Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Iranian Nuclear Program

The snippet of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released on December 3 was a blow to those supporting tighter sanctions against Iran. The report, based on data from sixteen American agencies as well as shared information from the larger intelligence community - most significantly from the United Kingdom, but also from France, Italy, and even Israel (see Melman's piece in Ha'aretz) - argued that "in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." For many of those who opposed stricter measures against Iran (Russia and China) and those luke-warm about more meaningful steps (Germany), the report was welcome ammunition in the international war of words. A number of analysts declared that this American own-goal had wiped the military option off the table.

On the other hand, British intelligence sources disputed the veracity of the report, attributing the conclusions to the U.S. intelligence agents' misinterpretation of Iranian decoy conversations. Meanwhile, Israeli officials, most notably Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have vehemently criticized the American conclusions. Some American as well as Israeli commentators have raised the specter of a U.S. betrayal of its ally.

Of course, any hardline posturing by Barak should be evaluated with an eye to the domestic political front. The Labor Party defense minister in Olmert's government is trying as much as possible to profit from opportunities that the Iranian crisis as well as the ongoing qassam fire from Gaza provide him as he distinguishes his security record from that of Kadima and the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, no one is playing around merely to gain approval ratings. Israel is right to challenge the NIE and the interpretations of it advanced by those who have long been intent on throwing sticks in the spokes of the sanctions-wheel.

Iran did not stop its work out of humanitarian convictions about the evils of nuclear weapons. The regime fears both a preemptive military attack and international isolation. But it also knows the rewards that it would gain from reaching nuclear status. The Iranians, are thus going to do everything possible to continue covert work that would enable them to produce a nuclear weapon within a short period of time, even with a frozen nuclear program. As the NIE acknowledges, Iran is "keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons (NIE, p. 9)."

Unfortunately, the NIE undermines the very mechanisms that led to increased international pressure against the Iranian regime. Without the credible threat of an American military option, the incentives for such states as Russia, China, or even Germany to support tougher sanctions against Iran decline dramatically. Where there were once two sticks - sanctions and a military strike - only one of these remains today. If the world refuses to see a nuclear Iran as a problem, Israel has no choice but to devote all its resources to developing a credible answer to the challenge.

It does not matter whether or not Iran is a "rational" actor. Iran's rise to the nuclear powers' club would be disastrous for American as well as Israeli interests in the region. This is not a moral argument about who deserves to have nuclear weapons but a simple statement of the geopolitics involved. There are some who think that the Middle East will be a better place with the Islamic Republic projecting hard power in the Gulf and in the Levant. Others appear to be longing for a day when the U.S. is no longer able to secure the world's most important oil shipping lanes without the cooperation of other powers. They will regret this when it is too late.

I have to agree with Rosner that this report should never have been published. It may very well have taken the winds out of the diplomatic struggle against Iran's drive for nuclear weapons.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Will Annapolis Surprise Us All?

When making predictions about developments in the Middle East, I have learned to follow a simple formula over the past half-decade: imagine the worst and multiply that by two. At first glance, there seems little reason to deviate from that rule when thinking about what the Annapolis Summit, which begins on Tuesday, November 27, will bestow upon us. But pessimism is easy, so let us look deeper and find at least a few positive indicators. Annapolis may yet surprise us all.

The Americans - President Bush and Secretary of State Rice - desperately need a victory. They will be pushing down hard on the Israelis to make symbolic concessions, and to give the Arab states and Fatah something to write home about. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, for his part, seems to have prepared the ground for some bigger concession. So far, he has faced relatively little opposition. Despite a few whispering campaigns and speeches, the far right has not been able to mobilize its mass base to preempt Olmert.

One of the bigger concessions that Olmert could offer may not be related to the Palestinians at all. Rather, it may involve some overture on the Syrian side of things. There is no doubt that Syria's participation at the summit is highly significant. It may yet prove disastrous, but the potential exists for a big move forward.

Meanwhile, the Saudis' main concern, whatever their rhetoric, these days is Iran. Together with Egypt and Jordan, they will seek to reverse the Iranians' impressive muscle-flexing in the Gulf region as well as in the Levant. They have no choice but to turn the summit into something that can be exchanged on the market of Sunni public opinion.

The Palestinians, i.e., Abbas, Fayad, and the Fatah gang, can least afford to fail. They need to use the summit as an opportunity to gain solid commitments to Fatah rule in the West Bank. This will be more important to them than adherence to settlement freezes - as important as these are to the long-term viability of a Palestinian state.

Of course, Annapolis will not end the qassam strikes from Gaza on Sderot. Nor will it stop the IDF incursions into and roadblocks in the West Bank. However, the summit may very well initiate a major shift in the US's public commitments to the creation of a Palestinian state. We may witness something similar to President Bush's historic June 24, 2002 speech, but this time with a pro-Abbas tilt.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Benevolent Empire Strikes Back

What makes an empire great? What makes it really great – more durable and expansive than its rivals? What makes an empire a “hyper power,” the center of things in a unipolar world? Yale law professor Amy Chua wanted to know, and so she studied world history’s “hyper powers.” The label owes its origin to a Frenchman, who in 1999 uttered it in an anti-imperial – or at least, anti-American, tirade. But in Chua’s new book, Day of Empire, it’s drained of any prejudice. Her definition, which to me, sitting in on her lecture today on the campus of UC Berkeley, seemed a bit loose, focuses on scale – these empires aren’t on the Aztec scale, but on the Roman, Persian, or Mongol – and, on economic and military preeminence. She argues that radical tolerance or pluralism is the foundation upon which any hyper power stands, bearing in mind that what was progressive in early modern Holland won’t pass muster with liberals today.

From her public comments, and from what one can read in this LA Times review, Chua’s attempt to analyze ancient and modern empires comprehensively, while admirable and ambitious, appears to miss the mark. I asked her whether her notion of “strategic tolerance” could indeed be applied equally well to a decentralized ancient empire, which bows to local custom and rule as a matter of practicality – say, the Achaemenid Persians in a place like Upper Egypt – as to a modern empire, like the American, which might, in the interest of gaining a competitive advantage over the Chinese, selectively offer visas to highly skilled foreign nationals to keep them from setting up shop in Hong Kong. She answered that colleagues had warned her of the brutality of pedants and specialists, had charged that she wouldn’t be comparing apples and oranges, but apples and nuclear power plants, and still, alas, she had carried on, secure in the notion that “tolerance” is a flexible yet coherent concept, the “glue” of each of these societies, and, ultimately, what for us should paste them all together. I’m jealous. Would that I were a lawyer and not an ancient historian.

Defunct are the empires of the past; a simple fact, perhaps a justification for shallow study, but also the source of an unmistakable fear of the future that animated Chua’s talk and spread to the crowd. In the western tradition, one finds the idea that empires rise and fall cyclically as far back as Herodotus. Chua faces off with a more difficult problem, encountered by a later Greek historian, Polybius, who took for granted that empires rise and fall, but somehow sensed that Rome was different, that the empire under which he lived was both born of time’s perennial cycle and transcended it. Chua wanted today to look to the future, and in her lawyerly way, to imply that the United States can escape the fate of past empires that failed to negotiate between the extremes of excessive tolerance, whereby internal cohesion suffers, and the backlash of intolerance that, she argues, often seems to follow an externally produced catastrophe on the scale of 9/11.

Chua is a Chinese-American, the daughter of a Berkeley computer science professor. And so it seemed fitting that her comments looked forward to an American clash with China, and also seemed to juxtapose the absorption of Asian immigrants here on the Pacific Rim in California with a failed approach to immigration and integration for Hispanics here and across the country. She tempered optimism on China by pointing to Chinese ethnic chauvinism. But she also fastened upon Jews, repeatedly, as the quintessential beneficiary of imperial tolerance, arguing that hyper powers that took in Jews invariably profited big time. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was driving at the conclusion that what some have called market-oriented ethnic minorities are better positioned than others to profit from the tolerance of hyper powers, and, in turn, fuel the growth of their hosts. In fact, in response to my question, Chua almost seemed to bemoan the ideological restraints that prevent modern, liberal, democratic empires from more effectively cherry picking the kinds of immigrants they desire.

The Middle East had to fit in somewhere. Chua elicited chuckles by pointing out that Coca-Cola and American blockbusters won’t turn a Palestinian into an American – or a pro-American; or that the US isn’t about to draw an army of civil servants from the Iraqi population, à la the British in India. Her more serious point, and, I think, one of the major arguments of her book, is that the US had better not impose its values and culture on Middle Eastern nations. That wouldn’t be tolerant. Instead, it would spell the beginning of the end of America’s reign as hyper power. Given that she very much left open the question of whether or not American hegemony, or even hyper power per se, is a good thing, I couldn’t help feeling that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too. Tolerance and pluralism, no doubt, are by Chua’s reckoning, good things. And the powers that practice them, get rewarded. (Here, Stanford’s Josiah Ober, the preeminent historian and theorist of classical Athenian democracy, would wholeheartedly agree). Then why, one wonders, shouldn’t the West be intolerant about intolerance in the Middle East? To protect our competitive advantage? In other words, is hyper power a zero-sum game; we keep tolerance and pluralism to ourselves and thereby retain our dominance? If instead, tolerance is a universal good, an engine of economic growth, the fons et origo of happiness, why shouldn’t we be pushing with Thomas Friedman for the pope to visit Saudi Arabia? Liberal values may prove just as much a casualty of the neocon putsch as the tragic loss of human life in Iraq.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Delayed Reaction

Blogging about a Mearsheimer and Walt lecture a couple of weeks after the fact is a little odd, I know. The atmosphere surrounding this controversial and vaguely filial scholarly pairing usually elicits rapid fire rejoinders (think Alan Dershowitz on the Kennedy School website), easy labels, and point-by-point refutations. In my case, I’ve delayed posting my reaction to the talk Amos and I took in recently at Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school, not only because I’m busy, but because I’m rather uncomfortable with the blitz-style polemics one hears from some of M&W’s opponents.

Emotion, not dispassionate, scholarly curiosity, sells these professors’ book -- and prolongs their fifteen minutes of fame. And, frankly, I didn’t walk out of their talk very emotional. (Though the cry of, “Don’t taze me,” from an unruly audience member who was escorted out by the police, and the dark epiphany of a committed Darwinist during Q&A insured that I wasn’t unfazed). Much of what was said was reasonable, and, when young Walt spoke, well reasoned. That the pro-Israel lobby in Washington is a singularly efficacious interest group, with an enormous budget, and access to the inner circles of the Bush administration, isn’t something worth debating. These are the people who were eating at now disgraced – once wildly successful – lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s D.C. restaurant, and, sometimes, from his trough. As a case study in the sociology of the Beltway, The Israel Lobby, will probably read well. Then again, Mearsheimer did accuse the “Lobby” of driving former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee from office. As Walter Russell Mead points out in an excellent review of the book in Foreign Affairs, these guys tend to display a surprisingly naïve view of the American political system. Chafee was a moderate Republican from the northeast in the age of Karl Rove and Tom Delay, the men who've polarized politics. The evaporating congressional Center pushed him out, not the machinations of pro-Israel hawks!

That particular accusation is one that sexes up, even if it doesn’t strengthen M&W’s message. Moreover, it’s symptomatic of a larger attempt at inflating their story. They’re on much shakier ground as they move from their description and analysis of the “Israel Lobby,” broadly construed, to greater claims about the history of US foreign policy and contemporary international relations – this despite the fact that the two are eminently qualified to discuss those matters. One of their weakest claims has always been that the Israel Lobby got us (Americans) into Iraq. From what I understand, this is a claim that was toned down considerably along the way from article to book, but I still left their lecture utterly confused. The state of Israel and the Lobby – notice the conflation – were “two of the main driving forces” behind the war, they told the crowd in Berkeley. Their evidence? The Israeli population was gung-ho, with polls bearing out their support for the invasion. And the Lobby? Well, they brag – a lot. M&W place an inordinate weight on the boasts of AIPAC, et al., who claim to have had the ear of key neocons in Bush’s inner circle, (this being a major criticism of Mead).

Thankfully, in my opinion, the whims of the Israeli populace, in search of their psychological reprieve, and the puffed-up ambitions of a few Washington lobbyists aren’t enough to produce the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history. This country is having a hell of a time facing up to the debacle of Iraq. With so many culpable, it’s shocking how few are owning up. Those responsible are not just those who cheered on, nor only those who gave the Administration a pass out of political cowardice, but all those who lay down because they thought it would be easy. The most disheartening thing about M&W’s book is that it offers all these people amnesty, the comfort of a villain with real agency. AIPAC took us to war, not the Hillary Clinton’s of the world or the average American. We didn’t do it! Cindy Sheehan’s cry of, “My son died in Iraq for Israel” gets an academic imprimatur.

Finally, and here I’m indebted to a real political scientist, Asaf, M&W came off a bit disingenuous in their claim to be undermining with this book years of work that advanced “realist” theories of international relations. For Mearsheimer, this was something of a punch line: our book discredits us! In a way, the profs provide here an answer to the question, “Why this issue?” They didn’t take it on out of malice. They have no axe to grind. The absurdity of the matter is self-evident. According to realist orthodoxy, as I understand it, states operate rationally, and the United States, in the case of its relationship with Israel, has long been acting like an entirely irrational player in the world system. I don’t think M&W risk losing many realist diehards with this book. On the contrary, this is what Greek rhetoricians called auxesis – amplification. In a world of rational relationships this irrational alliance has no place. The most important challenge of M&W’s serious critics thus won’t be stubbornly making “the case for Israel,” but making anew the case American-Israeli cooperation in a brave, scary new world.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mearsheimer and Walt at Berkeley

What follows is my paraphrase transcript of today's Berkeley Teach-Ins Against the War (BTIAW) discussion featuring Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer on their recently published book, The Israel Lobby (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2007). I do not have time here to offer an analysis, which I hope will emerge from discussion of the event in future posts. As some of our veteran readers will recall, some of the earliest posts on this blog concerned the original article on the "Israel Lobby" published by Mearsheimer and Walt in 2006. That study, in my opinion, was riddled with small mistakes and careless assertions. The Walt and Mearsheimer that I saw in Berkeley earlier today - especially the Walt - were far more polished and careful than this original study. Walt in particular struck me as very persuasive and as an excellent teacher. Overall, I was very impressed by the level and civility of the discussion. Unlike the previous BTIAW that I attended, this was, for the most part, a model of what our universities should be about.

Needless to say, I continue to have serious disagreements with the claims advanced by Walt and Mearsheimer respectively, although there is also much in this latest version of their thinking that seems indisputable. Briefly, I found least convincing the arguments for
  1. a causative link between "the Lobby's" aims and the Iraq war (as Noah K. pointed out, the extent of the connection they postulate is always qualified; M&W spoke of "marked influence," for example)
  2. a STRONG connection between American foreign policy toward Israel and the 9/11 attacks (as Asaf pointed out, perhaps speaking about other aspects of their talk, M&W seemed to conflate US policy toward Israel with US policy toward the entire Middle East; I believe that it is the latter, far more than the former, which served as a motivating factor for al-Qaeda). Dan over at The Green Line has previously blogged on this.
I also remain unpersuaded that there is such a "huge gap" between what the American people want and what American foreign policy toward Israel is - a gap, that the authors argue, is explained by the activities of the Lobby.

In reading through this transcript, I think it is worth paying attention to the differences that exist between Walt and Mearsheimer - in substance and form. Mearsheimer was definitely less guarded than Walt. Nevertheless, both were clearly unwilling to endorse the positions articulated by George Bisharat, the discussant, as well as in the question and answer period.

Stephen Walt

Two main questions

1. Is there a powerful, pro-Israel lobby in the US? How does it work?
2. Is its influence positive or negative for US, and positive or negative for Israel?

The Taboo

I want to acknowledge how difficult it is to raise this subject in the U.S. If we were talking about energy or gun control or Indian-American nuclear agreement, it wouldn’t be controversial to talk about oil lobbies, NRA, various Indian-American groups.

Reasons for the Taboo

But with Middle East, when you talk about Israel lobby groups you are grabbing the third rail. This is in part because of the historical experience of the Jewish people – a history which includes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and accusations of undue influence. It is a history that has to be respected and which requires us to be cautious..

Rejection of Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories

Some may think that we’re saying there’s some kind of secret conspiracy to control American policy, the military, or economy. We reject these antisemitic conspiracy theories. The Israel Lobby is an interest group like lots of other ones. Most of its activities are entirely appropriate. We don’t question Israel’s legitimacy. We believe the US should come to Israel’s aid if its survival were ever in jeopardy. But we ought to be able to talk about the influence of the Israel Lobby in the same way as we might talk about any other groups.

Usual Rationales for US Support for Israel

Rabin: US support for Israel beyond compare in modern history – largest recipient of military aid. Israel’s GDP/capita is 29th in world. Israel builds settlements. US gives consistent backing to Israel in the UN. Almost always take its side in regional conflicts. Israel is rarely if ever criticized by officials nor anyone who aspires to high office .

The usual rationale given for this support is that Israel is democracy and a strategic asset. Israel may have been a strategic asset during the Cold War; but is it today? Giving Israel unconditional support is one of reasons we have a terrorism problem and makes it harder to address many problems in Middle East. Problems wouldn’t disappear if we had normal relationship. US gets some benefits. But it’s hard to argue that giving Israel so much and unconditional help is making Americans safer. It’s a strategic liability.

True, Israel is a vibrant democracy – but there are many other democratic countries. Further, Israel’s treatments of own Arab citizens and Palestinian subjects is sharply at odds with democratic values. Israel’s behavior no better than that of the Palestinians. Neither side owns moral high ground. Israel hasn’t acted substantially better than other countries. Its behavior isn’t exemplary to justify special treatment.

We think there’s a strong moral case for Israel’s existence, based on the history of antisemitism. But today, Israel’s existence is not in jeopardy.

The Lobby is Behind Israel's Privileged Position

What explains Israel’s privileged position? In our view, the Israel Lobby. Organizations such as AIPAC, ADL, Christians United for Israel, Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Weekly Standard and New Republic. Most special interest groups in US have a number of different components. Environmental movement = research organizations, local chapters, academics, journalists. It’s not a centralized organization. Not everyone agrees. It’s not a cabal or conspiracy that controls US foreign policy. Rather, powerful interest group whose actions are as American as apple-pie.

The lobby is not synonymous with Jewish Americans. Between one quarter to one third don’t care about Israel; some of the organizations aren’t Jewish. Lobby is defined by political positions it favors. We include only those who are actively working to influence US policy.

Small interest groups can sometimes wield strong influence – narrow topic that doesn’t interest so many people. Lobby works in Beltway – giving politicians clear incentives to embrace its positions. AIPAC works 24/7 to convince politicians to follow their views. Annual budget is $50 million – drafting legislation, publishing talking points. Very energetic grassroots base. It doesn’t give money directly to candidates, but it does help steer contributions from individuals. Pro-Israel political action committees gave $55 million to politicians from 1992-2006. Have driven some people from office. Lobby doesn’t control every election, but every Congressman and presidential candidate knows that they’re playing with fire if you question support for Israel.

The second strategy is try to shape public discourse on Middle East and Israel so that the country is viewed very favorable by mainstream Americans. US coverage is very pro-Israel – cf. Europe and Israel. No one like Robert Fisk and Patrick Seale, Akiva Elder, Gideon Levi, Amira Hass. It’s not the former are always right – the point is that critical voices like theirs are almost completely absent from US media. Even so, watchdog groups such as ADL and Camera mount boycotts, Campus Watch monitors universities. When Jimmy Carter published his book, ADL and Camera took out ads with publisher’s phone number. Pressure on CNN advertisers.

Efforts to stifle critical commentary often includes smearing critics by calling them antisemitic. Marty Peretz: Carter will go down in history as a Jew-hater. Distracts people from main issue – American policy. Deters people from criticizing the Lobby. Marginalizes people in the public arena.

It’s obvious to virtually everyone that America’s Middle East policy has gone off the rails but we don’t debate. It’s often argued that US policy is due to broad support for Israel. This is not persuasive. Americans in part do have a favorable image of Israel; but they don’t think US should give Israel one-sided and unconditional support. Recent survey: 70%+ Americans: be balanced. 87% of Jewish Americans want a two-state solution. Gap between what people want and American policy is due to influence of lobby.


The Negative Influence of the Lobby on American and Israeli Policy

Its influence has been largely negative. The Lobby, working with Israel itself, has pushed Israel’s Middle East policy that are not in US’s interest and not in Israel’s. US support for Israel’s policies in occupied territories has helped fuel terrorism against US; role of Lobby in run-up to Iraq war; US policy toward Iran, Syria, and during Lebanon War of 2006 (will not talk about last 3 in this presentation).

Hatred for US is due to Support for Israel

Conventional wisdom among Israel’s supporters: treatment of Palestinians has little to do with US’s terrorism problem and why US is so hated. In fact, Israel = valuable ally. This is wrong. Survey data shows that US support for Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians and to colonize these territories angers huge numbers of people in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at plight of Palestinians and perceived role of US. I’m not saying this is only cause of our terrorism problem but a major cause: motivates some individuals to attack the US. It serves as powerful recruitment tool for terrorist organizations. Since LBJ every president has opposed building of settlements.

Critically important issue when talking about America’s terrorism problem: 9/11’s relation to brutal treatment of Palestinians. It’s common-place to hear people say that Bin Laden didn’t care much about Palestinians until recently; events had nothing to do with Israel; those involved in attack hated us because of who were not our Middle East policy. It is clear from the historical record that Bin Laden has been deeply concerned about plight of Palestinians since he was a young man; reflected in public statements throughout 1990s. Max Rodenbeck, in Economist review of 2 books about Bin Laden: of all the themes the notion of payback for injustices suffered by Palestinians is perhaps most powerfully recurrent in speeches. Major motivating factor of attacks: support for Israel. Bin Laden wanted bombers to attack Congress specifically; move up date in response to events in Israel. Principal architect of attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: animus stems from violent disagreement with US foreign policy favoring Israel (9/11 Commission Report). Hard to imagine more compelling evidence for role that US support for Israel played in inspiring attacks. Present relationship between Israel & US is provoking terrorism problem.

Israel and the Lobby were Main Driving Forces Behind Decision to Invade Iraq

Iraq War = one of greatest blunders in American history. Israel and Lobby were two of the main driving forces behind decision to invade Iraq. Hard to imagine that war happening in their absence. Israel was only country where both government and majority of population favored the war. Israeli government pushed Bush administration hard to make sure it didn’t lose its nerve in months before invasion. Barak and Netanyahu also implored US to take down Saddam Hussein. Israel was pushing so hard for war that its allies in US warned them to damp down rhetoric lest it be seen as war for Israel. President Clinton said in 2006: every Israeli politician I knew thought that Saddam was so great a threat that he should be removed even if Iraq didn’t have WMD. 77% of Israelis said they wanted US to attack Iran in month before war.

There is no question that in early 2002 when Israelis first got wind of Bush administration’s thoughts to attack Iraq that key officials went to Washington to make it clear that IRAN was greater enemy. Important to emphasize, however, that Israel wasn’t opposed to US toppling regimes in Iraq or Syria. Israel simply wanted US to deal with Iran first. But once Israelis realized that war party intended to deal with Iran after finishing job in Iraq, it enthusiastically embraced idea of invading Iraq. Israelis put significant pressure on Bush administration to choose war over diplomacy, while reminding US to deal with Iran after. No evidence that Israel warned US that Iraq would be a quagmire; they thought it would be a cake-walk.

Now that war has gone south, common-place to hear Israel’s supporters say that main organizations in Lobby didn’t push for war. May 2004 editorial in The Forward. As President Bush attempted to sell war in Iraq, America’s important Jewish organizations rallied to his defense – community leaders stressed need to rid world of Saddam and his WMD. Concern for Israel rightly factored in.

Hard evidence that AIPAC lobbied for the war. Its executive director, Howard Kohr, told NY Sun in January 2003: one of AIPAC’s successes for past year = quietly lobbying Congress to approve use of force in Iraq. Neo-cons were main driving force behind war. They initiated idea of toppling Saddam by force; especially after 9/11, they pushed relentlessly for war against Iraq. No other group or institution in US was as seriously committed to invading Iraq. Even after 9/11, there was significant opposition in State Department, uniformed military. Neo-cons are deeply committed to Israel; many are connected to key organizations in the Lobby. Our argument is not that the neo-cons or the leaders of the principal Lobby organizations were pushing a war that was in Israel’s national interest. On contrary, they believed that invading Iraq was in both the American and Israeli national interest. For them, what is good for Israel is good for the US. It was the events of 9/11 that created circumstances to help them convince that invading Iraq was smart idea.

Without Bush or Cheney onboard, there wouldn’t have been a war. If Al Gore had been elected, there would not have been a war. The neo-cons were necessary to have the war but by themselves couldn’t have made the war happen.

We’re sometimes accused of making argument that Iraq war = Jewish war. Polls taken before the war show that American Jews were 10% less supportive of war than general American public. War was due in large part to Israel Lobby, especially the neo-cons within it; not the American Jewish community. Lobby is defined by its political agenda.

What Should the US-Israel Relationship Look Like?

What we think US-Israel relationship should look like. US should treat Israel as a normal country; how it treats other democracies around the world – England, France, Italy, and India. When Israel is acting in ways consistent with American interest, Washington should back the state. When it harms US interests, America should get Israel to change its behavior. US should act as honest broker in Israeli-Palestinian conflict. US should make it clear to Israel that it must abandon occupied territories. Jerusalem should be told that US will oppose Israel’s colonial expansion in the West Bank. US should defend Israel’s right to exist within its pre-1967 borders with some minor modifications. Most importantly, if Israel’s survival is threatened, US should come to its aid.

George Bisharat

Some Adulation and Non Sequiturs

It is an important book because it is about a pivotal, consequential conflict that has emanations and consequences that affect us here within the US. Relationship between the conflict and the war in Iraq. If you think about the domestic dimensions of the so-called “War on Terror” – price of diminished civil liberties – this is another consequence of this conflict that affects each and every one of us in this country. It’s a book about an issue that’s very poorly understood. Lack of understanding is produced, manufactured, maintained – not by control but by substantial influence – over media, public discourse in universities and variety of other places.

Most importantly, the professor have broken a taboo and opened debate on this critical issue. From personal experience, the reality is that people who attempt to speak out on this issue face substantial forms of dissuasion – shall we say. What you have done, professors, was an act of intellectual courage that few people in the American academic community have shown.

No Shout-Out to People who Celebrate Hanukah (or Kwanzaa - NK)

I urge you all to buy the book, give it to your family and friends for Christmas.

Critique of Pivotal Assumptions about Israel's Right to Exist

Some questions: the professors repeatedly state throughout book that history of Christian European antisemitism provides a strong moral basis for Israel’s founding and continued existence. At same time, they argue that Israel’s establishment necessarily entailed crimes (term they use) against the Palestinians, including expulsion of approximately 750,000 Palestinians in 1948, seizure of homes. They also show in some detail that maintaining Israel’s character as a Jewish state requires continuing denial of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. It also entails de jure and de facto discrimination against the Palesitnian citizens of Israel today. They speak of 1992 Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom – the professors point out that it does not contain an equality principle (14th Amendment); such a clause was specifically excluded. Laws that prevent Palestinian Israeli citizens from transferring citizenship to non-citizens whom they marry. How can there be moral justification? Is it appropriate for US to condition aid to Israel on its passage of an equal rights amendment – if not, why not?

Questions by Bisharat

At a number of points in the book, the professors state that it’s not antisemitic to criticize Israeli policies. It’s not clear whether you believe it’s antisemitic to criticize founding principles of the Israeli state, including the ones that dedicate it to being a state to one people and not of all of its citizens. Is there anything antisemitic about criticizing Zionism, establishing a state based on exclusivist ethnic criteria?

You state that Israeli Lobby acts in ways counter to Israel’s interest. Raises question about relationship between Israeli government and Lobby? Is the Lobby running amok? Or is the Israeli government acting in ways that run counter to long-term interests of its citizens?

I read with great interest section of the book that deals with prescriptions of how to make things better. You clearly state support for a two-state solution to problem. Book claims that other alternatives are undesirable.

How to deal with Lobby? They evaluate weakening it through financing regulations. Look at possibility that Lobby might be countered – they directly note that neither Arab nor Muslim-American community are likely to pose a significant challenge to Lobby. Possibility of transforming the Lobby, making it less maximalist and hardline – they rate it as plausible. The real hope they offer is in opening up public discourse and education. Silent majority is out there, amenable to what they say. But I worry because the Lobby is working overtime; professors were disinvited from prominent forum in Mearsheimer’s hometown. Program of colonization on the ground in Israel is not stopping either.

One of the alternatives they’ve offered to two-state solution: development of apartheid-like solution. Will political power ever be marshaled here or in Israel to stop this colonizing juggernaut? Is there not a point at which we have to admit that repartition of Palestine has become impossible. There is one effective sovereign as we speak; question will be about political principles on which that system should operate. Will it be a system based on equal rights and fundamental human dignity of both peoples.

Questions and Answers

Responses to Bisharat


We think that fact there’s a Jewish state is a good thing given history of antisemitism and our understanding of how the world works. Here in the US, we have a melting pot society. This is not a Christian or Anglo-Saxon state. It’s a liberal state. There is no one ethnic or religious group that dominates; it’s a melting pot. I don’t like idea of living in state dominated by one culture. But around world, there are lots of states where people identify themselves largely in terms of culture – Japan: most people consider themselves to be Japanese. Same is true with Israel – it’s a Jewish state; same true for Germany. It’s not the way I like to do business; but it’s perfectly legitimate way to do it in international system today. I believe in national self-determination. Zionism is a form of nationalism and perfectly legitimate one. There is nothing wrong with having a Jewish state. We are arguing that Palestinians are also entitled to have a state of their own. If there’s national self-determination for the Jews, it should also exist for the Palestinians. Principal obstacle to establishing Palesitnian state at this time is Israel. Israel is interested in colonizing the West Bank and giving the Palestinians nothing more than a few enclaves, keeping them disconnected, controlling borders, air and water. As long as that’s the case, Palestinians wont’ have viable state. Same logic that leads us to support Jewish state leads us to support Palestinians State.


Relationship between Israeli government and Lobby. Impact of Lobby has been unintentionally quite harmful to Israel. There’s nothing unique about that. Governments and special interest groups do stupid things; every government does things contrary to its own interest. 3 examples: many Israelis today would argue that entire settlement project was a “strategic and moral disaster of tragic proportions” (Wieseltier). Immensely costly.

Iraq was a blunder not just for US but also for Israel. It created a failed state in Israel’s neighborhood. Strengthened Iran’s position. Bush didn’t think it was a blunder to go into Iraq; neither did the Israelis. War in Lebanon in 2006 – Hizbullah was a problem, Israel had right to respond; but strategy that Israel adopted by trying to eliminate it from the air, trying to punish from the air – it was boneheaded. Not good for Israel. Aided and abetted by Israel Lobby here.

Some of Israel’s most ardent supporters in US have done it great harm.

Where do we go from here? Look down road where this is all leading. You can imagine expelling all the Palestinians. If you’re of ethnic cleansing, please raise your hands. You can have a binational democracy [strong applause, Walt says: I don’t agree with this] – if you favor that, you don’t favor having a Jewish state. Or you can have apartheid. That has many negative consequences for the Jewish state. Do you want that? If you’re pro-Israel, you should get behind a two-state solution with as much force as you can.

Mearsheimer interjects:

there is significant opposition in Israel to giving Palestinians a state. Most Israelis don’t have a viable state in mind. Very little support in Israel for the Clinton parameters. That means that US has to lean heavily on Israel. All this is heading for apartheid state, if this doesn’t happen. That’s why so much uproar over Jimmy Carter book.

Questions from the Floor - First Round

1. Ideology. Is it worthwhile to pursue notion that Zionism has an effect within substantial part of American Jewish population similar to effect that Stalinism had on Communists?

2. Statistical extrapolations that Arab population will outnumber Jewish one in Israel.

3. How will change in US foreign policy be sparked?


1. I think there is hardly any similarity between the two. Zionism is nationalism: Jews should have state of their own. Got started in Europe in late 19th when nationalism was a very powerful force. There’s nothing unusual about it. It was good old-fashioned European nationalism. Just happened to be that group pushing it was Jewish. Stalinism is an ideology associated with one man and his murderous policies; it has nothing to do with nationalism. Russian and Ukrainian nationalism is roughly equivalent to Zionism. With regard to Zionism’s role in US – there’s large body of literature is that religious part of Judaism no longer very attractive to them; large portions of American Jewish community see Israel as central part of Jewish identity. That’s due in large part to fact that religion isn’t a strong glue anymore. It’s not surprising that inside American Jewish population today there’s substantial support for Israel. Public opinion polls on American Jewish community, 35 or younger, much less identification with Israel.


2. Changing demographic balance? Israelis are well-aware of this. Explains why Sharon eventually woke up to fact that creating situation that wasn’t sustainable in long term. There’s also shifting demographic balance within Israel.

3. We are under no illusions that Lobby can be turned around instantly. Some cause for optimism: the costs of such a one-sided policy are becoming obvious. Our screwed-up relation with Middle East, our problems, are making people think – of course Israel and Lobby aren’t only source of this. Two: it’s hard to see how policy changes once you change the conversation, shift the discourse. This is why groups in the Lobby have been so energetic in trying to squelch conversation about elephant in the room. Case for unconditional support for Israel is incredibly weak.

Questions from Floor - Second Round

4. Egypt doesn’t have much of Lobby at all. Why are they second in aid?

5. Book explains political and financial aspects. Speaking as Darwinist: isn't this a war between superstitious primitives?

6. Itamar Haritan asked an excellent question which I couldn't get down verbatim - if you are reading this, please correct this very inadequate (and possibly wrong) paraphrase. Itamar asked whether American foreign policy in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America during the Cold War could also be explained with reference to the activities of "the Lobby." He wondered whether it might not be more accurate to see US foreign policy in the Middle East today as related to the structures of American imperialism, including such factors as the power of the military industrial complex.

Addendum: This is from Itamar - an elaboration of what he asked at the lecture:
Many people in this room share your concern about US imperialism and would like to understand it so as to end it. Frequently in our social science classes we draw parallels between US behavior during the Cold War and US behavior today, drawing the conclusion that despite differences between the War on Terror and the War on Communism, the two serve the same purpose of mobilizing America for war, masking its economic interests abroad, and serving the Other through which politicians scare the American people to support their policies. Doesn't your analysis contradict comparisons to previous analyses of American imperialism by saying that this latest wave of aggression is explainable, in large part, by a group of organizations? What of the comparisons that many people see between the US-Israel relationship and US policies toward client states, and between its invasions of Vietnam, Korea, etc. as compared with Iraq? What about the military industrial complex?


4. It’s true that Egypt is #2 recipient of US foreign aid, and Jordan is #3. Why are they #2 and #3? After Egypt signed peace treaty with Israel in late 1970s, we greatly increased our aid. Bribe money. Money designed to keep Egypt and Israel on a peaceful footing. Jordan’s aid also shot up after signing peace agreement with Israel. Keep Hashemites in power in Jordan and to make sure that there are good relations with Israel and Jordan over long term. Israel would have had a peace deal with Syria if it had not walked out of it in 2000. Saudis have been pushing peace inititive since 2002.

6. History of American imperialism and how America acted in Cold War in Vietnam. Israel Lobby had virtually nothing to do with it. Our argument is not that US acts in benign and responsible way every place in the world and that it’s only in Middle East that it acts in foolish ways because of Israel Lobby. US has behaved like rogue elephant at different times in different places in world. Nothing to do with Israel Lobby. But if you look at Middle East policy today and you think about what forces are pushing US to pursue the policies in that region you see that Israel Lobby has had marked influence on that policy. Contrary to what one might think, the oil lobby and military-industrial complex and oil-producing states in that region have had nowhere same influence. We are both realists; we have vested interested in discovering that war in Iraq was all about geopolitics and oil because it would support our basic theories of how world works. What we’ve written is a direct contradiction of the theories we’ve spent most of our lives developing. We began to look very closely at Middle East policy and began to understand that our theories didn’t apply very well. We had to admit that domestic politics were playing a key role in shaping Middle East policy. I’m not saying Israel Lobby is principal driving force; but in Middle East last 3 decades, power of Lobby is not to be underestimated.


5. For some of the inhabitants of region, religious beliefs greatly complicate efforts to solve problems – you see this very closely with Holy Sites in Jerusalem. But I don’t believe that religious convictions determine people’s political stance on this question. You can be Jewish and pro-peace.

Questions from the Floor - Third Round

7. You compare, in your book, terrorist attacks of Zionist groups and Palestinians [...].

8. Don’t you think characterization of Zionism as “good old-fashioned nationalism” would be more accurately rephrased “good old-fashioned European colonialism”?

9. What specifically should US condition its military aid to Israel on?


7. Differences in terrorism: there’s rich literature on Zionist terrorism. It’s quite clear that the Zionists indiscriminately killed civilians and idea that they never attempted to kill them and always warned them is not borne out by historical record. The truth is there isn’t a lot of difference between what Zionists did against British and what Palestinians are doing vis-à-vis Israelis. Terrorism is weapon of the weak. They wanted to get the “occupiers” [his quotation marks] out. The Palestinians are doing the same thing. I’m not condoning terrorism here. What the Palestinians are doing today is largely the same thing as what the Zionists did.

8. Person who made that point (about colonialism) is essentially correct [applause]. If you think about situation in Palestine ca. 1900 – there were very few Jews and lots of Palestinians. There was no way that large numbers of Jews or Zionists coming out of Pale of Settlement could enter Palestine without behaving way that European powers behaved around world. It’s hard not to do that. How was US created? White men colonized North America. Same thing is true in Israel. Many American Jews find this hard to understand. You have to do terrible things to local population. Defense has to be: it was absolutely essential for the Jews to create state of their own given what was happening in Europe at that time. It’s too bad from Jews’ point of view that they didn’t have a state earlier, in 1933, because then there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust. This is one of the principal reasons that the Zionists went to the Middle East. But to create that state there is no question that they had to expel large numbers of Palestinians.


9. I’m uncomfortable conditioning aid on attaching human rights clause to constitution. I don’t think it’s our business to tell Israel that it must have a constitution or what’s in it. We should of course be pressing them to improve the status of Israeli Arabs within Israel = 2nd class citizens. Most obvious thing we should be conditioning aid on is occupation itself and settlement constructions. Money is fungible – money given as military aid can be used for other purposes. As a practical matter, any peace deal that comes about will involve a substantial amount of money from the US – to Palestinians and to Israelis. EU will also have to pay; given that Europeans had large part in creating this problem, they should pay.

Fourth Round of Questions

10. Set up an Internet-based discussion group; then crazy talk about 9/11 (commission?) lies.

11. Given that you think main players are neo-cons and evangelicals, have you thought of using a different term than "Israel Lobby"?

CORRECTION from Peggy: the questioner offered LEN ("Likudniks, Evangelicals, and neo-cons") as a substitute for "Israel Lobby."

12. Some have argued that Israel wanted Iraq war in order to destabilize entire Middle East to embroil Arabs in inter-tribal warfare. What do you think about this [the questioner seemed to think that was a good explanation].


10. We actually have regular jobs [so we don't have time for your stupid internet newsgroups].

11. Why did we call it “Israel Lobby” – that is the simplest label for it since what unites all the groups in the Lobby is desire to maintain special relationship between US and Israel, keep US providing large amounts of support. There are disagreements among them on whole range of policy issues. They didn’t all support the Iraq war, but they all agree on special relationship. That would include more moderate or left orientations. Other labels you suggest wouldn’t capture phenomenon accurately. Lobby is defined by political agenda it’s pushing.


12. Question whether pro-Israel forces wanted to destabilize entire region – i.e., sort of what we’ve been watching happening in Iraq. Two points for why that’s not case. There is no evidence that neo-cons, who were main driving force behind war, were thinking along those lines. In fact, they were remarkably idealistic when they imagined how they thought it would play out. Walt & I were two of the most outspoken opponents of the Iraq war. We had a big debate on Council on Foreign Relations. We ran up against neo-cons on many occasions before war. Basic story they told about how we would live happily ever after in Iraq was to say that we would see situation in Iraq and elsewhere in Middle East that resembles Europe in 1989. We have tryant in control in Iraq; remove him and democracy will bubble up from the bottom. It was reasonably easy argument to counter over half-hour but not over a few minutes; it did look like history moving in that direction post-1989. They were genuinely shocked, especially Paul Wolfowitz – a very idealistic man, though simplistic in his worldviews, a powerful belief in democracy as an inevitable force. Second reason you’re wrong: no way they could do Syria and Iran and all the other countries on hit list if they got bogged down in Iraq. For neo-con strategy to work, they had to be able to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Go in, knock off regime in Iraq, have democracy quickly sprout, then go after Iran, and then Syria. Believed that everyone in region would get message and jump on American bandwagon. If we did what you described, we’d end up stuck there with 100,000s troops. General Shinseki was asked how many troops necessary to occupy – he said couple 100,000 – Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld went ballistic about this, because they knew this meant they wouldn’t be able to deal with other countries on the hit list. They believed that democracy would break out. They pooh-poohed State’s extensive plans for occupying Iraq.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Madness of "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week"

Protesting against "Islamo-Fascism"? How about chilling the f--- out instead?

The term "Islamo-Fascism" gained some currency even among left-of-center intellectuals in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Invoked to characterize the fundamentally anti-liberal and anti-democratic ideology of the al-Qaeda and its ilk, the term was also meant to force the radical left to acknowledge the ideological incompatibility between the visions of bin Laden et al. and the progressive ideas espoused by the former.

The question whether the ideologies of al-Qaeda and others qualify as "fascism" is legitimate though academic. Just as historians speak of "clerical fascism" in interwar Austria and Spain, and critics of such movements as KA"CH refer to its fascist techniques of mobilization, it should be acceptable to evaluate the fascist characteristics of today's violent Islamist movements. However, the frightening farce of "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" being staged at Berkeley and other University of California campuses at this moment ought to convince us all to banish the specific term "Islamo-Fascism" from our political vocabularies.

There are some who will argue that the expression "Islamo-Fascism" describes only a particular ideology that, while basing its legitimacy on Islam, does not embody the religion as a whole. Those people should ask themselves honestly whether this is how such a term is understood when it enters our discourse. I think it is clear that this term maligns an entire religion and its adherents in a way that is hateful and violent - just as the expressions "Judeo-Fascism" and "Judeo-Bolshevism" do. Such terms do not aim to make subtle distinctions; they are fighting words that inevitably spill over into our conceptions of Muslims or Jews as a whole.

The organizers of "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" claim that they want to "rally American students to defend their country." But do we really need to introduce more hatred and polarization into our public sphere in order to better defend the safety and liberty of American citizens?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Is the Christian Right Relevant?

Sam is a Catbacker. His supporters are known as Brownbackers. (Photo:

These are lean days for America's "value voters," who tend to exceed the average American in endorsing US support for Israel. Two recent events in Republican circles, I believe, belie the claim of many - often from the secular left-of-center and abroad -- that evangelical Christian voters firmly control the GOP. The first was Sen. Sam Brownback's announcement late last week that he will bow out of the race for the Republican nomination for president. The Kansan conceded that his personal "yellow brick road" stopped short of the White House - this time. The Wizard of Oz rhetoric aside, this was an unceremonious end to a campaign designed to appeal to the moral instincts of the Republican base. In fact, at times, one could make the case that Brownback was the only candidate in the Republican field who truly fit the bill for the deeply religious voter, the one pollsters see as motivated by hot-button issues like abortion, gay marriage, and pornography. And Brownback was no country bumpkin ignorant of the ways of Washington - though he often boasted rather ingenuously about his experience with farm life. Very early on, the influential evangelical leader Pat Robertson endorsed this charismatic Catholic and Opus Dei member.

The second event occurred over the weekend at the Values Voter Summit in Washington. The Christian Right's convention appears to have produced no clear darling. Mitt Romney has somehow persuaded part of this voting bloc that, though a Mormon, and until quite recently, no ardent foe of abortion, he is indeed one of them. But Romney gained no more support in the straw poll than Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister. They both netted about 27% of the vote.

Why didn't the coalition throw their weight behind Huckabee? He has performed more than admirably in the televised debates, and looks to some to possess the intangible traits of a winner so sorely lacking among all the rest. One answer is that the evangelicals are clearly more pragmatic than many would give them credit for. There's a concern that Huckabee isn't electable; that he'll stumble in blue states. Yet there is also talk on the Christian right of a third-party candidacy. My reading of the situation is that this group of voters isn't the invincible monolith that hysterical commentators have made it out to be in recent years. Brownback's faltering, Romney's awkward courtship, and the neglect of Huckabee all point to a dysfunctional political machine. Don't be scared.

Gender Trouble in Iran

Israel's Dana International (née Yaron Cohen) in her latest single,
"Indian Movie" - a cultural artifact that deserves a separate post

Last Thursday (October 18), I had the privilege of hearing Afsaneh Najmabadi, Professor of History and of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University, speak at Berkeley. In a week in which I attended talks and discussions featuring speakers from Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk to anthropologist of religion Talal Asad, her talk on "Transing and Transpassing Across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran" took the crown.

While many of us were busy worrying about Iran's progress toward developing nuclear weapons and the country's hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, it appears that the Islamic Republic has quietly asserted its dominance in other realms. Most notably, Iran has become one of the global leaders in sex change operations.

Iran's progress in this area, though largely ignored by the intelligence community, has received a fair amount of coverage in the Western press over the past 3 years or so (see this piece, which appeared in the Guardian in 2005). Much of this coverage betrays a mixture of celebration and surprise. Najmabadi, currently in the beginning stages of what will surely be a fascinating work, presented some of the findings of her research conducted in 2006 in Iran, which does much to demystify the accounts in the press.

Iranian clerics today, basing themselves on classical Islamic discourse which posits all bodies have one true sex (either female or male), believe that in some cases medical expertise is needed to reveal what a given individual's true sex is. Having been identified as a female in a male's body (or vice versa), one may choose to have one's body fixed.

Thus, the legal situation in Iran today, based on some pioneering fatwas by Khomeini from the late 1960s, is such that individuals wishing to undergo sex-change operations (male to female or female to male) can do so, provided they a) pass a process of certification that grants them official status as transsexuals, and b) have the necessary funds to pay for the surgery.

The certification process requires producing a plausible narrative to the authorities of one's transsexuality, and passing a test - neither of which are significant obstacles for Iranian transsexuals, who like everyone else in the country are apparently excellent test-takers and have formed support networks to help their peers prepare for the interviews to assure a "pass." The legal recognition of one's transsexuality procures a number of important benefits, including an exemption from military conscription and coverage for particular medical expenses. So much for the good news.

Now the bad news. For one, legal recognition does not mean social acceptance. Here, the problem seems to be far more acute for men wishing to undergo operations to become females. Even after they have undergone operations, M to F transsexuals are stigmatized as men who are "anal" (i.e., on the receiving end of anal penetration). On the other hand, F to M transsexuals, according to Najmabadi often meet with more acceptance by their family (which can sometimes score real economic gains as a result) and experience an elevation in their own social status.

However, one of the most pernicious consequences of the current situation, which legalizes transsexuality, has been the increasing strength of a naturalizing and medicalizing discourse, which makes essential distinctions between homosexuality and transsexuality. Homosexuality (technically, the criminal code outlaws sodomy) remains strictly forbidden, with sex change operations promoted as a "cure" to this "disease." Najmabadi attributes the large number of sex-change operations in part to the illegality of homosexuality. The effects of sex-change operations on same-sex partnerships are often devastating for the people involved.

Najmabadi is the author of several other very interesting studies, including a book on Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity - definitely a subject that has long occupied me . She also contributes to; I especially recommend her column, "Some of us like our women hairy" to all those with parsi-ness in them.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Troubles in Turkey

Two issues are currently occupying a great deal of public attention in Turkey: the Armenian genocide resolution in the US Congress, and PKK activity in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. While the former has also received significant press coverage in the US, there seems to be very little awareness in the American and European media about the latter. For the Turks, the lack of concern shown by the Europeans and the Americans for the dangers posed to the country by PKK attacks is a source of deep frustration and a sense of abandonment. People in the government and the press are openly questioning the value of Turkey's partnership with America and the West. Indeed, many are implicating the US in the terrorist attacks by the PKK, referring repeatedly to the alleged discovery of American weapons in PKK hands. The Armenian genocide resolution seems to these critics of the US yet another indication of America's evil intentions (or, at best, indifference) with respect to Turkey. Rather than interpreting the genocide resolution as a product of America's democratic culture, the Turks seem to be reading it as another example of Western hypocrisy and imperialist interference in Turkish affairs. Furthermore, it is hard to ignore the thinly-veiled expressions of anger at "the Jewish lobby," which some Turkish commentators are now depicting as part of an anti-Turkish alliance with "the Armenians."

There is very little that the Turks can do to directly influence Congress at this stage. The White House's furious diplomatic activity against passage of the House resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide seems doomed to failure. Likewise, Turkey's power to take direct action against either the Iraqi Kurdish government or the PKK is also somewhat limited. This does not mean that the Turks will be able to hold off indefinitely public opinion calling for some kind of response. But it seems that the Turkish military and government realize the risks and difficulties of a more extended cross-border operation. Economic sanctions against the Iraqi Kurds are also a possibility - but they may also hurt Turkish interests in the area.

This leaves Turkey with a more indirect option. While the Turks have been thwarted in their attempts to project direct military force in the region (mainly because of the presence of the Americans), they do have the ability to disrupt significantly American strategic aims with respect to Iran and Russia. Turkey is the key to two planks of American energy policy: 1) to isolate Iran, and 2) to provide an alternative to Europe-bound Russian oil and gas pipelines.

The Americans have been watching Turco-Iranian energy cooperation with a great deal of concern. But the lack of American concern for Turkish interests in Iraq, has pushed the country to drop its inhibitions about upsetting the Americans on this front. Indeed, some Turkish politicians seem to be advocating cooperation with the Iranians on the Kurdish issue as well. As for Russia, despite Turkey's investment in American-backed infrastructure projects in the South Caucasus, the Turks have no qualms about serving as another gate for Gazprom energy to Europe and the Levant. The more the merrier.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Scattered Thoughts on Ahmadinejad

1. The clip of Ahmadinejad denying that there are homosexuals in Iran and the audience's reaction is still making me crack up every time I see it.

2. It wasn't nice or pretty, but Lee Bollinger did the right thing in basically humiliating Ahmadinejad with his introduction and questions.

3. Having said that, I still think Columbia erred in having the man speak at the university. My reasoning: people will believe the most ridiculous things when they are repeated often enough on television. That may sound cynical, but I think the billions of dollars spent on advertising back me up on this. Everyone knew that Ahmadinejad's appearance would draw international coverage, and that his performance would later be watched by millions on television. In effect, Columbia University's decision gave the man yet another opportunity to repeat his lies and idiocy in front of a prime-time audience.

4. Ahmadinejad is probably not all that interested in what Columbia University students think of him. His real intended audience: Arab masses and disgruntled elites (not the Iranian people). His message: Iran is the true protector of Arab and Muslim interests - whether it be in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, or Iraq. His implicit target: the autocratic, US-supported regimes in the Middle East.

Over and Done With

Coatsworth presses A. on the facts of the Holocaust, which C. points out are documented. Why is A. calling for more research?

A.: "I am an academic and you are as well. Can you argue that researching a phenomenon is over, done? There are different perspectives that come to light. Why should we stop the progress of science and knowledge. Do you ever take what's absolute in physics. Math, physics were proved wrong.”

Coatsworth points out that the facts of the Holocaust are well established. So questioning them sounds like denial

Some clapping.

A.: "I tried to uphold the rights of European scholars. There has been more research on physics than there is on the Holocaust. There’s nothing wrong with doing it [research.] Women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom. 90% of Iranians turn up for votes.”

Now he’s talking about executions. Says there is capital punishment in US too. People clap

A.: "In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country."

Boos from the crowd -- also laughs.

A.: "I don't know who told you that we have it. It's not a crime to be a woman. Women are the best creatures created by God."

Coatsworth asks what A. hoped to achieve by coming to Columbia.

"I've been invited by Columbia, an official invitation given. In Iran, when you invite a guest, you respect them. I wanted to go to the site of the September 11th tragedy to show my sympathy.”

C.: Why is your country seeking enriched uranium?

A. says program is within confines of law. The technology they have is for enrichment below 5% level, so it’s just for power plants.

A. asks how can US criticize Iran when it has nukes of its own.

A lot of applause.

A. tells a joke: “I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs...politically they’re backward, retarded.”

Coatsworth asks, “Is Iran ready to negotiate with the US?

A.: "Other than with two countries, we are ready to have friendly relations and talks. One of those two contries is the apartheid movement of South Africa, and the second is the Zionist regime. The US could actually be a good friend for the Iranian nation. Iranians could be some of the US’ best friends.”

Destruction of Israel?

Columbia is simulcasting around campus.

Students’ questions, taken, as A. requests in English, “one-by-one, please.”

Student: "Do you seek destruction of Israel?"

A: "We love all nations. We're friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews in Iran living peacefully with security. [He says they have representation in the Parliament for the Jewish community.] Our proposal to the Palestinian plight is a humanitarian and democratic proposal. Nobody should interfere in the affairs of the Palestinian nation. Allow the Palestinian nation to decide its own future.”

The crowd is now excited.

Coatsworth: "Many people in our audience would like a clearer answer on that question."

Louder clapping.

Coatsworth: "Do you seek the destruction of the Jewish state."

C. asks for a yes or no answer.

A.: "You want the answer the way you want to hear it. This isn’t really a free flow of information.”

The crowd gets louder.

A. puts a yes or no question to Bollinger now, essentially, whether or not the Palestinian situation is a problem.”

A.: “"If someone comes and explodes bombs around would you treat them? Would you award them or would you name them a terrorist group? You would call them a terrorist, my dear friends.”

Some Iranians, he points out, were assasinated by a terrorist group.

A.: "Regretfully, that same terrorist group now today in your country is operating under the support of the US administration. Their camps in Iraq are supported by the US government. We were the first nation that objected to terrorism.”


He keeps interrupting Coatsworth.

A.: "We live in the Middle East. For us, it’s quite clear which powers incite terrorists, support them, fund them. We're a cultured nation, we don’t need to resort to terrorism.”

Just a Word or Two More on the Weapons

Iran, A. claims, is one of the countries that has cooperated most with the IAEA.

Now, Columbia’s people are trying to cut him off.

He seems to have asked for some more time.

"We want to have the right to self-determination towards our future."

He says he wants spare parts for civilian aircraft.

Jennie thinks he looks dapper.

"We love all nations.”

People are clapping wildly!

A Defense of Holocaust Denial

Ahmadinejad says:
"Why isn’t there different research that can approach the Holocaust from different perspectives? We have to really be able to trace the event. There are a nmber of European academics who were sent to prison because they look at the Holocaust from different perspectives. I am told that there has been sufficient research on the subject. But he [ Coatsworth] disagrees. We still continue more research [on scientific topics. So why not the Holocaust?] If it is a reality, we have to still question whether the Palestinian people should be paying for it or not. Why are the Palestinian people paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with? They were living with the Jewish communities and with the Christian communities in peace at the time. Is this not a crime? Why should an academic like myself face insult when asking questions like this? I know there's time limits but I need time."

Ahmadinejad Lectures on Science

Now the man is well into his speech. In one section, he focuses on the "misuse of science by the big powers." Here are some excerpts:

“I believe that the biggest god-given gift to man is knowledge and science. Science has to combine with the purity of the spirit so that scholars can reveal the truth, and then use that truth to advance humanity's cause. It is necessary that big powers should not allow mankind to engage in monopolistic activities. [Science] must remain pure"

[Talking about how God loves scholars and scientists.]

"My main job is a university instructor. As President of Iran, I still continue teaching graduate and PhD level courses on a weekly basis. I believe tht I am an academic myself. I got a wave of insults and allegations against me. You know quite well that Palestine is an old wound, as old as 60 years. For 60 years these people are being displaced, for 60 years these people are being killed, for 60 years children in kindergartens, in schools, are inprisoned, being tortured,for 60 years, the slogan of expansionism from the Nile to the Euphrates is being chanted by different groups in this world."

Bollinger Calls Ahmadinejad Petty and Cruel

In opening remarks, Columbia Prez Lee Bollinger says to the Iranian premier, "Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."

Columbia Jewish Studies apparently gets a shout-out too.

Live from Columbia

Kishkushim, which can usually boast of at least one reader at Columbia, now has a woman in that university's main quad, Jennie C. I'm getting real time updates from her on the frenetic scene in Morningside Heights, which is unfolding as I write. Speaking of real time, the Columbia Journalism School students have set up a blog to cover the event, minute-by-minute.

I'm hearing from Jennie that a big contingent from Yeshiva University has taken the 1-2-3 train down to voice their opposition. On the other side, some interesting placards: "Ahmadinejad is bad, but Bush is worse." You can also see in one of Jennie's photos a sign that reads, "I support and welcome the president of Iran, seeker of truth."

Stay tuned for more...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Columbia University to Host Ahmadinejad

It looks like Columbia University will indeed play host to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the occasion of his visit to the UN General Assembly. From what I have heard, competition for tickets to the event is fierce. Everyone seems to want to hear this man speak. I think those responsible for this event are making a mistake.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger believes that he will be able to use the occasion to put "pointed and challenging questions" to Ahmadinejad. In particular, Bollinger seemed to have in mind the Iranian president's record of Holocaust denial. While I applaud the intentions of Bollinger and others, who want to use Ahmadinejad's lecture as a forum to critique the Iranian president's past remarks and the regime's policies, I fear that they are miscalculating.

All of us in the academy are interested in the free exchange of ideas and the pursuit of truth in which it is supposed to result. But we also accept restrictions on the search for knowledge. For example, ethical scholars will not use data acquired from medical experiments that were conducted on human subjects without their permission. The ethical test with respect to having Ahadinejad speak at Columbia University should not be based on his stance toward U.S. policy in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin or China's Hu Jintao oppose many key aspects of American foreign policy. They also head regimes with less than stellar democratic credentials. But this is not the issue.

What matters most, in the context of an invitation extended by a university, is Ahmadinejad's public denial of the Holocaust in the past. This is not because the Holocaust is inherently "sacred." The same would apply if Ahmadinejad denied that the French Revolution never happened. Rather, his pseudo-academic initiatives to question a supposed "taboo" on free inquiry into the genocide of European Jewry (read: his effort to engage in willful distortion and negation of a subject whose historicity has been confirmed by thousands of scholarly publications) challenge the core of the university's guiding principles. The public sphere that the university presents is not a free-for-all open to every crackpot and conspiracy theorist with a fondness for spinning yarns. Such a model of the university would drive the pursuit of truth into intellectual bankruptcy. Professors and students would be occupied permanently with fending off unlimited attacks from those unbound by the chains of logic, procedure, respect, and the standards of academic disciplines. Unfortunately, the very admission of such individuals into the world of scholarship bestows credibility on them.

While I would not equate Wolf Blitzer of "The Situation Room" with the academy, I think it is worth watching his interview (see YouTube box above) with Holocaust denier David Duke to see how damaging it can be to give people like these even a modicum of respectability. They do not deserve to enter our classrooms and lecture halls.

Unfortunately, Proverbs gives conflicting advice. In 26:4 we read, "Don't answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest you too will be like him," while 26:5 tell us "Answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest he will appear clever in his own eyes."
משלי כו:ד-ה
אַל-תַּעַן כְּסִיל, כְּאִוַּלְתּוֹ: פֶּן-תִּשְׁוֶה-לּוֹ גַם-אָתָּה.
עֲנֵה כְסִיל, כְּאִוַּלְתּוֹ: פֶּן-יִהְיֶה חָכָם בְּעֵינָיו

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Plot Thickens

I'm not seeing reports anywhere that elaborate on the Washington Post's claim that US and Israeli intelligence collaborated on an investigation of a potential Syria-North Korean nuclear partnership. The story is fascinating, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out tomorrow and in the coming days. These leaks, most importantly, that "the United States is believed to have provided Israel with some corroboration of the original intelligence before Israel proceeded with the raid," are far more interesting than the blather we're hearing from Benjamin Netanyahu, who blithely confirmed the fact of the raid today despite the government and defense establishment's efforts to keep this hermetically sealed.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Webb Amendment Fails

I wrote recently of Sen. Jim Webb's amendment to a Senate defense bill aimed at reforming the practice of redeploying national guardsmen on overseas tours after exceedingly short stays stateside. Well, the Democrats failed today for the second time to muster the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate and take a vote on the measure. I'm pleased to see that Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) showed up this time, fitting a vote against "supporting the troops" into his busy campaign schedule (which includes photo-ops with the Schiavos). The Republican filibuster is a sign of the hardening of positions on the war in Iraq as we head into a presidential election year. Yesterday, I heard a Berkeley undergraduate, one of the many handing out fliers on Berkeley's Sproul Plaza, asking passers-by, "What do you think it will take to stop the war." I'm glad I wasn't asked, because my answer might have been misinterpreted: nothing will stop the war short of a presidential election. This isn't a Congress that is about to force the White House's hand in Iraq, not when it can't get right the treatment of reservists.