Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Death and Terror in Gaza

The killing of 60 people in Gaza on Monday should be met with horror and outrage by anyone concerned about the fate of Israel. The Likud government rationalizes such violence by the need to "protect Israel's borders," but such rhetoric is ghastly in its absurdity. Any brief application of logic to the situation reveals that claims to "self defense" on the part of Israeli leaders must be disingenuous.

There is no doubt that Hamas staged deliberately provocative demonstrations, mobilizing innocent people to transgress the fence running along the "Green Line" between Palestinian Gaza and Israel. But Israel and the US courted controversy over the location of the "border" when they opened a new embassy in Jerusalem, a city that the Israeli government itself acknowledges does not fall entirely within its sovereign territory. Indeed, the new US embassy itself straddles the "Green Line," the integrity of which was supposedly at issue in Gaza.

The Israeli government (along with its US allies) knew that it was launching a new provocation in the decades-long struggle over territorial sovereignty in Israel-Palestine. By moving to efface the boundary between East and West Jerusalem, Likud deliberately incited a response from the Palestinian side. The "fence rush" in Gaza was an obvious and predictable reaction to the opening of a US embassy in Jerusalem. It is ludicrous to suggest that the Israelis did not anticipate such a contingency or prepare for its occurrence.

The slaughter of sixty people that transpired on Monday, therefore, must have been planned and strategic. It was meant to broadcast a message to Palestinians and the world: the current Israeli government respects no authority concerning the boundaries of Israel but its own unilateral fiat, and will accept no legal, moral or ethical constraints on its exercise of that prerogative. In other words, the killing of sixty people by the IDF was an act of state terror.

The malicious folly of such a policy cannot be overstated. Rhetoric about "protecting Israel's borders" will win assent from those who are ill-informed about the history and parameters of the Israel-Palestine question. But this act in Gaza will fatally undermine Israel's position among informed observers of the conflict, even those most sympathetic to Israel and its founding mission. As an example, a non-Jewish colleague, one who has visited Israel on more than one occasion at the invitation of the Israeli government and is very sympathetic to the cause of Israel in particular and the Jewish people more generally, referred me in the wake of the Gaza killings to Bernard Avishai's essay in the New York Review of Books calling for a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian Confederation to replace a moribund "two-state solution." This is where Likud is leading Israel: a point at which all of the political capital necessary to maintain support for the Zionist project among even its strongest advocates and allies has been squandered.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his government have sown the wind, and many are poised to reap the whirlwind on their behalf. As Bernard Avishai suggested, it was difficult if not impossible to see how a two-state solution could be redeemed in the wake of the move of the US embassy. After the killings in Gaza the questions surrounding Israel have become even more dire. If the Likud government continues to pursue such an irredeemably sanguinary strategy, not merely the security of a two-state solution, but that of the Jewish community itself, in Israel and the world at large, must eventually be compromised.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Pity the Novelists

Listening to President Trump announce the joint air strikes against Syria last night, I could not help wondering about what his effect will be on the literature of the United States in years ahead. His characteristically mixed message- that the strike was in the furtherance of a vital national security interest, but that the Middle East is a "tragic place" which the U.S. should leave well alone- was a study in incoherence to rival his announcement that America might rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a trade alliance he had previously characterized as "raping" the US). What kind of character is Donald Trump? How will auteurs of future generations recast him in fiction?

Do not search for him in the literature of the past. A story built around him (or someone like him) would be too pointless to tell. Picture this: our hero enjoys sex, status, and celebrity but cares and knows about nothing else. He is deeply insecure and craves attention, thus though he has many half-formed opinions and enjoys braying them at the top of his lungs, they change regularly in response to what he perceives will garner the approval of those around him. Living this way has had few consequences, thanks to his possession of vast inherited wealth.

It is a story too shallow to be tragic and too pathetic to be comic, lacking either sound or fury and signifying less than nothing. Any novelist trying to justly capture Trump in prose would be forced to eschew all of the effective potencies of narrative. Such a story would have to lack plot, meaning, or theme; otherwise it would not merely be a fiction, but a dangerously aggrandizing distortion. A work of Pynchonesque incoherence would not be nearly nihilistic enough to capture the complete venality of Trump the man or his Presidency.

It is a challenge for any aspiring literati, and not one likely to win warm appreciation in its achievement. The author that writes the perfect Trumpian novel, a book that distills the current cultural moment for us in deathless prose, will produce a text that rambles and stalls, lurches and drags, stopping at a seemingly random point at which nothing has been resolved because nothing has really happened. The perfect response evoked by such a novel would be a vague sense of shame that one had thought to crack its cover in the first place. If only that feeling had been more common in the non-fictional world, our future novelists would be spared this pitiless task.

Friday, April 06, 2018

This is About Race (Whatever Else It Is About)

News broke this week that Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, has audaciously exploited his post as an opportunity for graft on a colossal scale. He has handed out $30,000 raises to proteges using obscure provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act,  accepted lodging for $50/night in the luxury condo of a lobbyist, and led a first-class junket to Morocco accompanied by a large retinue (one of whom was a salaried employee who has evidently not shown up to work for the several months that she has been on payroll) for the purpose of promoting the sale of liquid natural gas (a mission that does not fall within the brief of the EPA, but which profits one of the top clients of the lobbyist in whose condo Pruitt has been residing).  This is only a partial list of the boondoggles in which Pruitt has indulged, and Pruitt himself is only the top of a very long list of Trump appointees and officials (Carl Icahn, Tom Price, Steve Mnuchin, David Shulkin, etc. etc.) caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Given what is already a matter of public record, once the full word is out on the Trump administration, it seems on a pace to go down in history as one of the most corrupt regimes in American history.

In light of the sheer scale of corruption on display in the Trump cabinet, it is a wonder that the President's approval ratings remain persistently afloat above thirty-five percent. Some of this is explicable as ignorance. Another part of it is surely the product of Oz-like misdirection: the public is too distracted by "scandals" surrounding the President's tweets to pay much attention to the graft behind the curtain. But such factors cannot fully account for the deafening roar of blithe indifference resounding from the President's supporters regarding the swampy misdemeanors of his retinue.

Why, then, do so many of Trump's followers continue to admire him even though they certainly know that he and his cohort are crooked? The answer lies in the reasons that they voted for him in the first place. One must always remember that the steep ascent of Donald J. Trump began when, after coming down the escalator at Trump Tower, he uttered the words (speaking of Mexican migrants): "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." Many factors have contributed to the phenomenon of Trumpism (globalization, automation, terrorism, etc. etc.), but this moment in our politics has always, first and foremost, been about race. 

The election of Barack Obama initiated a panic in a significant portion of the electorate. For decades we had been aware of the changing demographics of the nation: at some inflection point in the not-too-distant future, "whites" will be a "minority" (more accurately a plurality, to the extent that "whites" as a category is at all meaningful, which it generally is not). Obama's election convinced many voters that the electoral impact of that future inflection point had hit sooner than expected.

As depressing as it is to contemplate, this "realization" induced a very tribal calculus in the political mindset of a large part of the electorate. As long as the traditional demographic status quo had prevailed, confidence in the government and care for the scrupulousness of its operations were fueled by a deep-seated intuition that, in a democracy, the federal government was (by and large) the proprietary concern of the "white" majority. But Barack Obama's election signaled the imminent dawning of a new era, one in which all of the coercive and remunerative powers of the government would "belong" to people of color. This apprehension underpinned the appeal of Donald Trump's call to "Make America Great Again," and explains the buoyancy of his approval numbers in the face of massive corruption and graft.

Trump's supporters do not really care about the corruption in his cabinet because, on some very visceral level, they feel that it is natural for white guys to clean out the store before the "others" move in and take over. My stating this is not meant to endorse rhetoric labeling Trump's supporters "deplorable," nor do I believe that anyone who continues to support the administration is overtly and consciously racist. But at least on a subconscious level, something like the perspective I have described above informs the outlook of many millions who continue to give Trump their support, even though (I suspect) many millions of people who feel this way are not aware that it is so and would vehemently deny such sentiments if confronted with them.

My aim in articulating these observations is not to self-righteously condemn or to stoke indignation. Racial panic is deeply woven into the fabric of our shared history and culture, no one can be totally blamed for having come under its influence to a degree. But we should be clear about what is at stake. Our system, from its founding, has been a very versatile admixture of pragmatism and principle. On the one hand, powerful imperatives were progressively built into the framework of our basic law (for example, the Fourteenth Amendment's injunction to afford all citizens "the equal protection of the laws") that have fostered expanding vistas of civil liberty for all. On the other hand, there have always been maneuvers (for example, the provision in Article 1 that each slave would count as "three-fifths" of a person) to divide people by race, class, and gender, and in so doing to secure the dominance of entrenched elites. The system has been preserved because, over time and in moments of crisis (such as the Civil War), leaders have generally chosen to continue to expand the libertarian compact to include formerly dispossessed or disenfranchised groups rather than scuttle the system in favor of preserving the prerogatives of elites. 

We are at another such moment of decision. If we persist in treating the federal government as a proprietary racket that serves the interests of a single "tribe", we will debase the Constitution until it is worth less than the paper on which it is printed. If, on the other hand, we can elect new leaders who will utilize the power of the federal government to ameliorate our current crises (ecological degradation, infrastructural decay, economic disenfranchisement of large populations) on behalf of all people regardless of race, class, creed or gender, we can usher in a new era of confidence in our evolving system, and make our Constitution serve future generations as well as (or better than)  it did generations past and present. 

The choice is a very stark one, and the consequences will be rapid and irreversible. The horizon for an effective change of course is very short. At the very latest, the election of 2020 will be our last chance to pull out of the current nose dive. But if the Republicans retain control of Congress after the midterm election this fall, the opportunity to preserve the system may be lost.

Monday, April 02, 2018

The Daniels and Donald Trumpster

At the close of the short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet, the Devil (identified throughout only as a "stranger" who calls himself Scratch), having been defeated by the great legislator and orator, offers to read Daniel Webster's fortune. It is, of course, one last attempt to make mischief before departing the field:
     "The future's not as you think it," he said. "It's dark. You have a great ambition, Mr. Webster."
     "I have," said Dan'l firmly, for everybody knew he wanted to be President.
     "It seems almost within your grasp," said the stranger, "but you will not attain it. Lesser men will be made President and you will be passed over."
      "And, if I am, I'll still be Daniel Webster," said Dan'l.

 There is much in the current Stormy Daniels Affair (other than the phonic affinity rooted in the name "Daniel") that resonates with Benet's story. The figures in each case are shuffled in relation to one-another in complex ways that make the derivation of perfect analogies intractable. But both tales concern lawyers, and court battles, and the regretted sale of something that an individual hopes to retain or redeem.

There are strong parallels between Benet's Dan'l Webster and our own Donald Trump. Both are ambitious, belligerent, and vain of their public reputation. Both are men of appetites. Both love to hear themselves talk. Both have a folksy touch and can move crowds with their oratory.

The differences are, of course, considerable. Webster takes on his case against the Devil on behalf of a neighbor, the New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone. Trump has entered the legal arena to defend himself, though against what is not yet clear. Trump's most serious legal jeopardy derives from the possibility that the $130,000 paid for Stormy Daniels' silence might be construed as an illegal campaign contribution. But the facts of the case cast doubt on that motive. The payoff to Daniels was made after the Access Hollywood tape had broken, thus it is unlikely that Trump paid off Daniels to aid his chances at the presidency. How could the news that he had slept with a porn star have done more damage to his perceived worthiness for office than his open admissions of sexual assault on a married woman?

No, the threat that Ms. Daniels (or Ms. Clifford) had posed to Trump at that point could not have been to his election, but to his brand. He feared, to borrow Benet's words, that in the wake of the Daniels revelation he would not be "Donald Trump". It would be touching to think that Trump acted out of concern for his marriage, but his history would suggest otherwise. Rather, it is much more likely that Stormy Daniels has something to reveal about Trump (his habits, his physique) that he feels would damage his image. If we ever find out what that is, it will be chiefly interesting for one reason: we will know what Trump cares about more than being president. One more gauge of his one-dimensionality will be made public.

Whatever that is, we can be sure of one thing: it is at the very apex of Trump's list of priorities. In this respect Trump and Daniel Webster part ways. Like Trump, Benet's Dan'il Webster cared about his persona more than he cared about the presidency, but he cared about something else even more:

     "[The] last great speech you make will turn many of your own against you," said the stranger. "They will call you Ichabod; they will call you by other names. Even in New England some will say you have turned your coat and sold your country, and their voices will be loud against you till you die."
      "So it is an honest speech, it does not matter what men say," said Dan'l Webster. Then he looked at the stranger and their glances locked. "One question," he said. "I have fought for the Union all my life. Will I see that fight won against those who would tear it apart?"
     "Not while you live," said the stranger, grimly, "but it will be won. And after you are dead, there are thousands who will fight for your cause, because of words that you spoke."
     "Why, then, you long-barreled, slab-sided, lantern-jawed, fortune-telling note shaver!" said Dan'l Webster, with a great roar of laughter, "be off with you to your own place before I put my mark on you! For, by the thirteen original colonies, I'd go to the Pit itself to save the Union!"

    Contrast Webster's avowed preference for an "honest speech" that serves the Union against Trump's behavior. The most recent example is Trump's claim that undocumented immigrants are pouring across the southern border to take advantage of DACA, a divisive lie so grotesque that Benet's Devil would blanch at it, much less his Daniel Webster. But this whopper of a lie is only one in a long litany stretching back to the election, the campaign, and decades of public life beforehand. If there is one point that can serve as a pole star in navigating Donald Trump it is this: he cares about nothing more than the preservation and inflation of his own image.

In the final analysis, the Affair Daniels reveals more about us, the American electorate, than it does about Donald Trump or any other of its individual characters. At the climax of Benet's story, Daniel Webster realizes that he himself is the intended victim of the Devil, that Scratch has come for Webster's soul instead of (or along with) that of Jabez Stone. The trial has been rigged, and the demonic jury before which Webster has been arguing is anticipating the moment when Webster will let loose with rage and profanity, thus damning himself:

     He read it in the glitter of their eyes and in the way the stranger hid his mouth with one hand. And if he fought them with their own weapons, he'd fall into their power; he knew that, though he couldn't have told you how. It was his own anger and horror that burned in their eyes; and he'd have to wipe that out or the case was lost. He stood there for a moment, his black eyes burning like anthracite. And then he began to speak.
      He started off in a low voice, though you could hear every word. They say he could call on the harps of the blessed when he chose. And this was just as simple and easy as a man could talk. But he didn't start out by condemning or reviling. He was talking about the things that make a country a country, and a man a man.
       And he began with the simple things that everybody's known and felt—the freshness of a fine morning when you're young, and the taste of food when you're hungry, and the new day that's every day when you're a child. He took them up and he turned them in his hands. They were good things for any man. But without freedom, they sickened. And when he talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell. He talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days. It wasn't a spread-eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.

  In the end Webster's oratory saves the day. The jury, made of villains from America's past, is so moved by Webster's words that they find in favor of the defendant, declaring, "[E]ven the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster."
    The story of Donald Trump's election unfolded along structurally similar lines. The deck was stacked against him. The party machines, the pundits, and the polls all predicted his defeat. But he talked to us. He talked to us about how Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and about how Islam hates us, and about how Mexican migrants are rapists and thieves, and about how women who have abortions should be punished, about how journalists are evil, etc. etc. And in the end we decided that we should salute the eloquence of Donald Trump.
   Whatever traits the characters of Donald Trump and Dan'il Webster might share, in the final analysis the difference is stark. There has been a lot of pearl-clutching and hand-wringing about the Stormy Daniels case, but can anyone really be surprised? Everyone, both those who supported Donald Trump and those who opposed him, knew he was capable of the behavior that Stormy Daniels has brought to light. Even more than that, all of us could see clearly (except perhaps those who were impenetrably daft) that Donald Trump cares about nothing as much as he cares about his own image. Where Benet's venerable American myth (like so many others) celebrates the virtue of an individual who places Union before self, we have rewarded the ambition of a man who told us time and again that he would place self before Union every day of the week and twice on Sunday. What conclusion is there to reach, if we believe Stephen Vincent Benet, except that the voters of the present have less sense than the damned of the past?

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

All, Xi Wrote (Updated)

The news this weekend that the Chinese Communist Party proposed amending the PRC constitution to remove term limits for the office of president, making it possible for current President Xi Jinping to remain in power indefinitely, has predictably occasioned international concern and commentary. Here in the U.S., analysis has focused  mainly on the near-term implications for geopolitical power dynamics. Will this embolden Xi Jinping to deepen the PRC's aggressive posture in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait? Will relations with the Trump administration be further strained by this boost to Xi's power?

Such ruminations embody a deep-seated parochialism that inflects American thinking about China. Americans are animated by an abiding faith in "American exceptionalism," but less aware of the fact that the politics of other nations may be exceptional in unique ways. This problem is especially true with regard to China. Americans are prone to view the PRC as one of the 193 member nations of the UN, and its politics as mutually fungible with that of other "nations" such as Iraq, Iran, Russia, or Egypt. Thus the latest development with regard to Xi Jinping is easily understandable by reference to convenient analogues: Xi is the newest "strongman" in the mold of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Vladimir Putin.

But such comparisons are belied by any realistic accounting of China's unique situation. Even if we take the PRC's structuring as a "nation-state" at face value, the sheer geographic and demographic scale (1.3 billion people dispersed over 3.7 million square miles) on which that status is institutionalized make its internal dynamism incomparable to other similarly constituted polities. Moreover, there is real reason to treat the "national" character of the PRC as mitigated by many factors: its long and complex pre-national history, the hyper-multi-linguistic and multi-ethnic character of its populace, the fragmentation of its terrain. The PRC, as a system unto itself, is an extraordinarily complicated polity subject to the vagaries of an immense array of unique and intricately interrelated variables. When confronted with a phenomenon like the "elevation of Xi Jinping," we are best advised to ask what this might mean in terms of the particular internal workings of the PRC itself before assuming that this can be inferred by comparison to a modular analogue and moving on to questions of how it will affect the rest of the world.

In this latter regard, there are real reasons to doubt whether the current actions by the CCP are creating Xi Jinping as a "strongman" in the classic mold. Rescinding of term limits on the presidency is a step back from moves taken during the 1990's by Chinese leaders to "routinize" the chain of command at the top of the PRC political structure and to rationalize the system as a whole. These may be the product of a "cult of personality" forming around Xi Jinping himself. But even if that is true to some degree, these developments may also be a product of strains upon the PRC political system as a whole, and insecurities about the long-term stability of the regular structure that CCP leaders had been attempting to build. In other words, one reason that the CCP is removing term limits might be a fear that the system is too unstable to survive another transition (or too frequent transitions) of power at the top.

The American commentator whose work may be most relevant to understanding the current moment in Chinese politics is thus David Shambaugh. In a 2015 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Shambaugh famously predicted "The Coming Chinese Crackup," declaring that, "The endgame of communist rule in China has begun, and Xi Jinping's ruthless measures are only bringing the country closer to a breaking point." The past weekend's events will no doubt be seized upon by Shambaugh's critics as a sign that he was wrong, since in that editorial Shambaugh speculated that Xi Jinping might be ousted in a coup. But while Shambaugh might have read the tea leaves wrong in that detail, the removal of term limits on the presidency does add empirical weight to the general argument that the PRC system is weakening and losing cohesion. As I have argued in other posts, American leaders would be well-advised to spend as much time worrying about the internal stability of the PRC as any proclivity it might express for external aggression. As destabilizing as it would be for the larger world if the PRC attempted to project force in Asia or abroad, the international effects would be equally deleterious (or worse) if the PRC deteriorated into internal disorder or violence. The latter contingency, I would argue, is the far likelier one. Leaders in the US and elsewhere should do what they can to circumvent it, and should prepare to respond by way of mitigating the harm (to both China and the world) if it should occur.

None of this is to imply that US leaders should be overly tolerant of aggression or complacent about the persistence of one-party (or one-man rule) in the PRC.  One-party rule is at the root cause of instability, and foreign aggression by the PRC is one of its detrimental symptoms. But all policy toward China on the part of the US and its allies should be formulated with a sensitivity to the domestic drivers of Chinese foreign affairs. Expansionist provocations in the South China Sea, for example, are in large part undertaken for the media consumption of Chinese citizens, as an appeal to the nationalistic passions that are among the last intrinsic interests of the Chinese people that the Party is systemically competent to serve. Over-strident responses to such provocations on the part of the US or its allies only serve the Party's underlying motives and strengthen its hand. European and American leaders would be well advised to worry less about the PRC's building platforms in the ocean and more about the prospect of rising instability in China itself, as such instability will only exacerbate Chinese aggressiveness and place whatever strategic interests are genuinely at stake in places like the South China Sea in further jeopardy.

There are, of course, limited things that the US can do to foster stability in the PRC or encourage it to move away from one-party rule. Avoiding trade war is one of them, as economic distress will only hasten any decay of the PRC system. Getting America's own house in order is another crucial measure. Dysfunction and entropy in the US strengthens the opponents of necessary reform in China. The worst thing that American leaders can do is to make participatory democracy look like a poor alternative by comparison to oligarchy and dictatorship.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Zionism After Trump

The radical shift in policy charted by the Trump administration with regard to Israel-Palestine (the movement of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the withdrawal of funds from UNRWA, the United Nations agency that provides support to Palestinian refugees) will likely prove to be a transformative crisis, not just for US-Mideast relations but for the global Zionist movement as a whole. Writing in the New York Times Michelle Goldberg has already asked if, in the wake of Trump's presidency, liberal Zionism is dead? By "liberal Zionism" she means the Labor Zionism of figures like David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin that had once been the mainstream of Israeli politics. Whether her most dire outcomes are realized or not, there seems little doubt that both the internal politics of Israel and its orientation toward the international community will be permanently changed by current developments.

Donald Trump sells his new policies as obvious course corrections never attempted by his predecessors because they lacked his bold vision and freedom from conventional restraint. He knows that his core voters will admire these moves as characteristic of his strength as a "disrupter" of politics-as-usual. Moreover, there will be very little downside for him politically because, like him, his supporters are not likely to pay attention to or care much about the long-term consequences of his actions.

Trump is operating from a conventional overestimation of U.S. power that is likely to make intuitive good sense to most of his core supporters. By "taking Jerusalem off the table" (that is, by backing the notion that occupied East Jerusalem will forever remain Israeli territory, despite the fact that the Israelis themselves have never gone as far as claiming to have "annexed" it) and by refusing funds to support Palestinian refugees, Trump claims to be forcing a peace resolution in the face of Palestinian intransigence, but none of these gambits will work to that end. Few countries will follow the U.S. in relocating embassy missions to Jerusalem, and Islamic nations or private donors are likely to make up the shortfall in funding for UNRWA.

Rather than creating a show of US strength, Trump has created a show of US bias. The US funded UNRWA, for example, not because the Palestinians were dependent upon US largess, but because doing so helped foster the appearance that the US could serve as an impartial broker between the Israelis, who on a per-capita basis receive many more dollars in aid from the US than any other nation, and the Palestinians, whose own aspirations for sovereignty wait upon a peace settlement with Israel. By asking why the US should give the Palestinians money "without getting anything in return," Donald Trump is effectively declaring that what the US "wants" is peace on Israel's terms. The same logical inference arises from Trump's claim to have "taken Jerusalem off the table".

Michelle Goldberg and others are no doubt correct in asserting that this shift in the dynamism of US-Israeli-Palestinian interaction undermines the forces, already weakened by years of stagnation, that might lead to a two-state solution. As Palestinians abandon the hopes of a two-state solution in the face of explicit US obstruction and as right-wing Israelis, emboldened by Trumpist encouragement, pursue policies of quasi-annexation, the goals and principles of liberal Zionism (the maintenance of a state that is both majority-Jewish and a liberal democracy) will become ever-progressively attenuated. Donald J. Trump may well have finally put a stake through the heart, not only of a two-state solution, but of the Zionist ideal of Herzl, Weizmann, and Ben Gurion.

Is there anything that can be done? Trump's diplomatic ineptitude is facilitated by the fact that few Americans, even among the Jewish community, understand the history and situation of Israel-Palestine any more than he does. Labor Zionist policies and goals are not given robust voice in American politics because (for reasons that I discussed in a previous post) all of the organizations that coordinate lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel (like AIPAC) are much more in sympathy with the ideology of Likud and parties even further to the right on the Israeli political spectrum.

If, in fact, Liberal Zionism is dying, it is in part because it lacks robust and institutionalized representation in the US, Israel's staunchest ally. One potential countermeasure to Trumpism might thus be a campaign of sustained outreach on the part of liberal Israeli political parties among Jews in the US. American Jews need to be better educated about the political differences between Israeli parties and leaders, and they need to be organized to impose political costs (or bestow political rewards) upon US leaders that obstruct or foster policies conducive to a two-state solution.

The imperative for this sort of coordination between American Jews and Israeli leaders is intensified by the possibility that, in fact, a two-state solution has been rendered untenable. If Israel-Palestine will eventually be united as a single commonwealth, demographics will not allow that new entity to be the majority-Jewish state that Theodor Herzl envisioned, but it can and  should still be a true democracy. Such an outcome can only be guaranteed, however, if  activism and leadership in both Israel and the US protects the rights, liberties, and security of all residents living on either side of the "Green Line." For such a process to be safeguarded, it is important that liberal Israeli leaders create channels of dialogue now that can garner the support necessary to mobilize public opinion in the US, whatever shape the Israeli-Palestinian peace process may take moving forward in the wake of the Trump presidency.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Count Me A #NeverOprah (#NeverClooney, #NeverStewart, #NeverYadaYadaCelebrity) Democrat

The brief frenzy set off by Oprah Winfrey's Golden Globes speech is a distressing bellwether of American politics. The notion that the Democratic Party might "fight fire with fire" by nominating a TV celebrity to oppose Donald Trump in 2020 speaks to how far down the rabbit hole our entire political culture has fallen. This is not to suggest that Oprah Winfrey is not far superior to Donald Trump in many respects. She is more articulate, more knowledgeable, more basically decent than the current president. But we must remember what a shockingly low bar that is.

The greatest problem with Ms. Winfrey is not any aspect of her character or intellect, or even her lack of experience in government. It is the raw fact of her celebrity and her career in entertainment. This should be an object lesson drawn from the fate of Al Franken. When the photo of Mr. Franken mock-groping Leeann Tweeden went viral, his apologists argued that we should discount it because it was done when he was a comedian. But they misread the moral of the story, which was not that we should forgive our senators their sins as comedians, but that we should not elect comedians to the Senate.

Much moreso than in the days of Ronald Reagan, our media culture is pervaded by a transgressive "shock and awe" sensibility that invariably causes celebrities to make gestures and statements that are impolitic- that are provocative and tolerably controversial in the context of "infotainment" or gossip but that would be execrably divisive coming from an elected official. Al Franken became the poster child for this phenomenon: a person who is going to wield real power over questions of sexual harassment and discrimination can not be on record as joking about such issues, as it fatally undermines his credibility, both in the eyes of the people hoping for his protection and the people who may be the target of his censure. Oprah Winfrey, if she stepped into the political arena, would be even more freighted with these liabilities, because she has enjoyed a much higher public profile for much longer than Al Franken. One need only briefly peruse the strident postings under the "#NeverOprah" tag on Twitter to see that her long record of public pronouncements is a goldmine of easily-taken-out-of context statements and distortion-prone provocations.

Beyond these admittedly instrumental cautions, we need to forswear celebrity candidates to cultivate our own integrity as an electorate. We have become so vapid, so intellectually lazy as a country, that we are no longer willing to learn anything about a person with whom we have not already been made familiar in a non-challenging medium. "The Apprentice" bottled Donald Trump for millions of voters so that they felt they knew him better than Marcio Rubio, Jeb Bush, or Hillary Clinton. Al Franken was a familiar face from late night television and book jackets. I myself fell into the trap of endorsing a petition asking Jon Stewart to run for my local congressional seat. The Tweeden affair was my come-to-Buddha moment. That way lies Idiocracy.

Our whole body politic has suffered terrible injuries under the Trump presidency, not the least of which is the president's breach of a basic article of the unwritten social contract: he was elected after making direct insults to and threats against whole constituencies of the electorate (Muslims, women, people of color) for which he has never apologized or sought redemption or reconciliation. The resulting climate of fear and anger is insidiously corrosive of our institutional order and must be redressed. An Oprah candidacy would only exacerbate the problem where a remedy is needed. Her entire campaign would be freighted with rationalizations ("she didn't really mean that," "she said that as a joke/provocation, but would never govern that way") and her administration, if it ever occurred, would labor under a credibility deficit from which it could never recover. We need politics to become less impolitic. To that end we must stop nominating and electing entertainers.

This is my message to fellow Democrats: don't nominate Oprah (or George Clooney, or Jon Stewart, or whatever celebrity becomes the flavor-du-jour in the next 35 months). If you do, I will not vote for her (him), even if it means that Trump is re-elected. As disastrous as I know a second Trump term will be, it would be the lesser of two evils weighed against the direction our country would be taken by another celebrity presidency following on the heels of the current one.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Dreams of Bedford Falls

It's A Wonderful Life is my favorite film, which is saying something because I've seen lots of films. This year the film seems particularly poignant. In my mind It's A Wonderful Life has always been paired with The Bicycle Thief, both because they are closely contemporary and thematically synonymous. The protagonists of each film, George Bailey and Antonio Ricci, face the same crisis: they become reduced to pieces of capital. Antonio's value is subsumed in his stolen bicycle, George's in the insurance policy he offers to Mr. Potter. 

The Bicycle Thief (Spoiler Alert) resolves tragically. Antonio never recovers his bicycle, the final shot shows him and his son, swept along in a crowd, yielding to the streetcar plowing through the teeming urban masses, symbolizing the inevitable displacement of human labor by machines. It's A Wonderful Life is of course the inverse of The Bicycle Thief, unless one ends the film at the point that George is standing forsaken on the bridge, contemplating suicide- then the two films would be virtually identical. 

A lot of Capra's films seem to work that way- Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington- they build to a crushingly tragic ending that then gets reversed through fantastic circumstance. His quixotic optimism has always felt uniquely American to me. But so has the tragic ending nested within each of those stories. Capra understood that American capitalism, like industrial capitalism worldwide, had the capacity to dehumanize individuals, tear apart communities, and erode families. 

In this respect his message in It's A Wonderful Life corresponds very closely to that of The Bicycle Thief. In The Bicycle Thief, Antonio Ricci transits from one source of support to another in search of aid. He entreats the state, the community, his family, his friends, the spiritual powers (in the form of a local holy woman)...all to no avail. These are all the groups and institutions that George feels abandoned by as he stands on his bridge of sorrow (and all come to his rescue in the party scene at the end in which Zuzu hears Clarence's bell ring). 

There are a number of ways to read the divergence between the two films. One could argue that Capra is shilling for the system- offering people a saccharine fantasy to lull them into complacency about the soulless destructiveness of the market. But that has never seemed persuasive to me. If Capra's goal was to anesthetize, the scenes in Pottersville would not be so jarring or so true-to-life. The most upsetting thing about the juxtaposition is that the people of Pottersville are the same as the residents of Bedford Falls, only organized differently. 

This seems to be Capra's point- we might all wish that we live in Bedford Falls, but we all know on some level that we live in Pottersville. Or rather, each community in America is both Bedford Falls and Pottersville at once. In every city and town there are those for whom state, family and community are working, and those for whom they are not, and the scope of each condition is contingent on the choices we make as individuals and as a society. Moreover, the better choices in that regard *require* optimism. As Americans the freedom our institutions grant us for expression, commerce, and conscience are potentially a blessing, but they also entail peril- pessimism overindulged can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As FDR said, in our liberal democracy the greatest thing we have to fear is "fear itself." 

So that is the message I take from It's A Wonderful Life this holiday season- not that we used to live in Bedford Falls and we are slipping into Pottersville, but that both have been with us all along, and that the duty to work for one and against the other has never changed. Yes, at the moment there are a lot of people (one particularly orange-tinted) out there spreading fear and malaise, but that doesn't change the fact that it remains a wonderful life, and it is a virtue to keep listening for Clarence's bell. Happy New Year's to all. I may run into you in Pottersville, but I'll be looking for you in Bedford Falls.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Jerusalem, Israel, and American Jews

The recent debacle at the UN touches upon a subject that is a source of confusion and rancor among my fellow Jewish-Americans. When, about a year ago, I first expressed opposition to Donald Trump's plan to move the American embassy to Jerusalem I received angry messages from friends demanding why, as a Jew and a Zionist, I did not see the clear logic of acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Similar reactions have attended my commentary on Trump's revival of this plan after his having seemed to drop it earlier.

Because most Jewish-Americans assume that there is a single, consensual narrative at the heart of Israeli identity, the controversy over Jerusalem incites significant cognitive dissonance. Most are surprised to learn, for example, that though Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, it likewise denies having annexed the territory constituting the larger eastern section of the city that was occupied after the Six Day War, and has refused to give its Arab residents citizenship unconditionally. This latter paradox reflects contradictions among Israelis themselves over the nature and mission of their shared state, conflicts that are deeply woven into the history and culture of the Zionist movement.

On the eve of the Six Day War the journalist Geulah Cohen interviewed David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister of Israel:

Cohen: Mr. Ben-Gurion, what will you tell your grandson today when he asks you, "Grandpa, what are the borders of my homeland?"

Ben-Gurion: Well, I will answer him, "The borders of your homeland are the borders of the State of Israel as they are now. That is all. There are no absolute borders. Had the Arabs accepted the UN resolution [of 1947], our borders would have been reduced...'Historical borders' is a concept for the coming of the Messiah."

Cohen: Would you encourage an Israeli child to write a song of longing for a greater Jerusalem?

Ben-Gurion: If he wants to write it, he should write it. I would not write one.

[Quoted in: Anita Shapira, Israel: A History. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2012, 302-3].

Ben-Gurion's perspective here was that of a classic Labor Zionist in the mold of Theodor Herzl. For Ben-Gurion (as it had been for Herzl), Zionism was a secular enterprise, and thus Israel was a nation conceived in secular terms. When and if the messiah came s/he could worry about reconstituting the Kingdom of David, until then the Labor Party and its coalition partners would see to serving and protecting the people of the Jewish state wherever they were lucky enough to be able to hang their hats. Ben-Gurion's Israel served the purpose of allowing Jews to live free and dignified lives in a modern state free of antisemitism, a goal that could be achieved as efficiently in the profane city of Tel Aviv as in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Ben-Gurion's understanding of Israel's identity and purpose was never a universal consensus among Zionists, even before the founding of Israel in 1948- there were competing alternative narratives about the project of Jewish nationhood from the very inception of the Zionist movement. But in May of 1967 it is fair to say that Ben-Gurion's perspective was overwhelmingly hegemonic in the political discourse of the Israeli state, and in the projection of Israel's image to the larger world. The Labor Party had been the overwhelmingly dominant force in the founding and defense of the pre-1948 Yishuv (the organized community of Jewish settlers in Ottoman and Mandate Palestine) and had controlled the Israeli government continuously from its founding after the UN partition.  Within the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel the story that Ben-Gurion had to tell about why Israel existed and where it was going had much clearer and more persuasive explanatory power than any of those promulgated by more religious or more militant nationalists.

The situation changed drastically in the wake of the Six Day War. The dramatic circumstances of the war- the survival of Israel in the face of seemingly inevitable destruction by its Arab neighbors, the swiftness of Israeli victory against insuperable odds- produced a profound emotional catharsis among Israelis and electrified the imagination of observers abroad, especially American Jews. 1967 saw the birth of a newly robust Zionism in the US, as American Jews found inspiration in the Israeli display of strength and military prowess.

As they became more invested in Israel post-1967, the kind of Labor Zionist narrative purveyed by leaders like Ben-Gurion was ill-adapted to inform American Jews' engagement with Zionism. For Ben-Gurion the crucial dimension of the "Jewish State" was its coherence as a state- the fact that it contained Jews was almost incidental. Jews needed a state to protect them because they were arbitrarily oppressed for being Jews, but the fact that the state was militarily and economically defensible was what counted, not that it fulfill any cultural or spiritual goals in service of Jewish tradition. This secular tendency of Labor Zionism could be quite militant in its expression. In the second seminal Zionist text of Theodor Herzl, the novel Altneuland, for example, the great villain is a rabbi who is trying to turn Herzl's Zionist utopia into a theocracy.

For American Jews, who already had a state that they called home, this pragmatic Labor Zionist ideal lacked romance and appeal. They saw in Israel's victory an image of Jewish dynamism and assertiveness with which they desired to identify, but for them the crux of Israel as a "Jewish State" had to reside in its being Jewish. The image that most epitomized what American Jews found fascinating and awe-inspiring in Israel's story was the famous photo of the Israeli paratroopers gazing in rapt wonder at the Wailing Wall on June 7, 1967, just after they had "liberated" it from Jordanian control. The fact that Jews had been barred from access to the Wailing Wall, the holiest site in Jewish sacred geography, had been a grievance of Jews everywhere. The fact that Jews would now be able to reconnect with that part of their history and religion made sense to Jews in the US as a fundamental expression of Israel's mission and purpose. The perspective of American Jews, moreover, was inflected by the fact that they lived among millions of charismatic Christians, for whom Israel was perceived in fundamentally religious terms. Evangelicals saw the reunification of Jerusalem as a miracle that heralded Christ's return, and their excitement and admiration, conveyed through many forms of media, naturally caused their theological reading of events to color the reactions of American Jews.

These intuitive perceptions on the part of American Jews tallied coincidentally with the narratives purveyed by political groups that had been more marginal in Israel prior to 1967 but that steadily gained in influence in subsequent years and decades. Many religious Jews had rejected (and still reject) Zionism and Israel altogether, but Rabbi Abraham Kook and his son Zvi had written theological tracts in which they interpreted the founding of the secular state of Israel as an inadvertent fulfillment of scripture. For them the territorial reunification of Jerusalem had the force of prophecy, and in the years after 1967 their followers grew into the Gush Emunim movement that has established settlements throughout the Occupied Territories, in the hopes of restoring Israel to biblical parameters. Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the founder of "Revisionist Zionism," constructed his doctrine as a form of classic blood-and-soil nationalism. For him the Jewish State was a secular entity, but rooted in the history and shared cultural legacy of the Jews as a people, thus it had to inhabit the original territory ruled by David and Solomon (found mostly in what is now the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and parts of Jordan). His followers formed the Likud Party, which first took power under Menachem Begin in 1977, and controls the Israeli government now under the leadership of Bibi Netanyahu.

Thus though many American Jews view the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital as an intuitively obvious choice for anyone who supports Israel, in reality such a move is working in explicit support of religious Zionists and Likud Partisans and their particular ideological goals. As I have written in other posts, the religious and ultranational ambitions pursued by Likud and the Gush Emunim settlers are strategically unsustainable. Thus in lending power to them American Jews are unwittingly working against the best interests of Israel, of Zionism, and of global Jewry more generally.

If American Jews are to play a constructive role in supporting Israel, it is time for Zionism here in the US to grow up and put aside childish things. As Ben-Gurion understood, the boundaries of the Jewish homeland are whatever the boundaries of Israel are right now, and if Israel is to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state it must grant sovereignty to the 4.4 million non-Jewish people living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. American Jews are faced with a choice: they can cling to the romantic notion of Israel as a state that serves Jewish tradition (and see Zionism collapse), or work for a two-state solution so that Israel can continue to nurture and protect the Jewish people as human beings, both in Israel and abroad. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Oh, Jerusalem

Today's UN General Assembly vote demanding that the US rescind its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is another object lesson in the poverty of the "Art of the Deal." With 128 nations voting for the resolution and only 8 joining the US in opposition (with 35 abstentions), few events have so dramatically illustrated the depths of isolation to which the Trump White House has brought the US internationally. The embarrassment of the moment was exacerbated by the empty threats made by Trump himself, who declared that US aid would be denied to those nations that supported the resolution. The hollow bluster of such pronouncements was cast into stark relief when staunch US allies such as the UK, France, and Germany joined the overwhelming majority in defiance of the White House.

What effect this will have on Trump's image here at home is difficult to say. His Evangelical supporters, for whom the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is considered a precondition of the fulfillment of prophecy, will no doubt be very moved by his perceived adherence to principle. Some of my fellow American Jews may view this as an extraordinary gesture of support for Israel. But because the question of Jerusalem's status is so poorly understood by most Americans (even those, like Jews and Evangelicals, most emotionally invested in the issue), the long-term effect of Trump's "Jerusalem adventure" will most likely be to confirm Americans' initial impression of the President, for good or ill.

The controversy over Jerusalem dates back to 1948. In the original partition plan endorsed by the UN, Jerusalem was designated a specially mandated international protectorate, in deference to its broad religious significance.  The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 undermined that plan, leaving the city partitioned between a Western zone under Israeli control and an Eastern zone under the control of Jordan. The residents of East Jerusalem were never wholly reconciled to Jordanian rule. In 1951 King Abdullah I of Jordan was fatally shot by a Palestinian assassin while visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.

Jerusalem came under unified Israeli control only after the Six Day War in 1967. East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, were among the territories that were occupied by the Israeli Defense Forces in that conflict and that have been the focus of negotiations over a proposed Palestinian State. The question of whether or not Jerusalem is "really" Israel's capital is thus something of a red herring. Israel's government has been housed in the western section of the city since 1948, thus any debate over the location of the Israeli capital seems absurd. But what is really at stake in this controversy are the municipal boundaries of the city itself: the question is not whether Jerusalem is Israel's capital, but how much of Jerusalem is (and will remain) in Israel?

On this latter issue the Israelis themselves are ambiguous. Though the "Jerusalem Law" of 1980 declared the city a unified municipality under Israeli jurisdiction, Israeli leaders have persistently denied that this constituted an "annexation" of East Jerusalem. Why would the Israeli government be so coy about the territorial status of its own capital? There are several reasons, but they mainly resolve on the implications for Israel of "annexation" under international law. Chiefly, "annexation" would obligate the Israeli government to unconditionally grant citizenship to all residents of East Jerusalem, which it has refused to do. Residents of East Jerusalem are deemed "permanent residents" of Israel (the equivalent of holding a "green card" here in the US). They may apply to become citizens of Israel, but only on the condition that they renounce all other citizenship and pledge loyalty to the state of Israel, which few Arab East Jerusalemites have been willing to do (as this is naturally perceived as a betrayal of the cause of as-yet-unrealized Palestinian sovereignty). Even then they may be denied citizenship on various criteria.

Why, if the Israelis were so motivated to claim Jerusalem as their capital, would they be so circumspect about granting its Arab residents citizenship? Several factors made the Israelis unwilling to unilaterally and comprehensively naturalize the residents of East Jerusalem, but chief among these was the presence of the Shuafat refugee camp, which housed Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war, in East Jerusalem at the time that the IDF occupied the territory. The five hundred families resident in Shuafat had previously owned homes in Israeli cities, some of which, like Lydda, had been forcibly cleared of Arabs by the IDF during the 1948 conflict. Making them into Israeli citizens would have opened the Israeli courts to claims for restitution that would quickly have become very costly and potentially complicated, especially if the residents of Shuafat made pleas on behalf of relatives resident in Jordan, Lebanon, or elsewhere. Thus though Benjamin Netanyahu presents the status of Jerusalem to the world as an innocuously symbolic formality unworthy of controversy, the policies of the Israeli government itself acknowledge that the question of East Jerusalem is deeply implicated in all of the most existentially fraught issues implicit in the enterprise of distinguishing Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty.

The fact that the 300,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem cannot be easily accommodated with Israeli enfranchisement without opening up the can of worms that is the question of a "Palestinian right to return (i.e. how many of the 6 million members of the Palestinian diaspora will be empowered to take up residence and/or claim compensation for property owned in Israel)" may help explain why, at the Camp David Summit of 2000, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to concede that East Jerusalem should become part of Palestine. Since then most international observers have assumed that East Jerusalem would fall to Palestine in any two-state solution, especially since the removal of East Jerusalem would deprive that prospective Palestinian state of a significant portion of its population and economic assets, rendering it unsustainable in the long term. This is why world governments have generally refused to establish their embassies in Jerusalem until the final status of the city's territorial parameters is resolved.

Donald Trump is not a man who does complicated, thus there is little hope that he can ever be made to understand the controversy that he has courted. The isolation and embarrassment to which he has subjected the US are made all the more execrable by the gratuitous timing and manner of his actions. This policy was not made with any forethought or consultation with key government agencies, but was resurrected from a pile of discarded controversies for the purpose of distracting the media and the electorate from the various scandals in which the administration has been continuously embroiled from its inception. What the long term effect of Trump's bluster and the UN resolution will be on Mideast politics is difficult to predict. The only certain outcome is that US influence in the region (and in global diplomacy more generally) will be reduced for as long as the current administration remains in power. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Lessons of Alabama

Doug Jones's victory over Roy Moore in last Tuesday's special election in Alabama will be repeatedly analyzed in the weeks and months to come. Once again the conventional wisdom has been overturned, the expectations of pundits and prognosticators confounded. At the danger of adding a droplet to what will no doubt be a torrent, I would venture to offer my own reading of the lessons to be garnered from the event:

1)Turnout is destiny. Alabama's election replicated a pattern displayed by the presidential race of 2016, which demonstrated that the distribution of opinion among the populace matters less than the raw number of people who take the trouble to go to the polls. That is to say, though Donald Trump was deemed an inferior choice by a majority of the electorate, larger percentages of his supporters (among whom were many people who had never voted before, and were thus difficult to predict as "likely voters") actually cast votes on November 8. That fact, combined with their fortuitous dispersion across the electoral college map, gave Trump the White House. In the same way, though it is hard to know whether any clear majority of Alabamans favored Jones, a larger percentage of his supporters showed up at the polls. A growing awareness of this trend (that elections are, presently, being decided by actual voters in open contradiction of the polls) is likely to affect voting behavior in the near future, making polls less useful as predictive tools. Fewer people will be dissuaded from voting by polls that tell them the outcome is foreordained.

2)Credibility matters. Why did a larger percentage of Jones's voters take the time to cast a vote? Some of the answer no doubt lies in Roy Moore's lack of appeal. But the outcome would not be fully explicable without some accounting for why so many thousands showed up to vote for Doug Jones. This is especially true in the African-American community, which turned out in greater numbers (relative to the total number of registered voters) for Doug Jones than it had for Barack Obama in 2012. Cynics who would reduce all electoral strategy to narrow identity politics have been proven wrong. Jones's race mattered less than the fact that, as a federal prosecutor, he had brought to justice the murderers responsible for the 1963 bombing that had killed four young black girls in Birmingham. He had actually taken personal and political risks in service of the interests of the African-American community, making him a much surer gamble than the average politician who merely talks about what s/he will do if elected. Call it a variation on the "Field of Dreams" rule ("if you build it, they will come")- "if you give them a reason to, they will vote."

3)Ideology matters less. Jones is a moderate by national standards, but is very liberal within the political field of Alabama. That was supposed to have ordained that he would not stand a chance, even under the extraordinary circumstances of this special election. But voters obviously care less about standard ideological desiderata than they do about having some credible reassurance that a candidate's victory will make a concrete difference for them personally. This was already demonstrated by the 2016 election, in which many Republican voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump despite his break with GOP orthodoxy, on the perception that he would be a champion of the working class (whether they actually had credible reassurance of this is debatable, but they clearly believed they did). Any qualms Alabama voters had about Jones's politics were quashed, especially among African-American voters, by the feeling that Jones stood a better-than-average chance of fighting for them.

4)Principles matter. In the run up to Alabama's election, many Democrats nationally bewailed what they perceived to be a strategic gap between their own party and the GOP. Lawmakers like John Conyers and Al Franken were falling due to allegations of sexual misconduct, while Roy Moore continued to enjoy Republican support. This was taken to portend doom, as Democrats naively ate their own while smart, cynical Republicans continued to back morally compromised candidates for win after win. But last Tuesday's election clearly gave the lie to such scenarios. A key factor in Jones's victory was the demoralization and disenchantment of the GOP electorate. Many Republicans, taking the example of Senator Richard Shelby, withheld their votes from Moore. Others who might have told pollsters that they favored Moore lacked the motivation to actually go to the polls: turnout in "pro-Moore" counties was much lower than in those voting for Jones. If turnout is destiny (and Alabama shows us that it is), then the side with the strongest motivation is the one that will prevail, and giving people reason to feel that their vote counts for something more than the naked seizure and exercise of power is intensely motivational.

What does all of this portend moving forward? Democrats should focus on offering credible solutions to voters, and worry less about ideological labels. A candidate like Elizabeth Warren, who has taken real political risks on behalf of working- and middle-class voters in her struggles to curb the financial sector, stands a much greater chance of motivating turnout than some more "middle of the road" candidate that has no record of such service. Getting one's own voters excited is a much more urgent need than trying to attract votes from or avoiding the ire of the opposing side. Democrats who fear that running a woman for president would fail to attract Trump voters are hunting unicorns. Better to ponder how one might bring the energy of the Women's March to the polls. A presidential ticket in which both spots were held by women, especially one in which the candidates had an established record of serving the working class and people of color, would be a virtually unbeatable force in the current climate.

Donald Trump's nominal support is likely to remain stable for the indefinite future, 30-40% of the electorate will persistently tell pollsters that they approve of his leadership. But Alabama showed us that the degree to which that approval translates into action at the polls is very variable. Motivation was high among Trump voters in 2016 when his movement was a complete novelty. Whether that enthusiasm will persist after his administration has been in power for 2 or more years is doubtful.  Many voters who still speak fondly of Trump did not show up to the polls in Alabama, not because they dislike Trump, but because nothing he has done has sustained their excitement about what voting for him (and, by extension, his program in the person of Roy Moore) might mean in their own lives. Barring some drastic change in Trump's governing style or level of competence, the trend we saw in Alabama will deepen and intensify in 2018. The lessons of Alabama dictate that the next election should be a blue wave, if only Democrats can field candidates with credible records of service to the voters and offer practical solutions to the problems voters face.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Trump and Raqqa

The fall of Raqqa, the putative capital of the caliphate declared by ISIS within the territory they held for more than three years, is a vitally positive development in the global struggle against violent jihadism. Unfortunately, as has become unavoidable in the current climate, what should  be a consensual moment has become politicized and polarizing here in the US. President Donald Trump was quick to use the occasion to claim credit for himself and heap opprobrium on his predecessor, declaring that Raqqa had not fallen until now “Because you didn’t have Trump as your president." Such assertions have fueled a debate (one that might have ensued in any case, given the hyperpartisan moment) about whether Trump fairly deserves credit for this victory.

Superficially the basic question of whether Trump deserves credit for Raqqa's fall is moot. He is the President and the Commander-in-Chief, thus even though the contention of his critics that he simply followed the plan of the Obama White House to completion has real merit, on the principle of "first do no harm" Trump deserves credit for having avoided disrupting the operation in any of many ways that were possible during a transition of leadership. Raqqa fell on his watch, and thus some part of the credit for this achievement is inalienably his.

Though superficially it invites simple answers, for the question of what role the Trump White House may have played in the fall of Raqqa to have any real strategic (rather than merely political) significance, it must be approached differently than either Trump or his critics have done thus far. Debates over whether (as he himself claims) Trump "changed the attitude" of the US military or whether changes he made to the rules of engagement radically altered the tactical dynamics of the conflict are of dubious importance. The former "phenomenon" is not empirically measurable, the latter is not likely to be more than marginally significant. For the role of the Trump White House in the conflict to be strategically assessed in meaningful terms different questions must be asked.

For this to take place the focus must be taken from the role of US air power, which has remained relatively constant since the fall of Mosul in June of 2014, to that of the regional ground forces engaged in the fight against ISIS, which has been variable and dynamic over the course of the conflict. From January of 2014 (with the fall of Falluja to ISIS) until May of 2015 (when it captured Ramadi) ISIS forces were on the advance, taking territory from and driving back military opponents such as the Iraqi Army and the Assad regime. That trend only reversed in late 2015, and has reached a culmination point (though not an end) now with the fall of Raqqa. In this regard, the role of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the ground troops that assaulted and occupied Raqqa with the aid of US air power, deserves scrutiny. We should ask: What has made the SDF consistently successful in opposition to ISIS, where forces like the Iraqi Army have at points yielded key ground to the jihadis? What conditions, if any, might have expedited the SDF's assault on Raqqa?

The SDF was formed in October 2015 to redress a persistent problem faced by the US-led campaign against ISIS. By that point an expensive effort initiated by the Obama administration to take a contingent of Arab Syrian rebels opposed to Bashar al-Assad and train them to serve as a free-standing force of ground troops in the fight against ISIS had failed. The anti-ISIS coalition had thus had to rely on the People's Protection Units (known by the acronym of their Kurdish name as the YPG), the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union party, to carry out the bulk of the infantry operations in the anti-ISIS campaign, as the YPG had proven the most cohesive and tactically effective force in the Syrian theater. This strategy had produced some battlefield success, but had been hampered by the fact that reliance on the Kurdish YPG engendered suspicion and resistance among the Sunni Arab populations whose support was vital to any operations within the territory held by ISIS. It also occasioned the active resistance of regional powers such as Turkey, which feared any perceived rise in Kurdish power. The SDF was thus formed as an explicitly multi-ethnic force, with the core of the 20,000 personnel of the YPG joined to 30,000 mainly Sunni Arab fighters drawn from various groups within the Syrian opposition.

The participation of Sunni Arabs in and support for the efforts of the SDF has been crucial to the success of the campaign to retake Raqqa. This trend was slow to develop. As the Syrian-American journalist and chronicler of ISIS Hassan Hassan writes: "Many in the Syrian opposition perceived the SDF as a vehicle for the YPG and the regime. But attitudes appeared to shift just before the Raqqa operation began on June 6, 2017." Why might this have been the case? Hassan himself does not cite it as a cause, but the US missile strike against the Shayrat air base on April 7, 2017, ordered by President Trump in reprisal for the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons against Khan Shaykhun, cannot be discounted as a factor.

The logic behind such a hypothesis is very clear. Unless and until the US gave Syrian Sunni Arabs some reassurance of support against the Assad regime, they would naturally be reluctant to expend blood and resources in a campaign against ISIS, a strategic power which, while odious, posed a check on Damascus.  The Shayrat missile strike gave Syrian Sunni Arabs such assurances in a way that no gesture undertaken by the Obama administration ever did. By committing the US to military action against Assad, however minimal, President Trump foreclosed the possibility that Washington could ever be perfectly reconciled with the Assad regime, and invested political capital in the anti-Assad struggle in a way that all of the rebel groups operating in Syria could clearly understand. President Obama's failure to do this during his tenure as Commander-in-Chief was (to my mind, and as I have written before, as have others) his greatest error in the conduct of the conflict against ISIS.

Further study would obviously have to be done to corroborate such a hypothesis empirically, but any assessment of the strategic situation in Syria that has not taken these factors into account cannot have been done with due diligence. To be clear, my point here is not to enter into a partisan debate, or to suggest that the Trump and Obama administrations present us with perfectly opposed positive and negative role models, respectively. Though President Trump may have taken advantageous action and deserves credit for doing so, it is far from clear that he did so with any strategic deliberation or that he understands the strategic significance of his policies even now. Certainly it would be erroneous to argue that his White House is following any kind of consistent strategic wisdom or principle. The Trump administration, for example, has done political damage to the struggle against Boko Haram in North Africa (through adding Chad, a key ally in that struggle, to its international travel ban) equivalent to and the inverse of any political benefit accrued in Syria with the Shayrat missile strike, suggesting that both policies were arrived at arbitrarily and without regard to their strategic impact.

If it is true that the Shayrat missile strike facilitated the fall of Raqqa, this provides further evidence that the political dimensions of the strategic situation in the Levant are as or more important than the tactical deployment of firepower. In the last week, for example, the Iraqi Army occupied Kirkuk over the opposition of the Kurdish Peshmerga, a military force that held fast against ISIS even as the Iraqi Army fell back in confusion from Mosul and Ramadi. Why would the Iraqi Army perform so much better in Kirkuk than it had initially in Mosul and Ramadi? Training and experience might provide some of the explanation, but it would be foolish to discount the difference in motivation between a (mainly) Shi'ite force defending a Sunni city against a Sunni adversary and that of an Arab force aiming to liberate (what they perceive as) an Arab city from Kurdish occupation.

These lessons of Raqqa, Kirkuk, and Chad must be learned and assimilated if the recent strategic gains in the struggle against ISIS and other violent jihadis are to be maintained and consolidated. As long as the US is perceived as a credibly fair broker in the fraught conflicts between opposed ethnic, sectarian, and regional forces it will be able to rally the support necessary to achieving tactical goals. If we allow ourselves to slip back into being perceived as a biased, partisan, or irredeemably self-interested agent in the affairs of North Africa and the Middle East, we will encounter battlefield setbacks equivalent to those of 2014 or the recent tragic loss of four soldiers in Niger.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Crunching the Numbers

An inflexible math governs American political life at the current moment, grounded in ratios that control the behavior of our sovereign institutions. Republicans make up 44% of the American electorate, or 88 million people. Of these, 29.6 million (14.8% of the total electorate) cast ballots in the Republican primaries of 2016. The fate of Donald J. Trump and the nation he leads thus hinges upon the opinion of 51% of Republican primary voters, or 15.1 million people.

The reasons for this fact are easy to grasp. In 2014 Eric Cantor, the six-term Congressman serving as House Majority Leader and poised to eventually become Speaker, was ousted from his legislative seat by a primary challenger. This served notice to all GOP House members, that they live under the sword of Damocles. If any one of them sufficiently displeases the party base, particularly those activist voters who turn up for primary contests, they will be sent packing regardless of seniority or institutional leverage. Combine this with the startling hostile takeover of the GOP nominating process that Donald Trump effected in 2016, and it is clear why House GOP members will watch Trump's approval numbers very closely as they decide what to do in the face of the White House's escalating scandals.

15.1 million people (51% of the GOP primary electorate) make up about 7.4% of eligible voters. If we assume that about 1 in 4 people who answer "approval rating" polls will actually cast a vote in the primary elections (based on the 28.5% total turnout of registered voters in the 2016), Donald Trump can safely see his national approval rating fall to 30% before he lacks the support among GOP voters necessary to sway Congressional primary contests. Until his approval ratings fall to that floor or below, Trump can expect Republican voters to throw out any Representative he targets, and all GOP House members know this.

This is why, no matter how erratic or inept his conduct and no matter how much evidence of his wrongdoing comes to light, Donald Trump will not be impeached as long as Republicans control the House. Robert Mueller and his team are evidently working rigorously to investigate the Trump campaign. Given how evasive the administration has been (suggesting they have something to hide), given the proclivity of such investigations to spill over into new realms (such as money-laundering, bribery, etc.), and given the Trump Organization's reputation for unsavory dealings, the "Mueller Report" (when it eventually appears) is likely to entail hair-raising allegations, but none of that will matter. Unless and until his approval ratings fall to or below 30% (or until Democrats attain control of the House), Trump is immune to sanction.

Trump's approval rating is not likely to erode to that requisite level. Those who voted for Trump did so in full knowledge of the malignant qualities that have been on such lavish display during the months he has been in office. They knew he was ignorant, a bully, a braggart, and a liar. They knew that he had grotesquely threatened and insulted women, Muslims, Latinos, and people of color. They knew that the Russians had conspired to aid his campaign (and they now know, in the wake of Don Jr.'s emails, that the Trump campaign welcomed such support).  They voted for him anyway. Nothing that has transpired since can be surprising to them.

What is going on? This polarization in the perception of Donald Trump himself has been among the most upsetting and alarming aspects of the current political scene for many observers. It is distressing, in the face of so much mounting evidence to the contrary, to see his supporters continue to describe Trump as "a good man," "a man of integrity," "strong". The discourse is reminiscent of the recent internet fracas over the color of a photographed dress, except that the disputed image in Trump's case is so much less ambiguous. Moreover, it is not merely his supporters' positive view of Trump that dismays, but their insistence that any negative perception of the president must be the product of bias or malicious intent. Discussions across that chasm of dispute can make it seem as if the world has lost its bearings altogether.

Many social, political, and economic factors obviously contribute to this moment of polarization in American politics, but the sheer intensity of disconnect between the opposing extremes cannot be explained without reference to the issue of race. Many millions of voters, swayed by messaging and rhetoric broadcast by various well-funded interests, were willing to believe that our nation had fallen into a uniquely dire cataclysm under Barack Obama, a moral and social disaster quite apart from the economic distress of the Great Recession. For many this may not have been a function of conscious racism- Obama's race triggered latent feelings and proclivities, so that voters were willing to be persuaded that he was a singular monster without being consciously aware of why they were inclined to think the worst of him. Combine this with the signs that many read in Obama's election concerning the larger racial demographics of the country, and one can see why certain voters (many of whom are affluent and well-educated) went into the 2016 election gripped by an inchoate feeling of panic.

For those voters, what was important about Donald J. Trump was not any particular plan or skill that he brought to the political stage, but the ways in which his persona gave expression to their fears and anger. His eschewal of "political correctness" validated their own anxieties about the Obama presidency. The fact that he was in almost all ways unfit for the office made him the perfect "anti-Obama" protest candidate, embodying the assertion that the one, non-negotiable requirement to be president should remain being a white male.

Again, I would not claim that these represent conscious calculations on the part of most Trump supporters. But they make sense as subconscious motivations that explain the bifurcation in the way Trump is perceived. Because they sense a disaster and they want Trump's election to be its solution, his supporters are ever inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and attribute qualities and motives to him that others find implausible. Moreover, because they are so convinced that the Obama administration was catastrophic, waiting for Trump's diehard supporters to become disappointed with his failure to deliver "results" is likely to be a fool's errand. For many of Trump's supporters, the only thing that Trump needs to do to satisfy their sense of urgency is to be himself. Simply by being in the White House and being so obviously antithetical to its previous occupant, Trump is giving his supporters the reassurance for which they searched. He need not do anything else to please them.

All of this explains why no one should hold their breath waiting for Donald Trump to be impeached. If the Democrats should win control of the House in 2018, however, the odds change significantly. At that point the residual support Trump retains, however robust, will not be enough to protect him from impeachment if (as seems likely) the "Mueller Report" broadcasts evidence of "high crimes and misdemeanors." What Trump might do at that point, given how unscrupulous he has proven to be in every other regard, is a sobering thought. Even more distressing is the question of how his supporters will respond to whatever transpires, given their seeming refusal to see Trump in anything but a positive light. 

UPDATE: An old friend and classmate on Facebook was kind enough to point out discrepancies in my numbers. I've corrected the math, but the larger point I was trying to make still stands.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Bush-Obama-Trump Retrocolonial Complex

Donald Trump returns from his first overseas excursion as President to meet predictable choruses of praise and criticism from opposing precincts of the political spectrum. I would (predictably) join his critics in noting that much if not most of what he said and did during this trip was for the consumption of his base supporters here at home rather than in pursuit of genuine foreign policy. That being said, it is important to note that many of the problems revealed by Trump's tour began long before he took office, and show no sign of abating in either the near or long term.

Trump's speech to Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh is the most salient case in point. His repeated rhetorical exhortation to "Drive them out" (referring to violent jihadists such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram) no doubt played very well to his voters back home ("You tell 'em, Donald!"), but it almost certainly was met with inward groans of exasperation by his audience. As Trump himself noted, the governments represented by the leaders that he was addressing are the most focused targets and cataclysmic victims of jihadi terror, and have been engaged in brutal efforts to "drive out" extremist groups since long before September 11, 2001. They allowed themselves to be lectured by Trump about the need to "drive out" terrorists in the hope that providing him with such favorable optics would win them concessions on issues like Israel, Syria, and Iran.

Trump's speech was trumpeted as an historic realignment of US-Arab relations by many conservative pundits, but it was basically a familiar turn in the neocolonial dance in which the US and the Gulf States have been engaged since the end of World War II. The leaders that Trump was addressing were compradorial elites employed in servicing the oil markets on which the US economy depends. Trump's deference to them on matters of human rights and trade gave them political capital to spend at home, at the same time that their polite reception of his superfluous call to "drive them out" provided him with a prestige moment for US television.

This neocolonial codependence is more than half a century old and will not be remedied until the US and other industrialized economies break their addiction to fossil fuels. But a more acute problem was also manifest in Trump's ironic injunction to "drive them out". Even as he spoke (and as he himself acknowledged), Iraqi soldiers were engaged in desperate house-to-house fighting to dislodge ISIS from the city of Mosul, while other Kurdish and Arab fighters are similarly occupied in Syria and Libya. These struggles drag on interminably, not because of a lack of determination to "drive them out," but because of US reluctance to allow its allies in the Middle East and North Africa to possess and employ the material means necessary to that end. This is a new wrinkle that has emerged in the conduct of US foreign policy in the wake of 9/11: in our determination to retain old-style colonial control over forces in Iraq, Syria, and Libya (what I have called "retrocolonialism"), we have helped foster perpetual instability and turmoil in large parts of the Arab world and beyond.

This problem is most acutely manifest in Iraq. The military commanded by the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi has about 300,000 active duty personnel. In terms of heavy weapons, it has about 300 battle tanks and 42 combat aircraft. Compare that to the time of Saddam Hussein, when the Iraqi military could deploy more than 1,000,000 personnel armed with 950 combat aircraft and six thousand battle tanks. Even if one allows that Hussein's military was the product of excessive militarization, present-day metrics expose the Iraqi military as totally inadequate to Iraq's defense needs. Iran, Iraq's more populous neighbor and erstwhile enemy, has a military of 500,000 personnel armed with about 3,000 battle tanks and 350 combat aircraft. If hostilities opened up again on that front, absent US protection Iraq would cease to exist. The decisions that keep Iraq in this state of dependency were not made by Prime Minister al-Abadi or his cabinet, but by US functionaries in the Green Zone and Washington DC.

This retrocolonial complex has consequences. Whenever complaints arise about the slow pace of the struggle against ISIS in Iraq, the same shibboleths about the need of the Iraqi military for "more training" are intoned by US officials. But this is ridiculous. After more than a decade of training the Iraqi army has shown poor cohesion and discipline in the face of ISIS aggression because it lacks the capacities of a sovereign military, and its soldiers know this fact. At the time that ISIS first took Mosul and Ramadi the entire Iraqi combat air force consisted of two Cessna prop planes modified to launch hellfire missiles. ISIS terrorists, with their captured Syrian humvees, heavy machine guns, and mortars, had equivalent armament to their Iraqi military counterparts and superior motivation. Members of ISIS believed they were fighting for a caliphate in the process of being born, while Iraqi soldiers knew they were fighting for a nation whose sovereignty had yet to be restored- one that remained (and remains) a colonial client of the United States.

This is not to make a reductionist argument about the nefariousness of American motives in the Middle East. If the US set out to materially profit from the exploitation of Iraq, that gambit has proved laughably self-defeating. But the initial invasion of Iraq, the current hobbling of Iraqi security forces, and the basic strategic posture of the US in Syria and Libya are all expressions of the same dysfunctional paternalism that has informed US policy since 9/11, and that has been consistent no matter what administration has been in power. Despite the fact that violent jihadis are a fringe group generally loathed and feared throughout the Arab and Islamic world, US leaders refuse to fully trust our Arabic and Islamic allies in the fight against jihadi terror. Most particularly, we refuse to entrust the people of nations like Iraq, Libya, and Syria with the full means to "drive out" the jihadis that are destroying their countries.

The US does not keep the Iraqi military hobbled totally out of blank bigotry. If and when Iraq has a truly sovereign military force the current homeostasis prevailing among contending forces in Iraq might break down, and the country could slide into an expanding civil war between regional and sectarian rivals, a contingency that the US does not trust Iraqi leaders to avoid. But the motives of the US in this regard are not humanitarian. The US fears a widening civil war in Iraq because of its consequences for the American economy and US security. Moreover, even if a fully armed Iraq did avoid civil war, it would be empowered to embark on a truly independent foreign policy, and might decide to ally itself with Iran, Russia, China, or any number of powers whose interests do not perfectly align with those of the US. The political embarrassment of such a contingency alone is enough to give US leaders night terrors.

In the same way that the Bush administration operated on the principle that only US power could be trusted to "cure" Iraq of Saddam Hussein, the Obama and Trump administrations have assumed that only US power can be trusted to keep the peace in the wake of Saddam's fall. Thus rather than do the hard work required to enlist the Iraqis as a genuine ally, we attempt to manipulate them as a colonial proxy. This is a strategy of sorts, but its tactical and moral shortcomings are displayed in the protracted and destructive struggle to dislodge ISIS from the Levant, and it makes all exhortations to "drive them out" such as Donald Trump delivered in Riyadh purely theatrical.

Similar forms of paternalism have animated American policy in Syria. Unlike the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the movement to depose Bashar al-Assad was a genuinely homegrown expression of Syrian popular dissent. Though Barack Obama gave lip service to the legitimacy of the Syrian rebellion, his administration never offered robust support to its efforts. In the same way Washington has never trusted post-Saddam leaders to keep the peace in Iraq, the Obama White House did not trust the Syrian opposition to replace the Assad regime with a better alternative, thus they refused to commit US military power to any degree that might give the Syrian rebellion a chance at success.  In like fashion, though Donald Trump made token missile strikes to chastise the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, his White House is otherwise in lock step with the strategy of the previous administration, ignoring the depredations of the Assad regime while working to wear down ISIS through the use of weakly supported US proxies in concert with American air power. As in post-Saddam Iraq, in Syria there is little to show from US "caution" except for smouldering ruins, massive casualties, and hordes of refugees.

The ethnocentric paternalism expressed by this strategy is deeply endemic to the political culture of the United States. Even well-informed American observers of the Arab world are prone to applying a soft bigotry of low expectations to the situation in the Middle East. Coverage of the Syrian Civil War in the wake of the fall of Aleppo, for example, has focused on the excesses of the rebel coalition, portraying them as equivalently venal and corrupt by comparison to the Assad regime. Such commentary indulges in a "static state" fallacy, however. It posits that anything that may be observed in the Syrian opposition now must be assumed to have been true all along, and to have been inevitable from the beginning. But history shows us that unsuccessful rebel movements, from Europe to Latin America to Africa to Asia, degenerate over time into increasingly apolitical and predatory gangs.  If the Syrian opposition had enjoyed robust international support early on it might have evolved into a much more integral and disciplined force as success bred success. Such a possibility is persuasively evinced by the fact that even in its current depleted form the rebel coalition enjoys enough support to hold out against the combined might of Russia and the Assad regime, and shows little sign of being totally defeated in the near future.

The current US strategy in Syria and Iraq of "war by colonial client proxy" may ultimately dislodge ISIS from Raqqa, but it is unlikely to effect a long term solution to the problem of violent jihadism in the Levant. The government in Damascus has been crippled by civil war, the government in Baghdad by invasion and colonial paternalism. In the power vacuum opened between these two capitals jihadism is likely to fester and re-emerge, whatever tactical victories might be scored by the US and its proxies in the near term.

The tragic irony of US "retrocolonial" paternalism in the Middle East is its self-defeating nature. America has kept both the Iraqi government and the Syrian opposition hobbled in an attempt to exert control, but in doing so, it has only fostered chaos and destruction, swelling the ranks of ISIS and Al Qaeda and setting millions of refugees to flight, thus disrupting the politics of the entire world. For the situation to improve, more than the Trump presidency must end. US citizens and leaders must cease to treat the people of the Arabic and Islamic world with total (if, at times, unspoken) condescension and suspicion, and must accept the realities of a world in which US power can exert influence, but not maintain control.