Back Down

Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office
Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Consider an analogy to get a sense of how Russia might perceive America’s Ukraine policy. It is imperfect of course, because unlike Russia, America has no history of being invaded, unless you count the War of 1812. But a comparison might be instructive nonetheless:

By 2034, China’s power position has risen relative to America’s. America has evacuated its East Asian bases, under peaceful but pressured circumstances. The governments of Korea and Japan and eventually the Philippines had, by 2026, concluded it was better off with a “less provocative” more neutral arrangement. The huge naval base at Subic Bay became home to a multilateral UN contingent. China’s economy had been larger than America’s for a while, though American per capita income is still somewhat higher. American technological innovation edge has largely disappeared, America still has a lot of soft power—people over the world prefer Hollywood movies to Chinese and America’s nuclear arsenal exceeds the Chinese. But the countries are far more equal than today, and throughout much of the world it is assumed that China will be tomorrow’s dominant “hyperpower.”

A political crisis erupts in Mexico. Mexico has a freely elected but typically corrupt government, whose leading figures are linked to Wall Street and Miami Beach by ties of marriage and money. But many in Mexico—where anti-gringo nationalism remains a potent force—want to become the first “North American partner” in the China led Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Young Mexicans proclaim defiantly they are “people of color” and laud the fact non-white China is rising while America, country of aging white people, is in decline. Their sentiments, materialistic and infused with personal ambitions are so permeated with anti-American, anti-imperialist “third worldist” rhetoric that it is difficult for outsiders to sort out the true motivations. When the Mexican government, under American pressure, rejects a Chinese invitation for candidate membership in China’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, long prepared protests erupt in Mexico City.

The core group of protest leaders and organizers have been on the Chinese payroll for some time, as the heads of various civic action and popular democracy initiatives, many with an obvious anti-gringo flavor. Soon Chinese politicians and movie stars begin flocking to Mexico City to be photographed with the protesters. Thus encouraged, protester demands escalate, including not only the resignation of the government, Mexico’s adhesion to the Chinese economic bloc, but a military alliance with China. The NSA captures a cell phone conversation of the Chinese ambassador discussing who will hold what posts in the next Mexican cabinet. Three days later, sniper fire of undetermined origin riddles the protestors and police, and any semblance of order breaks down. Mexico’s president flees to Miami.

The above scenario parallels pretty directly the run-up to the Ukraine crisis, before Russia began to respond forcefully. One can of course see the ambiguities of right and wrong. Why should America have anything to say about whether Mexico has a revolution and joins an anti-American military alliance, some would ask. Mexico is sovereign, and should be able to join any international grouping it wants.

What is most striking about the Ukraine crisis is how much the Washington debate lacks any sense of how the issue might look to other interested parties, particularly Russia. Putin is analysed of course—is he, as Hillary Clinton suggested, following Hitler’s playbook? Or is he merely an aggressive autocrat? Or perhaps he is “in his own world” and not quite sane? But in open Washington conversation at least, and perhaps even at the more reflective levels of government, all talk begins with the premise that Russia’s leader is somewhere on the continuum between aggressive and the irrational. That he might be acting reactively and defensively, as any leader of a large power would be in response to threatening events on its doorstep, is not even part of the American conversation. Thus in the waning days of American unipolarism, America diplomacy sinks into a mode of semi-autism, able to perceive and express its own interests, perceptions, and desires, while oblivious to the concerns of others.

A rare and welcome exception to blindness was the publication in Foreign Affairs of John Mearsheimer’s cogent essay on the Ukraine crisis, which with characteristic directness argues that Western efforts to move Ukraine in the Nato/EE orbit were the “taproot” of the present crisis. Prior to Mearsheimer, one could find analyses tracing how various neoliberal and neoconservative foundations had, with their spending and sponsorship of various “pro-Western” groups, fomented a revolution in Ukraine, but they were generally sequestered in left-liberal venues habitually critical of American and Western policies. In the Beltway power loop, such voices were never heard. The policy of pushing NATO eastward, first incorporating Poland and Bulgaria and then going right up to Russia’s borders moved forward as if on mysterious autopilot. That such a policy was wise and necessary was considered a given when it was discussed at all, which was seldom. Was Obama even aware that a leading neoconservative, a figure from Dick Cheney’s staff, was in charge formulating American policy towards Ukraine—with designs on igniting revolutionary regional transformation? One has to assume not; confrontation with Russia had not been part of Obama’s presidential campaign or style, and since the crisis began his comments have always been more measured than the actions of the government he purportedly leads.

As Mearsheimer points out, there remains still a fairly obvious and quite attractive off-ramp: a negotiation with Russia which settles formally Ukraine’s non-aligned status. There are useful precedents for this: Eisenhower’s negotiation with Krushchev that brought about the withdrawal of foreign troops from Austria in 1955 is one, and so of course is Finland. No one who contemplates where the Ukraine crisis might lead otherwise—with a war that devastates the country or perhaps brings in outside powers to devastate all of Europe, or even explodes the entire northern hemisphere—could sanely consider Austria or Finland—prosperous and free countries—to be bad outcomes. Nevertheless the entire conversation in Washington revolves around measures to make Putin back down, and accept the integration of Ukraine into the EU and eventually NATO. People act baffled that he won’t.

There is a mystery to the way Washington works—how an entire political class came to see as American policy that that Russia be humiliated at its own doorstep as logical, without ever reflecting upon whether this was a good idea in the larger scheme of global politics nor whether the West had the means and will to see it through. Because to see it through likely means war with Russia over Ukraine. (The West-leaning Ukrainians of course, be they democratic or fascist, want nothing more than to have American troops fighting beside them as they become NATO partners, a tail wagging the dog). America’s policy makes sense only if it is taken for granted that Russia is an eternal enemy, an evil power which must be surrounded weakened and ultimately brought down. But very few in Washington believe that either, and virtually no one in the American corporate establishment does. So it’s a mystery—a seemingly iron-clad Washington consensus formed behind a policy, the integration of Ukraine in the West, to whose implications no one seems to have given any serious thought.

Russia’s leaders and diplomats have been telling America to butt out of Ukraine in unambiguous terms for a decade or more. Did American diplomats and CIA agents push for an anti-Russian coup d’etat in Kiev knowing that and pursue it anyway? The sheer recklessness of such an action would border on criminal—but oddly enough, no one who truly counts in Washington, Republican or Democrat, seems even to consider it even slightly misguided.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

ISIS, the Neocons, and Obama’s Choices

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would seem logical that if ISIS really is a threat—a metastasizing terrorist entity and enemy of America and all civilization—then the United States should patch up its relations with Syria and Iran to deal with it. That’s the advocacy of some groups favoring a detente with Iran (like the National Iranian-American Council), which views Iran as the most stable state in the region. But there is a problem: Israel hates Iran, and hates Syria because of Iran. The only Arab military force to give Israel any difficulty in the past 40 years is Hezbollah, armed by and allied with Iran. No matter how much Israel pretends to dislike Sunni extremism, it hates Iran more, because Iran has scientific, cultural, and political potential to be a major rival to Israel in the Middle East.

So the neoconservatives are arguing that the United States confront ISIS by sending in its own troops (“primarily” special forces, or a contingent of 10-15,000 “for now”) but hoping of course that can be expanded upon later, rather than relying on regional allies. This is essentially a revised variant of the policies they advocated after 9/11—divert Americans away from confronting a threat from Sunni jihadists, while preparing the ground for a subsequent war with a state actor that Israel doesn’t like. So the neocons will argue against any policy which contemplates detente with Iran or a lessening of tension with Syria, because they recognize that if the United States comes to view Iran as an ally in the fight against ISIS or other Sunni extremists, their goal of an American war with Iran is gone, probably forever. Bibi Netanyahu has boasted to Israeli audiences that America is something “easily moved” by Israel’s public relations abilities, unregistered agents, and other well-wishers. But Bibi and his allies are likely to find their proposals to send American troops back into the Mideast a hard sell.

A final point: over the past two generations thousands of articles have been written proclaiming that Israel is a “vital strategic ally” of the United States, our best and only friend in the “volatile” Middle East. The claim is a commonplace among serving and aspiring Congressmen. I may have missed it, but has anyone seen a hint that our vital regional ally could be of any assistance at all in the supposedly civilizational battle against ISIS? Fact is, when you use the most powerful military in the Mideast to continuously brutalize Palestinian children, your usefulness as a regional ally becomes pretty limited.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

ISIS, the Neocons, and Obama’s Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ferguson: We Can’t Look Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hillary the Hawk: Who Will Challenge Her?

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

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

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

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

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

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What Gaza Has Revealed

Moshe Feiglin campaign sign travellerw / cc
Moshe Feiglin campaign sign travellerw / cc

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s and continuing through the present, the central issue in the study of European history was the rise of Nazism. Not the documenting of the facts of the long descent to the Holocaust, though this was essential to the enterprise. But the trying to understand how a country that was in many ways the most advanced in Europe could descend so far so fast. Scholars examined German patterns of leadership and conformity, searched in the varied forms of cultural nationalism for the ideological and literary precursors of Nazism, analyzed the “wholeness hunger” that purportedly led young Germans to do everything from embracing nature to embracing a fuhrer, and studied the moral cowardice exhibited by German civic elites in nearly every profession.

In the memoirs of many German Jews who escaped Hitlerism when they still could, this descent was wrapped in enigma: Hitler and Nazis were so unexpected, so contrary to their internalized sense of Germany as a nation of law and science, and a place where there was considerable intermarriage between Jews and Christians, where Jews—as much or even more so than any other country in Europe, felt secure, self-confident, and patriotic. In countless tragic cases, this belief that Nazism was at odds with the “inner, real” Germany led people to wait too long and not emigrate when there was still opportunity to do so. (Of course, that the number of countries welcoming Jewish refugees in the 1930s was limited, in considerable part due to anti-Semitism.) What stands out was the time lag between a new reality—Germany becoming a murderous dictatorship, and the perception of that reality.

Of course one needs to avoid crude polemical comparisons of Nazi Germany, particularly Nazism during the Holocaust era, to anywhere, and such comparisons to Israel are often meant to be gratuitously offensive. Israel is not Nazi Germany.

Nevertheless, with its most recent Gaza war the country has turned a page, exposing Americans and the world to a new and far more fascist Israel than was evident in past decades. One could compile a lengthy list of indicators, few of which have been much explored in the American press but which are fairly widely reported in Israel and on the Internet.

The Israeli peace camp has nearly disappeared—gone for instance are the large mass demonstrations of the 1980s that pushed for an end to the Likud’s forays into Lebanon.   Of equal significance is that it no longer safe in Israel to oppose government policy by peaceful demonstration. Several years ago Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who became an Israeli politician and celebrated neoconservative author posited what he called “the town square test”:

If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a “fear society” has finally won their freedom.

If one credits the numerous first-person reports from Israeli peace demonstrators, to protest Israeli bombardment of Gaza now is to risk attack by right-wing thugs, while the police look on or sometimes help the pro-government attackers. Meanwhile, Israeli pro-government politicians look for new ways to punish dissenters, either by rendering human right organizations unable to function or by pressuring employers to fire dissenters from their jobs—tactics now described as “white fascism”. Israel hasn’t traversed the entire route of becoming a Sharansky “fear society,” but it is on that trajectory.

And then listen to Israel’s politicians. There is Ayelet Shaked, whose open call for genocide against Palestinians provoked one British-Israeli citizen to contemplate burning her Israeli passport. Shaked was giving political voice to the Israeli mobs that run around Jerusalem shouting “Death to the Arabs” and looking for Palestinians to beat up, though she is after all only one member of Israel’s Parliament. But what is one to make of Moshe Feiglin, not a marginal Israeli figure but deputy speaker of the Knesset, a top player in Israel’s ruling Likud Party? He recently called for Gazans to resettled in concentration camps, and all of Hamas and its supporters to be “annihilated.” All societies have their hate groups and extremists, but nowhere in the democratic world are they nearer to the center of power than Israel. In the 1980s Meir Kahane had a small following in Israel, but his pro-ethnic cleansing party was made illegal. Now Kahanists are in the center of the country’s ruling ideology.

The Israeli turn towards fascism was explored in Max Blumenthal’s superbly reported book Goliath, which the Israel lobby loathed and tried to dismiss without ever answering effectively. Gaza has brought Blumenthal’s ideas to a point, releasing the pent-up animus and anti-democratic hatred for all the world to see.

This now is Israel, a country whose military relishes unfair fights against poorly armed militias, where imposing collective punishment of innocents is the main point, whose elected politicians pine openly for concentration camps and genocide. Because Israel (like the Germany of early last century) is a country of advanced science and medicine, a country containing hundreds of thousands of individuals who would be perceived as exemplary anywhere in the world, there is a kind of cognitive dissonance: we draw back from recognizing the polity before our eyes because it doesn’t match  the image of Israel we grew up with (however idealized and unrealistic that may have been). But yes, Feiglin and Shaked represent the real Israel of today.

What are Americans to do about it? Here perception of the new reality lags but is beginning, ever so slowly, to catch up. Many have noted the polls in which older Americans and Republicans still support Israel in overwhelming numbers. The young, more open in their sources of news, do not. Nor do Democrats. Even in conversations with well-heeled members of the business establishment, one also can sense a sea change—one hears murmurs of disapproval, even outrage, expressed in places (an upscale golf club) where one would never before have heard it. Politicians are the last to reflect this: the Senate passed a unanimous vote of approval for Israel early in the conflict, and the House adjourned leaving all manner of pressing business undone, but making sure, by a 395 to 8 vote, that Israel received more funding for its Iron Dome. (Someday a profile in courage article will be written about this Heroic Eight, a surprisingly geographically mixed and bipartisan group.) As if to explain these votes, Vox published an illustrative real-life memo instructing a Senate candidate in how to fish for funds from the “pro-Israel community.” For his part Obama has so submerged himself in Israeli talking points that intelligence blogger Pat Lang felt compelled to ask whether the president had duly registered himself as a foreign agent.

In Europe, it’s much the same—a bit more tut-tutting than here about the killing of Palestinian children, but no government wants to do anything. (And it wouldn’t be so difficult—if Europe were to simply explore bureaucratic “impediments” to Israeli trade and tourism, in the absence of real progress towards a two-state solution, the Palestinians would likely have a state in a couple of years.) Britain is a possible exception: Labour Party chief Ed Miliband has denounced Israel’s conduct uncategorically, and a Muslim minister has resigned from Cameron’s cabinet—not much, but head and shoulders ahead of the United States.

The American polity will change, probably bit by bit for a while and then in a big rush—as a result of political leadership. The evolution of public opinion towards gay marriage seems a plausible template. But even a changed opinion will have to confront a terribly difficult problem: how to treat Israel, hyper-nationalistic, loaded with nuclear weapons, deeply racist, persuaded that any opposition to it is derived from anti-Semitism, feeling that the Holocaust gives it license to do whatever it wants and that the normal rules of international conduct will never apply to it. It won’t be an easy matter to solve.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

The Pyrrhic Cost of Destroying Hamas

Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return

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

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

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

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

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The Dual Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Right’s Israel Turn

President Reagan meeting with William F. Buckley in the Oval Office. / Wikimedia Commons
President Reagan meeting with William F. Buckley in the Oval Office. / Wikimedia Commons

The American right’s relationship with Israel has gone through several phases marked by distinct turning points. During the Cold War 1950s, Israel was not especially favored by the right. It was perceived as vulnerable and somewhat socialist, and even conservative publishing houses like Regnery produced books sympathetic to the Palestinians. But the 1967 war transformed Israel’s image for conservatives—as it did for other groups, American Jews especially. By 1970, the Nixon administration and many on the right had begun think of Israel as a useful Cold War asset. The Jewish state had demonstrated it could fight well against Soviet allies. The idea of Israel as a strategic asset was always somewhat problematic—it would be called into question when America suffered the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, and there were sharp disagreements over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s. But one could safely generalize that most conservatives considered Israel an asset—a proposition that the neoconservatives, valued newcomers to the conservative movement, pushed enthusiastically.

When the Cold War ended, this became more complicated. Israel proved useless when Iraq invaded Kuwait: American diplomacy had to devote much time and energy to ensuring that Israel did not enter the conflict, as Israeli involvement would have blown up the anti-Saddam coalition President George H.W. Bush had painstakingly constructed. What good was a regional ally that must be kept under wraps when a regional crisis erupts? More generally, once Americans began to see their Mideast problems as originating from within the region, rather than from Soviet meddling, issues such as Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians became salient. For a brief time, the place of Israel in the conservative mind was in flux.

Yet out of this flux arose neoconservative hegemony over Republican discourse about the Mideast. How this happened is a broad and multilayered story, reflecting shifts in power among and within various groups in American society as much as anything that happened in the Mideast. But it also has turning points where individual decisions had lasting consequences. None of these was more significant than William F. Buckley’s reluctant but unmistakable accommodation to the neoconservatives, allowing them in effect to regulate the terms of Mideast discussion in his own magazine, National Review. This development was signaled by his treatment of senior editor Joe Sobran and his denunciation of syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan.

Buckley is rightly credited with pushing hardcore anti-Semitism out of the American right. As recently as the 1950s, it was widespread on the right: one of most popular conservative books of that decade was The Iron Curtain Over America, which purported to describe how Khazar Jews were taking over the Democratic Party. It went through 14 printings.

National Review, founded in 1955, sought to break from this kind of nuttiness. As editor, Buckley excluded writers from the American Mercury, which had become increasingly anti-Semitic, from contributing to National Review. Nevertheless NR published some pretty odd material: Peter Novick concludes in his book The Holocaust in American Life that no general-interest magazine in the early 1960s wrote more frequently or more vehemently against Israel’s bringing Adolf Eichmann to trial. In numerous articles and editorials, National Review stressed that communists would profit from what it called the “Hate Germany” movement. “The Christian Church,” stated a National Review editorial in 1961,

focuses hard on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for only one week of the year. Three months—that is the minimum estimate made by the Israeli government for the duration of the trial—is too long. … Everyone knows the facts, has known them for years. … The counting of corpses and gas ovens … there is a studious attempt to cast suspicion on Germany. … It is all there: bitterness, distrust, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of communist aims.

Twenty-five years later, in 1986, Bill Buckley was presented with a dossier compiled by the neoconservative Midge Decter and her husband, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz: six syndicated columns by Joseph Sobran, then a senior editor at National Review, accompanied by a tough letter by Decter accusing Sobran of being a naked anti-Semite.

Who was Joe Sobran? A conservative Catholic who came to Buckley’s notice in 1972, when as a graduate student at Eastern Michigan University he wrote a letter to the student newspaper opposing a professor who had said Buckley shouldn’t be invited to speak on campus. Sobran’s polemical power and grace made an impression, as they would on a generation of his future readers. Soon Sobran was flying to New York fortnightly to write editorials for National Review, and he quickly rose to become a senior editor. Decter sent her indictment to a few dozen of Buckley’s allies in the conservative coalition. She was trying to expel the popular Sobran from a movement in which she herself was a relative newcomer.

It’s possible to have different interpretations of the six columns, which were not published in National Review. Clearly Sobran was willing to take on the Israel lobby—“the most powerful lobby in America”—lamenting its power as the reason

why Congress so quickly endorsed a direct military strike against Libya while it quibbles endlessly about whether aid to the contras in Nicaragua might lead, someday, to American military involvement in Central America. Quadafi is an enemy of Israel. Communist Nicaragua isn’t. … So we fight Quadafi, and maybe the administration hints, Syria and Iran as well. Ostensibly the issue is ‘terrorism’ but that sounds more and more like a surrogate word for enemies of Israel.

Another column attacked those opposing President Reagan’s decision to accompany German chancellor Helmut Kohl on a visit to a veterans’ cemetery in Bitburg where several Waffen-SS were interred. A third column argued:

If Christians were sometimes hostile to Jews, that worked two ways. Some rabbinical authorities held that it was permissible to cheat and even kill Gentiles. Although the great theologian Moses Maimonides insisted it was as wrong to kill a Gentile as a Jew, it seems strange that this should even have been a matter of controversy.

Sobran’s views about it were not without precedent among foreign-affairs experts. But his insinuation that Christian-Jewish antagonism had been or could be anything other than a one-way street was simply not part of mainstream American discourse in the post-Holocaust era. The columns were clearly the work of a man who wanted to start an argument. But by my reading, at least, these columns contained less of an anti-Semitic tone than National Review’s editorial complaints about Israel’s capture and trial of Eichmann.

Buckley responded to the Decter-Podhoretz démarche by speaking privately to Sobran, with whom he was quite close, and holding several lengthy meetings with the NR senior staff. He then published an editorial disassociating the magazine from the “tendentiousness” of the columns, while simultaneously asserting that those who knew Sobran knew he wasn’t an anti-Semite. Buckley also required Sobran to read him over the phone anything he wrote mentioning Israel for pre-publication approval. According to Podhoretz, Buckley assured him that Sobran would not write in National Review at all about the Mideast. Whatever the case, what Buckley clearly did not do was tell Midge and Norman to pay attention to their own magazine.

The arrangement stumbled along for several years. When Sobran became an impassioned opponent of the first Gulf War, he and NR reached a breaking point. Buckley prepared a letter asking him to step down as a senior editor while remaining as a contributor. Sobran resigned completely.

A more politically important side of this story concerns Pat Buchanan, not a colleague of Buckley’s at NR but America’s most prominent media conservative in the 1980s. Buchanan had begun to re-evaluate his views of Israel, which had once been very warm. He too hadn’t liked the attacks on President Reagan over his visit to Bitburg, and he too opposed the first war with Iraq.

The campaign against Buchanan began in 1990, instigated not by Decter and Podhoretz but by New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, using a dossier of Buchanan columns prepared by the Anti-Defamation League. The indictment turned on several phrases: Buchanan had claimed there were only two groups beating the drums for war, the Israeli defense ministry and its Amen Corner in the United States; in another column he had named four commentators, all Jewish, who favored the war, and none who were not; in a third he listed four representative names of likely casualties—McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales, and LeRoy Brown. On a TV show he referred to Congress as “Israeli-occupied territory.” Rosenthal asserted, with the hyperbole typical for such charges, that the things Buchanan was saying could lead to Auschwitz.

A large controversy among journalists and pundits ensued. Buckley initially weighed in by stating that while most of Buchanan’s points were defensible, his rhetoric was insensitive. As the fray continued, Buckley published a lengthy essay in National Review, “In Search of Anti-Semitism,” and later gathered it, along with a dozen or so responses, into book form. In the 10,000-word section on Buchanan, Buckley went back and forth weighing the arguments of Buchanan’s attackers and defenders, finally coming to the tortured conclusion: “I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism, whatever it was that drove him to say it: most probably an iconoclastic temperament.”

Buckley’s essay and subsequent book were nuanced and remain interesting to this day, perhaps most of all because of the inclusion of remarks by other journalists and friends of National Review. One can read there Bob Novak’s wry account of the pressures brought to bear on newspaper editors by members of the Israel lobby to drop his and Rowland Evans’s newspaper column, as well as Eric Alterman’s amusing description of AIPAC efforts to organize “readers” to pressure papers to drop Pat Buchanan’s column.

Buckley’s depiction of the power of the Israel lobby to break people’s reputations is perceptive and unequivocal. Describing his first private dinner with Joe Sobran where they discussed the Decter/Podhoretz charges, Buckley relates that he told the story of William Scranton, a governor of Pennsylvania who was considered presidential timber in the 1960s. Nixon sent him on a fact-finding mission to the Mideast and he came back with a recommendation that the United States be a little more evenhanded, and… no one ever heard from him again. Buckley writes: “We both laughed. One does laugh when acknowledging inordinate power, even as one deplores it.”

In the book are many such observations. One belongs to Sobran, quoted from a private letter to Buckley: “When I talk to a Palestinian for an hour or two, I am struck at how absolutely bizarre it is that an editor of Commentary or the New Republic can buy a plane ticket to Tel Aviv and instantly benefit from a whole range of rights denied to the native Arabs.” Web issue image

So far as the public resolution of the issue was concerned, however, none of Buckley’s ambivalence or ability to see to see the questions as nuanced mattered. Buckley did cut Sobran loose from National Review, and Sobran’s career subsequently deteriorated into the indefensible. Buckley did conclude that what Buchanan wrote “amounted to anti-Semitism,” and even if he appended a highly qualifying clause and defended most of what Buchanan said, Rosenthal got the guilty verdict he had sought. This verdict could then be simplified by the neoconservatives contending for power on the right: “Buchanan anti-Semitic, says Buckley.” And then it could be repeated tens of thousands of times in newspaper columns and soundbites over the next decade, and a lesson would sink in: Buchanan, because of his Israel-related views, had been rightly banished from the ranks of establishment conservatism. For years hence, young conservatives with professional ambitions would draw the necessary conclusions.

Thus exclusion of Sobran and Buchanan represented something much larger. National Review had long been a clearing house for diverse conservative voices. James Burnham, for instance, a major figure in the magazine’s foreign-affairs coverage until his retirement in the late 1970s, had long opposed close American ties to Israel for reasons of realpolitik. Would he have been purged too, had he been writing in 1990?

By the mid-to-late 1990s, National Review became monolithically neoconservative on all questions related to Israel and the Mideast, publishing nothing that would distinguish it from Commentary and the Weekly Standard. This was surely unfortunate for National Review readers, but it also had baleful consequences for the conservative movement and the Republican Party—this chorus of echoes was responsible in no small measure for encouraging George W. Bush to march the country into Iraq without hearing any dissent that might have made him pause. Because of Buckley’s capitulation, issues that should have been robustly debated were closed off. Henceforth, only one view of war, peace, Israel, and the Mideast was considered respectable.

Are there signs that this may be changing? There are some. The Internet may be over-touted, but it certainly means that National Review has nothing like the hegemony over conservative opinion it did 20 years ago. Former congressman Ron Paul, whose views on the Mideast are little different from Buchanan’s, built a new faction within the Republican Party. Sen. Rand Paul, accused of being sympathetic to his father’s views, is a major Republican presidential contender. Neoconservative hegemony over the right’s Mideast discourse, responsible in great part for the Iraq War, has generated its own antithesis in a conservative movement not exempt from America’s general war weariness. The clampdown signaled by the campaigns against Sobran and Buchanan probably couldn’t be carried out today, and conservatives may finally be moving out from its shadow.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Israel Runs Up the Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Crucial Question for Reformicons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nixon’s The One

nixon 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Presbyterian Victory

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

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

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

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

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

That day is past: Read More…

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“Moral Clarity” on Iraq

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

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

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

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

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Eric Cantor’s Defeat Is Also Netanyahu’s

Photo: Amos Ben Gershom, GPO
Photo: Amos Ben Gershom, GPO

Of course it isn’t yet clear what Eric Cantor’s stunning and decisive defeat at the hands of an unknown challenger with one twentieth the campaign funds means for the direction of the House GOP. On domestic issues, including immigration, Cantor has been a chameleon—an establishment figure, a reformer, a “young gun,” a Tea Party insurgent with legislative tactician skills, a supporter of immigration reform (aka amnesty), and then a professed opponent of the same immigration reform. (I should note there was a time, in the 1990s, when immigration “reform” meant tightening the borders and tinkering with the legal immigration system so it was more skills-based, less based on “your brother’s wife got in a few years ago, so you are now eligible for a visa.”) The only ads I’ve seen from David Brat, the surprising victor, attacked Cantor’s readiness to hang out with big-money immigration boosters (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) while ignoring the labor market and wage impact large-scale immigration has for voters in his district.

One issue wasn’t talked about, though I wonder if it subliminally registered with some anti-Cantor voters. Cantor in 2010 more or less presented himself as Bibi Netanyahu’s congressman. Newly elevated by the GOP House takeover as the incoming majority leader, he held a private meeting with the Likud leader at the New York Regency. No other Americans were present; Netanyahu was joined by Israel’s ambassador and national security advisor.

It was a tense time in American-Israeli relations: the Obama administration was pushing hard for progress on peace talks and trying to get Israel to stop expanding settlements on the West Bank during the negotiations, an idea vigorously resisted by Israel’s government. During the meeting, Cantor gave Netanyahu assurances that the House would have his back in any showdown with the Obama administration. The Republicans, he told Bibi, “understand the special relationship” and would obstruct American initiatives which made Israel uncomfortable. Ron Kampeas, a veteran and centrist observer of U.S.-Israeli relations, said he could not “remember an opposition leader telling a foreign leader, in a personal meeting, that he would side, as a policy, with that leader against the president.” So Cantor was, in his way, making history.

The ties to Israel made Cantor popular in the GOP caucus. Cantor could raise money more easily than other southern congressmen—from pro-Israel billionaires, for example—and spread it around. Sheldon Adelson poured millions into his PAC. Cantor knew his way around the Regency.

More recently, Cantor has spearheaded House opposition to Obama’s negotiations with Iran, speaking frequently of Iran in terms that echo Netanyahu. His Mideast positions track completely with Likud’s, whether it be aid to the Syrian rebels or aid to Egypt after the Sisi coup. He may be hard to pin down domestic issues, one day a moderate, another a hard rightist, but he is always a hawk—whether it be Ukraine or Syria or Iran, he will be a force pushing the most belligerent policies.

I wonder if this registered in the district in some ways. Pat Lang, of the interesting Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, meditated on Cantor (his congressmen) several years ago, wondering whether this sophisticated Richmond lawyer was a natural fit for a district that trends barbecue. Some have pointed to an ethnic angle, which could well be a factor. But it may be simply that conservative southern Republicans are beginning to get tired of neocons telling them they have to prepare to fight another war. Antiwar Republican Walter Jones won his North Carolina primary earlier this spring, standing strong against a major media assault by Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel. Now, in an election result that stunned political observers more than anything that happened in their lifetime, Cantor goes down before an underfunded Tea Party candidate.

We’ll see what happens with David Brat, but he’s already made history.

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Hillary’s Empty Book

I’ve been skimming Hillary Clinton’s State Department memoir Hard Choices, which stands at more than 600 pages. The massive tome, the product of Hillary and her “book team,” is in its way extremely skillful. Throughout the book Hillary appears engaged, intelligent, tough, compassionate—all qualities she obviously wants to project—while effectively muting any controversy that might be politically inconvenient as she pursues her next project. As we know, Hillary has no particular accomplishments as Secretary of State: she traveled extensively, and is able to describe in impressive detail various rooms and furnishings and personages. It has never been reported that she said anything embarrassing to herself or the country. But I haven’t found anything remotely like a “hard choice.” There was no moment when Hillary was in the White House situation room, trying to break down for a president the options about missiles in Cuba; no effort to brainstorm about escalation in Vietnam, or to decide whether Gorbachev was the real thing.

She supports the two-state solution of Israel-Palestine—though of course, as the administration’s commonly used phrase had it, “not more than the parties themselves”. She says nice things about former senator George Mitchell (Obama’s appointee as head Mideast peace processor—who was genuinely committed to a two-state solution) and also Dennis Ross, the epitome of a faux peace process-er who served, more or less, as Israel’s lawyer from his various appointments close to the center of power. The conflict between the two men was important and much speculated upon, but Hillary says not a word about it. Even those who want to attack Hillary from the perspective of the Israeli Right can’t find much to complain about: The Emergency Committee for Israel is running ads condemning her for not objecting publicly when John Kerry said Israel risked becoming an apartheid state. They can’t find anything in her actual record to fault.

And indeed what could there be? The peace process in the Middle East was doomed so long as Americans insisted it would strive to be even-handed between the military occupier and the occupied: this is about as sensible as the Justice Department facilitating even-handed talks between segregated blacks and the Mississippi power structure in 1960. If you want to change the situation, you have to acknowledge the power discrepancies and weigh in to equalize them. There was not the shadow of a chance Hillary would have favored that. Obama apparently believed that making speeches would suffice to change Israeli behavior.

The one place in her narrative where Hillary seems truly energized about a policy matter is lobbying UN member states to support tough sanctions on Iran. I suspect that when she enters the campaign trail she will tout this as her signal achievement—whatever happens with current negotiations. “She was tough enough to bring Iran to its knees.” might be the slogan. A thoughtful Secretary of State, writing at the end of his or her career, might speculate on why Iran would want a nuclear program—and presumably the potential to build a weapon. That question would be at the center of any serious foreign policy analysis. But there is none of that—no history, no mention of the American-supported attack on Iran by Saddam Hussein, or Israel’s introduction of nuclear weapons into the region.

The prominence of Hillary, and more, the absence of anyone who is willing to challenge her quest for the Democratic nomination, is a depressing indication about the state of the Democratic Party and the country. It tells us that there is no lasting impact of the Iraq war on elite Democratic party attitudes, it might as well have never happened. A couple of trillion dollars when the wounded veteran care is factored in. A million Iraqis homeless and refugees. Not only has Hillary not learned any lessons; no one else of prominence has either. There is no rethinking whether the United States needs to be poking its nose militarily in every spot in the globe—not by Hillary certainly, but seemingly not by any other leading Democrat, either.

Andy Bacevich’s Washington Rules contains substantial segments quoting Democratic senators prominent in the 1960s, especially Bill Fulbright and Mike Mansfield. At the time there were several top lawmakers seeking to figure out what went wrong—how we became immersed in Vietnam with no good way out, what that said about American attitudes, hubris, and self-delusion. There is eloquence there, and probing intelligence. There is none of that kind of soul-searching going on now on Capitol Hill, at least at the Senate level. Hillary Clinton, for her obvious wonkishness and impressive grasp of detail, certainly isn’t engaged in it. The sad thing is, no one seems to want her to be.

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For Obama and Kerry, “Daylight” Starts Peeking Out on Israel

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

It’s conniption time on Capitol Hill, as the Obama administration is demonstrating quietly there will be at least some consequences for stonewalling the administration’s effort actually to forge, or at least begin to forge, a two-state peace settlement in Israel-Palestine. The first shoe to drop was a State Department spokesperson’s almost passive acknowledgement that no, the United States is not going to cut off all relations with the Palestinian Authority because of its efforts to heal its breach with Hamas by forming a unity “technocratic” government.

Israel has been complaining loudly, along with its allies in Congress. Its stated objections are two-fold: Hamas rejects the two state solution, and in many of its public statements, calls for the end of Israel; Hamas has committed terrorist acts against Israeli civilians, particularly in late 1990s as the Oslo process was winding down.

These are obviously serious issues: there won’t be a two-state solution if the Palestinian side doesn’t seek one, with all the recognition of Israel’s permanence that such a solution implies. But wait a second. The United States has obviously been willing to deal with Israel’s government—more than deal with it, subsidize it, treat it as a valued strategic ally, etc.—despite the fact that Israel’s Likud Charter calls for Israeli sovereignty over the entire West Bank, and Israel’s government includes ministers who themselves are sworn enemies of the two-state solution. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s election platform called explicitly for there to be no Palestinian state on the West Bank and for exclusive Israeli control over Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s coalition partner Naftali Bennett has long called for Israeli annexation of most of the West Bank, perhaps leaving the Palestinian towns as “self-governed” bantustans. If the congressmen now jumping up and down about the inclusion of Hamas “technocrats” in a unity Palestinian government raised any objection when an Israeli government included ministers calling for annexation of the West Bank and no Palestinian state, they did so very quietly.

Terrorism is also a serious issue. But, sad to say, there are many leaders and factions in the Mideast who have engaged in terrorism, including, of course former Israeli prime ministers and Likud leaders Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Beyond the Mideast, IRA leaders are welcome in Washington, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. If they seek them, Palestinians can find numerous precedents for the evolution from terrorist to freedom fighter to venerated statesman.

We are left to acknowledge the beginnings of a real breach between American policies and those of Israel. American politicians will deny it: John Kerry has said again and again, there must be “no daylight” between Washington and Israel—Kerry reiterated the phrase just last year. But the phrase has begun to sound false, more and more like the ritualistic protests of a couple on the way to a break-up. Read More…

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