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Posts For: November 25, 2012

The Middle East for Expert Dummies

Nothing seems to be able to displace Fareed Zakaria from his current perch in which he is treated as one of the country’s leading foreign policy experts. In August, he survived a brush with what should have been professional disgrace when both CNN and Time magazine reinstated him following his suspension for blatantly plagiarizing an article in The New Yorker. His employers decided the star’s misdeed was “unintentional” and an “isolated” incident. So Zakaria continues on his merry way, promoting conventional wisdom about the world and calling it insight. But his latest column for the Washington Post undermines what little is left of his credibility. In a piece titled “Israel Dominates the Middle East,” Zakaria demonstrates again that being labeled an “expert” by the mainstream media has little to do with actual expertise.

The conceit of Zakaria’s piece is that recent events demonstrate again that Israel is the superpower of the Middle East. From there he jumps to the conclusion that because Israel has a prosperous economy and is strong enough to defend itself from dangerous foes who wish to destroy it, it therefore follows that all that is necessary for there to be peace in the region is for Israel to wish for it. That such a prominent member of the foreign policy establishment should espouse such magical thinking says a lot about what passes for expertise these days. But more than that, it shows that being an expert doesn’t require one to have even given a passing glance to the events of the last 20 years in the region.

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Nothing seems to be able to displace Fareed Zakaria from his current perch in which he is treated as one of the country’s leading foreign policy experts. In August, he survived a brush with what should have been professional disgrace when both CNN and Time magazine reinstated him following his suspension for blatantly plagiarizing an article in The New Yorker. His employers decided the star’s misdeed was “unintentional” and an “isolated” incident. So Zakaria continues on his merry way, promoting conventional wisdom about the world and calling it insight. But his latest column for the Washington Post undermines what little is left of his credibility. In a piece titled “Israel Dominates the Middle East,” Zakaria demonstrates again that being labeled an “expert” by the mainstream media has little to do with actual expertise.

The conceit of Zakaria’s piece is that recent events demonstrate again that Israel is the superpower of the Middle East. From there he jumps to the conclusion that because Israel has a prosperous economy and is strong enough to defend itself from dangerous foes who wish to destroy it, it therefore follows that all that is necessary for there to be peace in the region is for Israel to wish for it. That such a prominent member of the foreign policy establishment should espouse such magical thinking says a lot about what passes for expertise these days. But more than that, it shows that being an expert doesn’t require one to have even given a passing glance to the events of the last 20 years in the region.

Zakaria is, of course, right that Israel is stronger than any of the surrounding states. Though the population of Egypt, the largest Arab state, is almost 12 times that of Israel, its military is no match for that of the Jewish state, leading even the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo to be wary of formally abrogating the peace treaty between the two nations. Israel’s economy, the product of the country’s democratic system of government, is also unmatched in the region.

That means that although enemies can terrorize its population — as Hamas did last week as it forced millions of Israelis into bomb shelters — and carry on a propaganda campaign aimed at denying its legitimacy, nothing short of an existential nuclear threat such as the one that is being built in Iran can threaten its existence. But it does not follow from there that Israel’s strength can create peace merely by the Israelis demanding it.

Zakaria writes:

Peace between the Palestinians and Israelis will come only when Israel decides that it wants to make peace. Wise Israeli politicians, from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert to Ehud Barak, have wanted to take risks to make that peace because they have worried about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. This is what is in danger, not Israel’s existence.

The problem with that formulation begins with the characterization of Sharon, Olmert and Barak as “wise.” If there is anything the average Israeli has learned again in the last week, it is that those risk-takers have undermined their country’s security, not enhanced it.

As any political observer of the country knows, the overwhelming majority of Israelis would back any plan, including more territorial withdrawals, if they thought it would end the conflict. But every such initiative, beginning with the Oslo Accords and especially the withdrawal from Gaza that facilitated a Hamas takeover and the conversion of the area into a terrorist missile launching pad, has made peace less, not more, likely.

Parties that still back more concessions to the Palestinians have little support among Israelis not because they are right-wingers but because they have observed the events of the last two decades and understandably concluded that the other side doesn’t want peace. That’s why three Israeli offers of an independent state to the Palestinians in 2000, 2001 and 2008 were not accepted.

Israelis do want a two-state solution, but Palestinians have shown time and again that they are not willing to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. The rise of Hamas and its Islamist supporters in Egypt and Turkey make this trend even more obvious. And there is nothing that Israel’s economic or military might can do to persuade them otherwise. That leaves Israel and its backers with an intractable problem that can only be managed, not solved.

But Zakaria hasn’t noticed any of it. Instead, he and other liberal “experts” continue to blame Israel for the fact that the Palestinians can’t take yes for an answer. Part of the reason for this is the delusion that someday the West will hand Israel over to them on a silver platter. Rather than writing about the need for a sea change in Palestinian political culture that will make peace possible, Zakaria blames the Israelis for paying attention to the history of the last 20 years. Too bad such a basic skill isn’t required to make a person a mainstream media foreign policy expert.

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Obama and the Morsi Dictatorship

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has had quite a week. He helped broker a cease-fire between his Hamas ally and Israel to the acclaim of the international community as well as the United States and his new friend President Obama. He followed that triumph up by issuing new decrees that effectively give him dictatorial powers over Egypt. In less than year in office, Morsi has amassed as much power as Hosni Mubarak had in his time in office as the country’s strongman and he has done it while getting closer to the United States rather than having his Islamist regime being condemned or isolated by Washington.

The full implications of Morsi’s ascendency are not yet apparent. But we can draw a few rather obvious conclusions from these events. The first is this makes the region a much more dangerous place and peace even more unlikely. the second is that the much ballyhooed Arab Spring turned out to be an Islamist triumph, not an opening for democracy. And third, and perhaps most disconcerting for Americans, it looks like the Obama administration has shown itself again to be a band of hopeless amateurs when it comes to the Middle East. While President Obama shouldn’t be blamed for toppling Mubarak, this episode is more proof of the gap between his foreign policy instincts and a rational defense of American interests.

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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has had quite a week. He helped broker a cease-fire between his Hamas ally and Israel to the acclaim of the international community as well as the United States and his new friend President Obama. He followed that triumph up by issuing new decrees that effectively give him dictatorial powers over Egypt. In less than year in office, Morsi has amassed as much power as Hosni Mubarak had in his time in office as the country’s strongman and he has done it while getting closer to the United States rather than having his Islamist regime being condemned or isolated by Washington.

The full implications of Morsi’s ascendency are not yet apparent. But we can draw a few rather obvious conclusions from these events. The first is this makes the region a much more dangerous place and peace even more unlikely. the second is that the much ballyhooed Arab Spring turned out to be an Islamist triumph, not an opening for democracy. And third, and perhaps most disconcerting for Americans, it looks like the Obama administration has shown itself again to be a band of hopeless amateurs when it comes to the Middle East. While President Obama shouldn’t be blamed for toppling Mubarak, this episode is more proof of the gap between his foreign policy instincts and a rational defense of American interests.

The first point to be made about the cheering for Morsi’s role in brokering the cease-fire is misplaced. It cannot be emphasized too much that the reason why Hamas felt so confident about picking a fight with Israel that it could not possibly win militarily is the fact that Egypt and fellow regional power Turkey were treating it as an ally rather than as terrorist regime that needed to be isolated and controlled. While Morsi has sought to exercise some influence over Gaza by keeping the border crossings to Sinai closed (more as a result of concern over the violence spilling over into Egyptian territory than a desire to restrain terrorism), the support for the legitimacy of the illegal Hamas regime on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood government has been a game changer.

More than ever before, Hamas now has the whip hand over the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority. That makes the already nearly non-existent chances of peace between Palestinians and Israelis even smaller. Though it can be argued that the ability of Hamas to preserve its rule over Gaza following the last bout of fighting with Israel in January 2009 already made it clear that it was a force to be reckoned with, the backing of Egypt and Turkey and the tacit approval of the United States in the cease-fire means there can be no doubt that Hamas truly is the face of Palestinian nationalism these days as well as the owners of an independent Palestinian state in all but name. With Cairo and Ankara backing them up and Iranian missiles in their arsenal, Hamas’s strength makes the standard liberal talking point about it being necessary for Israel to make more concessions to Fatah even more absurd than ever.

If the blockade of Gaza is now to be weakened even further to allow “construction materials” as well as the food and medicine that has never ceased flowing into the area from Israel, then it must be acknowledged that Hamas is more powerful than ever and well placed to make mischief in the region whenever it likes. Rather than applauding Morsi’s role in the cease-fire, Americans should be asking why the administration has acquiesced to having one of their nation’s primary aid recipients being an ally of Hamas. They should also be wondering about what exactly it is that passed between Obama and Morsi during their phone conversations and what promises, if any, were made by the United States about future pressure on Israel.

Morsi’s consolidation of dictatorial power also should not have taken Washington by surprise, as it seems to have done. For several months, the State Department has been acting as if it bought the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood government was basically moderate in nature and more interested in economic development than pursuing ideological goals. But Morsi’s actions, in which he has sidelined every competing power base that might have acted as a check on his ambitions, makes it apparent that his real purpose is to make his movement’s control of the country permanent. Any hope that democracy was coming to Egypt or the rest of the Arab and Muslim world was misplaced. And any idea that the United States can bribe Morsi or any other Islamist into playing ball is sheer folly.

That leads us to the final point about the administration’s utter lack of skill in dealing with the realities of the Middle East.

Even if we were to concede that the president’s motives were pure and that he wanted nothing more than to bring peace to the region and democracy to Arab nations that have never known it, virtually everything that the administration has done has made the achievement of these goals even less likely than before.

The president isn’t personally responsible for the collapse of an unsustainable Mubarak dictatorship. But he did nothing to aid the cause of the few Egyptian liberals who actually want democracy. Worse than that, he undercut the efforts of the Egyptian military to act as a brake on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of seeking to use the billions that Egypt gets from the U.S. as a lever with which he could restrain Cairo from backing Hamas and the Brotherhood from seizing more power, Washington has embraced Morsi. That emboldened Hamas and led to the recent fighting. Though the president said all the right things about backing Israel’s right to self-defense, his diplomatic maneuvering not only helped set the stage for more violence but made it more difficult for Israel to exercise that right.

A president who says he wants peace and democracy in the Middle East is now acting as if the Islamists that run Turkey and Egypt are his new best friends while continuing to treat the head of the only democracy in the region as a nuisance. In doing so, President Obama has helped make the world a lot more dangerous than it might otherwise have been.

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Kristof in the Dark

Nicholas Kristof has one of the most prestigious perches in American journalism: a regular, twice-a-week column on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Yet on Wednesday he wrote a piece that, had it been turned in to a freshman expository writing class (if such things exist anymore), it would have deserved to have been flunked cold. It would appear to have been written off the top of his head, without any fact checking that I can discern. He just dipped deeply into his prejudices and hit the keyboard.

The column is about the perceived growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, this time manifested in the fact that an increasing number of  the prosperous have stand-by generators installed at their homes in case the power fails. Given the fact that I lost power for four days in August 2011 (Hurricane Irene), six days in October 2011 (the freak 10-inch snow fall), two days in July 2012 (a bad thunderstorm) and for nine days in October-November 2012 (Hurricane Sandy), a stand-by generator sounds like a damn good idea to me. (For Hurricane Sandy, I decamped from my cold, dark, waterless house to stay at the house of friends who were traveling and have a generator).

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Nicholas Kristof has one of the most prestigious perches in American journalism: a regular, twice-a-week column on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Yet on Wednesday he wrote a piece that, had it been turned in to a freshman expository writing class (if such things exist anymore), it would have deserved to have been flunked cold. It would appear to have been written off the top of his head, without any fact checking that I can discern. He just dipped deeply into his prejudices and hit the keyboard.

The column is about the perceived growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, this time manifested in the fact that an increasing number of  the prosperous have stand-by generators installed at their homes in case the power fails. Given the fact that I lost power for four days in August 2011 (Hurricane Irene), six days in October 2011 (the freak 10-inch snow fall), two days in July 2012 (a bad thunderstorm) and for nine days in October-November 2012 (Hurricane Sandy), a stand-by generator sounds like a damn good idea to me. (For Hurricane Sandy, I decamped from my cold, dark, waterless house to stay at the house of friends who were traveling and have a generator).

Kristof attributes the spread of auxiliary generators to … tax cuts for the rich! He writes:

That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.

Has Mr. Kristof never heard of an electric bill? Public utilities such as electricity are not paid for through taxes.  The problem is not lower taxes on the rich, but the fact that burying the wires would be prohibitively expensive  in many suburban areas. In my town (admittedly borderline exurbia) there are 66 miles of roads and about 2,500 houses. According to Popular Mechanics it would cost on average $724,000 per mile to bury the lines. That comes to $47,784,000 in my small town, or $19,113.60 per household. Increase everyone’s electric bill by $100 a month (more than doubling the average bill) and it would take 15 years to pay for the buried wires (ignoring interest costs, which would be very considerable). That’s just not going to happen.

So the rich, increasingly, are installing big, propane-fueled generators to power their whole spread, while the less rich buy generators at Sears that run on gasoline. You can get one for the less-than-princely sum of $500 that will power the necessities, such as lights, water pump, and refrigerator. That’s $500, Mr. Kristof, not $19,000 dollars.

Kristof goes on to give us the usual garbage about the rich not paying their fair share and climate change, etc. Any clever 10-year-old could design software that would produce liberal boilerplate of equal quality. And he would be happy to be paid a lot less than Mr. Kristof gets per column.

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Gaza Withdrawal’s Lesson: A Caveat

Jonathan follows Bret Stephens and Max Boot in reviewing the debate over the Gaza disengagement back in 2005, when Israel withdrew civilians and military personnel from the Strip. “But unlike Bret and Max,” Jonathan writes, “I don’t feel obligated to offer any mea culpas about my position on the withdrawal.” After all, to his credit he presciently anticipated that Israel would not receive the benefits from the disengagement that its advocates predicted.

“So why didn’t those reservations compel me to take a stand against Sharon?” he continues. “It was because the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel.” This, Jonathan says, is why the “Diaspora kibitzers who are now saying, ‘I told you so,’ are still missing the key point about that debate,” since “decisions about settlements, borders, Jerusalem and the territories must be made by those elected by the Israeli people, not by American Jewish wiseacres, be they of the left- or the right-wing persuasion.” Read More

Jonathan follows Bret Stephens and Max Boot in reviewing the debate over the Gaza disengagement back in 2005, when Israel withdrew civilians and military personnel from the Strip. “But unlike Bret and Max,” Jonathan writes, “I don’t feel obligated to offer any mea culpas about my position on the withdrawal.” After all, to his credit he presciently anticipated that Israel would not receive the benefits from the disengagement that its advocates predicted.

“So why didn’t those reservations compel me to take a stand against Sharon?” he continues. “It was because the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel.” This, Jonathan says, is why the “Diaspora kibitzers who are now saying, ‘I told you so,’ are still missing the key point about that debate,” since “decisions about settlements, borders, Jerusalem and the territories must be made by those elected by the Israeli people, not by American Jewish wiseacres, be they of the left- or the right-wing persuasion.”

In so writing, Jonathan retains the position long occupied by Jewish conservatives outside of Israel, who prefer to leave Israeli policy to the Israelis and focus instead on defending the Jewish state from its indefatigable liberal critics, Jewish and gentile. This is an admirable position, but one that nonetheless may need revision and certainly deserves more debate among its adherents. That, though, is for another post.

Regarding the disengagement in particular, one might raise a caveat to Jonathan’s analysis. In a general sense, he is of course correct: “the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel.” But the disengagement was implemented by a party (Likud) which had just been elected on a platform opposing the (actually even more modest) disengagement plan of its opponent, Amram Mitzna’s Labor. Having been reelected prime minister, Likud’s leader, Ariel Sharon, apparently changed his mind and took his own more ambitious disengagement plan to his party for ratification. He lost, leaving him and several defectors from both the Likud and Labor to form a new party, Kadima, instead, in order to pursue the policy.

Now, this was of course entirely legal and simply the outcome of political maneuvering within an unimpeachably democratic system (even though conceptually it is a little bizarre that members of a party who are elected not as individual representatives but specifically as members of that party’s list can nonetheless secede from that party during a parliamentary term–and even more so the prime minister). However, given Sharon’s history as a longstanding advocate of the Israeli presence in the territories, it is not incomparable to, say, a President Rick Santorum reversing himself upon assuming office and signing gay marriage into law.

To call the disengagement democratic, therefore, is certainly not inaccurate, and Jonathan is by no means wrong to do so. And yet it still misses part of what so angered its opponents at the time and since.

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