It is difficult to remember the last time a not-yet-and-maybe-never-secretary-designate of some cabinet department got as much preemptive opposition as Susan Rice has been getting regarding the job of secretary of state. One of the lines of criticism, highlighted by Helene Cooper in the New York Times, concerns Rice's coziness with some African strongmen and in particular with Rwandan president Paul Kagame. A specific twist regarding Kagame is that he was Rice's client when she worked between government stints at Intellibridge, a consulting firm that also provided other former Clinton administration officials with out-of-government employment.
It is hard for an outsider to judge whether Rice's handling of African issues at the United Nations since she came back into government has represented a compromise of integrity and, if so, how U.S. diplomacy may have suffered. There does seem to be a pattern of Rice wanting to go easy on Kagame, notwithstanding his government very likely being the principal backer of rebels who are causing the latest round of havoc in eastern Congo. But Rice's supporters argue that a behind-the-scenes approach is more likely than public castigation of Kagame's government to ameliorate the mess in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The sorts of attributes of Rice and her record that Jacob Heilbrunn has identified are probably more important in assessing whether she is qualified to be secretary of state.
The past dealings with the Rwandans are a legitimate issue, however, and illustrate a problem with appointees that goes far beyond Rice. A distinctive feature of the U.S. system of government is the installation, with the advent of each new presidential administration, of a huge number of political appointees—thousands of them, going far below the level of cabinet secretaries. This system has several problems. Although usually rationalized in terms of helping to ensure that the president's policies and preferences are implemented, the system instead injects the personal preferences of many other people who shape policies that are below the president's radar. The system entails great disruption and persistent vacancies with each change of administration. The system means that the staffing of much of the government is determined in large part by who happened to play most successfully during the primary campaign season the game of hitching one's wagon to a rising star.
Rice's attachment to Kagame's government illustrates yet another problem, which is the baggage that in-and-outers may acquire during periods that they are out of government. Different types of jobs entail different degrees and types of baggage problems. What is most often thought of are financial interests left over from some lucrative private-sector employment, although problems related to that can be ameliorated through arrangements such as blind trusts. Probably harder to deal with is the legacy of the kind of relationship Rice had with Kagame. Consulting firms whose shingles feature former senior officials who recently left office are selling influence and access at least as much as they are selling expert advice. Relationships that are ones of advocacy, trust, and taking action on behalf of the client's interests are not relationships that can be turned on and off like a light switch.
The political systems of most other advanced democracies avoid most of these problems. The top national layer in those systems is peopled by a small political class that includes ministers who sit in cabinets and who, to do so, must subject themselves to a vote of the electorate. Below them is a professional bureaucracy, part of whose defining characteristic (Japan is a conspicuous exception) is a commitment to execute faithfully the policies of whichever political masters are currently in office. The bureaucrats do not try to inject their own policies—and they do not acquire baggage from stints outside government.
What Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal said at a mass rally in Gaza City on Saturday was contemptible. Taken at face value, his words eradicated any distinction between Israeli and Palestinian territory, and any possibility of Israelis and Palestinians living in peace. “Palestine, from the river to the sea, from north to south, is our land,” he said. “Not an inch of it can be conceded,” Meshal continued, adding that “Israel has no right in Jerusalem.” The words were despicable because they deny the right of Israelis to live in their own state, in their own part of the former mandate of Palestine.
What Meshal said was not only despicable but dumb. His words contradicted the repeated indications from Hamas that it is willing to observe a hudna, or indefinite truce, with Israel if a Palestinian state is created based on the 1967 boundaries and is approved by a majority of Palestinians in a referendum. Meshal also implicitly contradicted himself by referring favorably in the same speech to Palestinian unity and reconciliation with Fatah, a theme to which he returned in a speech at the Islamic University of Gaza the following day. Given the now firmly established commitment to a two-state solution by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas—who only recently received headlines for commenting publicly about how a former refugee like himself will never return to live in what is now the state of Israel—reconciliation can come about only within a two-state framework. And a two-state framework is the only one that can ever enable Palestinian national aspirations to be realized.
Meshal's words were an open invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to respond with an equally hard line statement that with comments like that from a Palestinian leader then there is no hope for any negotiated peace and no reason for Israel to concede an inch of land either. Which is exactly what Netanyahu did in remarks on Sunday.
Someone with Meshal's background and position ought to be smart enough to realize all this, and to realize further that there is no such thing as speaking publicly to one audience without having effects on other audiences. In this case the other audiences are not only Israelis but governments and publics elsewhere. What Meshal was doing on Saturday is what American politicians might call stirring up the base. But he cannot just shake his Etch-a-Sketch and take a more sober posture later without already sustaining diplomatic damage.
Probably he got swept up in the mood of the moment—all those people, all those green flags, and the euphoria stemming from the belief (which Hamas has done its best to promote) that Hamas was a winner in the recent armed clash with Israel. If Meshal was partly trying to sustain that euphoria, he overplayed his hand; politicians have been known to do that in euphoric moments. He probably undid some of the sympathy that Gazans received as they sustained the latest pounding from Israel.
Then there are the circumstances more personal to Meshal. This past week was the first time he had ever set foot in—and kissed the ground of—the Gaza Strip. He also is someone whom the Israelis have tried to assassinate. It probably doesn't take much in the way of momentary moods to cause someone in such a situation to go over the top in talking about his would-be assassins.
There is plenty of reason to believe that Hamas leaders, including Meshal, still favor the indefinite hudna based on 1967 borders. There are far too many indications of that to be outweighed by emotional comments at a rally. That formula also offers the politically ambitious Hamas leadership the only chance that they will ever govern anything other than the miserable little corner of Palestinian territory that is the Gaza Strip (and given Israel's continued strangulating control over the Strip, it is a stretch to say that Hamas “governs” even that).
Everybody—including Israel, Abbas, and the United States—ought to eschew general labels and categorizations when responding to Hamas. It accomplishes nothing simply to call the group a bunch of terrorists or a bunch of heroes and to assume that everything flows from that. The proper response is to react to specifics, whether negative or positive. When a Hamas leader says what Meshal said on Saturday, the remarks should be condemned (and Abbas was delinquent in not doing so). When they say instead what they have said more often about accepting a peace based on 1967 borders, they should be told that they are on the right track. They should be led to understand that the former approach will mean nobody will have reason to have anything to do with them, but with the latter approach they will be accepted as an important interlocutor.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/trango.
This was supposed to be the month for an international conference to discuss a possible weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. The concept of such a zone has been addressed in past review conferences of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT), sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, and meetings at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The official convenors of the conference would be the United States, United Kingdom and Russia, the depository states for the NPT. The gathering was to have been hosted by Finland, with preparatory work having already been done by Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava. But a couple of weeks ago the State Department announced that “the conference cannot be convened because of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.” The principal objector was Israel, which—notwithstanding its vociferous agitation about what it contends is a drive by Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon—has always said that weapons-free zones in its region need to await a regional peace.
Postponing the conference was a missed opportunity. And this matter was not like, say, trying to get the Israelis to stop building settlements in occupied territory, which requires a positive Israeli action to accomplish anything. As one of the convening powers, the United States, along with its British and Russian partners, could have simply gone ahead and convened the conference as scheduled. Israel could decide whether or not it would attend. The conference would be better with Israeli attendance, but could still do some good even without it.
No one believes creation of a nuclear- or WMD-free zone in the region is feasible any time soon. No signs suggest Israel is about to part with its arsenal of nuclear weapons. But the postponed conference was only going to discuss such a zone, not create one. Such discussion can be part of a long-term process beneficial to security in the region.
Nuclear weapons-free zones are a proven and well-established concept. They exist, among other places, in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. The State Department announcement and the usual Israeli objections suggest that other types of conflict resolution must precede international agreements restricting categories of weapons. But beneficial spillover effects can work in the other direction as well—just as during the Cold War strategic arms limitation agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union not only achieved reductions in nuclear arsenals but also became a tool of, and an impetus for, a larger process of detente. Among the existing nuclear weapons-free zones, the one in Latin America is especially instructive in this regard. The treaty establishing it was negotiated before Argentina and Brazil had fully given up their nuclear weapons ambitions. The treaty established a framework for hastening that process and achieving broader reconciliation in South America.
Discussion of such a zone in the Middle East would help to move away from double standards and the hypocrisy that goes with it. The Iranians have a legitimate gripe in being subject to enormous pressures over the mere suspicion that they might someday use their current nuclear program to make a nuclear weapon, while their principal accuser and antagonist in the region has had a sizable nuclear weapons arsenal for decades. Any Israelis legitimately concerned about the direction Iran might take on nuclear matters ought to realize that ending the double standard would be the best possible way to take away whatever wind is in Iranian sails. In any event, it is in the interests of the United States not to be involved in such hypocrisy.
Discussion of such a zone would be a step toward a long-term security regime that would be in every regional state's interests, including Israel's. With its overwhelming conventional superiority over its neighbors, Israel would be no less secure in a region in which no one, including itself, has nuclear or other unconventional weapons. A thoughtful case can be made that Israel's nuclear arsenal has not bought it any additional security in the past either.
A related matter concerns Israel's refusal to acknowledge that arsenal, a refusal that precludes useful examination of Israel's security needs even in private conversations with its benefactor, the United States. Israel maintains the public position that it will “not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East”—an outright lie, unless “introduce” refers to some strange and meaningless formality. (“Region, I'd like you to meet my nuclear weapons.”) At least the Syrians, in responding to the recent outside concern about possible use of their chemical weapons, avoid a direct lie by using conditional phrasing and saying “if such weapons exist in Syria, we will not...” The leading historian of Israel's nuclear weapons program, Avner Cohen, argues it would be in Israel's interest to stop the silly opacity and acknowledge the existence of its arsenal.
Meanwhile, refusal to talk about any of these matters does not make the issue go away. A reminder of this came earlier this week when the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Israel to join the NPT without delay and to open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the IAEA. The vote—174 to 6, with 6 abstentions—was even more overwhelming than the vote on Palestinian statehood. This time the only "no" votes that Israel got besides itself and the United States were Canada and those Pacific powerhouses, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.
Former Senator Bob Dole, 89 years old, returned this week to the floor of the chamber where he was for many years one of the leading Republicans. He also, of course, had twice represented his party on a national ticket as the nominee for vice president and then for president. Infirm of late and just recently checked out of Walter Reed hospital, Dole was in a wheelchair pushed by his wife Elizabeth, also a former senator. He came back to the Senate to show his support for ratification of a multilateral treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities. Dole demonstrated in his own career what a talented person with a disability can do. He lacked one of the common tools of a politician: a handshake with the right arm—an arm that in Dole's case had been rendered useless by a severe injury sustained in combat in World War II.
Senator John Kerry, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was the principal advocate of the treaty in the Senate debate. In his speech he appealed to his colleagues, “Don't let Senator Bob Dole down.” It wasn't enough. One of those who lobbied against ratification was another former senator, one whose career has been far less accomplished and distinguished than Dole's. Rick Santorum argued that somehow the treaty would not let American parents home-school their kids. The vote on ratification was 61 in favor and 38 against, falling short of the two-thirds needed for ratification.
The opposition to this treaty reflected a generic opposition on the right that extends as well to other broadly-adopted international conventions, to anything having to do with the United Nations, often to treaties in general, and even to most international cooperation in general. Those with this mindset often speak about not wanting to compromise U.S. “sovereignty.” Suspicions were voiced that the disabilities treaty would mean U.N. bureaucrats making decisions about the needs of American children. One could almost hear the black helicopters hovering overhead.
Some of the treaty's opponents also argued that because countries we don't like—and which we like to assume are insincere and hypocritical regarding their international obligations—such as Iran and Syria have signed the treaty, for the United States to adhere to the treaty might imply that we approve of how those countries treat their disabled citizens. That's a strange approach—one that would appear to give the disliked countries a veto over which international agreements the United States does and does not sign on to itself. Moreover, if we regard the United States as sincere in what it says and it what it signs up to internationally, then the message being sent by rejecting a treaty is that the United States rejects the principles embodied in the document.
Sovereignty does not mean handcuffing one's own diplomacy or eschewing international commitments. It instead means a nation acting freely and not being told by another country what to do. Signing and ratifying a treaty are themselves acts of sovereignty. And as John Ikenberry has argued, undertaking commitments through international institutions is one of the best ways through which even a superpower can extend and perpetuate its global influence.
Advocates of ratification patiently explained that the convention on disabilities merely applies to other nations what are already legal obligations in the United States under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Rejection therefore has little practical effect on the United States—unlike with, say, the Law of the Sea Convention, which 163 other states have already signed and ratified but the United States has not. The Senate, however, has missed a chance—which neoconservatives in particular ought to have welcomed—to say something positive about the rest of the world accepting values that Americans have already expressed in their own laws.
President Obama is currently taking starkly different approaches in dealing with two of his chief nemeses: Congressional Republicans and the Israeli government. The former, of course, are his principal antagonists in the tussle over the budget. With the fiscal cliff nearing, and despite some signs of cracks in the no-tax-increase orthodoxy, Republicans entered the post-election budget game with their hard-line game face still very much on. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in the latest chapter in a long history of Israel slapping its superpower patron in the face, has announced planning for still more colonizing of West Bank territory. This recent move, in the immediate wake of the United States having joined Israel in a lonely small minority opposing United Nations endorsement of the Palestinian statehood that everyone claims to seek, involves land whose colonization through the construction of Israeli settlements would be one of the most blatant blows yet against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given that it would appear to render physically impossible a contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank.
In the battle over the budget, Mr. Obama evidently has concluded that he must appeal directly to citizens in addition to dealing directly with the Republicans in Congress. He has been taking his message campaign-style to the country. But he is taking no such approach toward the frustrations originating with Netanyahu's government. Instead the administration is maintaining the familiar old minimal-daylight, “we have your back” posture toward Israel. The United States, in contrast to sharp protests from several European governments, responded to the latest Israeli announcement on settlements with its usual timid “this is not helpful” slap on the wrist.
Why the difference? The president has had during his first term sufficient bitter and frustrating experience with the opposition party in Congress, whose declared top priority was to try to prevent his re-election, to know that a different approach was necessary if he was to get any result other than more goalpost-moving additional demands. His appeal over the heads of members of Congress is a recognition that the opposition party understands only the language of political force. But Mr. Obama also has had enough bitter and frustrating experience with Netanyahu to warrant reaching similar conclusions regarding dealing with Israel. So first-term experience does not justify the difference in strategies.
There is the obvious distinction that in one case an appeal is being made to an electorate in the United States while in the other case a foreign public is involved. But Israeli interference in U.S. politics has already made that distinction very blurred. The politics of policy on Israel have to do with the feared or expected reactions of some parts of the American electorate (or American financial donors). Israel is in effect just as much a domestic issue as the budget.
In short, there is no good reason the administration should not take an approach toward the Israeli government that is similar to the one it is taking toward Congressional Republicans. A just-released poll of Israeli public opinion conducted by Shibley Telhami provides additional basis for going over the heads of Israeli political leaders. Despite all we have heard about how suspect Barack Obama is in Israel, his current poll numbers there are pretty good. Among all Israelis it is 60 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable. Excluding Arabs and counting just Jewish Israelis, the numbers are 62 percent favorable and 30 percent unfavorable.
On the core issue of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much Israeli public sentiment is very much at odds with the posture of the current Israeli government. A slight majority of Israelis even say they would accept, at least as the basis for negotiation, the Arab League peace proposal of 2002 based on 1967 borders. On the other big issue on which Netanyahu has been causing so much trouble—Iran—there also is some good public sense in Israel to which to appeal. Only one-fifth of those polled would favor a military attack on Iran without U.S. support.
Going over the heads of Israeli political leaders can look more positive than confrontational. Natan Sachs argues that Obama should take a page from the book of Bill Clinton, who helped gain some influence with Israel by charming the Israeli public. A charm offensive would be harder for Obama to do than it was for Clinton, but he should try. In some respects he will have a willing audience.
The stage in Egypt seems set for yet another surge of political tension and high drama over the coming fortnight, as President Mohamed Morsi has designated December 15 as the date for a referendum on the just-written constitution. The outcome of the referendum will no doubt be widely seen as a test of strength between Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its secular opponents, whether it ought to be seen that way or not. The document will be regarded as a Brotherhood product, given a boycott of the constitution-writing assembly by liberal secularists and Christians, and given also Morsi's claiming of special powers to prevent the judiciary from negating the work of the Brotherhood-dominated constituent assembly. The rush with which the drafting of the constitution was completed and with which it will now be put to a vote conveys to many Egyptians an impression of railroading something through. Morsi's recent Mubarak-like pronouncements about threats from “conspiracies” have added to the forbidding atmosphere.
The hastily written draft constitution has something for everyone to dislike, but democracy in Egypt will not live or die based on the result of the referendum. Nor will the balance of power between Islamists and secularists depend on it. Morsi's opponents might even be well advised to drop resistance to letting the new constitution come into effect. Doing so would in a sense be calling his bluff. The powers he claimed for himself at the expense of the judiciary would expire, and the president under the constitution will be a less powerful president than Morsi claims to be now. And as Morsi himself noted, the constitution can be amended.
Secularists might be comforted by noting that the Salafists are unhappy enough with the constitution that they have announced they will boycott the referendum. The Salafists complain that the document vests sovereignty in the people rather than in God.
Egypt needs some kind of constitutional structure if subsequent debates about the direction of the country are to be conducted within an orderly framework rather than being part of a game where all the rules are made up as the game proceeds. Any representative political system needs to start with someone making up rules and acting without having previously recognized authority, but it cannot stay that way indefinitely. Of course Morsi cannot point to any widely accepted authority to claim the power to issue the decree he did the other day, but the other actors in the Egyptian political game don't have much more of a legal basis for doing what they are doing either.
Any U.S. officials or other Americans who offer advice to the Egyptians during this politically interesting time might allude to the experience of the United States in establishing a constitutional order during its early days. The writers of the U.S. Constitution certainly exceeded their authority when instead of amending the Articles of Confederation they created an entirely new constitution and specified that it would come into effect with less than unanimous approval by the states. The participation in writing the constitution was incomplete. Rhode Island did not attend, the New Hampshire delegates arrived late, most of the New York delegates left early, and several who stayed for the whole meeting refused to sign the product. Significant opposition to the document persisted, and demands for amending it were strong enough for the first ten amendments to be a task of the very first Congress. The lesson is that the success of, and respect for, a constitution is a function of the political habits and attitudes toward it that develop over time. It does not depend on the legal basis on which it was initially written, and it does not depend on who was in power or who favored the constitution when it was first written.
The political inanity about what was said or not said in the first hours and days after the incident in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens continues, and it continues to move farther away from anything of importance to U.S. policy and U.S. interests. With the fixation on minutiae about the editing of some preliminary talking points, it moves farther away even from anything that makes sense in terms of competitive politics. Even if the Obama administration had wanted to manipulate a public version of the Libyan events to help re-elect the president, how would any manipulation on this matter have done that? When has the Obama administration ever contended that international terrorism is not a major security problem (bin Laden or no bin Laden)? Such a contention would only make it all the harder for the administration to justify and explain those drone strikes and how they have become increasingly frequent under Mr. Obama.
It appears that preemptive opposition to a possible nominee for secretary of state is now part of what is sustaining the momentum of what began as a tactic in an election campaign. Please let us focus instead on how in terms of attributes and experience this person would or would not be qualified to be secretary of state, rather than how she handled her talking points on talk shows one Sunday.
Perhaps something else that helps to make this supposed issue credible is an underlying assumption that the foreign intervention that helped to overthrow Muammar Qadhafi, and in which the United States participated, was a good thing and left something approaching a stable situation in Libya. If that assumption were true, then maybe it would make sense to dwell a bit, when violence nonetheless occurs, on the relative influence of things such as Islamophobic films and the machinations of extremist groups. But if instead what was left in Libya is a highly unstable and chronically violent situation in which the plans of terrorist groups, the uncontrolled activities of multiple militias, the inability of governing authorities to secure their own territory, and mass resentment against certain things associated with the United States all get mixed together in a constantly bubbling lethal brew, then any such dwelling is almost pointless. It is the latter situation that in fact describes much of Libya, including Benghazi, today. As Kareem Fahim reports in the New York Times, Ambassador Stevens was only one of about three dozen public servants who have been killed in Benghazi alone over the last year and a half. The government is weaker than the militias, and even militias that have been relied upon as ersatz public security forces are unwilling to go after the likes of Ansar al-Shariah, a group accused of involvement in the attack that killed Stevens.
I have discussed before how one of the largest entries on the balance sheet of the intervention to overthrow Qadhafi is the disincentive it created for other regimes who otherwise might have been willing to reach agreements on weapons programs, terrorism, or other important issues but now are less likely to make a deal because they have a vivid demonstration of U.S. untrustworthiness. Other parts of the balance sheet concern the instability of what was left behind in the country where the intervention occurred. Some in Washington who still believe the intervention in Libya was a good idea are hesitant to intervene in Syria because the United States avoided American casualties in Libya but maybe the same could not be said of an intervention in Syria. Immediate American casualties are certainly a good reason for hesitation, but not the only reason. Sometimes what appears to be the avoidance of casualties is only the delaying of casualties. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans who died with him represent that.
Instead of all the business about preparation of talking points and demeanor on talk shows, the most important question about events in Libya is: was the intervention there worthwhile, and what are the implications for dealing with problem countries elsewhere in the Middle East?
What is one of the first things Hamas does when it is fresh off standing up against an Israeli assault and widely perceived to have gained ground politically at the expense of its intramural rival, Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority? It voices support for Abbas's effort to get his organization's status at the United Nations upgraded from observer to “non-member state.” Given the way Hamas is routinely suspected and reviled in some quarters, this move is sure to give rise to explanations that are convoluted and conspiratorial—that what Hamas is saying is a ruse, or is just a tactic for harassing Israel, or is a step toward shoving the Palestinian Authority aside while Abbas is down.
The explanation that is simple and straightforward, and ought to be obvious, is much more likely to be accurate: that Hamas supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, and that diplomacy is the preferred way to achieve that goal. That's all that anyone who endorses Abbas's initiative at the U.N. is signing up to. And it is what everyone with a hand in this long-running conflict—including Israel, the Palestinians, the Quartet and the Arab League—claims to support. The Hamas spokesman said that his organization supports any political gains that Abbas can make at the U.N. “without causing harm to the national Palestinian rights.”
Although some saw this position by Hamas as surprising, there is no reason for any surprise. Hamas has repeatedly made clear that it will support the establishment of a Palestinian state limited to the 22 percent of the mandate of Palestine that would be represented by the 1967 borders, provided that such a settlement is approved by a majority of Palestinians in a referendum. The land swaps that are generally recognized as being necessary to accommodate some of the facts that Israel has established on the ground since 1967 represent a small step from that formula, as long as the 1967 borders are taken as the starting point for any such trades.
And yet the government of Israel, and Americans who sing that government's tune, and much of the American media habitually describe Hamas and the objectives of Hamas as something much different. The usual formula is something like “Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” Attempts to substantiate such a description often point to Hamas not having formally recognized Israel and its right to exist. Well, it hasn't, but neither has Israel recognized any right of Hamas to exist (even after Hamas won a free all-Palestinian election). Not only that, but Israel has done everything it can to try to squeeze Hamas out of existence, going to the extreme of collectively punishing the population of the Gaza Strip in an unsuccessful effort to do so. It is Israel that appears to be dedicated to the destruction of Hamas. Why should Hamas be expected to bestow the first recognition, gratis, under such circumstances?
One also often hears that all Hamas is offering is a hudna or truce, rather than a commitment to a final settlement. That will be a distinction without a practical difference. The agreement that ended the Korean War 59 years ago is only a hudna, but that peace has held even though the regime north of the armistice line is far more erratic, illegitimate, and downright scary than Hamas. Besides, anyone can see—and Hamas's leaders are not dummies—that Israel, the strongest state in its region, is here to stay no matter what its borders. Even if the most extreme, negative assumptions about Hamas's intentions and objectives were true (and they very likely are not), being part of (or even being the ruling party in) a Palestinian state in that 22 percent would not bring it any closer to being able to destroy or even undermine Israel. Instead, it would have that much more to lose from the certain retaliation if it were to renege on an agreement that finally established the long-sought Palestinian state.
An upgraded status for Palestinians at the United Nations merely levels somewhat the diplomatic playing field for the bilateral negotiations that will still be needed to bring a real Palestinian state into existence, as well as reconfirming the objective that everybody involved says they share. It would thus be a positive step. Don't just listen to what Abbas or Hamas say on the subject. See what former Israeli diplomat Yossi Beilin, who helped to craft the Oslo accords, says about it. See also the statement on the subject by Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was the Norwegian prime minister at the time the accords were negotiated, and Jimmy Carter, who based on his past experience also knows a thing or two about Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Probably some in Israel and the United States will see Hamas's endorsement of Abbas's U.N. initiative as another reason to oppose the initiative. If the governments of Israel and the United States continue foolishly to oppose this move and to invest political capital in trying to defeat it, we will have come in a sense full circle. The organization that is continually accused of not wanting a peaceful diplomatic settlement will have signed on to a process aimed at moving toward such a settlement and giving it additional multilateral approval. It will be its chief accusers who fail to do so.
There's been more fighting lately in the eastern portion of Congo. Again we are led to think about how a country that occupies such a large part of the map can get pushed around by a much smaller neighbor such as Rwanda. This time a rebel group known as M23 and suspected of being backed by both Rwanda and Uganda has scored advances against Congolese government forces and recently seized the provincial capital of Goma.
What ought to gain our attention about conflict in this painfully conflict-prone section of Africa, besides any complications regarding access to its mineral resources, is the repeated involvement of multiple nations and the sheer magnitude of some of the bloodshed and human suffering in the area. The five years of warfare, ending in 2003, that centered in this same portion of Congo involved the forces of eight countries and a couple of dozen armed groups and led to the deaths of more than five million people, many of them from disease or starvation connected directly to the fighting. That toll made it the deadliest war anywhere since World War II.
None of this means there is much of anything the United States can or should try to do about the situation in Congo. The complicated and confusing lines of conflict make this area one of the least promising venues for effective outside intervention. (A United Nations force is present; it has mostly been only a spectator as M23 has made its advances.) To the extent that bloody events in this part of Africa have had any influence on American policy thinking it has probably not been on balance good. The war of 1998-2003 came on the heels of a shorter war in Congo that in turn was triggered by developments that followed the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Subsequent hand-wringing over that latter event has served mainly to inject more emotion than reason into U.S. policy deliberations. An intervention in Libya based on a dubious rationale about preventing a presumed bloodbath was one result.
The situation in Congo, although it does not imply a particular policy response, may have more general implications about sovereignty, territory, and what makes for a viable nation-state. Maybe Congo is just too big. No one has ever really governed it all, although the autocratic kleptomaniac-strongman Joseph Mobutu came closest. The territory that is now Congo was first assembled as an ill-managed private possession of a nineteenth century Belgian monarch. The Belgian government later took over the mess and did some good things, but effective governance of a territory that is 75 times the size of Belgium itself was beyond its capacity. When Congo became independent in 1960 it was in turmoil from day one, with a president and prime minister trying to remove each other and the wealthiest province trying to secede. With more than half a century having gone by since independence, there probably is sufficient grounds for calling this experiment in nation-building a failure.
Africans have since independence generally refrained from challenging the often illogical boundaries that European colonialists had left them, lest this lead to unstoppable unraveling. The secession of the southern portion of Sudan is a recent and conspicuous exception. The jury is still very much out on how that story will turn out, and there is not an obvious line of division in Congo that is even as clear as the (nonetheless contested) line in Sudan. But if Congo were to break up that would not necessarily be cause for regret.
The recently suspended round of organized violence in the Gaza Strip has a depressing familiarity, being similar to other rounds between Israelis and Palestinians. The physical harm inflicted has been as usual enormously disproportionate, with the Palestinian-to-Israeli death ratio being 27-to-one (admittedly, that's down from about 100-to-one during Operation Cast Lead four years ago). There is the same callous disregard for civilian lives and livelihoods. The firing of notoriously inaccurate rockets into Israel is almost by definition an intention to harm civilians. The larger and much more accurate Israeli violence being perpetrated in the other direction is adorned with claims of wanting to minimize civilian casualties. The rubble to which civilian offices and private homes alike in the Gaza Strip have been reduced makes such claims a cruel joke. Much of the targeting of civilian structures came in a final spasm of Israeli operations in the last 24 hours before the cease-fire went into effect.
Also familiar is the U.S. posture toward all of this: acting as almost a cheering section for the Israeli operations, while offering little more than the barest acknowledgment of the suffering that Palestinians were enduring.
Finally, there is the same lack of any prospect that the latest round of violence makes still more rounds any less likely. To the contrary, this latest round makes the hatreds and antagonisms on both sides as intense as ever, setting the stage for still more Israeli-Palestinian fighting. There will be plenty of potential triggers for more large-scale violence to break out at any time. An incident Friday along the Gaza border, in which Israeli forces evidently shot to death a young Palestinian man, provided an early test of the new cease-fire. Additional tests will likely come from the actions of radical Palestinian groups Hamas is unable to control. No reasonable outside observer would say that this latest round of Arab-Israeli warfare has accomplished anything worthwhile.
It is customary after each such round to categorize the players as winners or losers, and some such scoring is fairly easy to do with this round. Egypt and its president, Mohamed Morsi, are winners for being able to get away from their own internal problems long enough to win compliments for mediating the cease-fire. Morsi, however, may be overplaying his hand by choosing this moment of international acclaim to make a controversial grab of more power for his own office.
At a political level Hamas may be on balance a winner. This is largely for the general reason that when the weak confronts the strong—in this case, Hamas's David against Israel's Goliath—anything that is not capitulation or collapse and that can be portrayed as standing one's ground tends to be seen as a win for the weak. It does not appear that the latest suffering of Gazans is being translated into a movement among them to blame Hamas. Hamas's political and diplomatic position has been bolstered by recognition and visits from a parade of foreign leaders before and during the fighting.
In an even narrower and very short-term political sense, one might say that Benjamin Netanyahu is a winner—if one accepts speculation that part of his reason for launching the war at this time was to shape the Israeli public mood in a direction favorable for him and his Likud party when Israeli voters go to the polls in January. But there is currently no strong prime ministerial alternative to Netanyahu anyway, and any election advantage he bought with the war is probably marginal.
The losers are much more numerous. Foremost among them are the residents of the Gaza Strip. They have suffered not only 162 dead and hundreds wounded at the hands of the Israeli military, but also the destruction of much infrastructure that had only recently been rebuilt with difficulty following the devastation of Cast Lead.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is a loser, mostly for slipping further into perceived irrelevance. He has lost further ground to Hamas as an essential player in dealing with Israel. He was already vulnerable to such a result because of how his treatment by Israel has caused him to lose credibility among many Palestinians.
Israel and ordinary Israelis are losers. This was not so much because of any physical damage (and the impressively performing Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system has to be considered a winner), but rather because of Israel becoming ever more deeply entrenched as a target of international isolation and condemnation. The Gaza operation also has caused Israel to sink more deeply into a mire of moral coarseness.
For related reasons, the United States also is a loser. The automatic, unthinking condoning of Israeli actions and apparent insensitivity to Palestinian suffering has provided another occasion and another reason for a substantial slice of the world's population to resent, hate, and withhold cooperation from the United States.
We are all quite familiar with the political mechanisms in Washington that have long kept the United States from acting in its own best interests on matters involving Israel and its conflict with Arabs, and from using the leverage it could apply to this subject. For American political leaders the safest course is not to stray from what has become a firmly established, politically correct path. And perhaps we should not be surprised that even a newly re-elected Barack Obama is showing no early signs of straying from that path. Politically in Washington, everything is related to everything else, and one can always come up with excuses for not stirring up a political hornet's nest on any one issue because one has to focus on solving some other problem such as the budget and the deficit.
But excuses are not enough. And the most recent Gaza war is a salient enough event to be the sort of break point where one could start charting a different path. We need to find ways to make lemonade out of this latest lethal Middle Eastern lemon. What those concerned about the current course need to do is to point out how—given where U.S. interests as well as justice and logic lie—it should not be nearly as politically hazardous as the conventional wisdom supposes to diverge from that course.
An opportunity to start diverging will come very soon, if Abbas's Palestinian Authority moves ahead with its idea of seeking some kind of enhanced status in the United Nations system. The absurdity of denouncing as “unilateral” the reference of any matter to the most multilateral forum on earth ought to be self-evident. It also should be clear that any elevation of the Palestinian Authority's status in any U.N. bodies does absolutely nothing to preclude or impede the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that are necessary to resolve the conflict at hand. If the United States has any hope of salvaging the P.A. as the “good” Palestinian organization—in the face of its loss of credibility as Israel continues to erect settlements in Abbas's face, and now with the latest demonstration of the P.A.'s irrelevance on Gaza—Abbas needs the tidbit of some symbolic status at the U.N. Perhaps the United States has stuck to the Israeli line too long and too openly on this issue to expect the administration to do an about-face in the next week. But at least it could quietly reduce its opposition to Abbas's move. So far it has been carrying the Israelis' water on the issue so vigorously that it has gotten other governments, notably the British, to do so as well. The British are opposing the P.A. initiative because the United States opposes it, and the United States opposes it because the Israeli government opposes it. The Israeli government opposes it because the issue provides another way of arguing that the absence of peace negotiations is the Palestinians' fault, and because Israel would experience still more multilateral condemnation and pressure if the P.A. had standing to bring issues related to its conflict with Israel before additional multilateral bodies.
The latest episode involving the Gaza Strip is also a good occasion and good reason for the United States to abandon its self-crippling refusal to have any dealings with Hamas. Sending Hillary Clinton to the region was a waste of jet fuel, because by refusing to communicate with one party to the conflict at hand, the United States could not do what Egypt was able to do. The U.S. position reflects another self-contradictory Israeli position. The Israelis have complained in the past about not having a united and viable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, but they scream every time Abbas has moved to repair the split between Fatah and Hamas. In any event, Hamas is a Palestinian player that, as the events of the last week demonstrate, matters and is here to stay.
All of that is still more a matter of tactics than of strategy. For the United States to be strategic means, among other things, confronting directly a strain of thinking in Israel that Netanyahu represents but is by no means limited to him, and that one can hear in some of the discourse in Israel in response to the clash in Gaza. According to this thinking, Israel was not a loser at all because of international condemnation and isolation, because the condemnation and isolation are an unavoidable part of being Israel—a sort of cost of doing business. Israelis, by this view, have to live with the prospect of being in perpetuity a militarized state in conflict with its neighbors, periodically coming to blows with them. Israel, by this view, can sustain such an existence indefinitely because it is so much stronger than the neighbors, especially the hapless Palestinians.
Major aspects of this view reflect the thinking of the old-line, hard-line Zionist Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who is often considered the ideological father of Likud and whom Netanyahu's own father served as a private secretary. Jabotinsky essentially argued that Palestinian Arabs were predisposed to oppose the Zionist project altogether, and that the project could succeed only through implementation of an “iron wall” of force to keep the Arabs in check. The hard-liners of today actually go a step farther in reliance on force than did Jabotinsky, who said that eventually, once the Palestinian Arabs had been confronted long enough with sufficient force to lose hope, agreements could be reached with them. (He was not clear what shape any such agreements would take, and he had a territorially expansive view of what land the future Israel should embrace.) Today the prevailing metaphor in Israel is not so much a wall (notwithstanding the literal wall Israel has built in the West Bank) as it is lawns to be mowed. The periodic use of force, such as we just saw in Gaza, is likened to mowing the lawn. Sure, grass grows back, but Israel will just mow it again later. The process can continue forever—no agreements necessary.
This is not a view the United States can reason with. It is a view that represents fundamentally different values and priorities from those of the United States. The United States should present its policy, publicly as well as privately, toward this conflict in terms of a choice that parties to the conflict can make. To anyone who genuinely seeks to resolve the conflict through compromise and agreement, the United States should promise to be a very active partner. And then act on that promise.
To anyone who instead envisions, and behaves as if he envisions, unending conflict, the U.S. response will be to distance itself from such behavior. That will be the necessary response not only because of what unending conflict means for the parties to the conflict but also because of the harm it can mean to the United States, and specifically the harm that comes from being closely associated with a forceful, no-agreement, indefinite lawn-mowing approach. And then, just as important, act as necessary on that promise.
Washington can and should phrase such a policy in an entirely neutral, even-handed way. Netanyahu and his ilk have counterparts on the Palestinian side, although they are fewer because perpetuation of the status quo is so much more miserable for Palestinians than it is for Israelis. But Israeli citizens are smart enough to understand the message.