State of the Union

Hillary’s Sheldon Adelson

State Department photo / Public Domain
State Department photo / Public Domain

No one was surprised to see Republican hawk Lindsey Graham, or even Mitt Romney, line up to kiss Sheldon Adelson’s ring at the Israel-American Council conference in Washington last weekend. Adelson has urged that the United States drop nuclear weapons on Iran as a “negotiating” tactic; he dreams that his son will be a sniper in the Israeli army; he is basically the kind of hawk with maximal loyalties to Israel and minimal ones to the United States that one might wish held no position of honor in the Republican Party. But alas he does. In a better world a Sheldon Adelson event might receive no more attention from prominent Republicans than a David Duke conference, but we’re long past that point. The Romney and Graham speeches blasting Obama’s diplomacy towards Iran received headlines of the dog bites man nature.

But the Twittersphere was set aflame at the Sunday plenary session, where Adelson held court with fellow billionaire and Israel supporter Haim Saban. Saban does not have the public persona of Adelson. The Power Ranger mogul is a major Democratic Party donor, perhaps the largest of all. He sponsors something called the Saban Center at Brookings, which provides a think tank gloss to pro-Israeli perspectives, but also funds some genuine scholarship. He is on first-name terms with the liberal hawk or liberal internationalist elite, “Tony” and “Shimon” and of course “Hillary.” You can get a sense of Saban’s world from the fulsome video made to introduce Hillary when she spoke two years ago at the Saban Center—where she received a parade of warm endorsements from Israeli politicians well known in the U.S. It was the first concrete sign, many noted, that Hillary was really interested in running for the presidency in 2016.

But last weekend here was Saban, Democratic mogul, on stage alongside Sheldon Adelson, the two performing sort of duet: One could title it “Pity the Zionist Billionaires Who Can’t Always Get What They Want.” Adelson claimed the Palestinian were an “invented people” Saban came back with the retort that in the event of a “bad” Iran nuclear deal, Bibi “should bomb the living daylights of the sons of bitches [the Iranians].” When Saban mentioned that there were actually a lot of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, Adelson retorted with “So Israel won’t be a democratic state, so what.” (One might at least credit him with candor not usually evident among Israel’s most vociferous right wing supporters, fond of touting Israel as a democracy which shares American values.) The two talked of measures to squelch the rapidly expanding BDS movement, movement to boycott Israel either in full or part to pressure it to end the occupation. (The First Amendment might pose a problem here.)

The two naturally agreed that the American media was terribly biased against Israel, except for maybe Fox News, and that they discussed whether they could buy the Washington Post or New York Times to correct the problem. This aspect of the performance was comic, the lament, commonplace enough among neoconservatives, that the American press is biased against Israel. Consider that the Washington Post runs (the Wall Street Journal aside), the most neoconservative major editorial page in the country, and it’s been a long time since someone that one can even conceive of being slightly sympathetic to those subjected to Israeli occupation (perhaps the late Mary McGrory?) has written there. The Times is more diverse and makes occasionally sincere efforts at both balance and objective journalism, but if one looks at the roster of Times-men who regularly cover Israel, one could conclude that having a child serving in the IDF is a job requirement.

Sheldon and Haim then amused themselves and their audience by talking about taking over the Times and Washington Post.

The whole affair might have been comical but for the serious issues it raises for presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Haim Saban is her close friend and major financial backer: one could go so far as to say that he and his donor circle constitute her “base” or at least a significant part of it. One question any inquisitive journalist might ask of Hillary is: What does she think of Haim Saban’s wish that Israel “bomb the daylights” out of Iran if Bibi doesn’t approve of a nuclear deal reached with Tehran by the United States and the other P5+1 countries? Since Bibi’s disapproval is virtually guaranteed (Israel insists that it be the only nuclear-capable country in the region), would she have that the United States support and even assist Israel bombing the daylights out of Iran, right after the United States signs a deal with the Iranian government? Or does she reject the counsel of her major backer? Saban’s partner on stage has urged that the United States drop nuclear bombs on Iran as a negotiating tactic. What does Hillary think of this?

Hillary has never paid a political price for her ties to right-wing Israel supporters, though she has reaped the usual benefits. Might the American political culture be ready to turn on this, at least to the extent that she will no longer get a free pass? The Twittersphere agog at the Sheldon and Haim show was largely a liberal Jewish one, journalists and writers who are hardly hostile to Israel, but are increasingly dismayed as the Israeli right wing entrenches itself in power while becoming ever more extreme. Its numbers are small, but it speaks for an influential slice of Democratic Party elite opinion—supportive of the two state solution, of negotiating with Iran. A recent J Street-sponsored poll found that 84 percent of American Jews backed an Iran deal which restricts Iranian nuclear enrichment and subjected Iran’s nuclear sites to inspection. But Adelson and Saban do not.

Where does Hillary stand, with her financial backers or the more mainstream opinion of the Democratic Party? It’s a question worth watching in the presidential year to come.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Obama’s Legacy Will Be With Iran

President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

If President Obama wants to find solace from American history, he might look to the 1938 midterm elections. The Republicans, benefitting from disgust with Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme and another economic downturn, picked up eight Senate seats, 81 House seats and 13 governorships. The Democrats maintained a formal congressional majority, but a not real one, as many conservative southern Democrats opposed Roosevelt and the New Deal.

But the political coalition he lost for his domestic agenda, Roosevelt eventually recouped through his foreign policy—eventually dying in office and becoming renowned in history as his nation’s leader in “The Good War.” That option—emerging as a widely beloved “total war” leader is not open to Obama. But making a big mark in foreign policy is—and remains the only route redeem his presidency.

On Election Day, the Washington Post published a useful effort to explain the decline in Obama’s popularity from his re-election in 2012 to the midterms. To those who aren’t political junkies, the collapse is a bit of a mystery, as the president is pretty much the same man as the one who defeated a quite capable Mitt Romney two years ago. By then he had long been stripped any magical “hope and change” properties voters might have ascribed to him in 2008. Instead he campaigned with his limitations known: a good orator, not especially deft at managing the power levers of the presidency, reluctant to pick fights, insular in his choice of advisors, moderate, and prone to compromise. A liberal Republican perhaps, in a multicultural, third-worldist packaging?

In the Post’s telling, small events piled up to undermine Obama’s authority in the last two years: an ultimately futile effort to get a gun control bill passed after a horrific school shooting; the botched website on the Obamacare rollout; the crisis of the border crossing children; Ukraine; Ebola. Of these, I would argue that only Ukraine was truly bad presidential policy, a result of leaving neocons in charge of the State Department’s European desk, who then proceeded to foment a coup d’etat in Kiev without considering Moscow’s reaction. But the lesser missteps created the impression of an unsteady hand on the tiller.

Yet the Washington Post story skips over the most important initiative in Obama’s second term. Obama has pursued, carefully and methodically, an Iran detente, a course impossible while Ahmadinejad was president and Iran was imprisoning Green Movement leaders. But once it became possible, Obama and his diplomats advanced forcefully, forging at least in outline an arrangement that would limit Iranian enrichment and open the country to international inspections in exchange for a loosening of the sanctions imposed on Iran for nearly a decade.

The negotiation is technical and complex, and the deadline—extended once for six months, looms in less then three weeks. Both the P5+1 powers (the U.S., France, Britain, China, Russia, and Germany) and Iran are maneuvering hard for an advantage—either concerning the provisions of the final deal, or possibly for the high ground in placing blame if the negotiations fail. It is not known whether Iran has now or ever did have a policy of seeking nuclear weapons: the Iranians deny it, claiming that weapons of mass destruction are contrary to Islam, and they did not develop chemical weapons even while they were being assaulted heavily with Iraqi chemical agents during the Iran-Iraq war. American intelligence agencies don’t think that Iran seeks a bomb. It has been noted that the countries most loudly accusatory about the Iranian nuclear program (Israel and the United States) are themselves nuclear-armed states with a record of attacking Muslim countries. Presumably their strategists assume that, given the threats it faces, it would make sense for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons deterrent.

Complicating the negotiation is Congress, which contains a powerful claque which views all international developments through the prism of what it perceives as good for Israel. Israel has made clear its opposition to any arrangement that permits Iran an active nuclear industry, whether or not it develops weapons. The administration has made clear that if it reaches a deal with Iran, it will not seek Congressional approval, which would probably not be forthcoming. The American sanctions on Iran are backed by legislation passed by Congress, but they include a provision allowing the President to waive them. The Iranians naturally worry that if sanctions are “waived” rather than terminated, a more hawkish or Israel-centric president would simply re-impose them.

If a deal that constrains but does not terminate Iran’s nuclear industry is arrived at, the battle between Obama and Congress, or more precisely, between Obama and the Israel lobby and its backers in Congress, will likely emerge as the centerpiece of the final two years of his presidency. It is likely to loom larger in significance than any foreign policy battle between president and Congress in the postwar era; to find a parallel, one might have to return to FDR’s effort to outmaneuver a hostile and generally isolationist Congress in order to support Britain and eventually enter World War II. In that battle, as this one, Congress held many of the cards: the neutrality acts passed in the 1930s genuinely constrained Roosevelt, and public opinion was initially heavily on the side of Congress’s isolationists.

A major distinction of course is that FDR was trying to maneuver the country into war with Germany, while Obama seeks a peaceful detente, and possibly even a de facto alliance with Iran. But the significant parallel that Obama can take solace from is that in both cases the international climate shifted rapidly to provide a tailwind for the President. Roosevelt had to combat the perception (reasonable enough) that the oceans provided America ample security from Europe’s wars, and Asia’s as well. But that perception grew weaker once Hitler broke the bounds of Munich, and then in 1940 invaded France and the low countries. American public opinion in early 1941 was far more open to intervention than it had been two years earlier.

In the case of Iran, much has changed since Congress imposed sanctions. First of all Iran has changed, or partially changed, its leadership. President Rouhani—elected in a vote that was free and competitive by Mideastern standards, is not, like his predecessor, a belligerent who plays footsie with Holocaust deniers. He clearly rode the vast wave of young educated Iranian opinion that wants an end to the country’s isolation, and seeks a rapprochement with America. That doesn’t mean submission to American demands—and Rouhani’s political leash from a conservative Iranian parliament and the country’s Supreme Leader Khamenei may be shorter than Obama’s. But he certainly represents an Iran that wants to turn the page.

Secondly, even the initial agreement signed last November has opened up Iran to some Western journalists, who are bringing reports of a young, urban Iran, which seems attractive, interesting, and latently quite friendly to the United States. This was communicated clearly in Steve Kroft’s visit for CBS’s “60 Minutes” last spring, and perhaps even more so in Anthony Bourdain’s recent visit. Bourdain is a roving food and travel writer, his Parts Unknown show seen by more than half a million viewers: it would be difficult for anyone who viewed the hour-long program on Iran to think of the country as an enemy.

Thirdly, the rise of the Sunni extremist group ISIS has demonstrated how thin and unreliable America’s existing alliance structure is in the Mideast. While ISIS is a small, underarmed force, its success in seizing territory rapidly revealed how few Sunni states really oppose Islamic extremism. Saudi pilots have refused orders to bomb ISIS forces—which speaks volumes about the hearts and minds inside the kingdom. Turkey opposes its own Kurdish population more than it does Sunni extremists. One expects, or at least must hope, that Sunni opinion will evolve and become more resistant to ISIS fanaticism. But until and probably after then, Iran looks awfully good by comparison.

Fourth, Israel has been losing influence as an ally, if not decisively in Washington, then certainly among America’s partners in imposing Iran sanctions. Americans may have shrugged off Israel’s assault on civilian targets in Gaza, but Europe, where Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians are viewed increasingly with repugnance, has not. The continent is moving inexorably towards recognizing Palestinian statehood, ignoring Washington’s constant admonishments not to. Britain’s Parliamentary vote to recognize Palestine was a landmark in evolving opinion, and will inevitably be followed by comparable moves in France and even guilt-ridden Germany. Israel’s ability to hector, persuade, or guilt-trip Europeans into supporting its policies, whether anti-Palestinian or anti-Iran, is approaching its sell-by date.

Finally, America’s technical ability to impose sanctions and have them followed by the P5+1 is slowly disappearing. The sanctions regime depends on Washington’s ability to monitor and punish dollar-denominated transactions with Iran. But Russia and China have already initiated barter agreements with Tehran, and European businesses are chafing to enter Tehran’s markets. If Washington tries to keep the sanctions on, or ratchet them up, as the Congress’s Israel faction demands, it may one day find itself brandishing a very wet noodle.

There is little doubt that if Obama reaches a deal, Israel and its advocates will be able to generate a seemingly massive Congressional uproar to undermine the President’s diplomacy. But larger forces, both inside and beyond the Beltway, line up on Obama’s side. The Pentagon, it was reported recently, has been seeking to make deals with Iranian companies in order to stabilize Afghanistan. Will the U.S. military brass, having expended large amounts of blood and treasure to wrest Afghanistan from the Taliban, wish to see it revert to Islamic extremism because Israel doesn’t want Iran involved in stabilizing the country?

Maneuvering for an Iran deal will take all the political acumen Obama can muster, and more than he has demonstrated in previous dealings with Congress. And in terms of political skill and appeal, Obama is no Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the president has powerful cards to play, and will have the support of much of the world if he plays them well. One day peace with Iran may seem as inevitable as did war with Germany. Even though he was drubbed in the midterms, Obama’s chance to forge an historic and positive legacy still lies very much before him.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

An Economist Visits the West Bank

Much is written about Israel/Palestine, but fresh insights are rare. Whether the subject is the endless and barren “peace process” or the fact that Israel responds brutally to Palestinian street protests, there are few surprises. It is somewhat unusual when the 14-year-old shot by an Israeli sniper at a West Bank demonstration turns out to be an American citizen, but the fact is America officially doesn’t care very much when Israel kills its citizens, requests for a “speedy and transparent” investigation of the incident notwithstanding. When Israel pummels Gaza on flimsy pretexts, this too we’ve seen before–mowing the lawn, as the Israelis say.

So there was something genuinely unique about this short piece by economist Robert Wade in the London Review of Books. Written with an economist’s eye but in non-specialist language, it gives an informed sense of how the occupation burdens the daily lives of Palestinians on the West Bank, beyond the sporadic flashpoints and confrontations. And it is shocking.

Israel seems to be the only country in the world which makes a systematic effort to keep impoverished part of the population it governs. The average Israeli income is $4ok a year, 11 times the average for a West Bank Palestinian. The Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman recently said that no independent Palestinian state would be possible until average Palestinian income rises to $10K a year, a figure which presumably would give Palestinians vested material interest in making sure the provisions of a settlement would be maintained. But the catch is that Israel’s occupation policies are designed to thwart Palestinian economic development and ensure that level can never be reached.

Wade gives numerous examples. He begins in Hebron, the important West Bank town where a handful of Israeli settlers control the apartments overlooking the once thriving central market, regularly emptying their garbage on the Palestinians below. Palestinian access to the market is controlled through certain checkpoints (so the settlers never have to cross paths with Palestinians). He describes one scene where market-bound canned goods are transported by cart to one side of an Israeli barrier, raised by a pulley over the barrier, then loaded onto a a cart on the other side. The transaction costs are obviously passed on to Palestinian consumer. Later he describes a farmer, who has to cross the security barrier–through a gate Israel opens only three times a day,–to reach his crops and fields. To pass, he needs an Israeli permit, which has to be renewed every two months. Last year when he applied, during the harvest period for his crop of green tomatoes, Israel delayed granting of the permit for 40 days. The tomatoes rotted.

In Area C of the West Bank, controlled by Israel, goat herders are not allowed to build toilets without an Israeli permit. Nor repair a water cistern. Nor use solar energy panels. The permit system goes all the way up the economy. After the Oslo agreement of 1992, the Palestinians supposedly gained the right to construct their own telecommunications system. But the small print said that Israel would allocate the frequencies. Unsurprisingly, Israel has not done this generously. Palestinians have difficulty accessing the internet or email on their phones because Israel has not allocated the frequencies need for 3G, for “security reasons”. Of course Israel’s West Bank settlers have access to 3G networks. Telecommunications equipment the Palestinian Authority purchased from Ericsson languished for two years in Israeli customs, while Israelis performed “security checks” on it. West Bank trade with Jordan has actually diminished, because Israel controls the only bridges which cross the Jordan River. The occupied West Bank may be the only place in the world with a smaller amount of foreign trade as a proportion of GDP than 20 years ago.

Wade’s conclusion about the overall economic impact of the Israeli occupation is devastating. While the separation wall, and the land seizures which went along with its building are relatively well known in the West, Wade adds:

[T]he restrictions also cover the movement of people, the import and export of goods and services, investments, and access to basic infrastructure (electricity, water, sanitation). They are so pervasive and systematic that it almost seems as if the Israeli state has mapped the entire Palestinian economy in terms of input-output relations, right down to the capillary level of the individual, the household, the small firm, the large firm, the school, the university, so as to find all possible choke points, which Israeli officials can tighten or loosen at will.

Robert Wade is a prominent, widely traveled, developmental economist of vast experience, a winner of the prestigious Leontieff prize, a top award in the field. He concludes that the restrictions Israel has imposed on Palestinian economic life are unlike anything he has ever seen anywhere else in the world.

The ideology of the free market is as popular as ever in the Republican Party, and few would be so foolish as to deny its usefulness and explanatory power. So here is a wishful fantasy: that some of the “young guns” of the House Republican caucus, acolytes of Milton Friedman to a man (or woman), might read and contemplate Wade’s analysis—a prime example of the anti-market impediments in action, in a far-from-insignificant part of the world, where the United States spends a great deal of blood and treasure. Of course this is highly unlikely; it would it raise for them questions which are too politically uncomfortable. They, like most of their Democratic colleagues, prefer to cover their eyes and ears while pledging more American taxpayer dollars to Israel, the so-called ”start up nation.”

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Obama’s Big Ebola Wager

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

Obama might have been able to find a prominent public health expert with gravitas and television skills to tap as the administration’s new Ebola tsar. He was probably wise to choose a political operative instead. For a political operative is more likely to convey to the White House that Ebola is not only a potentially very serious health problem, but a watershed for his administration—one with the potential to end the Obama presidency.

Should we assume that the chances of another Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian whose arrival here resulted in the infection of two nurses, are fairly small? Perhaps such a traveler would be screened under the new procedures and quarantined after arrival at an American airport, but why would he have been? Duncan’s temperature was supposedly normal when he boarded the flight from Liberia and was likely normal a day later, when, via Brussels, he arrived at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. He apparently flew during the latency period between infection with Ebola and the advent of discernable symptoms. What are the chances of that happening again? Well, negligible perhaps. But there are, according to the Center of Immigration Studies, more than 13,000 people from the three largest Ebola countries with visas to travel to the United States. How many of those might profile like Duncan? By continuing to allow flights from the Ebola countries, the Obama administration is placing a very steep wager that the number is zero.

One can notice that the broader political atmosphere has changed already. Granted, the Republicans were long favored to make off-year election gains; the president’s party almost always loses ground after six years. But the GOP had few serious issues to campaign about. Benghazi and the Affordable Care Act were, literally, the major GOP talking points for most of the past two years. The ACA is at worst a decent effort to mitigate a major problem that Republicans did nothing to address when they held the presidency and both houses of Congress, and Benghazi is a nothing burger if there ever was one. The GOP has no more persuasive answers to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria than Obama.

But now Republicans can talk about Ebola. Already there is a sea change in the political atmosphere; In The Weekly Standard, Jonathan Last has published an excellent article about the Ebola crisis; highly readable Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan effectively deconstructs the patronizing rhetoric coming from the Washington Ebola establishment. Many who are not fans of either publication will find the pieces compelling. When, in a widely watched, highly competitive swing state senate race, a Democratic incumbent feels the need to break openly with Obama’s “let the Liberians fly in” stance, it should signal to the White House that its position is politically untenable. That is, assuming the White House is sufficiently open to unpleasant political information to read the tea leaves.

Obama would upset virtually no one if he said, until things are under better control, no travelers from the most infected countries will enter legally through American airports. There really is no serious constituency opposing a temporary flight ban. Because the severely affected countries need help, the administration can and should arrange charter flights to fly health care workers in and out. A flight ban would not be the kind of “error on the side of prudence” (like, for instance, interning Japanese Americans during World War II) that violates the rights of American citizens. The fact is, West Africans have no “right” to fly here. The science about the disease’s transmission (as Jonathan Last points out) is more murky and less reassuring than the administration claims. But even under best-case assumptions, if someone like Thomas Duncan, a symptomless Ebola carrier arrived here tomorrow, there is no way he would be stopped or quarantined. To regular Americans, including most Obama supporters, this seems like dogmatic adherence to abstract principle (America’s borders should be open to the world) over simple common sense. If more Africans from the three infected countries fly here and make more nurses sick, there is a fair likelihood that Obama would be successfully impeached.

I write, it could be noted, as an Obama supporter, as someone who volunteered in both presidential campaigns. His nearly six years in office have been somewhat of a disappointment, but my expectations were always modest. Obama steered the country fairly successfully through the mortgage crisis, following Wall Street friendly policies—to the monumental chagrin of some of his most eloquent backers. He tried to push Israel and the Palestinians towards a two-state solution, eventually realizing that his leverage to bend Israel towards justice was not up to the task. He has been unable to stand up to the defense establishment on the issues of torture or domestic surveillance. But more often than not he has tried to resist hawkish policies; we haven’t started a war against Syria, we haven’t started one against Iran, we haven’t started one against Russia. There is a powerful permanent government in Washington whose default position on all international crises is always hawkish, and Obama—if he hasn’t defeated it, has managed with some success to rope-a-dope it. Before the hawks, Obama has bent but not broken.

Moreover, I believe there is at least a 50 percent chance Obama will be able to do something truly historic—forge a new relationship with Iran, that will be a strategic boon to the United States and may even change—for the better—the trajectory of the Islamic world. This is no easy matter; it will require, for instance, effectively circumventing the wishes of the Israel lobby in ways no president has even thought about in more than 20 years. But there are grounds for optimism, and a detente with Iran will be as game changing—and necessary—as Nixon’s opening to China. Hillary Clinton would not have done this, nor John McCain. Obama may, and it will give a permanent luster to his legacy.

So I’m hoping that even if Ron Klain knows nothing much about Ebola, his counsel about American politics will be persuasive. I would now wager that the United States will suffer well less than a thousand deaths from Ebola before it’s over, that the disease never blossoms into the feared pandemic. Of course it might turn out worse, through no fault of the administration. About the politics, I’m far more certain. If Americans die because West Africans are allowed to continue flying here legally during the heat of the crisis, Obama’s presidency will be toast.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

The Middle East Doesn’t Matter

State Department photo / Public Domain
State Department photo / Public Domain

The ISIS rampage through Iraq and much of Syria, roiling Washington and other world capitals, gives rise to an interesting question: Who would win a contest to be named America’s most worthless Mideast ally? Competition is fierce, but three countries are clear frontrunners.

There is Saudi Arabia, whose princely emissaries to Washington have been confidants of presidents and fixtures on the Georgetown party circuit, a country whose rulers and princes possess seemingly unlimited amounts of discretionary income. They have used this wealth to subsidize worldwide the teaching of the most extremist and intolerant variants of Islam, but also to prop up the US defense industry by buying at every opportunity the most elaborate weapons systems we would sell them. It isn’t yet known whether Saudi pilots can actually effectively fly these advanced fighter aircraft under combat conditions. (There is sufficient evidence however that even relatively untrained Saudis can learn to steer a fully loaded 747 into a fixed ground target.)

What do the Saudis do with their shiny F-16′s and spanking new tanks? One might have hoped to see Saudi forces in action against ISIS—which really hasn’t had any success against a military formation that has been systematically trained and adequately armed. But this isn’t happening, probably because Saudi leaders realize that a great many Saudis (a majority?) actually agree with the ISIS ideology, and there is no guarantee they wouldn’t defect to ISIS if called upon to battle it. Among the best few sentences written since the onset of the crisis comes from veteran observer William Pfaff, who pointed to the stakes:

Moreover, is it fully appreciated in Washington that the “New Caliphate” has every intention of taking over the existing role in Islamic society of Saudi Arabia? It wants to conquer and occupy Mecca. If it succeeds, the Saudis themselves will be submitted to the ferocious discipline the ISIS practices. The Saudi ladies who now complain that they are not allowed to drive cars will find themselves in a new world indeed!

Then there is Turkey, an actual NATO member, a Muslim majority country which bridges Asia and Europe, a country with a considerable middle class and millions of educated and highly trained citizens. There are smart people in Washington and beyond who have held great hopes for Turkey: that it might solve the seemingly intractable riddle of how to combine Islam with modern democracy; that it might provide meaningful diplomatic support to the Palestinians; that it could both restrain America from disastrous blunders (as it tried to do in Iraq) and exert its growing influence on behalf of social and scientific progress in the region as a whole.

I shared those hopes, but have to admit they now seem pretty naive. Faced with an aggressive extremist Sunni movement beheading people on its borders, Turkey’s leaders choose to focus on the alleged dangers posed by its own long-restive Kurdish minority, while remaining obsessed with the Alawite (i.e. not Sunni Muslim) regime in neighboring Syria. Turkey has allowed ISIS to be replenished by allowing its own territory to be used as a transit zone for jihadist volunteers. If, as seems plausible at this writing, the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani falls while Turkey’s powerful NATO-armed military observes placidly from just over the border, it will be a long time before anyone in Washington will be able to say “our ally Turkey” with a straight face again.

Then there is Israel, usually touted as the best of American friends in the Mideast, if not the best ally any nation has been blessed to have, ever. Recipient of nearly as much American foreign and military aid as the rest of the world combined, Israel, with its crack air force and large stockpile of nuclear weapons, stands unchallenged as the region’s dominant military power. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu shows up on American news talk shows more than leaders of the rest of the world combined; were it not for John McCain, he would surely log more “Face the Nation” time than any American politician.

Once again, events illustrate what utility Israel has as a regional ally when the crunch comes. Faced with a unforeseen, rapidly moving, and dramatic crisis, Americans watch as Israel does absolutely nothing except antagonize the Muslim world further by announcing new land seizures so more illegal settlements can be built in Jerusalem. Of course this isn’t without precedent; Israel was of no help in the first Iraq crisis, and of course no help in the second—beyond providing a parade of prime-time cheerleaders to encourage George W. Bush in his lurch into war. Indeed, almost by definition Israel is no help in any regional crisis. The Israeli military may well remain formidable, though it is hard to be sure, as its most recent campaigns have been conducted against essentially undefended civilian populations.

What distinguishes Israel from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is that no one is particularly surprised that it gives no help; it is not expected to do so. Congress will respond anyway with new resolutions demonstrating to major campaign donors its absolute submissiveness to Tel Aviv; perhaps Israelis will be permitted to travel to the U.S. without visas while Israel doesn’t reciprocate the favor, or the Pentagon’s replenishment of Israeli military stocks, exhausted by Gaza bombardment, will be prioritized.

Might there be a silver lining in all this? As we witness the emergence of a violent new force, simple realism forces upon us the fact that the friends we’ve been wooing for decades just don’t see it that way. They may not like ISIS, but for various reasons they have other fish to fry. That should tell us something about the strategic vision underlying our policies for the past two or three decades. (I would give a passing grade to the American Mideast policies pursued during the heat of the Cold War, when strategists considered keeping oil flowing and the region out of the communist orbit to be a pressing national priority, superseding all other considerations. In this they succeeded.)

What silver lining? It’s rooted in the fact that the Mideast may now actually matter much less than we think it does. We do have the option of pretty much ignoring it, if we choose. Its contribution to the world economy is negligible. Its oil will reach the market one way or another. The security and well-being of the American people is not linked to the survival of a Shi’ite regime in Baghdad, a medieval monarch in Riyadh, or, for that matter, a Jewish state in Jerusalem. Recognition of this fact is only beginning to seep into the discourse: Justin Logan argues persuasively here that virtually nothing that goes on in the Middle East can threaten us very much, that no country in the region is worth starting a war over, and that the amount of money we’ve spent combatting terrorism in the region is wildly disproportionate to the actual threat. (It goes without saying that American bombing, with its inevitable “collateral damage,” will create a growing class of Muslims who have concrete reason to want to harm Americans.) In an recent interview, Francis Fukuyama elaborates on this view. 9/11 didn’t “change everything” as many claimed, or shouldn’t have; it was essentially a lucky shot.

“These are really marginal people who survive in countries where you don’t have strong states … Their ability to take over and run a serious country that can master technology and stay at the forefront of great-power politics is almost zero,” he says. Elsewhere he notes that the crisis over ISIS is really a subset of the Sunni-Shia civil war, and America’s ability to have any lasting impact on that is also almost zero.

This perspective—that the Mideast isn’t actually all that important to American security and we should pay much less attention to it—should now become a critical part of the American conversation. The thinkers cited here—Logan and Fukuyama, and one should add the popular blogger Andrew Sullivan, also writing along these lines—are far from knee-jerk “isolationists.” Fukuyama posits particularly that we should use military offshore balancing to ensure that no single power controls the oil fields; and obviously Iran would not want or allow ISIS to shut off its ability to export oil. But beyond that, we can afford to take the region much less seriously.

Unfortunately, there are no major American politicians now ready to make this argument. Rand Paul, regrettably, seems to have folded into a “me too” ISIS hawk after the first atrocity appeared on television, and the entire debate in Washington is now between neocons who want to send American ground troops now, and Obama establishment figures who hope, against much persuasive evidence, that some combination of bombing and special forces and our “coalition partners” will halt the ISIS advance. This narrowing of our true choices is madness.

There is a third, quite realistic, option: ISIS doesn’t matter all that much, and in any case if our “allies” don’t want to fight it, there’s very little we can do about it. If it one day rules Mecca, more the pity for the Saudi women and their driving aspirations. But the impact on American life will be minimal.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Ebola Breaks a Border-Free World

Scientist and writer Greg Cochran unearths an interesting morsel about the post World War I influenza pandemic, which killed 50-100 million people worldwide. After the war, the Pacific island of West Samoa passed from Germany to New Zealand’s control. Administrators were aware of the global flu outbreak, but powerful plantation interests opposed any quarantine of the island as bad for business. When the flu bug arrived via crewmen from the SS Talune, which visited regularly, roughly 90 percent of the population fell ill. In the end, more than a quarter of the island’s population died.

American Samoa was nearby, 60 miles away. The climate and infrastructure were more or less identical, and the islands were culturally and socially integrated through trade and intermarriage. A U.S. Navy officer was the administrator. He too was forewarned of the flu danger, but—not receiving any instruction from Washington—took matters into his own hands and responded in the completely opposite manner. He imposed a quarantine on the island, a kind of self-blockade. He even managed to persuade American Samoa’s chiefs to send out canoes to block visits of their kinsmen from their New Zealand-run neighbor. On American Samoa, there wasn’t a single case of flu.

In this case, human choices made not a difference at the margins, but all the difference. The flu was an unprecedented danger, there was no clear scientific protocol to follow. Modern medicine was still in its infancy. But in American Samoa, a cautious attitude towards a poorly understood germ made the difference between life and death.

It is a mystery why the United States allows any travelers at all to fly from the Ebola-infected countries of West Africa into American airports. If much of our politics is a fight over the proper role of government, virtually everyone agrees that shielding the population from infectious disease should be a top priority. And yet, bizarrely, every establishment instinct in Washington is to avoid overreacting, as if some terrible harm might come were it ever demonstrated that stemming the flow of West African tourists for a short period of time was not absolutely necessary.

One might think that Ebola, like almost everything else in Washington, would become a partisan issue. Hardly. The first federal officeholder to call for moratorium on flights from West Africa was a liberal democrat, Florida congressman Allan Grayson, who did so in July. After Ebola patient Thomas Duncan arrived in Dallas from Liberia, passing through Dulles airport en route, Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal made the case for banning West African flights. But these two stand almost alone. (In the past day or two, some more Republicans, perhaps sensing a new front to oppose Obama, have urged more rigorous airport screening.) But generally speaking, the establishment open-borders coalition has held firm, trumping partisan divisions, as leaders of both parties form a united front, repeating the Obama administration talking points that closing America’s airports to travelers from West Africa would do no good, or even “make matters worse.”

To be clear, there is no scientific consensus about any of this.

In Forbes, columnist Stephen Salzburg surprised himself by endorsing Jindal’s recommendation, noting there are expected to be 1.4 million West African Ebola cases by January. Salzburg writes that even the pro-flight Center for Disease Control has acknowledged that sick people are trying to board planes to the U.S.; 77 have been stopped so far. This figure is for known infected persons who have been stopped. How many managed to get through the rudimentary screenings in Freetown and other airports we don’t know. But when there are a million Ebola infections, many of them still asymptomatic, how easy will it be to screen infected travelers off the planes, he asks. It is perhaps necessary to point out that Salzburg is not a Fox news tub thumper but a top scientist, a professor of biomedical engineering and biostatistics as Johns Hopkins, with an illustrious career of research into bacteria and viruses behind him.

Another relevant voice calling for far sterner measures is Alexander Garza, who was chief medical officer of the Department of Homeland Security during Obama’s first term. Garza notes (not very reassuringly) that airport workers in West African countries have been trained to take temperatures of passengers. Who would deem this sufficient? Is it really prudent to entrust so much of American security to West African airport screeners?

Garza calls for the hiring of additional screeners at U.S. airports to essentially duplicate the African screening, and to question travelers more aggressively. He calls for a doubling of the Global Migration and Quarantine office budget (and staffing) until the disease is checked. Unstated but implicit in this argument is that travelers from West Africa ought to be quarantined until it is established they are indeed disease free. The United States did this as a matter of course with European immigrants during the 19th and early 20th century immigration wave.

But such calls for tougher measures are met with bland assurances that everything is under control, that flight bans would only worsen matters. Why? Well, it is argued that the foreign medical and aid workers Africa needs to combat Ebola’s spread use commercial flights to travel to the region. The concern for the medical workers’ travel and access is a valid one. But as the United States is flying thousands of troops to West Africa to help contain the epidemic, it would surely be possible for aid workers to fly back and forth on military planes.

In defense of the current, not very rigorous, regime, President Obama argues that “in recent months we’ve had thousands of travelers arriving from West Africa and so far only one case of Ebola.” But this was in the early stages of the epidemic, before the breakout of Ebola in West Africa’s cities. Does Obama really want thousands more West Africans flying here once Ebola cases number more than a million? The answer appears to be yes. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies has pointed out that 13,000 visas for travel to America have been handed out in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—which means that so long as such travelers don’t have a fever observed by the West African screeners when boarding and can get a ticket, they’re coming to the U.S.

Some issues are complicated, but this one seems simple. So long as the epidemic is raging, why should even a single traveler come here from the Ebola-infected countries?

The deeper answer is that much of the American establishment has bought into “post-America”—the concept that the border shouldn’t mean much of anything. There is a right-wing and hawkish component to this: those feel we have the right and duty to meddle in every region of the world. ISIS is treated as primarily an American problem, as are ethnic fissures in Ukraine. The liberal side of the same paradigm is driven by guilt that the United States is richer or more successful than much of the world and hopes–by eliminating the significance of the border—to gradually erase such differences. The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed denouncing “borderism.” The piece opened by lamenting that someone born in New Mexico has better opportunities in life than someone born in Mexico. (“Not only did we take a lot of territory from Mexico, but we took the parts with all the good roads” someone once remarked, wryly.)

Few in Congress would go this far, but the belief that everyone in the world has some kind of civil right to get on a plane and fly to Dallas or Newark is pervasive. One might think a deadly virus whose capacity to spread and mutate is not yet widely understood by scientists would be sufficient grounds to constrain quite dramatically this supposed “right,” at least for a few months. But not in post-American Washington.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

ISIS Isn’t Hamas, or Iran

Photo: Avi Ohayon, GPO
Photo: Avi Ohayon, GPO

Two years ago, Andy Bacevich published an important piece, “How We Became Israel.” His argument concerned strategic doctrine more than ideology. He noted similarities between Washington’s seemingly continuous low-grade military campaigns, which commenced once the Cold War was over, and Israel’s regular attacks on its neighbors. Both countries sought through military strength a kind of absolute security; both had no problem with starting preemptive wars; both employed “targeted assassinations” against opponents as a matter of course. Both relied on air power. Both were perfectly willing to endure perpetual war in their quest for dominion over their region.

Bacevich did not dwell on the irony of this policy becoming manifest under Barack Obama, who was elected in great part to terminate the militarization of America’s policy towards the Muslim world. But he did note that American acceptance of a permanent low-level war was entirely bipartisan: it was under President Clinton that bombing someone different every year became the American norm. It was depressing that Bacevich had to look hard for a prominent mainstream Washington figure who doubted the wisdom of this permanent war footing; he quoted Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who wrote “we don’t have enough drones to kill all the enemies we will make if we turn the world into a free-fire zone.”

Two years ago, this argument was both prescient and novel, even if others has noted that the United States had long ago abdicated having any perspective on the Mideast independent of Israel’s. But suddenly variants of the Bacevich proposition are in vogue. Charles Krauthammer and Maureen Dowd, respectively leading neocon and liberal editorial voices of the two most prominent national newspapers, have both listened to President Obama’s United Nations speech and concluded “Yes—the president is right to bomb ISIS, and yes his policies are essentially Netanyahuesque.” Just as Israel uses airpower to “mow the lawn” in Gaza, America uses it in Iraq. Dowd even cheerfully adopted that banalizing and dehumanizing Israeli phrase for the periodic killing of militants, their families, and innocent women and children by forces with overwhelming technological superiority. But we may do it over the entire region.

Or beyond. In Andrew Sullivan’s mordant exclamation, “The world will be our Gaza!”

There is perhaps an element of technological determinism in this strategy: the United States and Israel deploy bombers and drone assassinations because they can, because such actions seem, at least in the short run, relatively cost-free. If this becomes a hard case to make morally (though there is little evidence so far that Americans care about that one way or another) Israelis are happy to help out. “ISIS is Hamas, Hamas is ISIS” is the slogan brought to the United Nations by Benjamin Netanyahu, and it is being echoed by Israeli government officials worldwide, as well as by pro-Israel groups with money and media clout.

It is, to be blunt, a blatant misrepresentation of reality: one need hardly be a defender of Hamas to note the critical differences. The comparison was, as 972′s Larry Derfner put it, “a crude attempt to brainwash people, to put the most horrifying image in their mind and associate it with Gaza, thereby cleansing Israel of those images of Gaza’s agony.” A twofer in other words. Israel is exonerated of killing 500 innocent children, and America is associated with Israel, for we are doing the same thing. The ISIS/Hamas comparison is valid only so far as both organizations are Muslim and militant.

For its part, in Gaza, Hamas does not kill Christians; indeed they worship freely, are represented in the government, and share in the bitter and blockaded status of Gaza’s Muslims. Hamas doesn’t aspire to a Muslim caliphate but rather national liberation, and, if you follow the contemporary words of its spokesman, (rather than its generation old, anti-Semitic charter) liberation of a small part of historic Palestine. Hamas doesn’t execute Western journalists but welcomes them. It does execute suspected collaborators (that’s where the gruesome execution photos which Israel-friendly organizations have been using in advertisements come from) but so has every guerrilla movement, including, as Derfner notes, Zionist ones.

Hamas came to power through a free election; Israel negotiates with it; some Israeli security officials have noted its increasing moderation. Israel actually understands all this, or it would have tried to root Hamas out of Gaza. But for an American audience, the word is “Hamas = ISIS.” If Netanyahu were truly frightened of Hamas, he would have recognized that negotiating seriously with the secular Palestinian Authority would have undermined almost completely Hamas’s appeal as an effective national resistance movement.

There was another component to Netanyahu’s lie. Not only does he say that ISIS = Hamas, but he devoted more of his UN speech to the proposition that Iran = ISIS. They are, after all, Muslims. As Netanyahu put it “Some want to restore a pre-medieval caliphate … some want to trigger the apocalyptic return of an imam … but they all share a fanatic ideology.” Haaretz reports that Netanyahu will spend his days in the United States telling network television viewers to be very afraid of Iran. If the images coming out of Iran belie Netanyahu’s claim that they’re just fanatical Muslims who must be bombed into submission, Netanyahu is probably confident that the American media will present his version without much competition.

Who can say whether this “big lie” will work once again? In the fall of 2002, it seemed unlikely to many intelligent people that the United States would do something so obviously stupid as invading Iraq. You didn’t need to be great Mideast expert to recognize that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s secular, Christian-friendly dictatorship were entirely different animals, though both were part of the Muslim and Arab worlds. Surely that obvious point would eventually penetrate the minds of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice. But it didn’t, and somehow, against what I once thought were steep odds, the relentless campaign of the neoconservatives and various Israeli leaders to conflate al-Qaeda with whatever target Israel wanted taken out carried the day. Iraq was destroyed. More than a trillion dollars, the cost will come to, a million Iraqis killed, wounded or homeless. The remaining officers of the decimated Iraqi army became a foundational stone of ISIS.

This time Israel wants us to destroy Iran, using ISIS as the bogeyman for American audiences, a massive bait and switch. Andy Bacevich is surely partially right in his claim that America has become Israel. But whether we are as ignorant and easily moved as Netanyahu hopes remains to be seen.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

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

Newscom

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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