Spoilers in the Sinai

Paul Pillar

In many international conflicts some of the greatest potential for escalation and hindrance to de-escalation come not from the main parties to the conflict but from the fringe—from extremist groups that have no desire to be part of a plausible peaceful order and aim to spoil any progress toward establishing one. In Northern Ireland, for example, much of the slowness in moving toward a peace agreement even after the main IRA had decided to accept one was due to continued terrorist operations by die-hard groups that had splintered from the IRA. In South Asia, the pace of Indian-Pakistani detente has been set too often by terrorist groups rather than by the two governments. In the various dimensions of the conflict between Israelis and Arabs there also have been numerous instances of the extremist fringes of both sides exacerbating tension and impeding any lessening of it.

The attack Sunday in the northeast corner of the Sinai peninsula falls into the same mold. Armed gunmen overpowered an Egyptian border post and then used stolen Egyptian vehicles to race across the Israeli border before being stopped by Israeli airstrikes. The attack, by as yet unnamed militants in the Sinai, was against the interests of all of the major players in the area, and all of those players condemned it. Egypt had 16 of its soldiers killed as well as control of its sovereign territory challenged. Israel was the target of an armed assault across its border, even if a small one. For Hamas, the ruler of the Gaza Strip, the attack suspended a hoped-for expansion of its commerce with Egypt. One of the Egyptian responses to the incident was to close indefinitely the border crossing at Rafah, which has been almost the only point of significant relief from the Israeli blockade and isolation of Gaza.

One of the ways in which fringe-perpetrated incidents increase tensions among major players is by stimulating false accusations of responsibility. The incident in the Sinai is no exception. Statements from both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas suggested that it was somehow an Israeli operation. Meanwhile, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, perhaps operating on general instructions to blame Iran for anything it can possibly be blamed for, declared on Twitter and his Facebook page that “Iranian-backed terrorists” were the perpetrators. There was no more evidence for this than for Israeli involvement, and Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, later said the attackers were part of "apparently some kind of global jihad, with unclear connections"—which is probably the most that can be said about them so far.

The main parties to a long-running conflict should respond to an incident like this by using it as an opportunity to act on their shared interests, not to make propaganda. Egypt, Hamas and Israel all share an interest in curbing the extremists who—based not just on this incident but several others—appear to have made increasing use of the Sinai as a base of operations, especially since the beginning of the distractions and disorder in Egypt associated with the overthrow of Mubarak. Egypt and Hamas should show no tolerance for ludicrous accusations against Israel, such as that it engineered an attack that ended up being aimed at its own territory. Israel needs to do some more fundamental rethinking, especially regarding what it wants from its peace treaty with Egypt. Linked to that agreement were severe restrictions on what military forces Egypt could deploy in the eastern Sinai. Such restrictions made sense in the 1970s; they make less sense now, given a military balance that renders preposterous the idea of Egypt wanting a new war with Israel, along with internal security in this part of Egyptian territory having become a more serious concern for both countries. Israel has granted piecemeal permission to Egypt to increase its Sinai deployments somewhat beyond the limits originally established when the treaty was signed. This amounts to micromanaging how another country arranges its own military forces on its own territory. Evidently the Israelis are worried that a more wholesale revision of the deployment restrictions might cause the peace treaty itself to unravel. That would not be a problem if the other part of the Camp David accords were observed.

Israelis also need to realize that, just as even the closest allies have some conflicts of interest, even the bitterest of enemies have some shared interests. No provision for security in this corner of the Middle East can ever be complete without including whoever governs the Gaza Strip. Security problems illustrated by Sunday's incident on the border are reminders of how the policy of trying to strangle Hamas rather than dealing with it does not serve anyone's interests, including Israel's.

TopicsPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsIsraelEgyptPalestinian territories

Winston Churchill In America

Jacob Heilbrunn

Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. Uncontroversial as that statement may seem, there have always been historians, particularly in England, whether on the right, who object to World War II and the loss of empire, or on the left, who see him as an imperialist scoundrel, intent on knocking the great man from his pedestal. But in the land of the free and the home of the brave, Churchill, whose mother Jennie was a New Yorker, remains the subject of veneration as President Obama discovered when he returned a bust of the Churchill to the British embassy, only to face an outcry from the British prime minister's admirers on the American right. Most recently, a new Battle of Britain erupted when the White House tried to contradict Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer's contention that Obama had given Churchill the heave-ho. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said this was "patently false." Pfeiffer ended up issuing an apology to Krauthammer.

Whether or not Obama thinks the special relationship is really that special, the truth is that neocons have tried to hijack Churchill. They bristle at what they see as Obama's contumelious approach toward Churchill. Many venerate Churchill for his support for the Jews and Israel. But Churchill was always more of a realist than a crusader. He had no interest, for example, in the human rights of Indians. His aim was to hold the British Empire together, not to go about bestowing self-determination upon ethnic minorities. He wasn't an inflexible cold warrior, either. He wanted to see if a deal could be cut with Stalin's successors to unify Germany and end the cold war, only to have Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, responding to the pleas of West German chancellor Konrad Adeanuer, put the kibosh on any attempts at a detente with the Kremlin.

Now the Morgan Library in New York is staging an exhibition dedicated to Churchill. As Andrew Roberts reports in the Telegraph, it offers an illuminating glimpse into Churchill's prowess as a writer and journalist. The exhibit is called Churchill: the Power of Words. The title is an apt one. As the redoubtable Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who is completing a book on the fascination with Churchill among Americans, notes in the July 20 Times Literary Supplement, the old boy was indeed a journalist and author of, as he puts it, "great precocity and prolificity." In 1895, for example, just shy of his twenty-first birthday, Churchill traveled to Cuba to report on the rebellion against Spain on commission from the Daily Graphic. The star of the show, more often than not, was Churchill himself. In the World Crisis, for example, Churchill offered a history of World War I, which Arthur Balfour said was "Winston's brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe." It was all a warm-up for the main act, his years as the leader of England at its moment of greatest peril, when the Nazi war machine hurled its mighty Luftwaffe at the island nation, only to be repelled, both by the British air force and by Churchill's magnificent oratory, which did much to keep up morale on the home front.

Churchill relied heavily on assistants to work up his drafts. As David Reynolds explained in In Command of History, he had a team of writers who helped cook up the six-volume The Second World War. Churchill also worked out an arrangement that allowed him to avoid the confiscatory taxes that he would normally have owed to the British government. His history won him the Nobel Prize for literature, but its reliability may be doubted. But it is fun to read, which isn't something that can be said of many historical works. His works represent a decoction of Gibbon and Macaulay translated into slightly more modern form. He was the last Victorian.

Still, Churchill has always drawn censorious remarks. Evelyn Waugh said of his defense of his ancestor the Duke of Malborough, “It is a shifty barrister’s case not a work of literature.” That verdict is somewhat excessive. It is a work of literature masquerading as history, which is what makes Churchill a compelling writer. He was a literary exhibitionist. So it should hardly be surprising that visitors are flocking to see the new exhibition examining his feats. Roberts, himself a Tory historian, speculates

With Mitt Romney promising to ask for the Churchill bust to be returned to the Oval Office, from where it was unceremoniously expelled by President Obama in his first week in office, it is clear that the popularity and reputation of the Greatest Briton is alive and well in America. Is it because people crave courageous, eloquent leadership in difficult times? Or maybe it is a simple extension of the classic American Anglophilia we saw with the royal wedding and Jubilee and are seeing with the Olympics.

Might Obama reconsider his decision to oust Churchill from the White House if he wins a second term?

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsNorth America

Commentary and Critics of Israel

The Buzz

The July/August edition of Commentary features an emotionally charged piece by Ben Cohen entitled “Attacking Israel Online.” In it, he takes aim at “full-time antagonists of Israel” practicing a strain of anti-Zionism he finds particularly repugnant—namely, that which comes from a “tiny minority of left-wing Jews” who criticize Israeli policy and politics.

For all its passion, Cohen’s piece is riddled with logical inconsistencies. Take, for example, his discussion of M. J. Rosenberg’s use of the term “Israel-firster.” Used to describe those “U.S. citizens whose primary loyalty is to Israel,” Cohen notes that the term was a “favored epithet” of neo-Nazi groups. He therefore concludes Rosenberg is anti-Semitic and “making common cause with Hitler-lovers.” But Cohen’s logic is overly simplistic; using the same words once used by neo-Nazi groups does not mean Rosenberg necessarily shares their world views. 

Cohen finds the distinction between Jewish insiders and outsiders particularly problematic. He considers the notion that “Jewish officials are more loyal to their own kind than to the state or institutions they serve” blatantly anti-Semitic. Yet his piece rests on the premise that certain critics of Israel are especially abhorrent precisely because of their “membership in the tribe.” Thus, he is outraged not only at their criticism but also at their disloyalty.

The author first conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Zionism, then anti-Zionism with hatred of the Jewish state and finally hatred of the Jewish state with anti-Semitism. His mentality is “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” a stark distinction that effectively closes the space for open debate and precludes one from being both supportive and critical of Israel.

Admittedly, the line between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic is thin and amorphous. One must be prepared to approach it with care and tread carefully. But flawed offerings such as this merely prevent discussion and breed hostility.

TopicsIdeologyReligion RegionsIsrael

Plans and Interventions

Paul Pillar

It ought to be reassuring to read reports that the Departments of State and Defense are planning for various messy contingencies associated with the civil war in Syria. In general it is better to plan than not to plan. An irony, however, immediately comes to mind. A large-scale U.S. military intervention that lasted nearly nine years in a neighboring country was undertaken with insufficient planning—or insufficient attention to what planning did take place—regarding what would follow the toppling of that country's ruling autocrat. Now, extensive planning is being done for Syria, where, notwithstanding the agitation of some for the United States to get more actively involved, no one expects anything close to the sort of involvement that the United States had in Iraq. Some of the planning for a post-Assad Syria that the State Department reportedly is doing now sounds remarkably like a set of studies about a post-Saddam Iraq that the department initiated before the Iraq War but that those most responsible for launching and managing that war pointedly disregarded—to the extent that Donald Rumsfeld barred the State Department officials supervising the studies from attending meetings at the Pentagon.

The differences in the two episodes reflect the different approaches of the men at the top. One occurred under a president with confidence and swagger who trusted his gut, assessed people by looking into their eyeballs, and responded to some problems and dangers by saying to bring 'em on. The other is occurring under a president who, in reviewing policy regarding yet another intervention—in Afghanistan—took so much time in mulling over the implications of available options that he opened himself to charges of dithering.

But maybe the different patterns regarding planning reflect more than just different operating styles at the top. Perhaps anything as bold and brazen as launching the Iraq War requires so much rose-colored optimism that careful planning for messy contingencies seems to those with the optimism to be something between an insult and a waste of time. Probably even more important to those who promoted the Iraq War was that any indication of planning for a mess would imply that there would be a mess, and that would have made more difficult the selling of the war to the public. Conversely, to the extent that Syria is accurately perceived as a no-win mess, this perception both limits any ideas about getting the United States more deeply involved and leads to a realization that planning is prudent even without deep involvement. So maybe there isn't that much irony involved after all.

Former ambassador James Dobbins said of the planning about Syria, “This is certainly a useful exercise, yet planning divorced from resources and power, as these efforts necessarily are, will have only limited impact on actual events.” This comment needs to be taken to heart. Although planning is generally better than an absence of planning, a potential hazard regarding the Syrian situation is that any attention to what the United States should do in response may inadvertently encourage the false notions that the United States has much ability to shape that situation and that by getting more deeply involved it can turn it into something other than a no-win proposition.

Image: vpickering

TopicsCounterinsurgencyHumanitarian InterventionPost-Conflict RegionsIraqUnited StatesSyria

The Plutocratic Tradition in America

Paul Pillar

I recently read a book by University of Maryland historian Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy, which is an account of the intense struggles over wealth and power that emerged in the earliest days of the United States. Bouton's detailed research was focused on Pennsylvania, but he describes patterns that also appeared elsewhere in the infant republic. The core of the story he tells is that the colonial coalition that made possible the political break with Britain fractured even while the Revolutionary War was still in progress, as wealthy interests in the colonies quickly had second thoughts about the democratic fervor that they had helped to set in motion and how it might jeopardize their ability to amass still more wealth. Those interests then devoted themselves to implementing public policies aimed at protecting and promoting the wealth of the moneyed class, and to structuring politics and government in a way that—per the title of Bouton's book—prevented the more numerous members of lower classes from overturning those policies.

The story demonstrates that strong class consciousness and class-specific drivers of policy have been a major part of American politics since independence. A key part of that class struggle all along has been a strong sense among a wealthy elite of separateness from the non-wealthy, and of having a right to push hard for public policies that favor their own class even if they are clearly detrimental to others.

A major figure in Bouton's account is the Philadelphia merchant and financier Robert Morris. Morris certainly has a good claim to being considered a founding father; he was one of only two persons (Roger Sherman of Connecticut was the other) to have signed the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and U.S. Constitution. Morris also vigorously promoted policies that favored the financial interests of people like himself while adding to the economic difficulties of his less advantaged fellow Pennsylvanians. One of his major projects was the first privately owned bank in the United States, the Bank of North America. As Morris envisioned it, the bank would be the sole issuer of currency in the state, a function it would perform in the same extremely tight-money way that had gotten Pennsylvanians literally up in arms against the British, and that favored the interests of creditors over those of debtors. Morris and his fellow share-holders in the bank used their political clout to prevent competition from any additional new banks, public or private. The paper currency that the bank issued did not come close to meeting the broader public monetary needs in the first years of independence. It circulated mostly among merchants and government contractors, and the smallest denomination ($20) was too large for the average American of the day to acquire. Morris didn't care. He wrote to Alexander Hamilton, “If my notes circulate only among mercantile people, I do not regret it but rather wish that the circulation may for the present be confined to them and to the wealthier members of other professions.”

An even more blatant ploy of using government to favor his own class's interests at the expense of others concerned speculation in war debt. Amid poverty, scarcity of money, and uncertainty about government funding of debt, many holders of IOUs—who had furnished support to the war effort ranging from food to blacksmithing—sold them for cents on the dollar to speculators who hoped to redeem them eventually for much more than that. Morris not only participated in this game but openly promoted it. He told the Continental Congress in 1782 that speculators should be encouraged to buy up the IOUs “at a considerable discount” and then have the government bring the pieces of paper “back to existence” by paying them off at top dollar. This big transfer of wealth would provide the affluent with “those funds which are necessary to the full exercise of their skill and industry.” Bouton writes, “As Morris saw it, taking money from ordinary taxpayers to fund a huge windfall for war debt speculators was exactly the kind of thing that needed to be done to make America great.”

We have tended to whitewash such aspects of American history from our consciousness, for several reasons. One is the hagiography we customarily apply to the founding fathers. Another is that we lose sight of the connections between class consciousness of the past and that of today by euphemizing today's version and espousing more subtle notions of trickle-down economics than the crude version that Morris espoused. People of his economic stratum were known at the time as “gentlemen”; today they would more likely be called “job creators.” A further reason is Americans' belief in the national myth that America is less stratified into classes, and exhibits more mobility between classes, than do other countries and especially the old countries of Europe. That myth has become increasingly distant from fact in recent decades.

Morris demonstrated how there was more potential for downward mobility in his time than in ours. Leveraged commitments he made as a land speculator fell through when the Panic of 1797 and the drying up of foreign investors' money because of European wars caused land prices to collapse. Morris lost his fortune and spent three years in debtors' prison. His present-day counterparts who make similarly large losing bets are not thrown into debtors' prison, regardless of the broader consequences of their bets. Instead they are likely to live comfortably on previously stashed away bonuses, carried interest, and other winnings.

One of the most noticed of the economically driven domestic conflicts in the early days of the republic was the anti-tax resistance centered in western Pennsylvania in the early 1790s that became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Hamilton may have regarded his levy on booze as a sin tax and thus as an acceptable way to fund the debt that the new federal government had assumed, but that is not how the tax-resisting common people in rural Pennsylvania saw it. For them whiskey was not just a drink but a form in which to economically market their grain and even a medium of exchange—a substitute for money in what were still extreme tight-money times. The structure of the tax also favored larger distillers in eastern cities over the smaller farmer-producers in the West. The Whiskey Rebellion tends to get treated in textbooks today as a landmark in establishing the authority of the fledgling federal government. But it was first and foremost class warfare—as was the forceful response to it, which was cheered on by well-to-do gentry anxious to quash what they regarded as a democratic threat to their class's economic position. Today “class warfare” gets hurled as an epithet against political opponents, but class warfare—waged by classes above as well as ones below—has a long history in America.

TopicsBankingCurrencyDemocracyDomestic PoliticsEconomic DevelopmentHistoryPolitical Economy RegionsUnited States