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Gaza, Iron Walls and Mowed Lawns

Paul Pillar

Flickr/folkehjelp.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.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNHuman RightsForeign AidPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelEgyptUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Sequence Deficit Disorder

Paul Pillar

Flickr/Velo Steve.A recurring difficulty in public recriminations about past actions and debate about ongoing problems is the absence of a sense of sequence—of an accurate understanding of what happened when, and in particular of whether certain things happened before or after certain other things. Many much-discussed events enter the recriminations and debates as individual points of controversy, detached from any time line or comprehensive narrative. They become like flashbacks in a creatively edited movie, in which the audience has to stay well engaged to keep track of what happened when. The film editor does not want to make the audience's task too hard, lest his product sink into incoherence. Outside the movies and in the real world, there often are people with an ax to grind who try to get us to fit the flashbacks into a preferred story, which may be inaccurate. Even without ax-grinders, our minds try to fit the detached events into a story that is easily comprehensible, even though again it may be inaccurate.

Such insensitivity to sequence may be found, for example, in recriminations over the George W. Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. The easily comprehensible story is that the decision was based on bum intelligence about unconventional weapons. But the intelligence estimate that became the subject of nearly all the after-the-fact criticism wasn't written—in fact, work on it hadn't even begun—until after the administration had not only made the decision to go to war but had already moved into high gear its campaign to sell the war to the public. (There still was a Congressional resolution to be voted on, but hardly any members of Congress bothered to look at the estimate.)

The political silliness over the lethal incident at Benghazi provides additional examples. The most glaring one came right at the outset, when Mitt Romney, seizing on the incident as a prop for his campaign, described as the Obama administration's first “response” to the incident a statement that the U.S. embassy actually had issued before the incident. Now we continue to hear endless professed outrage about what Susan Rice did or did not say, with her sayings thrown into public discussion alongside observations that have been made since then about what lay behind the attack on the U.S. facility. Lost again is any sense of sequence, and in this case any distinction between confusion and uncertainty in the early hours after the incident and understanding that has been acquired only later.

The Petraeus affair offers other recent examples, particularly in recriminations about how the FBI handled the case, how an able public servant has been lost because a private matter had become public, etc. Seemingly escaping notice is that the matter became public only when Petraeus himself announced his resignation and cited an extramarital affair as the reason. Neither the FBI nor anyone else had made anything public before that. If the whole business were to have ended differently, it would have had to have been in one of two ways. One would be that nobody says anything publicly (with or without an FBI investigation), in which case the security implications of potential for blackmail would be very much an issue. The other possibility is that Petraeus discloses the affair but says he is not resigning. We should give him enough credit for realizing that the image of an adulterer clinging to his job would have been inconsistent with both the values he propounded and his continued ability to lead his agency, and that the honorable thing for him to do was instead to resign.

Now there is the warfare in the Gaza Strip. I recalled the other day the sequence of events at the start of the current upsurge in violence. But the deficiency in temporal understanding is not just a matter of who started the newest round of fighting. Israeli demands that “the rockets must stop” before Israel ceases its lethal operations feed a general impression that the story is one of Hamas rockets first, and Israeli response afterward. This overlooks that most of the rockets fired from the Strip since Israel's Operation Cast Lead four years ago have come in these last few days—after, and in response to, Israel's newest operation. So we have not only a demand for a one-sided cease-fire but also a bizarre rationale in which the stated reason for the operation is to prevent the very response that the operation itself engenders.

Gregory Johnsen, who has done extensive field research in Yemen, raises what may be something similar in U.S. policy. Johnsen argues persuasively that lethal strikes from drone aircraft have enabled terrorist groups to win more recruits who are angered over the collateral damage from the strikes. He cites as evidence how the estimated strength of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has risen in correlation with the frequency of the drone strikes. Despite this indication of counterproductivity, do not be surprised to hear others argue that the increasing strength of Yemeni terrorist groups is all the more reason we need to pound them with Hellfire missiles.

There is no known cure for sequence deficit disorder. We can perhaps ameliorate some of the consequences by demanding that anyone who starts making assertions about Y being a consequence of X should make explicit reference to chronologies or time lines to support the assertion.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionPsychologyPost-ConflictWMD RegionsIsraelIraqUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesYemen

Aid and Interest

The Buzz

Aid to Rwanda used to be uncontroversial, but in the past few years more have been questioning its merits. The United Kingdom’s campaign to help the genocide-torn statelet has turned into a distillation of the challenges and benefits of foreign-aid programs. President Paul Kagame has conducted a foreign policy so out of line with international norms that it sometimes seems to be inspired by Khomeini-era Iran. It targets dissidents abroad, harrasses foreign journalists, and sponsors resource-plundering guerilla movements in its neighbors. Yet while Iran became an international pariah, Rwanda has enjoyed relatively good relations with the West—and a healthy income from Western development agencies. There is cause for this beyond Western guilt over the events of 1994. With outside help, the Kagame government has substantially reduced poverty, and Rwanda has been one of the beneficiaries of a wave of sub-Saharan economic growth. Rwandans live seven years longer now than they did at the start of Kagame’s presidency.

Still, the British experience shows just how casually the Rwandan government can treat its donors. Britain’s foreign aid office, the Department for International Development (DFID), is legally barred from considering British national interests, so it continued to plunge tens of millions into Rwanda even as one of its own officials was attacked in Kigali and a plot to assassinate a British citizen in London came to light. A sharp column by the Economist’s Bagehot, a British citizen whose hotel room was once ransacked by Rwandan agents seeking to suppress evidence of war crimes, explores the mismanagement in the DFID and the dilemmas over its Rwanda aid.

Bagehot wisely notes that foreign aid can serve British interests—the faded empire can retain some of its international weight by leading development efforts. Rwandan lives have improved thanks to British aid. But states are not charitable trusts—they exist to serve their own citizens and residents. The designers of the DFID may have thought they were acting as a role model when they refused to link aid to interest, but if Britons and Rwandan exiles in London live in fear for their lives of a state they are taxed to fund, the tail is clearly wagging the dog—politically and morally. It is tragic that cutting British aid due to the actions of the Rwandan government will harm the Rwandan people, but Rwanda, like Britain, is responsible for its own—if it steers a course to international isolation, the guilty party for Rwandan suffering is in Kigali, not London.

TopicsEconomicsForeign Aid RegionsUnited KingdomRwanda

America's Flawed and Fragile Democracy

Paul Pillar

Before the 2012 election fades in our memories, displaced by sex scandals and other attention-getting news, Americans ought to reflect on what works well and—even more worthy of reflection—what works poorly in their representative democracy. I'm not talking about post-mortems concerning the specific electoral outcome and what led a particular party or candidate to win or lose. I instead am referring to serious deficiencies that ought to trouble any American, regardless of liking or disliking this month's election result, who values a healthy and fair political system that respects the will of the people.

Some of the most undemocratic aspects of what American electoral democracy has become were in display at least as much in this most recent electoral cycle as in any other. One concerns the role of money, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the ineffectiveness of the Federal Election Commission reaching new depths. Much commentary since the election has noted how little return some of the biggest campaign bankrollers received on their investment. But any single election result does not negate the outsize role that money has assumed in American elections and how much that role runs contrary to the principle that in a democracy elected representatives are supposed to represent people rather than dollars. The Supreme Court's reapportionment decisions of the early 1960s established the principle that elected representatives represent people rather than acres or trees. Now dollars have been given back some of the role that was taken away from the acres and the trees.

Then there is the unconscionable inconvenience that many citizens have to endure to exercise their right to vote. Long voter lines even led to a line in Barack Obama's victory speech. In the decentralized American system of administering elections, the problem is largely due to assorted inefficiency, incompetence and misplaced resources at the state and county level. The added twist—an even more alarming one, with regard to subversion of democratic principles—this year was the concerted effort by adherents of one party to make voting more difficult, in the belief that those who would be dissuaded or prevented from voting would mostly be supporters of the other party. The net effect of court actions on this subject was to mitigate this problem by striking down some of the voter suppression efforts. But the efforts were still an outrage; voting is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy. It also was an outrage that there were not more expressions of outrage—from Republicans, Democrats and independents alike—over the suppression efforts. Give credit for candor and honesty, however, to the Republican legislative leader in Pennsylvania who spoke openly about how the suppression effort in that state “would allow Governor Romney to win.”

Dissuading the other side's supporters from voting is not uncommon in political systems in less developed countries—systems that we usually are apt to disparage. Ultimately the difference between the suppression efforts in the United States and, say, what Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union does to its political opponents is more a matter of degree (especially degree of physical brutality) than of kind.

Another undemocratic contrivance—undemocratic because in a democracy voters are supposed to choose their representatives rather than representatives choosing their voters—is gerrymandering. It has become more of a science than an art in recent years thanks to more sophisticated and extensive polling data and computer software that can take advantage of the data. Both parties practice it when they have a chance. Democrats in Maryland perpetrated one of the most egregious recent examples. But because Republicans have majority control in more state governments than the Democrats do, the net effect nationally has been to help Republicans. Republicans retained a solid majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this year even though Democratic House candidates won more total votes than Republicans. The natural concentration of Democratic strength in urban areas has something to do with this anomaly, but so does the gerrymandering.

Each of the aforementioned flaws has a self-perpetuating quality, and encourages perpetuation in power of whoever happens to be in power now. State legislators who have a majority set the voting rules and draw the legislative districts (for their own seats, not just for Congress) to increase the chance of their own party retaining control. The role of big money in the post-Citizens United era increases the chance of electing presidents who appoint the sort of Supreme Court justices who hand down decisions such as Citizens United. And so on. The self-perpetuation is not as strong and irretrievable as in a non-democratic system such as the one controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. But there are closer parallels with, for example, Iran, which has a freely elected president and parliament but in which self-perpetuation is facilitated by the role of the supreme leader and by interlocking relationships among bodies such as the Guardian Council and the judiciary.

Some of the most worrisome current threats to the health of American democracy come not from matters involving elections specifically but instead from the attitudes and habits of mind—i.e., the political culture—that are at least as important for the health of any democracy as elections. We saw one such threat when leaders of the party in control of one of the houses of Congress, when they had not won enough political power in the government overall to get their way on budgetary matters, tried to get their way anyhow by threatening to make the nation default on its debt. In other words, they abandoned democracy for extortion.

Another threat was succinctly expressed in a comment from the minority leader of the U.S. Senate that was as candid and as appalling as the comment from the legislative leader in Pennsylvania. He said that his party's top priority in Congress was for “President Obama to be a one-term president.” The comment was quite honest, as borne out by his party's behavior during the subsequent Congressional term. Making the toppling of a political opponent more important than anything else, including legislating in the national interest, is just the sort of dysfunctional political culture that tears democracies apart. There are parallels to this overseas, too. Bangladesh comes to mind as a good comparison.

For a democracy to work well and to stay healthy, the political players in it must have respect for the interests of the nation as a whole that overrides preference for any one electoral outcome or hatred for any one political leader. They also need to respect political outcomes that shape policy and not resort to non-democratic threats of harm to the national interest. What we have seen in recent years are disturbing lapses from both those requirements.

One conclusion is that there may not be as wide a gap as generally supposed between democracy in America and democracies elsewhere that Americans may be quick to disdain. A second conclusion is that bearing the first conclusion in mind adds useful perspective in evaluating and responding to political processes in other countries. The most important conclusion is that American democracy is more fragile, and its health more precarious, than most Americans like to think. Americans ought to be alert to what threatens their democracy from within and to punish—democratically of course, at the polls—those who would undermine it.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe Presidency RegionsBangladeshIranUnited StatesZimbabwe

DARPA's Amateur Astronomers

The Buzz

The U.S. military's research wing, DARPA, is the latest agency to jump on the public-crowdsourcing bandwagon with the launch of SpaceView this week. This space-observation project enables astronomy enthusiasts to gather data for the U.S. Air Force's Space Surveillance Network. With the network's current professionals at capacity tracking just six percent of potentially destructive space debris, these amateurs can potentially make a big difference in helping protect American satellites that provide cable and the internet.

The project certainly appears to be a creative leap of faith. How successful SpaceView will be in safeguarding orbital assets remains another question, as it seems to differ significantly from most established crowdsourcing efforts that offer prizes or rewards in order to solve a problem. One hopes that trained astronomers aren't being asked to spend too much time recruiting amateurs instead of monitoring the small slice of the sky we do have under control.

You can watch DARPA’s promo video for SpaceView here:

TopicsTechnology RegionsUnited States

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