Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

An Epidemic of Not Watching

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

In lieu of reading some of my comments today, I suggest you read Peter Beinart’s trenchant article in the New York Review of Books on “the failure of the American Jewish Establishment” looking at some disturbing trends in Israeli politics and culture and the “epidemic of not watching among American Zionists.” Beinart fears that if current trends continue, the more right-wing and even racist younger generation of Israelis will lose their connection to the younger liberal American Jews and would instead rely upon the support of Orthodox American Jews and evangelical Christians who support the Jewish state largely because it’s existence will purportedly hasten the End Times.

There’s a lot of commentary on this which has been interesting — but the piece itself is by far the most insightful.

Must-Reads of the Week: The Obama 20-somethings, Graham’s Cojones, Fannie/Freddie, Naive Conspiracy Theorists, Saban, Obama=Socialism, Political Imitations, Underdogs, Lost!, and Julián Castro

Friday, May 7th, 2010

This is a busy season for me — but there should be some more substantive blog posts next week…

1. The Obama 20-somethings. Ashley Parker for the New York Times Magazine profiles “all the Obama 20-somethings” in an interesting profile of the new crowd in D.C. of smart, highly educated, highly motivated, civic-minded, young Obama staffers.

2. Lindsey Graham’s Cojones. You gotta hand it to Lindsey Graham — if nothing else, he’s got guts — from Dana Milbank of the Washington Post:

The lone pro-gun lawmaker to engage in the fight was the fearless Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who rolled his eyes and shook his head when Lieberman got the NYPD’s Kelly to agree that the purchase of a gun could suggest that a terrorist “is about to go operational.”

“I’m not so sure this is the right solution,” Graham said, concerned that those on the terrorist watch list might be denied their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

“If society decides that these people are too dangerous to get on an airplane with other people, then it’s probably appropriate to look very hard before you let them buy a gun,” countered Bloomberg.

“But we’re talking about a constitutional right here,” Graham went on. He then changed the subject, pretending the discussion was about a general ban on handguns. “The NRA — ” he began, then rephrased. “Some people believe banning handguns is the right answer to the gun violence problem. I’m not in that camp.”

Graham felt the need to assure the witnesses that he isn’t soft on terrorism: “I am all into national security. . . . Please understand that I feel differently not because I care less about terrorism.”

Jonathan Chait comments:

There’s a pretty hilarious double standard here about the rights of gun owners. Remember, Graham is one of the people who wants the government to be able to take anybody it believes has committed an act of terrorism, citizen or otherwise, and whisk them away to a military detention facility where they’ll have no rights whatsoever. No potential worries for government overreach or bureaucratic error there. But if you’re on the terrorist watch list, your right to own a gun remains inviolate, lest some innocent gun owner be trapped in a hellish star chamber world in which his fun purchase is slowed by legal delays.

3. Why Isn’t Fannie/Freddie Part of FinReg? Ezra Klein explains why regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac isn’t in the financial regulation bill.

4. Naive Conspiracy Theorists. William Saletan contributes to the whole epistemic closure debate with a guide on how not to be closed-minded politically, including this bit of advice:

Sanchez goes through a list of bogus or overhyped stories that have consumed Fox and the right-wing blogosphere: ACORN, Climategate, Obama’s supposed Muslim allegiance, and whether Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s memoir. Conservatives trapped in this feedback loop, he notes, become “far too willing to entertain all sorts of outlandish new ideas—provided they come from the universe of trusted sources.” When you think you’re being suspicious, you’re at your most gullible.

5. Saban. Connie Bruck in the New Yorker profiles Haim Saban, best known for bringing the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to the United States — but who made much of his fortune licensing the rights to cartoon music internationally. As a side hobby, he tries to influence American foreign policy towards Israel. He doesn’t come off very well in the piece, but at least this one observation seems trenchant to me at first glance:

Saban pointed out that, in the late nineties, President Clinton had pushed Netanyahu very hard, but behind closed doors. “Bill Clinton somehow managed to be revered and adored by both the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he said. “Obama has managed to be looked at suspiciously by both. It’s not too late to fix that.”

6. The Obama=Socialism Canard. Jonathan Chait rather definitively deflates Jonah Goldberg’s faux-intellectual, Obama=socialism smear:

For almost all Republicans, the point of labeling Obama socialist is not to signal that he’s continuing the philosophical tradition of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter and Clinton. The point is to signal the opposite: that Obama embodies a philosophy radically out of character with American history. Republicans have labeled Obama’s agenda as “socialism” because the term is widely conflated with Marxism, even though Goldberg concedes they are different things, and because “liberalism” is no longer a sufficiently scary term. Republicans endlessly called Bill Clinton a liberal, Al Gore a liberal — the term has lost some of its punch. So Obama must be something categorically different and vastly more frightening.

Goldberg is defending the tactic by arguing, in essence, that liberalism is a form of socialism, and Obama is a liberal, therefore he can be accurately called a socialist. But his esoteric exercise, intentionally or not, serves little function other than to dress up a smear in respectable intellectual attire. [my emphasis]

7. Imitating the Imitators of the Imitation. This Politico piece by Mike Allen and Kenneth P. Vogel explains how some elite Republicans are trying to set up a right wing equivalent of the left wing attempt to imitate the right wing’s media-think tank-political infrastructure:

Two organizers of the Republican groups even made pilgrimages earlier this year to pick the brain of John Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who, in 2003, founded the Center for American Progress and was a major proponent of Democrats developing the kind of infrastructure pioneered by Republicans.

And of course, that right wing infrastructure was meant to imitate the left wing policy-media infrastructure of the left — the Brookings-New York Times axis. The whole imitation of imitation of imitation of imitation — spawning more and more organizations — reminds me a bit of those old Mad magazine comic strips:

8. The Underdog. Daniel Engber in Slate explores the underdog effect and various scientific studies of the underdog effect, including how it affects expectations:

The mere act of labeling one side as an underdog made the students think they were more likely to win.

9. Lost! Ed Martin in the Huffington Post is concerned with how the tv show Lost will end:

Not to put too much pressure on Lindelof and Cuse, but the future of broadcast television will to some extent be influenced by what you give us over these next few weeks.

10. Julián Castro. Zev Chafets of the New York Times Magazine profiles Julián Castro, mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and one of the up-and-coming Democrats. The article entirely elided his policy ideas or and barely mentioned his political temperament — but was interesting nevertheless.

[Image by me.]

Israel: Your American Tax Dollars At Work

Monday, March 29th, 2010

In the midst of a rather anodyne episode, this one shot reminded me of what makes/made The Simpsons so brilliant.

For all the talk recently of a breach of America’s special relationship with Israel and of how the Obama administration is putting unprecedented pressure on Israel and other such things, it’s worth remembering that our tax dollars are going paying a significant chunk of Israel’s national budget. America provides approximately 4% of Israel’s total budget (Source: Divide this number, $2.5 billion, by this number, total expenditures of $58.6 billion) including approximately 15% of the cost of the Israeli Defense Forces (Source: Divide this number, $2.34 billion, by this number, $13.3 billion.)

Obama has never threatened to reduce the amount of aid we are giving to Israel – despite the fact that we have been facing an economic crisis and Netanyahu has, rather than acting as a loyal ally, been undermining Obama’s foreign policy. Obama has made no move to undermine the strategic alliance America has had with Israel (right wing hysterics notwithstanding.)

But there is a junior partner in this relationship. It is insanity for Israel for any country to commit to unilateral support no matter the actions of the beneficiary of its aid. But, Netanyahu’s government has demonstrated a pattern of undermining important alliances: with Turkey (the publicly announced intention to humiliate Turkey’s ambassador to Israel), with the United Arab Emirates (by the assassination), with the United States (by snubbing the Vice President of the United States), and with Brazil (as the foreign minister boycotted a speech by President Lula.)  Fareed Zakaria concludes from this that Netanyahu “is actually not serious about the Iranian threat.”

If tackling the rise of Iran were his paramount concern, would he have allowed a collapse in relations with the United States, the country whose military, political, and economic help is indispensable in confronting this challenge? If taking on Iran were his central preoccupation, wouldn’t he have subordinated petty domestic considerations and done everything to bolster ties with the United States? Bibi likes to think of himself as Winston Churchill, warning the world of a gathering storm. But he should bear in mind that Churchill’s single obsession during the late 1930s was to strengthen his alliance with the United States, whatever the costs, concessions, and compromises he had to make.

In a smart piece of analysis in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, Anshel Pfeffer, no fan of the Obama administration, writes, “When senior ministers or generals list Israel’s defense priorities, there is always one point on which there exists total consensus: The alliance with the United States as the nation’s greatest strategic asset, way above anything else. It is more crucial than the professionalism of the Israel Defense Forces, than the peace treaty with Egypt and even than the secret doomsday weapons that we may or may not have squirreled away somewhere…But [Netanyahu] has succeeded in one short year in power to plunge Israel’s essential relationship with the United States to unheard of depths.”

The Obama administration has reiterated again and again that it remains committed to America’s special relationship with Israel. As it should. Israel has a thriving economy, is one of the regional superpowers (the other being Iran), has historic ties to America, and shares many of our values. Throwing around charges of anti-Semitism as the right wing does in America and as Netanyahu and his associates have been alleged to do, is shameful.  As Barack Obama (whose introduction of a presidential Seder was profiled in the New York Times over the weekend), Andrew Sullivan, and J Street have all demonstrated to be pro-Israel is not to be pro-Likudnik:

There is a very honest, thoughtful debate taking place inside Israel…Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the US pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation. But all I’m saying though is that actually ultimately should be our goal, to have that same clear eyed view about how we approach these issues.

This is precisely what we are lacking: An honest and forthright dialogue about our strategic interests and alliance.

A Failure of Skepticism on Reddit

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Back during the 2008 campaign, one of the things that most infuriated me was the emails that went around with all sorts of claims about Obama that referred to outside authorities such as Snopes or Obama’s memoirs. (See here, here, here, here, and here.) People forwarded these items, but never took the time to check out these basic claims. As FactCheck.org observed at the time:

Such attacks usually can be disproved with less effort than it takes to forward them to others.

Now, of course political debate has always been about framing events and pushing one’s agenda – about creating stories and propaganda to demonize your enemy and rile up your supporters. And there have always been lies, and every other sort of assault on the truth. There have always been fringe movements that require their supporters to believe elaborate constructions of lies built into conspiracy theories. But beginning with the rise of Obama in the spring of 2008, the Republican Party itself has become such a fringe group – as it has mainly stopped engaging in more honest political dialogue such as ideological arguments and good-faith disputes over facts. America’s political debate has turned into lies and efforts to combat these lies. (For the prime example, see the primal scream of outrage that was the health care debate. Hereherehere.)

How a propaganda source lies or frames issues tells us a lot about how its creators view their audience. As Jason Zengerle has sagely noted, the fictional world that Republican media is selling of grand conspiracies and ominous music demonstrates that they see their audience primarily as consumers who want entertainment. Is this season of 24 over? Then check out Fox News for the same adrenaline rush. Or read a Vince Flynn novel. Either way, you’ll get stories of grand conspiracies by terrorists with weak liberals being saved by brave conservatives. Thus Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and much of the rest of the Republican media establishment started out as and still describe themselves as “entertainers” rather than journalists.  Then, of course, as I’ve observed in the past, TownHall.com just presumes its readers are gullible, lazy idiots – sending them get-rich-quick-schemes (See here and here.) in addition to their political lies. (See here, here, and here.) The creators of the smear emails clearly similarly saw their audience as gullible and unlikely to check the sources they cited in support, even as they made the most outrageous claims. What all three of these propaganda sources have in common is that they don’t expect their audience to fact check their smears, but expect them to act on them and spread them to others. They do not expect their audience to be skeptical, but to simply accept and promote the smears.

I was reminded of this by another smear that got spread – this time via reddit. (Probably other sites too – but reddit is the only one I pay attention to.) I normally see reddit as made up of rather skeptical individuals. But a few times, as a whole, the reddit community seems to have bought whole various smears and propaganda efforts – usually when they were both (1) emotional and (2) fit into some preconceived bias, usually a bias against the establishment media. Thus, when Russia invaded Georgia almost two years ago, reddit promoted various Russian propaganda claims and demoted any support for Georgia – despite the fact that atrocities were being committed by both sides and Russia’s actions clearly violated international law. When I challenged people on this, the most common reaction was to say that they were just trying to balance the mainstream media which was very pro-Georgia.

Another example of this occurred on reddit last week – as headlines were voted up reaching the top of reddit claiming:

Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs

Israel apparently harvested Palestinian organs without telling anyone.

Israel harvested organs off dead Palestinians, says former head of Israel’s Abu Kabir forensic institute

Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs–without permission or consent

Philip Weiss on organ thefts: “I say it’s further evidence of this great challenge in Jewish history, learning respect for the other”

Anyone who followed up and read beyond the headline of the piece in the Guardian that most of these stories linked to would have found that an Israeli doctor had admitted that Israeli hospitals had harvested organs from patients “including Palestinians” who died in their hospitals, as they did not have a policy which required them to get permission.* Shortly thereafter, the Guardian followed up and said:

The Guardian has admitted it erred in using the headline “Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs” . “That headline did not match the article, which made clear that the organs were not taken only from Palestinians.”

This headline got much less attention. Even more interesting than those too lazy to read the article were those who claimed vindication for the Swedish newspaper that had previously reported that Israel had been killing Palestinians in order to harvest their organs:

Will Netanyahu/Israel apologize for the baseless attacks calling Sweden anti-Semitic regarding the truth about Israeli organ harvesting?

Remember the Israeli outrage over alleged organ harvesting, and how that could never have happened? Yeah, well, about that…

Israeli Organ Harvesting. The New “Blood Libel”? I dare you to read this and say there is absolutely nothing to this story.

Yet the Guardian story by Ian Black specifically addressed the Swedish story:

Channel 2 TV reported that in the 1990s, specialists at Abu Kabir harvested skin, corneas, heart valves and bones from the bodies of Israeli soldiers, Israeli citizens, Palestinians and foreign workers, often without permission from relatives…

However, there was no evidence that Israel had killed Palestinians to take their organs, as the Swedish paper reported.

Reading through the comments on these posts, you will find quite a bit of blatant anti-Semitism, as well as people disputing and disparaging these anti-Semitic comments. But should it be called anti-Semitism when people were so willing to jump to the conclusion that in fact Israel had some program which sought to harvest Palestinian organs? I’m not sure. But it is disturbing – almost as disturbing as those many right wingers fooled into thinking Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya (and that Snopes confirmed it!)

I expect better from reddit. I expect people to be skeptical. When I read a story that says that Obama is a secret Muslim, that Israel is killing Palestinians to harvest their organs, that the health care legislation will create death panels and kill babies, I regard it with as much skepticism as when I am told that if I subscribe to this or that newsletter, I will make $1 million in less than a year. Before I vote up or forward an email or invest in a stock, I check the sources. This isn’t unreasonable – and redditors are usually decent about this – which is what made this story so bothersome.

* These headlines are as misleading as a headline on November 5, 2009 would be claiming that “McCain receives third largest vote total in American history!” without mentioning the guy who won.

Explaining Obama’s “Double Standard” Regarding Iran and Honduras

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

A number of Obama’s critics have pointed out a disparity between Obama’s treatment of Iran on the one hand – and Israel and Honduras on the other.

In their view, Obama has refused to take a side in Iran even though he clearly should be on the side of the protesters if he values life, liberty, and the American way. In Israel, Obama has pressured the Israelis while giving free reign to the Palestinians who are really at fault. While in Honduras, Obama has clearly taken the side of the leftist friend of  Hugo Chavez who was removed from office with the endorsement of courts and Congress of Honduras as they sought to protect their democracy from the president’s power grab. In all of these cases, they claim, Obama has taken the side of anti-democratic forces – and only interfered with our “friends” – presumably because Obama is desperate for the approval of the European Union, which is in itself anti-democratic and leftist. This portrayal of Obama is based on their observation that in Iran Obama has reacted to major violations of the values he claims to hold with muted tones – but in Israel and Honduras he has reacted to minor violations with strident tones.

This caricature of Obama presumes he is acting in bad faith at all times, which is increasingly the sole item of agreement among the Republican opposition; and it attributes to Obama a nonsensical and inconsistent worldview. But you don’t have to be a right-winger to notice the sharp differences in tone between Obama’s cautious approach to Iran and his more aggressive approaches in Honduras and Israel.

David Rothkopf proposes one explanation – that frankly seems a bit too Beltway for me, but I’m sure is a factor in Obama’s change in tone between the Iranian coup d’etat and the Honduran one:

[A] reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one … regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today.

While I’m sure the law of prior incident played a role, it seems to me that there is a more basic explanation for this disparity – which likewise explains the difference between Obama’s approach towards Israel. The difference in how Obama dealt with these various crises comes from how Obama understands power in foreign relations. The President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie H. Gelb, in Power Rules, defines it:

Power is getting people or groups to do something they don’t want to do. It is about manipulating one’s own resources and position to pressure and coerce psychologically and politically….And American leaders would do well to learn, finally, that power shrinks when it is wielded poorly. Failed or open-ended wars diminish power. Threats unfulfilled diminish power. Mistakes and continual changing of course also diminish power.

Teddy Roosevelt understood this implicitly when he said:

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

Alternatively, George W. Bush used grand language, made many threats:

From Egypt to Georgia, President Bush … wrote rhetorical checks he had no intention (or ability) to cash.

What Bush did not seem to realize – and what right-wingers today still do not seem to realize – is that it weakens the United States to declare, “We are all Georgians!” as Russia invades Georgia and we do nothing – as happened under Bush. Yet the rhetoric is not the problem – as it actually strengthened America when John F. Kennedy declared, “We are all Berliners” and the Soviet Union, given the lengths Presidents Truman and Eisenhower had gone already to protect West Berlin, believed the young president was willing to protect Berlin at high cost. Many right-wingers have cited Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” as a model for what Obama should say to Iran. But what made Reagan’s exhortation more than mere empty rhetoric and bluster was the personal relationship he had with Gorbachev after years of meeting with him. And when Reagan made this statement, he was not demanding it – he was rather challenging Gorbachev to live by the values he claimed he held. Reading the actual speech this challenge is prefaced by an “if.” This is a very different proposal than what right-wingers want Obama to say: which is to endorse one side in an internal conflict and refuse to negotiate with this member of the “Axis of Evil.” Reagan on the other hand negotiated with the “Evil Empire” and stayed out of internal Soviet politics – realizing that the endorsement of an enemy could be toxic.

What Obama has shown in the past several weeks is an impatience with hollow rhetoric which presumes conflicts in other countries are really about us. The striking oratory he does use always seems to have a specific purpose – to reach out to Muslims angered by what they see as a war against them, for example – or to call on Europeans to send more troops to Afghanistan. Obama sees words in foreign policy as tools to be used rather than ways of expressing our feelings about other nations. Thus, despite his apparent feelings about Iran – and his great sympathy for the Green Wave – he does not feel the need to express this publicly if he does not see what it will accomplish. With many Iranians publicly saying they did not want Obama to take the side of the protesters publicly as it would undermine them (for example, here and here), he had little reason to do so.  So far he had not been willing to undermine his and America’s power by using puffery and empty threats on Iran just to please his domestic audience, despite pressure from the right-wing.

But Obama did speak more forcefully on Israel and Honduras. Why? Because in these two places he has significant leverage – and his words can have an impact. Also – in neither of these places was America regularly called “The Great Satan.” (Imagine if Ahmadinjad had endorsed Obama in our election. Would that have helped Obama?) With regards to these nations, Obama can say what America wants and put pressure on those in control there for it to happen as America supplies significant funds to both nations – and has diplomatic, economic, and military alliances.

Speaking about Iran, on the other hand, Obama can only offer wish lists – which he would not be able to pressure Iran to fulfill – and when Iran ignored him, America would look weaker.

I also believe there is another factor at work. I have already stated that I believe the Obama Doctrine – that will and is guiding his foreign policy – is a focus on creating and maintaining states of consent. One of the basic principles which is necessary to create a state of consent is Rule of Law; another is the freedom of people to peacefully protest and speak freely. Obama has limited himself to condemning those actions which have violated the principles underpinning a state of consent. Not having direct knowledge of the election results in Iran, he remained quiet – though the administration raised questions. When confronted with evidence of the violent suppression of peaceful protests and attacks on free speech, he condemned these in strong terms – though he still refused to take a side, saying the battle was internal. In the case of Honduras, the State Department had been working with opponents of President Zelaya as he took illegal and unconstitutional actions to see how Zelaya could be checked. This is why they knew so quickly that the coup d’etat was a clear violation of the Rule of Law. The American State Department had been working with the Honduran Congress and other leaders to determine what the constitutional steps would be to remove Zelaya. At the same time, the intervention of the military set a bad precedent, undermining ability of the people to consent to their government. As Der Spiegel explained:

Anyone who sees the coup as some sort of effort to rescue democracy must ask themselves what version of democracy involves removing the elected leader of a country from office while holding a pistol to their head.

Obama has here still neglected to side with either party – instead insisting both parties follow their commitments to the law of their land, which the military violated. The American position is that Zelaya should resume his place as rightful president – and impeachment or other proceedings could then occur, although the deal being negotiated instead merely ties his hands to prevent him from any further dictatorial actions (demonstrating that the military actually weakened their hand in dealing with Zelaya in overreacting.)

In each of these cases, Obama displays a common goal – to maintain and allow the space for states of consent – free from military or other violent forms of coercion.

What right-wingers are declaring inconsistency is one of results – not goals. The differences in responses can be quite clearly explained by looking at what leverage Obama had and by a consistent moral demand that the nations of the world govern by consent and not force.

[The above image is a product of the United States government.]

“We must say openly the things we hold in our hearts.”

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Laura Rozen has probably covered the growing surprise from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies about the Obama administration’s actions better than anyone:

Referring to Clinton’s call for a settlement freeze, Netanyahu groused, “What the hell do they want from me?” according to his associate, who added, “I gathered that he heard some bad vibes in his meetings with [U.S.] congressional delegations this week.”

In the 10 days since Netanyahu and President Barack Obama held a meeting at the White House, the Obama administration has made clear in public and private meetings with Israeli officials that it intends to hold a firm line on Obama’s call to stop Israeli settlements. According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from the Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu’s dismay, Obama doesn’t appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was.

“This is a sea change for Netanyahu,” a former senior Clinton administration official who worked on Middle East issues said. [my emphasis]

This helps set the stage for what appears to be one of the key elements of Obama’s Middle East policy – honest dialogue. As Obama explained in his interview with Tom Friedman in the New York Times shortly before his Cairo speech:

Obama, in an interview with The New York Times before leaving Washington, said that a key part of his message during the trip would be, “Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.”

“There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it,” he said.

He then added that there were a lot of Israelis “who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution – that is in their long-term interest – but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly.”

And there were a lot of Palestinians, Obama said, who “recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel” has not gained them anything, and that they would have been better off “had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground.”

Obama concluded:

When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, “there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly…”

In his Cairo speech – as well as in his Middle East policies generally – Obama seems to be trying to do this. This has been especially noticeable – as noted above – with regards to Israel’s policy on the settlements. Fittingly, Obama expressed this best in his Cairo speech:

I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

Obama here seems to sum up his theory of how political progress is made:

[T]o speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

Congressman Barney Frank – in another setting – criticized Obama for precisely this sentiment – which, depending on what results we see on his different policies, may prove to be his Achilles heel:

I think he overestimates his ability to get people to put aside fundamental differences.

Frank was speaking about an intra-American fight – but in the Middle East the fundamental differences run much deeper.

But I think Frank missed back in January what many who have been critical of Obama’s Cairo approach missed in the immediate aftermath of the speech: Obama is not asking people to “put aside fundamental differences,” but to engage in civil and constructive dialogue – something which has been a theme throughout his campaign and was especially evident in his Notre Dame and race speeches. This is only worthwhile if one believes that a dialogue that is guided by the principles of honesty and reason leads us to understand that what unites us as human beings outweighs what divides us.

In Obama’s view – we may disagree – and disagree strongly on fundamental issues – but we cannot long demonize our opposition if we are engaged in frank and honest dialogue with them.

So it seems that the first step in unfolding Obama’s new Middle East policy is to clarify where everyone stands publicly – and he has started doing so by stating explictly his position in Israeli settlements and sticking to it.

Leverage and Power

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Glenn Greenwald:

A country, a company or an individual has every right to remain free of “interference” from others as long as they remain independent of the party seeking to “interfere.”  But if one chooses instead to become dependent on someone else or seeks help and aid from them, then complying with the demands of those providing the aid is an inevitable price that must be paid – and justifiably so.

Greenwald makes broad principled statements like this a lot in support of the specific points he is making – in this case, the idea that Israel can’t complain about American interference in its domestic affairs.

But as a civil libertarian, I find it difficult to see Greenwald accepting the application of this principle in other spheres. Wouldn’t that imply that the government would exert total control over people on welfare for example? What regulations would this invalidate between individuals and corporations?

As a practical matter, what Greenwald states is true – in that independence is inevitably given up when one gives up leverage. But at the same time, there are various laws and customs that prevent one from exercising one’s full leverage. In most circumstances, Greenwald would – I think – accept that.

Stephen Walt’s Insights

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Due to a website outage for most of the day, none of my posts went up today.

So for your national security/politics/etc fix today, I suggest you look to Stephen Walt – whose blog I just discovered, although I’ve been familiar with his work for some time. Some thought-provoking excerpts from the past week or so in Walt bloggery:

On which president’s foreign policy Obama seems most similar: Nixon…

In short, he’s trying to deal with Bush’s legacy by cutting losses, resolving conflicts, and getting help from our allies, in order to buy time for economic and military recovery. Sounds almost Nixonian (or maybe Kissingerian).

On his favorite topic, Israel:

Some readers may think that Hastings is employing a double-standard, or that he is “singling Israel out” for criticism. They could point out that Israel’s adversaries have often lied or prevaricated too, and that they have done plenty of brutal things themselves. They could also remind us that Israel’s neighbors are hardly models of tolerance or open discourse and that there is a far more open debate about these issues within Israel than there is in Jordan or Saudi Arabia or Syria. I agree, and the willingness of some Israelis to confront the past honestly and to question its present policies remains an admirable feature of Israeli society.  

But there is no double-standard at work here, and comparisons with states whose behavior may be worse miss the point. Israel’s actions are not being judged against the conduct of a Sudan or Burma, but by the standards that people in the West apply to all democracies. It is the standard Americans expect of allies who want to have a “special relationship” with us. It is the standard Israel imposes on itself when it tells everyone it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Israel is being expected to behave like Britain or Canada or France or Japan and not like some one-party military dictatorship, and it is certainly expected not to deny full political and civil rights to millions of Palestinians who now live under its constant control.  These other democracies eventually gave up their colonial enterprises; Israel is still trying to consolidate its own. 

On the most effective imbalance of power:

Unlike Preble, I still think a margin of superiority is a good thing, but I agree that we’ve got a much bigger margin than we need and we often use it in the wrong way. Instead of exploiting our favorable geopolitical position and acting like an offshore balancer, and playing hard-to-get so that other major powers will bear a greater share of the burden, the United States has declared itself to be the “indispensable power” and decided that it’s got to take charge nearly everywhere. The result, as you may have noticed, has not been all the salutary. Instead of stabilizing the key strategic areas of the world — something we used to be pretty good at — in recent years the United States has been an activelydestabilizing force. And instead of spreading U.S. values, we’ve ended up undermining them here at home and discrediting them abroad.

Moreover, as Preble notes, excessive U.S. dominance encourages others to act irresponsibly. To use Barry Posen’s apt terms, states either “free ride” on Uncle Sam (think Japan, or much of Europe), or they engage in “reckless driving” (think Israel, Georgia last summer, or maybe Pakistan), because they are confident we’ll bail them out if they get into trouble.  

Holocaust Survivors for the Legalization of Marijuana

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

I have no idea what to make of these ads:

(H/t Andrew Sullivan.)

But it’s not a parody. It’s apparently a real ad for the upcoming elections in Israel on February 10 resulting from the political alliance between the Holocaust Survivors Party and the Green Leaf Graduates party. The older party wanted to reach out to younger Israelis and the pro-marijuana party wanted to be taken seriously. The fact that I’m writing about it demonstrates that it’s created a significant amount of buzz.

The best line:

For us, the Holocaust survivors, our obligation is to legalize it [marijuana].

I don’t follow the logic, even if I support the cause.

(more…)

The Dynamics of Moral Outrage, Group Hatred, and Violence

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Reem Al Ghussain, an English teacher at Al-Azhar University in Gaza in the Guardian:

[My children] ask me: “Why are the Israelis doing this to us?” My child in fifth grade asks me: “What did we do to them?” I tell them that they want to take our land and they want all Palestinians to die.

It is this attitude, this indoctrination that passes down hatred and a sense of the ‘Otherness’ of the enemy from parent to child, that is at the root of so many long-simmering conflicts. As Glenn Greenwald wrote, channeling George Orwell:

If you see Palestinians as something less than civilized human beings:  as “barbarians” – just as if you see Americans as infidels warring with God or Jews as sub-human rats — then it naturally follows that civilian deaths are irrelevant, perhaps even something to cheer.  For people who think that way, arguments about “proportionality” won’t even begin to resonate – such concepts can’t even be understood – because the core premise, that excessive civilian deaths are horrible and should be avoided at all costs, isn’t accepted.  Why should a superior, civilized, peaceful society allow the welfare of violent, hateful barbarians to interfere with its objectives?  How can the deaths or suffering of thousands of barbarians ever be weighed against the death of even a single civilized person?

So many of these conflicts – one might say almost all of them – end up shaped by the same virtually universal deficiency:  excessive tribalistic identification (i.e.:  the group with which I was trained to identify is right and good and just and my group’s enemy is bad and wrong and violent), which causes people to view the world only from the perspective of their side, to believe that X is good when they do it and evil when it’s done to them.  X can be torture, or the killing of civilians in order to “send a message” (i.e., Terrorism), or invading and occupying other people’s land, or using massive lethal force against defenseless populations, or seeing one’s own side as composed of real humans and the other side as sub-human, evil barbarians.

As Bill Bishop described in Slate the tendency of groups to polarize towards extremes (in the context of the Palin rallies in the news then):

We are constantly comparing our beliefs and opinions to those of the group. There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.

“It’s an image-maintenance kind of thing,” explained social psychologist Robert Baron. Everybody wants to be a member in good standing, and though it sounds counterintuitive, the safest way to conform is to be slightly more extreme than the average of the group.

Cass Sunstein, a law professor and adviser to Barack Obama, described how this dynamic works in a social setting as a preface to his discussion of “leaderless jihad“:

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman, David Schkade, and I were involved in several studies of punitive damage awards by juries. We began by asking one thousand or so demographically diverse people to register their judgments about misconduct by various wrongdoers. We asked them to rate their moral outrage on a scale of zero to six, where zero meant “not at all outrageous” and six meant “exceptionally outrageous.” We also asked them to come up with an appropriate dollar award…

[As our] goal is to understand how juries really behave – or more ambitiously, how outrage develops in the real world…we conducted a follow-up study, involving about three thousand jury-eligible citizens and five hundred deliberating juries, each consisting of six people. Here is how the experiment worked. Every juror read about a personal injury case, including the arguments made by both sides. Jurors were also asked to record, in advance of deliberation, their individual judgments on a bounded numerical scale, and also in terms of dollars. Next they were asked to deliberate together to reach a verdict, both on the bounded scale and on the dollar scale. Our goal was to discover the relationship between people’s individual judgments, in advance of deliberation, and the ultimate views and actions of group members who have discussed the matter.

You might predict (as I did) that deliberation would lead to compromise, and hence that the verdicts of juries would be pretty close to the median of punishment judgments of jurors; but your prediction would be badly wrong. It turned out that the effect of deliberation was to create a “severity shift.” When people began with a lot of outrage, their interactions made them significantly more outraged than they were before they started to talk. And with dollar awards, the severity shift was especially large. The ultimate award of juries was usually higher than the award favored by the median juror in advance of deliberation. In many cases, the jury ended up with an award at least as high as the highest award favored, in advance, by any of the jury’s members.

Sunstein connects this experiment of moral outrage and social dynamics to Marc Sageman’s “Leaderless Jihad”:

Drawing on the data, Sageman offers an arresting conclusion, which is that a major explanation of Islamic terrorism lies in patterns of social interaction that transform moral outrage into extremism. In his account, terrorists are not mentally ill, poor, uneducated, sociopathic, or victims of trauma. In the main, they are ordinary individuals who move to radical positions as a result of discussions with like-minded others. Sageman focuses in particular on the rise of what he calls “global Islamist terrorism” – a large and loosely organized social movement that is subject to no command-and-control structure and has prospered in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. What makes Sageman’s account distinctive is his emphasis on the crucial role of social networks – in the real world and on the Internet – and his effort to show that an understanding of those networks has significant and sometimes counterintuitive implications for how to safeguard national security. At the same time, Sageman offers general lessons about how enclosed enclaves of like-minded types help produce political beliefs and action of many kinds, including violence.

This same dynamic plays out on many different scales in our society and in societies around the world, with differing levels of ferocity. How a society deals with this dynamic helps determine it’s stability, or lack. One of the ways to address this issue seems to be dialogue and communication among polarizing groups – and friendships between these groups – a principle which Obama, to his credit, has often stood for. As Americans increasingly clustering and moving into areas in which they are ideologically comfortable, as they tend to find media outlets that cater to their ideological preferences and ignore as biased those media sources that do not, we are moving away from those aspects of American society that have tamped down extremism and encouraging this dynamic of polarization.

At the same time, we shouldn’t overstate things about American polarization. It’s hard to believe we are close to the point that Russian academic Igor Panarin is predicting – that America will break into six seperate parts [map]. Much more significant is the extent to which this dynamic plays out amongst Muslim populations that are trending towards extremism and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as these situations demonstrate extremely heightened forms of this dynamic. Without understanding this dynamic, we can never address the root of these issues – and we will be tempted to respond without adequate reflection.