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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Mideast Tragedy

Because of an accident while I was working on this post, it is dated October 31.  It is actually going up on November 4.

The Israeli invasion of Gaza, designed to avenge the deaths of 1400 Israelis and wipe out Hamas,  is well underway.  Benjamin Netanyahu has warned his people of a long and difficult war, while reports from Washington suggest that the administration is hoping for his downfall.  Today I will try to lay out my view of the situation as it has developed in recent decades, and where it seems to be going now.  

I have written here many times that both history and journalism should in my opinion focus on what was or what is, not on what the author wishes should have been or should be.  There is no topic more difficult to hold to this rule than this one, but I am going to do my best. The often-heard argument, "Yes, that's what they seem to think, but they shouldn't be thinking that," leaves me cold. 

The problem is a simple one: two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, want the same land between the Jordan River and the sea.  The leading political elements on the two sides--Hamas on the one hand, and the current Israeli government on the other--reject the other side's right to sovereignty in any of that territory.  It's easy to feel that the Palestinians should have given up their goal long ago, but they haven't.   Many Israelis and an unknown number of Palestinians would be willing to compromise, but such people have rarely if ever been able to prevail on either side.  Nor is this all.  As we shall see, neither side is satisfied with the current status quo.  And this is not a problem of a majority and a minority, like race problems in the United States from 1865 to 1965 or the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India in 1947.  The Palestinian and Israeli populations of the territory in question are very close to equal.

Since the Carter years the government of the United States has pretty consistently taken the position that while Israel has a sacred right to exist, some framework involving a two-state solution should enable the Palestinians to enjoy full political rights as well.  It has never been clear whether any Palestinian leadership--or the Palestinian people as a whole--would see such a solution as anything but a stepping stone to eventual control of the whole area, achieved by any means necessary.  Certainly there is no indication that Hamas would--and Hamas appears to represent at least a plurality of Palestinian opinion.   When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas took it over, and Hamas also won the election in Gaza and the West Bank handily in 2006 with 45 percent of the vote to 29 percent for Fatah, the Palestinian establishment party.  There is no indication that events since 2005 have made the Palestinian authority under Mahmoud Abbas more popular.  Hamas has built a military base in Gaza, largely in underground tunnels, and put together a large arsenal of rockets and other weapons there with the help of aid from Iran and elsewhere.  It also apparently developed a very sophisticated military planning capability, which early this month allowed it to disable the Israeli defense system on the border completely and carry out the massacre of more than 1,400 Israelis, military and civilian.

The US government continues to suggest that a two-state solution is the only desirable solution to the conflict.  In the current crisis US officials imply that such a solution might emerge after Hamas is destroyed.   That seems to me very unlikely for two reasons.  First of all, the Palestinians have never responded to Israeli military action against them by becoming reconciled to Israel's existence.  They have only become more and more militant.  And equally importantly, the Israeli government has not shown any real interest in a two-state solution for more than twenty years, and the new government has repudiated it publicly and is doing more and more to make it impossible.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is not making any secret of his view of the future.  Just last month, before the entire United Nations, he held up a map of the Middle East with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia in green--that is, Israel plus five countries countries with which it has diplomatic relations, plus Saudi Arabia, with whom negotiations to establish them were proceeding.  The map showed Israel including both Gaza and the entire West  Bank, with no territory at all marked out for a Palestinian state.  More than six months ago, Bezalel Smotrich, himself a West Bank settler and Netanyahu's Minister of Finance--and now responsible for the government of the West Bank--went him one better.  In a commemorative speech in Paris, he announced that "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people"--a claim Golda Meir also made half a century ago--while his podium displayed a map showing all of Jordan, as well as the West Bank, as part of Israel.  That, I remember from Ezer Weizmann's book, The Battle for Peace, echoed articles by Menachem Begin in the years immediately after Israel's founding, when he too argued as a member of the opposition that the East Bank of the Jordan was part of the Old Testament grant of territory to the Jews.  Begin at that time looked like a fringe figure in Israeli politics. Smotrich is a central figure now.

Another front in the struggle is the West Bank itself.  Just six weeks ago, an Israeli academic and peace activist, David Shulman, had a remarkable article in the New York Review of Books detailing what is happening in the West Bank now: settlers emptying entire small villages of West Bank Arabs and taking over their land for new settlements, with no interference from the Israeli Army.   The UN reports that 237 Palestinians and 25 Israelis died in West Bank violence from January 1 to October 6, and another 123 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, some by settlers and some by the Israeli Army, while 1,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes.  It is not clear to me exactly what the Israeli right expects to happen to the millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank.  Anyone who asks us all to look at the Hamas Charter and what it says about the future of Israel should also look at this evidence of how the Israeli government sees the Palestinians' future. Yes, many Israelis oppose all this, including some of the journalists I have quoted in this piece, but for the time being, at least, they are helpless, and they would have to command a substantial majority to reverse current trends.  

We also need to ask what the actual result of the current military campaign in Gaza will be.  Few would deny the Israeli right to punish the perpetrators of the massacre that started this war, but the consequences of their tactics too enormous to ignore.  The Israeli government's demand that about one million Gazans leave the northern part of the strip to leave it completely open to Israeli military operations is, as far as I know, unprecedented in modern warfare.  The devastation that the air and ground campaigns are wreaking upon Gaza is obviously making large parts of it uninhabitable for the foreseeable future..  I just heard a Gazan arguing that the Israelis are trying to turn the whole Gaza population into refugees again and empty Gaza out.  Who could reassure her that it isn't?  Meanwhile, Arab countries refuse to take any Palestinian refugees, and the only Palestinians allowed to leave Gaza for Egypt are either critically wounded or possess dual citizenship. Today, November 5, the New York Times reports that Israel has in fact asked Egypt to allow several  hundred thousand Gazans to enter Egypt.  The Egyptians refused.

Since the October 7 attacks that killed 1400 Israeli civilians and soldiers, Israeli leaders have used language reminiscent of American presidents in the last two decades.  They have talked of crushing Gaza to the extent that Israel would be safe for generations, and many have compared what they plan to do to the enormously destructive American-led campaign against ISIS in northern Iraq.  In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Netanyahu himself  describes the conflict as a war between civilization and barbarism. "Iran has formed an axis of terror by arming, training and financing Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and other terror proxies throughout the Middle East and beyond," he says, echoing George W. Bush in 2001. "In fighting Hamas and the Iranian axis of terror, Israel is fighting the enemies of civilization itself."  Like Bush then, he argues that the whole world must side with Israel for its own sake.  The column leaves the impression that a people ruled by an evil political movement is sunk in barbarism and enjoys no real rights.  It could also mean that Netanyahu wants the US and other nations to join him in a war against Iran, which the Obama Administration was reportedly quite close to doing before it reached the now-defunct nuclear agreement with Iran in the second Obama administration.  The Israeli historian Benny Morris, who best the drum for war with Iran in 2008-12, has just encouraged the Israeli government to consider an attack on that nation again.

We want a world where nations live together in peace.  The US government, with its feeling of responsibility for everything that happens in the world, its very close ties to Israel, and its interests in the Arab world, very naturally continues to talk as if a real solution was possible--but neither the Palestinians nor the Israeli government seem to think so.  I doubt that the Israelis can crush Hamas and Gaza into submission.  I wish I could see a real solution on the horizon, but I can't.  

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Ibram X Kendi's Crusade against the Enlightenment

      This post, which was commissioned by my friend Glenn Loury, appears here.  If you get a popup announcing a paywall, simply find and click the "continue reading" button and you should have no problems.  Let me know if you do.

Monday, October 09, 2023

July 1914, October 2023

 I have already written something on a completely different subject that will eventually be posted here, but it was for a different forum and I am waiting for them to put it up.  Meanwhile, war has broken out on the borders of Israel, and I think that this could turn into a new world crisis and even a new world war.  I shall explain why.

Europe in 1914 included about five great powers:  Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.  Italy and Turkey ranked below those five.  Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy belonged to the Triple Alliance, although Italy was reserving its right to decide when its alliance obligations might come into play.  France and Russia had been allies since 1894, and France and Britain had reached an Entente--an understanding--in 1904 and had cooperated diplomatically in at least two crises since.  The Balkans were now composed of small independent states.

The immediate cause of the outbreak of the war was, of course, the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand--the heir to the imperial throne--by young Serbian nationalists.  Serbia had recently expanded its territory in a war against Turkey, and dreamed of creating what eventually became Yugoslavia.  Bosnia-Herzegovina, an Austrian province, had a largely Serbian population, and the Archduke was killed on a visit to Sarajevo, its capital.  The killers were actually working for Serbian Army intelligence, which was a law unto itself--rather like Pakistan's ISA--and which the Serbian government feared.  Austria feared the Serbian threat because much of the population of the empire belonged to subject nationalities--Serbs, Croats, Czechs, Slovaks, Rumanians and Poles.  In the wake of the archduke's assassination they decided that Serbia had to be crushed and partitioned among various powers.

Israel began life a far more homogenous national state than Austria-Hungary was, but its de facto borders now include millions of Arabs who are if anything more opposed to Israel's existence than the Serbs in Bosnia were to Austria's.  About four million Palestinians are nearly evenly divided between the West Bank, which the current Israeli government appears to want to merge with Israel, and Gaza, over which the Israelis maintain various forms of control.  About 1.8 million Arabs live in pre-1967 Israel, and seven million Jews live in that territory and on the West Bank.  Hamas, like the Black Hand--the secret Serbian organization that dominated Serbian army intelligence--is a terrorist organization beyond the control of the Palestinian Authority, its official government.  It rules Gaza.  Decades of Israeli attempts to wipe out its leadership and thwart its attacks have, it must now be said, completely failed to reduce its capability.  It just just mounted an operation of unprecedented scope and effect,

Thus in the current situation, in my view, Israel is playing the role of Austria-Hungary--an established power threatened by minorities and terrorist revolutionaries, which it is now determined to crush.  The United States, I would suggest, is playing the role of Germany--the patron of a lesser power and longstanding ally--Israel now, Austria-Hungary then--which is unleashing a local war in response to a terrorist attack.  I would suggest however that the United States government, like the German government in 1914, has other objectives besides the simple defense of Israel, which remains relatively secure.

The war in Ukraine has emerged as the first armed conflict in a struggle between three twenty-first century great powers, the United States, Russia, and China--the Oceana, Eurasia and East Asia that Orwell predicted in 1984.  While Russia is trying to destroy the post-1989 settlement that emerged in Europe after the USSR collapsed, the United States and the EU and an enlarged NATO are trying to maintain it.  Meanwhile, tensions have grown steadily between the United States and China over Taiwan.  In this kind of environment, the greatest powers regard any defeat by one of their allies as a potentially disastrous shift in the balance of power.  That is why the United States is doing so much to support Ukraine, and it is one reason that President Biden immediately announced the strongest possible support for Israel, including conventional military support even though Israel is not facing a conventional war. 

Most important of all, Iran is another player in the situation that could easily escalate it.  The Israelis regard Iran as a mortal enemy and have been determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.  The Obama Administration's attempt to remove that threat diplomatically broke down under Donald Trump, who repudiated the agreement that John Kerry had reached with the Iranians--partly, it was clear, to secure backing from powerful American Jews like the late Sheldon Adelson.  The Biden administration seems to have abandoned its attempts to revive that agreement.  Iran also provides important support to both Hamas and Hezbollah, the other leading terrorist organization on Israel's borders, headquartered in Lebanon--which may jump into the conflict now.  (Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the first terrorist incursion over the Israel-Lebanon border.)  The United States, to my horror, has been trying to improve its relations with Saudi Arabia, which would definitely make Washington a partner in an anti-Iranian alliance in the Middle East.  There is even talk of Israel normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, which might draw it into such an alliance.  

If Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia decided to attack Iran, Russia--which has friendly relations with Iran now--might join in on Iran's side.  It would be extremely difficult for the United States to maintain its generous support for Ukraine while also fighting such a conflict ourselves.  And with the United States involved in two different conflicts already, Beijing might easily decide that the time to invade Taiwan had come.  Suddenly we would be in the midst of a third world war.

Germany in 1914 decided to back Austria to the hilt in its demands against Serbia because the German government wanted a trial of strength with France and Russia, whom they thought they could either humiliate diplomatically or defeat militarily.  The men and women in charge of US foreign policy today clearly still believe that our will should prevail anywhere on the globe, and might not be averse to military action to make that point.  President Biden might also welcome it as an attempt to unify the nation behind him as the election approaches.  I am not at all sure, however, in the current climate, whether that would work.  Such a war would test the cohesion of the United States.

The Arab-Israeli tragedy continues.  Four generations of Palestinians have now grown up under occupation, each one at least as hostile to Israel as the last.  75 years of conflict, combined with demographic changes, have made Israel a very different country than it was before 1967.  Despite its repeated failure to impose its will on the Palestinians, the Israeli government is now the verge of its most destructive effort to do so yet in Gaza.  It speaks of destroying Hamas, and Netanyahu has even advised Gazans to flee--but there are about two million of them living in the most densely populated political entity on earth, and they have nowhere to flee to.  A great power makes a mistake, in my opinion, when it ties its destiny to that of a smaller power in the midst of an endless war.  The real responsibility of great powers is to keep in mind the ultimate objective of any war--"which is to bring about peace," as Clausewitz said.  That is what Germany could and should have done in 1914, and what several American presidents tried to do in the Middle East.  It does not seem to be our policy now.

Monday, October 02, 2023

The Boomer legacy continues

 In the last two weeks I have listened to two revealing podcasts that shed some light on the state of youthful opinion.  The first, by Glenn Loury, was mainly an interview with Sabrina Salvati, a Millennial (I think) black podcaster from the left. (Glenn's wife LaJuan Loury also took part in the interview.)  The second was a remarkable two-hour conversation between Briahna Joy Gray, a lawyer and commentator who was press secretary on one of Bernie Sanders's presidential campaigns, and Norman Finkelstein, a dissident Boomer academic and the author, most recently, of I'll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It, a massive polemic against wokeness in general featuring a long chapter on Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to Be an Antiracist, whose stewardship of a new center for antiracism at Boston University is now under attack and under investigation. Finkelstein is one of the most intellectually controversial people in the United States.  Born in 1953, the child of two Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, he made his name as a critic of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and of some American Jewish supporters of Israel.  He accused Alan Dershowitz of plagiarizing parts of his book The Case for Israel from another secondary source--this controversy is discussed calmly and at great length in Finkelstein's Wikipedia entry--and Dershowitz retaliated by waging a long an successful public campaign to get DePaul University, where Finkelstein was teaching, to deny  him tenure in the 2000s.  Finkelstein now teaches part time, I believe, at community colleges--that is the impression I got from some of his remarks in the interview.

I suspect that  Salvati and Gray represent a substantial strain of Millennial left wing opinion, although I cannot be sure. Salvati has only 900 subscribers on Substack, while Gray has almost 82,000 subscribers on her youtube channel.  One striking view that they share is opposition to support for Ukraine.  Both of them, particularly Salvati, seem to view the war as just another example of American imperialism and endorse the idea that we are fighting a "proxy war" against Ukraine, and that American foreign policy is controlled by "warmongers."  Salvati insisted that the decision to give cluster munitions to the Ukrainians will in the long run do more harm than good for the Ukrainian people--ignoring that President Zelensky very much wanted those munitions, and that the Ukrainian people obviously overwhelmingly support his leadership in the war.  That was not all.  Salvati accused both  Donald Trump and Joe Biden of being Fascists, and Gray ended her interview with Finkelstein--whom she has had on her podcast before, and obviously likes personally--by saying that she would vote for Marianne Williamson in the Democratic Primary and Cornel West in the general election.  Gray also suggested the Biden appeared on the UAW picket line as part of a strategy devised by mysterious corporate powers that be to hide plans for hurting the UAW in an eventual agreement.

I have no sympathy whatever for those views about the Ukraine war, a genuine struggle for independence and territorial integrity against a lawless, imperialist Russia.  Indeed I still regret, as I said about a year and a half ago, that NATO didn't think seriously about intervening militarily in the war as soon as it became clear that Ukraine could and would defend itself. I was skeptical about our original intervention in Afghanistan in 2001--and said so in print--and I was totally opposed to invading Iraq, but this is a completely different kind of war. What struck me about Salvati's and Gray's views in general, however, was their similarity to the views of so many of my contemporaries in the 1968-70 period.  They had decided not simply that the Vietnam war was a mistake, but that it was simply one element in a completely imperialistic and wicked US foreign policy.  They had also decided that there was no difference between the two parties and had taken  no part in the 1968 election, except to disrupt the Democratic convention and some of Hubert Humphrey's rallies.  They had contributed to some extent to Richard Nixon's victory, which as it turned out meant four more years of war in Vietnam, as well as the Watergate scandal, which we could not then foresee. 

Just as Franklin Roosevelt, Harold Ickes, Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, and many other members of the post-Civil War Missionary generation bequeathed certain values to the GI generation that fought the war, Strauss and Howe in the 1990s expected Boomers to leave a new set of values to Millennials.  I'm beginning to think that that happened, but in a far more fragmented way.  Newt Gingrich and  now, Donald Trump, have inspired some Millennial right wingers, and Boomer left wingers seem to have passed their views down two generations as well.  Gray in the Finkelstein interview mentions that her grandfather was a Black Panther, as was the father of Gen Xer Ta Ne-hisi Coates.   And, of course, many Boomer and Xer academics have passed the world view of the late 1960s on to many younger students in colleges and universities. 

The Finkelstein interview was interesting from another angle.  Finkelstein devoted a long chapter in I'll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It to Ibram X. Kendi's book, Stamped from the Beginning, which purported to be a history of racism in the United States and western culture generally.  He points out, in great detail, the factual and logical weaknesses in Kendi's arguments, especially the argument that giants of the abolitionist and civil rights movements such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois were actually racists because, in his view, they looked down on black culture or wanted black people to join in white western civilization.  Finkelstein is an interesting person.  He described himself to Glenn Loury as a communist with a small c, and he is intentionally abrasive, but his conversation with Gray makes clear that he is an idealist when it comes to historical scholarship, and is therefore incensed that someone with incredibly oversimplified views of Kendi could have zoomed right to the top of the academic ladder.  (Oddly, I,  who like Finkelstein had a checkered career in academia, am not surprised by this: it happens all the time.  He has not perhaps grasped the simple truth that the true scholars among us--who include members of all races and genders--are too few to define the ethos of our profession.  The big winners in academia combine a sense of what people will like at any given moment with a talent for networking, and those appear to be Kendi's talents as well.)  Finkelstein also mentions that while he has always regarded the New York Times as a conservative, establishment paper, he felt for several decades that he could trust it to provide true information.  He no longer does, and I understand that, too.

The Ukraine issue is interesting from another perspective.  Both the extreme left and the extreme right now oppose aid to Ukraine--and the extreme right in the House of Representatives has managed to delay aid to that beleaguered nation.  This is a parallel to the early years of the Cold War, when both left-wing liberals--some of them with actual Communist associations--and extreme conservatives opposed it--the former because they were on the other side of it, the latter because they saw it as an excuse to expand federal power.  By the mid-1950s both extremes had essentially been eliminated from Congress.  The denouement of the budget crisis--which, it must be said, has only solved it for six weeks--suggests that the country might now be ruled by some kind of centrist majority.  And while I am not as far from Briahna Joy Gray as you might think with respect to the current direction of the Democratic establishment, I still think that such a centrist majority would probably be the best thing for the country at this point.  It is the only alternative either to endless division or an actual breakup of the country.  I only wish that we had a Harry Truman or a Dwight Eisenhower to lead it, but Gen X has not produced a leader like that yet.