Saturday, January 31, 2009

Taking Obama At His Word on Palestine

In his interview with al-Arabiya, Obama obviously failed to state many things that need to be stated by a U.S. president in order to establish for the U.S. even a remotely “balanced” position relative to the Mideast’s contending parties (something the U.S. has traditionally claimed to desire), not to mention a “fair” position that would recognize Israeli repression and expansion. Perhaps Obama seeks neither a fair nor a “balanced” position (whatever “balanced” might mean between a destroyed Palestinian society and an Israeli regional superpower); indeed, there is enormous evidence to that effect. Or perhaps he calculates that things should move one step at a time, so Americans can awaken gently from their coma of denial about Mideast realities.

Whatever the truth about Obama’s calculations, he said two things that are, especially when taken together, potentially revolutionary for international relations:

  1. “You will be judged on what you've built, not what you've destroyed.”
  2. “I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state -- I'm not going to put a time frame on it -- that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life.”

If we take Obama at his word, and in these first days we owe him that much respect, these are very serious words. The first sentence implies much for Gaza: the end of Israeli freedom to destroy society, economy, infrastructure at will. It further implies the beginning of the first broad international post-1949 effort sincerely to take into account the legitimate desires of Palestinians to be able to live normal lives.


How Can a Palestinian State Be "Contiguous"?

Note on this map that Israel chops what is left of Palestine in half, separating Gaza from the West Bank.

Note on this map the complex pattern of illegal Israeli settlements imposed on Palestinian territory.

Note on this map the complex pattern of Israeli and Palestinian sections of Jerusalem, which both sides will want as their capital.

Thanks to the Institute for Mideast Understanding for these maps.


The second sentence, with the significant word “contiguous,” implies enormous changes for Palestine. Take a look at the map: creating geographic contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank implies real political change. Palestine would be physically unified, which would have an instantaneous and dramatic impact on Fatah-Hamas rivalry: the two groups would no longer be separated by Israel. This would probably result in Hamas rule over all Palestine, given the impact of the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, assuming a new democratic election there. If, instead, Israel interfered to prevent democratic elections from being held again (first held in 2006), that would only serve to further radicalize Palestinians and justify a Hamas turn away from its post-2005 move toward participation in the democratic process rather than violent opposition.

As for the idea of internal West Bank contiguity, take a look at the map again – at a map of how roads and Jewish/Palestinian towns are laid out. “Internal West Bank contiguity” implies the end to Israel’s Bantustan policy, the end to Jew-only highways cutting the West Bank into tiny Palestinian enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements, the establishment of the principle that Palestinians have certain rights in their own land. It does not necessarily imply the removal of all Israelis from the West Bank, but it certainly raises the question and pushes Israel toward, at a minimum, some sort of compromise approach that would enable both ethnic groups to live equitably in close proximity.

Now combine Obama’s two statements. Imagine a unified, energized Palestine receiving international aid to rebuild its society. What does all this logically imply for current Israeli policy?

Renewed Israeli repression of a freshly contiguous Palestine in the process of being rebuilt by a U.S.-led coalition of donors would be a dangerously provocative approach. Given that there is already much discussion in Israel about the wisdom of rejecting the “greater Israel” policy in favor of a pullback to Israel’s internationally recognized, pre-1967 war borders, Obama’s two statements together open the door to a new path toward serious compromise between Israel and Palestine. The logic of President Obama’s two statements, taken seriously, leads directly to substantive negotiations over the nature of a Palestinian entity with some real measure of autonomy, and the momentum of that would lead away from Israeli colonial oversight toward Palestinian independence. Of course, this whole very positive story depends on taking Obama at his word.

Gaza: What Lesson Will Israel Learn?

Multiple global actors are exploiting helpless Gaza to test hypotheses related to their broader political concerns, giving great importance to the outcome of the dispute over the future of the people of Gaza. One hypothesis is the Israeli elite’s Battered Wife Hypothesis:

H1 = If collective punishment is sufficiently harsh, it will force the population to give its support to the oppressor.

If the outcome of Israel’s treatment of Gaza between Hamas’ January 2006 electoral victory and the end of its December 2008 attack teaches the Israeli elite the lesson that barbaric force pays off, the implications for Mideast peace—for Palestinian justice, for Lebanese security, for Syrian hopes to gain back the Golan Heights and settle their dispute with Israel and the U.S., and for preventing an Israeli/American attack on Iran will be put in jeopardy.

In contrast, if the Israeli ruling elite learns the lesson that brutality is both further radicalizing Hamas and simultaneously granting it monopoly ownership of Palestinian nationalism and thereby only undermining Israeli security, then the war may push Israel toward a historic compromise with the Palestinian people. Such a compromise would not be the end of Mideast history. Some thoughtful Israelis fear their country is so subject to its own extremists that it will be unable to walk this path unless pushed very hard by its friends. Moreover, Palestinian infighting will continue and Israel will have intense interest in its outcome. But achieving this compromise will focus the attention of Palestinian radicals on the tough job of governing and open the door of all in the Mideast to engage in the profitable business of working with rather than against Israel. It will also take the wind out of the sails of outsiders such as Ahmadinejad’s neo-conservative war generation of aggressive nationalists and the Salafi jihadists who gather under bin Laden’s flag.

Therefore, the lessons that the Israeli elite take away from their savage little Gaza war merit the closest tracking. It is not just that Gaza is connected to all the rest of the conflict between the West and Muslim societies but that Gaza is the canary in the mine because its predicament is contained, artificially created, relatively easily resolvable and because Gaza is so helpless to fight back that Israel, like other outsiders, feel they can get away with using Gaza as a political laboratory.

It is hard to imagine how failure to suppress tiny Gaza could teach the lesson that force works; if it fails in Gaza, how could anyone expect it to succeed in Iran or Pakistan or Afghanistan? But should Gaza be effectively suppressed and Israel or American leaders make the leap from Gaza to Iran or Afghanistan or Pakistan, then we are fated to repeat on an even more disastrous scale the horrors of the last seven years.

Evidence of lessons being learned:

1) Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on February 1:

We will never sign an agreement with Hamas.

In other words, Israel will never sign an agreement with the Palestinian political party that won Palestine's only democratic election. This is not only the statement of a man who continues to believe in the efficacy of force but a man who would rather cut off his own nose to spite his face and destroy his own country than admit he was wrong.

2) A commentator wrote in the Jerusalem Post on January 27 that:

Israel has not been ignoring the need to find what pundits call a "political solution." Without getting into the blame game, the fact is that negotiations have been conducted, unsuccessfully, for the past 15 years.

If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be solved in the short term, it has to be managed. But how? The rationale of the disengagement strategy was that, since the conflict seems unsolvable and since the status quo is untenable, Israel might as well get the Palestinians off its back. If only. We left Gaza, but Gaza did not leave us.

The truth, of course, is dramatically at variance with this version of the historical record. First, Hamas was cheated by Israel and the U.S. out of its January 2006 electoral victory. Second, Israel did not leave Gaza: Israeli civilians were pulled out, but Israel remained very much the harsh warden of the Gaza prison. Gazans were in absolutely no sense given liberty. Such blatant distortion of the historical record invites one to learn the lesson that violence against Muslim political activists is the only option.

More evidence as I happen to notice it…

Gaza: Lesson for Afghanistan

Today it is hard to know how a patriotic person is to act, what a patriot is to do to make the situation better. Consider, for example, the following comments on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute written by two Israelis and published in the Israeli media:

If Hamas thought that lobbing missiles into Israeli civilian neighborhoods was a decent or proportionate response to the grim realities of the occupation, they were wrong. On the other hand, if Israel thinks it can bludgeon the Palestinians into political surrender, or get Hamas - or the Palestinian community at large, for that matter - to acquiesce to military occupation then it, too, is wrong.

There is no military solution to this conflict. Until both sides fully grasp this, the world can expect only continuing violence and vendetta, with civilians on both sides paying the price for leaders who - because of pressure, ambition or hubris - feel that they must do the most damage, fire the last shot or make the most credible threat. Indeed, it is sad, and repellent, to hear military correspondents speak of "teaching a lesson," "increasing pressure," "making a statement," achieving "deterrence," when those they are reporting on are really trying to control the news cycle, or win arguable (and in any case temporary) psychological advantage, by killing, or accepting the deaths of, people at random on the other side.

No tears for dead kids here. These writers are two patriots searching for a practical solution that will leave their country in an improved situation: professional realism that exposes the self-described "realist" decision-makers as over-emotional, bomb-laden amateurs unable to control themselves.

Gaza is a laboratory for running experiments about the Western confrontation with Islam. Now read the above quote again, only this time forget Gaza and Israel. This time, think "Afghanistan and the United States."

Further Cracks in Mideast Diplomatic Ice Age

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan gave the following concise depiction of Gaza in his Washington Post interview:

Hamas entered the elections as a political party. If the whole world had given them the chance of becoming a political player, maybe they would not be in a situation like this after the elections that they won. The world has not respected the political will of the Palestinian people. On the one hand, we defend democracy and we try our best to keep democracy in the Middle East, but on the other hand we do not respect the outcome of . . . the ballot box. Palestine today is an open-air prison. Hamas, as much as they tried, could not change the situation. Just imagine, you imprison the speaker of a country as well as some ministers of its government and members of its parliament. And then you expect them to sit obediently?

This comment moves Erdogan quite far toward the balanced position of a neutral mediator that I suggested yesterday he lacked. Many questions remain. It is not clear to what extent he can carry Turkey behind him, much less convince Washington to listen, but at least he has now enunciated the situation in terms that are not only clear and accurate but stated concisely enough so that no decision-maker can plausibly claim to be too busy to read them.

Turkish Foreign Minister Babacan seemed to be grasping for a clear Turkish policy in remarks to the press, not very convincingly arguing that President Gul's voicing of support for Abbas a few days ago did not contradict Erdogan's emphasis on considering the situation of Hamas. Babacan described Hamas in markedly cool terms:

There is a Hamas reality in Gaza. We are not in a position to approve what Hamas has done; however, it is not possible to maintain peace by ignoring Hamas.

Saying that "we are not in a position to approve what Hamas has done" in the aftermath of the brutal Israeli onslaught is very different than Erdogan's emphasis on how Hamas was robbed of its legitimate January 2006 electoral victory. Babacan's bottom line seems to have been his voicing of support for "a strong Palestinian leadership." How this can be achieved given the discrediting of Fatah in the aftermath of Israel's attack on Gaza remains to be seen. So far, the one suggestion on the table is Hamas' proposal to create a completely new Palestinian leadership structure to replace the PLO, which would likely put Hamas in charge of all of Palestine. Elsewhere, Qatar has called on Israel to talk directly with Hamas, and the European Union has indicated some support for a unified Palestinian government (i.e., one including Hamas).

A nice Israeli victory indeed.

Friday, January 30, 2009

From "Iraq = Vietnam" to "Afghanistan = Vietnam"

Quote of the Day

American officers in Vietnam learned that "going halfway around the world to fight a conventional military campaign against an ideology was a truly stupid idea--Gwynne Dyer

Perhaps American military officers on the battlefield were finally able to learn this, but comfortable American policymakers in Washington seem drugged. I would have called that drug "hubris," but after the mess in Iraq, the sting of Lebanon, the sting of Gaza, the defeat in Somalia, the collapsing positions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the deepening recession, exactly where would hubris come from?

Cracks in the Pro-Israel Alliance

At Davos, Erdogan evidently became fed up with the pro-Israeli bias of the global elite and voiced his outrage in undiplomatic terms. Killing babies from jets is one thing, but speaking rudely at an elite meeting. Shocking!

However, before concluding that Turkey, which is offering itself as a "neutral" mediator between Hamas and Israel, is about to break its close ties with Israel, it is worth considering the nature of Turkey's self-professed neutrality.

  • Last I heard, Turkey recognizes Israel but not the rule of Hamas, which won that only democratic election Palestine has ever had (January 2006).
  • Turkey has long maintained close military ties with Israel, which--last I heard--it has not abrogated since Israel's attack on Gaza. If anyone has evidence that Turkey has similarly close military ties to Hamas, please send me the evidence!

These points just go to show how extraordinarily biased the world is on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

It is clear that the barbarity of Israel's attack has shaken up the frozen heights of Mideast diplomacy, but it will take a lot more than the righteous indignation of Erdogan to reshape Mideast alliances. After all, he is just a politician in a country that has an enormously powerful (in the political sense) military that is both conservative and, shall we say, not averse to using its arms against ethnic minorities.

Stay tuned. This story is just beginning.

Indicators of Movement in Israeli-Turkish Relations to Watch:
  1. Interactions between Hamas and Turkish officials. The Turkish government took the politically courageous step of inviting Hamas to visit in 2006, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan recently called Hamas "a reality" and called on it to choose politics over arms, a step Hamas officials have in the past few days indicated they were prepared to do, though certainly only the context of an end to Israeli pressure.
  2. Turkish-Iranian ties. Turkish-Iranian trade is already rising rapidly, and a huge Turkish trade delegation plans to visit Iran soon. Iran welcomed Erdogan's Davos remarks.
  3. Turkish-Israeli military ties. Turkey is planning to take delivery of Israeli-made military drones in the near future.

Gaza: Laboratory for the Power-Hungry

EXCERPT: Unfortunately for the people of Gaza, all the bloodshed there wasn't really about Gaza. Despite the tenuous January 18, 2009 ceasefire, the issue of Gaza remains unresolved not because the sides disagree but because all sorts of external actors find the dispute useful. The larger reality is that Gaza serves as a cold-hearted laboratory for these external actors for testing dangerous hypotheses about far greater global political issues.

TEXT: Gaza is a relatively straightforward problem, small in scale, neatly walled in, with obvious untried potential solutions that Israel could implement literally overnight and unilaterally at no financial cost and relatively low security risk. For example, Israel could allow the people of Gaza to have food, medicine, and electricity; it could encourage the development of civil society and the formation of a wide range of political factions. Were Israeli security truly the issue, Israel could easily demonstrate the attractiveness of cooperating with it rather than supporting Hamas. Indeed, Israel could return to its January 2006 policy of allowing Hamas to participate in democratic politics. That it does not take either of these paths suggests that the security issue ("Hamas rockets") is a myth.

It is worth recalling what ensued after Palestine's only democratic election, in January 2006--an election backed by Tel Aviv and Washington. A governance crisis erupted after Tel Aviv and Washington, shocked by Hamas' popularity, intervened to subvert the Hamas regime set up following its January 2006 election victory. At first Tel Aviv and Washington employed economic pressure in an attempt to destroy the ability of Hamas to govern. This governing crisis widened when military assistance was provided to Fatah by Washington and Tel Aviv along with encouragement to launch a civil war to prevent Hamas from governing. A mini-civil war occurred and resulted in Hamas being kicked out of power in the West Bank but retaining control over Gaza, thereby creating two competing Palestinian administrations. Hamas had changed its approach and had been following democratic rules, working within the system. Might it have pursued this path permanently if given the chance? The world will never know; Tel Aviv did not wait to find out; rather, it attacked Hamas, overthrowing the results of the election it had approved in its Palestinian colony before the tiger had had time even to breathe, much less indicate whether or not it was truly changing its stripes.

On the surface, only stubbornness and denial of the obvious prevent Tel Aviv from experimenting with the many available alternatives to the policy of brutal suppression and collective punishment. Even if Tel Aviv insisted upon collective punishment of the people of Gaza for supporting Hamas, for example, Tel Aviv could make a showcase of the West Bank, whose Fatah government is closely following Israeli orders. If Tel Aviv and its supporters wished seriously to make the case that Hamas is the problem, all they would have to do is support the emergence of genuine West Bank Palestinian autonomy, provide meaningful amounts of economic assistance for the West Bank, treat Palestinians there with some measure of respect, and generally enable West Bank Palestinians to improve their prospects. Then Israel could turn to Gazans and persuasively say, “Were it not for those nasty radicals of Hamas, you too could stand tall.” But there is a deeper causality operating, as Tel Aviv's hypocritical response to the January 2006 electoral results indicate.

Why Tel Aviv Cannot Solve the Gaza Problem

Tel Aviv is prevented from allowing the West Bank Palestinians to progress because of Tel Aviv’s insistence on swallowing the best parts of the West Bank into a greater Israel. A greater Israel means permanent repression of Palestinians. There is simply no way the tiny West Bank can form a legitimate country with its territory crisscrossed by Israeli-controlled and -inhabited land, Jew-only highways, and—of course—the wall that imprisons the West Bank’s population. It is not just Gazans who live imprisoned inside an Israeli wall, in, to use the pointed word of the Vatican, a “concentration” camp. This policy of repressing the West Bank gives the lie to Tel Aviv’s hypocritical protestations that it is the behavior of Hamas that is the problem.

Caught in its own web of hypocrisy, Tel Aviv oppresses Gaza and the West Bank with equal harshness, albeit for different reasons. It oppresses the West Bank because it wishes to eliminate the Palestinian residents as an organized society and steal the land for itself. It oppresses Gaza because the only visible alternative is effectively to admit that radical Hamas is right. Tel Aviv would like simply to throw Gaza away, whatever that might mean, and never think about it again. The problem with Hamas, from Tel Aviv’s perspective, is that Hamas is preventing Israel from discarding Gaza. Tel Aviv’s desires relative to the West Bank could not be more different: it treasures the West Bank for both historical/religious and blatantly imperial reasons. It wants the land, the strategic depth, and the water of the West Bank to enhance the power of Israel.

Only Hamas stands in the way of this fundamental Israeli strategic project because Hamas insists upon genuine Palestinian liberty. That is why Tel Aviv hates and refuses to deal with Hamas. The rockets have nothing whatsoever to do with Tel Aviv’s attitude; they are a symptom that could be eliminated by a second’s worth of sincere diplomacy. The rockets are in fact a tremendous gift to Tel Aviv because they obscure Tel Aviv’s true intentions. (More irony here: by using the ineffectual but visually impressive rockets, Hamas plays into the hands of Tel Aviv hardliners, but were Hamas to give up the rockets, the world would simply ignore Gaza, so it cannot.) The fact is that Hamas represents Palestinian independence; Hamas is the only force resisting the permanent consolidation of Palestinian Bantustan, which has been the fundamental goal of Israeli foreign policy for most of the last generation.

Tel Aviv can of course continue almost endlessly killing every radical leader who volunteers to fight for Palestinian independence; Tel Aviv after all has a blank check to claim victimhood and use violence. But since it is Israeli repression that generates Palestinian resistance and the cycle of rising repression and rising resistance that radicalizes that resistance, Tel Aviv has a serious problem: by repressing all Palestinians, even the groveling Fatah, it legitimizes radicalism. Palestinians have nowhere else to turn. Israel is playing with fire: provoking Arab nationalism and provoking Arab radicalism and then leaving both sentiments in the hands of Hamas. The more effective Israel’s attacks over the short-term, the worse its security situation will become. Indeed, the best outcome for long-term security of the Israeli people would probably be a military defeat so stunning that it shocked Israel into a fundamental rethinking of how best to ensure its long-term survival.

Should Tel Aviv succeed in destroying the particular movement called Hamas, it would likely be a Pyrrhic victory because the issue is not those particular individuals in that particular organization. After all, even Hamas joined in 2006 the political process approved by Israel, agreed to a ceasefire in the summer of 2008, and expressed willingness to extend the ceasefire just before Israel’s invasion (provided obviously that Israel implement its side of the bargain, namely, rescind or at least moderate its economic warfare against Gaza, which it failed to do, thus provoking Hamas to return to firing rockets).

The issue is not Hamas; the issue is the process that is generating combined nationalist, Islamist organizations and granting them leadership of the Palestinian independence movement. To combine nationalism and fundamentalism in the hands of one group enormously empowers such a group. Moreover, the more successful its repression, the greater the resistance. It does not take a very profound understanding of dynamics to realize that this is a losing struggle for Israel: if it is the Israeli tactics that cause the problem, then the solution is not more such tactics but new tactics.

The first price that Tel Aviv pays for this hypocritical and aggressive strategic policy is the building up of Hamas as a greater-than-life liberator of Palestinians. Hamas can legitimately claim to have done some good with its administration and its charities, but Hamas governance is hardly something Palestinians given free choice would rush to support. It is only Israel’s behavior that puts Hamas in the driver’s seat. It is obvious to all that the security of the Israeli people would be far greater with some less radical and less fundamentalist force leading the Palestinian people, but Tel Aviv’s expansionist intentions lock it into the ironic and tragic position of empowering radical, Islamist Hamas – tragic because it unnecessarily generates a cycle of increasing violence.

Global Implications of Gaza

But the importance of Gaza transcends the fate of its tortured population. Gaza has broad implications for many other far more intractable problems, such as Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The world would do well to analyze the real causal dynamics generating all the heat in Gaza. It's is a relatively controllable laboratory for conducting experiments in how to resolve Western-Islamic differences. Gaza could make a real contribution to world peace by serving as a model for finding common ground instead of serving to justify the most rabid calls for violence coming out of both Western and Muslim societies.

It sounds cruel to use the term "experiment," but the fact is that the political forces manipulating Gazans are in effect conducting social and military experiments.

  • Tel Aviv, for example, is very consciously testing the hypothesis that if collective punishment is sufficiently harsh, it will force the population to give its support to the oppressor.

  • Hamas is testing the hypothesis that the harsher the collective punishment of Gaza, the more the nationalist indignation of Gazans will be stimulated.

  • Tehran is testing the hypothesis that vociferous rhetorical support for Arab dissident movements plus dribbles of funding and the (perhaps true) rumors of military aid will make Iran a major regional player.

  • Conservative Arab dictators are testing the hypothesis that the Arab street really doesn't have any significant pan-Arab nationalist feeling.

  • Washington is testing the hypothesis that Muslim nationalists, reformers, and radicals can all be lumped together and defeated through brute force.

Control over these experiments should be taken out of the hands of the various neoconservative and otherwise violence-addicted groups now responsible for the endless cycle of death and destruction. It's highly pertinent to note that Hamas is testing a hypothesis related specifically to all Palestinians -- not just Gazans -- for Hamas all roads lead at least to the West Bank, probably to Jerusalem and (Israelis fear) perhaps to all of Israel but their ambitions do not seem to lie elsewhere. Were Hamas to march slowly through agonizing violence over a period of years to victory after victory, that process might well encourage wider, pan-Arab ambitions. Ironically, a conciliatory stance by Tel Aviv granting genuine independence to Palestine with fair terms would have the opposite effect, probably leaving Hamas satisfied and preoccupied with competing for power within Palestine as a normal political party.

Gaza's Tragedy; World's Warning

The other actors, however, are testing hypotheses for direct application to much broader issues. Hence the appropriateness of the use of the term "experiment." An experiment is a small-scale trial for a larger purpose. The ultimate tragedy of Gaza is that everyone is exploiting it as a laboratory for testing policies of extreme importance for much larger issues. Aside from Hamas, none of the players cares about Gaza at all. Israelis concerned about security; Arabs concerned with domestic civil rights; Iranians afraid of being attacked by Western proponents of "preventive" war; Fatah members interested in Palestinian independence; and Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Kashmiris, and Somalis trying to pacify their societies all should realize that their struggles will be directly and forcefully impacted by the lessons that the experimenters learn in Gaza.

Unfortunately for all of those groups, the lessons being learned so far are reinforcing the determination of those who believe in resolving disagreement with force. As with the summer 2008 ceasefire between Hamas and Tel Aviv, the current one failed even to produce the minimal Israeli concession of allowing the people of Gaza to go about their lives in normal fashion with access to food, medicine, and energy. As long as Gazans remain not only imprisoned but imprisoned under the collective punishment of economic embargo, radicalism will be empowered.

Hamas rocket attacks substantively stopped on January 18, just as after the summer 2008 ceasefire, but, again as in the summer, Israel's economic warfare against Gaza remains in place. Gazans remain under Israeli colonial control and subject to Israeli collective punishment. How then can any Palestinian politician justify compromising with Israel? Hence, the implications for the security of both the Israeli and Palestinian people are negative.

For Muslim groups beyond Palestine, Gaza serves as a warning of storms to come. Arabs concerned with domestic civil rights see Egypt not only supporting Israeli suppression of Hamas but simultaneously suppressing its own Muslim Brotherhood. The message is clear: no concessions to the people.

That Israel got away with a military tour de force at minimal immediate military cost is likely only to encourage those Israelis who have already set their sights on regime change in Tehran. These Israelis are likely to dismiss talk of Israel having lost support globally or tarnished its image by its brutality; rather, they will cite Israel's smooth, rapid exit and proclaim the inevitability of Israeli military victory over all enemies. The outcome of this invasion of Gaza thus raises the likelihood of a conflict with Iran, both directly to the degree that it encourages Israeli adventurists and indirectly to the degree that it frightens Iranians and empowers Iranian radicals.

Tel Aviv could now use its demonstration of military prowess in Gaza as the basis for a historic policy shift toward real compromise with Palestine, but history suggests that Tel Aviv will instead take away from the latest battle that brutal force is the road to success. In that case, Fatah will find itself domestically humiliated and, vis-à-vis Tel Aviv, negotiating while standing on quicksand. The implication for the West Bank, then, is continued movement toward "Palestinian Bantustan," with Israelis living on the best land, driving on Jewish-only highways, and completely controlling Palestinians.

The Gaza war will almost certainly empower Muslim radicals arguing that compromise with the West is pointless because "the West only understands the language of force." This suggests the coming of further domestic chaos in such Muslim societies as Pakistan and Somalia.

Lessons for Washington

The big question mark lies in Washington. New administrations are expected to bring fresh thinking. The timing is perfect for President Barack Obama to state that the cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence need not be endless, that the Holy Land should be a place of peace, that Israel should -- given American backing -- have the self-confidence to treat Palestinians with respect and sincerity.

Obama might point out that Tel Aviv can continue almost endlessly killing every radical leader who volunteers to fight for Palestinian independence only at a grievous price. He might make the argument that Israeli repression generates Palestinian resistance resulting in a cycle of rising repression and resistance. Indeed, Obama might argue, the more effective Israel's attacks over the short term, the worse its security situation will become over the long term.

Given the completely one-sided nature of the war in Gaza, endless opportunities exist to demonstrate a new policy of "security from good-neighborliness." Indeed, one need not even go that far; just an Israeli policy of rewarding desired behavior would take the region a long way. The end to Hamas rocket attacks should be met with the end to the Israeli economic embargo. The minimum necessary step to enable Israel to move toward morally firm ground is the end to collective punishment of the people of Gaza.

Ending Israel's economic war against Gaza wouldn't remotely solve the Palestinian-Israeli problem, which requires facing up to the contradiction between a West Bank Bantustan and the concept of Palestinian "independence." Nor would it resolve even the problem of Gaza, which will require addressing the issue of freedom of choice for Gazans about their future. Nevertheless, it would put the initiative in the hands of the Obama administration and change the tone of the experiments being carried out in Gaza. Gaza could then be transformed from a laboratory for testing hypotheses about how to force adversaries into submission into a test case for finding ways to achieve mutually acceptable compromises between Islam and the West.


Note: My thanks to Foreign Policy in Focus for publishing the original version of this article on January 29, 2009).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Big Power Mideast Rivalry: Hubris vs. Diplomacy

EXCERPT: Following a decade of neo-con provocation, Russia is returning to the game of competing for influence in the Mideast--but using diplomacy and economics while avoiding the wasteful employment of troops, not to mention the angry response that such behavior tends to generate. The result could be serious trouble for an overextended superpower America.

TEXT: According to retired Colonel Sam Gardiner, “Russia is on the path to make Iran a strategic partner, a counter to the United States in the regions of rivalry.” American geostrategists may feel troubled by this, but Washington’s “last superpower standing” hubris brought this situation about. Israel has long been America’s “land aircraft carrier” in the Mideast, but the egregious neo-con bias in favor of proponents of Greater Israel combined with the offensive military footprint constructed in Iraq and now being expanded in Afghanistan could only have been expected to provoke Moscow into attempting to shore up its rapidly eroding strategic position.


Global Gas Cartel

Iran’s Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari said he and Qatar's Energy Minister Abdullah al-Attiyah and Chief Executive Alexei Miller of Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom agreed to establish a high-ranking natural gas committee.

Unlike Nozari, Miller did not refer to a "gas OPEC" at a joint news conference but said the three sides had set up a "major gas troika" that would help implement joint projects.

Russia, Iran and Qatar are ranked the first, second and third biggest holders of natural gas reserves in the world and together boast more than half of the global total. -- source


Unfortunately for Washington, Moscow is moving with more skill, focusing on quiet agreements—both military and economic—designed to create a solid, long-term position in the Mideast. This approach contrasts sharply with the brash American combination of encouraging allied military action (e.g., Israel into Lebanon in 2006, Ethiopia into Somalia in 2007, Israeli into Gaza in 2008, Pakistan into Bajaur in 2008), sometimes brutal military attack by its own troops (e.g., Fallujah), public threats (“all options are on the table”, calling Iranian nuclear arms “unacceptable”), extreme bias in favor of Israeli extremists (defending not just Israeli security but Israeli expansion into the West Bank), and construction of an archipelago of new regional military bases that (whatever any agreements with Iraq or Afghanistan may say) certainly appear permanent.

Where Washington uses threats, Moscow uses quiet diplomacy. Where Washington pours offensive arms of stunning destructive power into Israel, Moscow provides defensive arms to Iran. Where Washington pressures countries to prevent bilateral economic agreements, Moscow focuses on signing economic agreements.

Moscow’s moves may add up to a serious challenge to American control of the Mideast, but each one is small and delicate and subtle enough so that it hardly constitutes much of a provocation to anyone. Washington’s visible and antagonistic moves, in contrast, provoke constant opposition. Over time, such in-your-face behavior already has proven costly to Washington. Examples include:

· the consolidation of Hezbollah’s position after Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon

· the defeat of Ethiopia in Somalia

· the opposition of Moqtada al Sadr that has so troubled Washington in Iraq

· the Taliban successes in interrupting the flow of supplies through the Khyber Pass

· the slow collapse of central control in Pakistan

· and—of course—the rise in Iran’s regional prominence.

If Washington does not soon learn to play its cards more skillfully, the burden of its Mideast posture may become untenable.

Yes, Washington has more military muscle than Moscow, but Moscow is not finding it necessary to apply much military muscle (essentially, just a few defensive missiles). Yes, Washington has more money than Moscow, but Moscow is not dissipating its wealth on adventures in the Mideast; rather, Moscow is signing agreements that seem likely to earn it a solid, long-term payoff. The victory of a spendthrift superpower that is skilled at making enemies and lurches from short-term victory to short-term victory over a soft-stepping big power with a long-term strategy that maximizes bang for the ruble is not a foregone conclusion.


Russian business dealings with Iran:

  1. to export airliners to Iran
  2. possible coordination on global gas markets; also here
  3. air defense missile contract
  4. delivery of S-300 air defense system
  5. possible blackmarket missile technology transfer
  6. Tor M1 air defense system
  7. nuclear power generation
  8. transport helicopters
  9. MIG-29 engines
  10. nuclear technology, fuel, and training

If Saudi Arabia Has Had Enough...

Yesterday, I wondered if Prince Turki’s warning to the U.S. to clean up its act regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were serious.

In his analysis of Prince Turki’s interview in the Financial Times, John Burgess gave a valuable list of low-key, bilateral steps the Saudis could take to make good on Turki’s warning (I extracted the points and added the numbering below):

  1. The Saudis have already said that they will not use oil as a ‘weapon’, i.e., no repetition of the 1973 boycott. That does not mean that they will continue to offer preferential prices to the US for oil.
  2. Simply by refusing to grant the US military permission to overfly the country, the Kingdom can wreak havoc for US military planners with concerns east of Suez.
  3. It could stop being the piggy bank to which the US government goes to find funding for international aid programs for which there is nothing in the US budget.
  4. It could stop buying Boeing or Sikorsky or General Electric weapons and weapon systems and instead buy from Europe, Russia, or China.
  5. Rather than voting with the US in international fora, it could simply vote ‘present’.

The Saudis also have some multilateral cards that they could play:

  1. The Iranian Card. They could follow up on Turki’s positive depiction of Ahmadinejad’s letter with some substantive move, such as convening a meeting to discuss Palestine and inviting Tehran. This would delight Tehran, which has vigorously been seeking to participate in regional diplomacy as part of its rise in regional prominence.
  2. The Pakistani Card. Long actively involved in Pakistani politics, both as an economic supporter of the government and as one source of religious inspiration for various groups in Pakistani society, not to mention allegedly having close military ties, there are any number of ways in which Saudi influence could promote or undermine U.S. influence in Pakistan.
  3. The Qatar Card. Qatar has been displaying notable diplomatic flexibility in regional affairs over the last couple years, in the face of apparent Saudi displeasure, which the Saudis might take steps to mitigate. The intention of each country to provide aid to Gaza may provide an opening. Minimizing differences with Qatar would imply a Saudi openness to getting very far in front of where Washington has been and would make much more difficult diplomatic calculations by blurring the lines between Israel/Washington/Egypt on one side and Iran/Hezbollah/Syria/Hamas on the other.
  4. The Syrian Card. The Saudis might similarly take steps to improve cool ties with Syria, something that might not be too difficult now that the Lebanese political standoff has cooled off. Indeed, Israel’s attack on Gaza seems already to have launched this process.
  5. The Iraqi Card. Saudi Arabia has considerable room for maneuver with regard to Iraq, as well, in terms of legitimizing the U.S. presence, regulating the flow of salafi influence, and providing or denying state support to Iraqi Sunnis whose tenuous political status in Iraq continues to make that country a potential powerkeg.
  6. The Afghani Card. Saudi Arabia also has contacts in Afghanistan that it can choose to use to influence the willingness of various parties to compromise with the U.S. Simply postponing a decision to take action might impose significant cost on Western forces looking for options.

Israel’s war on Lebanon and now its war on Gaza have both served to shake up Mideast diplomacy. The possibility of Riyadh playing some of the above cards, should it perceive little substantive chance in policy from the Obama Administration, has been raised by these two wars. Washington would do well to keep in mind the large number of cards Riyadh actually holds.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Real Saudi Warning or Just Posturing?

In an interview with--no, not Arabic media, but the Financial Times, former Saudi intel chief Prince Turki made the following highly unusual (someone tell me if they were in fact unprecedented in their bluntness for a Saudi official) criticisms of U.S. policy on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute:

1. Unless the new US administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the US-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk.

2. America is not innocent in this calamity. Not only has the Bush administration left a sickening legacy in the region, but it has also, through an arrogant attitude about the butchery in Gaza, contributed to the slaughter of innocents. If the US wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact - especially its “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia - it will have to revise drastically its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine.

3. President Barack Obama [should] condemn Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians and support a UN resolution to that effect; condemn the Israeli actions that led to this conflict, from settlement building in the West Bank to the blockade of Gaza and the targeted killings and arbitrary arrests of Palestinians; declare America’s intention to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a security umbrella for countries that sign up and sanctions for those that do not; call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Shab’ah Farms in Lebanon; encourage Israeli-Syrian negotiations for peace; and support a UN resolution guaranteeing Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Mr Obama should strongly promote the Abdullah peace initiative, which calls on Israel to pursue the course laid out in various international resolutions and laws: to withdraw completely from the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, returning to the lines of June 4 1967; to accept a mutually agreed just solution to the refugee problem according to UN resolution 194; and to recognise the independent state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return, there would be an end to hostilities between Israel and all Arab countries, and Israel would get full diplomatic and normal relations.

4. Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran wrote a letter to King Abdullah, explicitly recognising Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds and calling on him to take a more confrontational role over “this obvious atrocity and killing of your own children” in Gaza. The communiqué is significant because the de facto recognition of the kingdom’s primacy from one of its most ardent foes reveals the extent that the war has united an entire region, both Shia and Sunni.

It seems curious that Turki would select the Financial Times to make a warning that was just intended as posturing to satisfy Saudis angry about Gaza, so just possibly this constitutes a real message that the Saudis have had enough. Time will tell. Can Washington afford to gamble?

More on Radicalization of Muslim Societies

Following up on my recent post about radicalization of Islamic societies, see also this important article that gives a different perspective on the radicalization of Pakistani society:

The Saudi-isation of Pakistan

A stern, unyielding version of Islam is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis in Pakistan.

By Pervez Hoodbhoy

See also a Brookings study by Moeed Yusuf that describes the classic path of young men who feel alienated from society becoming radicalized:

Overwhelming majorities of radicalized youth are found to have a strong sense of being discriminated against and are alienated from the larger society. This in turn is believed to be a function of socio-economic deprivation. Poor education standards, lack of economic opportunities, and unequal access to avenues for social and economic mobilization are usually present in countries that undergo radicalization among the young. The problem is often accentuated in societies which exhibit cultural polarization.

I argued that militarization of the sociopolitical struggle between moderates and Islamists is radicalizing society in both Pakistan and Somalia. Hoodbhoy describes a separate process in Pakistan of radicalizing society via education (with considerable help from the government). Yusuf describes socio-economic causes. The three are of course intertwined, with each story of Western or central government military abuse being used to justify further radicalization.

Are there additional processes by which radicalization occurs in Muslim societies?

What processes lead to moderation?

Four Minutes to Understand Israel & Palestine

To understand the Palestine-Israeli dispute, just watch this poetic video by a truly wise Israeli lady. The Tiny Revolution blog is to be commended for posting it.

Knowing Human Intent

Almost nothing in human affairs is more difficult than knowing another person's intentions. Indeed, the reason why the social sciences are so much more difficult than the so-called "hard" sciences is precisely that: you can gather all the data you want, but you can never account for a person's ability to conceal (even from himself) or change his mind. Yet after acknowledging that "there is so much that we do not know about Iran," Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence stated in an interview:

We know (WM: my emphasis) they are committed to developing a nuclear weapon. We do know (WM: my emphasis) they are intent on developing the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon.... The third thing we know (WM: my emphasis) is that they pose a threat to the stability in the Middle East...

The Representative evidently "knows" what all the leaders in Iran's extraordinarily factionalized government intend to do, "knows" how the endless factional strife will turn out, "knows" that nothing the rest of the world can do will alter their stance, and "knows" that it is Iran (rather than countries like the U.S. and Israel that have actually started several wars in the region) that poses a threat to the stability of the Mideast.

I stand in awe before the brilliance of the Representative. He has evidently solved the most challenging problem facing us poor, ignorant social scientists: knowing what goes on in the minds of men.

Winning Hearts and Minds

According to al-Jazeera, Hamas is set to hand out money to Gazans afflicted by Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip.

“Hamas is set to hand out money to Gazans afflicted by Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip.

The territory's government was due to start giving out the money, expected to total about $45m, on Sunday - a day after a Hamas committee was established to oversee relief efforts.

Ahmed al-Kurd, the Hamas-appointed minister of social affairs, also heads the National High Committee for Relief which will distribute the money to those who lost family members or their homes."

We have been here before. The Taliban rushed to help victims of the earthquake in Pakistan, and Hezbollah famously moved into ravaged southern Lebanon with bulldozers on the heels of the departing Israelis in 2006.

As Obama clearly recognized in his interview with al-Arabiya, building—rather than destroying--society is key. After a week of so-called “ceasefire” in Gaza, it is once more the Islamic radicals who are seizing the initiative to win hearts and minds by rebuilding society.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Radicalizing Islamic Societies

Excerpt: A pattern of brutal military intervention in Muslim societies to defeat radicalism that instead further radicalizes those societies is becoming increasingly clear, but powerful politicians remain (intentionally?) blind to the process. Pakistan and Somalia provide the latest evidence...

Text: On the heels of Ethiopia’s retreat from Somalia, the radical Islamist al-Shabab took over the town of Baidoa. It is noteworthy that it was al-Shabab, whose rise to power was stimulated by the U.S.-sponsored Ethiopian intervention, rather than the more moderate Islamic Courts Union—which Ethiopia entered Somalia to defeat—that is on the offensive. Foreign boots on the ground significantly worsened the situation in Somalia, from the perspective of moderates, opening the door wide to radical Islamist rule.

A similar pattern is becoming evident in Pakistan, this time following and evidently resulting at least in part from central government boots on the ground in tribal regions where the mostly Pathan Pakistani army is traditionally not viewed as exactly “our boys.” That view may be a bit stronger in the aftermath of a central government attack with tanks, jet fighter-bombers, and helicopter gunships in August that left some 400,000 refugees in Bajaur and repeated attacks in Swat Valley.

Whatever people’s feelings may be, the Taliban appear to be more than holding their own and, at the same time, to becoming increasingly radical. Warfare has a way of doing that. If some other approach to dealing with the Taliban had been tried, would they nevertheless have become equally violence-prone? It is up to officials suffering from their own addiction to violence to make that highly suspect case.

In Swat, where the Taliban are on the rampage murdering officials and publicly threatening others, the ruling party has admitted that it has lost control. The Taliban has just “summoned” several dozen officials to report to its sharia courts to be tried for opposing Taliban rule. Major General Abbas admitted that the military could not currently stop public Taliban radio broadcasts threatening the murder of officials but would take control “soon.”

Apparently not seeing this pattern of alien boots that run roughshod provoking the rise of radicalism, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday the United States will "go after Al-Qaeda wherever Al-Qaeda is."

Palestinian Bantustan

I have repeatedly referred to "Palestinian Bantustan." For those Americans who still don't understand what Israel is doing in this regard (most of the rest of the world does understand, I think), take a look at this map of the West Bank.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Obama on Israel & Gaza

Obama's first substantive remarks on Israel, at State Department, follow:

Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security. And we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats.

For years, Hamas has launched thousands of rockets at innocent Israeli citizens. No democracy can tolerate such danger to its people, nor should the international community, and neither should the Palestinian people themselves, whose interests are only set back by acts of terror.

To be a genuine party to peace, the Quartet has made it clear that Hamas must meet clear conditions: recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and abide by past agreements. Going forward, the outline for a durable ceasefire is clear: Hamas must end its rocket fire; Israel will complete the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza; the United States and our partners will support a credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime, so that Hamas cannot rearm.


America is committed to Israel’s security.” Obama does not recognize the right of Palestinians to security?

Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats.” Israel illegally occupies Gaza in defiance of a U.N. resolution, so it is Hamas that is defending itself.

“Hamas must…recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and abide by past agreements.” Fine, but why should Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist if Israel does not have to recognize Hamas’ right to exist. After all, Hamas won the only free election Palestine ever had (in 2006). If Hamas should renounce violence, why should Israel not also do so? If Hamas should abide by past agreements, why should Israel not also do so? After all, it was Israel that violated the summer 2008 ceasefire by not substantially reducing its economic embargo against the people of Gaza.

“the outline for a durable ceasefire is clear: Hamas must end its rocket fire; Israel will complete the withdrawal of its forces from GazaThis is in no way balanced: were Israel in fact to complete its withdrawal in a meaningful sense, then Gaza would be free. But, no, the implication here is that the situation will return to that of December, when Israel was illegally controlling Gaza by controlling its borders. Obama is saying that Hamas must submit to being in jail and to seeing all the people of Gaza stay in jail, while Israel is to be allowed to continue its illegal occupation of Gaza. This is the outline for endless violence.

“Hamas cannot rearm” Hamas is the governing organization of Gaza. It has as much right to rearm as any other government.

Whatever Obama may be thinking or planning, his comments were a whitewash of Israel and an utter distortion of history. Perhaps he was just reading what his pro-Israeli appointees fed him, perhaps he has other plans he calculates he must keep to himself for now, perhaps he has calculated that he has bigger fights than justice in the Levant.

Obama was not elected to help Palestinians, so perhaps he has the moral right to turn his back on them. The problem is that so long as he continues U.S. military and economic aid to Israel, everything Israel does is Obama's responsibility. He is not an innocent bystander.

Judging from a New York Times report on the latest in a long list of criminally irresponsible U.S. military attacks on Afghans whose identity was unknown, the list of innocents slaughtered by U.S. forces has just grown.

Debate among people who try to sound sincere and puzzled about the difficulty of resolving the Afghan crisis is rising rapidly in the U.S. as Obama settles in. Obama would do well to focus on Paragraph 1, above. For those officials still infected with Bush-Cheney hubris, the issue in Afghanistan may still be how to compel obedience. But the question Washington should actually be asking itself is, "How can the suffering of Afghanis be minimized?"

As long as Washington seeks victory in Afghanistan (defining victory as Afghan submission to Washington's will), the suffering, chaos, and blowback will continue. The haunting image in the recesses of fevered neo-con brains of America as the new Roman Empire is fallacious. America may well be Rome in the sense of having an eternally submissive population that meekly follows the lead of aggressive politicians. But the world has changed. Goths and Carthagians did not have the Internet; it was hard to see the similarity of their respective positions. Technology also did not facilitate individual efforts to strike back against a distant empire. Today, ruthless suppression is much more likely to breed a type of decentralized, self-organizing resistance whose growth is provoked by the very attack designed to suppress it.

Rather than concentrating on more of the same tactics that have failed for years, Obama should start by concentrating on preventing the type of incident referred to in the first paragraph.

Israel Stabs Gaza Victims in the Back

Returned from a week of back-country skiing with no access to news, I find that Israel has descended to a new level of depravity. It was not enough that Israel broke the summer 2008 ceasefire with Hamas by maintaining its economic embargo against the Gaza population or that it broke the ceasefire in November by launching a quick military attack into Gaza or that it destroyed some 4,000 houses during its recent invasion. Now, despite a new ceasefire with Hamas, it is not only continuing to underscore its illegal occupation of Gaza in violation of the U.N. and maintaining its economic war against the population of Gaza, but it is even blocking construction material to rebuild those houses.

Recommendation to Obama:

Declare an economic embargo on Israel to be lifted whenever Israel's economic embargo on Gaza is lifted.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Wars Against Children: Gaza, Swat

While Western extremists pursue a war against the moderate center in Gaza,Islamic extremists continue their own war against the moderate center. No, the Israeli invasion of Gaza is not a war on Hamas. You don't attack children, ambulances, schools, or U.N. buildings in order to get Hamas: these are attacks on the core of society. Similarly, in Swat Valley in Pakistan, the Taliban pursue war against girls, judging from the editorial in the Pakistani Daily Times, excerpted below:

After a year of military operations in Swat, the territory controlled by the terrorists has reportedly increased from 25 percent to 75 percent. ... The party that rules in Peshawar has been systematically decimated in Swat as its allies walk in fear and no longer criticise the Taliban in public, accusing only the army of being “indiscriminate”.

Swat had voted last year for ANP as a liberal alternative to the now defunct MMA because they wanted their home territory to be made safe against the vandalism of the Taliban. But what they have got is the systematic destruction of the female educational infrastructure in Swat by the Taliban and loss of protection by the state. The terrorists had warned last month that if any girls’ schools opened after January 15, they would be bombed. Consequently, after the expiry of the deadline, none of the 400 plus schools has reopened, causing 80,000 girls to go without education for the foreseeable future. Along with them, 8,000 female teachers will be rendered jobless in state sector and private institutions....

The Taliban have already bombed out of existence 122 girls’ schools in Swat while the army operations go on inside a fast shrinking territory of the writ of the state. The inhabitants no longer believe that the state is capable of protecting them and talk on TV channels freely in favour of the army clearing out of the area and the government negotiating with the terrorists to give them what they want, including a literal ban on the public movement of women....

The measure of lack of success of military operations in Swat can be had from the fact that the terrorists now have an autonomous state of their own, complete with running sharia courts and an FM radio station exhorting the people to accept the new order or die. They have their own network of intelligence and an information secretary that you can ring up and talk to. Every day the people of Swat wake up to find someone or the other either beheaded or hanged on the Green Chowk of Mingora now called Khuni Chowk. Those who could flee Swat have done so; those who have nowhere to go will live under the terrorists.

Moral Considerations Concerning the Gaza War

In case anyone is still confused about the purpose of Israel's attack on Gaza, its last-minute, concerted attack on a UN school just before an expected "unilateral" ceasefire would seem to clarify things.

The short-term goals would seem to be two-fold. First, the people of Gaza (not Hamas) are being informed that they are to be kept in subjugation. Killing kids at school is a pretty clear example of subjugation. Second, the UN, international law, and all that sort of liberalism is rejected: does not apply to Israel.

The long-term goals that follow from these would seem to be several. First, if this is how Israel treats Gaza, about which it cares not a whit, think what Israel is prepared to do to the West Bank Palestinians should they conceivably get it in their heads to talk back, for the West Bank is something Israel cares about a great deal. Second, Israel is daring Hezbollah to so much as breathe without permission. Third, this is psychological gearing up for putting Iran "in its place."

Mr. Hubris has been made to feel a bit unwelcome in Washington recently; he seems ever so smoothly to have moved his headquarters to Tel Aviv.

Caveat: the above statement is just an hypothesis. Any of the following actions would constitute disconfirmatory evidence:

  • an immediate outpouring of medical aid from Israel to the people of Gaza of a scale and speed commensurate with the harm Israel has just caused;
  • a serious, emergency Israeli project to rebuild Gaza;
  • an Israeli project (or U.N. project with Israeli support) to create an effective government for Gaza;
  • the opening of Gaza ports to international trade and travel;
  • a complete termination of the Israeli economic boycott of Gaza;
  • the opening of the Egyptian border to normal trade, communication, transportation, travel by citizens of Gaza--with no Israeli opposition;
  • the announcement and initial implementation of an Israeli policy of returning all Israeli citizens from the West Bank to Israel.

If Israel is allowed to get away with its temper tantrum in Gaza, exactly where does this leave the global political system? Can it be said to have advanced at all in the last century? Have we managed to slide all the way back to the pre-World War I days?

If someone thinks that Israel still has a moral right to exist or that the world can afford to tolerate its continued existence, they are cordially invited to explain in clear, unemotional terms why that might be so. If someone thinks I am glossing over things or reading way too much into this year's first war, please feel free to explain that as well.

Transparency of Governance

The arguments over regulation of the economic system and over exploitation of foreign crises for personal gain by bloody-flag-waving politicians and war profiteering corporations are subsets of a single pattern: transparency of governance.

I am certainly not arguing that “the people” are somehow more moral or more wise or more trustworthy than the elite. Perhaps they are, but that’s not my argument. Rather, the point is that, to borrow high-tech terminology, open-source software is more reliable than stuff designed in secret by a single corporation. And governance is “software:” it is not about stuff, it’s about concepts and attitudes.

We are all vulnerable to corruption, not to mention dumb mistakes: the distinction between the behavior of Wall Street executives with their billions in credit-fault swaps and a janitor taking a mortgage on a $400,000 house is paper-thin. The distinction between a terrorist attack and a war of choice is paper-thin. The protection from such irresponsible behavior lies not in arguments between “imperial presidency vs Congressional oversight” or “democracy vs. dictatorship” or “regulation vs. letting the market rule.” Yes, those are critically valuable debates, but they are fatally flawed by two simplifications:

  1. their very bivariate nature;
  2. their being separated.

Concerning the first oversimplification, resolution does not rely on posing two choices (e.g., regulate or not, have an imperial president or let Congress decide, let the people decide or let the elite decide). Concerning the second oversimplification, the debate over the quality of governance of the economy should not be isolated from the debate over the quality of governance of foreign policy.

Simply put, the problem with governance in America today lies at a higher level of abstraction: we are awash in stunningly dysfunctional levels of irresponsibility. Examples are obvious, e.g., bank managers encouraging mortgage loans to customers obviously incapable of paying; the hiring of Ethiopian proxy forces to intensify the civil war in Somalia; the repeated Predator attacks that kill civilians; the failure to punish politicians who start wars on false pretenses.

The degree of irresponsibility is far too great to be resolved by flipping a switch. It does not matter how much money Washington pours into Wall Street; it does not matter how many bombs are dropped. It almost does not matter whether decisions are made by an imperial president, Congress, or referendum: well, that statement is somewhat hyperbolic, but only “somewhat.” All personal or group decisions are vulnerable to major error: you cannot just “make a decision and go with it.” Yes, that is the American way, but it won’t work. The social system in which we live is complex; our governance of it falls short not only because of our personal immorality but because complex systems are hard to control. There is no “answer” in the sense of making the right choice or flipping the right switch. That is simplistic, reductionist thinking. It is theoretically impossible to “reduce” a complex system to a set of simple failures (a loose screw here, a missing nail there) that can incrementally be repaired.

The answer must have a level of complexity that matches the problem. I cannot provide that answer. No person can provide that answer. No human institution can provide that answer. Perhaps, in truth, all of mankind together will never figure it out, but until the Martians land and offer us the benefit of their superior intellect, everyone working together (that is essentially what “open source” means) is our best hope. Democracy is the process of inventing this solution. That absolutely does not mean that we should all vote on everything. It means that transparency of governance should be maximized. The more we all know and the more we can all participate, the greater the likelihood that all the resulting tinkering will end up discovering a better way of doing things. It would also help if we all agreed never again to use the phrase “stay the course.” “The course” is nothing but yesterday’s step in the dark. When you stub your toe, change course.