Saturday, December 29, 2012

Predicting the budget outcome

I cannot say whether there will be a deal over the fiscal cliff between now and January 1. That depends largely on Speaker Boehner's position within the House, where at least a few right-wing members are thinking about removing him in the new Congress. He may have to wait until he is re-elected before making any concessions to President Obama and the Democrats at all. But I think the outlines of what is going to happen are now clear, and that they do not bode well either for our economic or political future. The eventual deal will leave us much closer to where we were under George W.Bush, who wrecked the economy, than under Bill Clinton, the last President actually to improve it. It will leave the government with a huge permanent deficit, and it will make government, which is already much too small, even smaller. And it will do virtually nothing about income inequality in this country.

President Obama had strong cards to play this time. He has just been re-elected rather handsomely in the electoral college, but more to the point, the failure of a deal before January 1, one could argue, would accrue vastly more benefit to him than to the Republicans, because it would mean the end of the Bush tax cuts across the board. I personally would favor that outcome, but there does not seem to be a single politician in Washington who does. (I have now discovered that I was mistaken here: this morning on C-Span I heard Senator Tom Harkin say that the Republicans had predicted disaster when the Clinton tax rates were passed, and tht he would be perfectly willing to have them back.) Some tax cuts would have to be undone, but that could only be done with new legislation which the President would have to sign, giving him enormous bargaining power should he choose to use it. He could either announce that he would veto any bill extending the cuts for incomes over $250,000, or demand critical changes in the tax code such as an end to the "carried interest" dodge that continually enriches Wall Street (another idea that no one in Washington seems actively to support), or insist upon giving up draconian cuts in the federal budget. He could even demand more stimulus money. But at this point, he does not seem to want to do any of those things. He wants an agreement, and that again is putting him largely in the hands of the Republicans.

The President has already raised the threshold for eliminating the Bush tax cuts from $250,000 to $400,000, and it may go higher. He apparently has no firm position on what to do about the estate tax. He wants to extend unemployment benefits and he has a proposal for a new stimulus but the Republicans will never agree to increase spending of any kind as part of a deal. The President yesterday handed the negotiating process off to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, and any deal they make will be subject to review and amendment by the Republican-controlled House, which is certain to water it down if they accept it at all. All indications are that the House intends to use the debt ceiling as a lever to force further spending concessions a few months down the road. Meanwhile, the President seems open to some change in the cost-of-living formula for Social Security, which may indeed be a reasonable idea depending on exactly how it is done.

Our government has become a very dysfunctional family because the goal of the Republican Party is to destroy it--and it is well known that the most dysfunctional member of any family tends to dominate it. I collated a couple of quotes last week from different sources, including E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post, to the effect that the House Republicans had shown themselves "incapable" of governing. With all due respect to E. J., he's missing the point: the Republicans don't want to govern, because they don't want anyone to govern our society. They are trying to re-create the Social Darwinist paradise of the late 19th century, and they are getting closer to it every year.

We are running a rather frightening experiment in this country. Modern society grew in tandem with modern government. Institutions across our society became larger, richer, more complex, and better organized, and government had to do the same to be effective and make sure that society functioned on behalf of the average citizen. Thanks to the Republican Party and all it represents, we are now going to find out whether anything resembling modern society can function without a large and effective government, and I feel quite certain the answer is going to be no. The Republicans have already achieved so much that they would be much wiser to stop now, while society still has some stability, but that is not their intention.

One of the many dirty secrets no one wants to discuss in Washington these days is that enormous fortunes destroy democracy. I think that President Obama could make that argument resonate among the American people if he wanted to make it, but he doesn't. He wants slightly higher marginal rates for the highest earners simply to make them "pay their fair share," not because the confiscatory rates of the 1940s and 1950s were key to creating the world in which his grandparents made their lives. And he has ruled out returning to the Clinton tax rates that more than balanced the budget in the late 1990s, just as he ruled out returning to Glass-Steagall. (A recent New York Times business page article indicted that the Dodd-Frank Law will institutionalize derivatives trading, not cut it back. It is too big to fail.) Another issue off the table is the low pay scales of American workers, which continue to get lower. While it is perfectly moral for energy magnates to accumulate tens of billions of dollars, it seems that it is immoral for wage-earners to aspire to anything above the increasingly declining average.

A deal may indeed take two or three weeks to reach, but it will do no great violence to current Republican principles--and it will be whittled away still further in the months to come.

p.s. It is now Monday and we have no deal even in the Senate. Tomorrow we will be over the cliff. A chorus of Republicans, I predict, will immediately announce: "President Obama got just what he wanted: tax increases on everyone in America." I wish he HAD wanted it. Great crises in national life demand shared sacrifice from anyone with resources. But he didn't.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Is civilization in danger?

Once upon a time, modern states, defined by Max Weber as entities exercising a monopoly of legitimate force within specified territories, did not exist. The development of the modern state became the focus of the modern historical profession at least from the late nineteenth century onward, largely under the influence of Leopold von Ranke, the remarkable founder of modern history. I myself investigated this development in Europe fairly thoroughly during the 1980s, when I wrote Politics and War. The opening section of that book dealt with the period 1559-1569, a turbulent century in European history, and I argued that historians had tended to exaggerate the speed of the development of modernity, because I found the politics of every European nation dominated by powerful aristocrats, not states. It took an effort of imagination, I thought then, to picture a society in which the rich, rather than the poor, continually took the law in their own hands, riding around with armed retainers and frequently defying royal authority. Things began to change in the late 17th century, partly because of strong monarchs like Louis XIV and partly, perhaps, because the violence of the previous century had bred its own reaction. The 130 years or so between 1660 and 1790 were in many ways the most productive years of western civilization--not economically, perhaps, but culturally and intellectually.

From 1789 until 1945, the modern state became more and more powerful, both for good and for ill. Moving in tandem with industrialization and new means of transportation and communication, it achieved unprecedented feats of organization in fields ranging from education to public health to war. This process created the world in which I became a young adult, and it is difficult for anyone to realize that the world in which they reached maturity no longer exists. Yet I am beginning to wonder, as I listen to Wayne LaPierre of the NRA respond to the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, is whether that process, here in the United States at least, is in long-term, critical decline. Over the last thirty years a new coalition has emerged which denies most of the principles of the modern state--even, or perhaps I should say especially, the idea that the state should command a monopoly of force.

Now Wayne LaPierre is, ironically, calling for a vast expansion of federal power in response to the crisis: the stationing of professional security personnel in every single school in America. Even more astonishingly, he wants the federal government to pay for it. (I will be extremely interested to see if the House Republicans actually introduce and pass such a bill. I frankly doubt it very much.) What the NRA really stands for is anarchy. Over the last few decades--as Boomers took over its leadership--it has shifted from an organization focused upon the rights of hunters to an organization that believes every citizen should walk around armed, with the right and the power to settle any disputes that might arise with other citizens by force. They have also, in the last twenty years, poured their enormous political capital into allowing Americans to own assault rifles--semi-automatic weapons whose only useful purpose is to kill large numbers of people very quickly. And that is not all. As I learned on Terri Gross's program a few days go, the NRA's Congressional allies--whom it controls to a degree that only AIPAC can rival--have banned both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Center for Disease Control from keeping statistics on the impact of any weapons. This is an attack on the foundation of modern government: the idea that research and analysis can discover problems and find solutions for them. They have also prevented President Obama from appointing a head of ATF for the whole of his Presidency, something which he has not even seen fit to mention, as yet, in the ongoing controversy.

As a child in the 1950s I read a couple of landmark books about the old West, including biographies of Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. These books told how various lawmen had literally civilized the West by enforcing laws that made cowboys check their guns when they came into town to have a good time. Fortunately for those territories, the NRA did not yet exist. It is exactly that step which the NRA has fought, successfully, for many decades now--ever since gun control became a liberal priority 49 years ago after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Worse, gun ownership is increasingly a political issue. Exit polls in the last election showed that 50% of Republican households own guns, but only 22% of Democratic ones do. The rate of gun ownership (although not the number of guns owned) has fallen over the last few decades, but the decline is almost all among Democrats. Black Democrats, I was very surprised to learn, are less than 1/3 as likely to have a gun in their house as white Republicans--although black Republicans, the poll found, are twice as likely to own a gun as black Democrats.

It has now, a few days later, come to light that La Pierre's statement was riddled with hypocrisy as well. He blamed mass shootings largely on video games, but now the New York Times has reported that the most violent video games routinely show weapons readily available for purchase, and sometimes even provide links to the weapon manufacturers' catalogues. The NRA is not in fact an army of ideologues, so much as a subsidiary of the gun industry, which wants to sell assault rifles to make profits. The NRA and the gun manufacturers once again refused to comment for the Times.

A belief in gun ownership is one of the tenets of present-day Republicanism. So are a belief in the superiority of faith over reason, an almost sacred respect for the accumulation of private wealth, and a disdain for the role of government. The South began turning Republican and taking over the Republican party about four decades ago--sadly, in the wake of the triumph of the civil rights movement. Late in the era of segregation, under the New Deal, millions of white southerners became liberals on everything but race, but that trend did not survive the events of the 1960s. White southerners lost faith in government at all levels as soon as it had to look after all citizens equally. Southern friends of mine have assured me that this was not accidental.

Our new civil war is continuing, as shown by the new fight over the budget. There will be no deal before January 1, I feel quite sure, because John Boehner would evidently lose the speakership if he reached agreement with the President when the new Congress convened if there were. (I learned today, by the way, that "Morning Joe" Scarborough had spoken openly about the possibility that Boehner has a serious drinking problem. Based upon his appearance, demeanor, and frequent references to the "Merlot-sipping speaker" in news stories, I had wondered about this myself for some time.)

I'm sorry to celebrate the winter solstice with a post so lacking in holiday spirit, but these posts are driven by the news, and this is what it is. We are, as Strauss and Howe predicted metaphorically, in a political winter, and it seems that it is far from over. The election had no beneficial impact upon the Republican Party and they still control a house of Congress. Their troops are determined to continue waging dau tranh (see the post of May 19, 2012) by any means necessary. We are still at sea and our destination remains unknown.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Orwell, Dickens, and Us

In 1939 George Orwell, then in a state of political despair, wrote three long essays, "Charles Dickens," "Raffles and Miss Blandish," and "Inside the Whale," which he marketed to his publisher Victor Gollancz as a book. Gollancz gave him exactly 20 pounds sterling (then $80) for the rights to these masterpieces, and the sales seem to have fully justified the advance. The technique Orwell used in those essays is the one I have borrowed here on many occasions: to take a literary event, whether high- or low-brow, or even a classic writer, and ask what his work and its appeal says about the current state of the world. My borrowing is anything but accidental. I discovered these essays at the age of 15 thanks to a young embassy wife while living overseas and I wrote about them at length in my senior thesis. "Inside the Whale" was about Henry Miller's book Tropic of Cancer, then banned in Britain and the United States; "Raffles and Miss Blandish" compared a 19th-century British mystery with an American film noir; and "Charles Dickens" dealt with that author's whole body of work. which Orwell, then 36, had loved since childhood.

The Dickens essay is fascinating for many reasons, even to those like myself who have never been Dickens fans, but I'm going to focus today on its political argument. Orwell, a convinced socialist who distrusted many of his fellow leftists and who had become a convinced anti-Communist after his experiences in Spain, noted that because of Dickens' sympathy for the poor, many leftists claimed him as an ideological kin. Orwell typically saw the misunderstanding at the heart of this claim. He had no doubt that Dickens's sympathy for the poor was genuine and that the novelist wanted things to change, but he realized that Dickens was criticizing the existing order from a particular point of view. Contemporary leftists thought society's problems were structural and reflected certain key aspects of capitalism, a view Orwell had certainly endorsed four years earlier in The Road to Wigan Pier. Dickens, Orwell argued convincingly, did not see the world that way.

"The truth is that Dickens's criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens's attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power. Of course one can draw this inference for oneself, and one can draw it again from the remarks about Bounderby's will at the end of Hard Times, and indeed from the whole of Dickens's work one can infer the evil of laissez-faire capitalism; but Dickens makes no such inference himself. It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism’. Obviously Macaulay is here using the word ‘Socialism’ in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as ‘Bolshevism’. There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent."

Continuing, Orwell argues that Dickens recurrently creates "good rich men" to bring this fantasy to life, and occasionally converts a bad rich man (see Scrooge, Ebeneezer) to a good one to hold out hope. On the other hand, Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities portrayed the French Revolution in all its horror as an inevitable outcome of the repression of the many by the few. Orwell was too hard-headed and had seen too much exploitation first hand to put too much stock in such individual conversions, but re-reading Dickens after wading through years of Marxist tracts had gotten him thinking about how historical change occurs. And thus, a little later, he penned the following paragraph, the one whose memory moved me to begin this post.

"If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A ‘change of heart’ is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny. I said earlier that Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as ‘revolutionary’ — and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. Blake was not a politician, but there is more understanding of the nature of capitalist society in a poem like ‘I wander through each charted street’ than in three-quarters of Socialist literature. Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old — generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved. Dickens, who had not the vision to see that private property is an obstructive nuisance, had the vision to see that. ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds."

Orwell was never very interested in the contemporary United States, and the New Deal seems to have barely crossed his field of vision, but from nearly 75 years' distance we can say that the New Deal had changed the system, albeit not as fundamentally as Marx would have liked or as Roosevelt's critics charged, so as to put significant limits upon the accumulation of wealth and put some kind of a floor under poverty. (It is interesting to note that, in an annual ritual at Hyde Park, Franklin Roosevelt read A Christmas Carol to this grandchildren.) Those reforms were in turn based upon a particular moral vision, one that held that greed was evil and destructive, as well as on the idea that prosperity and staggering inequality simply were not compatible. Orwell lived to see even more drastic changes in his own country under the Labour Government after the war. Now, as President Obama struggles to hold our society in roughly the unfortunate, far more unequal state that it is in today, it behooves us to ask once again what is more to blame: our system or our values?

While I have never shared Dickens's view that more benevolent businessmen would make the world a better place, I feel quite certain that our values are now the real problem. As historian Jill Lepore argued in a recent New Yorker article that unfortunately is not available to the public, business interests and Republicans have successfully sold the accumulation of private wealth as the greatest moral good during the last few decades, and redefined "citizens" as "taxpayers." In past eras, churches and universities have provided an alternative view, but for some time now our most powerful churches have been in an alliance with business interests against different forms of liberalism, and universities, as I have pointed out again and again, are no longer interested in the practical details of securing economic inequality, or indeed in government as it is really practiced at all. The President says again and again that the rich have to pay a bigger share, but neither he nor any other elected Democrat I know of will say that we are threatened by billionaires who simply have too much money for the good of the rest of us. The idea of a secure home and future by every American no longer seems to be compelling. Equally moribund is the idea of greater artistic value that could actually trump the profit motive in industries like films and book publishing. The only moral value the left seems to care about is opposition to discrimination based upon race, gender or sexual preference. That is an important moral value, but it is not enough to organize an economically just society around.

Forty years ago, in Nixon Agonistes, Gary Wills argued that Americans needed to realize that wealth was no index of virtue. Since then society has moved in the opposite direction--and the momentum has become self-sustaining thanks to tax cuts for the wealthy and the Citizens United decision, which allows the already superrich to buy more infuence and make even more money. Churches, as I have noted, have other concerns, and colleges and universities have fallen as far under the sway of the money gods as anyone else. Worse, a university education--the price of admission to the decision-making elite--has become so expensive that it is hard to emerge from college without serious economic ambitions. Ironically, the disappearance of Fascism and Communism has eased the pressure on free societies to provide a better life for their citizens--although Europe, which suffered so much more from them, has not given up that task. The Progressive Era, which the contemporary right now identifies as the root of all evil, was a reaction to the unbridled capitalism of the Gilded Age. We are due for such a reaction now, but it is not yet happening. History suggests that, eventually, it will, but it may take another twenty to thirty years.







Saturday, December 08, 2012

Are the lights going out?

I had a different topic in mind for this morning, but a series of new stories has moved me in a different direction. The United States is threatened in the medium and long term by the betrayal of, literally, its oldest traditions. The Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution were products of the Enlightenment idea that human reason could combine logic and the study of mankind to make a better and fairer world. Huge numbers of Americans, including many of the richest and most powerful, now reject that assumption, and it is becoming harder and harder to base public policy upon it.

The immediate trigger of this thought was Charles Blow's New York Times column this morning, which discusses the prevalence--or dominance--of creationism among Republicans. Republican presidential candidates can no longer categorically deny that dinosaurs and human beings co-existed on the earth. (I wonder how the evangelicals who hold to this position explain the Bible's failure to mention dinosaurs; perhaps some one can, for want of a better word, enlighten me.) Bobby Jindhal, the governor of Louisiana, says Republicans have to come across as the "smart" party, but he signed a voucher law allowing Louisiana children to attend religious schools where they would learn, among other things, that the Loch Ness monster was real, with the help of state money. (This has been a long-standing dream of red state evangelicals, but thankfully, a Louisiana court has struck it down.) Meanwhile the Republican propaganda machine has convinced most of its followers that Christianity, rather than the Enlightenment, was the inspiration for the early Republic, a position that has no historical support whatever. The Founders lived in an Anglo-American society in which religion had been declining in importance for the better part of a century, and the founding generations were among the least religious in American history. That is why they produced a Declaration of Independence that refers only an an anonymous "Creator" and a Constitution that does not mention any higher power at all. They also had a very deep empirical bent, and designed the Constitution to reflect the lessons of the British experience, while trying to include safeguards against the tyranny which they believed the British Constitution had allowed the King to impose.

More serious at this moment is the Republican's denial of economic realities, which has become far more influential. Empirical evidence, as I pointed out not long ago, overwhelmingly indicates that higher economic growth is correlated with higher marginal tax rates on high incomes, not lower ones. In order to get out of the deep recession we are still in the government has to spend more money, not less. It does not serve the interests of society as a whole to allow certain favored individuals to accumulate unlimited fortunes. Securities markets need tight regulation to prevent recurrent financial crises. The economy can't prosper if wages are forced downward to levels that leave earners with nothing to spend. Yet the Republican Party and most of the supposed "bipartisan establishment" now denies all these clearly established facts, and the federal budget will indeed be cut over the next few weeks. The only issue is how much. Government spending, clearly the best cure for the recession, has been defined as bad--end of story. One reason the Republicans get away with this is that the press has decided that news reports are not supposed to reflect the views of reporters. The press, which is of course losing much of its circulation and influence, decided some time ago that its job is to report what both sides say. The press subsidizes a certain number of highly educated and intelligent men and women to write for the public--but does not allow them to use their own brains. We all suffer as a result.

Another indication of the decline of rationalism was the extraordinary news that Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, perhaps the leading reactionary in the whole Senate, is going to quit his seat and become the head of the Heritage Foundation. I still can't quite understand why he would do this, but it seems that he hopes to turn it into the Tea Party's propaganda ministry. The Heritage Foundation has always been conservative but it began with serious intellectual pretensions, and 23 years ago it came up with one rather interesting idea: an individual mandate that would require all Americans to buy health insurance. That, needless to say, is no longer part of its playbook.

But the problem is by no means all on the right. The other day I was perusing, on line, the tables of contents of recent issues of the American Historical Review. I discovered this summary of the lead article in the most recent issue:


In "Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique," Sebastian Conrad notes that narratives of the Enlightenment, even those that place it in a global context, have remained deeply Eurocentric, assuming that Enlightenment was generated in Europe alone and then gradually diffused around the world. In this article, he argues for a thorough revision of this dominant view. Drawing on recent scholarship, Conrad recasts the history of Enlightenment as a history of global conjunctures. This perspective allows us to recognize the transnational generation of Enlightenment ideas in the late eighteenth century, when debates spanned the Atlantic and beyond and involved a multitude of authors and contributors. This was also true for the nineteenth century, when "Enlightenment" began to be invoked by social actors throughout Asia. Conrad insists that this long history of the Enlightenment should not be reduced to a history of European origins and subsequent dissemination. Instead, he argues that claims to Enlightenment were literally coproduced by historical actors from a variety of locations in their attempt to think globally and to come to terms with the challenges of an integrating world. By thus rethinking the spatiality and temporality of the global Enlightenment, he invites us to de-center debates about Enlightenment universalism.

Now the editors of that venerable journal are getting more and more protective of their content in direct proportion to the general interest that content offers the public, and the full text of the article is not available on line. Clearly, however, it is one of literally thousands of pieces of contemporary scholarship designed to undermine the idea that Europe (and its settler colonies in North America and elsewhere) created modern civilization, which the rest of the world then adopted. What has happened in university education as a result was detailed in a fascinating article by Ricardo Duchesne, "The World Without Us," which appeared three years ago in the iconoclastic journal Academic Questions and which can be downloaded here. Over the last thirty years western civilization has generally been replaced as the basic historical survey by world history, and world history is usually the story of the exploitation and destruction of other cultures by the West. I would suggest that a historical profession that focuses on the harm done by the Enlightenment, or on manufactured debates about where it originated, will not be able to tell its students very much about the principles of the Enlightenment and their application. Both the right and the left, in short, have been assaulting the Enlightenment for some time. Only in western Europe--its original home--does it apparently remain the basis of public policy.

I still have not finished a book I've mentioned here several times, Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind, which shows how the rationalism of Greece and Rome retreated into the background during the early Christian era, not to become intellectually dominant again for many centuries. It is beginning to look as though the period from the 17th through most of the 20th centuries marked a similar high tide of rationalism, one which produced far greater achievements. Yet it is not clear that that era will endure too much longer. What has happened before can happen again.


Saturday, December 01, 2012

Shifting sands

Nowhere is the 80-year historical cycle identified twenty years ago by William Strauss and Neil Howe making more of an impact in the world today than in the Middle East, where new independent regimes emerged about 65 years ago. Israel, which began as a fundamentally secular state based upon nationalism, has evolved into a theocracy that remains determined to expand beyond its original borders. In Egypt the secular military rule that began under Nasser in the early 1950s and endured for about sixty years is a thing of the past, and President Morsi of the Muslim brotherhood is trying to exert real control over the political process, which threatens to lead to civil war. Syria is being torn apart by the Sunni-Shi'ite split that the United States let loose when it invaded Iraq. Turkey has, remarkably, now preserved its post-First World War constitution largely intact for more than 90 years, but Muslim political parties have brought the Army's role as supreme arbiter to an end--a development very similar to what is happening in Egypt. The Shi'ite-Sunni split also threatens to overturn the pro-US government of Bahrain, home of our largest naval base in the region. The Jordanian government faces huge hostile demonstrations. Hamas has entered into a new relationship with both the Egyptian and Turkish governments, and last week the New York Times ran a piece discussing the emerging split between a coalition of Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Hamas on one side, and Iran, the teetering Syrian regime, and Hezbollah on the other. The article did not mention that both are united in their hatred of Israel.

In the midst of all this, the United States lost control of the Israel-Palestine issue in the UN General Assembly--not for the first time-and the Palestinians won observer status by a wide margin. This may allow them to gain representation in the International Criminal Court and push for investigations of Israeli policies in the West Bank. It may also create pressure in the US Congress, always ready to follow the whims of the American-Israeli lobby, to defund those organizations, as it already did when the Palestinians joined UNESCO. (I just checked, and it seems that the Weekly Standard, one of the main organs of the pro-Israel lobby, has so far declined to comment on the UN move at all. It would not be impossible for a coalition of the Israeli lobby and nationalist Republicans to move for a cut in US funding for the UN itself in response.)

When Israel was founded, as was explained to me many years ago by an Israeli diplomat making the rounds of American cities, the government based its foreign policy in large part on good relations with the non-Arab states of the region, including Ethiopia, Turkey, and Iran. The relationship with Iran became particularly close after the US-UK backed coup in 1953 that overthrew the elected government and replaced it with the Shah, and the Mossad and Savak intelligence services cooperated closely. The Shah's fall in 1979 was therefore quite catastrophic for Israel, whose leaders tended to blame it upon the United States, just as they did two years ago at the time of the Arab spring. Now Turkey is also in the enemy camp, thanks in part to the insane Israeli decision to attack a Turkish ship carrying relief supplies to Gaza. Mohammed Morsi has stated that the continuance of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 depends upon peace with Palestine, as called for by that agreement. Should the Jordanian government fall--a possibility that does not, to be fair, seem imminent just yet--it would probably give way to a Palestinian-led regime.

I do not expect that Turkey, Egypt, and perhaps a new Syrian government could mount the kind of conventional challenge to Israel's existence that the Israelis faced from the 1950s through the 1970s. On the other hand, I wonder whether, in an age of increasingly accurate rockets and drones, Israel can survive surrounded by nothing but hostile neighbors. Peace between Israel and Palestine now seems to me impossible on anything less than the 1967 borders yet the Israeli government is totally unwilling to entertain a return to them. We are fortunate that the United States remains the only great power with any really active interest in the region. Neither Russia nor China seems interested in affecting events there to any significant extent. But the United States now seems more closely tied to Israel than ever, another legacy of the George W. Bush Administration which Barack Obama has not reversed.

In one way or another Israel has been under fire for much of its existence. This is hardly the most dangerous moment they have faced, but hostility towards them seems to be increasing in the governments of the region and the UN vote suggests that nearly the entire world has lost patience with their continual expansion into Palestine. I just heard the Israeli ambassador Michael Oren (who was born in the United States) make on NPR argue in effect that new settlement activity is all the Palestinians can expect if they refuse to negotiate. This amounts to saying, surrender on our terms now, or face a worsening situation in the future. The interviewer mentioned that "many countries" see settlements as a violation of international law but couldn't bring himself to mention that that has been the official American position for many years too. Sunday's New York Times now reports plans to complete the Israeli settlement link between East Jerusalem and a large block of West Bank settlements, cutting the West Bank in two. It also refers to the roads under construction which will have separate lanes for Israelis and Palestinians, and off-ramps for much of their length for Israelis only. This is what is called apartheid. The reason the accusation of apartheid provokes more outrage among Israelis and many of their American supporters than holocaust denial is simple: because the accusation is true.

For three decades, from the early 1970s until about 2001, the United States government tried to reconcile Israel with its neighbors. That goal is now slipping away. With the US on its way to energy independence thanks to massive increases in domestic production, perhaps our leadership now believes that military supremacy alone will keep Israel secure. Some may even be counting on the Sunni-Shi'ite religious war to keep the Muslims focused upon one another, rather than Israel. One of the very real legacies of the Bush II presidency is that the United States, in the Middle East, no longer stands for peace--or for international law.