Sunday, December 23, 2012

The New Laocoon

Andrew Sullivan and Public Debate
The mountain of words and pictures last week mirrored the piles of rubble in New York. Like the rescue workers there, one waded in trying to find something that was alive, that would illuminate and explain what had happened. Noticeable was the reluctance throughout the media to contemplate the Israeli factor - the undeniable and central fact behind the disaster that Israel is now and has been for some time an American colony, sustained by billions of American dollars and armed with American missiles, helicopters and tanks.

Such has been the pressure from the Israeli lobby in this country that many, even normally outspoken journalists, are reluctant even to refer to such matters. Nor would you find anywhere in last week's coverage, any reference whatever to things I have mentioned here in recent issues of The Observer: the fact, for example, that Mr Blair's adviser on the Middle East is an unelected, unknown Jewish businessman, Lord Levy, now installed in the Foreign Office; the fact that this same Lord Levy is the chief fundraiser for the Labour Party; unmentioned also would be the close business links with Israel of two of our most powerful press magnates, Rupert Murdoch and the newly ennobled owner of the Telegraph newspapers, Lord Conrad Black.

When Mr Blair, supported by these gentlemen's papers, pledges his support for Mr Bush as he prepares for war with an as yet unidentified enemy, we ought to be prepared at least to incur the charge of anti-Semitism by giving these matters an airing before the balloon goes up.

So wrote the English journalist Richard Ingrams five days after the 9/11 attacks. "Who will dare damn Israel?" he asked. An outraged Andrew Sullivan answered.
We should be grateful, I suppose, that those who seek the extinction of the Jewish state still feel somewhat hesitant to say so outright. But like all anti-Semites, Ingrams thinks he and the West are somehow victims of the Jewish people... After an event like last week, Ingrams wants to "damn" a country that has long been the victim of such horror. Dare? Oh, the bravery of Ingrams' prejudice! And then further in the piece, he casts the usual ugly slur of dual loyalty on Lord Lever [sic], a British citizen of impeccable patriotism... One phrase stands out: "unelected, unknown Jewish businessman." These are the code words of the worst kind of anti-Semitism...

Also five days after 9/11, Sullivan wrote a piece in The Sunday Times which identified a comparable force in America: "The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead - and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column." Sullivan celebrated the arousal by 9/11 of a "squeamish" and "appeasement"-oriented United States, that if not for the horror of that day might have "[abandoned] Israel to the barbarians who would annihilate every Jew on the planet." As much as his charge remains true of fringe figures and is redolent of some thought on the Left, it complemented Ingrams' mean paranoia. There is nothing he's written that he's walked back more emphatically, but that line stands as a measure of the public intellect of Andrew Sullivan.

Like TED and Time Magazine, Sullivan is middlebrow. His blog is a piano roll of middle class amusements -- "Mental Health Breaks," views from our windows, faces of the day, surface encounters with science that make us "go hmmm." This is the mortar into which quick takes on weighty issues are pressed. Sometimes he writes his own; other times he features excerpts by one-off commentators or a gallery of go-to guys. This is by careful design -- Sullivan is enamored of what he considers his key role in the digital democratization of media, which is itself of course a middlebrow concern. He designs his blog to make information easily accessible and emotionally evocative. He uses it to "think out loud."

The china shop starts rattling when he tackles sensitive topics. An intellectual tic guides Andrew Sullivan as a journalist: judging the importance of an issue and the value of its spokespeople by how much outrage they generate. Perhaps the most lurid example is the amount of time and space he donated to amplifying rumors that Bristol Palin was Trig Palin's mother. And if Sullivan detects that a debate is taboo, he doubles down and his hallmark hysteria becomes a kind of keening. That is what has led him to obsess over race and intelligence and to champion Charles Murray. As Editor of the New Republic in 1994, Sullivan shanghaied the center-Left magazine into serializing parts of The Bell Curve. Its whole editorial staff nearly quit. More recently, in meretricious penitence for his support of the Iraq war, he has focused on what he calls the "Greater Israel Lobby" and the work of Walt and Mearsheimer.

Sullivan's self-perception as a maverick fostering the discussion of uncomfortable truths has a stylistic corollary. It gives him a penchant for sounding dogwhistles -- using language that is designed to be disparaging, invidious, provocative, which cunningly conjures from a distance themes that are thought over the line. Christian fundamentalists are termed "Christianists" in order to evoke images of Islamists executing people in football stadiums. Jews and Muslims persist in the "barbarism" of "Male Genital Mutilation," which likens them to primitives who hack away at girls' clitorises with can lids. And "many Jews" participating in our democracy make up the "Greater Israel lobby," which "has actively damaged the interests of the United States on behalf of... a foreign country."

One effect is to draw more attention than he would otherwise get. Another, of course, is to summon the "smears" and silencing he laments in the first place, which has the tautologous use of reinforcing his narrative: Andrew Sullivan is a maverick opposing debate-squelching prigs. "I will not be intimidated," he warns.

Better if he thought out loud less. Native to the middlebrow milieu are Sullivan's capacities for conventionality and enthusiasm. Long after Obama-mania peaked, he maintains a feudal devotion to the President that has led political scientists to ridicule him as an exemplar of unscientific analysis. And on other matters, Sullivan sometimes overshares. That was the thing about Laocoon -- they might have listened to him if he hadn't diddled his wife in front of the statue of Apollo.

Andrew Sullivan is zeitgeist Silly Putty. After 9/11 he became a strident neocon, and after Bush he became a neo-realist with Paulite undertones -- skepticism of intervention and distrust of Israel. This has kept him busy for several years, but when his middlebrow intelligence is no longer able to digest what he perceives to be an epochal issue, his hysteria becomes wholly unleashed, and when this emotional process reaches its apex, he identifies a "Fifth Column" threatening to tip us over the edge into perdition.

Eleven years after 9/11, this is what Andrew Sullivan has found:
For many fanatically pro-Israel Jewish-Americans I know, it all comes down in the end to tribalism.

But they project that onto others.

I am not a tribal gay; I am a person before I am a gay person. I have attacked HRC in the past in a way that would simply be inconceivable for many Jewish Americans and AIPAC. I oppose hate crime laws; I challenged the priority for employment discrimination laws. I backed the Boy Scouts in their freedom. For the vast bulk of the American Jewish Establishment, this is simply incomprehensible. Why would I betray "your people" as one TNR colleague used to ironically call my fellow gays when talking to me. "My people?" It tells you so much about a mindset. The mindset affects all vulnerable minorities, of course, gays included. But the enforcement of it on Israel questions in Washington is striking. And it is profoundly illiberal. It reflexively and even at this point unconsciously puts tribal loyalty before any argument of any kind. It is why the Middle East is so fucked up. And why on the Israel question, Washington is so fucked up as well.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Gore Vidal: Another Lodestar Dims

As if to sweep Alexander Cockburn's cantankerous spirit along, Gore Vidal, one of the last known individuals of a functionally extinct species -- the patrician man of letters -- has died at 86.

As with Cockburn, Vidal was a bracing stylist whose worldview drew from crusty precincts of the Left and Right. And as with Cockburn, Vidal nonetheless was revered as a progressive lodestar. This is especially peculiar in Vidal's case, as he was clearly an American nativist. It's easy to perceive a xenophobic overlap of far Right and Left in relation to Israel, but Vidal nursed a quaint obsession with the Yellow Peril. In 1986 in The Nation of all places, he volleyed abuse at Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter which began with the following "conclusion":

... for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is a minority race with many well deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers–or, worse, mere entertainment–for the more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.

This isn't a literary curio. Vidal, the Left-intellectual author of a humane bildungsroman about male homosexuality (The City and the Pillar) and the Democratic Party mandarin who grappled with the likes of William F. Buckley, was a devout isolationist.  Attending Phillips Exeter Academy in 1940, Vidal organized its chapter of the America First Committee.  Later he described Charles Lindbergh as "the true white knight through and through" who was "the best that we are ever apt to produce in the hero line, American-style." In late life Vidal was also, of course, a conspiracy theorist about the 9/11 attacks.

So it is not surprising that like Alexander Cockburn, and Pat Buchanan and contemporary epigones like Glenn Greenwald, Gore Vidal was ardently phobic of Israel.  As Christopher Hitchens observed:

... I always knew, as one had to know - and it was in his writing too -- that [Vidal] had this mean streak in him, of a kind of paranoia -- a conspiracy-based paranoid view of the world, and particularly of American history, which leads to isolationism and what I call Lindberg-ism, because he was a great admirer of [Charles] Lindberg, because this stuff is indissoluble from a very tiny stain of Judaeo-phobia which he could never dispel. He had it in under control - but it's quite hard to keep it under control.

Vidal was less controlled than Cockburn.  He contributed a Foreword to Israel Shahak's notorious "Jewish History, Jewish Religion", in which he claimed of the Jews that "no other minority in American history has ever hijacked so much money from the American taxpayers in order to invest in a ‘homeland’". Beloved by hardcore anti-Semites, Shahak's book sources Israel's political pathology in a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism.

And Vidal wrote the following Nation essay, which contains his quote about "Asiatics" and demonstrates that for him, there wasn't a clear distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.  I've added highlighting in red, in case you wish to skip to the really piquant parts.

The Empire Lovers Strike Back
March 22, 1986

Gore Vidal lives in Los Angeles and Rome. His coruscating essays on the U. S. giobal role always inflame as well as enlighten. Vidal has taken this occasion lo respond to two of his critics, but he uses the sparks of this clash to illuminate his larger preoccupation: the changing image and reality of
the American Empire.


Recently, Norman Mailer and I chatted together at the Royale Theatre in New York, under the auspices of PEN American Center. Part of what I said was reprinted in these pages on January 11, under the title, not mine, “Requiem for the American Empire.” I gave a bit of a history lesson about our empire’s genesis, and I brooded on its terminus last fall, when Tokyo took over from New York as the world’s economic center.

My conclusion: for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is a minority race with many well deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers–or, worse, mere entertainment–for the more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics. In principle, Mailer agreed.

As expected, that wonderful, wacky couple, Norman (Poddy) Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, checked in. The Lunts of the right wing (Israeli Fifth Column Division), they are now, in their old age, more and more like refugees from a Woody Allen film: The Purple Prose of West End Avenue.

Poddy was the first to respond. He is the editor of Commentary (circulation 55,000, and allegedly falling; paid for by the American Jewish Committee). He is best known–and by me loved–for his autobiographical “novel,” Making It, in which he tells us that he has made it because he has become editor of Commentary and might one day be a guest at the White House, as he has already been a guest of Huntington Hartford in Nassau.

Over the years, Poddy has, like his employers, the A.J.C., moved from those liberal positions traditionally occupied by American Jews (and me) to the far right of American politics. The reason for that is simple. In order to get Treasury money for Israel (last year $5 billion), pro-Israel lobbyists must see to it that America’s “the Russians are coming” squads are in place so that they can continue to frighten the American people into spending enormous sums for “defense,” which also means the support of Israel in its never-ending wars against just about everyone.

To make sure that nearly a third of the Federal budget goes to the Pentagon and Israel, it is necessary for the pro-Israel lobbyists to make common cause with our lunatic right. Hence, the virulent propaganda.

Poddy denounced Mailer and me in the pages of the New York Post. According to him, we belong to that mindless majority of pinko intellectuals who actually think that the nation spends too much on the Pentagon and not enough on, say, education. Since sustained argument is not really his bag, he must fall back on the ad hominem attack, a right-wing specialty–and, of course, on our flag, which he wears like a designer kaftan because “the blessings of freedom and prosperity are greater and more widely shared [here] than in any country known to human history.” Poddy should visit those Western European countries whose per capita income is higher than ours. All in all, Poddy is a silly billy.

Significantly, the one Yiddish word that has gained universal acceptance in this country is chutzpah. Example: In 1960, Mr. and Mrs. Podhoretz were in upstate New York where I used to live. I was trying out a play at the Hyde Park Playhouse; the play was set during the Civil War. “Why,” asked Poddy, “are you writing a play about, of all things, the Civil War?” I explained to him that my mother’s family had fought for the Confederacy and my father’s for the Union, and that the Civil War was–and is–to the United States what the Trojan War was to the Greeks, the great single tragic event that continues to give resonance to our Republic.

“Well, to me,” said Poddy, “the Civil War is as remote and as irrelevant as the War of the Roses.” I realized then that he was not planning to become an “assimilated American,” to use the old-fashioned terminology; but, rather, his first loyalty would always be to Israel. Yet he and Midge stay on among us, in order to make propaganda and raise money for Israel–a country they don’t seem eager to live in. Jewish joke, circa 1900: A Zionist is someone who wants to ship other people off to Palestine.

Midge was next to strike. But before she launched her attack, in something called Contentions, she put on her thinking cap and actually read what I wrote. I give her high marks for that. Unfortunately, she found my history lesson hard going. But then, like most of our Israeli fifth columnists, Midge isn’t much interested in what the goyim were up to before Ellis Island. She also likes the ad hominem attack. When I noted that our writers seldom speak out on matters of war and peace because so many of them are paid for by universities that receive money from the garrison state, Midge tartly retorted, “He, after all, is not paid by a university but by those great centers of independence, the film companies.” Since my last Hollywood film, The Best Man, was made in 1964, I have been “paid” by that American public that buys my books about the American past, a subject of no demonstrable interest to Midge and Poddy and their friends.

Midge was amazed by my description of how we seized territories from Mexico, including California; annexed Hawaii and Puerto Rico and, of course, the Philippines, where we slaughtered between 100,000 and 200,000 of the inhabitants. Interesting note: American imperialists froth if the figures for those murdered are ever in excess of 60,000 men, women and children, the acceptable statistical minimum for genocide. Then Midge, with that magisterial gooniness that marks her polemical style, told us, “that three of these conquered territories are now states of the United States, and a fourth an independent republic, is evidently beside the point–as, we cannot resist remarking...”

Oh, Midge, resist. Resist! Don’t you get the point? We stole other people’s land. We murdered many of the inhabitants. We imposed our religion–and rule–on the survivors. General Grant was ashamed of what we did to Mexico, and so am I. Mark Twain was ashamed of what we did in the Philippines, and so am I. Midge is not because in the Middle East another predatory people is busy stealing other people’s land in the name of an alien theocracy. She is a propagandist for these predators (paid for?), and that is what all this nonsense is about.

Since spades may not be called spades in freedom’s land, let me spell it all out. In order to get military and economic support for Israel, a small number of American Jews, who should know better, have made common cause with every sort of reactionary and anti-Semitic group in the United States, from the corridors of the Pentagon to the TV studios of the evangelical Jesus-Christers. To show that their hearts are in the far-right place, they call themselves neoconservatives, and attack the likes of Mailer and me, all in the interest of supporting the likes of Sharon and Israel as opposed to the Peace Now Israelis whom they disdain. There is real madness here; mischief too.

“Well, one thing is clear in all this muddle,’’ writes Midge, adrift in her tautological sea, “Mr. Vidal does not like his country.” Poor Midge. Of course I like my country. After all, I’m its current biographer. But now that we’re really leveling with each other, I’ve got to tell you I don’t much like your country, which is Israel.

Although there is nothing wrong with being a lobbyist for a foreign power, one is supposed to register with the Justice Department. Also, I should think that tact would require a certain forbearance when it comes to the politics of the host country. But tact is unknown to the Podhoretzes. Joyously they revel in the politics of hate, with plangent attacks on blacks and/or fags and/or liberals, trying, always, to outdo those moral majoritarians who will, as Armageddon draws near, either convert all the Jews, just as the Good Book says, or kill them.

All in all, the latest Podhoretz diatribes have finally convinced me that the time has come for the United States to stop all aid not only to Israel but to Jordan, Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. The Middle Easterners would then be obliged to make peace, or blow one another up, or whatever. In any case, we would be well out of it. After all, the theological and territorial quarrels of Israel and Islam are as remote to 200 million Americans as–what else?–the War of the Roses.

It should be noted that a "kaftan" is a garment symbolic of the Middle East. I think this is what The Nation meant when it referred to Vidal's "coruscating essays".

Postscript: Today, The Nation commemorates Vidal, offering this comment on "The Empire Lovers Strike Back":

The Asiatics didn’t complain, but two months later, some Jews did, after Gore wrote that Norman Podhoretz’s “first loyalty would always be to Israel,” and that he and his wife Midge Decter therefore constituted “an Israeli Fifth Column Division" inside the United States.

Many of us took that as another satiric barb, but Podhoretz had his associate editor at Commentary write to thirty people on the Nation masthead who had Jewish-sounding names asking whether they had protested the magazine’s publication of “the most blatantly anti-Semitic outburst in an American periodical since the Second World War.” (Nobody on the masthead resigned.) Arthur Carter, the Wall Street figure who had recently become publisher of the magazine, told Victor that the head of the Anti-Defamation League had complained to him about Gore’s piece. Carter replied, “What do you think we are? It’s The Nation, not the Jewish Federation Newsletter.” Victor called that “passing the Gore test.”

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Monday, March 05, 2012

Netanyahu Goes to Washington

Assessing a nuclear Iran

The polyphony of punditry about Netanyahu’s visit to the White House shows that the debate about a nuclear Iran remains flawed. I’ll try to correct what I think are the two main problems with it, but even after calibrating our instruments the problem stays out of focus. Perhaps that’s because the exigency of Iranian nukes is underscored by our lack of good military options to prevent them.

The case against using force to prevent a nuclear Iran settles on the alternative policy of containment. For reasons that will become clear, I think doves conjure the "containment" of today’s illiberal regimes with the same carelessness as hawks speak of "appeasement". We know what they mean. In a "don’t take my word for it" rhetorical tic, war opponents adduce Ehud Barak’s opinion that, "[the Iranians] are radical but not totally crazy. They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality." We find these critics confident in the rationality of the Mullahcracy, which they think is comparable to that of the Soviets, the original nuclear bête noire. Robert Wright says Iran simply won’t attack, because "Iranian leaders have no desire to be annihilated along with their families, friends, and Persian civilization."

Here’s the first flaw in the debate. The Iranian government is not a uniform and single -- rational or irrational -- actor. It doesn't work that way. All organizations have what Thucydides called a "war party" and a "peace party". Complex factors, including historical and economic context, culture and national values, and systems of law and politics, decide the relative power and influence of each group. Iraq war opponents, who have monitored the fates of war and peace parties in Muslim states in relation to Bush and Obama, understand this. Iran’s government has both rational actors, like Khatami, the reformist, and irrational actors, like Ahmadinejad, the Jew-hating millenarian conspiracy theorist. I don't have to spell out why a nuclear Iran is a worse place than a non-nuclear Iran for the war party to find itself in the ascendant.

I agree that doesn’t mean the war party is suicidal, and here let me join Wright in opposing an attack on Iran. For questionable tactical gain, it will visit destruction and humiliation on a society with a significant demographic for which Persian history and culture are paramount. Theirs is a proud, pre-Islamic, pluralist tradition that stands out regionally by not being absolutely infested by victimology, irredentism, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. We make a big mistake effacing these Persians -- the peace party’s constituency -- by exaggerated focus on the war party and its constituency, the hezbollahi. However, Wright makes the opposite mistake: he claims “Iranian leaders have no desire to be annihilated.. along with Persian civilization.” This is wrong: Iran’s highest leaders and its war party are committed to the Iranian Revolution, which considers “Persian civilization” to be its antagonist.

I get what Wright means, but his language shows there is a fog on the lens he is looking through. I don’t mean to say that Iranian Islamists seek to anneal the Revolution of its Persian impurities in a nuclear inferno. I mean they consider Persian civilization separate and undesirable, to be assimilated or discarded. The Mullahs have a self-preservation instinct, but that is not the same as a regard for Persian civilization. These Shia zealots are violent, paranoid conspiracists triply encircled: they are Muslims beset by Crusaders and Zionists; they are Shia beset by other Muslims; and they are revolutionaries beset by Persian reactionaries. Attached to the body, Persian civilization is both a stabilizing and destabilizing element, something to protect and fear, especially in times of duress.

Iran has a war party and a peace party, divided along these lines. Remember the images of the Green Revolution to learn what Iran’s leaders think of Persian civilization. But bombing or invading Iran would send secular Persians running into the arms of raging Shia millenarians.

Bringing focus back to us, Peter Beinart asks, "Are Palestinians worried about being nuked by Iran? In a small country, they're at much at risk as Jews. If not, why not?"

Weigh the apparent answer against your sense of the US and Israeli perspectives. A companion exercise is to consider the unconcern for Palestinian well-being among liberators who wish to visit destruction on the Zionist entity. Palestinian perspective, other than that which is projected onto them, is so often superfluous.

Beinart's question is thought-provoking, but in the confines of the debate's second flaw. It's natural for both those who support and oppose attacking Iran to dwell on the "wipe Israel off the map" scenario -- Iran firing nukes into Tel Aviv. But Iran won’t do that, except possibly, if it can, in retaliation for an invasion or first strike. Much more realistic, and challenging, is the danger of a nuclear Iran pursuing its aims via terror proxies. Bruce Hoffman, the eminent terrorism scholar and Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, observes that the Iranian Revolution is defined in part by terrorism as foreign policy. Revolutionary Iran sired modern religious terrorism with an "Islamic terrorist campaign" seeking to spread:
... the fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law espoused in Iran to other Muslim countries. "We must strive to export our Revolution throughout the world," the Ayatollah Khomeini declared on the occasion of the Iranian new year in March 1980, just over a year after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, "and must abandon all idea of not doing so, for not only does Islam refuse to recognize any difference between Muslim countries, it is the champion of all oppressed people..."

This is especially salient to Iran's indirect war against Israel. It seems the logic of containment is not dispositive in the quasi-military realm of terrorism. Israel has had nukes for about four decades and Iran has supported hostilities against Israel for about half that long (and also Jews, if we join the Argentine government in blaming Iran and Hezbollah for the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, which killed 85 people). While Hezbollah and Hamas take cues from Iran, they are also independent actors, which is to say Iran can't precisely tune their aggression. Effective missiles are much easier to obtain than nukes. If Hezbollah, Hamas, or a group like them pulls off a large-scale attack on Israel -- say, rocketing a hospital and killing ~300 doctors, staffers and patients -- the situation could devolve very quickly into a devastating exchange between Israel and Iran. Look at how we’ve reacted to the terrorist murder of ~3000 Americans, then consider what Israel has done in response to ineffectual rocket attacks and the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. Israeli policy has a consistent flavor of machtpolitik. Wright, and many like him, say the US is confronting Iran "on Israel’s behalf," hoping to taint the hawks’ position by distilling it to a war for Israel. Do they believe a 9/11 in Israel backed by a nuclear Iran will remain a regional affair?

To get an idea what an Iranian war party under siege might do, review the following statistics, enumerated in Hoffman's Inside Terrorism.
Although religious terrorists committed only 6 percent of recorded terrorist incidents between 1998 and 2004, their acts were responsible for 30 percent of the total number of fatalities recorded during that time period... Although Shia groups committed only 8 percent of all international terrorist incidents between 1982 and 1989, they nonetheless were responsible for 30 percent of the total number of fatalities arising from those incidents. And while al Qaeda perpetrated only 0.1 percent of all terrorist attacks between 1998 and 2004, it was responsible for nearly 19 percent of total fatalities from terrorist attacks during that time period.

There are three main flavors of terrorist: the national-separatist, or right-wing secular terrorist; the Marxist-Leninist, or left-wing secular terrorist; and the religious, or millenarian, terrorist. (The latter doesn't refer only to Islamic terrorists; also think Timothy McVeigh and Baruch Goldstein.) Hoffman shows that religious terrorists take a far greater toll than their secular counterparts, and that among them, Shia terrorists are the most lethal. That makes sense given the Iranian provenance of modern religious terrorism.

Hoffman also notes that in recent times, the ratio of non-religious to religious terrorists has skewed steadily in favor of the latter.
In 1994, for example, a third (sixteen) of the forty-nine identifiable international terrorist groups active that year could be classified as religious in character and or motivation; and in 1995, their number grew yet again, to account for nearly half (twenty-six, or 46 percent) of the fifty-six known active international terrorist groups. A decade later, it is perhaps not surprising to find that this trend not only continued but solidified. In 2004, for instance, nearly half (fifty-two, or 46 percent) of the terrorist groups active that year were religious, while thirty-two (28 percent) were left-wing groups, and twenty-four (21 percent) were ethno-nationalist/separatist organizations.

It's hard to account for the escalation in brutality, because explanatory models seek to be rational, but these phenomena are quintessentially irrational. A clue may be found in the distinct way in which each type of violent extremist seeks to stop history. As I’ve written, left-wing extremists wish to harness and drive history toward a future utopia. Right-wing extremists wish to harness and drive it back to a glorious past. And religious millenarians wish to destroy us and themselves to create paradise in place of the worldly purgatory. In this they are more dangerous than their totalitarian antecedents.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nir Rosen and Totalitarian Stupidity

One snowy day back in college, I was returning from class to my dorm and I began to cross a small intersection. A woman was waiting at the stop sign in a large, gray vehicle. As I began to pass in front of it, she suddenly drove forward into me. I banged on the hood, she came to and stopped, and I barked some remark about using her eyes. More startling than injurious, so I continued on.

I entered my dorm and saw my friend in the main gathering room, so I went to him and breathlessly unloaded what had just happened. While narrating I referred in my 21 year-old shorthand to the woman driver as "this chick". A girl I hadn't seen sitting nearby exploded: "CHICK? What the FUCK is THAT?" I marveled to myself: I was just nearly run over by a car, and her moral priority is to police my language.

As I've argued, a possibly clinical emotional idiocy underpins extremism. Conspiracy theories about America and the Jews, the embrace of "counterknowledge", an attraction to totalitarian thinking -- these are some criteria for diagnosis. Above all we have the moral stupidity, the bent priorities of the true believer, the eggs which need to be broken to make the omelet of the radiant tomorrow.

Out of today's noxious lineup of anti-war extremists steps Nir Rosen. During the celebration that erupted when Hosni Mubarak stepped down in the face of Egyptian popular revolt, Lara Logan, a CBS News correspondent, was ambushed, beaten and sexually assaulted. In response, Nir Rosen tweeted:
Lara Logan had to outdo Anderson. Where was her buddy McCrystal.

Yes yes its wrong what happened to her. Of course. I don’t support that. But, it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson too

Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger

A fuller log is available here.

Rosen is a war correspondent whose reductive anti-imperialism rivals Ward Churchill's. Yet he's been successful and celebrated, thanks to the comparative complexity of his subject matter and Bush's bungling of Iraq. Besides the acute viciousness of his attack on a woman who might have been gang-raped, what's interesting is this is hardly the first time Rosen has made vile public statements. It's just the first time he's been called out on it by more than a few people.

Predictably in pitch with his totalitarian stupidity, Rosen often targets Israel. Here are some examples from Twitter and his public Facebook "Wall".

Here in a Facebook Wall post entitled "Fuck Israel," Rosen links to a five year-old case in which a (non-Jewish) IDF soldier was acquitted of murdering a 13 year-old Palestinian girl. Rosen ignorantly mistook the tragic story as recent and intoned [emphasis mine]:
he shot a 13 year old girl, or ordered her to be shot, and was exhonerated [sic]. and nothing will happen because she isnt jewish. israel's existence is an abomination

And here Rosen lays it out in the Manichaean terms native to the totalitarian mind:

Because it was individual, the odiousness of Rosen's attack on Lara Logan surpasses his public fantasizing about Israel's destruction. But the latter didn't provoke outrage, or much response at all, which shows how acceptable that line of thought has become. Trusted, popular writers like Marc Lynch and Glenn Greenwald have praised Rosen throughout.

Rosen is being crushed under the weight of tardy opprobrium. He's given a Michael Richards-style interview in which he doesn't do himself any favors, explaining:
A part of me was bothered by how celebrities, especially white ones, get so much attention, and before I realized it was a sexual assault I was sort of anticipating a return to the old theme about unleashed brown natives attacking a white woman. Another part of me was bothered by the knowledge that Arab victims would never get attention, that this would detract from everything else that was happening, and that most victims of sexual assault, whether in Egypt or the US will never get attention.

A woman was just beaten and sexually assaulted by a gang, and Rosen's moral priority is policing our emotional response, lest it be racist or focused on the wrong victim.

People lament the damage Twitter has done to the art of written communication, but I appreciate the economy of language it enforces. The great poet Richard Wilbur wrote, "The strength of the genie comes from being in a bottle." Twitter proleptically forced Rosen into an apt summary of his downfall:
thanks to twitter i can destroy my career 140 characters at a time.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

To Harness History

As an analyst of the ideas behind New Antisemitism, I spend a lot of time trawling the oily floors of anti-Israel seas in search of stinking treasures. A good deal of what I pull up is amateur opinion material that I completely ignore. It would be boring to dwell on childish and sub-literate screeds, and I don't want to turn this blog into a medium of complaint or disproportionate outrage.

I'll violate my policy in this case, not only because the prose is breathtakingly dumb -- a notable outlier in an already squalid medium; the author can't even spell "vagina" -- but more because it nicely exhibits an important feature of utopian thought.

Let us put the debate of "is homosexuality nature or nurture" aside for the moment. There is a need to protect all minorities; however, there is clear distinction between legal protection, and aggressively encourage something. It is difficult to fathom, why homosexuality is increasingly pushed in our heterosexual faces, to the detriment of the majority and more importantly, the danger it poses to the survival of human race. Similarly, why the constant noise about the suffering of Jews in 1945, as if they have a monopoly over this issue? It was the Japanese, the Germans and the Russians who suffered most during the Second World War. If the Israeli-Zionists were really victims of a holocaust, how can they murder innocent Palestinian civilians en masse? How can victims exhibit such heartless and cruel behaviour towards innocent civilians, who had no connection with Nazi Germany?

As stultifying as this stuff is, reading as much of it as you can take is helpful because it presents so many of the clinical signs of totalitarian stupidity. There is the embrace of counterknowledge in the form of Holocaust denial; there is the catatonic reflex of absurd historical analogy; there is the conspiracist thinking. And of course the piece is a breviary of Jew-hatred -- note the arcane reference to the "Talmudic ethos of ethnic cleansing".

What I especially want you to notice is how such a wicked and imbecilic screed masquerades as human rights rhetoric. This Yamin Zakaria stages a passion play whose drama unfolds locally and internationally. There is the intrinsic threat to Islam posed by the homosexual lobby. There is the extrinsic threat posed by the Jews. The Muslims are a people of light who are "[gagged]" by "[cabals]" that seek to control our thought. While "there is a need to protect all minorities," homosexuals and Jews have an unnatural and parasitical drive to spread "annihilation" and "servitude". The inversion of human rights ethics is fundamental to utopian politics -- read Mein Kampf, or Osama bin Laden's public writings. This is perhaps what is most perverse about the "anti-imperialist" collaboration between left-wing and Islamist groups.

Millenarian thought seeks to stop history. Left-wing millenarians wish to harness and drive it toward a future utopia. Right-wing millenarians wish to harness and drive it back to a glorious past. Religious millenarians wish to destroy us and themselves to create paradise in place of the worldly purgatory. In this they are more dangerous than their totalitarian antecedents.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Freemasonry of Filth

Modernityblog records lunatic Jew-hater Gilad Atzmon's latest low.
The Protocols is widely considered a forgery. It is a manual for a prospective new member of the “Elders”, describing how they will run the world through control of the media and finance, replacing the traditional social order with one based on mass manipulation. Though the book is considered a hoax by most experts and regarded as a vile anti-Semitic text, it is impossible to ignore its prophetic qualities and its capacity to describe both the century unfolding and the political reality in which we live I am referring here to: AIPAC, the Credit Crunch, Lehman Brothers, Neocon wars, interventionist ideology, a British Foreign Secretary listed as an Israeli Propaganda (Hasbara) author trying to amend Britain’s ethical stand, a Zionist by admission put on an inquiry panel to investigate why Britain launched a Zionist war and so on.

I wonder if Chomsky facsimile and Tourettic Israel-trasher Dennis Perrin knows whose authority he's appealing to in this lament about the growing sadism of the Jews.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Calling Bullshit -- The Pilot Episode

I've been writing publicly since late 2002 about utopian and totalitarian ideas, mostly as they find expression in antisemitic reaction to Israel and Zionism. For unusual reasons I haven't fully articulated, I've tapped out an oeuvre that is largely consonant with the stance of the pro-Israel "community", as it were. You may not be awed by these credentials, but I hope they qualify me as someone who might briefly restore your interest in a tattered topic: the difference between criticism of Israel and abuse of Jews.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has composed a leviathan libel of Andrew Sullivan, all but calling him an anti-Semite.
Criticism of Israeli policy, and sympathy for the Palestinians, and support for a two-state solution, do not require, as their condition or their corollary, this intellectual shabbiness, this venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews. I have striven for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and territorial compromise, and two states, for many decades now, but Sullivan’s variety of such right thinking is completely repugnant to me. There are decent and indecent ways to advocate change. About the Jews, is Sullivan a bigot, or is he just moronically insensitive? To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left.

Inevitably this has generated a lot of heat, earning angry responses from Matthew Yglesias, Brad DeLong, Gawker, of all things, and many others.

I have for a while been wanting to start a Calling Bullshit series about episodes like this, when oversensitive or oversearching friends-of-Israel decide to show-trial enemies-of-the-Jews. Otherwise perspicacious commentators, even brilliant ones like Wieseltier, can be seduced by the provocative crudeness of Israel's enemies, and the complex spectrum of ideological reaction to Israel, into launching McCarthyite counterattacks. And interpretation can be a carnivorous jungle when three political types, interrelated on the subject of Israel, overlap. These are the antisemite, the non-interventionist, and the foreign policy realist who has judged Israel harmful to the US.

It's important to combat confusion arising from these complexities, as well as callow and partisan accusations of antisemitism, and the effort should be led from within the ranks. New Antisemitism really does exist, and decreasing numbers of people believe that when non-antisemites are smeared. Also, real enemies of Israel or Jews use these moments to exonerate themselves, to immunize themselves against future criticism, and to enlist supporters among people offended by political correctness and identity politics.

Wieseltier's confusion is expressed in the last sentence of the passage I quoted above. He calls Sullivan a "Buchanan of the left". This seeming absurdity makes sense to those familiar enough with the material. Invoking Buchanan is often metonymy for isolationism*, and in the context of Israel one stained by Lindberghian anti-Semitism. Andrew Sullivan was a foreign policy neoconservative, and like most regretful true believers, he has been making up for it publicly by raking his scalp with conch shells. Predictably, his post-neocon writings on Israel have been a furnace of debate over the merits of Israel-critical foreign-policy realism and non-interventionism, stoked by outrage at Operation Cast Lead.

This returns us to an important topic I've written about. Non-interventionists and antisemites are implicated groups, but they are not the same. They both hate, or at least fear, Israel, but the former is not necessarily hostile to Jews. To the extent that the non-interventionist in public discourse is even identified, most people can’t distinguish him from uncomplicated Jew-haters on the subject of Israel. This is owing to some rhetorical overlap -- the very term "anti-Semite" was invented by Jew-haters wanting to sound respectable -- and also the figure of Charles Lindbergh, who combined both personas. So people default to branding as anti-Semites non-interventionist Israel-phobes like Glenn Greenwald, because the dogma that generates their vilification of Israel is not well understood.

Confusion is compounded by further rhetorical overlap of these with Israel-critical foreign policy realists. For many Israel advocates, it is beyond dispute that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have recapitulated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But again this is a mistake: Walt and Mearsheimer's critique is shoddy, dubious and above all illiberal, but it is not antisemitic. (Ironically, the Lobby portion of their critique is probably its least antisemitic element.) Wieseltier loses his grip on this distinction in another revelatory passage:
These days the self-congratulatory motto above his blog is ‘Of No Party or Clique,’ but in fact Sullivan belongs to the party of Mearsheimer and the clique of Walt (whom he cites frequently and deferentially), to the herd of fearless dissidents who proclaim in all seriousness, without in any way being haunted by the history of such an idea, that Jews control Washington.

Mearsheimer and Walt don’t believe the Jews control Washington; antisemites believe that. Mearsheimer and Walt believe the US is wrong to ally with Israel, because doing so brings us little benefit, and great harm in the form of terrorist blowback. Further, like all such analysts, they don't credit enough the power of irrationalism -- "unrealism", if you will -- in politics, and are indifferent to arguments based on the consanguinity of liberal democracies.

To muddy the waters one last time, non-interventionism is an illiberal doctrine that can be interpreted as antisemitic, and not only because of its anti-Israel excesses. The abiding theme of this blog is antisemitism is the engine of millenarian movements. So you do the math. Israel today is the Masada of the open society, under siege by Left, Right and especially genocidal Islamist forces. Moreover if Israel is compromised or destroyed, it is not only the Jews who will suffer. Complacency about antisemitism is a dangerous indulgence for all.

Maybe making these distinctions will be unsatisfying in a medium that is vexed by distance from Manichaean neatness. Inevitably, all organic and powerful movements produce a gestural simulacrum of themselves. This process is complete with the enterprise to identify and combat New Antisemitism. But it's too important to surrender it wholly to that historical imperative. Andrew Sullivan developed a touch of Israel-phobia during the hairshirt years of his anti-neocon penitence. He is not an antisemite.

* Isolationism comprises two related doctrines: military non-interventionism and economic protectionism. Even though the terms "isolationism" and "non-interventionism" are often used interchangeably, it is only the latter that is relevant to this piece.

Update: Here's Sullivan's cri de coeur.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Moldovan Bouncer

Spencer Ackerman reacts acidly to Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon's childish humiliation of the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol:
A good relationship with a Muslim country that clearly accepts Israel’s right to exist is an unqualified diplomatic asset. To squander it through churlishness reflects a foreign policy run by a Moldovan bouncer. It’s like we’re living through the vulgar sequel of the Bush administration. Only Israelis are supposed to be more realistic.

Well said. I think Israel has been undergoing its own phase of “mugged-by-reality” machtpolitik, owing to the 9/11 attacks, but also and more to the second Intifada, Hezbollah and the ascendancy of Hamas. I’d answer Ackerman's closing sentence by arguing that foreign policy during the Bush years was a tension between the decidedly non-ideological Rumsfeld/Cheney faction and true believers like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. Israel’s foreign policy is more "realistic" in the sense that it lacks this latter ideological dimension, and its liberal democracy is hardened by the considerable etatism that results from a short and violent history.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ditch Israel Watch - III

I defy anyone to find a political figure in either major party's leadership who has, in the context of discussing U.S. policy towards Israel, ever even mentioned the fact that undying, endless American support for Israel -- making all of their conflicts our own -- increases the risk of terrorist violence aimed at the U.S. But it so plainly does.

Awarding the third installment of the Ditch Israel Watch to Glenn Greenwald is like sneering at an octogenarian Norman Mailer -- that is to say, using a GAU-8 Avenger to shoot fish in a barrel -- but I'm constantly alarmed and saddened that writers -- especially knowledgeable ones of professed liberal sensibility -- credit this supersyllabic twit.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tony Judt and the Velvet Genocide

In the New York Review of Books in 2003, Tony Judt published his view that the Jewish state should be deleted. This was the predicate of his proposal to reanimate the corpse of the one-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict*. Cloaked with academic authority and writing during the overlap of the second Intifada with Bush's invasion of Iraq, Judt argued that Israel was a harmful anachronism. He was not the first to express an abolitionist anti-Zionism, but his prestige and timing led him to become the celebrity spokesman for the internationalist case against Israel.

This is a blog about ideas, and as such it treats them as living things that generate results. To reverse what he considered the moral decay of man during the Enlightenment, Rousseau recommended in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences that primitivism and an inchoate Luddism replace intellectual and technical** progress. This too was unoriginal, but it made Rousseau's fame. After being refined by two hundred years of illiberal thought, Rousseau's atavism was bolted like a gun turret to a totalitarian reading of his concept of democracy, and we entered upon the abattoir of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

But it is also important to resist the temptation to think of ideology as independent of practical influences. Consider the cluster of doctrines gathered under the construct of "socialism". Some early socialist thinkers had attitudes to race that would seem disqualifying today. These ranged from the conflation of Jews, Judaism and capital, most famously articulated by Marx and termed the "socialism of fools" by August Bebel, to racist determinism. Socialists like H.G. Wells, Jack London and Sidney and Beatrice Webb anticipated or prescribed eugenics and race war. Those strains of socialism that predominated by the time of the Second World War only then officially assumed an identity that featured anti-racism. This change was partly actuated by the showdown between Hitler and Stalin. The Fuhrer himself made pretenses of being "socialist", and in private once confessed Nazism's debt to Marx.*** Marxism-Leninism needed to sharply distinguish itself from its main anti-liberal competitor.

The logic of Judt's Israel: The Alternative looms as the leftish auxiliary to the Islamist enterprise to destroy Israel. As with the Khmer Rouge and Rousseau's primitivism, the one-state proposal has a precursor: Judt creepily recapitulates a facet of Marx and Engels' thought, which Engels articulated in an 1849 essay called "The Magyar Struggle". This was the quasi-Darwinian idea that certain European ethnic groups had been orphaned by the historical-evolutionary process and would have to be exterminated to permit the onset of socialism.

There is no country in Europe which does not have in some corner or other one or several ruined fragments of peoples, the remnant of a former population that was suppressed and held in bondage by the nation which later became the main vehicle of historical development. These relics of a nation mercilessly trampled under foot in the course of history, as Hegel says, these residual fragments of peoples always become fanatical standard-bearers of counter-revolution and remain so until their complete extirpation or loss of their national character, just as their whole existence in general is itself a protest against a great historical revolution.

This view was part of a larger meditation on the short-term political failure of the revolutionary violence that had begun the previous year in France and resonated throughout Europe. Arrayed in opposition to the "historical" and "revolutionary" Germans, Poles and Magyars were "petty hidebound nations" of Slavs, such as Czechs, Slovaks, Croats and Serbs. These, in an absurd attempt to restore their national historicity, "put themselves at the disposal of Austrian reaction," i.e. the Habsburg Austrian Empire. Engels blamed these Slavs seeking self-determination for the eclipse of internationalism by nationalism and ensuring the failure of the Revolutions of 1848.

Judt begins by referencing these same national movements. Then he recasts this analysis as an internationalist lament about Israel's twilight attachment to its Jewish character.
The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European "enclave" in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a "Jewish state"—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

If you consider Israel's geography, this is a breathtaking passage. The Jewish state is situated in a region where the timbre of nationalism isn't exactly Scandinavian. Nonetheless Judt argues there is now a status quo of 'post-racial' states, if you will, whose peace is imperiled by the "hidebound [nation]" of -- curiously, only -- Israel. He cites Israel's nuclear weapons as the primary impediment to nonproliferation; he says Israel was a major reason for the US invasion of Iraq, with Syria on deck.

In an attenuated way, Judt reasserts the struggle of international and national socialism. Certainly he doesn't mirror Engels in advocating Israel's violent destruction, but this is rich ore from which to extract an imprimatur for the velvet genocide of Middle East Jewry. "What is to be done" is to undo the impediment to progress set up in 1948, even though the 1940s saw the success of other national separations in India, Pakistan, Burma and Laos.
But what if there were no place in the world today for a "Jewish state"? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome? It is not such a very odd thought. Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural.

As Leon Wieseltier observed, "Judt and his editors have crossed the line from the criticism of Israel's policy to the criticism of Israel's existence." It takes naivete reminiscent of the Iranian communists who aided the Islamic Revolution, and found themselves among its first victims, to expect peace and safety for a Jewish minority in a binational Palestine.

I won't pretend to predict the fortunes of nationalism, but it would seem that if anyone's ideas about the Arab-Israeli conflict are an anachronism, they are Judt's.

Epilogue: This post was inspired by Andrew Sullivan mentioning that Tony Judt is suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. That's awful. Judt's initial account of his cruel infirmity is moving.

I feel like a shitheel for writing this now, but the truth is I'd been wanting to compose and publish this analysis since 2004, when I first filtered Judt's essay through the lens of George Watson's The Lost Literature of Socialism, to which I am indebted here, especially Chapters 7 and 8.

* In the most generous assessment, the one-state notion is properly identified as an ideal, not a solution.

** In Rousseau's time, the term "arts" roughly meant "manufacturing".

*** Otto Wagener, Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant, pg. 167, cited in Watson, op. cit., pg. 72.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Ditch Israel Watch -- II

Ultimately Israel is a country that is of no particular worth to the United States.

... They have no resources we need. Their manpower is minimal. Their association with us is a negative for the United States. Now that's a fact. What you want to do about that fact is entirely different. But for anyone to stand up in the United States and say that support for Israel doesn't hurt us in the Muslim world is to just defy reality.

Ex-CIA analyst Michael Scheuer on C-SPAN, responding to a caller who complained about the people who "jewed us into Iraq".

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Ditch Israel Watch - I

It's not your father's isolationism. Such a consummate failure was Bush, it's hard to identify one nefarious group that didn't get a bumper crop out of his Iraq War. Anarchists dug up their balaclavas, half-dead hippies became Vietnam-era historical actors, street scholars and professors chattered on cue, Buchananites, Chomskyites, Islamists, Stalinists, red and green and Code Pink -- even Park Slope moms prowled the overstocked aisles of Mesopotamia for amazing glitter and value. It was a market with a fluidity and savoriness somewhere between a Blue Light Special and the fireworks-and-blow-jobs bazaar of Times Square, circa 1989. Even the Baathists did OK.

Readers of this blog know the post-Cold War convergence of right and left-wing isolationism -- actually, non-interventionism -- has accelerated and amplified since the neocon nakba. The mainstream US Left calls its attraction to this current "reality-based liberalism", implying that reason now prevails over ideals and ideology. And with it has come a wave of Cartesian doubt in the realm of foreign policy.

One of the big questions now is, "What has Israel done for us lately?" Why ally with that "shitty little country" if the alliance makes Muslims so mad? An affinity in liberal democracy? Matthew Yglesias would rather see planes blow up than "[poison] relations with 1.5 billion Muslims." Israel actually kills some of them! Exit Paul Wolfowitz, enter Stephen Walt.

It's a question we're beginning to hear more lately, and while it's still mostly voiced in right-wing and libertarian quarters, it's beginning to be asked outside of, Glenn Greenwald's blog and the nativist cesspool of The American Conservative. I think it might be worthwhile to start tracking it, to see how much momentum it gains among liberals and centrists shocked by Israel's military overreactions and a renascent Likud.

Ex-neocon penitents ask the question with a special fervency. So it's sad but fitting that my blogfather, former warmonger Andrew Sullivan, having progressed from the hair shirt years of his fascination with Ron Paul to rhythmic denunciations of Israel, should lead us off.
And if Rahm Emanuel is sick of them all, one can imagine how the average American feels. My own view is moving toward supporting a direct American military imposition of a two-state solution, with NATO troops on the borders of the new states of Palestine and Israel. I'm sick of having a great power like the US being dictated to in the conduct of its own foreign policy by an ally that provides almost no real benefit to the US, and more and more costs.

Emphasis mine.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Against the Radiant Tomorrow

I think an underrated success of the Obama administration has been the way he pulled us back from the brink of a pointless Cold War dynamic the Bush administration had landed us in in South America...

I would link to a Human Rights Watch report on Chavez’s impact on Venezuela’s political institutions but everyone knows that HRW is a non-credible group obsessed with unfair slams on Israel so their criticism of Chavez must somehow be part of their vast conspiracy.

This post has a synoptic elegance. In rehearsing again the anti-neocon leitmotif, Matthew Yglesias demonstrates the tone-deafness of "reality-based liberalism" to anti-totalitarian concerns. Rather than fretting about effete and academic notions like liberty and the open society, Obama "[focuses] on concrete issues", which duly reveals "... that for all the huffing and puffing, there’s really no actual conflict between the United States and Latin America’s leftists."

Never mind that Lula just cut in on Chavez's dirty dance with Ahmadinejad, an extended number that undermines the idea that Chavez now praising Idi Amin is "[pushing] the envelope". It also undermines Obama's threat of sanctions, which the Yglesias crowd might prefer to bombing Iran's nuclear sites. Never mind, move on, there's nothing to see here. Maybe tribal neocons will denounce Latin America's leftists in light of Israel's interests, but since Operation Cast Lead concern for our ally seems more misplaced than ever. And they dare to suggest that Human Rights Watch is blinkered. What do we need with Israel? A broader interest in the consanguinity of liberal democracies? "Reality-based liberals" have no interest in such talk. That's the preserve of the Trotskyites of Commentary magazine.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

You might accuse me of splitting hairs in specifying that Chas Freeman is "not so much anti-Israel as pro-Saudi", but there are good reasons for recalibrating the focus on Freeman.

If Freeman is still a Saudi shill, if anything that means he will bring a stronger anti-Shiite than anti-Israel bias to his post. That's because, while ideologically the Saudis would love to see the Jewish state destroyed, practically they are terrified by the Shiite risorgimento we've created by bungling Iraq. (To be sure, they hate the Shiites ideologically too.) The Saudis know Israel doesn't pose a threat to them. Iran is a different matter.

The most recent milestone on the road leading to an American denouement with Iran due to its nuclear ambitions was the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. That document concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. National Intelligence Estimates are summary approximations of the opinions of all the US intelligence agencies on a security issue. They are released by the Director of National Intelligence, who is currently Dennis Blair. The chair of the National Intelligence Council oversees the process. Dennis Blair has picked Chas Freeman to chair the NIC.

If Freeman is in thrall to the Saudis, then he might feel compelled to do one of two things with respect to Iran. Out of anti-Israel animus, he might be inclined to underestimate Iranian nuclear prospects in a Lindberghian gesture to prevent our going to war with Iran on behalf of Israel. In fact, in remarks to the 14th Annual US-Arab Policymakers Conference, Freeman snarked:
Some of the same people who neoconned the United States into invading Iraq are now arguing for an attack on Iran as a means of ensuring that it does not eventually acquire nuclear weapons.

But because of the regional playing field, it's more likely that Freeman will be inclined to overestimate Iranian nuclear prospects, so as to leverage American power in favor of his Sunni paymasters.

This could contribute to a devastating outcome, one that again underscores the absurdity of the argument of anti-anti-Israel partisans that the Freeman pick spells an end to The Lobby's subordination of American interests.

It would also be brutally ironic for the liberals among these partisans who are clamoring in favor of Freeman. These same anti-warriors who found it so hard to believe Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meant it when he called for Israel to be wiped off the map -- or that he even said it at all -- are now agitating for the appointment of an intelligence chief who might oppose Iran more than the Jewish state.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Not So Much Anti-Israel as Pro-Saudi

The case that Charles "Chas" Freeman is a fanged Israel-hater is weak so far. It hinges largely on his being an Arabist ex-foreign service officer, his think tank being generously funded by the Saudis, and on several comments he made calling out Israel in straightforward terms. Here's one that's been shofar-blown around the web:
"Demonstrably, Israel excels at war; sadly, it has shown no talent for peace."

Jeffrey Goldberg argues that an "analyst-in-chief", as opposed to a polemicist, would acknowledge the "complex truth" that "quite often it's been the case that both sides in the conflict have shown no talent for making peace". That's true, but many have been less thoughtful. The Joseph Trumpeldors of Contentions speculate: "Had the public (and specifically Jewish voters, who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama) known that Obama would appoint the Saudi-funded, Israel-bashing, analytically-disabled Chas Freeman to a key national security position, I wonder if he would have cleared the bar of acceptability for commander-in-chief."

Actually Dennis Blair, the National Intelligence Director, picked him. And it's silly to elide Obama and Freeman. Freeman's role will be to oversee the collection and editing of intelligence for Blair, who in turn will brief the President. Freeman will surely have influence, but this involves a lot of different people. He's not going to be Rasputin.

There is a tendency to exaggerate the influence of individual government officials, ignoring -- in a conspiratorial fashion that, not for nothing, is favored by the far Left and Right -- that most everyone is merely a cell in the vast hive of politics. That's not to say people don't have influence, some a lot more than others; but Freeman, especially as chair of the National Intelligence Council, isn't going to torpedo American government support for Israel. And as others have recognized, it will be constructive for idealist forces to engage opponents in the Obama administration. Freeman is known to be an articulate and fearless polemicist, perhaps to a fault by the standards of politicians. James Fallows (or more precisely, Fallows' "friend") clarifies and elaborates:
"... as head of the National Intelligence Council... [Freeman] would be exactly right. While he would have no line-operational responsibilities or powers, he would be able to raise provocative questions, to ask 'What if everybody's wrong?', to force attention to the doubts, possibilities, and alternatives that normally get sanded out of the deliberative process through the magic known as 'groupthink.'"

But Freeman need not hate Israel to undermine it and America. He need only have excessive admiration for the Saudis, with whom he was intimate as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992, and for whom he shilled before and during his tenure as president of the Middle East Policy Council, a think tank founded in 1981 by another ex-foreign service officer named Richard H. Curtiss (more later about Curtiss).

In a post-Iraq and Iran-ascendant Middle East, the Saudis are shaping up to be the Sunni Arab vanguard, in play against the Shiites of Iraq and Iran, and the Israelis, among others. As such, it's troublesome that Freeman has accepted $1 million from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to bankroll the Middle East Policy Council. Practically, that seems to be the cause or effect of the fact that Freeman's public statements about Israel and 9/11 express the Saudi line.

In 2002 Freeman asked during a symposium held by The Washington Institute:
And what of America’s lack of introspection about September 11? Instead of asking what might have caused the attack, or questioning the propriety of the national response to it, there is an ugly mood of chauvinism. Before Americans call on others to examine themselves, we should examine ourselves.

In a speech in 2006 to the 15th Annual US-Arab Policymakers Conference, Freeman observed:
We have paid heavily and often in treasure in the past for our unflinching support and unstinting subsidies of Israel's approach to managing its relations with the Arabs. Five years ago we began to pay with the blood of our citizens here at home.

These are just a more straightforward version of the rider Prince Abdullah attached to his $10 million gift to the city of New York to help rebuild after 9/11, which Rudy Giuliani rightly spat on and sent back:
However, at times like this one, we must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack. I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause. While the UN passed clear resolutions numbered 242 and 338 calling for the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip decades ago, our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of the Israelis while the world turns the other cheek.

The practical drivers of Abdullah and Freeman's statements include a desire to divert attention from the fact that Osama bin Laden, while hardly phlegmatic about the Arab-Israeli conflict, cited American military presence in and cooperation with Saudi Arabia as the main reason Al Qaeda undertook jihad against America. (American support for Israel was the tertiary reason.)

Bin Talal's refocus on Israel was the classic regional despot's diversion. Freeman echoing it doesn't speak well for his analytical powers or objectivity. That he would slap America in the face with it on behalf of Saudi Arabia, the country that has done so much to nourish the filthy ideology that produced 9/11, and provided the manpower for the attacks, says a lot about the premise that Freeman is an antidote to those who would subordinate American interests to foreign concerns.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Iran and the Jews

My position on war with Iran has been the same for some time -- I am against it. An American, NATO or Western-coalition attack on Iran would be a humanitarian disaster; militarily useless; and a catastrophic signal to the large segment of Iranians who are pro-Western and anti-totalitarian that the mullahs were right all along.

This is not mitigated or refuted by acknowledging the genocidal nature of Iran's theocratic war party, which is stridently represented by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But where there is a war party, there is some kind of peace party, and Iran's is significant. Iran has never initiated a conventional assault on any state and appears to respond rationally to diplomatic and military pressure.

Still the threat posed by the mullahs' millenarian Islam to Middle East Jewry must be acknowledged. It is -- I state with stoical restraint -- of interest to people of liberal sentiment. Iran has long fought a war against the Jews and the state where they ingathered after the Holocaust. It does this through millenarian proxies such as Hezbollah and more recently Hamas. If Iran eventually manages to weaponize uranium meant for its sham civil energy program, its nuclear arsenal will either back traditional or comprise a new breed of attacks on the Jewish state.

These are key reasons to vigorously confront the efforts of putatively anti-war campaigners, armed with the pseudo-scholarship of Juan Cole, to minimize or falsify Ahmadinejad's call for Israel's destruction at the 2005 World Without Zionism conference in Tehran. These are lies of an illiberal segment of the Left that, for a complex set of ideological reasons, privileges the well-being of Muslims over Jews.

Sadly there are reverberations of this among the liberal elite. A week ago, the New York Times Sunday Book Review published a survey of working writers' book recommendations for the Presidential candidates. This was before Hillary Clinton bowed out. The writer Junot Diaz addressed this to her:

Hillary: What to recommend to a driven, brilliant, flawed woman who has no problem threatening to obliterate Iran, should they attack Israel? I recommend Peter Balakian’s “Black Dog of Fate,” in an attempt to cure her of her genocidal impulses. Armenians know all about being “obliterated,” and perhaps that nation’s suffering and miraculous survival will crack Pharaoh’s heart. But don’t bet on it.

An exquisite pomposity inhabits allegorical writing as tone-deaf as this. Hillary’s promise to "obliterate" Iran was made in narrow reply to the hypothetical of its launching a nuclear attack on Israel. I shouldn't have to point out that this would result in the destruction of almost as many Jews as were killed by Nazi Germany. Diaz is oblivious to this. Robotically he likens Hillary to a golem -- mindless and bloodthirsty -- who targets innocent Iranians with her "genocidal impulses", and he does this by invoking Pharoah, Biblical captor of the Jews!

This is not the usual argument, in which people claim that irrespective of its ideological commitments and arsenal, Iran would not commit suicide by directly attacking Israel. Instead Diaz accepts that Iran has destroyed Israel and responds only by adducing the Armenians to speak truth to American power.

The Jews also know something about being obliterated, Mr. Diaz. It is knowledge that electrifies the machinery of real humanitarianism.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Anti-War Conscience

Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister of Iran, has echoed his president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's call for Israel's destruction:

TEHRAN (AFP) — Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki called on the world's Muslims on Sunday to work to "erase" Israel, in the latest verbal attack by Tehran against the Jewish state.

"As the Imam Khomeini said, if each Muslim throws a bucket of water on Israel, Israel will be erased," Mottaki told a conference in Tehran, recalling a saying by Iran's late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has sparked international outrage for his repeated attacks against Israel, which he has predicted is doomed to disappear and described as a "stinking corpse" and a "dead rat".

His most notorious attack was in 2005 when he repeated another saying from Khomeini calling for Israel to be "wiped from the map".

Mottaki added: "More than ever, the Zionist regime is disintegrating from within. Today, the Islamic resistance in this region has shattered the regime's legend of invincibility."

While Ahmadinejad and top military commanders reguarly predict the demise of Israel, such virulent attacks from the foreign ministry are relatively unusual.

This latter point is key. When Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be wiped off the map at the World Without Zionism conference in Tehran, Foreign Minister Mottaki was one of the Iranian government officials who came forward claiming that Ahmadinejad didn't really mean what he said. This fueled both the notions that the Iranian president was merely speaking metaphorically, and that no matter what he meant, Ahmadinejad is just a "puppet" whose opinions will not translate into government policy. Mottaki's defense was interpreted as a demurral to hard-line sabre-rattling by saner elements in the Iranian government.

Now, if we work within the framework set by Ahmadinejad's apologists in 2005, Iran's war party appears to have enlarged, but we need not do to be alarmed. Mottaki's foreign ministry also has been busy reassuring Hamas that a Syrian détente with Israel will not lessen Iran's support for its genocidal enterprise.

When Ahmadinejad trumpeted his desire to see Israel destroyed, a clutch of liars arose to retail the disinformation that he was mistranslated. They were led by Juan Cole and largely comprised left-wing foes of Israel. Minimizing or falsifying his words, they alternately claimed that he was expressing simple anti-Zionism, that he was calling for mere regime change, and, most risibly, in the words of Cole himself, that Ahmadinejad's statement was "in fact probably a reference to some phrase in a medieval Persian poem."

Insofar as Mottaki's echo of Ahmadinejad is noticed at all -- so far almost no one is reporting it -- it will be answered by the same apologists, who will do anything, even extenuate plainly genocidal decrees against Jews, to prevent a war against Iran. This is the "anti-war" conscience.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Obama, the Jews and Israel

There's a persistent, nasty notion that Barack Obama is bad for the Jews. It crests and falls rhythmically in public discourse, and I hear it expressed by Jews I know. The sense is Obama places somewhere on a spectrum between a latte-drinking, liberal milquetoast and a black anti-Semite. Wherever the dart sticks, it will be bad for Israel.

As someone who has spent years writing about foes of Israel, subtle and overt, and specifically these two types that supposedly bookend Obama, I'd like to go on record saying this is top-shelf, triple-distilled horseshit.

Over the next months, we'll come to see the fullness of Obama's foreign policy vision. We already have a fairly good sense of what it will be like. Some of it strikes me as vaporous, some of it seems groan-inducingly soft. Some of it makes sense. Most of it -- even stuff I don't agree with -- is fair enough after seven years of calamity at home and abroad.

As a policy package, it may ultimately fail, but none of it will be inimical to the Jews or Israel. Understandably, a lot of Obama supporters wanted to brush aside the Jeremiah Wright kerfuffle, but I thought it was fair to ask why the hell he would associate himself with a half-crazy demagogue like that. However, I'm satisfied that Obama was simply trying to shore up his cred with African-Americans, understand their milieu better, and above all find his faith. I simply don't think he has the slightest time for the victimology, the street-scholarship or the Jew-baiting buffoonery of the incredibly selfish man who was his pastor.

Jeffrey Goldberg, the New Yorker staff writer, is one of the more interesting working journalists. He's got a new Atlantic blog that I'll be reading (link added, left). Here's Obama speaking to him about this issue.

Look, we don’t do nuance well in politics and especially don’t do it well on Middle East policy. We look at things as black and white, and not gray. It’s conceivable that there are those in the Arab world who say to themselves, “This is a guy who spent some time in the Muslim world, has a middle name of Hussein, and appears more worldly and has called for talks with people, and so he’s not going to be engaging in the same sort of cowboy diplomacy as George Bush,” and that’s something they’re hopeful about. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate perception as long as they’re not confused about my unyielding support for Israel’s security.

Obama also says some considerably heartening things about the complimentarity of the African-American and Zionist narratives. Think about that for a moment. This blog's abiding theme is that for a variety of reasons, utopian politics lead algorithmically to anti-Semitism. Victimology and identity politics are powered off that grid. This is the marrow of Jew-hatred among African-Americans, who can see themselves as domestic Palestinians, preyed upon by owner-Jews or upstaged by the moral legatees of the Holocaust. Obama, however, invokes a classic, American liberalism:

So when I became more politically conscious, my starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves. And obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.

One of the things that is frustrating about the recent conversations on Israel is the loss of what I think is the natural affinity between the African-American community and the Jewish community, one that was deeply understood by Jewish and black leaders in the early civil-rights movement but has been estranged for a whole host of reasons that you and I don’t need to elaborate.

Obama, in his perspicacious and articulate way that is an elixir after 8 years of Bush's cud-chewing, rhetorical chyme, has turned this precisely on its head. This is no accident. If Obama becomes President, his foreign policy might fail, but he's no enemy of the Jews or Israel.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Letter to Glenn Greenwald


I support your call for honesty in foreign policy debate. Attacking Iran would be a humanitarian catastrophe and anyone advocating it should clearly say so and why.

While we're on the subject of full and honest disclosure, don't you think it's time that you spell out your analysis of Israel in the Middle East and its relationship to our role there? Let's be frank: you, and the class of political bloggers you inhabit, blame Israel for the lion's share of the trouble in the region. You feel that Israel was formed in original sin -- the displacement of the Palestinians -- and its settlement policy and hawkish replies to Arab aggression create a justifiable and growing rage among Arabs and Muslims worldwide. Terrorism, border attacks and thriving Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism are the lamentable but logical consequences.

Following from this, you support the following Walt-Mearsheimer thesis: "the U.S. has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel".

I think this is why you, the people you emulate (Digby, Yglesias), and your own epigones, are so exercised about the "smearing" of Walt and Mearsheimer as anti-Semites. This isn't some soulful protest of the muzzling of their (now best-selling) voices or chagrin over the cheapening of the word "anti-Semite". Walt and Mearsheimer's calling out of The Lobby(TM) is important to you, but la femme here is the vital truth, as you see it, that The Lobby suppresses: nasty Israel's radioactivity to the US.

I don't want to debate the quality of your analysis. Doing so is tedious and off-topic. I think there's a kernel of truth to it -- the settlements are deplorable and provocative, and our silence on that issue is bewildering. But it's also predicated on a retrograde and illiterate pan-Muslim nationalism, insofar as it accepts that it's rational, say, for Iranians to antagonize and attack Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians. One recalls the polyadjectival tsunami of snark you unload in response to the mirror image of these politics, for example Joe Lieberman's stupid courting of evangelical Christians on behalf of broader Zionism.

What I want, like you, is honesty in advocacy. For all of the high dudgeon on liberal blogs about the silliness of the "serious" foreign policy community, you guys rarely articulate a full foreign policy in opposition to the one in place. Now's your opportunity to start. Follow your own advice and "make [your] case expressly".

Update: Greenwald responds:

Before I began blogging, I never would have believed that there are people who think it's a clever tactic to (a) invent arguments, (b) baselessly attribute them to other people, and then (c) demand that those people "admit" that they believe those things.

Congratulations on being the latest example proving that such people do exist.

Although it is merely a dismissal, I appreciate you taking the time to reply. I am not engaging in a "tactic" -- one wonders what overall strategy I'm pursuing -- I'm trying to make sense of your writings on the Middle East, Israel and the neocons in relation to those things.

In characterizing your view, I wrote you "blame Israel for the lion's share of the trouble in the region," that you feel Israeli policy stokes terrorism and that you agree with Walt and Mearsheimer that our affiliation with Israel causes terrorism to rebound to us.

In this post, entitled Dick Cheney's warped vision of the world, you write:

Jordan's King Abdullah delivered an extremely important though almost completely ignored address to Congress last week in which he implored the U.S. to stop blindly supporting Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians and instead work towards a resolution, precisely because nothing fuels anti-American hatred and Islamic radicalism as much as Israel's ongoing occupation...

Everyone knows that the Bush administration's explicit abandonment of any pretense of objectivity or broker role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict -- replaced by our virtual participation on the side of Israel in that conflict -- has done as much, if not more, than any single other factor to fuel the Islamic radicalism which we claim we are so eager to defeat...

Please explain, then, how I've "[invented] arguments" and "baselessly [attributed]" them to you. Thanks.

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