Stand Up to the Intimidators

Paul Pillar

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.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsDefenseIdeologyThe Presidency RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

A Neocon Looks Back

The Buzz

In this month’s issue of Commentary, John Agresto, a self-described neoconservative who served as an adviser to the Iraqi government just after the 2003 invasion, thoughtfully questions the idea that the United States should actively and forcefully spread democracy. He identifies the assumptions that lie beneath the idea:

We seemed convinced of two things: First, that democracy is the form of government under which all men are meant to live, and that democracy, unlike autocracy of any kind, is just in itself. Being just, it includes the very essence of ideas of freedom, equality, protection of rights, and toleration. Democracy is natural, democracy is how men achieve just political life and, most surely, democracy means freedom. Second, we constantly gave the impression that democratic government, being natural, is easy. Throw off the tyrant, overturn the ruling class, write a constitution, hold elections, and voila—Democracy.

Phrased this way, the tension at the heart of the word “neoconservative” is quite clear—neoconservative foreign policy is rooted in radical, not conservative, conceptions of social order, social change and human nature. Institutions emerge ex nihilo. Old traditions and old elites are destroyed without consequences. Societies achieve stability without much effort. These are the thoughts of a Robespierre or a Marx, not of a Burke. Agresto seems to realize this, charging that he and his comrades

betrayed an understanding that was alien to our own country’s democratic beginnings as well as removed from any reading of history, ancient or modern. To be seduced by the rising tide of democracy worldwide, one had to block from view the democratic election in Gaza, where a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of its sovereign neighbor won the day. . . . One might want to look at the democratic mobs in Libya executing all the blacks they capture, both men and women; or the mobs in Egypt burning Coptic churches.

The real question for democratization, says Agresto, is not “Don’t all men want to be free?” After all, “some people, perhaps most people, prefer other goods” over freedom, like order, safety or religious purity. “The right question,” he states, is “Do you want your neighbors to be free?” When the citizens cannot answer this with something close to “yes,” democracy cannot flourish.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety—it also includes a thoughtful discussion of the influence of culture and religion on democratic values. Abe Greenwald’s response to all this merits examination on its own. Greenwald takes Agresto to task for an inadequate examination of the possibility of cultural changes that can foster democracy—as he points out,

If you had asked 18th-century Americans . . . "Do you want your neighbors to be free?"—most would certainly have failed to produce the right answer, at least as regarded their black, Indian, and female neighbors. . . . To have been true to liberal values upon the Founding would have been to preside over its dissolution.

This is certainly accurate, but it also presentist—it uses modern attitudes to judge the past. It is right to condemn the gross illiberalism of a society that denied the vote to women and freedom to slaves. But we cannot fully understand the past unless we examine it by its own values. That lets us see the tension in a state that declared its independence with a claim that all men are created equal, yet which treated some men unequally. This tension was immediately seized upon by various critics, and they would eventually widen our definition of "neighbors" to include many more Americans. The Nineteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act didn't create freedom in America—they expanded it. 

Greenwald attributes the failure of the democracy drive in places like Iraq—whose elections “can only be interpreted as evidence of at least a capacity for liberalism”—to American irresolution, arguing that “where the United States keeps its commitments to liberalism, transformative miracles occur.” This language of the supernatural is appropriate for discussing Iraqi democratization, for only a true believer could look at such a deeply divided society and expect democracy to emerge. The 2010 election Greenwald trumpets came after years of sectarian bloodletting and the departure of fully half of Iraq’s Christians and four in five Mandaeans; many experts see an Iraq primed for another round of violence. Could ancient animosities and prejudices really have been buried by American commitment? If so, Israel and the Arab states should be at peace, for our government has been against their conflict long before it was against a divided Iraq.

Agresto is quite right. America can help countries become democracies, but only when the social, economic and ideological forces driving democratization are strong and internal. Our might can break militaries and hang dictators; it cannot create toleration or forge common bonds.

TopicsDemocracySociety RegionsIraq

Opposing Apartheid, Then and Now

Paul Pillar

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.

TopicsHuman RightsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelPalestinian territoriesSouth Africa

Abe and Japanese Security Policy

Paul Pillar

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.

TopicsElectionsDefense RegionsChinaJapanUnited States

Hagel and the Isolationist Canard

The Buzz

The recent reports that former senator Chuck Hagel is likely to be nominated as the next secretary of defense have caused a flurry of commentary from foreign-policy writers and analysts. Among the most brutal assessments comes from Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute. Interviewed by Kevin Baron, Rubin says:

I think his vision of foreign affairs and defense goes beyond naïve and actually is malign. . . . The man really does seem to be an isolationist.

What about Hagel could have prompted such an accusation? Rubin says that Hagel would abdicate “the idea of America being a power throughout the world.” But let’s take a look at what exactly this means in practice. The major criticisms made against Hagel have been that he might support shrinking the defense budget (or at least limiting further increases), that he opposes a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and that he would be averse to future humanitarian interventions or nation-building efforts.

But presumably, even if Hagel were a dictator and could set America’s foreign and defense policies by himself, the United States would retain by far the largest military in the world, maintain a global network of alliances, trade and engage diplomatically across the world, and go to war if any of its core national interests were truly threatened.

In short, by any definition, it is ludicrous to call Hagel an isolationist. Simply put, hawks and neoconservatives have reduced the term “isolationist” to meaninglessness by applying it to anyone who doesn’t reflexively support using military force to solve every problem around the world. The fact is that, as TNI’s Jacob Heilbrunn suggests over at Foreign Policy, Hagel is comfortably within the old-school Republican realist tradition. Whether he is a terrible pick or a brilliant one, it’s wrong to pretend that he would represent an enormous shift from the foreign-policy mainstream in any significant way.

TopicsBureaucracyDomestic PoliticsThe PresidencyPolitics RegionsUnited States