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More Fences

Paul Pillar

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.

TopicsDemocracyDefensePost-Conflict RegionsIsraelEgyptPalestinian territoriesSyria

The Flight of Depardieu

The Buzz

Famed French actor Gerard Depardieu, who had drawn headlines in late 2012 with a move to Belgium to evade France’s new 75 percent tax on the incomes of the wealthy, has now taken Russian citizenship and begun poking around for a home in the Republic of Mordovia. He apparently hopes to satisfy Russian residency requirements in order to pay its low income taxes.

Depardieu's choice of Russia, out of the world's many potential tax havens, is rather absurd. When the leading lights of France’s Socialist government had questioned the actor's patriotism and called him “pathetic,” he replied that he is a “free being” and that he has always paid his taxes honestly; the free, honest man now flees into the arms of the authoritarian and corrupt Putin government (having been greeted in Sochi by Vladimir Vladimirovich himself) and may take up residence in a region known for its prisons.

The move highlights the challenge that the modern global economy poses to ideas of citizenship and loyalty. New flows of wealth from state to state have created deeper prosperity, but also distortions—who would have expected small Caribbean islands to become centers of global finance? A small cosmopolitan elite mimics the money and hops from haven to haven.

For these “citizens of the world” (to use the title Depardieu bestowed on himself), nationality is not a matter of birth, identity and shared fate. It is instead approached like another investment, with pros and cons to be weighed: Russia has many troubles, but is a good buy at 13 percent of income annually; France has good schools and a great culture, but is pricey at 75 percent.

Yet despite his claim to being a cosmopolitan “true European,” Depardieu is still a Frenchman by birth, by culture, by language and by image. Russian citizenship is merely a mask to conceal himself from the taxman. Is he really willing to share in his new countrymen’s sacrifices, and not just their low taxes? It was one thing to take a long vacation to Belgium to call attention to the current government's waste. It is another to shack up with an autocrat in the name of personal freedom.

French president Francois Hollande and his allies hurl insults at the wealthy—they seem to believe that the only justified largesse in all France is that of the government—but they are not Hitlers. And even if they were, couldn’t the patriotic thing be to stand and fight, not to flee? Perhaps Minister of Labor (and distant Depardieu cousin) Michel Sapin was right when he called the actor’s renunciation of French citizenship “a form of personal degeneration.”

TopicsEconomicsGlobalization RegionsRussiaFrance

A Decade of War, Forgotten

The Buzz

Ross Douthat's latest column is about Speaker John Boehner, and it argues that Boehner deserves more credit than he has gotten for the way he has handled the many governmental crises of the past two years. One sentence in it that has nothing to do with Boehner or Congress, however, is the most revealing thing about the piece. In listing the factors that have led to Washington's recent recurring chaos, Douthat says:

First, there’s the grim economic and budgetary situation — a mix of slow growth and huge peacetime deficits that constrains policy makers in unprecedented ways.

The fact that Douthat uses the word "peacetime" here is simply amazing. Consider the following facts: The United States is at war in Afghanistan, with roughly sixty-eight thousand troops present there. It has been at war in Afghanistan for over eleven years. During that time, Washington also launched a costly and deeply misguided eight-year war in Iraq, which led to roughly 4,500 U.S. and over a hundred thousand Iraqi deaths. Further, the United States used armed force to help remove Muammar el-Qaddafi's regime from power in Libya in 2011 (an act of war by any reasonable standard, even if the White House would not call it one). Not to mention the broader "long war" and its attendant drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Douthat is not the first person to make this mistake. For example, Mitt Romney did the same in April 2011, when he blasted President Obama in an op-ed for engaging in "one of the biggest peacetime spending binges in American history." Romney later walked back his statement as a function of poor word choice, and it seems likely that something similar was behind Douthat's error. Nevertheless, this is worth highlighting for two reasons. First, calling them "peacetime deficits" obscures the fact that defense spending (taking into account both "core" Pentagon spending and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) has indeed grown significantly over the past decade. It's not the only or even principal cause of the country's debt, but it's certainly a contributing factor.

Second, and more important, these episodes only serve to further highlight the extent to which America's governing class has become divorced from the military and the costs of the country's wars. As Chris Hayes put it well in his recent book Twilight of the Elites, and as others have observed, the "social distance" between those who are making crucial decisions about war and peace and those who bear the consequences of those decisions is enormous. There's no easy and immediate answer for how to shrink this distance. But those who are in positions of power or have large platforms could at least start by demonstrating a basic awareness concerning the facts of when their country is or is not at war.

TopicsDefenseState of the MilitarySecurity RegionsAfghanistanIraqUnited States

Declaring Victory on Iran

Paul Pillar

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.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPsychologySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

It's the Policy, Not the Salesmanship

Paul Pillar

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.

TopicsCongressPublic Opinion RegionsIsraelUnited States

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