The legal and political standing of Jerusalem remains unclear and subject to confusion. Recall from last week’s post that when the United Nations decided to divide Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state Jerusalem was not included. It was to be administered by an international group until some equitable agreement could be reached as a result of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Some such third-party administering unit is still a viable idea that may be a part of an end-of-conflict solution. It recognizes the importance of the religious sites for all groups and keeps the various sides engaged with one another. Still, the likelihood that Israel will forgo sovereignty over the old city is slim.
But the Arabs did not accept the partition plan and war was the result. At the end of the war in 1948 Israel had taken West Jerusalem and Jordan East Jerusalem including the old city, the center of the religious life. During the 19 years that Jordan occupied East Jerusalem the Palestinians grew into a nationalist movement and made increasing demands on Jerusalem as a future capital. But after 1967 Israel expanded the city’s borders and added Jewish residents to the neighborhood. As of 2015 Arabs made up 38% of the population (Central Bureau of Statistics) of Jerusalem.
The incorporation of Arab neighborhoods into the municipality of Jerusalem has created a regular tension between Palestinians and Israelis. For example, the Palestinians do not participate – or participate minimally – in civil society governance and therefore suffer from poor services with respect to roads, schools, garbage collection etc. The Palestinians are designated as permanent residents but such a status can be revoked at any time.
In East Jerusalem Israel has also incorporated some neighborhoods that were never a part of Jerusalem in the first place, and has built new neighborhoods intended for Jews only. This, of course, is the settler problem along with the aggressive appropriation of land designed to create “facts on the ground.” Interestingly, much of this policy has made things even worse as it becomes increasingly difficult to divide Jerusalem and assign sections of the city to the Palestinians and others to the Israelis. And Palestinians consistently maintain that there will be no Palestinian state that does not include Jerusalem as its capital.
Finally, any future Jerusalem that has the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and Israel’s capital in the West must be the result of mutual agreement and acceptance because there cannot be a dividing line strictly separating the two sides. There must be free and easy movement if the religious sites of the old city are to be available to everyone.
The notion that the two state solution is dead because the United States will move (not until 2020) its embassy to Jerusalem is indefensible. A two state solution with Jerusalem as a capital for both sides has been a part of just about everybody’s proposal from Clinton, to Barak, to Olmert.
Trump’s speech did recognize a reality that negotiations and discussions between Israelis and Palestinians are still viable. And, on the contrary, this move by the United States does not distort the peace process but stimulates it.
Some problems can’t be solved. The fundamental assumptions and philosophy of two competing sides ensnared in the problem cannot be reconciled. Let me elaborate with an example:
There is a concept used by myself and conflict resolution specialists, a concept in particular associated with work by Cass Sunstein, called incomplete theorization. Sunstein, as a lawyer, is concerned with constitutionalism and how you write such constitutions that are effective when people disagree about so many things. Here is how Sunstein poses the issue. Again, he is talking about constitutions but tell me whether or not incomplete theorization sounds like the primary conundrum for the Israelis and Palestinians.
Incompletely theorized agreements help illuminate an enduring constitutional puzzle: how members of diverse societies can work together in terms of mutual respect amidst intense disagreements about both the right and the good.
People often agree on practices but not on theories. Therefore many problems have to be solved as incompletely theorized agreements. Sunstein continues:
The agreement on particulars is incompletely theorized in the sense that the relevant participants are clear on the practice or the result without agreeing on the most general theory that accounts for it. Often people can agree that a rule—protecting political dissenters, allowing workers to practice their religion—makes sense without entirely agreeing on the foundations of their belief.
Incomplete theorization has the advantage of turning attention away from difficult philosophical issues which are typically a combustible mix of foundational beliefs that cannot be reconciled. Moreover, attention to concrete practices has a better chance of success and acceptance which can likely lead to other areas of agreement as participants practice the habits of agreement.
So, let’s incompletely theorize an issue for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The division of Jerusalem into municipalities will not be solved by weighty discussions of Jerusalem’s history and who has rights conferred by kings or gods. But East Jerusalem neighborhoods are home to 300,000 Palestinians–and no Jews. The parties can’t wait for philosophical issues to be solved about historic Jerusalem. Separating the neighborhood would reduce the number of West Bank Palestinians subject to direct Israeli rule and remove a serious point of contention. Also, it would lighten Israel’s economic burden. Moving the security fence away from a hostile population, rather than moving people, would certainly be easier and less traumatic. Both Israelis and Palestinians would benefit without agreeing to any kind of philosophical supporting rationale.
Here’s another incompletely theorized condition.
Israel has serious security issues and must remain in control of the “West Bank.” However, Palestinians should have full autonomy as an “unincorporated territory.” Until the Palestinians agree to peace with Israel, they could be welcomed as partners in the Israeli economic system and should be able to fully participate in Israel’s commercial and creative life. Even without statehood, in less than a generation the Palestinians could become more prosperous and prepare one day for peace.
If one thought this through I would expect there are many practicalities that could be achieved without the burden of deeper philosophical rationales.
Changing the attitudes, beliefs, or values of someone else has always been a central research concern in the social sciences. Theories of social influence, group decision-making, contact, and conflict resolution are all concerned with solving problems or getting one party to change in an effort to redress differences or keep the peace. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen in their book, Difficult Conversations, write about strategies for talking to one another when the subject is anything you find difficult to deal with. This could be political opinions expressed in a newspaper or relational issues between couples concerning gender, equity, or housework.
In my own book, Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict, I write about difficult conversations between ethnopolitical groups where ethnicity and religion are implicated and the conflicts are contentious and intense with deep implications for identity and nationalism. So this issue of change or solving problems runs the gamut from mundane micro issues to politically significant macro concerns.
We see this distinction expressed in the realm of politics in the contrast between those with a slow hand and diplomatic sensibilities who search for common ground and invoke a strategy of engagement, compared to those who carry a bigger stick and keep an opponent in check out of fear or raw power. Scholars continue to argue over the basic theory here about whether or not reaching out to opponents and overtures of engagement and mutual reciprocity actually have any effect on adversaries, or whether or not a strong stance forcing adversaries into submission is more effective. This question is even more interesting when posed as an option for dealing with strong autocratic forces that have little history of democratization or facilitative engagement. The oppositional stance differences between Obama and Trump is an example.
But I would argue that the historical record, and the brunt of research efforts, clearly favors a strategy of accommodation rather than intimidation – a strategy of communicative contact and reciprocity. During the last few decades in the United States those with a more confrontational stance have claimed they favor engagement and reciprocity but demand conditions be met first by the other side such as democratization. Telling Iran or some ethnopolitical group they must democratize before the US will engage in respectful reciprocal relations is a grand goal but pretty unattainable. There are reasons to engage the other side without requiring them first to be more democratic.
For example, business relations and interdependent economic and financial exchanges are typically thought to be a form of rational engagement that promotes cooperation and has economic benefits. The standard thinking is that such economic arrangements promote peace and rapprochement, but there are arguments for the other way around that peaceful and cooperative relationships must come first and business exchanges follow. Clearly, a politician like Obama was attacked for referring to such a strategy and called “weak.” In fact, it went further than that because Obama was described as putting the country in jeopardy and subjecting us to disrespect.
But cautious engagement is better than mutual hostility that can escalate at any moment. Surely, cautious engagement requires the participation of both sides and reciprocity and this will take time. These “difficult conversations” must be developed and nurtured along a pathway to peace and their complexities are many. But still, by the standards of history and scholarship it is better than the alternative.
The two-state solution to the Palestinian problem continues to be a hopeful image and a rational solution that benefits everyone. Historically there was considerable popular support for the two -state solution but surprisingly enough it seems to be waning. The two-state solution is now in jeopardy. Mosaic, a magazine of Jewish thought, recently published a thorough article reporting polling results that serve as evidence for what Palestinians actually think of the two-state solution. The most common line of thinking has been that everyone supports the two-state solution but leadership and provocative actions from both sides threaten its possibilities.
And we don’t have to guess Palestinian opinions about two-states because polling the Palestinians is persistent and, according to experts, of high quality. Moreover, a variety of reputable organizations frequently poll the Palestinians.
So what do the Palestinians think of the two-state solution?
When asked a direct question about their support for the two-state solution, over a two-year period (from 2012 to 2014), 52% of the Palestinians supported a two-state solution. That number dropped to just under 50% from 2014 to 2016. The average level of support by Israelis was 59%. Over time that number decreased slightly.
This general question about two states is by itself only minimally of interest but when it is converted into specific policy the results are very interesting. One polling study offered to Palestinians a solution package that was beyond what had ever been endorsed by an Israeli government. Palestinians were presented with a two-state solution in which the state was established in line with 1967 borders, East Jerusalem would be the capital and Palestinians would control the Al-Aqsa mosque, they would be allowed a strong security force, and provisions would be made for refugees. The solution package was considered to be acceptable to Israelis and include a generous response to all key issues.
This hypothetical solution was met with more opponents than supporters. There were more opponents 14 times out of the 16 times the package was presented to the Palestinian public. The deal was rejected about 54% of the time and decreased over time such that an average of 61% opposed the deal. Palestinian opposition intensified when they were presented with specific components of a resolution. They rejected the definition of East Jerusalem as their capital, did not think the proposal for refugees was sufficient, and strongly rejected the requirement that Palestine be a demilitarized state. Finally, only 39% of the Palestinians responded affirmatively to a statement that required the recognition of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
There are other responses to the specific planks of the proposal but the main point as of now is that the Palestinians generally indicate support for two-state solution, but continue to express opposition to the specifics of a generous offer available in the near future. I would add that a number of Palestinians (especially intellectuals) support a one-state or a binational solution, which has never been acceptable to the Israelis or discussed seriously as a political possibility.
But the most troubling finding reported in the Mosaic article is that there has been a regular increase (13% to 18%) in the number of Palestinians who support an “Islamic solution” which calls for a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. This is a position more in line with a “liberation of Palestine” perspective rather than a negotiated political solution. When polls asked Palestinians to make a choice between a single state, or a two-state solution, an unexpected 62% indicate their preference for a Palestinian single state in all of historic Palestine. Subsequent polls found that “reclaiming historic Palestine” was the first choice of 60% of respondents.
This more extreme position does not bode well for negotiations or solutions to problems. It indicates a radicalization that will only further divide the two groups. It represents a rejection of the recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and polarizes the discourse by assuming positions that are untenable or considered extreme by the other side. The next post will explore in more detail the implications and the explanations for this liberation preference.
Some believe things are quiet in the Middle East but actually they are stagnating. The governance situation in Palestinian territories is getting worse and both Israel and Palestine are facing untenable governing situations. For starters, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority remains limited. And these limitations will eventually affect US policy and interests with the US doing relatively little to influence Palestinian politics.
There is simply no substitute for strong political parties and institutions. Hamas is a terrorist organization that cannot be dealt with and should not be recognized. Then again, if Hamas were a genuine partner in the peace process (something, as of now, difficult to imagine), and they were truly committed to establishing some sort of stability, than they should be part of the process. Fatah, on the other hand, suffers from corruption, lethargy, and a general lack of professionalism. Some of these issues can be addressed by the United States but they also require a political will lacking in the PA.
It’s curious to note that the Palestinian Authority seems to respond more to local values and rhetoric than it does international influences. This limits the role of the United States. The US has negligible influence when it comes to the technical details of Palestinian governance and institutions. This leaves the US doing little more than publicly making statements about deficiencies and problems and subjecting the Palestinians and the Israelis to a discourse of criticism on the international stage. If there were actually consequences of this criticism that it might serve some productive value, but generalized statements criticizing the democratic behavior of the Palestinians or the Israelis seems to have little effect on either.
But as research in the peace and development process indicates, civil society is one of the most important entry points when trying to create new structures and improved relations. Civil society is that level of the polity that includes trade unions, professional associations, educational exchanges, mid-level business activity, and government exchanges. Here, the United States can maintain some influence and viability. It should support NGOs providing services to the public and require the PA to manage civil society effectively. Some NGOs have been controversial in the past with questionable goals and activities indicating that transparency is important.
The US should direct its attention more to working with the legitimacy and effectiveness of Palestinian institutions, especially at the civil society level. The US can help encourage technically skilled reformers and stimulate improved stability and effectiveness. Assistance at this civil society level avoids the ceremonial and political trappings of negotiation among state leaders and still positively influences the institutional development of society. An emphasis on the negotiation communication process at the state level inevitably encounters the stagnation and recalcitrance of Palestinian institutions which makes it even more difficult to initiate new productive directions toward peace and stability. The civil society level makes for interactions that are rationalized through business exchanges and necessary governing processes but still require contact among citizens.
I’m referring here to the Palestinian Authority and the development of its institutions as opposed to the Israelis. Israeli institutions are of course well established within their culture and society but in the future this civil society level will apply equally to the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Right now the US is in no position to create powerful conditions for change or improvement of prospects for peace. But they can still be influential in preventing the continued undermining of governance, and the development of the all-important civil society that provides a stable foundation for institutions.
The Palestinians have been politically dominated by two organizations. Fatah is a secular liberation movement that has had the most influence on Palestinian politics. The other group is Hamas and they are an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas became more popular in the 1990s and had a very successful winning election season in 2006. Hamas is violent and has a tense and difficult relationship with Fatah. There have been other political movements but none have been successful. Hamas is governed very poorly in the Gaza Strip and has little confidence from the public. But the public does appreciate Hamas’s aggressive and challenging stance toward Israel.
A poll reported in an article on Palestinian political rejuvenation (available here), which asked participants what party they would choose in a parliamentary vote, indicated that 32.1% of the Palestinians preferred Hamas, 36.9% preferred Fatah and a full 24.1% said none of the above. These data illustrate how “stuck” the Palestinians are. Minor parties have no traction at all and a significant portion of the population is unsatisfied with either of the two major parties.
Progress toward political legitimacy and independence is hindered by the authoritarian nature of both parties. Both parties have the mechanisms of failing political machinery built into their structure. Unfortunately, these mechanisms include control over government institutions, patronage, and the suppression of dissent. Human rights organizations report that both the PA and Hamas have fashioned the politics of failure by creating standard structures of corruption which include unlawful arrest, poor court systems, suppression of expression, and patronage.
One serious problem is that the PA and Hamas define themselves as liberation movements rather than political development movements. Even after all these years, the PA still uses the language of struggle and presents a narrative rooted in oppression and vulnerability. Clearly, oppression and vulnerability are characteristic of the Palestinian political situation but focusing on these things and ignoring all attempts at genuine political reform is the reason for stagnation when it comes to possibilities for new Palestinian politics. Both Hamas and the PA define the occupation as definitionally tied to the Palestinian identity and anything that does not address the occupation directly is misguided or irrelevant. Those Palestinians attempting genuine change (e.g. Salam Fayyad) are quickly marginalized and labeled as stooges of the United States or Israel.
Moreover, the PA cares more about international attention – and the accompanying international condemnation of Israel – than it does about internal reforms. Such international attention would wane if the PA were focused on building institutions and structural change. In fact, progress in those areas is almost discouraged because it would give the impression that the occupation is less important.
Opinion polls in Palestine show support in the public for change but as of now the support has not been converted into political authenticity. Although the international community is sympathetic toward the Palestinians, they too want change. It does not seem like internal political reforms will be a successful platform for a new Palestinian politics. A solution to the problem will require not only outside help but progress on the key contentious issues between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinian leaders are probably correct – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must come first.
Any peace deal signed by Trump will, by definition, be tainted and suspicious. It will lack credibility and be untrustworthy from the start. Even when he steps forward and espouses generalities about progress the public will be very skeptical. His word is one of the last things most people trust. Trump is a hustler and he will sell you whatever he thinks can turn a profit. Remember Trump vodka, steaks, marriages and my favorite–Trump University. A Trump peace proposal will be to peace proposals what Trump University was to education, a quickly constructed pseudo-product designed for the self-aggrandizement of Trump more than anything else.
Trump has no fire in his belly to solve the problem; it is not something he has struggled with for years and been committed to. Trump’s history is one of bungled deals, exaggerated claims, manipulations, lies and hyperbolic assertions. He is insufficiently knowledgeable about Jewish history and the State of Israel and he has cleansed his trip to Israel of most anything “Jewish”. He will speak at the airport, the Israel Museum, the King David Hotel, and the Prime Minister’s residence (directly across the street from my apartment). He will go to the Western Wall but not without somebody on the staff foolishly claiming it’s not part of Israel. He reduced his time at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial) to 15 minutes. That’s 2½ minutes per million.
Trump is in no position to make progress on anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sure, he has to report some success so expect something like the following during a post-trip interview:
“We really made tremendous progress with the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s really going to be terrific, everybody says so. We are going to work out a deal and it’s going to be great for both sides. We have the best people working on and it is going to be great.”
Trump is all wrong for the nuances necessary to manage the conflict. Trump is better mano-a-mano and much more comfortable speaking bluntly and broadly. This is all one reason he won’t make much progress. There will be confidence building activity such as slowdowns on settlements and expressions of agreement about borders and concessions but that will be about it. But if Trump is serious about making progress here are three suggestions for him. And since Trump is quite concerned about “not being Obama” increased incorporation of these principles will be helpful with that.
- In particular, Abbas must answer to the larger Arab world as well as his own community. He cannot just give away what is considered by many Muslims to be holy land. Thus, Trump should increase the involvement of countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt in order to provide increased legitimization for the process and the Palestinian position in particular.
- Trump should insist on the improvement of infrastructure and internal politics of the Palestinians. The PLA have not sufficiently used their worldwide support to build civil society and services for the population. They need to stop practices such as paying terrorist families.
- And Israel must be required to cease and control settlement development. The settlements are perhaps the major obstacle to progress and nothing will happen if settlement expansion continues.
Even though, as I said above, that any deal with Trump would be immediately suspect he will be moving in the right direction if he focuses on the three suggestions above. Then he will have made a terrific deal and everybody will say so.
In the West peace means predominantly the absence of war. Peace is the result of institutional agreements or the regulation of behavior and mutual negotiations about what is considered threatening or unacceptable to each side. Solving conflicts is a rational problem-solving activity and reason is primary. It is possible to settle Islamic conflicts and make peace, but it must be done within the conceptual context of the Koran. And in many ways this is not so different from other religions.
In the Muslim tradition peace is associated with human development and justice, but justice that is rooted in the Koran more than secular reason. Peace implies the maintenance of human dignity and a sense of balance and coherence in society. Peace in Islam is associated with God and considered to be one of the names for God. There are roughly 5 approaches to peace.
Power: In Islam sometimes it is necessary to simply assert political power and use secular tools to manage disorder; disorder and chaos are considered threats to Islam and must be dealt with. This approach emphasizes political necessities because the population or some aspect of the community is threatening the good order of Islam.
Peace Based on Koranic Law: Peace is a condition of the Koran and violations of rules are inconsistent with peace. The values of the Koran must be in place or the community is characterized as unstable and disorderly. A situation in which these values are not present may be characterized as disorderly, unstable and un-Islamic. Sometimes this approach can be abused because of the easy or casual assertion that Islamic law is being violated and thus harsh consequences are justified.
Peace Through the Power of Communication: There is a tradition of mediation and arbitration (these are fundamentally communicative in nature) in Islam. The concept of balance remains important here. This is the notion of peace which is consistent with the West and some secular approaches. It recognizes that balance in society is not only maintained by religious precept but by restorative justice. Consequently, those who have experienced loss can be compensated or when one family is disadvantaged by another balance is restored through repayment or restoration of some type.
Peace Through Power: Islam also calls for nonviolence and the maintenance of security even when these things must be maintained through traditional power. Again, the approach is rooted in a concept of coherence and balance where peace is maintained by responding to the other’s needs. Secure and authentic peace must be rooted in human dignity.
Peace Through the Regard for the Other: The love of God in the precepts of Islam make for a broad and encompassing harmony. Again, this is a place where the religious and the secular can meet because one is expressed by the other. Each person is able to turn inward and find the value in the other through Islam. There is room here for change and transformation including the possibility of redemption.
Islam recognizes that humans are social and must live together. Thus, there has developed a line of thinking from religious documents to the daily organization of society. This is essentially the relationship between Islam and the state. There is much in Islam that puts the community’s interest first. But most important of all is the consistency between religious principles and the political system which always provides an avenue of redress. The community always has its mundane and routine needs but these are rooted in tradition, respect, and consistency with Islamic law. Islam is a classically collectivist culture where individuals are less important than the collectivity. Individuals are punished or judged to the extent that they disturb the good order of the community. The individual counts little by himself – a concept quite different in the West. It is the clan or society that has the right to protect itself by punishing a recalcitrant individual. Someone’s guilt or innocence is couched in the context of threatening or sustaining the community. And there must be an authority (textual or human) responsible for maintaining community order. This is regarded as absolutely necessary since society without authority is impossible.
There remains those who still discount the centrality of communication and believe that difficult conflicts such as Israel-Palestine simply must continue with bloodshed, difficulty, and recalcitrance. But the argument landscape while not pristine could arc toward success with just a little help. Below are some data (see The Program for Public Consultation, US Institute of Peace for additional data and sources) that lay out the argument landscape and strongly suggest that with more work the scales can be tipped toward acceptance.
There are more than a few rational voices populating this conflict and there’s a fair amount of agreement over what solutions could look like if people were truly willing to achieve peace. Solutions are not so difficult; there are plenty of them. The difficulty is getting people to the discussion table. In the table below is a proposed final status package deal. It deals with final status issues and covers what many specialists considered to be the key points. It is rational, sensible, and workable.
In a study conducted by the principal investigators sponsored by the Program for Public Consultation both the Israelis and the Palestinians were presented this package. Each side generated arguments for and against the proposal.
So the terms of the package deal are as follows:
1. A sovereign Palestinian state would be established. The boundaries would generally be based on 1967 borders, but Israel would annex 3-4% of the West Bank that includes major settlement blocks with comparable land swaps to be
2. Gaza and the West Bank would have a secure, unobstructed link, either in theform of a tunnel, highway or bridge.
3. For Jerusalem, Israel would have sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods,while the new Palestinian state would have neighborhoods. The Walled City would be under a special regime that would include both international control, and Israeli and Palestinian participation.
4. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians would have military forces in the Palestinian state, but Palestinian Security Forces would handle internal security in the Palestinian State. International military forces, such as NATO forces possibly under American command, would be stationed along the Jordan River.
5. Palestinian refugees would be compensated for loss of property, would be allowed to return to the Palestinian state, with a limited number being allowed to return to Israel.
6. Palestinians would recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people and of all its citizens.
7. Israel and Arab and Muslim states would establish full diplomatic relations and open trade.
8. Israel and the Palestinians state would explicitly agree to end the conflict and Palestinians would relinquish all claims pertaining to the conflict.
Although the original report contains considerably more detail, the primary conclusion is that each side after evaluating the arguments found the negative arguments to be substantially more convincing. About 50% of the participants from each side would recommend accepting the package. That is not a bad number. The Israeli Jews who preferred rejection were asked their reasons and it was because they did not believe the Palestinians would accept the framework so there was no point in them accepting it.
Moreover, both sides said that if the other side accepted the agreement the likelihood of additional acceptance was strong. The key issue here is that these arguments are rejected or held at a distance because of failures of trust and additional communication – just enough additional communication to alter the landscape and manage the arguments that are the primary points of contention.
The study also reported that the two issues most widely cited as a problem where the division of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state with land swaps. Recognition of Israel as a home of the Jews and a Jewish state is also a difficult issue.
The issues here are no longer one of achieving the best Habermasian ideal argument. The influence of psychological resistances, the difficulty of change, trust, and the willingness to form new relationships are the barriers to improving the landscape. Continuing to confront the arguments along with civic, interpersonal, and political engagement will alter the landscape such that the flowers bloom brighter and the weeds shrivel up.
The below is from Tom Englehart and I thought it was particularly good and deserving of distribution so I reproduce it here on my blog. Tom runs TomDispatch.com and there’s information at the end of the text if you would like exposure to more of Tom’s thinking. Tom’s point in the second paragraph is well taken – whoever thought we would be on our way to a caliphate that out maneuvers us in social media. I think the issues for what America has to learn are pertinent.
Writing History Before It Happens
Nine Surefire Future Headlines From a Bizarro American World
By Tom Engelhardt
It’s commonplace to speak of “the fog of war,” of what can’t be known in the midst of battle, of the inability of both generals and foot soldiers to foresee developments once fighting is underway. And yet that fog is nothing compared to the murky nature of the future itself, which, you might say, is the fog of human life. As Tomorrowlands at world fairs remind us, despite a human penchant for peering ahead and predicting what our lives will be like, we’re regularly surprised when the future arrives.
Remind me who, even among opponents and critics of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, ever imagined that the decision to take out Saddam Hussein’s regime and occupy the country would lead to a terror caliphate in significant parts of Iraq and Syria that would conquer social media and spread like wildfire. And yet, don’t think that the future is completely unpredictable either.
In fact, there’s a certain repetition factor in our increasingly bizarro American world that lends predictability to that future. In case you hadn’t noticed, a range of U.S. military, intelligence, and national security measures that never have the effects imagined in Washington are nonetheless treasured there. As a result, they are applied again and again, usually with remarkably similar results.
The upside of this is that it offers all of us the chance to be seers (or Cassandras). So, with an emphasis on the U.S. national security state and its follies, here are my top nine American repeat headlines, each a surefire news story guaranteed to appear sometime, possibly many times, between June 2015 and the unknown future.
1. U.S. air power obliterates wedding party: Put this one in the future month and year of your choice, add in a country somewhere in the Greater Middle East or Africa. The possibilities are many, but the end result will be the same. Dead wedding revelers are a repetitious certainty. If you wait, the corpses of brides and grooms (or, as the New York Post put it, “Bride and Boom!”) will come. Over the years, according to the tabulations of TomDispatch, U.S. planes and drones have knocked off at least eight wedding parties in three countries in the Greater Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen) and possibly more, with perhaps 250 revelers among the casualties.
And here’s a drone headline variant you’re guaranteed to see many times in the years to come: “U.S. drone kills top al-Qaeda/ISIS/al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula/[terror group of your choice] leader” — with the obvious follow-up headlines vividly illustrated in Andrew Cockburn’s new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins: not the weakening but the further strengthening and spread of such organizations. And yet the White House is stuck on its drone assassination campaigns and the effectiveness of U.S. air power in suppressing terror outfits. In other words, air and drone campaigns of this sort will remain powerful tools not in a war on terror, but in one that creates terror with predictable headlines assured.
2. Latest revelation indicates that FBI [NSA, CIA] surveillance of Americans far worse than imagined: Talk about no-brainers. Stories of this sort appear regularly and, despite a recent court ruling that the NSA’s mass collection of the phone metadata of Americans is illegal, there’s every reason to feel confident that this will not change. Most recently, for instance, an informant-filled FBI program to spy on, surveil, and infiltrate the anti-Keystone XL Pipeline movement made the news (as well as the fact that, in acting as it did, the Bureau had “breached its own internal rules”). In other words, the FBI generally acted as the agency has done since the days of J. Edgar Hoover when it comes to protest in this country.
Beneath such reports lies a deeper reality: the American national security state, which has undergone an era of unprecedented expansion, is now remarkably unconstrained by any kind of serious oversight, the rule of law, or limits of almost any sort. It should be clear by now that the urge for ever more latitude and power has become part of its institutional DNA. It has already created a global surveillance system of a kind never before seen or imagined, not even by the totalitarian regimes of the last century. Its end goal is clearly to have access to everyone on the planet, Americans included, and every imaginable form of communication now in use. There was to be a sole exception to this blanket system of surveillance: the official denizens of the national security state itself. No one was to have the capacity to look at them. This helps explain why its top officials were so viscerally outraged by Edward Snowden and his revelations. When someone surveilled them as they did others, they felt violated and deeply offended.
When you set up a system that is so unconstrained, of course, you also encourage its opposite: the urge to reveal. Hence headline three.
3. FBI [NSA, CIA, DIA, or acronym of your choice] whistleblower charged by administration under the Espionage Act for revealing to reporter [any activity of any sort from within the national security state]: Amid the many potential crimes committed by those in the national security state in this period (including torture, kidnapping, illegal imprisonment, illegal surveillance, and assassination), the record of the Bush and Obama administrations is clear. In the twenty-first century, only one act is a crime in official Washington: revealing directly or indirectly to the American people what their government is doing in their name and without their knowledge. In the single-minded pursuit and prosecution of this single “crime,” the Obama administration has set a record for the use of the Espionage Act. The tossing of Chelsea Manning behind bars for 35 years; the hounding of Edward Snowden; the jailing of Stephen Kim; the attempt to jail CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling for at least 19 years (the judge “only” gave him three and a half); the jailing of John Kiriakou, the sole CIA agent charged in the Agency’s torture scandal (for revealing the name of an agent involved in it to a newspaper reporter), all indicate one thing: that maintaining the aura of secrecy surrounding our “shadow government” is considered of paramount importance to its officials. Their desire to spy on and somehow control the rest of us comes with an urge to protect themselves from exposure. As it happens, no matter what kinds of clampdowns are instituted, the creation of such a system of secrecy invites and in its own perverse way encourages revelation as well. This, in turn, ensures that no matter what the national security state may threaten to do to whistleblowers, disclosures will follow, making such future headlines predictable.
4. Contending militias and Islamic extremist groups fight for control in shattered [fill in name of country somewhere in the Greater Middle East or Africa] after a U.S. intervention [drone assassination campaign, series of secret raids, or set of military-style activities of your choice]: Look at Libya and Yemen today, look at the fragmentation of Iraq, as well as the partial fragmentation of Pakistan and even Afghanistan. American interventions of the twenty-first century seem to carry with them a virus that infects the nation-state and threatens it from within. These days, it’s also clear that, whether you look at Democrats or Republicans, some version of the war-hawk party in Washington is going to reign supreme for the foreseeable future. Despite the dismal record of Washington’s military-first policies, such power-projection will undoubtedly remain the order of the day in significant parts of the world. As a result, you can expect American interventions of all sorts (even if not full-scale invasions). That means further regional fragmentation, which, in turn, means similar headlines in the future as central governments weaken or crumble and warring militias and terror outfits fight it out in the ruins of the state.
5. [King, emir, prime minister, autocrat, leader] of [name of U.S. ally or proxy state] snubs [rejects, angrily disputes, denounces, ignores] U.S. presidential summit meeting [joint news conference, other event]: This headline is obviously patterned on recent news: the announcement that Saudi King Salman, who was to attend a White House summit of the Gulf states at Camp David, would not be coming. This led to a spate of “snub” headlines, along with accounts of Saudi anger at Obama administration attempts to broker a nuclear peace deal with Iran that would free that country’s economy of sanctions and so potentially allow it to flex its muscles further in the Middle East.
Behind that story lies a far bigger one: the growing inability of the last superpower to apply its might effectively in region after region. Historically, the proxies and dependents of great powers — take Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam in the early 1960s — have often been nationalists and found their dependency rankling. But private gripes and public slaps are two very different things. In our moment, Washington’s proxies and allies are visibly restless and increasingly less polite and the Obama administration seems strangely toothless in response. Former President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan may have led the way on this, but it’s a phenomenon that’s clearly spreading. (Check out, for instance, General Sisi of Egypt or Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.) Even Washington’s closest European allies seem to be growing restless. In a recent gesture that (Charles de Gaulle aside) has no companion in post-World War II history, England, Germany, and Italy agreed to become founding members of a new Chinese-led Asian regional investment bank. They did so over the public and private objections of the Obama administration and despite Washington’s attempts to apply pressure on the subject. They were joined by other close U.S. allies in Asia. Given Washington’s difficulty making its power mean something in recent years, it’s not hard to predict more snubs and slaps from proxies and allies alike. Fortunately, Washington has one new ally it might be able to count on: Cuba.
6. Twenty-two-year-old [18-year-old, age of your choice] Arab-American [Somali-American, African-American or Caucasian-American convert to Islam] arrested for planning to bomb [drone attack, shoot up] the Mall of America [Congress, the Empire State Building, other landmark, transportation system, synagogue, church, or commercial location] by the FBI thanks to a Bureau informer: This is yet another no-brainer of a future headline or rather set of headlines. So far, just about every high-profile terror “plot” reported (and broken up) in this country has involved an FBI informer or informers and most of them have been significantly funded, inspired, or even organized by that agency right down to the fake weaponry the “terrorists” used. Most of the “plotters” involved turned out to be needy and confused losers, sometimes simply hapless, big-mouthed drifters, who were essentially incapable, whatever their thinking, of developing and carrying out an organized terror attack on their own. There are only a few exceptions, including the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and the Times Square car bombing of 2010 (foiled by two street vendors).
What the FBI has operated in these years is about as close as you can get to an ongoing terrorism sting-cum-scam operation. Though Bureau officials undoubtedly don’t think of it so crudely, it could be considered an effective part of a bureaucratic fundraising exercise. Keep in mind that the massive expansion of the national security state has largely been justified by the fear of one thing: terrorism. In terms of actual casualties in the U.S. since 9/11, terrorism has not been a significant danger and yet the national security state as presently constituted makes no sense without an overwhelming public and congressional fear of terrorism. So evidence of regular terror “plots” is useful indeed. Publicity about them, which runs rampant whenever one of them is “foiled” by the Bureau, generates fear, not to say hysteria here, as well as a sense of the efficiency and accomplishment of the FBI. All of this ensures that, in an era highlighted by belt-tightening in Washington, the funds will continue to flow. As a result, you can count on a future in which FBI-inspired/-organized/-encouraged Islamic terrorism is a repeated fact of life in “the homeland.” (If you want to get an up-close-and-personal look at just how the FBI works with its informers in the business of entrapping of “terrorists,” check out the upcoming documentary film (T)error when it becomes available.)
7. American lone wolf terrorist, inspired by ISIS [al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, terror group of your choice] videos [tweets, Facebook pleas, recordings], guns down two [none, three, six, other number of] Americans at school [church, political gathering, mall, Islamophobic event, or your pick] before being killed [wounded, captured]: Lone wolf terrorism is nothing new. Think of Timothy McVeigh. But the Muslim extremist version of the lone wolf terrorist — and yes, Virginia, there clearly are some in this country unbalanced enough to be stirred to grim action by the videos or tweets of various terror groups — is the new kid on the block. So far, however, among the jostling crowds of American lone mass murderers who strike regularly across the country in schools, colleges, movie theaters, religious venues, workplaces, and other spots, Islamic lone wolves seem to have been a particularly ineffective crew. And yet, as with those FBI-inspired terror plots, the Islamic-American lone wolf turns out to be a perfect vehicle for creating hysteria and so the officials of the national security state wallow in high-octane statements about such dangers, which theoretically envelop us. In financial terms, the lone wolf is to the national security state what the Koch Brothers are to Republican presidential candidates, which means that you can count on terrifying headlines galore into the distant future.
8. Toddler kills mother [father, brother, sister] in [Idaho, Cleveland, Albuquerque, or state or city of your choice] with family gun: Fill in the future blanks as you will, this is a story fated to happen again and again. Statistically, death-by-toddler is a greater danger to Americans living in “the homeland” than death by terrorist, but of course it raises funds for no one. No set of agencies broadcasts hysterical claims about such killings; no set of agencies lives off of or is funded by the threat of them, though they are bound to be on the rise. The math is simple enough. In the U.S., ever more powerful guns are available, while “concealed carrying” is now legal in all 50 states and the places in which you can carry are expanding. Well over 1.3 million people have the right to carry a concealed weapon in Florida alone, and a single lobbying group in favor of such developments, the National Rifle Association, is so powerful that most politicians don’t dare take it on. Add it all up and it’s obvious that more weapons will be carelessly left within the reach of toddlers who will pick them up, pull the trigger, and kill or wound others who are literally and figuratively close to them, a searing life (and death) experience. So the future headlines are predictable.
9. President claims Americans are ‘exceptional’ and the U.S. is ‘indispensible’ to the world: Lest you think this one is a joke headline, here’s what USA Today put up in September 2013: “Obama tells the world: America is exceptional”; and here’s Voice of America in 2012: “Obama: U.S. ‘the one indispensible nation in world affairs.'” In fact, it’s unlikely a president could survive politically these days without repetitiously citing the “exceptional” and “indispensable” nature of this country. Recently, even when apologizing for a CIA drone strike in Pakistan that took out American and Italian hostages of al-Qaeda, the president insisted that we were still “exceptional” on planet Earth — for admitting our mistakes, if nothing else. On this sort of thing, the Republicans running for president and that party’s war hawks in Congress double down when it comes to heaping praise on us, making the president’s exceptionalist comments seem almost recessive by comparison. In fact, this is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. It only took off in the post-9/11 era and, as with anything emphasized too much and repeated too often, it betrays not strength and confidence but creeping doubt about the nature of our country. Once upon a time, Americans didn’t have to say such things because they seemed obvious. No longer. So await these inane headlines in the future and the repetitive litany of over-the-top self-praise that goes with them, and consider them a way to take the pulse of an increasingly anxious nation at sea with itself.
And mind you, this is just to scratch the surface of what’s predictable in the American future. I’m sure you could come up with nine similarly themed headlines in no time at all. It turns out that the key to such future stories is the lack of a learning curve in Washington, more or less a necessity if the national security state plans to continue to gain power and shed the idea that it is accountable to other Americans for anything it does. If it were capable of learning from its actions, it might not survive its own failures.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
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Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt