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Monday, May 30, 2011

Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. - Q & A

"Mike" posted some questions in a comment to the above post. They were argumentative but not abusive, and thus deserve a response. To wit:

A few questions:

In what year did "Palestine" first become a sovereign country?

The UN attempted to make it one in 1948, at the same time as Israel, but Israel and Jordan assumed sovereignty over all the territory marked out for it after the war that broke out.

Can you name five "Palestinian" leaders prior to 1964?

Of the top of my head, no, but for a full discussion of Palestinian politics in the interwar period see Benny Morris, Righteous Victims, pp. 121-51.

Why did the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, side with the Nazis during WWII? Could this have been because of the "occupied territories" of the Six-Day War?

No, it was because the British had declared his organization illegal in 1937, and he had fled Palestine. He and Hitler agreed on the objectives of defeating the British, freeing the Arabs, and stopping Jewish immigration into Palestine when they met in 1943.

Why did the Arabs of Hebron massacre 67 Jews in 1929? Could this have been because of the "occupied territories" of the Six-Day War?

I would guess for the same reason that Arabs and Jews have been killing each other since Zionism began--that they differ over who should control Israel/Palestine.

Why was there no attempt to establish an independent "Palestinian" state when the Ottoman Empire controlled the land that is now Israel?

Because the Ottoman empire governed efficiently and ruthlessly and there were no serious revolts against it in that part of the world for at least decades before the First World War.

Why was there no attempt to establish a "Palestinian" state during the British Mandate after WWI?

There was in fact a major Palestinian independence movement in those days. See Morris, supra.

Why was there no attempt to establish a "Palestinian" state after Jordan annexed Judea and Samaria (the "West Bank"), and Egypt annexed Gaza?

Because the Jordanians and Egyptians didn't want one.

Why was the Palestine Liberation Organization established in 1964? What exactly was Arafat trying to "liberate" three years before the 6-Day War?

All of Israel/Palestine. Arafat did not accept the right of Jews who arrived after 1918 to live there. Most Palestinians don't.

Isn't it true that Abu Mazen/ Mahmoud Abbas wrote his dissertation about Holocaust denial?

According to Wikipedia, no, it isn't. The article there says his dissertation was entitled, "The Other Side: The secret relations between Nazism and the leadership of the Zionist movement". I can't make any judgment of its value but I do know that at least through 1938, the Nazis wanted as many Jews to immigrate from Germany and Austria to Palestine as possible.

Thanks - I look forward to reading your answers and explanations.

There they are. There is an interesting underlying problem here. It's quite true that the Israelis don't have any greater or lesser right to the land within the 1967 boundaries than to the occupied land beyond them. (I said greater or lesser.) So the issue is really one of expediency. Israel has to choose between being a relatively homogeneous democracy within the 1967 borders; or ruling a permanent apartheid state including most or all of the West Bank; or expelling most or all of the Arab population of however much territory they want to keep; or giving up the idea of Israel altogether. I'm not an Israeli, but I think the first solution, of those four, is the best one.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Israel, Palestine and the U.S.

When I began writing these posts I was determined to take on the toughest issues of the day, and one of those is certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not know what a possible solution is at this point--indeed I would be flabbergasted to see anything like real peace in my lifetime--but I do think that it behooves us all to look at some key historical facts and, above all, to try to find some intellectual framework for a solution. The recent speeches by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, alas, fail to do either, and thus require some comment.

The paradox underlying the problem is the most fundamental paradox of international relations. For centuries after the Treaty of Westphalia, western civilization tried to impose a legal framework on international relations, even though it has never made a serious attempt (and, in my opinion, should not) to create a world government. When the United Nations was created in 1945 the foundation of its legal framework was the respect for frontiers. That, it seems to me, is the only lasting basis for an international legal order, but unfortunately, no one has found a way to make governments last forever, much less to make people stay in one place. It is probably fair to say that every nation on earth was built originally by conquest. The human past includes no age of pristine innocence. Present-day historians like to picture pre-Colombian America as some kind of bucolic paradise, but in fact, its tribes made cruel war upon one another, apparently exterminated whole civilizations in their midst (the mound builders, for instance), and, in some places, at one another. And whether or not one believes that the creation of ancient Israel was divinely ordained, which I do not, it was undoubtedly bloody, sometimes mercilessly so. The history of Europe is largely a history of warfare. We must keep all this in mind when we turn to this history of a small territory on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the subsequent Palestine mandate must be seen in this broader context. The British, who in 1917 had no rights in the region other than rights of conquest, declared that the Jewish people should be able to create a "homeland" in Palestine without prejudice to the rights of the existing populations there. That, of course, was a contradiction in terms from the beginning, and the Arab populations realized it. After the war the League of Nations gave the British a mandate--that is, sovereignty--over Palestine, and they continued to allow some Jewish immigration while eventually concluding that it would have to be severely limited. British troops had to prevent civil war in the region during the 1920s and 1930s. American Jews in this period were highly ambivalent, to put it mildly, about the whole project. The Jewish masses of Poland and Russia (by then the Soviet Union) had never been full citizens of their countries before 1919 or so, and man wanted a new homeland. American Jews had chosen a different solution: settlement in a country that recognized no religious distinctions among its citizens. Although they faced social prejudice in the first half of the twentieth century and their opportunities at the highest levels of American society remained in many ways limited, they felt well off indeed. Phillip Roth in one of his recent books suggests that American Jews around 1940 were the most loyal of all American immigrant groups, precisely because they had no loyalty to any mother country.

Now contrary to myth, Holocaust survivors did not found Israel. The founders of Israel were Zionists settlers, most of them from further east, who had been living in Palestine for decades. They were also largely secularists and socialists. When the war came to an end, they carried on a political and military campaign against British occupation, including acts of terrorism, while also trying to bring as many Holocaust survivors to Israel as possible. Those who had survived the war and the death camps in Eastern Europe were now living in displaced persons camps, and nearly all of them ruled out returning to their former homes. The United States, alas, would not welcome them. The tough immigration laws passed in 1924 were still in effect, and there was no political will to make an exception for hundreds of thousands of Jews from eastern Europe. That, as an American of half-Jewish ancestry, is my greatest regret about the whole story. When Ernest Bevin, the anti-Zionist British foreign secretary, said that the United States wanted the Jews to go to Palestine because they did not want them to go to New York, he was, sadly, speaking the truth.

In 1947, the British, weary of their imperial burden turned the mandate back to the new United Nations. The UN sent a commission of westerners to investigate the situation, including some Americans, who returned home very sympathetic to the Jewish cause, largely because the Jews were obviously so much more westernized than the Arabs. The Arabs at that moment lacked effective political leadership, in large part because their leaders had been jailed or exiled by the British during an Arab revolt in the late 1930s. The UN eventually recommended a partition of the territory, one that would have given the Jews significantly less than what became their border after 1949. The Zionists, as authors such as Conor Cruise O'Brien and the Israeli Benny Morris have pointed out, always took the practical position that any territory was better than none, since it would provide a basis for further expansion. The Arabs did not and refused to accept the partition plan at all. In all honesty, while the Jews were surely wiser, it seems to me one can sympathize with both sides here. In the wake of the Second World War Jews naturally did not trust the protection of any non-Jewish state, with the possible exceptions of Britain and the United States, where they could not go. On the other hand, the Arabs saw no reason--and still don't--why Christians at the distant United Nations should have been able to award a large part of territory in their midst to people whose only claim was that their ancestors had lived there thousands of years ago. We obviously cannot as a general rule start redistributing territory around the world on that basis--it would be a recipe for endless war.

To secure their state the Israelis had to defeat the Palestinians within the territory allotted them, and also to hold off the neighboring Arab states who intervened, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, on the Palestinians' side. The first task was relatively easy: the Palestinians were out-organized and out-gunned. The second was harder but the Israelis, who proclaimed their state in the spring of 1948, managed it, and even moved well beyond the borders specified by the UN resolution. Most of the Arab population of the new Israel fled--a good deal of it, we know now, was forcibly ejected. In 1949 the UN negotiated an armistice between Israel and its neighbors, temporarily depriving the Palestinian Arabs of any recognition whatever while leaving most of them under Jordanian control. But the Israelis, led by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, were not satisfied. They regarded the new lines as only the beginning. Some hoped to go all the way to the Jordan River; others, like former terrorist Menachem Begin, wanted to go further. Noting that the old testament God had promised the Jews the East Bank, as well as the West Bank, of the Jordan River, Begin in his party newspaper wrote articles in the early 1950s with titles such as "Amman too shall be ours." (I owe that deal to Ezer Weizmann, the former Israeli Defense Minister and President who helped negotiate the 1979 peace deal with Egypt.)

The Israelis got two chances to expand those frontiers over the next 20 years. In 1956 they signed on to an Anglo-French attempt to overthrow Gamel Abdul Nasser and seized the Sinai peninsula. During the next year President Eisenhower forced them to give these gains up, partly by threatening to end the tax deduction for contributions to Israel for American citizens--no idle threat in an era of 91% marginal tax rates. In 1967, it is now generally agreed, the Arabs did not want war, but Nasser, like Khrushchev in Cuba five years earlier, allowed a game of brinkmanship to go to far. The United States was too pre-occupied with Vietnam to head off the crisis, and the Israelis decided to attack. This time they occupied the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. In response, the Arabs recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, and eight years later Yasir Arafat addressed the UN. Four years after that Israel withdrew from the Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt, and in the 1990s Israel made peace with Jordan, whose population is now more than half Palestinian. But attempts at peace between Israel and the Palestinians have failed.


I am sure politicians and historians will still be arguing about that for at least a century; I can only give my opinion. Neither side, in my opinion, has ever established a consensus that would moderate is claims to the extent that real peace would be possible. On the one hand, the Palestinians still claim a right of return for the families of those who left in 1948-9, and many will not formally accept Israel's acceptance at all. On the other hand, Israel has tens of thousands of settlers and some politicians, certainly including its current Foreign Minister and very possibly its current Prime Minister as well, who have not given up on establishing an almost completely Jewish state in all the territory west of the Jordan at all. That is why no Israeli government has dared put a halt to settlements. At the end of the Clinton Administration Ehud Barak seemed ready to concede nearly all the territory outside the 1949-67 border, and to compensate the Palestinians for any territory Israel retained, but because of Arafat's intransigence, we never found out whether he could have sold that deal to the Israeli people. Since then the Israeli political spectrum has moved drastically rightward.

The Palestinian people have become more militant as well. Hamas won an election in 2003 and now rules the Gaza strip. Essentially American and Israeli strategy beginning with the Bush Administration--which specifically disavowed Yasser Arafat--has been to build up a Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas that would rule Palestine with due regard to Israeli sensibilities--that is, he would renounce any right to an Army, accept the permanence of some large Israeli settlement blocs and the loss of all Jerusalem, and allow Israel to station troops on his country's eastern border. (As Hanan Ashwari, for some time in the 1990s the chief Palestinian negotiator and their international public face, put it, "To the Israelis the only acceptable Palestinian is a Zionist, one who accepts the existence of Israel and renounces the right of return." Most Palestinians are not ready to do either.) In my opinion President Obama's speech two weeks ago was designed to save this policy. He offered (to the extent that he can) the Palestinians the 1967 borders with agreed mutual adjustments--but in return, Abbas had to end his new alliance with Hamas. Abbas, I suspect, created that alliance because he could see that the current Israeli government had now intention either of returning to the 1967 borders or even of halting settlements (and thus further expansion of Israeli territory) now. He was right. And Netanyahu's reception before Congress--a bipartisan reception an American President would not even dare dream of--was proof that Obama will never be able to do what Eisenhower did and apply effective pressure on the Israeli government to bring about a deal that it does not want. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is furious because Obama repudiated Bush's public pledge that Israel would simply keep large settlement blocs in any new agreement--forgetting that what one President can promise, another can take away. AIPAC is indeed one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, however, and I would not be surprised if Congress passes a resolution repudiating what President Obama has said. (For an earlier discussion of AIPAC's power, see the post of May 20, 2006, here.)

While the Israeli government does not formally base its claims today on any donation for a higher power, it does, it seems to me, maintain in effect that Israeli needs are paramount. Israelis have a right to live within any borders they deem necessary; Palestinians have only such rights as the Israelis are willing to let them have. Even the state which Netanyahu claims to offer them will lack many attributes of sovereignty. I can't help believing that that's why he claims to favor talks at all--he knows the Palestinians will never accept that status. Meanwhile, it certainly is not clear that conflict and terrorism would stop even in the entirely hypothetical case that the Palestinians were given the right to a state east of the 1949-67 border.

Ironically, Abbas is now going to return to where the conflict in its present form began, the General Assembly of the United Nations. It endorsed partition in 1948 and he wants it to do the same thing now, giving the Palestinians less than they would have received then but far more than Israel is willing to give them. The United States government, ironically, is proclaiming that the United Nations cannot recognize states. (The situation is of course different now because in 1948 Britain had formally turned sovereignty over to the UN.) The European states have been relatively pro-Palestinian for decades now, and many of them may go along with this. That will take the situation, to a certain extent, out of Washington's hands.

The only possible deal, it seems to me, at this point, and for decades to come, is some kind of a truce. That is how the Christian and Muslim worlds co-existed for long periods from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries on the frontiers of Eastern Europe. That is how peace was maintained in Western Europe during the Cold War, when the West German government never completely accepted the sovereignty of East Germany (while recognizing its authority beginning in 1972.) But neither side wants a truce.

I see only one piece of good news in all this. Like the Austro-Serbian conflict before 1914, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the kind of issue that in earlier days would have divided the great powers and perhaps led to a continental or world war. As the events in the Balkans in the 1990s showed, we have moved beyond those times. A UN resolution on Palestinian independence may divide Washington from some of its European allies, from Russia and from China, but it will not lead to great-power war. The advanced countries have uncoupled third world conflicts from issues of their own basic security. That is a huge advance for civilization, and one for which we should all be grateful.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

How the world comes undone

Revolution continues to sweep the Arab world but the outcome becomes more and more uncertain. The lead article in today's New York Times deals with Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt, and the emerging obstacles to national unity in each of those countries. Tunisia is threatened by a split between the coastal elite and the more religious interior, which, some speculate, may lead to a military coup. In Egypt the 10% Coptic Christian minority suspects the majority, and vica verca. Libya remains riven by regional divisions, while in Syria, Assad clings to power as the leader of the Alawite Shi'ite minority (while proving that militarized authoritarian states--see the graph, below--can indeed suppress rebellions if they have the will to do so.) A successful revolution needs a measure of national unity, and many in these nations wonder where it will come from. The same problem, of course, is at the heart of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the United States has so unwisely inserted itself.

A great deal of confusion prevails over these issues for many reasons, not least of them the idea behind Francis Fukuyama's The End of History that the world is naturally evolving towards capitalist democracy and that the evolutionary process is at late stage. It was always, really, a Utopian idea, every bit as much as National Socialism or Communism, but with the key difference that natural processes were supposed lead us to the promised land. Yet this has never been the case. Fukuyama assumed away the other key term in developmental equation, legitimate political authority. Because he simply assumed it he did not have to ask where it came from. Had he looked, he would have found a much more complex and much less reassuring story.

Reading the Times story today I was reminded of the French and Russian Revolutions. Both of them were based on ideas of universal equality; both swept away an old order weakened by time, by corruption, and by war. But both led immediately to division, civil war, and the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of people. It took a decade for Napoleon to re-establish stable political authority in France and at least six far more bloody years for Lenin to do the same in the Soviet Union. Those countries, too, lacked any shared sense of national unity, and one had to be imposed, both by governmental success and by violence. And that is often, though not always, the case in the crises that seem to hit modern societies every eighty years.

During the twentieth century the western world (including the Soviet Union) offered the rest of the world a number of models of political authority. In Turkey Kemal Ataturk created a new secular state modeled quite closely, it seems to me, on Napoleonic France. Japan adopted much of the western model even earlier, in the late nineteenth century, and easily resumed it after 1945. Independent India established a parliamentary democracy that has endured, with only one brief interruption, to this day. Meanwhile Communism provided an extraordinarily effective tool for the mobilization and seizure of political power in China, in Cuba, and in Vietnam. It has not however been able to survive more than one saeculum anywhere, and I would suggest that with the possible exceptions of Hezbollah and Hamas there are today no revolutionary movements nearly as well organized as Lenin's, or Mao's, or Ho's.

Does the West today offer a useful model for the third world, including the Muslim world? Unfortunately I must answer that question with a resounding "no."

The European Union, in my opinion, represents today the most highly developed civilization in human history. States that warred for centuries have surrendered large parts of their national sovereignty and created a single economy. Most of them use a single currency. Their governments have established some form of national health care and put a very high priority on infrastructure. Increasingly they are focusing on energy conservation. They too may face problems in the near future relating to national unity, thanks to their large Muslim populations. In addition, nationalism in Eastern Europe--one of the most destructive forces of the twentieth century--is re-emerging in several countries, including one of the most advanced, Hungary. But the Europeans surrendered so much national autonomy because they had lived through the worst of what nationalism can do. Their example cannot be immediately replicated anywhere else.

As for the United States, we have been engaged for about thirty years in a two-pronged assault on the very idea of political authority which has now paralyzed our government in the face of an economic crisis. The Republican Party since Reagan has embraced the idea that government is "the problem," and the strategy of "starving the beast" has now worked, leaving Washington with nothing to do but arguing about what to cut, since tax increases have been ruled out. Even Newt Gingrich, one of the stalwarts of the revolution, realized briefly two weeks ago that it had gone too far, although he was quickly brought back into line. But at the same time, the Left, such as it is, has also rejected political authority, based on the idea, now 45 years old, that those who exercise power are almost inevitably wicked, especially if they happen to be white males. Today's Times also includes a review of a collection of essays, Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, which seems to be a compendium of newer-style history of the revolutionary period, written by another practitioner, Mary Beth Norton. None of the 22 essays in the book deal with a signer of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, a fact of which I am sure its editors are blushing with pride. They include Abigail Adams and Tom Paine, a number of American Indian leaders (many of which actually opposed the revolution), the rebels in Shays' and the Whiskey rebellions, and a number of very obscure folks who evidently held economic or social views that have become much more fashionable today. One such is Herman Husband, who dreamed of a new Jerusalem west of the Appalachians and whom his chronicler thinks "deserves to be remembered in the first rank of the heroes of American democracy." (Reviewer Mary Beth Norton dissents because Husband paid no attention to the rights of Indians, slaves, or women.) That actually is a good example of what a hero is to a Boomer or Boomer-trained academic: some one who held the right views, just as they have, by their own lights, for the last 40 years or so. Earlier generations thought that heroes, of whatever race or sex, did things like writing Constitutions, raising armies, fighting battles, making revolutions, and running governments. But Boomers in their youth became accustomed to thinking of those tasks as some one else's job, one unworthy of serious interest--and that goes for both the left and the right. In another interesting example of this trend, the Times also reports this morning that an education reform movement is sweeping the country--but it isn't the work of federal or state governments, but rather of Bill Gates, one of the more benevolent billionaires our new tax structure has created.

And thus Boomers are now proving themselves utterly incapable of dealing with the most fundamental task of government, passing a budget. Gen Xer Barack Obama, meanwhile, seems to feel very little urgency about the problem either--he is confident that he can make his peace with whatever outcome emerges, blessing it with a few typically eloquent words. Only in 1861, 1933 and 1940, I would argue, has the United States been so much in need of effective leadership as it is today--and I can assure you as a historian that we do not have leadership of comparable quality available.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Size of armies

I am posting these slides in connection with a discussion on the Fourth Turning forums. . . They show that the world's militaries are generally quite small by historical standards.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

An American Original

Two weeks ago my wife gave me a new book that has every right to become a classic of American politics, Politics and Pasta, by former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, with help from David Fisher. (I am sure Mr. Fisher did plenty of work, but Buddy, as we call him in Rhode Island, obviously provided 95% of the information and the tone of the book.) Buddy has only intermittently made his way into the national, much less international consciousness, and I was rather shocked four years ago when it turned out that my copy editor had not heard of him even though she lives less than 100 miles away in Massachusetts. That is partly in the nature of my adopted home state, which is tucked away in one corner of New England--the smallest state, of course, territorially, although we boast more people than Wyoming, Vermont, or North Dakota. Buddy is an American original, and the book reads like a real life version of the great American classic All the King's Men. Politics and Sausage might have been a better title--if you want to know how political sausage is made, this is the book for you. It's an advanced course of city government, from snow removal to the promotion of tourism to managing the evening news.

Vincent "Buddy" Cianci was born in Providence in 1941, a second-generation Italian-American whose father--every bit as upwardly mobile as my first generation father--became a doctor. For some reason he grew up as a Republican in a highly Democratic city. He crossed cultural boundaries in his high school career, attending the elite Wasp Moses Brown school in Providence, and then went to college and to law school at Jesuit institutions. As prosecutor he indicted the most famous resident of his Federal Hill neighborhood, mob boss Raymond Patriarca, for murder, but the jury chose not to believe his one turncoat witness and Raymond got off. Like so many great political careers, his began by accident. He ran for Mayor against a split Democratic Party in 1974, one of the most Democratic years in the history of the United States, and won. The rest is history.

I must admit I was disappointed at the first 57 pages of the book, which were more cute than informative, but everything changed on p. 58, when Buddy took office. All the King's Men tells how Willie Stark, modeled on Huey Long, brought third-world Louisiana into the twentieth century. Buddy tells how Cianci rebuilt and revived a dying city. And make no mistake about it: without him, Providence might be in the same dreadful, pathetic shape as most secondary New England cities, including Bridgeport and Hartford in Connecticut, Worcester and Springfield and Lowell in Massachusetts, and our own Woonsocket and Pawtucket.   A mill town early in the 20th century, it had lost its industry and its tax base. Buildings were rapidly being demolished to become parking lots. If there is one thing that shines through almost every page of this book, it is Cianci's hopeless, overwhelming love for his native city. He wanted to revive it and give it a bright future, and during two long sojourns in City Hall (1975-84 and 1991-2002) he did. Unfortunately, both terms ended with his conviction of a serious crime--of which more later.

The story of what Buddy did for the city fills many pages. He saved old buildings and built new ones. He uncovered the Providence River. He revived the arts scene, even creating a neighborhood of the city that offered special tax breaks to artists. (I did not make that up.) One of his first alliances as mayor was with a Wasp lady from the Providence East Side, Antoinette Downing, aged 70, who had been trying to preserve old buildings since 1955. Together they preserved a great many more. I enjoyed imagining the first meeting between them: in the movie, he should be played by Danny De Vito and she should be played by Cate Blanchett in her Katharine Hepburn mode. They had nothing in common--except that they loved Providence.

Yet a far more revealing story involves the preservation of Providence's last remaining old movie palace, the downtown Loew's Theater, which subsequently became the Providence Performing Arts Center. The owner, B. A. Dario, had asked for a permit to demolish it. He found "a Waspy group" that wanted to buy and refurbish it, and he went to work making the deal happen, eventually pledging $1 million of city funds, quite possibly without the slightest idea where they would come from. Eventually he closed--or so he thought--the deal, only to get a phone call from Dario demanding an additional $40,000 on the grounds that the buyers had promised to pay him $1000 a day during negotiations. Buddy, who knows how to bargain, solved the problem by appointing Dario "artistic consultant to the city of Providence" for $25,000. "Now that," he writes, "is the kind of deal that I should have gone to jail for." That is only one of at least a dozen stories along those lines, most of them with happy endings. Buddy had to contend with a hostile city council most of his tenure, and his battles with them make for interesting reading as well.

That was only the beginning, but I was equally interested in Buddy's brief career as a national political figure. An east coast Republican mayor was a rara avis indeed in the mid-1970s, and the desperate Republican Party made use of him. He made a famous appearance at the 1976 Republican convention and became a part of President Ford's strategy committee. Never shy, he argued at one point that the party should make a major issue out of Carter's attendance at a segregated Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. He lost that fight, and he still thinks it could have made the difference in a very close election. In 1979, he tried and failed to persuade Ford to make another try for the Republican nomination on a visit to Palm Springs. The visit also led to a dinner invitation from Frank Sinatra, who asked him, "Do you know Raymond?" "Know him!" Buddy replied. "I prosecuted him!"

Reagan, of course, won the nomination, and the Reagan campaign persuaded Buddy to run for Governor of Rhode Island to try to help the ticket. Four years earlier, in 1976, he had allowed Wasp Republican John Chafee to talk him out of running for the Senate--a decision he still regrets. He did not expect to win the election, as indeed he did not, and he negotiated delicately with John Sears and Lyn Nofziger, two Reagan aides, about a possible post-election reward should he lose, such as a Caribbean Ambassadorship. Early in these negotiations Buddy asked Sears whether Governor Reagan knew about these promises. "That's the greatest part of working for Ronald Reagan," Sears replied. "He doesn't have to know." But when Buddy was tentatively selected to be Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Senator Chafee stopped it. The feud between Buddy and the Chafees continues to this day.

Buddy's first fall from grace, in 1984, involved his personal life. He is very frank about his first marriage, which began with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, became very politically effective, but never, he says frankly, involved love. By 1984 it was dissolving, and in the midst of the divorce Buddy discovered his wife had been having an affair with a long-time friend of his, also married. He was even more incensed that her lover had been advising her about the divorce, which had turned out to be more expensive than he thought. Enraged, Buddy called the man over to his house, where a nasty confrontation ensued in the presence of several witnesses, including a policeman. No injuries appear to have been sustained, but Buddy admits to throwing a cigar and an ashtray. He presents convincing evidence that the other man--the target--did not want to prosecute in order to avoid the publicity, but political opponents found out about it and he was suddenly indicted on serious assault charges. He decided to plead guilty, escaped jail time, and had to leave City Hall. He initially went into the real estate business, in which he was already very well versed, and then discovered another calling as a radio talk-show host. He returned to City Hall triumphantly in 1991.

Was there corruption in Buddy's Administrations? Undoubtedly, as he admits--tens of people working for the city were convicted of crimes. Buddy is rather discreet about organized crime's tremendous presence in the city and its influence, and he is frank about soliciting campaign contributions. I must say I was suspicious about one story he told. Early in his career Buddy caught the manager of the Providence Civic Center taking kickbacks from entertainers in exchange for choice dates. Year's later, in 1980, Buddy angered younger voters, as he explained, by canceling a Who concert at the same venue. He claimed he did so because several people had been killed in a riot after a Who concert in Cincinnati, but being a suspicious bastard myself, I couldn't help wondering if the promoter had actually failed to come up with some of kind of favor--perhaps a campaign contribution--that the Mayor expected to get. Meanwhile, Buddy enjoyed throwing his weight around, and his abrasive personality got him into some very unseemly feuds, including one with Brown University that started when two nephews of his failed to gain admission. I would have been glad to explain to the Mayor that college admissions have become such a crapshoot that no one, really, has any valid grounds for complaint when admission is denied.

The racketeering conviction which sent Buddy to jail in 2002, however, raises profound questions about the state of American justice. The indictment charged him with 1 essential count of running a criminal enterprise--in this case, the city government of Providence--and 29 specific counts involving illegal acts in which he had supposedly either participated or known of. The most dramatic was a bribe accepted on video tape in City Hall by one Frank Corrente, a subordinate official, who claimed he was receiving it on Cianci's behalf. The government failed to convince the jury that Buddy was guilty of any of the 29 specific counts, but the jury--which was mostly composed of people living in surrounding cities and towns, not Providence--found him guilty on the overarching charge. The RICO law was designed by my friend Bob Blakey to convict organized crime bosses who could not be directly tied to illegal acts. I shall be curious to see what he thinks of this particular application of it, and Harvey Silverglate, a defense counsel who is a regular reader here, may have something to say as well. In any case, Buddy served four years at Fort Dix, New Jersey; re-emerged looking far, far better without his infamous toupee; and resumed his talk show career. He also became the subject of a wonderful documentary film, Buddy, and I got to meet him at one of its screenings.

The late Arthur Schwartz was a songwriter who wrote many famous tunes with his collaborator, lyricist Howard Dietz. He was also a close friend of my parents who enjoyed playing and singing his songs in their home. I was never more delighted than at the end of the film Buddy, when a performance of one of his songs, which could hardly have been more a propos, accompanied the credits. I can't seem to embed the video, but you can click here and end this post in exactly the same way.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Bin Laden's death

Debate still rages among enthusiasts of generational theory over when the current great crisis began. Was it in 2001, on 9/11, or was it much later, perhaps in 2007 when the markets began to crash? As I made clear last July 4 in one of my most important posts, I am inclined at this point to think that 9/11 was indeed the beginning. That once again raises the question of whether Osama Bin Laden's death marks the beginning of the end.

There is no question but that George W. Bush leapt into the role of crisis leader on several levels. He declared war not only on Islamic terrorist, led by Bin Laden, but on regimes that had harbored or tolerated them. He invaded two countries, involving the United States in occupations that have lasted nearly a decade. He talked about a new spirit in the country, and he suspended, in effect, various provisions of the laws and the Constitution of the United States. But he did not mobilize the countries' resources. Instead of increasing taxes like Lincoln and FDR, he cut them. He relied on a volunteer army with a huge auxiliary force of contractors. And, sadly, he embarked upon wars whose outcome has been dubious at best. Yet he had a profound long-term impact on the country, crippling the finances of the federal government, involving us indefinitely in the Middle East, and establishing what looks like a small but permanent gulag at Guantanamo. He also mobilized new Republican constituencies, although even his re-election victory was very narrow.

Unfortunately Bush lacked the vision to turn the country's energies into productive channels, or even, it seems,to evaluate what we faced in southwest Asia. He does not seem to have been very interested in apprehending Osama Bin Laden, although it will be decades, if not longer, before we know what kind of discussions took place between the White House and the CIA about Bin Laden's whereabouts. Instead he wanted to establish the US in the heart of the Middle East in Iraq. And he seems to have accepted the fiction that Pakistan was our ally against terror, in spite of overwhelming evidence that the Pakistanis had always supported the Taliban in Afghanistan and were sheltering Bin Laden on their own soil. Bush intervened in Pakistani politics, encouraging the resignation of Pervez Musharraf and thus the election of Benazir Bhutto, who was promptly assassinated. But he refused to face these elemental facts.

The killing of Bin Laden is welcome evidence that the United States can in fact carry out a major operation. I have felt both astonished and a bit humiliated, as an American, that a man who purposely killed 3000 random Americans has remained at large for so long. Capturing him would have been disastrous. Right wingers would have called for his torture to find out what he knew. (That is not a fantasy. No less a figure than Michael Scheuer, the retired former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit under Clinton and Bush, violently attacked President Obama for outlawing torture because it would, he thought, cripple us if Bin Laden were apprehended.) Terrorists around the world would have planned attacks to try to secure his release. Controversies would have erupted over a possible trial. I am opposed to capital punishment in domestic law, but Bin Laden had started a war with the US, and had to be killed. The outcome may even buy us some respect in the honor-based societies of the Middle East. (On the other hand, the immediate release of fragmentary information from his computer hard drive is extremely irresponsible.)

But what now? President Obama's next move will determine whether this marks the end of an era or not.

Voices on both sides of the aisle are now being raised calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. The circumstances of his capture vindicate the arguments of many long-standing opponents of our surge there, including myself. Al Queda has not been living in Afghanistan; its leaders, including its founder, have been sheltered by nuclear-armed Pakistan. It is impossible to believe that elements of the Pakistani Army and government did not know where Bin Laden was hiding. As long as they can stay where they are, the Al Queda leaders will not be tempted to leave. And we have shown that we can find them and kill them in Pakistan--even in the interior of the country.

The question hanging over the affair is whether, in fact, Bin Laden's death resulted from some kind of US-Pakistani deal. I am not saying that it did; it is pure speculation on my part, prompted in part, I admit, by my own long-standing advocacy of such a deal. Pakistanis and at least one blogger for Le Monde have suggested that the US has promised to withdraw from Afghanistan in return for being tipped off as to Bin Laden's whereabouts. Of course both Americans and Pakistanis are denying any such thing, but that is what one would have to expect. In any case, with or without a deal, withdrawal would make sense. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain all have more strategic importance than Afghanistan--and they are now in flames. I am not suggesting that our troops should be redeployed into any of those countries. They must work out their own problems and the US must be prepared to live with any outcome. But these revolutions, to paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith, give Afghanistan a chance to return to the obscurity it so richly deserves. Ambassador Ikenberry warned the Obama Administration in late 2009 that success would depend upon the performance of the Afghan government, which he did not trust. Everything that has happened since has vindicated his judgment. Even Mohammed Karzai himself is calling for fewer American troops and less American influence, just as Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu did in 1963. This time we should let the host government have its way.

President Obama could announce that we have discovered a successful counter-terrorism recipe, involving the use of intelligence and special operations. The next target should be the American-born Imam Anwar al Awlaki, said to be living in Yemen, who has directly inspired the Nigerian shoe-bomber, the Pakistani-American who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, and Major Nidal Hassan, who shot up his own Army base in Texas. Such operations are much more cost-effective than attempts to remake Islamic societies with the help of tens or hundreds of thousands of American troops. Once again the President has the chance to put a key aspect of the Bush era to an end. But will he take it?

I do not know, but one another straw in the wind suggests that he might. General David Petraeus is the face of the American Army's involvement in the Middle East. He took over the Iraq effort in 2007 because he was the only general who truly believed in it, and he scored a partial success. That earned him the CENTCOM command and then the command in Afghanistan. Now he is on his way to the CIA--and many senior army officers are well aware of the enormous strain the last ten years have put on their forces, and the meager results we have to show for it, especially in Afghanistan. His new job could represent an effort to put the counterterrorist mission where it belongs.

The President remains on the defensive regarding the budget, even though some signs now suggest that the Republicans have overplayed their hand once again. He has scored a dramatic success, but he needs to keep the political initiative. The country is surely as sick of Afghanistan as it was of Vietnam in 1970, when President Nixon finally agreed to serious drawdowns. We have the chance now to declare victory and begin coming home, and I hope we take it.