Bob Schwartz

Tag: Israel

Defeating ISIS: Lessons from the American and Israeli Wars of Independence

We can’t “defeat” ISIS. Not if that means declaring “victory” over Middle East-based Muslim radicalism and terror.

There are lessons from the American and Israeli Wars of Independence. This isn’t to suggest any moral equivalence comparing those world-changing events to the monstrosity of ISIS. But there are things to learn.

Both Wars of Independence were attempts to upend empire and established order and create a new model (both uprisings, not coincidentally, involving the British). Both were insurgencies by True Believers, one political and economic, one religious. Both are examples of the power of the heart, because the heart not only wants what the heart wants, it will do anything to get what the heart wants. True belief will find a way.

The British thought that their massive and formal force would roll right over the Americans. They did not count on all sorts of stealthy and tricky techniques, on secret communications, on a guerilla war. Mostly, the British didn’t account for the depth of American commitment: hearts and minds and souls. It may not always work that way, but competitions often go, simply, to the side that just wants it more. And that would be the Americans.

The British were never quite sure what they were doing in Palestine. But they did know something about world order and keeping order. Besides, some Brits didn’t much like the Jews anyway. The Zionists believed, literally, that they had God on their side. As far as hearts and minds and souls getting what they want, doing anything to win did mean the occasional act of terror (for example, the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, leaving 96 dead). As far as who wanted it more, the founders of the modern Jewish state not only defeated the British, but turned back all attempts by hate-fueled neighbors to root them out.

In the aftermath of Paris, just as with 9/11 and other recent terrible events, if we keep talking simplistically about “defeating”, “eliminating” or “building American-style democracy”, we are—there’s no other way to say this—fools. We should eliminate and prevent horror, terror and monstrosity wherever and whenever we can. But if we think that the toxic mixture of true belief, grievance and pathology is just going to vanish because we are purer and more powerful, that would be funny if it weren’t so sad and dangerous.

If you don’t think that hearts, minds and souls matter when it comes to extremism, just look at the sorry record of irresolute and wasteful wars when we ignore that. We may feel righteous and superior, and want to vindicate civilization. But that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to be smart. Smart about what we face, what we can accomplish and how to accomplish it. So we can do some good, and do less harm.

Netanyahu Scapegoats the Palestinians for Holocaust

The Jews killed Jesus. The Palestinians started the Holocaust. So who’s the scapegoat now?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that in the early days leading up to World War II, Hitler visited the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and it was that Palestinian leader who came up with the idea of the Final Solution:

“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’

Historians have already weighed in heavily on how historically bogus this is, given that, among other things, Hitler published Mein Kampf three years before that meeting. The assertion has been described as “jaw-dropping”, with even friendly politicians “agog” at this dark nonsense.

Just when you thought it was the Jews who have for centuries been scurrilously blamed for every terrible thing, Netanyahu goes and turns the tables and scapegoats somebody else. Not just any somebody else. The enemy within and on the borders, the one that you could happily live without.

It appears that the very unpopular Prime Minister is trying to take lessons from Donald Trump, with whom he shares the kinship of attending Wharton. The strategy: Demonize those unwanted immigrants and/or natives. Say anything, no matter how incendiary, explosive, ridiculous or unrelated to fact about the enemies within, and people will love it. And you.

Just one glitch. Trump doesn’t lead a nation at the center of global conflict; actually he doesn’t lead any nation at all. And if America has a history of scapegoating, which it does (take your pick among religious, cultural, political and ethnic groups), it doesn’t compare in long-term viciousness to what the Jews have endured.

Starting, of course, with the big one. In fact, if you look closely at Netanyahu’s indictment, it is not that the Palestinians actually ran the death camps. They just planted the idea, whispering in the ear of an emperor, who was happy to carry out the deed. This time a German emperor, instead of Roman one.

Who’s the scapegoat now?

Why We Should Not Give Up on Global Nuclear Disarmament

Ban the Bomb

It is picture as quaint as someone dialing a telephone: protestors in the 1950s and 1960s marching around with signs that say “Ban the Bomb.”

Quaint because so many countries now have nuclear weapons that getting rid of them all borders on the ridiculous. And it’s not just major powers; smaller nations who have developed nuclear weapons consider themselves “major” for having done so. (It sure beats the trouble of developing a sustainable, healthy economy and democracy.) Speaking of democracy, nuclear armament is all so complex that one of the bright lights of a hyperdangerous region refuses to acknowledge even having a nuclear stockpile, pretending to maintain the worst kept geopolitical secret in the world.

And yet: Blessed are the peacemakers. According to someone or other, they will be called children of God. This doesn’t mean that warmakers and hoarders of nuclear weapons aren’t children of God. It just means that the billions who live in the shadows of those bombs and missile warheads might not feel particularly blessed. That’s why we, and our children and our generations, shouldn’t give up on global nuclear disarmament, no matter how naïve or impossible it seems.

Obama Speech: Is It ISIS, ISIL or IS, and What is a True Religion?

Obama ISIS Speech

This is not a comprehensive review of last night’s speech by President Obama about ISIS/ISIL/IS. But if you asked me to join the millions of reviewers, descriptors that come to mind are lukewarm, vague, uninspiring, insufficiently informative, tactical (the speech, not the plan), and blah-blah-blah.

Here is one paragraph that stuck out, because it reflects two issues that may not get enough attention:

And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State.”

Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

What Is the Name of This Enterprise That We Are at War Against?

Is it ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State? This is much more significant than whether the English transliteration of the name of the Egyptian President was Morsy, Morsi, or Mursi or the Libyan dictator was Gadhafi, Qaddafi, Kadafi, Gaddafi, or Gadafy. This is our new mortal enemy, and besides, all these IS names are in English.

Different nations and different news media have different approaches to this. The BBC, for example, has settled on Islamic State, apparently opting for whatever the organization chooses to call itself. What is totally strange about the “official” U.S. nomenclature is that at the highest levels, there is no consistency. The President prefers ISIL, while those in his cabinet regularly use ISIS.

One small matter about ISIL does deserve note. The full name is the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant. I challenge many in the administration, and many in Congress, and many in the media, to explain—without Google or cheat sheet—what the Levant is. For five hundred years or so it has described the land of the eastern Mediterranean, now roughly comprising Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and contiguous countries. The word comes from the French word for “rising”, as in the east where the sun rises. It isn’t much in use any more, outside of scholarly circles and, of course, in our latest war.

So please, President Obama, if you are gathering the support of dozens of nations and hundreds of millions of Americans, let’s all decide on what to call this organization that, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, we will pursue to the Gates of Hell.

What is a True Religion?

“No religion condones the killing of innocents,” the President said. Without going into historic and contemporary detail, this is patently false. I believe the President knows better, but he didn’t want to get into a deep discussion, and instead just wanted to make a rhetorical flourish. If he doesn’t know, there are thousands of histories he can read and scholars he can consult, or even easier, news reports from the past few weeks, months, and years he can read.

If, however, he really did mean it, he has disqualified the majority of world religions from being classified as such. Which, by the way, plenty of critics of religion would applaud.

The President doesn’t have to be the Teacher in Chief, the Scholar in Chief, the Explainer in Chief, etc. Being Communicator in Chief is enough of a job, but if he just wants to say stuff for effect, without regard to its making sense or being true, we’ve already had plenty of that in years past, from those less smart or thoughtful than you. We get enough nonsense from many in Congress. Speak as if some of us are actually thinking about what you say. Because some of us are.

The Economist on Israel: Winning the Battle, Losing the War

Economist - Israel and Gaza

If you read the biblical chronicles instead of the newspapers, you know that the Jewish homelands have lived forever from crisis to crisis. In the history of modern Israel, none of that has changed.

When you live in constant crisis, the historical topography can be indistinct—it can be hard to tell which one is bigger than another. But in Israel’s history, Independence in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967 are epochal. The current Israel-Gaza conflict is still ongoing, but the current crisis of 2014 may join that cohort.

Among the thousands of pieces and millions of words generated over the past few weeks, the new cover story from The Economist, Winning the battle, losing the war is one of best and most even-handed evaluations published about the aftermath of all this.

“Even-handed” and “fair-minded” are hard to find in such a brutal and polarized controversy, and some would say they don’t exist at all. The Economist, for those who don’t know, is one of the most astute and level-headed journals of public affairs in the world. This piece, like others about contested matters, is not without embedded value judgments or opinions. It is just a sharp, worthwhile, and informed point of view that should be heard—even if it is shouted down as somehow biased and mistaken:

For all the blood and misery in Gaza, Mr Netanyahu will soon have a chance to show he has heard the critics. Having won his battle, he could return to the negotiating table, this time with a genuine offer of peace. Every true friend of Israel should press him to do so.

Syria and Foreign Incoherence

Red Line
America may not have had a coherent foreign policy since the end of World War II. And the beat goes on.

Incoherence doesn’t mean that there haven’t been successes. It doesn’t mean that other countries have done better in that time. And it doesn’t mean that the era has been an easy one: the world is more complex and diffracted than ever.

Coherence means an open, intelligent discussion about principles, followed by an open, intelligent discussion about taking action or withholding, and about the consequences and aims of the paths we choose or avoid.

Our policy seems to be driven by overwhelming ideology, good intentions and self-interest—none of which are exceptional or indictable, but all of which should be expressed in a much bigger and more sensible and realistic context. We ought to know what we’re about and candidly tell our citizens what we’re about. And when we don’t know what we’re doing—hard as that is to admit—we ought to say so.

Harry Truman was the last President to have a foreign policy named after him, in that case the Truman Doctrine. In 1947 he warned that the U.S. and the free world could not stand for Greece and Turkey falling into Communist hands (though he never used the word Communism):

It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East….

It would be an unspeakable tragedy if these countries, which have struggled so long against overwhelming odds, should lose that victory for which they sacrificed so much. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world. Discouragement and possibly failure would quickly be the lot of neighboring peoples striving to maintain their freedom and independence.

Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East.

March 12, 1947

(A digression: The reason Greece was considered vulnerable to insidious forces in 1947 is that it was broke and falling apart. Presumably, without a Communist threat looming, Greece 2013 is no longer considered as significant.)

That black-and-white view was in some ways a vestige of the black-and-white war we had just finished—and won. But soon after that speech, global gray was the new black-and-white. Empires were crumbling, new nations were being made. In the year of the Truman Doctrine alone, two of the world’s most populous nations changed course: India became independent, Mao won a revolution in China—events representing more than a third of the world population. The following year, the Middle East (and history) came unglued forever with the creation of Israel. We could pretend that all this was part of some simple monolithic history, but that really made no sense.

And yet we proceeded with a dyadic us-versus-them model for decades, mostly inexplicably and unquestioningly. Korea was supposed to stop the Communism; the military result was a bloody stalemate and status quo, the economic result a Chinese hegemon. Vietnam was supposed to stop Communism; we lost the war, and Southeast Asia is a geopolitical hodgepodge. Soviet Communism crumbled, partly because of a changing world and culture, partly because being a Russian non-Communist economic and political oligarch is much more lucrative than being a party apparatchik.

When we were attacked by the Muslim Middle East, our policy was to strike back, just as we had after Pearl Harbor. Never mind that the policy was sixty years old, and that the complexities of the world could not possibly be much affected by those approaches. Sadaam Hussein is dead, and Iraq is descending at some speed into chaos. Afghanistan is or soon will be about where we found it. Osama Bin Laden is dead, but just as with the Taliban, even if Al Qaeda is diminishing, movements with other names are already rising up to take its place.

All that is preface to our incoherence in Syria.

It is easy to see why the chemical weapon “red line” matters and why proving that it has been crossed matters.

The brutality of World War I made us rethink just far we would go and where as a ‘civilized” world we would draw the line. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibits their use. The community of nations has, more or less, stood behind this and its successors.

(Another digression: If the world had considered the real possibility of atomic weapons in this period between the wars, would these also have been put in the same prohibited category as chemical and biological weaons?)

The reason for taking such care about making sure the line is actually crossed of course goes back to Iraq. Having cried wolf so recently, the U.S. could not stand having its credibility questioned, internally or externally, on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

But as the drumbeat for “doing something” gets louder in the wake of the U.S. now being completely confident that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime, so many questions are not being asked, and if asked, not discussed or answered.

If we are already confident that thousands are killed, tens of thousands injured, hundreds of thousands displaced, and a nation is being destroyed from inside, why was the imperative waiting for this line at all? There is a global political answer, of course, which is that chemical weapons are a bigger and less assailable common ground upon which most or all can agree. That is indeed a pragmatic strategy, but we also have to talk about moral imperatives, no matter which way the discussion goes.

What exactly can and should we do? And if we do act, what do we expect and hope will be the result? And if we do act, what are the potential consequences?

Our leaders can talk about the red line in Syria, but they should stop pretending that this amounts to coherent and deep consideration. The three questions of actions, expectations and consequences should be the topic that consumes us. If we have principles and doctrines, let’s put them on the table and inspect them and see how aspirational and practical they are. If we believe in sovereignty in some cases but not others, let’s make sure that we know what the cases are and why the distinctions matter. If we do or don’t intervene in foreign political matters or insurrections or civil wars, let’s talk about it and how we act or react.

Instead, what we get are red lines and, in the case of Egypt, the sight of the U.S. being unwilling to call a coup a coup, and otherwise being paralyzed in figuring out what to do or say, so that “subtle” back channel goings on can go on.

Subtle goings on or silence can also may mean that you don’t know what to do or say, or that you don’t want the greater citizenry to hear what you are actually thinking. Maybe our leaders really aren’t very good at being statesmen. Maybe that citizenry isn’t up to the task of having discussions about what we believe, what we can accomplish and what we can’t. The only way to know this is to have it out in the open.

We seem to be more comfortable in the black and white and red line world of the Truman Doctrine. That wasn’t even a true picture of the world seventy years ago, and it definitely isn’t today. Can we talk, without slogans, without the fairy tale that the world of 2013 is a place that will resolve to our political and moral satisfaction soon—or ever? Before we make one more mistake, we have to find out.

The Rubicon and the Pillar: If We Pass This Little Bridge

 


The Lives of the Twelve Caesars
By Suetonius

XXXI.

…The lights going out, he [Julius Caesar] lost his way, and wandered about a long time, until at length, by the help of a guide, whom he found towards daybreak, he proceeded on foot through some narrow paths, and again reached the road. Coming up with his troops on the banks of the Rubicon, which was the boundary of his province, he halted for a while, and, revolving in his mind the importance of the step he was on the point of taking, he turned to those about him, and said: “We may still retreat; but if we pass this little bridge, nothing is left for us but to fight it out in arms.”

XXXII.

While he was thus hesitating, the following incident occurred. A person remarkable for his noble mien and graceful aspect, appeared close at hand, sitting and playing upon a pipe. When, not only the shepherds, but a number of soldiers also flocked from their posts to listen to him, and some trumpeters among them, he snatched a trumpet from one of them, ran to the river with it, and sounding the advance with a piercing blast, crossed to the other side. Upon this, Caesar exclaimed, “Let us go whither the omens of the Gods and the iniquity of our enemies call us. The die is now cast.”