If it is possible to invest in companies that supply fencing material to the Israel government, they should be rated a “buy”. Likewise with any companies that make the components of the barriers that Israel sometimes calls fences but are actually more like walls. We're familiar with the fence/wall that Israel has constructed in the Palestinian-inhabited West Bank and that the Israelis have periodically extended and enhanced. Recently Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu inspected a new fence his government has constructed along the border with Egypt. Now he has announced his intention to construct an enhanced barrier in the Syrian Golan Heights.
The more recent construction is understandable in terms of security incidents that have originated in Egypt or Syria during the past couple of years and have touched Israel. A nation has to protect its borders. And the line between Israel and the Egyptian Sinai actually is an international border. But the fenced line in Syria is not. It is only a cease-fire line left over from previous Israeli-Syrian warfare. Notwithstanding any immediate, tactical security needs that Israel speaks about, the barrier there threatens to become, like the barrier in the West Bank, a steel and concrete monument to indefinite occupation of territory conquered by force of arms.
In 2000, well after the cease-fire line was established, Israel and Syria came tantalizingly close to a peace agreement that would have included return of the Golan Heights to Syria. The negotiations came down to the disposition of a few meters of dirt going back from the water's edge along the northeastern shore of Lake Tiberias. But then Ehud Barak added back a few hundred meters worth of demands that would have negated the principle of respecting the lines that existed before the 1967 war, and the talks collapsed. After that, Israelis settled back into the comfort of the status quo, while the Assads kept the cease-fire line remarkably quiet and the growing dominance of the Right in Israeli politics reduced official Israeli thinking about any return of territory. Reportedly there was another tentative stab at negotiations a couple of years ago before the Arab Spring got under way, but it is questionable whether Netanyahu was ever seriously thinking about returning the Golan.
The Arab Spring has reduced the Israeli comfort level. The turmoil in Syria has been the most intense and bloody manifestation of the region-wide political fervor and change that have given the Israelis several reasons to worry. Whatever new regime emerges from the current civil war will be less predictable than the devils-we-know that the Assads have been, and the new Syrian political order almost certainly will be, like new political orders in other Arab countries, less restrained than the old orders in voicing and acting upon the grievances that all Arabs have with Israel. Then there is the specifically Syrian grievance, which is the continued occupation of the Golan Heights. No Syrian regime can ignore it, and no new Syrian regime is likely to fall into the Assad regime's groove of what amounted to de facto acceptance of the status quo.
So the walking back from those last few meters along the lake, along with later unwillingness to part with the Golan, appears to preclude Israel being able to achieve peace with the last of its immediate neighbors. (There are peace treaties already, of course, with Egypt and Jordan, and relations with Lebanon are likely to follow the lead of relations with Syria.) Fences may be able to keep out infiltrators, but they do not bring peace.
Another round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 is in the offing, as one can tell by an increase in commentary on the subject. This includes the helpful kind of comments and the nay-saying, unhelpful kind. The outlines of an eminently reachable agreement have been clear for some time. They would include terms along the lines of what Reza Marashi has outlined and I have earlier addressed. An encouraging sign is that some opinion-makers who still can sound pretty bombastic about the Iranian nuclear program, such as the Washington Post editorial board, nonetheless recognize the need for sanctions relief to be part of any deal.
It would be nice if this entire matter could be handled in a low-key, straightforward way: just make the necessary trades and complete an agreement. Unfortunately that does not look as if it is possible. The sanctions have played a role in the United States that goes far beyond the manipulation of Iranian incentives in a way that involves American politics and American psychology. In particular, sanctions have been a means for members of Congress to demonstrate their anti-Iranian bona fides by voting again and again in favor of new ways to harm Iran. And as Trita Parsi argues, sanctions have been part of a hoped-for story of Americans being able to claim a triumph over a foreign adversary.
What is very easy to forget in antagonistic bilateral relationships like this is that the other side has similar political and emotional needs. The Iranians certainly have such needs, although they are less triumphalist and more a matter of simple respect than the corresponding American needs. One of the most insightful commentators on the entire saga of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, the former Iranian official who is now at Princeton, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, addresses this aspect in a new op ed. Mousavian explains why it is essential, if any agreement is to be reached, for Iran to be able to preserve what he and his co-author refer to as aberu, or saving of face. Citing past history, he also explains how this will not be the case if Iran is once again called on to make significant concessions in return for the mere promise or hope of getting what it wants in return.
So one side feels a need to crow about a victory, while the other side needs to feel that it has not been kicked in the face. To square that emotional circle, American politicians will have to get most of their triumphalist fix from what has happened already—from getting a negotiation with Iran about curtailing its nuclear program under way at all. Members of Congress can proclaim today (and when they next run for re-election) that all those votes they cast in favor of all of those sanctions were an important part of getting Iran to the negotiating table. After saying that, they should pipe down, get out of the way, and let the negotiators strike a deal.
An Israeli think tank, the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, has just issued a report that examines Israel's efforts at public diplomacy. Selection of this topic as one of the first to be studied by the center, which was established only a year ago, reflects hand-wringing in Israel over why the country seems to be, to put it bluntly but mildly, so darned unpopular around the world. Is there something fundamentally wrong, Israelis have asked, with how the country conducts public diplomacy and presents its case to audiences around the globe?
The report concludes that no, there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, Israel has one of the most sophisticated, well-funded and well-managed public diplomacy programs in the world. The report contrasts the Israeli program with organized efforts to criticize Israel and observes that the latter do not hold a candle to the former. Presentation of the Israeli government's message to the world is far superior in resources, access, organization and most everything else. The unpopularity, the report concludes, has nothing to do with salesmanship in support of Israeli policies and everything to do with the policies themselves.
There are strong parallels here with the United States, where there also has been much hand-wringing over the years about public diplomacy. The United States has its own unpopularity problem, especially in parts of the world where the negative sentiments about Israel are also strongest. Various schools of thought have been advanced from time to time about how the United States could do public diplomacy better. Draw in audiences with a soft approach, say some. Hit them harder with a more value-laden ideological approach, say others. Or do a better job of applying the skills of Madison Avenue. Or devote more resources to the task.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attack there was a surge of interest in the subject, of the “why do they hate us” and “how can we get them to stop hating us” variety. One result was a study prepared by an ad hoc advisory group authorized by Congress and chaired by former ambassador Edward Djerejian that looked at U.S. advocacy efforts in the Arab and Muslim world. The group's report mainly recommended additional resources for public diplomacy. Interest in the subject has waned since then. A year ago a standing body that dated back to the 1940s, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, quietly went out of existence when as a budget-cutting gesture Congress did not renew its funding. It was a rather silly gesture; the commission had one paid staff member, who says the commission's annual budget was $135,000. But maybe there wasn't a lot of advice left to give anyway.
In one sense there wasn't. With the United States just as with Israel, the sources of negative feelings abroad are policies, not the quality of efforts to sell the policies. People feel most strongly not about a government's advertisements and messages but about its actions—specifically, actions that affect directly their lives or the lives of people with whom they identify, or that link the government to other governments that take actions that affect those lives. The actions range from drone strikes to military occupations to the abetting of Israeli policies in occupied territories. If there is no change in such things, don't blame the salesmanship.
It is irresponsible to help create a mess and then to walk away and expect someone else to clean it up. That's true whether the mess is a spill in the kitchen or something comparably sticky, smelly or hazardous in deliberations in Congress. Multiple press reports observe that this is what the political tantrum known as the Tea Party has been doing. We haven't heard much from the Tea Partiers recently because they opted out of participation in the fiscal cliff drama as the rest of the country counted down the time remaining until the New Year's, and budgetary, ball drops.
In this latest phase in the tantrum, Tea Partiers unhappy that the political game has not gone entirely their way (with the outcome of the presidential election being, of course, their principal setback) have decided to take their own ball and bat and go home. As a South Carolina Tea Party activist put it, “Why in the world would I want to get involved in the games they [i.e., members of Congress] are playing? I have other things to spend my energy on besides lost causes.” Some of the causes which Tea Partiers evidently do not think are lost and to which they now are devoting energy include “nullification” by states of the Affordable Care Act, exposing corruption in Florida election boards that they believe illicitly handed the state to Obama, and opposition to a United Nations resolution on sustainable development that they contend is a threat to property rights.
Tea Partiers are providing some of their own drama with disarray and dissension within their own movement. The Washington-based Tea Party group FreedomWorks experienced an attempt by its chairman Richard Armey, accompanied by a gun-slinging aide, to purge his opponents within the organization, a few days before Armey himself was ousted in a counter-coup. Meanwhile, polls show public support for the Tea Party has dropped significantly from its heyday around the 2010 election.
This certainly does not mean—unfortunately—that we have heard the last of the Tea Party. But the more that this tantrum subsides or fades out of view, the better off the republic will be. Republicans, and more broadly those who believe in a healthy two-party system, ought to be especially hopeful that it will fade out of view. Tea Party activism during the primary season probably cost Republicans a couple of Senate seats. It also has cost the Republican Party the services in public office of some of its most distinguished thinkers, including Richard Lugar, a victim of one of those primary fights, and Jon Huntsman, who was the most sensible person on the stage in those primary debates but never seemed to have a chance to win his party's nomination.
The biggest damage the Tea Party has inflicted has been the less measurable but still major boost it has given to intolerance and inflexibility, with everything that implies regarding dysfunction in the American political system. It has been poison to any spirit of compromise and to the normal give-and-take of politics in a democracy. In this regard it is remarkable how, among all the attention to the details of the fiscal cliff negotiations such as where to set tax brackets and how to define inflation adjustments, so little has been said about how we got confronted with the cliff in the first place. To refresh our memories: sequestration and the other fiscal changes that define the cliff were devised as a threat to concentrate minds on the Congressional super-committee that was charged with reaching, but failed to achieve, a fiscal and budgetary grand bargain. The super-committee was in turn a device for getting out of the impasse created when one side of the aisle resorted to extortion by threatening to force a default on the national debt if that side did not get its way. The extortion was a marked departure from the normal way of conducting the people's political business, which is to try to enact one's preferred policies by winning support and winning votes for one's point of view, rather than by threatening to inflict harm on the country. Since then, the inflexibility and resistance to compromise have been, as Ezra Klein reminds us in reviewing the bidding of the last couple of years, far more on the side that did the initial extortion than on the other side.
The Tea Party cannot be blamed for all of this, of course. Roots of inflexibility such as no-tax-increase obsessions and related starve-the-beast notions have been around before there even was a Tea Party movement. Nor is it only Tea Partiers who today kvetch endlessly about the deficit but not long ago did not say a peep about it when the unprecedented combination of a very expensive war of choice and simultaneous tax cuts turned—surprise, surprise—what had been a budgetary surplus into a ballooning deficit. But the influence of the Tea Party has unquestionably made this whole sorry story substantially worse than it otherwise would have been. The very irresponsibility that the movement is exhibiting today, in walking away from the mess it did so much to help create, testifies to its character.
However much reasonable men and women may disagree about tax codes or the size of government, what is even more important to the health of a society such as America's are the give-and-take habits and attitudes that are necessary for a liberal representative democracy to function. Those habits and attitudes are ultimately what keep the United States from being an Iraq or a Syria. The Tea Partiers never seem to have understood that. We should all hope that they will consign themselves permanently to a safe-to-ignore lunatic fringe that burns its energy pursuing wacky conspiracy theories about Florida election boards and the like.
A plebeian plaint one sometimes hears about annoyances in a local community—say, some chronic traffic trouble spot—is that “they” ought to correct the problem. The “they” presumably means someone in a position of governmental authority with the power to take action on the problem in question. Exactly who that someone is does not get specified, even though there might be different levels or branches of government to which that vague description might apply. There also is commonly a failure by those doing the complaining to consider what are the feasible options for doing something, the advantages and disadvantages of those options, and whether the properly empowered authorities have already properly considered the problem and what might be done about it and perhaps have concluded correctly that there isn't anything else that can be done without creating or exacerbating other problems. To complain without considering these other dimensions is a carefree sloughing off of responsibility to someone else—perhaps a someone else about whom one enjoys complaining anyway.
At the national and international level there is, of course, an abundance of problems which one might wish some omnipotent “they” could solve. Many of those problems get discussed here at the National Interest, and some of the best discussions fully consider what alternatives for trying to solve the problem at hand actually exist, and what the costs and benefits of each are. John Allen Gay, for example, appropriately takes to task authors from the self-styled Bipartisan Policy Center for complaining about what they assert would be costs of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon without addressing what the authors themselves pitch as the principal alternative: going to war against Iran. Gay, also appropriately, details many of the costly second- and third-order effects of that alternative.
Actually, Gay treats the BPC task force authors too gently, even if one overlooks the numbers-pulled-from-air quality of their analysis. The argument those authors make centers around the idea that an Iranian nuke would generate regional fears of war, which in turn would cause the price of oil to rise, which in turn would have various other ill economic effects. Think about that for a moment. The reason they say we shouldn't be afraid to go to war with Iran is that an alternative to war is costly because it raises the fear of war. Got that? It's sort of like committing suicide because of fear of death.
The equivalent to “they” in many complaints in American discourse about international affairs seems to mean whoever is the incumbent U.S. administration. And again, there is too often little or no addressing of the feasible alternatives, the advantages and disadvantages of any such alternatives, and whether alternatives have been considered already. Dov Zakheim offers a litany of things to be unhappy about in the Middle East and South Asia—he's right in identifying some nasty messes—and criticizes the Obama administration for not doing something about them. But what, exactly, is the administration supposed to do?
Zakheim's theme is that we need action, not words. But with two of the four internally turbulent places he mentions, Iraq and Egypt, he doesn't suggest any action at all other than more words. “Washington says not a thing,” he says, about Maliki's consolidation of authoritarian power and the continued potential (left over from a previous U.S. intervention) for more upsurges in violence in Iraq. And in Egypt, he says, “the administration still breathes hardly a word about Morsi's excesses.” We are left to wonder about the action-filled alternatives. Send U.S. troops back to Iraq? Engineer a military coup against Morsi? Just guessing.
On Syria, Zakheim does specify an alternative: provide arms to the opposition. He acknowledges that the purpose of fighting off Assad's army and supporters is something the opposition is accomplishing anyway without U.S.-provided arms, but says that without opening up an arms spigot “Washington can expect little by way of thanks from whoever comes to power in Damascus.” That disregards the substantial record demonstrating that gratitude in civil wars simply hasn't worked that way, as well as not mentioning a host of other questions about what effect opening the spigot would have on the duration and bloodiness of this civil war, the nature of the fractured Syrian opposition, and longer term prospects for stability in Syria. Finally on Afghanistan, there are some recommendations about accelerating U.S. troop withdrawals while negotiating a status of forces agreement to permit the indefinite presence of trainers, but it is hard to see any difference from what the administration is doing now.
Zakheim has on other occasions offered astute observations on many other topics, and we could profit from his analysis of some of these unaddressed questions. Maybe he was just trying to be concise.
Taking careful and complete account of alternative possible courses of action, including all the costs and risks involved, is not only important in understanding and dealing with any one foreign policy challenge. Failure to address those dimensions tends to perpetuate the harmful tendency to think of Washington as a kind of global city hall, where “they” are assumed to have the power to fix any problem without creating even greater problems for the United States in the process.
I was born just early enough to have some faint but direct memories of the stain on American history that became known as McCarthyism. One recollection is of my parents watching on television in 1954 substantial portions of the Army-McCarthy hearings, which was the first Congressional inquiry to be nationally televised. Although I was too young to understand it at the time, those hearings marked the beginning of the end of Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting campaign of slander. Before the end of the year he would be formally censured by the U.S. Senate.
One important factor in stopping McCarthy's reputation-ruining rampage was the working of media in those early days of the television era. Media coverage of the 1954 hearings, which lasted several weeks and in which accusations and counter-accusations were made and confronted in concentrated form within a single hearing room, made it impossible to turn a blind eye to what McCarthyism was about. The gavel-to-gavel television coverage, bringing such a dramatic event into living rooms across the country for the first time, was especially influential.
Another important factor was the willingness of visible figures to call McCarthy to account and to shame him, clearly and directly. A key figure was Joseph Welch, the prominent lawyer who served as chief counsel for the U.S. Army at the hearings. When McCarthy attempted to apply his usual method of innuendo and guilt-by-association to a junior lawyer at Welch's firm, Welch labeled McCarthy's tactics as “reckless cruelty” and spoke the most eloquent and memorable line of the hearings:
You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
The stars do not always align today in a way that encourages a calling to account of latter-day equivalents of McCarthyism. The mass media are far more diffuse, with a million ways to impugn someone via the internet and with talk shows inflicting more of the impact of television and radio than live broadcasts of Congressional hearings.
Then there is the matter of the willingness of visible figures to speak up and to call a spade a spade—clearly and explicitly. The Israeli journalist, academic and businessman Bernard Avishai writes about the dearth of such willingness as it relates to the most prominent current instance of McCarthyite-style tactics: the defamation (often under the disguise of what Avishai calls “fake campaigns against defamation”) of those who dare to question Israeli policies or U.S. abetting of those policies. The defamation is practiced by an assortment of protagonists who claim to have Israeli interests at heart but instead are enforcing unquestioning support for policies of the right-wing Israeli government of the day, which is something different. Avishai, who is slightly younger than I am, also begins by noting the similarity of the current phenomenon to the original McCarthyism. Today's defamation includes the dragging up of whatever can be used to sink nominations as well as reputations. This process features, but is not limited to, reckless and unjustified charges of anti-Semitism. And like the original McCarthyism, the process relies not just on the direct defaming of selected targets but also on intimidation of many others who might otherwise question not only the Israeli and U.S. policies involved but also the intimidation process itself. Avishai's piece is an especially earnest and trenchant call for speaking out on this subject; I could quote at length from it but instead will just urge that the piece itself be read.
Avishai's occasion for writing is the tumult over the possible nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. As I and others have observed, this matter has gotten so much attention that how it is resolved will have a major effect in either boosting the new McCarthyism or setting it back. It is encouraging that many prominent figures have come to Hagel's defense. But the president still has not acted.
Even if the Hagel matter comes out well, that is not enough. There is still the need for prominent people to name and shame, directly and explicitly, the new McCarthyism practiced by groups and people claiming to be lovers of Israel—and to name and shame it not just with respect to any one nominee or any one issue.
When Joseph Welch shamed McCarthy, the gallery in the hearing room burst into applause. I believe many as-yet-passive observers will applaud if the same thing is done to the new McCarthyism.
Time was when the position of secretary of state was regarded as so important in the American political scheme of things that it was the best stepping-stone to the presidency. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth presidents of the United States had all been secretaries of state, with the last three of them moving directly from that job to the White House. When the last one in that series, John Quincy Adams, became president, the job that he gave to the presidential aspirant—Henry Clay—whose eventual support was critical in Adams winning the confusing election of 1824 was that of secretary of state.
Having such high political significance attached to this particular cabinet position was mainly a feature of the early decades of the republic. The only other secretaries of state who would later ascend to the presidency were Martin Van Buren (who besides being secretary of state under Andrew Jackson—the man who would defeat Adams in 1828—was also his political manager, second vice president, and successor) and James Buchanan (who was secretary under James Polk in the 1840s). That pattern ended not so much because the job of secretary of state changed but rather because the process and politics of presidential selection changed. Jackson's defeat of Adams marked the beginning of an era of modern politicking in which simple themes with popular resonance beat out brilliance and accomplishment, especially accomplishment in foreign affairs.
Perhaps the job of secretary of state is nonetheless in the process of regaining a bit of its old political standing. John Kerry, whose confirmation as secretary of state seems highly likely, will never become president but has already been the presidential nominee of one of the two major parties. He has the most national and international political stature of anyone who was seriously considered to succeed Hillary Clinton. Clinton herself came close to being a national presidential nominee and is now one of the first names mentioned in the early betting on the election of 2016. Go back two predecessors before Clinton and you have Colin Powell, who would have made an excellent president and certainly was frequently mentioned as such, although he probably recognized that he did not have the traits of a good presidential candidate—which, unfortunately for us, are not the same as the traits of a good president. Three of the last four secretaries of state being presidential timber may be enough to be called a new pattern.
People who will support Kerry's nomination will have various reasons for doing so, including the Republicans who want to get Scott Brown back in the Senate. And of course there will be widely varying opinions about the policies he will initiate and execute as secretary. But the restoration of some of the political standing of the position of secretary of state has at least three advantages.
One, it tells the rest of the world that the United States considers its relations with the rest of the world to be important.
Two, it tells the American people that relations with the rest of the world are important.
Three, with the person in the highest councils of government having responsibility for foreign relations being someone of political stature and clout, this increases the chance that the foreign implications and repercussions of everything the United States does will be sufficiently taken into account before it does them. There is no guarantee this will happen—we should remember Powell's sad relationship with the White House during the George W. Bush administration—but the chance is greater than it otherwise would be. And this is important because U.S. interests are affected in significant ways by foreign repercussions and reactions to many things the United States does that are not ostensibly part of foreign policy, from homeland security measures to presidential speeches intended for domestic audiences.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Thomas True.
The effort to slander Chuck Hagel and to torpedo his potential nomination to be secretary of defense has reached such intensity that there is now much more at stake in this nomination than just who will be running the Pentagon over the next four years. Robert Merry in these spaces has portrayed well the sordidness of the calumny-flingers who make little effort to hide their main reason for going after Hagel, which is that he does not believe in subordinating U.S. interests to the wishes of the right-wing Israeli government and its American backers. Those in the anti-Hagel campaign who try to make it look as if there are non-Israeli reasons to shoot him down make arguments that move from the sordid to the ridiculous. The Washington Post's editorial on the subject is a good example. It tries to portray the former Republican senator from Nebraska as some kind of leftist peacenik, because he suggests there is some trimming that could usefully be done to U.S. defense spending (which is greater than the next 14 biggest military spenders—friends and foes—put together, and is the highest in inflation-adjusted dollars that it has been since World War II) and expresses skepticism about going to war against Iran (which the Post's editorialists acknowledge they have also expressed skepticism about, but that doesn't stop them from portraying the skepticism as somehow a point against Hagel). For a more thorough dismantling of this absurd editorial, see Andrew Sullivan's exegesis of it.
To the extent the placing of Hagel's name in the kind of unofficial nomination it is in right now was the result of deliberate balloon-floating by the White House, it is hard to see exactly what the White House thought it was doing. Making the nomination official and letting Hagel speak for himself would do a lot to puncture the falsehoods and smears about him. Maybe letting his name get out as the leading potential nominee was less a calculated act than plain old sloppy leaking. If one wants to give the White House more credit than that, one might postulate that it floated the name so the opponents would have a chance to discredit themselves so much through the sheer outrageousness of their arguments that they would not only lose this political battle but also be weaker in later ones. That way the president might get not only the secretary of defense he wants but also some more running room on issues such as the Iranian nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is some valid logic to that. But such bold political jiu-jitsu does not seem to be this president's usual style. He is more likely to be thinking in the customary way, as discussed by Peter Baker in the New York Times, about conserving political capital, picking one's fights carefully, and keeping in mind all the other issues he may have to fight about (and he just got another one: gun control).
If the president applies to the nomination of a defense secretary a cautious approach grounded in such thinking, he would be making a mistake. He would be acting without sufficient appreciation for how intimidation works. Intimidation feeds on itself, with successful intimidation encouraging more of the same and failures discouraging further attempts. Neither Chuck Hagel nor anyone else has a right to any cabinet post, but given how this matter has already evolved, if the president now does not nominate him for the defense job it will be universally seen as a caving in to the neocons and Netanyahuites. Mr. Obama will be politically weaker as a result. He will have lost political capital rather than having conserved it. And he will have encouraged more such intimidation in the future.
Conversely, standing up to the intimidators and pushing a Hagel nomination through to confirmation would improve his ability to battle against the same forces on other issues. Even if the White House did not plan it that way, it would be a political plus for the president. More importantly, it would be a blow for decency and reason and a setback for one of the more damaging and tawdry features of American politics.
It is hard to imagine any future issues offering a conspicuously better place to draw a line in the sand and to start pushing back than this one. Based on what has already been said, there is reason to hope that the tawdriness—as James Fallows puts it in an insightful piece on this subject—“has finally gone so far that it will impeach itself.” It impeaches itself with arguments such as that a United States senator or cabinet member putting U.S. interests ahead of the interests of a foreign country or the wishes of a foreign government is somehow a bad thing.
Image: Flickr/State Farm.
Several factors contributed to the demise of apartheid in the land where that term originated, South Africa. Inspired and timely leadership within South Africa was an important ingredient. But international agitation and pressure, based on a widespread sense of moral outrage, undoubtedly were also critical. The international response included unofficial boycotts and official sanctions, with great and lesser powers alike contributing.
International opposition to the most conspicuous current example of apartheid—Israeli subjugation of Palestinian Arabs—is not nearly as ubiquitous as opposition to the South African variety had become near its end in the early 1990s. But there are signs that it is growing. Organized efforts are aimed at boycotting products from settlements Israel has built in occupied territory in the West Bank. A recent noteworthy departure in the policy of a major power was Germany's refusal to toe the Israeli line in a vote in the United Nations General Assembly.
To the extent that international opposition to Israel's conduct toward the Palestinians may indeed be growing, there are good reasons. One is a realization that the Israeli version of apartheid is very similar in important respects to the South African version, and that moral equivalence ought to follow from empirical equivalence. Both versions have included grand apartheid, meaning the denial of basic political rights, and petty apartheid, which is the maintaining of separate and very unequal facilities and opportunities in countless aspects of daily life. Some respects in which Israelis may contend their situation is different, such as facing a terrorist threat, do not really involve a difference. The African National Congress, which has been the ruling party in South Africa since the end of apartheid there, had significant involvement in terrorism when it was confronting the white National Party government. That government also saw the ANC as posing a communist threat.
A fitting accompaniment to the similarities between the two apartheid systems is the historical fact that when the South African system still existed, Israel was one of South Africa's very few international friends or partners. Israel was the only state besides South Africa itself that ever dealt with the South African bantustans as accepted entities. Israel cooperated with South Africa on military matters, possibly even to the extent of jointly conducting a secret test of a nuclear weapon in a remote part of the Indian Ocean in 1979.
The sheer passage of time probably has reduced the reluctance of some to confront Israel about its system of apartheid. As each year goes by, it seems less justifiable for horrors that were inflicted on the Jewish people in the past to be a reason to give a pass to whatever are the policies of the present day's Jewish state no matter how oppressive those policies may be to another people. Less than five years from now will be the 50th anniversary of the war that Israel launched and used to seize the West Bank and other Arab territory; maybe the half-century mark will be an occasion for even more people to observe that what exists in the occupied territories is a well-entrenched system of subjugation. Meanwhile, the lock that Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition have on Israeli politics provides frequent opportunities to see through obfuscatory rhetoric and perceive the intention to make that subjugation permanent.
Nonetheless, other factors will make it difficult to mobilize against Israeli apartheid anything like the international consensus that arose to confront the South African version. The European history linked with Zionism and the establishment of Israel still weighs heavily on this issue. Since the Balfour Declaration the concept of an exclusive national home for the Jewish people has been widely accepted, quite unlike anything ever bestowed on the Afrikaaners or white South Africans generally. Related to that is the charge of anti-Semitism that is quickly injected into any significant discussion that questions Israeli policies. And related to that is the very large role that toeing the Israeli government line plays as political orthodoxy in the most important global power, the United States. Some observers hopefully see signs that this orthodoxy may be weakening, pointing to indications such as resistance at the Democratic convention this summer to a resolution about Jerusalem. Perhaps if President Obama appoints—and gets confirmed—Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense in the face of the opposition that the Israel lobby is already cranking up, that will become another data point suggesting the harmful political orthodoxy may be weakening.
Another impediment to mobilizing against Israeli apartheid concerns the desired end-state of the Palestinian situation. Officially, even according to the Israelis, that goal is the two-state solution: separate states for Jews and Arabs. This makes the situation different from South Africa, in which the objective in dismantling apartheid there was always going to involve a one-state solution. Israeli governments such as Netanyahu's thus can continue to pretend to seek a two-state solution, treating the situation in the West Bank not as one of permanent subjugation but as only a temporary problem involving “disputed territory.” And if the ostensible goal is a Palestinian state, this inevitably muddies the issue of Palestinian rights and Palestinian life under Israeli rule. Why get agitated about the details of the Palestinians' lives today, the Israelis can say, when if the Palestinians just stop terrorizing and start negotiating they can have a state of their own? Indefinitely maintaining the illusion of wanting a two-state solution is a reason Netanyahu—despite the willingness of some in his party and coalition to let the cat out of the bag regarding their true intentions—has stopped short of steps that would clearly kill off the two-state solution. That is why his recent “punishment” of the Palestinians involving expansion of settlements into the critical E1 zone involved the initiation of planning and zoning but may never lead to actual building.
Meanwhile, Israelis can keep muddling through, relying on their armed might and believing genuinely that they can maintain their superior position indefinitely. By cordoning off—and periodically clobbering—the patch of blockaded misery known as the Gaza Strip, Jewish Israelis can remain a majority in the rest of the land they control. That is not something that white South Africans could ever hope for.
The overall conclusion of this comparison between the two versions of apartheid is disconcerting. In any meaningful moral (or legal) sense, the Israeli system of apartheid warrants just as much active international opposition as the South African system did. But for a combination of historical and political reasons, it is substantially more difficult to mount such opposition.
There is also the problem of leadership. The current leadership situation on the Israeli side gives little reason for hope for responsiveness even if substantially greater international opposition could be mobilized. But then again, it would have been hard to predict that F. W. de Klerk would have taken the historic steps he did. A Nelson Mandela on the other side would help, too. It's hard to see one, but maybe Marwan Barghouti could play that role if the Israelis would let him.
Image: Flickr/Peter Mulligan.
A landslide victory for the Liberal Democratic Party in elections Sunday for the lower house of the Japanese legislature has given party leader Shinzo Abe something no other Japanese politician has achieved in the last half century: a second chance as prime minister. Abe had the job for a year in 2006-2007, part of a pattern of Japanese prime ministers in recent times (with rare exceptions such as the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi) serving brief stints before usually rotating out amid growing unpopularity. It appears that the LDP along with its coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, will have a two-thirds super-majority, enough to transact business even without controlling the upper house of the Diet.
Exit polls show that economic issues and the need to push Japan out of its deflationary slump were most important to voters. But Abe, usually described as “hawkish,” probably benefited some from a public desire to stand up for Japanese interests in the East Asian and Pacific region. The escalating tension with China over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, as well as a separate territorial dispute with South Korea, may have helped him.
Beyond such observations, the direction in which Abe will lead Japan's foreign and security is still in large part undetermined. There is speculation about how Abe will shape his second premiership in light of lessons or failures from the first but no precedent, since the early days after World War II, of a returning Japanese prime minister on which to base any such predictions. Abe himself, in a diffident post-election interview from which chest-thumping American politicians could learn some lessons, acknowledged that the election outcome was less an endorsement of any LDP program than a rejection of the incumbent Democratic Party of Japan:
I think the results do not mean we have regained the public's trust 100 percent. Rather, they reflect “no votes” to the DPJ's politics that stalled everything the past three years. Now we are facing the test of how we can live up to the public's expectations, and we have to answer that question.
Abe's room for maneuver in shaping Japan's foreign policy may be more limited than the decisive election result suggests. The LDP is on record as favoring some policies that would be consistent with Abe's hawkish reputation, but the government will be restrained by the still considerable pacifist tendencies in New Komeito and Japanese public opinion. The United States is unlikely to have much ability to move Tokyo's overall security policy one way or another. But it would at least be useful to have a idea of what the United States should favor, in the event of any opportunities to nudge the new government in the desired direction.
What that desired direction ought to be is not self-evident. The United States does not have any positive interest in tensions and suspicions escalating between Japan and its East Asian neighbors, over the Senkaku/Daioyu dispute or anything else. That would complicate whatever else one might hope to accomplish in the way of regional security, and it would only encourage the kinds of reactions from China that would be unhelpful. Some such complications are likely to occur in any case. One might be a visit by Abe to the Yasukuni shrine, which memorializes Japanese war dead, including World War II commanders considered war criminals. Abe says he regrets he did not visit the site during his first stint as prime minister (although notably Koizumi, amid complaining from the regional neighbors, did visit it).
But then there is, from the U.S. point of view, an issue of burden-sharing. Japan has limited its military spending to one percent of GNP. The comparable figure for the United States is 4.7 percent. For an LDP government to go beyond the one percent figure could be good for the United States if it meant less of a perceived need in the United States to carry security burdens in the East Asia-Pacific region that Japan ought to be at least as able to carry.
Perhaps the best direction from the standpoint of U.S. interests would be a big (or at least bigger than at present)-stick, soft-voice posture for Japan, in which there would be some shifting of burdens but minimal exacerbation of regional sensitivities about Japanese assertiveness.