Friday, January 09, 2015

A War of No Visible Prophet

The heinous murder of artists, journalists, staff and police officers at the offices of Charlie Hebdo has opened a new phase in the global paroxysm that began on 9/11. The Paris attack marks the emergence of a new and potentially dangerously effective strategy for the jihadist movement. As at 9/11, U.S. and allied leaders stand at a watershed moment, and their response to this crime will impact the course of global affairs for the next decade or more.

One of the problems that has most vexed observers and analysts of our post-9/11 world is that of the context in which jihadism should be understood. Who are the jihadis? Why have they emerged in the times and places in which they operate, and what drives them? Formulating an effective response to the challenge obviously resides in first answering such questions.

The answer that most profoundly shaped the initial international response to 9/11 was that posited by the White House as a corollary of the "Bush Doctrine."  President George W. Bush was careful to avoid identifying jihadism with Islam more generally, declaring that "[o]ur war on terrorism has nothing to do with differences in faith," and that groups like Al-Qaeda had "hijacked a great religion in order to justify their evil deeds."

But in formulating its rationale for the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration situated jihadism into an expansive context much broader than that of the material operation of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In this view, jihadism was an expression of a deep social pathology afflicting many Islamic nations, but particularly those of the Arab Middle East. If freedom and democracy could be forced to take root in that region, the effects would reverberate outward, eliminating the underlying causes of terrorism more effectively than the simple pursuit of terrorists where and when they act.

Whatever one's opinion of this concept, subsequent events have undermined its traction as a principle of policy. The human and material costs of spreading democracy in the Middle East through military occupation have proven politically unsustainable.  Though debates over the wisdom of ending the occupation of Iraq are likely to continue indefinitely, until some dramatically ameliorating effects are felt (in other words, until there are no more heinous terrorist attacks like that just perpetrated in Paris), there is virtually no likelihood that the U.S. or its allies will ever embark on a similarly conceived venture in the future. The chapter of post-9/11 global affairs in which the Bush Doctrine informed the response to jihadism is thus at a close.

From the outset, a dissident answer to the conundrum of jihadism was exemplified by critics like Michael Scheuer. A former CIA operative, Scheuer argued in his book Imperial Hubris that the Bush administration's analysis of jihadism as a sociocultural pathology was misguided. Terrorism, in his view, was motivated by anger at U.S. foreign policy, and the actions of a group like Al-Qaeda should be viewed as "blowback" for the meddling in and exploitation of Middle Eastern countries by the American government and American corporations.

Though this view has held sway in many parts of the American left (and libertarian right), it has never made a real impact on U.S. policy. It has arguably been waning in influence, moreover, and the recent tragedy in Paris will no doubt undermine its persuasive power as much as it does that of the Bush Doctrine. If we follow Scheuer, the root causes of terrorism could (and should) be alleviated by changes in the foreign policy of the U.S. and its allies. But the attack on Charlie Hebdo can not plausibly be interpreted as "blowback." Would the murderers of Stephane Charbonnier and his colleagues be any less motivated to "avenge the Prophet" if, say, the U.S. withdrew its support from Israel or stopped drone attacks in Pakistan?  The logic of blowback does not help us make sense of this crime, or formulate a meaningful response.

Another alternative explanation of the phenomenon of jihadism is exemplified by critics such as Samuel Harris. Harris is an atheist and a self-professed liberal, but ideas analogous to his can be found on all parts of the political spectrum- right and left, secular and religious, moderate and extreme. Though varying widely in tone and logical coherence, these formulations commonly reject President Bush's assertion that "our war on terrorism has nothing to do with differences in faith." In this view, the origins of terrorism can not be disaggregated from the doctrine and practice of Islam. Islam exhorts its followers to violent jihad against the infidel, thus on some level a struggle against groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS will inevitably and irreducibly be a struggle against Islam itself.

Unlike the "blowback" view, this perspective on the causes of and response to jihadism has been growing in influence, and is, understandably, likely to gain even more currency as a result of the murders in Paris.  The standard apologist response to the indictment against Islam, that jihadis like the murderers at Charlie Hebdo "are not real Muslims," is not credible in more than rhetorical terms. As Harris notes, many millions of Muslims, when polled as to whether transgressions such as defamation of the Prophet should be punishable by death, answer in the affirmative. Though there are scriptural and traditional precedents upon which one can draw to suggest that this view misunderstands the doctrine of Islam, there are likewise such resources that its proponents can cite in its defense. If, as we are forced to acknowledge, Islam is as Muslims do (and say), there is no way to completely acquit Islam of implication in the Paris murders and similar crimes.

However, though jihadis may be real Muslims, and though understanding and engaging their Muslim identity is necessary for anyone who would effectively oppose them, reconfiguring the struggle against jihadism as a response to "Islam" is fundamentally misguided. This is not because of some ethical imperative for religious tolerance or multicultural sensitivity. Rather, trying to defeat jihadism with a "war on Islam" ignores the basic logic of how religious traditions operate in human society and politics.

Any religious community, especially one as ancient, populous, and geographically dispersed as Islam, contains within it (in its scripture, rituals, literature, art, traditions, and institutions) a complex array of diverse and often mutually contradictory trends and imperatives. Is Islam a religion of "peace (the Arabic cognate of Islam- salaam)" or violent jihad? The only meaningful answer to this question is "yes."

At any given time, given the intrinsic volatility of human nature and the human condition,  almost all the potential tendencies of a religious tradition may be found in some part of its community. Thus in Christendom today we see Pope Francis I bathing the feet of prisoners in Rome while Terry Jones burns Korans in Florida, the Sisters of Charity nursing the sick in New York while the Lord's Army slaughters innocents in Uganda.  Parsing out which of these figures are "real Christians" is a futile exercise, and it is only slightly more so than trying to isolate the role of Christianity in their social conduct and profiles. Would any of these figures have acted in exactly the same manner if they were not Christian? Almost certainly not, but predicting how that difference would manifest itself is impossible.

The raw fact is that religion, pace the perspective of atheists like Samuel Harris, is an irreducible dimension of human social life. In everything we do, from the most mundane quotidian work to the most sublimely quixotic enterprises, we are faced with questions of ultimate value. Why does the world exist? What is life's purpose? How should we confront death? An individual may be able to go about his or her business without plumbing these questions too intently, but as soon as two or more people come together to attempt a project of even moderate complexity (build a house, start a family, found a city, wage a revolution) they require some sort of roughly consensual framework within which answers to these questions may be at least provisionally situated.

Every aspect of social life thus has at least a latent religious dimension, and every social project or conflict into which a community enters will implicate all of the religious commitments they have already made and any of the religious traditions they already inhabit. A Christian society that experiences some sort of trauma will respond in a way that expresses Christian values and traditions. But because Christianity is itself so multifaceted, and because people are ultimately free to select from, interpret, and transform their religion in ways that serve their perceived social interests and needs, the "Christian" responses to a crisis that emerge from the same community will almost invariably be numerous and mutually divergent. Every such moment of change thus constitutes three types of negotiation simultaneously: 1)a struggle over the new shape of society; 2)a struggle over the new relationship of religious to other social institutions; 3)a struggle over how the doctrines and practices of the religion will be interpreted moving forward.

Many cases could be taken to illustrate the point. That of Girolamo Savonarola, the charismatic Dominican friar who rose to become theocrat of fifteenth century Florence, is instructive. Italy at the time was in the throes of the Renaissance, a period of dramatic dislocation similar to our own age of globalization. Commercialization, urbanization, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the flourishing of humanist art and literature were radically transforming the shape of Italian society. As all such revolutions, it benefited some groups and individuals disproportionately, creating winners and losers. Savonarola gave voice to all those who felt left behind by the new order of things. He preached a return to fundamental Christian values of austerity, humility, community, and faith, a turning back of the Renaissance tide. He famously ordered a "bonfire of the vanities," in which all of the humanist art and literature Florence had created were set aflame.

Unfortunately for Savonarola, the Catholic Church had by that time become an enthusiastic participant in and beneficiary of the Renaissance revolution. His tirades against ecclesiastical wealth and worldliness set him at odds with Pope Alexander VI, who was busy employing artists and sculptors to adorn the Vatican. Both men were wholly and authentically Catholic. If one had used today's empirical methods to test them one might have found very little daylight between them on points of doctrine. For example, if asked in a survey "Is luxury a source of sin?" both men would almost certainly have answered "yes." Yet Alexander felt no qualms about issuing an order for Savonarola's excommunication from the splendor of his palace in Rome.

So did Christianity create Savonarola or destroy him (he burned at the stake on the orders of a clerical tribunal in 1498)? The answer, again, can only be "yes." He and Pope Alexander were engaged in a struggle over the shape of both Italy and Christianity. If Savonarola had won, the Reformation might never have occurred, and the Sistine Chapel might look more like a Quaker meeting house than the ornate masterpiece that stands today. The more secular among us may dismiss him as a figure who was hopelessly out of step with modernity, but his writings continue to be studied and respected by Christian theologians of all denominations today.

The position of jihadis in relation to the greater world of Islam today is an analogous case. The vast majority of victims killed by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadi groups were (and are) fellow Muslims. Some of this violence can be put down to sectarian or ethnic strife, but just as much of it is rooted in a contest over how Islamic values should be realized in society and politics (should civil law be taken from shar'iah? on whose authority? does Islam preclude the education of women, etc?), a conflict that is playing out among Muslims themselves much more intensely than between Muslims and "infidels." In the same way that one can not deny the authentic Muslim identity of Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one can not do so for that of Benazir Bhutto or Malala Yousafzai.

Given that we are witnessing a struggle for Islam within global Muslim society at large, it is supremely ill-advised for the leaders and citizens of the non-Muslim world to embark upon a struggle against Islam. Such a strategy can only strengthen the hand of those most hostile to pluralism and tolerance, and weaken those in the Muslim community most committed to peace and shared prosperity.  This fact is made clear by the jihadi strategy embodied in the most recent Paris attack.

Why target satirists?  Today's industrial democracies constitute a world in which "nothing is sacred," which is to say, one no longer inhabited by figures or institutions possessed of the total and unrestrained power wielded in the fifteenth century by Pope Alexander (or more recently by figures like Hitler or Franco). The postmodern denizens of this world can no longer venerate any symbol or value with complete sincerity, in part out of suspicion of possible abuse. Thus matters of ultimate significance can only be genuinely cast in ironic and satirical terms,  and the freedom to lampoon icons or institutions has become one of the last unequivocally cherished ideals of the social contract. 

For those living in countries like Syria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, this state of affairs is an inscrutable enigma. It is not merely the suppression of free speech that gives rise to this incomprehension, but the cultural dynamics of power with which many Muslims have to contend. To someone living under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, or Saddam Hussein, the sacrosanct status of Muslim icons and institutions provided the little latitude for safe movement and communication to be found in an otherwise lethally repressive society: some slight shelter from the secret police and the torturer could be sought in the mosque. The failure of such protections, moreover, was invariably cataclysmic and deadly serious, as when thousands were slaughtered in Hama, Syria to punish local Islamists in 1982.  We might hope that those living in this environment would yet object to the murders at Charlie Hebdo, but it would be a far stretch to expect them to understand the reasons for the anguish and outrage occasioned by this act in France, the U.S. and elsewhere.

This is the pernicious logic underpinning the Paris murders. On this issue in particular, many Muslims and non-Muslims are viewing one-another as if through a funhouse mirror, ill-equipped to understand one another's perspective. The terrorists who planned and ordered the Paris attack have discovered a perfect leverage point at which to drive a wedge between Muslim and non-Muslim society. Because the power of jihadis requires the maximally illiberal configuration of social and political forces in their own countries, and because they understand that Islamic identity is one of the few sources of personal empowerment experienced by multitudes throughout the Middle East, jihadis hope to enlist non-Muslims to broadcast the message that liberal values and Islam are fundamentally incompatible. Groups like ISIS are confident that people forced to choose between Islam and liberal ideals will choose Islam, and that the Islam that emerges from that negotiation will perfectly facilitate jihadi control of state and society.

This is a trap that the U.S. and its allies should obviously avoid. But how, then, to respond? In the short term, we should protect our artists, journalists, and entertainers from further attacks, as there are bound to be more. Even if fear dampens the impulse to satire, jihadis are likely to search out any expression that can be construed as offensive to Islam and make its authors a target. We should not allow such provocations to be fulfilled. Every threat must be treated seriously, every care taken to prevent tragedy.

In the wider scheme of things, America and its allies should refuse to engage the jihadis on their own terms. ISIS and Al-Qaeda declare that the goals Muslims care about- Palestinian independence, the liberation of Syria from the Assad regime, a fairer distribution of the Middle East's wealth- can only be realized through a holy war to establish a particular kind of restrictive religious order. As long as these goals remain unrealized and out of reach, jihadis are empowered to exploit the resulting disaffection, disunity and strife to seize control of the societies in which they operate. If the U.S. uses its political, economic, and (with due deference to the lesson of the failures of the Bush Doctrine) military power to effect meaningful change in these arenas, the support Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadi groups currently enjoy will erode out from under them. A holy war is a war that jihadis will invariably win. To defeat the jihadis, we should not undertake a struggle against Islam, but work to foster the conditions that will secure a positive outcome in the ongoing struggle for Islam.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Murdering Laughter

The murder of twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, is an unforgivable crime. Ten of the twelve victims- Frédéric Boisseau, Cabu, Elsa Cayat, Charb, Honoré, Bernard Maris, Moustapha Ourad, Michel Renaud, Tignous, and Wolinski, were artists, editors, columnist and staff members in the employ of the magazine. Two policemen, Merabet Ahmed and Franck Brinsolaro, were also killed in the line of duty.  Humor has always been the chief target of those who purvey hatred and oppression, as laughter is one of the most powerfully subversive of human faculties. But humor is also one of the dimensions of our world that makes life most worth living. It thus takes a uniquely vicious sort of monster to destroy laughter. The images that Charlie Hebdo published were transgressive and provocative. But they were also funny in the most profound way. I post two of them here in memory of the slain.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Islam, Modernity, and Culture

I have occasionally found myself in arguments over the question of whether Hitler was an atheist. These conflicts usually stem from the larger proposition that religion is a unique source of human woe, without which society would be much improved. Those who take this view are often deeply invested in the proposition that Hitler was a "believer" of one stripe or another. The question should be moot, as even if Hitler is retired, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others are waiting in the wings to exemplify atheistic mass-murder. But the Nazis so prepossess our collective imagination (ergo "Godwin's Law") that the state of Hitler's belief looms large in the universe of empirical tests.

In the years since 9/11 the greater question of religion's social role has tended, in the discourse of pundits and politicos, to focus ever more narrowly on the subject of Islam, a trend that has accelerated as groups like Boko Haram and ISIS began seizing headlines with lurid acts of terror. Commentators such as Sam Harris have made a cottage industry of critiquing Islam as a political and historical force.  The quality of such commentary has varied widely. As Kenan Malik observes in today's New York Times, "this debate remains trapped between bigotry and fear."

Malik insists, however, that the problem must be substantively addressed. As a cultural historian I agree with him on that score, though I depart from what I see as his implied conclusions.  Malik rejects liberal apologists, declaring that each recent act of terror "tells us something about the character of contemporary Islam and of Islamism..." More specifically, Malik views groups like ISIS as the aberrant legates of earlier militants: "Anti-imperialists of the past saw themselves as part of a wider political project that sought to modernize the non-Western world, politically and economically. Today, however... it is radicals who often regard modernity as a Western product, and reject both it and the West as tainted goods....The consequence has been the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage against modernity...[I]t is radical Islam that has become the lightning rod for this fury."

Islam would thus appear culpable in Malik's analysis, either for turning its adherents against modernity, or at least for lacking the wherewithal to constructively confront modernity: "What jihadism does not possess is the moral and philosophical framework that guided anti-imperialist movements. Shorn of that framework, and reduced to raging at the world, jihadists have turned terror into an end in itself."

Malik is no doubt right that groups like ISIS "have turned terror into an end in itself," but one may still ask whether this malignancy expresses a particular flaw in the culture of Islam. In this regard (pace Godwin's Law) I would argue that the case of Nazi Germany is a relevant comparison. Nazism (and Fascism more generally) expressed pent-up anger against social and economic trends that had been building for decades or centuries and that continue today. Many of the discontents with modernity that Malik ascribes to modern jihadists ("from individualism to globalization, from the breakdown of traditional cultures to the fragmentation of societies, from the blurring of moral boundaries to the seeming soullessness of the contemporary world") were likewise complaints of Hitler and the Nazi party.

The question of whether modern jihadism embodies some deep structural flaw in Islam is thus exactly analogous to the question of whether Nazism embodied some deep structural flaw in German culture or religion. In both cases one is confronted with an obvious empirical conundrum. These flaws, if they exist, do not express themselves similarly in others partaking of the same traditions, such as the Muslims of New York and Kuala Lumpur or the Germans of 1850 and 2015. 

Such questions, in the final analysis, misconstrue the way religion  and culture more generally operate in human society. It is true that a religion like Islam shapes peoples' outlooks and influences their choices. But at the same time any tradition, especially one as venerable and diverse as Islam, presents the community that perpetuates and uses it with an exquisitely complex array of resources for the structuring of personal and collective life. The choices particular communities make in activating and mobilizing those resources completely transform the complexion of the tradition from era to era or from place to place, potentially making it a force for peace and prosperity in one instance, strife and despair in another. Any critique of a tradition like Islam must thus proceed with sensitivity to this dynamic process always at work: the community shaping the tradition even as the tradition influences the community.

In this respect, Malik's assertion that "jihadism does not possess...the moral and philosophical framework that guided anti-imperialist movements" is inaccurately intransitive, at least as "jihadism" relates to Islam more generally. If jihadism lacks such resources it is because leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have deliberately excised the ideas of Islamic reformers such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and Mahmud Shaltut, in the same way Hitler disowned German liberals such as Dietrich Boenhoeffer and Martin Niemöller.

In understanding the political misuses of tradition, the comparison between modern jihadists and the twentieth-century's Nazis is instructive. In the same way that jihadists idealize terror as "an end unto itself," the Nazis treated industrial murder as an ultimate purpose, requiring no justification beyond mass extermination for its own sake. It is this similarity that intuitively upsets anti-religious polemicists at the suggestion that Hitler was an atheist. The commonality in the political programs of these groups, however, is not rooted in some basic affinity between Nazi and Muslim "faith," but in the ways in which Nazis and jihadists appropriate and utilize German and Islamic traditions.

Ironically, the most striking similarity between Nazis and jihadists (and other similarly malevolent historical actors) is their understanding of culture itself- what might be called a "meta-cultural affinity." Both groups attribute the origins of culture to forces beyond human agency, to God in the case of jihadists, to "race" in the case of the Nazis. This is why both groups make such a fetish of annihilation. It does not matter that great wonders like the Bamiyan Buddhas are blasted to smithereens or that whole civilizations are wiped out. Since we bear no ultimate responsibility for cultural works, our role here and now is only to destroy, God/racial forces can be trusted to replace whatever is lost.

This is the lesson that history affords. Since any tradition, religious or otherwise, is a vital process continually reshaped by our choices, any can become a malignant force, and none more so than when we choose to abdicate our responsibility for and ongoing role in its shape and growth. It is in this light that I find the perspective of Islam's current critics, even one as sophisticated as Malik, unproductively reductionist. A religious tradition arises through a negotiation, not only among its adherents, but also with those outsiders amidst whom they live and with whom they interact. If we non-Muslims rest complacent in propositions like "contemporary Islam lacks a framework for dealing with modernity," we minimize the human agency of Muslims in ways common in kind (if not degree) to the doctrines of ISIS and Boko Haram. Better to expose and condemn the philosophical errors of particular Muslims than to lend fuel to their delusions with a blanket condemnation of the entire tradition that they misuse.

 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Kim Jong-un Can Kiss My Tuchus

I am distraught over the decision by Sony executives to cancel the release of "The Interview" in the face of North Korean intimidation. If it were only an issue of free speech or free commerce that would be bad enough. The shame of belonging to the generation that folded in the face of hacked emails and veiled threats while Pearl Harbor and Omaha Beach are still living memories is hard to bear. But it is the precedent that this capitulation sets that is truly intolerable. If North Korea can get everything it wants and more from this piddling act of terrorism, to what lengths will the next bully that doesn't like some aspect of U.S. culture go? A great American once warned against the capacity of fear to feed upon and perpetuate itself, and I wonder if our cravenness in this instance will plant a seed that will bear terrible fruit in years to come.

The custodians of the marketplace have failed us in this instance. It is up to us as individuals and citizens to redress this wrong. I hesitated to write this blog, as I am as vulnerable as anyone to cyber-mischief. But that hesitancy itself reinforced my distress at the insidiousness of this attack. So many of us now live, in part, on the internet. Thus, in subjecting Sony to digital retribution the North Koreans deliberately telegraphed that they can get to anyone.

There is only one answer for it. It has become the patriotic duty of every American (indeed, every citizen of the world) to publicly insult Kim Jong-un. If enough people do it, in blog posts, Twitter feeds, Facebook statuses, and other media, it will be impossible for the North Korean gestapo to retaliate against everyone.

I deliberated over whether I should title my blog "Kim Jong-un Can Kiss My Ass." It is true that the English insult is more immediately recognizable, so perhaps I have cravenly bought myself some cover by hiding behind a less widely familiar phrase. But it is not my fault if the North Korean espionage community is both vicious and clueless. Besides, if they are going to try to police comedy they had better buy themselves a Yiddish dictionary.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

All We Are Saying Is Forget Peace, Give Statehood a Chance

Over the summer, moved by the crisis in Israel and Gaza, I posted an open letter to my fellow Jews, pleading that we should support Israel by working for Palestinian statehood. Much of the response was positive and supportive. Among those who responded negatively, the chief complaint was generally some version of "but they want to kill us."

This objection underscores the need for a fundamental re-conceptualizing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though the resolution of this conflict does hinge upon a two-state solution, the assumption that the road to Palestinian statehood should be coterminus with a "peace process" is false. Because the possibility of peace depends upon Palestinian statehood, we have become accustomed to believe that peace is the necessary condition for a two state solution; that the fighting must stop before Palestinian sovereignty is acknowledged or achieved. This belief must be discarded.

The raw fact is that peace may never come, but for Israel to survive a two-state solution must come. Interminable occupation is not sustainable. However powerful Israel may be right now, given world enough and time the occupation will erode the foundations of Israeli state and society to the point of collapse. On the other side of the coin, annexation of the West Bank and Gaza is likewise not a path to Israeli survival. Unless that hypothetical "Greater Israel" practiced a form of intolerable apartheid, annexation would result in a new binational state that was majority Palestinian. While that might be fair, it would not be Israel, and it might not be practically sustainable given the hostility between Jews and Palestinians.

Israel and its supporters must stop thinking of a two-state solution as part-and-parcel with the "peace process," and instead view it as the core component of the "survival process." Indeed, a two-state solution is the next necessary step in any strategy to ultimately defeat extremist groups like Hamas. As long as the occupation continues, Hamas and its ilk will continue to have a critical mass of support in Palestine and abroad. Only when Palestinian sovereignty is achieved will the destructive consequences of Hamas's anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism begin to fatally erode its position in Palestinian society.

If Palestinian statehood were a greater threat to Israeli survival than the status quo I would oppose a two-state solution, but the reverse is true. Palestinian statehood will not appease Arab hatred of Israel or redress all of the Palestinian grievances that have inspired violence. While a formal state of war may not break out between independent Palestine and Israel, hostilities will certainly persist, perpetuated by elements within both Israeli and Palestinian society. The early months and years of Palestinian statehood might unfortunately be much more violent and destructive than even the recent crisis.

Even so, "but they want to kill us" is not an argument against a two-state solution. Palestinian statehood will not produce peace, but it will materially degrade the offensive capacity of Israel's enemies. With Palestinian sovereignty, much of the international opposition to Israel (embodied by groups like BDS) would evaporate. Even the worst case scenario, in which Hamas takes over the government of an independent Palestine, would ultimately work in Israel's favor. The governments of the Arab world loath Hamas only slightly less vehemently than Israel and its allies. A Palestine led by Hamas would find itself completely isolated and abandoned, finally giving the Palestinian people the motivation to dispose of Hamas root-and-branch.

There are many reasons why Palestinian statehood has not yet been achieved. Among these, however, the failure of political will on the part of Israel and its supporters has been central. This flaw stems in part from the false conflation of a two-state solution and peace as mutually co-dependent goals. Palestinian statehood is necessary, not because it will procure certain peace, but because it is the only way to vouchsafe Israel's survival. Thus to anyone who cares about Israel's future I say again: we must support Israel, we must work to establish a Palestinian state.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Erdogan is not the Problem

As ISIS forces descend on the Kurdish city of Kobani, the Obama White House is reportedly "furious" at the refusal of the Turkish military to intervene. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, has insisted that the United States must provide greater assistance to the Free Syrian Army and must declare a no-fly zone over Syria for the air force of the Asssad regime before Turkey will commit troops to the conflict. Turkey obviously has ulterior motives for refusing aid to the Kurds, but the self-righteous posture of the Obama administration is nonetheless unfounded and ill-conceived.

To any informed political observer, President Erdogan's demand for a no-fly zone over Syria is entirely predictable. One cannot pretend that fighting ISIS does not implicate oneself in the Syrian civil war- they are not mutually alienable endeavors. If the U.S.-led coalition attacks ISIS without taking steps against the Assad regime, it will (despite any rhetorical denials) be intervening in favor of an Iranian-backed dictatorship that has ruthlessly poisoned its own people. No one can be surprised that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man whose career has been built on the claim of being a champion of Sunni Islam, is seeking to avoid this kind of political morass. Anyone shocked by Erdogan's refusal to appear a pawn of U.S. policy and a traitor to the Sunni cause is either hopelessly naive, willfully ignorant, or both at once.

Erdogan's reticence, moreover, has good strategic basis beyond the surface politics of the situation.  As I have written in previous posts, the pursuit of a campaign against ISIS without concomitant action against the Assad regime is hopelessly impractical. President Obama has admitted as much in his stance toward the Iraqi government. If, as Obama has insisted, the formation of a government more inclusive of Sunnis is crucial to eroding the political support of ISIS in Iraq, a nation which is only twenty percent Sunni, how can the case be any different in Syria, where Sunnis make up three quarters of the population? As long as the Assad regime seems secure, a critical portion of the Syrian population will give at least tacit to support to ISIS. That support will only flee ISIS once the Assad regime is clearly on the way out. President Erdogan thus does not want to commit ground forces to a struggle that, absent the necessary strategic commitments, is doomed to indefinite stalemate.

If America genuinely wants to see the demise of ISIS it can not remain myopically focused on the group as a purely tactical challenge. We helped create the problem, which has complex social and political roots, and we can not bully the people of the Middle East into cleaning it up on our terms and our terms alone.  We have to commit to a more global resolution of the tensions and conflicts that are destabilizing the region, and we must allow the groups and agents that share our interests to pursue their own agendas within the scope of what is fair and politically sustainable. Instead of rolling our eyes and mocking leaders like President Erdogan, we should be listening, weighing the merits of his position, and prepared to negotiate.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Umbrella Revolution

The courage and tenacity of the demonstrators in Hong Kong must both inspire and frighten informed observers watching events unfold from afar. The drama is inspiring because the proponents of the Umbrella Revolution are fighting for reforms that are both profoundly just and sorely needed, not only in Hong Kong but in the People's Republic of China more generally. It is frightening because anyone who remembers the events of June 4, 1989 can not help but fear for the lives and safety of the young people protesting today.

Because the peril is so real, it was a relief to see the government deadline this morning pass without violence. The stakes are very high for the government in Beijing. The pressures pulling China' s leaders in both directions- toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict on the one hand and a violent suppression of the movement on the other- are so intense that it is very difficult to predict how Beijing will respond or how the situation will ultimately be resolved.

Economic incentives drive Beijing toward non-violent means. The hard currency that flows into China through Hong Kong's financial markets is a major driver of growth and prosperity. Violence and instability that undermines investor confidence would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Some political factors also constrain Beijing. The people of Taiwan see a mirror in the current crisis that they quite naturally assume reflects their own potential future. Taiwan already has its own autonomous and democratically elected government. Any Taiwanese wondering how much of that institutional structure the island would be able to retain in any hypothetical reunification with Beijing could be forgiven for concluding that the answer will soon come from Hong Kong. Why would Beijing tolerate more democracy and self rule in Taibei than in Kowloon?  A violent repression of the Umbrella Revolution will undoubtedly strengthen the hand of independence advocates in Taiwan, a development that could lead to a cross-straits crisis with broad international repercussions.

But other factors drive Beijing in the opposite direction, toward intransigence and, perhaps, violence. Where Beijing might want to project a face of tolerance and accommodation to the people of Taiwan, it has every interest in sending a contrary message to political activists in Xinjiang and Tibet. After sentencing Ilham Tohti, a Uighur scholar, to life in prison for having the temerity to promote the study of his own language and literature, Beijing's leaders can have no illusion about the dangerously mixed signals they will send by compromising with any movement promoting regional empowerment.

Economic conditions also complicate the pressures shaping Beijing's response to the Umbrella Revolution. Hong Kong enjoys a vastly greater per capita GDP than the rest of mainland China ($52,700 US as opposed to $9,800), thus one of the issues at stake is how much control the people of Hong Kong will have over the revenue that is extracted from them in the form of taxes. If Beijing controls the political leadership of Hong Kong, it retains power over the pipeline redistributing wealth from Hong Kong to the rest of China (of which Beijing is a prime beneficiary), and can dictate the rate at which that stream flows.

This might not be enough to move Beijing to violence, were it not for the fact that Hong Kong's fiscal relationship to Beijing, though exceptional in degree, is far from unique in kind. The per capita GDP of ALL of China's coastal cities, especially those south of the Yangtze River, is vastly higher than that of the interior and northern regions of the PRC. The one exception to this rule is Beijing, which has the highest per capita GDP of any region of China outside of Hong Kong: a situation created and sustained by the steady flow of tax revenue from the south and coast to the capital.  Any compromise with the people of Hong Kong could be the match that sets off a powder keg of resentments fostered by the forcible transfer of wealth from the south and coast to the north and interior.

Beyond these considerations, it is lost on no one that many of the demands of the Occupy Central movement echo those of the Tiananmen protesters twenty-five years ago. If the CCP accommodates the aspirations of the young activists in Hong Kong, it might open a Pandora's box that reveals similar hopes still alive among students in Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing itself. China's leaders can not feel sanguine about that possibility.

However this crisis plays out, it has presaged the eventual demise of the Faustian bargain at the heart of the current Chinese social contract. Beijing has operated under the assumption that demands for political reform can be forestalled by continued economic growth and increasing prosperity. Hong Kong demonstrates that this assumption is false. Hong Kong's people already enjoy vastly greater prosperity than the majority of China's citizens, yet the prospect of losing that wealth has not deterred them from demanding democracy and autonomy. Indeed, it is the desire to protect and sustain their economic good fortune that drives them to agitate so urgently for democratic reform. However compliant the people of the rest of the PRC may be for the time being, eventually (after however many years or decades) they will arrive at the same place the people of Hong Kong are at right now: viewing political reform as a non-negotiable necessity.

For this reason (among others) the leaders of the PRC should be very cautious and circumspect in their response to the Umbrella Revolution. They face a choice that may well determine whether the inevitable evolution of the Chinese state and polity unfolds peacefully and progressively or violently and tragically. As they weigh their options they should know that the world, and history, are watching.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

ISIS and Assad: Two Parts of the Same Problem

When , on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, President Obama addressed the nation about the threat of ISIS, it underscored the extent to which the world has changed and the parameters of foreign policy have shifted. Today the U.S. is faced with a complex and volatile globe. It is a world in which there are no easy choices or simple solutions.

The threat of ISIS is real and the President struck the right tone in signalling America's determination to confront it. It was also reassuring to hear the President declare that U.S. action against ISIS would not be undertaken in cooperation with or to the benefit of the Assad regime in Syria. But such circumspection concerning the Assad regime will not suffice in formulating a credible and effective strategy against ISIS. ISIS and the Assad regime are mutually reinforcing pathologies, and neither one of them can be redressed in isolation from the other.

This principle is a natural extension of the President's own logic. He insisted that the Iraqis had to form a new, more inclusive government as a precondition for US assistance against ISIS, on the assertion that the exclusive and discriminatory policies of the al-Maliki regime had fueled ISIS's rise. As I wrote previously, this argument was empirically weak, as the Iraqi military's lack of air power goes much farther toward explaining why it performed so badly against ISIS than the political profile of the al-Maliki government.

Where a political explanation is not persuasive in the case of Iraq, however, it is virtually the only way to understand ISIS's purchase in Syria. The Assad regime has all of the modern weaponry that the Iraqis lack, and at one time controlled Syrian society with an iron fist. The only reason ISIS has been able to invest so much Syrian territory despite the overwhelming tactical advantage of the Assad regime and its military is that, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the legitimacy of the Assad government has collapsed in the eyes of a critical majority of Syria's people, who will no longer tolerate living under its rule.

If there was ever any argument that political change was necessary in Iraq in order to contend with ISIS (and there admittedly was, albeit provisionally), that argument is exponentially more forceful in the case of Syria. President Obama promises to bring massive U.S. air power against ISIS, and this is no doubt the right course. But events in Syria up to now prove that air power will not be enough. The Syrian government, which is much closer to the scene of ISIS's activity and has greater intelligence and human assets to bring to bear, has been using air power against ISIS to no avail. As long as the Syrian people perceive ISIS to be an effective opponent to the Assad regime (that is, as long as the Assad regime exists), they will provide ISIS with enough support to survive in the face of superior firepower.

Final defeat of ISIS will thus require a strategy that combines tactical and political elements. If the U.S. is to truly commit to the final destruction of ISIS, it must simultaneously commit to an end to the Syrian civil war. If the threat posed by ISIS was so grave that we could refuse protection to Iraq, an ally we had occupied for 10 years, in order to assure the conditions for ISIS's defeat, it is a short leap to insist that the Syrian government, one which has been hostile to the U.S. for decades, must undertake changes in the interest of U.S. national security.

Whether the U.S. acknowledges it or not, by declaring war on ISIS it has become a combatant in the Syrian civil war. As such, it should explicitly lay out the terms of its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Effective immediately Syria should be declared a no-fly zone for the aircraft of the Assad regime. Assad forces should understand that if they launch ground operations against the Free Syrian Army or its allies they will be met with American air strikes. If Bashar al-Assad steps down and his regime submits to negotiations for the formation of a unity government with the Syrian National Council, a reconstituted Syrian military (and its air force) could join in partnership with the U.S. and its allies in the fight against ISIS. Unless and until that occurs the Syrian government should be treated as a hostile force.

These are audacious and risky policies, but they are the only course that has any hope of redressing the threat posed by ISIS. Any attempt to impose a purely tactical solution on the situation in Syria will result in an endless quagmire. Until the problem posed by the Assad regime is finally redressed, the chaos created by ISIS will continue to spin further out of control.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Wages of Retrocolonialism

If there were ever any doubts that ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) poses a threat to the international community, or that they are on a direct train, fast or slow, to the scrapheap of history, the vicious murder of journalist James Foley should have dispelled them. As clear as the problem may be, however, its causes and possible remedies remain murky in the discussions of pundits and politicians. The scramble to both assign blame and appear decisive in response has, predictably, produced a muddle of implausible diagnoses and cures.

Though there are many dimensions of this discourse one might examine, the discussion of American policy toward Syria is a particularly illuminating point of departure.  Critics of the Obama administration fault the president for failing to arm the moderate Syrian opposition. The president responded to this criticism by noting that: "[The idea of] farmers dentists and folks who have never fought before going up against...ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy. And I think it's very important for the American people - but maybe more importantly, Washington and the press corps - to understand that."

The empirical case supporting the president's reasoning here is very strong. If the Iraqi military, trained and armed by the United States for a decade, could not defeat ISIS during the battle for Mosul, it is foolish to insist that a small ragtag band of Syrian militia could fare well against ISIS given some fraction of that support. However, this type of logic only yields good results if it is applied rigorously and consistently.

Alongside his credible assessment of the Free Syrian Army's chances against ISIS, President Obama has been adamant in insisting that the key cause for the rise of ISIS was the exclusive and discriminatory policies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki: "The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government — one that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis." Inclusiveness and toleration are no doubt virtues that would serve any government well, but the idea that they could have prevented the rise (or can hasten the defeat) of ISIS is dubious, as demonstrated by the experience of neighboring Syria. No one would call the government of President Bashar al-Assad a model of inclusiveness, but his army was making gains in the field against ISIS even as Mosul fell. If one is going to compare apples to apples, as President Obama did in juxtaposing the Free Syrian Army to the Iraqi military, one must likewise assess the performance of Nuri al-Maliki's government against the other government that has opposed ISIS, that of Bashar al-Assad.

What could explain the disparity between Syrian and Iraqi military performance against ISIS? I would suggest that there is a rather simple answer that policy makers and commentators on all parts of the political spectrum have largely ignored.

By the end of 2013, the Syrian Air Force had 469 combat and reconnaissance planes in operation, mainly consisting of MiG-21 and MiG-23 jets. The Iranian Air Force has more than 600 fighter jets of various types. The emirate of Oman, a country of roughly four million people, has 12 American F-16 and 10 British Hawk 203 fighter jets, and is expecting delivery of another dozen British Eurofighter Typhoons.

At the time that ISIS captured the city of Mosul, the Iraqi air force had only two planes, both Cessna prop planes modified to carry Hellfire missiles. This last fact is key to understanding the current crisis in Mesopotamia and the Levant. It exemplifies the culture of error that has driven U.S. policy since the 9/11 attacks.

Why would the Republic of Iraq, a country of more than thirty-six million people, once home to one of the world's largest military forces, engaged in a decade-long civil war, be possessed of only two propeller-driven Cessna planes to serve as its air defense? What nation would risk being so lightly armed? The answer, of course, is that no sovereign nation would.

Air power is what distinguishes the army of a sovereign state from the paramilitary and insurgent forces that have proliferated since the end of the Cold War. Modern foot soldiers maintain discipline and mission focus in the face of extremely hostile circumstances, in part, because they know they can count on the logistical and tactical support of a sophisticated air wing. In 2014, an army that goes into battle with two armed Cessnas is not a real army, and the government commanding that army is not a real government. Is it any wonder that men who knew they were part of a fake army fighting in the name of a fake government should lose morale and break ranks when faced with a comparably armed force driven to suicidal frenzy by religious fervor?

This circumstance trumps all other variables in discussing the career of ISIS leading up to and beyond the capture of Mosul. Arguments over the training of the Iraqi military or the retention of U.S. combat forces in Iraq are rendered pointless by the raw reality of Iraq's neutered air defense. If the U.S. had kept 50,000 soldiers in Iraq until 2025 and only then left Iraq armed with two Cessna planes, by 2028 the country would have descended into a civil war just as destructive as we see today.

The fact that Iraq lacks a credible air defense has nothing to do with the wishes of anyone in Baghdad, it was mandated in Washington. Washington has refused to allow Iraq to arm itself because that would put Iraqi politics totally beyond the control of the United States. Some of this is no doubt an expression of the soft bigotry of low expectations. U.S. leaders do not trust Iraqis to manage their own affairs, thus they deny them the tools to genuinely do so even as they spout rhetoric about Iraqi accountability.

The absurdity of the situation, however, is driven to a large degree by systemic factors intrinsic to American politics. Since the 2003 invasion U.S. elected officials have been politically liable for the performance of the Iraqi government.  This vulnerability has driven American policy decisions, not only in Iraq, but in the larger Middle East, for most of the Bush and all of the Obama presidencies. An American leader contemplating giving fighter jets to Baghdad has to worry about the prospect of their being used against the Kurdish regime in Erbil. Giving planes to the Kurds might result in their being used against the Turks. The downing of a Malaysian airliner by Russian separatists in the Ukraine provided an object lesson in the unpredictable volatility of war by proxy, and American leaders are accountable to forces (the media, the political parties, the voting public, etc.) with which Vladimir Putin need not contend.

All of this is to say that Colin Powell's oft-quoted "Pottery Barn" rule ("You break it, you bought it") did not nearly approximate the policy vexation confronting the U.S. in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. By expending so much blood and treasure on the dismantling of Iraqi state and society, the US assumed an exquisitely tangled complex of horizons of virtually infinite liability. The question of how to maneuver amid so many pitfalls of shifting contingency has predictably resulted in a general climate of paternalism and paralysis.

The neoconservative dream was to turn Iraq into a democratic, sovereign ally of the United States. The nightmare that ensued in the wake of the U.S. invasion has turned Iraq into something entirely different. U.S. policy toward Iraq does not merit the label "colonialism," as U.S. leaders have eschewed the level of responsibility and engagement of a genuine colonial metropole. Neither can it be called "neocolonialism," as it is far more intrusive than any cases previously falling under that rubric. Instead, since the invasion of Iraq U.S. policy has embarked upon a kind of "retrocolonialism," an attempt to exercise all of the control of an old colonial power with none of the effort or sacrifice.

This has predictably led to tragic consequences, of which the rise of ISIS is only the most recent and alarming. Moreover, despite the ample evidence of folly, the U.S. seems incapable of changing course. This may be because the remedy for the ills of retrocolonialism is counter-intuitive. If we are suffering now for aspiring to too much control with too little effort, the answer is not disengagement, but a full reversal of the dysfunctional dynamic: less control, MORE effort.

What would this entail? "Less control" is fairly self-explanatory. The U.S. must begin to trust the people of Iraq, Syria, and the Arab world more generally to run their own affairs and conduct their own politics. But this does not mean that the U.S. should abdicate all engagement or influence in Middle Eastern affairs. If there are groups whose interests align with our own, we should assist them even if the results of that assistance are unpredictable and beyond our ultimate control.

Syria provides a case in point. President Obama is correct that providing small arms to the Free Syrian Army would have produced dubious results against ISIS. But that is because, in its dealings with the FSA, the U.S. has remained focused on getting it to do what is in America's interest rather than on assisting it (and the larger Syrian resistance of which it is a part) to achieve its goals. The FSA might be a much larger and more powerful force today (and ISIS much weaker) if, from the outset, America had committed robustly and decisively to the resolution of the Syrian civil war. If the U.S. had declared a no-fly zone over Syria in 2011 or 2012, the FSA might have enjoyed the same success against the Syrian military (deprived of an air wing as the Iraqi military is today) as ISIS did more recently in the assault on Mosul.

We did not provide that kind of robust assistance to the Syrian resistance in 2011 because we could not control the ultimate outcome of the Syrian civil war, and feared that the fall of the Assad regime might empower militant Islamists. Yet despite all that caution, ISIS is more powerful in 2014 than any Islamist group in 2011 or indeed ever in history. We must begin to understand that, in the wake of the Arab Spring, groups like ISIS are as empowered by American inaction and disengagement as anything the U.S. might do.

ISIS's ideology and strategic culture (for example, its ability to motivate members to engage in suicide attacks) makes it uniquely effective in an assymetrical struggle like the Syrian civil war. The longer that war dragged on and the more desperate the position of the resistance became, the greater the ranks of ISIS grew. For all its new strength, however, ISIS has not been able to defeat the well-armed Assad regime. It has thus shifted focus to the "soft targets" of Baghdad and Erbil. Even here, its success has been provisional. Though the Iraqi military forfeited the majority Sunni city of Mosul, when Baghdad was threatened, volunteer Shi'ite militias were able to check ISIS's advance. All of this indicates that though the extraordinary circumstances of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring have given ISIS remarkable momentum, there are powerful forces within Iraqi and Syrian society that constrain and counteract ISIS's advance. If the U.S. hopes to defeat ISIS in the long term, it must trust those forces and lend them robust aid, even in the absence of short-term control over outcomes.

"Trust" is the crucial word here. If we are to genuinely trust the Iraqi government, we must allow it to become fully sovereign and develop all of the military capabilities of a nation-state. If we are to trust the Free Syrian Army we must not only provide them with small arms, but assist them with air power in all of their operations, not only against ISIS but also against the Damascus regime.

Already some pundits are squawking that we should partner with the Assad government in Damascus in the fight against ISIS. This is the same kind of retrocolonial thinking that has led us down the primrose path to the current crisis. The Assad regime is a known quantity, so goes this reasoning, while the victory of the Free Syrian Army would create an unpredictable and uncontrollable situation that might bring into power Islamist groups with which the FSA is still allied. This paternalism can lead nowhere good. Conspiring to impose upon the Syrian people a regime they have fought and died to remove will rebound back upon the United States in ways that are impossible to foresee, but the severity of which are pictured in the disgraceful murder of James Foley.  Less control, more effort, more trust.  If the U.S. ever hopes to set its policy orientation toward the Arab world on a functional footing, it must begin to trust the Arab people themselves, and understand the role they play in determining their own destiny. 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

An Open Letter to My Fellow Jews



Dear Friends,

        Like you I am grief stricken by recent tragic events in Israel and Gaza.  Our community is as distressed as I have seen it in my adult memory, and rightfully so. There is a sense that we have entered a moment of significant crisis.  Though strife in and around Israel is something we have come to accept as virtually inevitable, the current troubles seem to constitute a turning point, and not for the better.
        At this time of turmoil I have one plea to make to our community at large. We must support Israel. We must work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.
        Note that I say “one plea,” for that is precisely what I mean. As a Jew and a Zionist, I firmly believe that the most important, perhaps the only way that we can support Israel in the long term is to work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israel is losing in the struggle to preserve the Zionist mission, and the only way to set the deteriorating situation on a new course is the fulfillment of a two-state solution.
        Why do I say that Israel is losing? In the short term Israel is not in existential danger. The Israeli state and military are very powerful and very secure. But every conflict has two dimensions: the tactical and the political. For the moment the Israelis enjoy substantial tactical superiority, both with respect to the Palestinians and in terms of the region as a whole.
        But in the political realm a crossroads has been reached. World opinion is turning against Israel, and this downhill slide will continue indefinitely if it is not redressed. The effects of this shift will not be felt immediately, but over years and decades it will begin to sap the political and economic energies of Israeli state and society, undermining Israel’s strategic security. If nothing is done, generations to come will mark the current crisis as the starting point of a long process that led to the disintegration of the Jewish state.
      Why is world opinion turning against Israel? Anti-Semitism accounts for some of the anger and condemnation that is being expressed in the international media, but we would be foolish to imagine that this is the whole of the matter. Nor can ignorance be assumed to account for whatever anti-Israeli feeling does not stem from anti-Semitism. The world is aware that Hamas is an evil and depraved organization. The nihilistically genocidal nature of its charter and ideology has been well publicized, and everyone can see the deliberate and malignant manner in which Hamas uses innocent civilians as human shields.
        Why, then, would current events erode Israel’s position in global politics?  It is because the issue of Palestinian statehood remains unresolved. As much as world opinion generally (with some exceptions) acknowledges the right of Israel to exist and defend itself, it also affirms the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign state of their own. As the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank draws nigh, the patience of the world to see this problem settled grows thin. With each passing year, the argument that Israel is fighting to defend itself is undermined by the appearance that Israel is fighting to block the establishment of a Palestinian state. The more this situation persists, the less attention the global public will pay to the particulars of Hamas’s doctrine or strategy, and the more they will focus upon images of the destruction produced by Israel’s military, no matter how restrained the Israelis may be in the exercise of force.
        Continued protests about the very real villainy of Hamas will progressively lose effect in the face of this reality. Almost no winning cause in history would have done so if it was required that its proponents all be moral paragons. Without ardent Stalinists, Hitler would not have been beaten; without fervent slave owners, the American Revolution would have gone down to defeat. It does not matter that Hamas’s methods are evil or that their ultimate goal extends far beyond Palestinian nationalism. In the short term they derive political capital from fighting for a cause that is generally acknowledged as justified.
      This may seem unfair, but it is a brute fact that cannot be escaped. Nor are arguments over whether anyone is right to support Palestinian statehood sensible or productive. If Israel annexed the West Bank and Gaza today and made all of its inhabitants citizens, it would no longer be a demographically Jewish state. The only alternatives left to Zionists are thus either ethnic cleansing or a two-state solution. Since the former option is both immoral and impossible, the establishment of a Palestinian state is the only way to end the military occupation soon to enter its sixth decade, and the world knows that.
        One might protest that the establishment of a Palestinian state would give Hamas what it wants. To this one can only answer that if it is so, Hamas should be careful what it wishes for. Of course the creation of a Palestinian nation would not make all of Israel’s problems go away. Strife and violence would continue. The nightly news might look very much the same in the wake of Palestinian sovereignty as it does today. There would be a very real difference, however. If Hamas launched rockets from sovereign Palestinian territory, there could be no pretence that it was anything other than aggression bent on the destruction of Israel. In that situation, all of the facts about Hamas’s perversion and malevolence would regain the currency that they have gradually lost in recent years.
        In that new political climate, much of the anti-Israeli activism in Europe and America would evaporate. Organizations like BDS would find fewer and fewer supporters. Mainstream citizens who have joined anti-Israeli protests in recent years would move on to other issues, leaving only the most diehard anti-Zionists to fight from the margins.
        In the Middle East the effects could likewise be significant. Hamas might find that it not only has fewer supporters abroad, but at home as well. Once sovereignty is achieved, Palestinians’ tolerance for Hamas’s rocket attacks and the destruction they bring in retaliation would quickly run dry. A people given a proprietary stake in their own nation might show little enthusiasm for the fight to establish an imaginary future caliphate.
        For all of these reasons, as a people we should unite in focusing our political energies on the achievement of a two-state solution. If we care about Israel and want to see its future secure, our congregations, our civic groups, our rabbinical leaders, and we ourselves as individuals should take up the cry in ways big and small. Write letters to political leaders in Israel and abroad. Reach out to Palestinian groups that support peace. Donate money to organizations like the Israel Policy Forum that are working toward a two-state solution.
        As Jews we believe that the world is not going to fix itself, we must put our hands to the work. If we want Israel to remain a vital piece of the global tapestry, a new piece must be added. Whether there has ever been a state such as Palestine is an academic question that is ultimately of little consequence. One thing, however, is for certain: without Palestine, eventually there will be no Israel. We can not let that come to pass. We must support Israel. We must work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

                                            Shalom,



                                            Andrew Meyer
         

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Farewell Lu Lingzi 吕令子

"How happy it is to have friends come from afar." This line from the opening passage of the Confucian Analects greets one everywhere that tourists congregate in China. Despite its having become a marketing cliche, it still expresses a profound truth. Bridging the distance between people is a basic human act. It is what makes families from isolated individuals, communities from disparate families, nations from disconnected communities, and what makes peace possible in a divided world. That joy is today mixed with sorrow, as we have lost a friend who came from afar. Lu Lingzi, a young graduate student from the city of Shenyang in the northeastern province of Liaoning, China, was killed in Monday's attack in Boston.

 Lu graduated from Shenyang Northeastern High School in 2008. She studied international economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, and came to Boston University to study statistics. She was 23 when she was killed on Monday. Her friend Zhou Danling suffered injuries that required surgery but is now out of mortal danger.

I will never know Lu Lingzi, but our lives shared coincidental similarities. Like her I went to college in Beijing and graduate school in Boston. My parents worried for me when I went halfway around the world to study. I can only imagine the grief that her parents feel today, having this tragedy befall their daughter so far away.

Though it is small comfort, I hope that Lu's parents and friends know that we share their grief. Lu Lingzi was a member of our community. There are many countries where there are no "friends from afar," only strangers. America, despite notable failures, strives to be a place that remains open to distant friends and ready to receive their gifts. The attack upon Lu Lingzi was an attack upon the heart and spirit of America as painful and destructive as that upon Martin Richard, Krystie Campbell, and the other victims of Monday's blast.

Farewell, Lu Lingzi. I am sorry we did not protect you. I am sorry we can not return you safe and well to your family as the people of Beijing returned me home to mine. Thank you for making the journey to our shores. Thank you for coming the long distance and sharing your light with us. We will remember you, and honor your memory by working to make our nation and the world a better place.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Politics over Tactics

As President Obama plans a trip to the Mideast this week, it is an opportune moment to reflect on what foreign policy lessons the U.S. has learned in the years since 9/11. The outcomes of military and diplomatic efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere have demonstrated a single salient principle. During a new age of asymmetrical conflict, political factors far outweigh tactical concerns in the pursuit of foreign policy goals. If only the U.S. government could absorb and act upon this lesson our policy would be put on a newly rational footing. Unfortunately, in most arenas our leaders continue to confuse priorities in the discharging of affairs.

Every conflict has both tactical and political dimensions, and success is rarely achievable by exclusive attention to one or the other. If during World War II Allied leaders had not managed to forge and maintain a functional partnership, and if they had failed to sustain support for the war effort at home, advantages in ships, tanks and planes would not have sufficed to secure victory. By the same token, if operations like the Normandy invasion or the Manhattan Project had failed, strong alliances and robust domestic support for the war effort would have yielded few good results.

Each conflict is unique, however, and the relative importance of the political and tactical spheres is not constant for all cases. Thus despite dropping more explosives during the Vietnam conflict than were used by all sides during World War II, and inflicting vastly greater casualties on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong than were sustained by U.S. forces, the United States failed to achieve its objective of preserving a partitioned Vietnam. In general, the more symmetrical a conflict (that is, the more evenly matched both sides are in armaments and numbers), the more important its tactical dimension. By contrast, the more asymmetrical a contest, the more urgent its political factors.

Their failure to understand this basic truth was the great error of the neoconservatives who took over the policy apparatus of the U.S. in the wake of 9/11.  For many years prior to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, think tanks such as the Project for the New American Century had been publishing papers asserting that, with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the U.S. as a solitary superpower, America could and should adopt a more aggressive military posture. Absent the Soviet deterrent, the U.S. was free to remake the map through the free and preemptive application of military force. The lessons of Vietnam no longer applied.

This was a complete misreading of both history and current conditions. During the Cold War the U.S. had been forced to fight exclusively asymmetrical conflicts because the prospect of "mutually assured destruction" made a direct conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. unthinkable. But the end of the Cold War likewise made a truly "symmetrical" contest between matched opponents impossible. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was left with nothing but asymmetrical conflicts like Vietnam left to fight, a fact which the neocons never paused to consider as they laid plans for a "new American century."

The invasion of Iraq demonstrated just how relevant the lessons of Vietnam remained, and how much more urgent the political dimensions of foreign policy have become in an age of exclusively asymmetrical conflict. The tactical defeat of Saddam Hussein transpired with lightning speed, but the politics of the invasion, in all dimensions, were completely disastrous. Most strikingly, the political impact of the U.S. occupation within Iraq itself undermined the chances that the outcome of the invasion might serve U.S. interest in any sense. Though there were constituencies in Iraqi society that (for example) favored democratic governance and/or opposed Islamic extremism, they were weakened by their association with an unwelcome occupying power. By contrast, Al Qaeda, who had never enjoyed robust support in Iraq, gained a foothold as perceived opponents of American neocolonialism. After tens of thousands killed and wounded and trillions of dollars lost, it is not clear that anything has been achieved through the invasion that might not have been garnered eventually through diplomacy and sanctions.

Though a new regime has taken over in Washington, bringing a new set of habits and preferences, there is little sign that our leaders have developed a sound and systematic doctrine for the ongoing conduct of foreign policy. Despite successes in Pakistan and Libya, the Obama White House has remained defensive and reactive in the face of criticism at home and developments abroad. The wave of unrest and rapid change sweeping the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring obviously presents daunting and complex challenges for any government trying to formulate doctrine, but as the situation deteriorates in places like Syria the U.S. appears increasingly passive and ineffectual at a crucial moment in international affairs.

What is the cause for the current state of U.S. passivity? Just as during the Bush days, it stems from the failure to correctly prioritize the political and tactical dimensions of foreign policy. In assessing the potential impact of any policy, U.S. leaders (both the White House and its critics) continue to give undue weight to the tactical effects of any action, and to underestimate the importance of the political realm. Libya, for example, which should serve as a model for recent foreign policy success, has been discredited because of last year's tragic events in Benghazi. While it is true that the ouster of Qaddafi has given Islamists enhanced tactical strength and freedom of movement in Libyan society, the political impact of Qadaffi's fall continues to work to the detriment of groups like Al Qaeda. Though the death of a U.S. ambassador at the hand of extremists would never have been possible under the old regime, the throngs of Libyans who came out in the streets to mourn Chris Stevens, and the good will toward the U.S. they embody, would likewise not exist if the world had stood by and watched as Qaddafi destroyed the movement for a free Libya in the cradle.

The same myopic fixation upon tactical over political outcomes informs the world view of those who oppose U.S. support for the anti-Assad rebels in Syria. Because elements of the Syrian rebel army are Islamist, so goes this argument, we must refrain from supplying the rebels with arms for fear weapons will "fall into the wrong hands." But this assessment vastly overestimates the importance of weaponry in the long-term conflict between the U.S. and Islamist extremism. Weapons are plentiful and cheap, groups like Al Qaeda bent on causing havoc and terror will never find weapons in short supply. The 9/11 attacks themselves did not require more than a few airplane tickets and box cutters. By contrast, the political damage being done by U.S. passivity in Syria favors the cause of Al Qaeda far more than the acquisition of a few Soviet surplus assault rifles and grenade launchers ever could.  The Assad regime is about to be overthrown by a popular uprising, and unless the U.S. commits to clearly and materially supporting that process it will, just as in post-Saddam Iraq, once again find itself on the wrong side of the popular will in post-Assad Syria. Should that occur, the forces within Syrian society that might advance the causes of democracy, secular rule, and regional peace will be substantially weakened.

 We are in a new world with a new strategic dynamic, and it requires a new set of strategic priorities. If we continue to view every challenge through the simplistic lens of tactical concerns, we will continue to make mistakes of action as we did in Iraq and of inaction as we are currently making in Syria. Looking forward, an emphasis on the political over the tactical effects of policy should form the basic calibration of our compass for the conduct of foreign affairs.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism

Next week Brooklyn College will be hosting an event planned by the B.D.S. movement, an activist group dedicated to encouraging "boycott, divestment, and sanctions" against Israel. The gathering is being co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science, and will feature Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti as principal speakers. Critics of the event have questioned the propriety of the involvement of the Department of Political Science, charging that their co-sponsorship amounts to the endorsement of political views that will be offensive or intimidating to some students.

As a Brooklyn College faculty member I feel obliged to defend my colleagues' decision. The issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations is complex and highly emotionally charged, but that should not place it beyond the realm of discussion. Moreover, the basic logic of the criticism hurled against the Department does not hold up to scrutiny. One could use the same arguments to protest against an invitation extended to, for example, Mitt Romney (what about the Democrats in the student body? won't they be offended/intimidated?), but the upshot of such arguments (if they prevailed) would be to deprive students of a unique learning opportunity.

That being said, I am moved, in the spirit of open discussion and debate that animates the planned meeting and in the interest of facilitating dialogue, to contribute to the conversation initiated by the event and its co-sponsors. In particular, I am intrigued by arguments put forward by Judith Butler that I anticipate will form part of the substance of her talk next week. In a 2003 article for the London Review of Books entitled "No, It's not Anti-Semitic," Butler (in response to remarks made by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University) critically engaged the question of whether anti-Israeli views, "in effect if not their intent," could be deemed "anti-Semitic," arguing that they could not.

Butler's analysis is thoughtful and sophisticated, and I will not engage all of her points here. In general I agree with her that to equate "Jews" and "Israel" is false, and that criticisms of Israeli policy (even very vehement critiques accusing Israel of "apartheid") can not be deemed, on their face, anti-Semitic. But I would like to offer her and her supporters a counter-proposition, one that informs my world view and, I suspect, that of many other Jews (whether they are self-consciously aware of its principles or not). As my title suggest, my basic assertion is that anti-Zionism is, in fact, anti-Semitism.  Unless she can empathetically and robustly engage this idea, she will have little hope of effective communication with the larger Brooklyn College community.

To begin this discussion, definitions are in order. As Butler notes in her article, Zionism over time has been a variable and internally contradictory movement. How then do we define Zionism and "anti-Zionism?" In simple terms, all historical Zionisms share the belief in the right of a Jewish state to exist. In the post-1948 era, this would translate into a belief in the right of Israel to persist as a Jewish state. Conversely, anti-Zionism would entail a denial of Israel's right to persist as a Jewish state. These definitions leave many open questions, as what makes Israel a "Jewish" state is the focus of constant and heated debate even within Israel itself. Lack of resolution on that score, however, does not deter us from understanding that an outright denial of the right for a Jewish state to exist has profoundly anti-Semitic consequences.

The arguments equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism do not hinge on the history of Zionism or of the Jews, but rather on that of anti-Semitism. If anti-Semitism had not evolved in very particular and pernicious ways, there is little chance that Zionism would have developed as it did, and its fruition in the existence of the Israeli state would have been virtually impossible. Traditional religious anti-Semitism was amenable to an array of escapes and remedies. On the one hand, conversion and assimilation could enable Jews to evade persecution, on the other hand, the advocacy of secularism and religious tolerance could create a social climate in which Jewish life was no longer threatened.

The advent of modern, secular anti-Semitism, however, created new and vastly more lethal conditions. "Jewishness" became an inescapable "racial" identity, one that could not be ameliorated by any degree of assimilation or religious apostasy. Atheists and Christian converts went to the gas chambers alongside the pious and the orthodox. In this new climate being Jewish is no longer entirely a matter of choice, subjecting millions to arbitrary attack and persecution whether they personally identify with the Jewish community or not.

This is the context in which the significance of Zionism and anti-Zionism must be contemplated. The question of who is a Jew and what it means to be a "Jewish" state is separable from that of whether the targets and victims of anti-Semitism can and do benefit from having a sovereign advocate in the community of nations. Wherever one falls on the former question, the answer to the latter question is emphatically "yes." Given the mechanics of international politics, if a Jewish state had existed at the time, it is unlikely that Nazi Germany could have perpetrated the Holocaust.

This principle is more than an abstract counterfactual- it bears out in the experience of the post-1948 world. Even as Israelis have struggled among themselves over the personal and collective meaning of Jewish identity, Israel has served as a defender against anti-Semitism, broadly defined, all over the world. Jews in Yemen, Ethiopia, the Soviet Union, and throughout the globe have benefited from the military and diplomatic efforts of the Israeli state. Since its inception, Israel has been the single greatest impediment to institutionalized anti-Semitism in the international arena. The end of the Jewish state would, over time, remove concrete protections from Jewish communities throughout the world, and would create a more favorable climate for the growth and spread of anti-Semitism than has existed since before World War II. For example, those alarmed by the recent appearance of neo-Fascist groups in places like Greece and Russia might pause to imagine what greater scope those groups would have to grow in the near- and long-term in a world in which Israel did not exist.

This is the larger framework within which I and many other Jews approach any and all questions pertaining to Israel and Palestine, which does not preclude there being deep divisions over policy. I, for example, stand with the Palestinian people in demanding their right to statehood, and decry the injustice of the Israeli occupation, positions that Butler and the B.D.S. movement embrace and that many of my Jewish students and colleagues at Brooklyn College would reject. Where I and these latter individuals agree, however, is in our insistence that Israel must continue to exist, both for its own sake and for the protection of Jews everywhere. Any group seeking to engage a Jewish community largely animated and informed by this basic perspective on behalf of Palestinians would be well advised to clarify its position on how the crisis and occupation should or can be resolved. The only type of arguments that will achieve traction in the discourse I exemplify are ones that at least acknowledge the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anyone who advocates the necessary dissolution of the Israeli state, or is perceived to be evasively concealing such an agenda, will meet at Brooklyn College with poor prospects for a meaningful conversation that genuinely engages the larger part of the community.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Federally Mandated Firearm Liability Insurance

In the wake of last Friday's unspeakable tragedy, I like many have been moved to think about the politics surrounding gun ownership and the policy problems at the heart of the issue. The legal and social forces impacting this question are intensely complex, but the need is so urgent that I hope we may see forceful and rapid action to reform our gun law regime in significant terms. In that spirit, I would like to add my voice to others who have proposed a policy solution that might form a departing point of consensus over a fraught issue: the adoption of a federal mandate requiring liability insurance for the purchase and ownership of a firearm.

First, let me address the underlying principle of such a proposal. The logic of requiring gun owners to purchase liability insurance is the same as that which applies to users of automobiles. Right now the rights of gun ownership are private, but the costs of gun accidents, injuries, and violence are socialized. This is a fundamentally unfair situation. The second amendment guarantees that gun ownership is a right, not a universal actuality on the terms most convenient to those desiring weapons. If the second amendment allows that every citizen may be compelled to pay the fair market value of a weapon, it also allows that each gun owner may contribute toward private funds mitigating the social costs of gun use.

This policy would naturally serve as a "gateway" impediment that would deter gun sales, and those who oppose gun law reform might argue that it would keep firearms out of the hands of those who "need" them. This is a complicated point of contention, but it in no way rises to the level of a disqualifying objection. The potential benefits of such a policy are so salient that any ancillary "down side" could be remediated by, for example, the passage of subsidies to make coverage accessible to small business owners and low-income citizens who might otherwise be blocked from gun ownership.

In social policy terms, this measure would be a versatile means to use the forces of the free market to foster gun safety and responsible gun use. Actuarial studies could determine the level of liability coverage that was optimal for all gun owners, and private insurers could be relied upon to sell such coverage to individual gun owners at the fair market cost. Naturally, gun owners who could demonstrate that they had adequate gun safety training, had laid plans for the secure storage of their weapons, and had purchased weapons whose design minimized social hazards (e.g. "smart guns" with private locks or designed to be operable only by their owner) would attain the most favorable rates of coverage from private insurers. Such an insurance regime would not only influence gun owners, but gun manufacturers and retailers as well, incentivizing them to adopt best standards and practices that promote gun safety and security in the community at large. Thus with a minimum of government intervention behaviors could be widely fostered that would be socially constructive and might deter tragedies like the most recent sorrow in Newtown.