Noah Millman

A List For Niall Ferguson

He asks:

Please send me a list of all the regimes of the past 60 years that have survived such military humiliation [comparable to an Israeli strike on Iran]. Saddam Hussein’s survival of Gulf War I is the only case I can think of—and we got him the second time around.

Well, confining myself to countries that were similarly attacked by Israel, there’s Egypt, which didn’t experience a revolution after 1967, Jordan, which didn’t experience a revolution either, and Syria, ditto. There’s Iraq, whose nuclear reactor Israel destroyed in 1981, without precipitating regime change. Even the Palestinian Authority is still kicking.

Let’s turn the question around: can you name any country that suffered military humiliation that didn’t, in consequence, turn to parties, forces or individuals who promised to redeem the national honor through new action? Germany, Japan and Italy weren’t “humiliated” by Wold War II; they were thoroughly and comprehensively defeated. France after 1870? Germany after 1918? Heck – America after 1975? The only example I can think of, honestly, is Serbia after 1999.

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Americans Aren’t Deterred By the Risk of Retaliation Either

One further point about the “risk of retaliation.” Does any state that is attacked ever perceive that attack as retaliation for its own aggression? Israel perceives the Iranian nuclear program – which Iran protests is peaceful in intent – as an unequivocal provocation aimed at them. They point to Iran’s bellicose language and assertions that the Israeli state must be eradicated, to Iran’s actions in supporting Israel’s enemies in Lebanon and Gaza, and interpret Iran’s nuclear program in their light. From an Israeli perspective, a strike on Iran would be a defensive act – perhaps wise, perhaps unwise, but in either case a response to an Iranian provocation, and not an act of aggression.

Needless to say, Iran would perceive it as an unprovoked and blatantly illegal act of aggression, and might well respond, as it has threatened, with rocket attacks. But Israel would not perceive these attacks as justified retaliation against its aggression – it would perceive them as further evidence of Iran’s hostility.

If the United States came to Israel’s support in such circumstances, would most Americans perceive Iranian attacks on American soldiers or sailors, or on American interests abroad, to say nothing of American civilians, as “retaliation” for our “meddling” in a conflict between Iran and Israel? Isn’t it obvious that such attacks would only cause most Americans to line up behind even more forceful action against Iran?

I’m not saying that deterrence doesn’t work at all. But when it works, it works on decision-makers who fear both losing vital assets and failing to achieve their objectives. Pakistan can deter an Indian land invasion because Indian rationally wonders whether Pakistan might be willing to use nuclear weapons on Pakistani soil to annihilate the Indian army. This would make an Indian invasion futile; the only consequence would be the loss of a huge number of men and equipment. Similarly, the United States deterred a Soviet invasion of West Germany by promising to use nuclear weapons tactically to wipe out Soviet armor. The consequences of such a war for Germany and Poland would have been catastrophic – but the threat worked because the Soviets rationally understood that an invasion would be futile.

The fact is that there is no military in the world that can effectively deter American arms, because there is no military in the world that can impose those kinds of losses on us. Whether we can be deterred by a belated recognition of the profound limits to the efficacy of military power is an open question. The historical record doesn’t provide a lot of exemplars to follow in this regard, of hegemonic powers that retreated voluntarily because they realized that the promiscuous application of force was proving counterproductive, even in the absence of being dealt a decisive defeat. But, you know, we’re an exceptional nation, so hope springs eternal.

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Assessing the Probability of an Israeli Strike on Iran

Needless to say, I know no more than Daniel Larison or Greg Scoblete on this subject. But allow me to poke some holes in Larison’s analysis:

  • Israel is probably less-sensitive to the possibility of failure than Larison thinks they might be, if failure is defined as “not slowing down progress much.” Israelis do not, in general, think very far into the future – take care of today’s problems, and let tomorrow worry about tomorrow, is the national attitude. Today’s problem is the Iranian nuclear program. I think it’s safe to say that there is, essentially, a near-universal consensus in Israel that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, that such a development would be profoundly threatening, and that Iran is unlikely to change course in response to diplomatic pressure. That doesn’t mean the Israeli consensus is right, but that is the overwhelming consensus. That being the case, the political risks to trying and failing are smaller than they might otherwise appear.
  • Israel is also probably less-sensitive to the risks of retaliation than Larison would assume – or than many other states would be. It’s not that Israel always responds massively to provocation or perceived threats – provocations happen all the time, and Israel hasn’t attacked Iran yet, and has been warning about the Iranian bomb for years. But Israel doesn’t assume a harmonious relationship with its neighborhood is likely no matter what it does, so it doesn’t have the kind of bias against action that most states would have. The Israeli assumption is that those rockets Hezbollah has are most likely going to be used one day or another. The question for Israeli planners probably isn’t so much “can we avoid retaliation by not attacking?” but “are we adequately prepared for the inevitable retaliation; do we want this fight now, or later?”
  • Precisely because of the ongoing conflict in Syria and political developments in Egypt, Israel may believe that, short-term, neighboring governments will be in a poor position to deploy military force in defense of Iran (even if they were inclined to do so, which is not clear), and that the long-term prospects for relations with neighboring states are worsening anyway because of the rising tide of Islamic parties. So the political window for action may appear more open now than it is likely to be in the near future. Given that Israel already believes that the operational window will close shortly, we’ve got multiple factors aiming at a near-term timetable.
  • The electoral calendar in the United States also points to short-term action – or at least to threats of short-term action. If America really wants to stop Israel from acting, Israel can exact a price during the campaign season, because President Obama doesn’t want an open break with Israel to be a campaign issue. By the same token, if Israel wants to ignore America’s warnings not to attack, during the election season it would be more difficult for the Obama Administration to take any kind of forceful response.
  • It’s not clear to what degree Israel’s political leaders are responsive to the concerns voiced by Israeli military and intelligence officers who have argued against action against Iran. Obviously, those concerns won’t be completely ignored, but I don’t know that they will prove decisive. (Note that they did not prove decisive in the United States with regard to either the Iraq War or the smaller recent Libyan war.) The Israeli military was manifestly unprepared for the Lebanon incursion. Both that war and the Gaza incursion (Operation Cast Lead) were undertaken primarily for domestic political reasons – the need to “do something” about a threat, and not be perceived as impotent. That sounds very much like the template for action against Iran.
  • Israel has exercised restraint in a variety of circumstances when America pressured it to do so – Israel allowed the Egyptian Third Army to escape encirclement at the end of the 1973 war, halted its advance into Lebanon in the 1982 war, refrained from retaliating against Iraq’s scud missile attacks in 1991, and American influence may have been a factor limiting Israel from either assassinating or exiling Yasser Arafat during the second intifadah (though I, for one, doubt it). But in all of these cases, the larger context of American involvement with Israel’s actions was broadly supportive – Nixon had just resupplied Israel to help it stave off the initial Syrian assault; Reagan agreed to send American troops into Lebanon; Bush I was prosecuting a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; and Bush II was engaged in a Global War on Terror. The most probable context for a successful American campaign to restrain Israel from taking unilateral action against Iran would be a clear American commitment to dealing with the threat some other way. That’s one way to understand precisely what the Obama Administration has been up to, but it doesn’t appear to have been terribly convincing in Jerusalem.

None of this means that Israel will definitely attack Iran. If Israel was just trying to goad the United States into doing more to isolate Iran, it would be doing exactly what it’s doing – making us think that it was planning to attack. But I don’t think Israel is likely to opt against an attack simply out of a fear of failure or out of a fear of retaliation. Israel would need to believe either that an attack was genuinely unnecessary, or that the timing for taking action would be more favorable in the future, or that the threat wasn’t actually as serious as they go around claiming it is.

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Latest From Millman’s Shakesblog

As some of my readers know, I’ve got another blog, Millman’s Shakesblog, covering primarily theatre. I hope to move that blog to TAC some time later this month, and also to broaden its reach to cover movies, literature, the visual arts – but I expect its central focus to remain classical theatre. I hope it proves of interest to TAC’s existing readership and that it helps to expand what people think of as the scope of cultural coverage in a magazine like TAC.

By way of introduction to that site, the last batch of posts include:

Visit there. I’ll let y’all know when and if the blog moves here.

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Running Towards, Not Away

Rod Dreher:

Well, Tim Gunn, clearly we have a new champion for History’s Greatest Monster. Everybody knows that you cannot be happy or fulfilled without having sex, even if the kind of sex you are inclined to have could make you very sick, and even kill you. They ought to find a home for weirdos who have sworn off sex, where they can sequester themselves and think about other things in their sad, meaningless lives.

Oh, wait.

Three thoughts:

First, there’s a rabbinic dictum that strikes me as apropos:

  • With food, the less you have, the more you want; the more you have, the less you want.
  • With sex, the less you have, the less you want; the more you have, the more you want.
  • With wealth, the less you have, the more you want; the more you have, the more you want.

In my own personal experience, none of those are strictly accurate, but there’s a kernel of truth in each. And I just think it’s kind of a cool saying.

Second, while the “sexuality expert” quoted in the L.A. Times article sounds like a jerk (what would you expect, though, of someone willing to opine on the mental health of someone she’s never met?) I think it’s an interesting question whether and when it is essential for us to confront our fears, as opposed to building a functional life around accommodating them. Which is basically her point: it’s okay if he’s not interested in sex, but it’s not okay (in her opinion) if he’s avoiding it. Personally, I think a model of mental health that says “you can’t be afraid of anything” – as opposed to a model that says, “know yourself, including knowing your fears” – strikes me as significantly over-stringent (and even my alternative is more a model of “how to live consciously” than of “mental health” per se). But if we’re going to go around saying you “must” confront your fears, I should hope we’re genuinely comprehensive about this, and not just using it selectively as a bludgeon for social conformity, which certainly sounds more like what she’s talking about.

But third, all of the above having been said, I should like Dreher to reconsider his parting shot. I’m not a Christian, so it’s not really my place to opine on this, so I’ll let Leo Tolstoy make the argument that if you run away from your worldly fears into religious seclusion, you will find yourself alone with precisely what you are running from. The sacrifice of a sexual life might be an easy or a difficult one for a novice to make – and I can see the value of the choice in either case – but I’m pretty sure that, easy or difficult, it should be a sacrifice for something, and that that something is what matters. And that one source of the sexual scandals in the Catholic Church that Dreher is very familiar with was a refusal to recognize the problem with someone choosing a religious life precisely because that life seems to be a refuge from an unintegrated and disturbing aspect of the self.

“Know thyself” strikes me as a very good starting place. Whether Tim Gunn has started there or not, I have no idea (and neither does Dr. Berman), and I’m not going to presume to infer an answer from where he has chosen to go from that point.

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For What Sin Was Saul Punished?

Patrick Allitt’s review in the magazine of Philip Jenkins’s book, Laying Down the Sword, reminded me of a bit of interpretive ju-jitsu that a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) friend of mine once taught me.

In 1 Samuel 15, God, through the prophet Samuel, sends Saul on a mission to exterminate the Amalekites. The instructions are explicit: don’t just kill the men, but the women and children also, and even the cattle – spare nothing and no one. Saul, first, sensitively warns the Kenites, a more friendly tribe, to dissociate themselves from the Amalekites, lest they be destroyed along with them. And he then makes vigorous war on the Amalekites, emerging victorious, with considerable booty including the Amalekite king as a captive and the choicest cattle.

For his disobedience, Samuel informs Saul, God has removed him from the kingship. Saul explains that the cattle he took were intended for sacrifice, but Samuel is not appeased: God doesn’t want sacrifices, He wants obedience. And Samuel, to demonstrate what Saul should have done, hacks Agag to pieces before his eyes.

So: for what sin was Saul punished with the loss of the kingdom?

Apparently, he was punished for failing to kill Agag and for failing to destroy all the Amalekite property. But my friend said: no. He was punished for murdering all those innocent women and children.

In general, while war is recognized as potentially a moral act (if it’s a matter of self-defense, for example), wanton slaughter of innocents is murder, and prohibited. In this instance, God has explicitly commanded such a slaughter, so it is not only permitted but mandatory. But it is only because this particular act is mandated by God directly that one could commit it without being condemned for murder. Since he failed to follow God’s command perfectly, Saul cannot expiate his guilt for the murders he committed by saying that he was only following God’s command. And he has no other defense. Therefore he is guilty of murder – and for this, he lost the kingdom.

To someone with the appropriate humility about his or her own moral perfection, such an approach to this difficult text is quite appealing. If you know you are a sinner, and imperfect, you have no business going around murdering people in God’s name; you cannot be sure that you are following His way perfectly, and if you aren’t, you’ll be condemned for murder. Better to leave such work to God Himself.

Unfortunately, the sorts of people who are likely to go around committing murder – or, more likely, suborning others into committing murder – in God’s name are precisely the sorts of people who are likely to delude themselves into thinking that they are without or beyond sin, and are indeed perfectly obedient vessels for God’s righteous commands.

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The First Step To Negotiating a Conflict Of Values Is Recognizing When Values Are In Conflict

Gonna try one more time on the subject of Catholic hospitals and the HHS rule, using Ross Douthat‘s, Kevin Drum‘s and Rod Dreher‘s thoughts as a jumping-off point.

What strikes me about each of their comments is that they don’t take seriously the question as a clash of values. From Drum’s perspective, the salient facts are that the Catholic Church is wildly out of step with contemporary culture on the question of the morality of contraception, and that providing insurance that covers contraception does not require anyone to use it. So it’s not a tough call: contraception is a positive good, deserving in a sufficiently wealthy society to be treated as a positive right, something nobody should be unable to obtain because of a lack of means, and a church that finds this positive good to be evil should only be able to impose its views on fellow communicants, not employees who likely don’t share the church’s bizarre view (even if those employees are Catholic).

From Douthat and Dreher’s perspective, meanwhile, contraception is readily available, so nobody is being deprived of access by the lack of insurance (and “insurance” isn’t even the right concept to apply here, since contraception isn’t a remedy for an unexpected condition comparable to treatments for disease). To the majority, it’s morally neutral, but to the Catholic church it’s morally abominable. To say to that church that all its good works count for nothing if it won’t provide this convenience to its employees is the equivalent of driving the observant Jewish community out of town so as to save the rest of the town a few minutes’ commute time, or forcing a Muslim-run hospital to sell Playboy in the gift shop.

In other words, the liberal side in this debate doesn’t take the Catholic Church’s objections to contraception seriously as a moral matter – it’s just a peculiar hangup of theirs – and the conservative side in this debate doesn’t take liberals’ support for a positive right to contraception seriously as a moral matter – contraception may be convenient and morally neutral, but it isn’t a positive good.

If this debate is really just about keeping the Catholic Church’s hands formally clean, then there should be a remedy that satisfies both sides, some kind of formality that could enable a Catholic hospital to say, honestly, that they aren’t directly providing coverage that they deem immoral, but that still gets employees that coverage (and still costs the employer the money). Money being fungible, I shouldn’t imagine such a workaround would be that difficult to engineer. But I don’t think this dispute is about formalities; it’s about the Catholic character of Catholic institutions. If you work for a Catholic hospital or a Catholic university, you are, in at least a peripheral way, joining a Catholic institution and therefore following Catholic norms. Those norms don’t follow you home; they don’t bind you, personally. But they do affect you, in a potentially consequential way.

Drum is right: granting an exemption to contraceptive coverage for employees on the grounds of religious objection to the practice is to dignify that objection, to recognize that it is sufficiently serious as to justify burdening those employees on a matter that, from a liberal perspective, is not trivial. To refuse is to say: no, we don’t dignify that objection. Feel free to follow those rules yourselves if you want, but you can’t burden your employees with them because we don’t recognize their moral logic.

I happen to think the Obama Administration got this one wrong – but that’s because while I disagree with the Catholic Church’s position on contraception, I recognize its moral logic. But I wouldn’t always make that judgment. Here’s an analogy that I think is quite strong: imagine that we live in a world where the Church of Scientology runs a substantial network of charter schools that do a remarkably good job educating poor students. Imagine that, in this world, employees pretty much have to get their health insurance from their employer (one of the things that the ACA is supposed to change, by the way, which is a non-trivial fact). And imagine that the Church of Scientology refuses to provide mental health coverage for employees in these schools. Should that be acceptable?

Clearly, if you don’t believe that there’s any kind of positive right to health insurance, it should be acceptable – employers should be allowed to do whatever they want. But assume you do believe that there should be such a positive right – that, in a wealthy enough society, nobody should be denied access to healthcare because of means. So: should it be okay to systematically disadvantage employees of Church of Scientology schools because that church has a weird hangup about mental health services?

Ultimately, the source of the conflict here is in holding simultaneously that health care is a right and that health coverage will be provided primarily by private employers. If you believe both of those things, then you have to coerce private employers into providing coverage that meets some kind of minimal standard. In our world, where some health care services are deemed morally problematic by some significant private employers, that would mean coercing those employers to violate their consciences. (By the way: what’s special about the Catholic Church in this regard? Does the strictly Catholic sole proprietor of a national pizza franchise lack a conscience? Why is it okay to coerce him into providing services he deems immoral, but not okay to coerce a Catholic hospital?) If you don’t want that level of coercion, then either you need to give up on the idea that health care is a right, or you need to give up on the idea that health coverage will be provided primarily by private employers.

I vote for giving up the second idea.

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Newt Gingrich Is No George McGovern

I agree with much of what Daniel Larison says about George Packer’s article, but I think there are a few other things wrong with the piece.

First, and most important, McGovern wasn’t just running “to the left” of the field of his day (though he was doing that). He was repudiating a central policy of the previous Democratic administration, a policy that the previous nominee could not escape association with and that the incumbent Republican administration had continued, albeit with significant changes. That policy was the Vietnam War.

The Presidency of George W. Bush hasn’t been mentioned much on the campaign trail this season, but that doesn’t mean his policies have been repudiated by the various contenders for the nomination – particularly not with respect to foreign policy and the ongoing “War on Terror” – with the exception of Ron Paul. The same can’t entirely be said for domestic policy – there has been some sniping at TARP, some criticism of the level of spending, but nothing resembling a sustained critique – except from Paul. If anybody fits the McGovern mold this time around, it’s Paul, not Gingrich.

Second, what’s interesting about the McGovern campaign is that he did, in a demographic sense, represent the future of the Democratic Party. The McGovern coalition is basically the coalition that brought Barack Obama to power; the difference between 1972 and 2008 is that this coalition is much larger than it used to be. By contrast, I have no sense that Gingrich represents the Republican coalition of the future. The South has been solidly Republican at the Presidential level for over a generation now, and Gingrich’s voters skew notably older. He may be a futurist in his own mind, but it’s a future that is already past.

Finally, I don’t think it’s really true that McGovern’s huge loss turned the Democrats back to the center. Jimmy Carter’s victories in the primaries and the general election were a bit of a fluke. In 1980, Carter faced the Kennedy insurgency. In 1984, the Democrats opted for Mondale – the definition of an old style coalition liberal – over centrist insurgent Gary Hart. In 1988, the victorious candidate was again something of a fluke – Dukakis was projecting a certain vision of centrism (“competence not ideology”) but he was hardly the leading representative of a centrist faction within the party. It wasn’t until Clinton’s victory in 1992 that the Democrats assembled a stable winning coalition around a new center – and around the emphatic commitment to governing from the center. And this new center was just the mature form of the old McGovern coalition.

Regardless of who the GOP lost with this year, I wouldn’t expect a profound soul searching. The Democrats had to lose a run of five out of six Presidential elections over two decades to thoroughly remake their party. If you want to know what will likely follow a Romney loss, take a look at what followed Dole’s loss in 1996.

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