Monthly Archives: July 2012

Romney’s Foreign-Policy Chops

Here’s what Mitt Romney said the other day while speaking in Jerusalem:

“We have a solemn duty and a moral imperative to deny Iran’s leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intentions. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option.”

According to most analyses Romney took a rather aggressive stand supporting preemptive strikes and doing more than the diplomatic dance of the United States. Romney’s performance in Israel is a pretty good test of his foreign-policy chops and his diplomatic skills. He didn’t fail the test but his grade is fairly low. He embarrassed the English during their Olympic moment on the world stage, his characterization of the Palestinians as being culturally behind, and that’s why their gross national product is not as high as Israel’s, is pretty naïve and may even contain a tinge of racism. But he was not completely wrong about Iran and difficulties we face.

The Republic of Iran wants to be a nuclear power. They want a seat at the table with the grown-ups who have the biggest weapon and the most threat. The question of whether or not they deserve a seat at the table remains to be seen. I think you have to prove yourself. Just like you do not get to handle that big machine we call an automobile until you pass the test, you don’t get the responsibility of having nuclear weapons until you demonstrate you can handle the responsibility. Declaring that Allah is guiding your missiles and that some cultures need annihilation does not exactly represent the sort of maturity the world is looking for. But Iran does not seem to care much because they are defying international pressure and seemed to be unconcerned with any diplomatic efforts.

Iran turning its nose up at UN Security Council resolutions directing them to suspend enrichment, and refusing to explain fully their nuclear intentions do not add up to an acceptable definition of “maturity.” It is simply dangerous for Iran to enter the inner sanctum of the nuclear club: there are plenty of reasons for this danger not the least of which is the addition of more nuclear weapons capable of detonation, but the extent to which it would embolden the Iranians is one of the most dangerous. They already support terror in various places in the world and membership in the nuclear club would probably just encourage them to continue their terrorist ways against the United States and Israel. Even if there were some semblance of checks on their nuclear arsenal this sort of provocative activity could spur a conventional war. There is no doubt that tensions in the Middle East would escalate. Israel has a nervous finger on the trigger of nuclear weapons and the foreign-policy rooted in existential threat. Israel responds sharply to existential threat and the nuclear Iran would certainly qualify.

The geopolitical balance of power would be altered and the pickings would be ripe for additional nuclear proliferation. Allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would undermine efforts to control weapons and how they are used. It would also be a defeat for the United States who has led the efforts to stop Iran and essentially organized the boycott. If the United States is perceived as failing to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons than the question of US power and influence will be unanswered.

There remains diplomacy to play out. Simply attacking Iran would be very provocative and causes many problems as it might solve. Some diplomatic process is the only alternative at this point. But the hell of it is that nothing much can be done during the political campaign because there are significant differences between the Democrats and the Republicans on this matter. The argument that Obama is weak on Iran does not hold much water. Obama is not weak on Iran, he is smart on Iran. It is simply reckless and dangerous to sound like a gunslinger on this issue. Obama is capable of convincing people that he is a tough guy – note the Osama bin Laden takedown – and I think he can be equally tough on Iran.

Even if we give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt he has plenty to learn. He was clumsy and somewhat ill-informed on this trip to Europe and the Middle East. His foreign-policy credentials are of course thin and we cannot wait too long for him to fatten them up.

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Thank You Bob Costas for Remembering the Tragic Munich Olympics

Bob Costas asked the International Olympic Committee to have a moment of silence in memory of the slain Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics. The IOC rejected the request offering the usual argument about not wanting to politicize the games, a standard they do not always hold themselves to. Costas, who should be commended for his courage and dignity, told the IOC that he was going to remember the moment anyway and is planning something for the opening ceremony.

I think this issue is important and worthy of some commentary. One of the problems with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that nothing seems to transcend the rank politics of the conflict. If I wrote a high-minded defense of Costas and thought that this tragedy deserved cultural and historical recognition most would simply dismiss it and categorize me as “another Israel supporter.” And the converse is true for those who might deny the request for recognition. They would be cavalierly cast as anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. The consequence of this constant simplistic bifurcation of the conflict is that it becomes impossible to talk about anything else. This is certainly true of any notion of “truth.” One cannot even report in a straightforward descriptive manner what actually occurred during some political event. Everything is steeped in interpretive implications, and combine this with facile notions of the “social construction of reality” and nothing is what it seems. This is essentially the situation with contemporary American politics and the Tea Party. They are so concerned with ideological and political purity that any other form of talk resulting in true deliberation – the kind of deliberation where one side might actually learn something and adjust their opinions – is impossible.

But isn’t it possible to ask what sort of political act is actually deserving of memory and recognition. Isn’t it possible, regardless of what side of the political spectrum you occupy, to condemn group specific murder as unacceptable? Isn’t it possible for the Olympic Games, with its long history of fellowship and cultural cooperation to stand up for something as clearly odious as targeted murder of an ethnopolitical group within the context of the games? The killing of the Israeli athletes was not a disembodied violent act but one that was wrapped in Olympic significance.

The tragedy of the Munich Olympics, along with its enduring images, is truly a cultural collective memory that endures because of the kinship that surrounds participation in the Olympics. It is true enough that we construct our pasts with contemporary culture in mind but that is what simply keeps a historical occurrence alive with fresh meaning and relevant meaning.

There is a relationship between tragedy and historical meaning. A tragedy always connects culture, the social, and the visual physiological environment. And, perhaps more importantly, tragedy binds individuals to groups and community. Consequently, the events of the Munich Olympics have bound individual and groups and infused their membership in these groups with significance, a significance that sweeps through time and becomes part of history.

It’s important to commemorate and remember the horrific violence of the 1972 Munich Olympics because it has become a collective memory signifying the full sweep of political consciousness and conflict. Collective memories define group identities and signal people as to their individual identities. Remembering the Munich tragedy should prompt people to ask themselves who they are and what they will accept.

We should remember that there is competition for what is recalled and remembered in the past. Disagreements about remembering events are always hotly contested and one version of the story “wins out” over another and thus becomes a more dominant theme along with changing the historical story. Historical events that were once considered objectively, or as objectively as possible, become pawns in a game designed to manage the perception of reality. Memories and proper understanding of events are most contested and manipulated during periods of confusion and uncertainty. We are currently struggling with understanding political conflicts, anti-Semitism, nationalist struggles, and how to reconcile history with contemporary circumstances. This is especially true for the prototypical intractable conflict that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is sometimes said that the past is manipulated in order to fashion the present. If that were true, why wouldn’t we want to recognize the horrific events of the 1972 Olympics in order to inform and sensitize the present?

“The West Bank is not Occupied” says Levy Committee

The established nature and routine life of the settlements was interesting to me during the 2 1/2 months I recently spent in Israel living and conducting some research in the settlements. The notion that some of these large settlements such as Ariel will ever be moved defies imagination. Construction in the town of Ariel continues along with new additions to the University Center and upgrades of city services. Even though settlements have questionable legal status the state continues to provide necessary infrastructure for the maintenance of the settlements. Inside Israel proper are road signs, mileage markers, and general information facilitating travel as well as the provision of necessary services.

A couple of weeks ago Prime Minister Netanyahu organized a panel about the status of the West Bank. The panel was headed by Justice Levy, and the panel’s primary conclusion was that Israel cannot be seen as “occupying” the West Bank. The original report is available here. The Levy committee concluded that the concept of occupation did not apply on the basis of international law. The main argument is that there was no established sovereign state on what is now called the West Bank and therefore Israel cannot be accused of occupying this land. The report goes on to explain how Israel has a right to the land and this includes the right to transfer populations if necessary. The report continues with a long list of laws that should be annulled in order to encourage settlement in the West Bank, followed by a list of suggestions and procedures that will facilitate Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria.

The “left” in Israel maintains that Judea and Samaria are occupied on the basis of international law ever since they were captured in 1967. But the panel accepted the argument from the “right” by explaining that the idea of “occupation” relates to short periods of time in which one state captures or makes incursions into another until their differences are resolved. Judea and Samaria, according to the argument from the right, has been under Israeli control for a long time and there seems to be no timetable for dispute resolution or expectation that Israel will simply withdraw. Essentially, the report concluded that Israel can treat the West Bank as if it were part of the internationally recognized state of Israel. Take note of a few problems:

If the West Bank and its settlements are part of Israel proper then the people currently living in the West Bank would be Israeli citizens with full political rights – regardless of religion or ethnicity. The slippery slope here is that the Palestinians of the West Bank would overwhelm the Jewish majority democracy and pose almost insurmountable political problems. The presence of the Palestinians in the West Bank, regardless of what one thinks of their political and cultural rights, will be a very difficult problem, a management and political problem, for the Israelis. Israel simply must get out of the business of lording over large numbers of people who are not Israelis. Again political nuances do not even matter much because the reality of managing large numbers of noncitizens is always a loser for the dominant culture.

It should be noted that there is nothing particularly new about this legal argument. Israeli legal scholars have attempted to justify Israel’s presence in the West Bank by arguing that it is not subject to the conditions of international law. Their arguments have not been accepted by most other legal scholars or the international community in general.

Third, trying to do something about occupation on the basis of international law is pretty futile. The Israeli Supreme Court has consistently ruled on the side of security arguments with respect to the West Bank. Those arguments have been tempered, and always subject to conditions, but have remained supportive of Israel’s presence. The court has, for example, allowed settlements but not on privately owned land; it has allowed targeted assassinations but only under specific conditions; it has even allowed Israel to use and sell natural resources in the West Bank.

Attitudes about the green line (see the Michael Freund article on the “articles of interest” tab on the top of this blog page) and the settlements are beginning to change in Israel. There is creeping support and sympathy for settlers. And a more casual and optimistic attitude about ownership of the West Bank is a byproduct of the diminished interest in the two state solution. If there is no genuine two state solution, then Israel might as well appropriate the land. As Israelis grow tired of dealing with the Palestinians their attitude about the West Bank becomes more predatory.

 

Egypt’s Inverted Pyramids

We will see what the future holds for Egypt, but I have trouble shaking the feeling that not much will change. The election of Mohammed Morsi has been hailed as the first democratically elected president of Egypt in its history, but after the dissolution of Parliament and the reemergence of the Egyptian military it remains unclear just how democratic Morsi’s election was. The political situation in Egypt remains precarious because of its assertive military, questionable legitimacy, political shenanigans, not to mention the “wait-and-see” attitude the world is taking with respect to the behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the parliament was dissolved the votes of about 30 million people were simply ignored. This is no way to run a democracy.

Morsi’s election was mishandled and the results were reliant on military arrests, a special constitutional declaration that gives the military greater power and increases their potential influence on any new Constitution. Clearly most good liberal Democrats around the world shudder at this sort of military power, but of course in Egypt it is the military that will keep the Muslim Brotherhood in check and that is probably more important.

The divisions in the Egyptian society are really quite deep. The military (essentially SCAF the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) spills over into executive power; there is no constitution so there is confusion about foundational principles; there is lack of clarity about the role of religion in government; and then there are the normal divisions of religious versus secular, modern and traditional, liberal versus conservative. The Egyptians must make progress toward consolidating their democracy and the transition to new leadership. Below are some issues relevant to this consolidation and directed towards stabilizing the Egyptian polity.

  1. Morsi is a well-known Muslim who clearly will not abandon his religious principles. This is why the selection of a Vice President who represents constituencies other than the Muslim Brotherhood would provide some welcome balance and an alternative voice. One of the lessons of democracy is that it relies on contestatory discourse not cohesion. The government of Egypt must continue to develop its skills, shall we say, with respect to incorporating and managing differences. It is also crucial that the work of writing a constitution be completed. The reorganization and redefinition of various governmental institutions can only take place within the context of constitutional political legitimacy.
  2. Along these lines, the Muslim brotherhood must support legal experts and those with contemporary interpretations of Islam with an eye toward greater inclusiveness and integration of contemporary issues into Islamic sensibilities. And Islamic political and religious organizations such as the brotherhood certainly have their own agenda which they seek to advance. But if the brotherhood is more interested in ideological purity than political pragmatism it will be a problem.
  3. The military has far too much power and this is always a dangerous situation, even though in the case of Egypt the military is holding Muslim Brotherhood in check as well as keeping the peace. The military is currently empowered to arrest and detain people without a warrant. This is not acceptable in a democracy. Moreover, the SCAF in particular must withdraw from public political activity. They currently justify their behavior because there is no constitution but this must change immediately upon completion of the constitution.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the military are the two most powerful Egyptian institutions and they must lead the way toward learning the habits of managing differences rather than imposing agendas. The international community will support Egyptian democratic transition in the form of foreign aid and support as long as Egypt can achieve the proper balance is between religion and democracy – difficult as that is. Egypt has a long and noble history that has prepared it more than others to accept the new democratic climate brought about by the Arab spring. They should be commended for the relatively peaceful protest and their engagement in the debates surrounding their own cultural change. At the moment the Egyptian pyramids have been turned on their pointed sides and are teetering: important changes are necessary so the strong and broad foundation that has sustained these pyramids for centuries can return to its rightful place.

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