I did not plan to post today (Friday), but two items caught my eye. Paging through the New York Times, I found that a certain Michael Vlock of Orange, Connecticut had purchased not one, but two full pages of the first section to reprint President Bush's entire speech to the Knesset. He argued that despite the controversy provoked by the speech in the United States, almost no Americans had had the opportunity to read it all. I did. The second were some excerpts from an interview the President gave last year to NBC news reporter Richard Engel, which will appear in Engel's forthcoming book. Together they give a good idea of how far we have sunk and how hard it will be to climb out of the hole we have dug over the last eight years.
President Bush is noted for his ability to speak in code, particularly to religious supporters. His use of words that will be understood by Christian Evangelicals has often been remarked upon, but before the Knesset, he did the same with respect to religious Zionists. The founding of Israel in 1948, he said, was "more than the establishment of a new country. It was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David--a homeland for the chosen people Eretz Israel. [sic]" In short, he invoked the Old Testament as the authority for redrawing the map of the Middle East. Although he may not know it, a minority of religious Zionists in Israel (including, in the 1950s, Menachem Begin) have long argued that the Israelis must settle all the lands that the Lord promised Abraham, including not only the West but the East Bank of the Jordan River. (In his book on peace with Egypt, Ezer Weizmann, a more secular Zionist, reported that Begin in the 1950s wrote articles with titles like "Amman Too Shall be Ours.") Certainly they will draw comfort from the President's speech.
That, however, was not all. In the very next sentence the President linked the Zionist enterprise to the settling of North America by Europeans in the 17th century. "The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty." [That in itself is a fascinating sentence--does the President actually know that there is in fact no treaty of alliance between the United States and Israel?] "It is grounded in the shared spirit of our people, the bonds of the Book, the ties of the soul. When William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, he quoted the words of Jeremiah: 'Come let us declare in Zion the word of God.' The founders of my country saw a promised new land and bestowed upon their towns names like Bethlehem and New Canaan."
Now the President has history on his side here: that was indeed how those original settlers saw themselves. But in succeeding centuries, as more and more people of different religions (and of no religion at all) settled in the United States, we obviously abandoned such a vision in favor of a nation and a world based upon impartial laws, in which religion became a private, though protected, matter. To link the United States and Israel as two nations acting out God's will on earth strikes me as the perfect mirror image of Osama Bin Laden's call for Jihad against the Zionist-Crusader alliance--as well as the perfect confirmation of Bin Laden's propaganda. And the emphasis upon revealed truth as the source of the American experience obviously excludes those many millions of Americans like myself (as well as Thomas Jefferson) who rejected orthodox religion of any kind.
Now the issue of the legitimacy of all western nations--and particularly of both Israel and the United States--has been challenged again and again in the past few decades. In fact, few of us on either side of the politically correct divide want to face the historical truth of the matter. No nation or ethnic group, in all probability--and certainly none that has risen to greatness-can claim legitimacy based upon simple justice. All nations have built themselves at the expense of others. Today academia can talk endlessly about the sufferings of the North and South American indigenous populations after white people arrived on the scene--and they were real enough--but they ignore that the Americas before 1492 were not some bucolic, pacifist paradise. Those peoples had fought violently against one another for several millennia. Whole civilizations, such as the mound builders what is now the southern US, had disappeared. Central American empires practiced human sacrifice. The Middle East, too, was the scene of endless conflict both during and after the era of ancient Israel. Well into the twentieth century nations have established their legitimacy, in large part, through violence. The Israelis' misfortune was to come back into the game so late. They are right to argue, in my opinion, that those who reject their right to exist are holding them to a uniquely higher standard. On the other hand, the question of how large Israel should expect to be, and what it can afford to do to maintain particular territories, is one that desperately has to be decided based upon wisdom, not what the Lord supposedly said to Abraham several millennia ago. President Bush placed himself firmly in the opposite camp. Should it not be clear in the first decade of the twentieth century that a stable world or regional order cannot be based upon one religion's reading of ancient texts? Is our own President not trying to lead a regression back to early modern or medieval times?
The roll of Israeli leaders that he called in his speech was also interesting. "My only regret [sic] is that one of Israel's greatest leaders is not here to share this moment," he said. "He is a warrior for the ages, a man of peace, a friend. The prayers of the American people are with Ariel Sharon." He also found time to mention David Ben Gurion--who we know now never thought that the 1949-67 boundaries of Israel were adequate to its needs--and Golda Meier, who once denied that such people as Palestinians existed--they were merely Arab inhabitants of the land of Israel. But although he referred in passing to the risks Israel had run for peace, he could not bring himself to mention Yitzhak Rabin, who lost his life at the hands of Zionist extremism because he understood that the expansionist project had to be brought to an end were Israel ever to live in peace.
The President also specifically linked three organizations--Al Queda, Hamas, and Hezbollah--as the enemies of both Israel and the United States. It is true that none of those three organizations has accepted Israel's right to exist, but the linkage does raise the question of what the "War on Terror" has been about all these seven years--the same issue I raised nearly four years ago in my very first post. Coping with Al Queda, a small, conspiratorial organization whose leaders are in hiding in Pakistan, is a very different sort of problem (and a job that the Administration has failed to finish) than dealing with authentic and well-organized mass movements like the other two. Indeed, the Israelis realize this, and even now they are engaged in talks about a truce with Hamas, brokered by the Egyptians. But President Bush is having none of that, and he once again rejected any such negotiations. All the catastrophes of the last six years have not changed his views an iota--they have only made him cling more desperately to the certainty that he must be right.
The interview excerpts that have appeared on the web are equally interesting in this context. They follow.
"When NBC News correspondent Richard Engel sat down with President Bush last year for an interview, he had little idea how much Bush would reveal about his true intentions and his real sentiments about the war on terror and America’s allies and enemies.
"Among the excerpts of the interview captured in Engel’s new book, “War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq”:
- “‘This is the great war of our times. It is going to take forty years,’” [Bush told Engel]. “Bush said in forty years the world would know if the war on terrorism, and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, had reduced extremism, helped moderates, and promoted democracy.”
- Bush admits to Engel that going to war was a decision based on his personal instinct and not on any long-range strategy for the Mideast:
“I know people are saying we should have left things the way they were, but I changed after 9/11. I had to act. I don’t care if it created more enemies. I had to act.”
- Bush tells Engel that the election of Hamas was actually a positive development because it pressured Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas to make reforms:
“I think the election of Hamas was a good thing. It proved to Abbas he was failing. I told Abbas, ‘You lost the election because you aren’t providing for your people, jobs, education, what people want.’ Now they know they have to compete.”
- And he says that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is an obstacle to peace in the region:
“The problem is Olmert. This is a man who came to power on a promise that he was going to unilaterally define a Palestinian state. You can’t pressure democracies.”
- Bush also explains that he’s open to meeting with Iran, describing the administration’s attempt at dialogue with Syria, but that he’s doubtful it would be effective:
“We can have meetings. Talking is not the problem. We can talk to Iran. But Iran wants nuclear weapons and I’m not going to let that happen. Not on my watch. We tried to have dialogue with Syria, right after the war, didn’t get much.
[Syrian President Bashar] Asad didn’t deliver. We’d ask for ten al-Qaeda guys. They’d give us one.”
Others will have to explain whether or not Syria actually had "ten Al-Qaeda guys" to give us; I don't know. But I must say I was struck by the President's conception of democracy. When an American client (Mahmoud Abbas) loses an election, this doesn't mean he should yield power, it just means he should readjust his policies somewhat (or at least run a better PR campaign!) and try again in a few years. Last weekend I watched the excellent HBO film Recount, as was reminded that our own President lost the popular vote by half a million votes in 2000 and, the best and most thorough study showed, probably lost Florida, too, as a recount of the whole state would have revealed. (That datum was for some reason not mentioned in the film.) Could this indeed have influenced his views of democracy? Does he believe that the election of American Presidents, like the borders of the state of Israel, is controlled by a higher power? Does that help explain his refusal ever to modify any of his policies in response to massive popular disapproval? He has been quoted to the effect that Winston Churchill must have had a more difficult time staying the course than he, because Churchill lacked religious faith. It seems indeed that that might be the case.