In “America Can Do Better Than Continuing Isolation of Iran,” The Hill, December 4, 2018: https://thehill.com/opinion/international/419665-america-can-do-better-than-continuing-isolation-of-iran, I show that enmity between the U.S. and Iran was never inevitable and the unfortunate consequences of this country’s lengthy effort to isolate Iran.
Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, argued we’ve become less bloody over the centuries. But so many issues involve life and death. For two weeks this country has been discussing how to stop school shootings. This week let’s address life and death in the Middle East. Next week, events permitting, let’s discuss two issues that threaten life worldwide.
I can count on hate mail whenever I speak about the Middle East. But let’s put some things in perspective.
The world’s refugee problem swamps most countries’ willingness to take people in. Our government wants to restrict immigration and we fight over who and why. Reaction to flows of refugees threaten democratic governments across Europe and contributed to the vote for Brexit. In addition to their own disputes, the American military footprint has aggravated war and population displacement in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine among many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Stepping back historically and geographically, most countries are dominated by conquering populations. This country conquered and decimated Native Americans to create our bi-coastal America. A succession of warring populations, Huns, Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Vikings and more, fought for Europe long before the modern wars.
This has hardly been a good way of solving problems or competition for land. But even more harm lurks in the suggestion that we undo it.
The creation of Israel was plainly the result of European refusal to accept its Jewish population. Historically, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and the Moors in Spain, before Ferdinand and Isabella Christianized it, were much more hospitable to Jews. The twentieth century brought the fate of the Jews to a head. Europe could have solved its integration problem. But seeing the handwriting on many walls in the 1930s, people like Justice Brandeis, then on the U.S. Supreme Court, were telling friends in Europe to get out quickly. But where to? Franklin Roosevelt, despite close personal and professional relationships with many Jews, blocked boatloads of Jewish refugees from our shores for political reasons.
So the west solved its problem by exporting it – to Palestine. Everyone was a victim in this process. Jewish refugees were uprooted and they in turn uprooted Palestinians. What to do?
At about the same time, Britain was facilitating the breakup of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. It cost something like a million lives and uprooted many times that. The two countries still find it difficult to get along, but undoing 1948 is not on the table. It cannot be.
It is not true that whatever is, is just. That was proposed by the conservative philosopher Robert Nozick and I most emphatically reject it. But redressing all the wrongs of the past comes at a cost which will involve many who themselves were neither perpetrators nor victims and sometimes both. The argument about who was right and who was wrong in Palestine is not a soluble argument. No one was treated as they should have been. But even more important, fixing those wrongs implies a fight to the death of everyone there. That I cannot wish.
I cannot support complete and utter conquest for either side. We might once have insisted on an enforceable compromise. America once played a role as an honest broker and could have maximized the chance for peace. But we could not continue to play that role while giving Israel a blank check to violate its promises about settlements. The result, I fear, is going to be tragic. It may simply be too late to avert widespread disaster.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 27, 2018.
The tragedy in Florida is linked to issues abroad. One candidate sometimes suggests we could solve our problems by isolationism, keeping our troops home, and sometimes by wiping out our adversaries with overwhelming force. His adversary has won over American military leadership with a fairly hard-nosed approach to international politics meshed with the belief that part of America’s international strength comes from our ideological appeal and social justice. What’s going to work?
The Middle East has been getting more violent. And the U.S. has been struggling to figure out how to handle it. George H.W. Bush was careful not to unravel power relations there when he rolled Iraq back from Kuwait. George W. Bush was less cautious, eliminating the Iraqi power structure without a plan to replace it. Since then we’ve been fighting multiple wars in multiple countries. Wars with guerilla tactics like these are costly. Al Qaeda and ISIL or DAESH have learned to motivate individuals or small groups outside of traceable networks. Military forces work poorly against that kind of enemy. We may be a superpower against some obstacles, but not all. The history of warfare has been a multi-millennium cycle of upstarts defeating the super powers of prior ages with new tactics.
What if we disengaged from the Middle East? I doubt Americans have the stomach for it. Israel, our so-called “ally,” continually breaks its promises to America, so the Israeli mouse drives both American Middle Eastern policy and its consequences. America cannot be an honest broker in the Middle East while backing a government of heedless buckaroos who learn nothing from the failures and constant irritation of seven decades of war, eviction of Palestinians and indiscriminate retaliation. Still less can we be an honest broker by engaging in the same tactics that make refugees of millions and radicalize too many. Who are we to criticize the Israelis when our policies have been more and more like theirs? We too pay the price. Our removal of Premier Mossadegh and replacement with the former Shah of Iran contributed to the Revolution of 1979 and subsequent demonization of America. U.S. military moves created chaos in the Sunni world, pushed Turkey toward autocracy, and helped destabilize Europe with a flow of refugees not seen since the World Wars.
Pulling out would leave a power vacuum that those we despise and sometimes fear would fill. If Russia or China were fool enough to move in, the throw weight of Islamic extremism would refocus on them. The short-run consequences, however, could be
Our policies toward the Middle East need to be rethought in light of new realities. Power relations in the Middle East have been drastically reshaped in the last fifteen years. And Saudi Arabia has been playing a double game, supporting radical Islam in return for denying the clerics the keys to governmental power, creating a Hobson’s choice for us. Obama has tried to avoid both disengagement and warfare, but his efforts to reshape thinking about the Middle East have, not surprisingly, run into a barrier of incomprehension. The U.S. should not be driven by the unreliable machinations of paranoid premiers, two-bit dictators and fractured armies in a region of declining importance to the U.S.
America accomplished a great deal in the past as a model of a fair and decent state. Foreign policy isn’t merely a contest of muscle and fire power. Its complexity requires a lot of patience. It took half of century to wait out the Soviet Union. Much as some Republicans want to credit Reagan’s grand gestures, that victory was hatched under Truman and pursued by eight presidents of both parties, without any know-it-all buckaroos upending decades of careful policy. Can we do it again? We’re going to find out.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 14, 2016.
Help. Two major problems have the same structure – it doesn’t look like people will deal with the problem until it is too late. Too late means the survivors will be refugees. Everyone else will be dead. And yet getting people to deal with the threat except at the fringes has been impossible.
One of those problems is global climate change. I’m told people will come around. Great but time is not on our side. I’m told people don’t want to make any sacrifices. Great. Life is a sacrifice. We sacrifice for everything we want. How about life? For us? Our kids and grandchildren? Isn’t that worth a few pennies? What’s the matter?
We could deal with this. It’s not rocket science. Changes to the tax system would push carbon out of the air. And some regulation would clean up other parts of the problem. Is life itself, for everybody we love, not worth some sacrifice? Can’t we make it clear to everybody in this election season that anything less than a full-court, all-out press to call a halt to global warming is the sine qua non of our support, the one overriding issue, and they’d better do everything they can?
Time might have been on our side when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, Barry Commoner called attention to environmental threat of global pollution in the late 1960s, and we held the first Earth Day in 1970. That was 46 years ago. Time is not on our side now. Action is crucial now; we need to do everything possible to make the system move. Corporations that hide behind the bad-for-business apologias deserve boycotts. Everybody’s shoulders need to go to all the wheels – now.
The same dynamic underlies Israel’s miscalculation of its own position. It has now lost or is in the process of losing all its allies. The majority there has been stubborn and stupid in denying that they needed to make any changes. But it’s become obvious to many more than those of us who’ve been crying in the wilderness for years. I know I’ll get hate mail – people cover up their own blindness by refusing to see and blaming everyone else around. Sorry. That won’t help. The problem isn’t me; it’s that the world has lost patience and it doesn’t particularly matter now if the world is right or wrong. Israel never had a future without allies and Israel has been squandering its erstwhile friends. It’s bet on the Republicans has only revealed the loss of support across the American political spectrum. So will Israel go the way of the Crusades? It will take a lot of far-sighted savvy to stave that off and I doubt their politics will permit it.
Two very different problems and yet two problems that are very similar. Meanwhile, I sit down to write some commentary, and here, two problems close to my heart are looking intractable and I don’t really know what to say. Help. Let’s get this done.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 22, 2016.
The struggle between Israel and Palestine and the intransigence of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, leads me to think about a founder of American Zionism. In a book to come out early next year, I wrote:
… [P]rior to his Supreme Court appointment in 1916, Brandeis became leader of the American Zionist movement, heading a committee to assist endangered European Jews. He would found the American Jewish Congress, the Palestine Endowment Fund and the Palestine Co-operative Company. Zionism expressed Brandeis’ understanding of American values, the same right for Jews as other nationalities to a homeland, to strengthen their claim to equality among the world’s peoples. Palestine, he argued, must not be claimed by war but by purchase and settlement, “with clean hands … [so] as to ennoble the Jewish people. Otherwise, it will not be worth having.” He compared Zionism to the recent independence and unification of Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Ireland and the more short-lived Servia. For Brandeis, support for justice, fairness and democracy everywhere, in service to “the brotherhood of man,” makes one a better American.
Brandeis lived long enough to fear events in Europe and advise Jews to leave Germany but he died in 1941 before we joined the war, and before Israel was born in a bath of fire. May he rest in peace.
Instead, conflict has radicalized both Israelis and Palestinians and there seems to be no brakes on the spiral of violence.
A Palestinian graduate student at RPI told me Palestinians had every right to kill any Israeli, and Israelis have no right to fight back because they are wrong. His solution was the mirror image of Israel’s, takeover of the other’s land. I pointed out that would lead to the slaughter of everyone on both sides. He shrugged. Muslims from other places listening to us made clear they got my point. But extremists on both sides make peace impossible.
I see no mechanisms in their societies to resolve the conflicts and bring people together. Israelis and Palestinians are segregated in their living space, often by walls, boundaries and checkpoints. They are segregated in schools by faith and location. They are segregated in business, finance, wherever they might work together – save where Israeli employers hire Palestinian laborers, who work when Israel allows.
Our country has brought people together since the founding, in commerce, finance, colleges and schools. Still we suffer domestic conflict between racial and other groups. Congress and a string of American presidents supported desegregation to bring people together. The formerly segregated South changed a great deal, but backlash persists across America. Curing deep-seated antagonisms is difficult. It is next to impossible where they are reinforced by physical and legal walls.
I doubt Israel and Palestine have either the time or the will to build bridges between them. Each believes in re-taking the others’ lands, not sharing them.
My concern at this point is for America. I see little advantage to our country in being drawn further into an intractable conflict with religious zealots on both sides who kill peacemakers, national leaders, and noncombatants, to prevent or derail the possibility of peace. I fear that the future includes a great deal of slaughter, and am no longer convinced it can be averted. Our only choice may be whether we, in America, get blamed for it. The Israelis need to hear that message loud and clear. There is no chance of a decent resolution as long as Israel believes they have our unconditional support.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 27, 2015.
 Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 34 (NYU Press 2016).
Some people are angry at Israel because they are against Israel. But some of us are angry because we care so much about its survival and think it is being stupid. Popular foreign policy here and everywhere is about waving swords and shooting anyone in their way. It’s a quick and simple solution. But depend too much on the sword and die by the sword.
I’ve been rethinking what’s been going on in the Middle East. Many of us have been assuming that the conflict between Israel and Palestine was central to Middle Eastern policy and events. I have come to realize that the Palestinians have been used mostly as pawns in a very different struggle and it’s very important to understand that.
Radical foreign fighters have shown themselves willing to flock to battles all over the Middle East, except Palestine. They’re in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Palestinians have been kicked out of much of the Middle East. Theirs is not a popular cause. So why does it keep coming up?
Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to reduce its isolation in the Sunni world. Iran has no significant beef with Israel. Ahmadinejah scored political points with inflammatory rhetoric but he and much of that rhetoric have been replaced. By seeming to make common cause with Sunnis, however, Iran hopes to make themselves harder to oppose or fight. And by directing aid to groups fighting Israel, it immunizes itself from the reaction to some Shiite forces deep in the Sunni world.
It is not in Iran’s interest to destroy Israel. Opposition to Israel is part of Iran’s foreign policy, protecting its bona fides in the Sunni Arab world. Destroy Israel and they’ll need something else. But let’s be clear – Iran can be a serious existential threat to a stupid Israel. By comparison other threats in their neighborhood are pinpricks.
Notice the opportunity that creates. The US, Iran and Israel all have things to give each other in a true, regional grand bargain. We could reduce Iran’s regional isolation because we have considerable influence with many of the regional players, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. Iran could contribute to Israel’s safety by backing off its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. And that could make a reliable peace in Palestine possible. Without external support, the Palestinians would not be nearly as threatening to Israel and a two state solution would really be possible.
I don’t mean to imply that it will be easy to get there. There’s a huge history of mistrust on both sides and both sides have good reason to mistrust the other. The nuclear negotiations, themselves difficult and sensitive, could build the mutual confidence necessary for a wider deal. Americans would have to give our leadership the support and confidence needed to work toward that goal, difficult in the face of Republican sabotage before we even know, let alone consider, whether our negotiators have proposed a constructive bargain.
The leadership of all three countries is skittish for ordinary political reasons. All three hold elections. No politician in either country wants to make a mistake on an issue like this. It would be a huge loss if fear of mistakes prevents the effort to reach a settlement of one of the big issues threatening us, Israel, the Palestinians and continually pulling the US into Middle Eastern conflicts.
I don’t have a pipeline to whatever the deal will look like. Nothing is automatic – a lot depends on our diplomacy and pressure. But major improvement is a possible outcome. So as John F. Kennedy famously told us, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2015.
In what other country do world leaders march with arms linked against terrorism? Terrorism goes on in every continent but we mourn and gather in Europe. Terrorism happens in Haifa, Jerusalem and the West Bank – in both directions – but we mourn and gather in Europe. Do we stand for a principle or is France the principle – that France cannot be touched? Or that France is in danger? But other places are in danger. For all my criticisms of Israeli reactions, they are in considerable danger as the Palestinians have been able to use Israeli reactions to the devastation caused by their own terrorism to unite much of the world against Israel. Or is there good and bad terrorism? Were the Communists right, that’s it’s all about whose terrorists are freedom fighters?
So does this lead anywhere? Is the world standing together in Paris a prelude to a principle? But where do principles lead? To more pious declarations? Pious declarations can help lead to forms of action. If the free countries of the world really wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they clearly could put the screws on both sides and make a two-state solution actually happen. It’s too late to just back off and say it’s their fight and take no sides. But death there is just politics, who we stand with, not what we stand against. Letting it go on when that fight could be stopped is all about being able to use the conflict for politics, even though it is clearly spiraling out of control and enveloping us all. The conflict does no one any good except that pious declarations allowed the French to appear as friends of oppressed people without doing anything about it.
Of course we have been misplaying the Middle East for decades. We were hostile to a group of Middle Eastern leaders with real popular support because we didn’t like their domestic policies. So their peoples, or many of them, have been drawing the obvious conclusion – that their fight is international. The West doesn’t help. It just supports extractive industries and kleptocratic leaders while letting the problems of the people of the Middle East fester. Why do we expect to be free of terrorism in the West when we have a policy of supporting strong men who protect American and western business while raping their peoples and otherwise blessing all the nonsense they commit at home?
I find myself continually drawn to Pogo’s remark, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” All over the globe we have fought against peoples and leaders who try to take care of their own people. Leaders who try to provide for their own. We have had a part in displacing liberal leaders in Latin America, Africa and Asia because they really tried to make things better for their countrymen.
We who grandly tell the world about the virtues of self-government, and tell the world that our internal policies are none of their business, because we govern ourselves, do the reverse because we have the muscle.
I was struck by a statement by Chris Giannou on Alternative Radio who remarked that the world, including the Muslim world, “love you for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy.”
Values are powerful until we compromise them with war, torture and indiscriminate killing as if the peoples of the Middle East are just there for us to play with.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 13, 2015.