Monthly Archives: September 2013

This Is What Happens When You Run Computer Simulations to Solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Apparently, monster computers deep in the bowels of universities are cooking up bizarre political solutions that have grotesque shapes and unlikely survival rates. Last week in the New York Times Ian Lustick of The University of Pennsylvania wrote an opinion piece arguing that the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead and based on false assumptions. You can read the article here. The essence of Lustick’s arguments are that Palestine is more likely to be Islamist and unreceptive to the two-state solution, as well as the end of Israel’s Zionist project, demographic threats, and cultural exhaustion. Lustick goes on to explain that the two-state solution has become a slogan kept alive only by the “peace process” industry.

Ian Lustick is a highly capable well-respected political scientist who is interested in state expansion and contraction. He has written cogently about Israel for decades and offers examples of sudden changes in nations and states that result from crossing certain thresholds of acceptability. He cites the sudden rise of revolts in Ireland leading to the establishment of an independent Ireland, the powerful French influence in Algeria which seemed to matter little as Algeria became independent and the Europeans disappeared, and the supposed stability of the Soviet Union that finally broke up and morphed into other arrangements. Ian Lustick is always worth reading.

But Professor Lustick often uses computer simulations to model political polities and institutions that lead to conclusions about what forces in society might expand or contract, or overwhelm other forces in society. These models include measurement of the forces that produce change in one institution caused by another. You can see an explanation of these computer simulations here. One can recognize the language of these simulations in the Lustick article when he says things like “when those thresholds are crossed, the impossible suddenly becomes probable, with revolutionary implications for governments and nations.” These models operate by establishing thresholds that resist change but are often “crossed” and result in new and sometimes creative combinations of unity. If the theory and the simulation are sound the model can generate predictions about shifts in power, new alliances between organizational entities, and the effects of such processes as argument and deliberation.

I fear that Professor Lustick’s computers have now taken on a “Hal” persona and begun saying things that make little sense. The new predicted alliance structures are certainly creative and could only have sprung forth from the mind of an iterating computer model, but that does not make them any less silly. Here are some alliances and new environments stated by Lustick – and predicted as possibilities by his computer, and described as potentially peaceful and secure environments. I quote from the New York Times article.

“Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global Village Israeli entrepreneurs.”

“Ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists.”

“Israel’s families that came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as “Eastern,” but as Arab.”

“Israeli Jews committed above all to settling throughout the greater land of Israel may find arrangements based on a confederation, or original formula that is more attractive than narrow Israeli nationalism.”

Predictions of new alliances such as these could only come from a machine modeling theoretical processes – a machine incapable of deep political and cultural understanding. Secular Tel Aviv citizens are going to form an alliance with foreign workers and non-Jewish Russians? How exactly does that work and what do these groups have in common other than secularism. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Muslim traditionalists make common cause just because both sides are sealed in their respective religious traditions! Are there any computer models that input the history, politics, and differences between these religions and see whether such amalgamations amount to anything? I think these two groups are more likely to escalate competition and violence than form alliances. Israel’s “Eastern population” should ally with Arabs? Professor Lustick is actually suggesting that Israeli citizens develop an Arab identity rather than an Israeli or Jewish one? Difficult to imagine.

The two-state solution has plenty of life in it and is truly the best answer even though Lustick is correct that it is becoming more difficult to grasp even after all this time. Two states for two peoples is the most humane and politically democratic solution. It is a consequence of the belief that the Palestinian people constitute a collective existence deserving of political and cultural expression.

What You Probably Do Not Know about the Syrian Conflict.

It’s possible that the matter of Syria and chemical weapons is a distraction and not really the main issue, although it may have ended up serving the interests of Russia. Let me explain.

The Syrian rebels want to overthrow Assad and some may have high aspirations about democracy and regime change, but a large geopolitical energy issue is being played out here. It’s the kind of story that does not interest most people, nor get much attention in the press. God only knows that religious conflict, evil dictators, chemical weapons, and Muslim sects killing each other is far more interesting, not to mention the grandiose abstractions about democracy development.

In 2016 what is called the Islamic pipeline is set to open. This will be the largest gas pipeline in the Middle East and is being constructed by Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It is designed to run from the south of Iran to Europe and it will weave its way through Iraq, Syria, South Lebanon and the Mediterranean. As you might imagine, the pipeline has been politicized with some Muslims calling it a Shiite pipeline that will serve Shiite interests. There are more than a few journalists and commentators who have suggested that the current conflict in Syria is highly related to the pipeline politics. There are claims that Sunnis will be disadvantaged; Al Qaeda will be resurgent; Saudi Arabia wants to eliminate Assad; and Middle Eastern countries want to deny Russia. You can read more about the pipeline here.

Russia is such a big player and so prominent in the news about the Syrian conflict because they currently supply a very large portion of Europe’s energy. The new pipeline poses a threat to Russian capabilities and supply orders. Qatar would like to see Assad relieved of his duties because they proposed a gas pipeline that would traverse Syria and ship energy to Europe. Assad nixed the deal and instead signed a deal with the Russians.

A few people, mostly the alternative media, have thoroughly dismissed the issue of Assad and chemical weapons and suggested that the entire matter is about the natural gas pipeline. The charge goes that Saudi Arabia wants to remove Assad and install a favorable government which will allow the Saudis to control the flow of energy. Russia, on the other hand, supports Assad partially because he helped block the flow of natural gas to Europe which is helpful for the profits of Gazprom.

You want to hear the left-wing conspiracy theorist on this issue? Check out the site called Who Is Really behind the Syrian War? The reasoning on this site is quite poor because the commentator selectively chooses some information and interviews and uses these as authoritative when they are clearly ideologically motivated. Not only that, the assumption is that the United States and Israel are intentionally trying to destabilize the Middle East and there is a sort of conspiracy going on to topple various governments for energy reason. Again, the person who controls the site makes connections between people and countries that are unjustified in the service of some sort of conspiracy theory about Israel being concerned with the greater Israel, and the United States doing Israel’s bidding.

The news stories are full of claims about how Obama has been outmaneuvered by Putin. Putin has been close with Assad for a long time and even helped him acquire chemical weapons. The Russians have a real stake in the relationship with Syria and have probably made promises to the Syrian regime that they would help them manage the United States. It is rare that the Russians would become so involved in directly challenging the US with respect to military activity. But Putin has done just that. He has blamed chemical attacks on the rebels rather than the government, sent his representatives out to lobby the U.S. Congress, and promised to play a more supportive role in the United Nations.

Say what you will about Putin and his political and diplomatic maneuvers, it remains the case that Obama did what American citizens wanted him to do which was to avoid military intervention in Syria. Obama is to be applauded for accepting the possibility of a diplomatic solution, avoiding military action, satisfying the interests of most Americans, and “keeping the peace.”

What to Think about Syria

Maybe Saddam Hussein did not have chemical weapons but Bashar Assad does. Assad has always planned a murderous response to any sort of protest or revolt. Reports are that there are 100,000 dead Syrians, and that’s a number that is difficult to even think about. I would recommend the article below on Syria “to bomb or not to bomb.” It is a re-blog from the CNN publication called “This Just in.” The article lays out the issue pretty well with respect to a subject that does not pose any simple answers.

Like all political decisions in a democracy the answer is the result of debate and the particularly difficult problems are not easily solved. There is simply no way to know “for sure” that a military response to Syria will be successful or not. There is no way to know whether the result will be something better or worse. But that does not absolve us from the responsibility of making a decision and so it is incumbent on all of us to acquire the best information and make the best arguments. That’s why the reply below is useful. But here is the essence of my thinking.

One of the main arguments to strike Syria is that we cannot stand on the sidelines and allow such an odious act as the use of chemical weapons go unchallenged. People remind us of the 1930s and how Hitler went unchallenged until it was too late. I have grown tired of Holocaust and Hitler references over the years; it is usually a sign that the discussion is degenerating. But still, the argument does resonate. When you just stand by and do nothing than evil, as the saying goes, will prevail. Even though some people will hide their heads in the sand for a long time, you can’t do it forever.

A second argument is that nuclear and chemical weapons are considered particularly heinous and we have not seen use of them to any significant degree since World War I. And the reason for that is international condemnation and the surety of a punishment that will make their use counterproductive. I think we have to honor this historical convention. We just can’t let the use of the weapons go unnoticed; there must be a price to pay.

Third, is a moral argument. Such arguments usually fall on deaf ears and do not carry the weight of realistic foreign policy but there is a moral position to be taken based on the indiscriminate death that result from chemical weapons, and their violations of just war principles. A weapon in a just war should be a last resort and designed only to immobilize an enemy combatant – not used for psychological purposes or with a blind eye toward collateral damage, which is unavoidable in the case of an uncontrollable gaseous substance.

The leadership of the Syrian government is intertwined with some of the most anti-Semitic and violent terrorist groups and political regimes, namely, Hezbollah and Iran. Moreover, according to the New York Times the world looked away while Russia helped the Syrians acquire chemical weapons. Between Hezbollah, Iran, and Russian support Syria is on its way to being a combustible proxy state that could cause future damage to the Middle East and Israel in particular. If the Syrian regime cannot be taken down then it must be stabilized.

Assad is just a slicker version of Saddam Hussein. He’s essentially a replica of the Iraqi model where anyone who stood in the way was eliminated, and the platform of the major political party was designed to perpetuate a sectarian dictatorship. The Syrian government has been killing rebellious citizens for a number of years. And is one more example of the inconsistent application of force and foreign-policy pressure because it defies imagination how the left could call for intervention and control of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but seem to lose their integrity when it comes to intervening in Syria. Some sort of limited military intervention in Syria will not solve many problems or do much to change the situation. And, of course, the idea that the United States could get “sucked in” to additional military responses is a defensible enough point. But it is not inevitable. It is possible to maintain strong relations and diplomatic pressure and still find certain activities unacceptable and deserving of a military response. I think the use of chemical weapons satisfies anyone’s definition of “unacceptable”.


The debate on Syria: To bomb or not to bomb?

A good read.

Roger Waters of Pink Floyd: Seeker of Social Justice or Just Another Prick in the Wall

Pig w star of david

The musician Roger Waters of the rock group Pink Floyd floated a balloon that was a giant pig with a Star of David on it at a recent concert in Belgium. The image is above. You can also watch the concert video. The offending object hovered over the crowd festooned with symbols of various authoritarian governments. Waters is a known Israel hater who has tried to encourage other performers to boycott Israel and has openly espoused the flimsy old Apartheid charge. But his clownish and offensive behavior does not stop here. Waters performed holding a machine gun replica and wore black clothes with an armband reminiscent of Nazi uniforms.

Of course, the most well-known song of Rogers Waters and the rock group Pink Floyd is “Brick in the Wall.” It’s actually an excellent song and the primary refrain “you’re just another brick in the wall” has acquired cultural capital with respect to life as a machine-like authoritarian structure where individuality is blotted out. It is a metaphor for an interesting piece of social commentary. But Waters should stick to music because when he moves into serious political analysis he falters. Still, who is this guy and what should we think of him?

Waters hides behind the freedom of expression defense, which is his right, but does he make legitimate criticisms of Israel or is he just a rank anti-Semite? Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center says Waters is dangerous and an “open hater of Jews.” You can read about Waters and his exchange with the good Rabbi here. Moreover, as blatant and crude as Waters is he holds himself to be a defender of peace and a seeker of justice. When the Rabbi points to his anti-Semitism about all waters can respond with is the old tired cliché about how “some of his best friends are Jewish.” This response would be laughable if it were not so sad.

Waters defends himself by claiming that many religious symbols were used in the show and he is trying to redefine the symbolism of the pig. It, according to Rogers, represents evil and the ill will of a misguided government. In his show Rogers tells the audience that he is going to give the symbol to them as a gift and they should destroy it. The audience then orgiasticly consumes the evil. He then goes into a fierce criticism of Israel referring to it by every anti-Semitic term he can muster.

Clearly, Waters has a right to this performance and although he is mostly just passionate – not to mention pretty uninformed – it turns out that Waters is one of those undereducated disorderly minds who just blurts out opinions without much nuance. In one of Waters’ defense of himself he accuses Rabbi Cooper of being “inflammatory and unhelpful.” For Waters to claim that anybody is inflammatory, as if it were some defect he is not guilty of, belies the imagination. He is certainly guilty of unjustified moral equivalencies. Calling terrorists groups “freedom fighters” or justified political responses, or comparing Israel to South Africa or any number of violent authoritarian groups, is based on false equivalencies that ignore political, cultural, and historical explanations and accounts.

Waters defends himself by saying he uses crucifixes, crescents and stars, hammers and cycles, the Shell Oil logo, the dollar sign, and McDonald’s sign in his shows. I rest my case. This is a mushy and haphazard conglomeration of corporate images and symbols that are supposed to represent oppression and regimentation. It is fine as red meat for the masses but what am I supposed to do with comparisons between the dollar sign and the hammer and sickle. Or, how are Islam and Christianity linked arm in arm in their stance against whatever Waters is resisting?

Israel is not a functioning theocracy nor is it even close to an Apartheid state. The Star of David on a pig is highly offensive and inflammatory and counterproductive for anything other than blatant attack on the other. It is consistent with the modern trends in anti-Semitism which is to single out Israel and ignore other considerations.

Waters turns out to be just another “prick in the wall.”

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