Commentary Magazine


Topic: George F. Kennan

RE: Petraeus on Israel

Aside from the factual question of what Petraeus did and did not say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the incident has touched off a round of mild gloating among many liberals. They think that one of their cherished beliefs — that the conflict seriously undermines America’s ability to pursue its interests elsewhere in the Middle East — has been confirmed by a hero of the very people who reject this belief.

Martin Kramer has subjected this idea — often called “linkage” — to rigorous criticism, but it doesn’t tend to matter, because its popularity is grounded more in politics than in scholarship: once it can be claimed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects everything, then the conflict vastly increases in importance, and the need for intervention and an imposed “solution” becomes intense.

The linkage debate reminds me of George F. Kennan’s famous 1947 essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which began life as “The Long Telegram,” sent by Kennan when he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The State Department was interested in what today would be called an engagement policy with the Soviets, and Kennan thought this was not just foolish but also impossible. His missive argued that the United States could not have productive relations with the Soviets because of the very nature of Communism and authoritarianism. He wrote:

There is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow on the menace confronting Soviet society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home.

One of the obvious problems with linkage is that the objection of the Iranian-Syrian “resistance bloc,” not to mention large segments of Arab public opinion, is not that the Palestinians don’t have a state — it’s that the Jews do have one.

But a less obvious problem with linkage is its prediction that the resolution of Palestinian grievances will mollify the regimes that are so deeply invested in antagonizing Israel and keeping Arab publics in a state of anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) fervor.

As Kennan pointed out, such regimes must cultivate “fear societies” in order to justify their rule, deflect popular anger, and prevent the emergence of civil society (that is, sources of power outside the regime). In a region like the Middle East, which also happens to be Muslim, this means that authoritarian regimes are always going to channel rage toward the ultimate “other” — Israel — ensuring an endless list of grievances and a perpetually restive Arab street. The fact of the matter is that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic fervor are no lower in Egypt and Jordan, which both have peace treaties with Israel, than they are elsewhere in the region — fervor that is eagerly promoted by the regimes. Linkage thus will never die because antagonism toward Israel is a permanent requirement of authoritarian Arab politics.

Aside from the factual question of what Petraeus did and did not say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the incident has touched off a round of mild gloating among many liberals. They think that one of their cherished beliefs — that the conflict seriously undermines America’s ability to pursue its interests elsewhere in the Middle East — has been confirmed by a hero of the very people who reject this belief.

Martin Kramer has subjected this idea — often called “linkage” — to rigorous criticism, but it doesn’t tend to matter, because its popularity is grounded more in politics than in scholarship: once it can be claimed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects everything, then the conflict vastly increases in importance, and the need for intervention and an imposed “solution” becomes intense.

The linkage debate reminds me of George F. Kennan’s famous 1947 essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which began life as “The Long Telegram,” sent by Kennan when he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The State Department was interested in what today would be called an engagement policy with the Soviets, and Kennan thought this was not just foolish but also impossible. His missive argued that the United States could not have productive relations with the Soviets because of the very nature of Communism and authoritarianism. He wrote:

There is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow on the menace confronting Soviet society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home.

One of the obvious problems with linkage is that the objection of the Iranian-Syrian “resistance bloc,” not to mention large segments of Arab public opinion, is not that the Palestinians don’t have a state — it’s that the Jews do have one.

But a less obvious problem with linkage is its prediction that the resolution of Palestinian grievances will mollify the regimes that are so deeply invested in antagonizing Israel and keeping Arab publics in a state of anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) fervor.

As Kennan pointed out, such regimes must cultivate “fear societies” in order to justify their rule, deflect popular anger, and prevent the emergence of civil society (that is, sources of power outside the regime). In a region like the Middle East, which also happens to be Muslim, this means that authoritarian regimes are always going to channel rage toward the ultimate “other” — Israel — ensuring an endless list of grievances and a perpetually restive Arab street. The fact of the matter is that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic fervor are no lower in Egypt and Jordan, which both have peace treaties with Israel, than they are elsewhere in the region — fervor that is eagerly promoted by the regimes. Linkage thus will never die because antagonism toward Israel is a permanent requirement of authoritarian Arab politics.

Read Less

Bromide Obama’s Greatest Speech

David Brooks asserted yesterday in “Obama’s Christian Realism” that Barack Obama’s Oslo speech was “the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life.”

Since Obama’s presidency is only 11 months old, and the Obama oeuvre is not large, this is actually faint praise. We all remember the great “Let Me Be Clear” speech at AIPAC, the emphatic “I Can No More Disown” Reverend Wright speech, the humble “Citizens of the World” address in Berlin, the stately “Greek Column” oration in Denver, the compelling “Unclench Your Fist” Inaugural, and the “Just Till July 2011” clarion call at West Point. There are really only about 10 lifetime speeches to be evaluated in terms of comparative profundity.

Brooks concludes that Obama’s Oslo speech is making his “doctrine” clear: a theological commitment to combat evil while avoiding righteousness. He quotes Obama’s 2007 remark on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s impact: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

Brooks originally reported that remark in a 2007 column entitled “Obama, Gospel and Verse,” in which he questioned whether Obama had “thought through a practical foreign policy doctrine of his own – a way to apply his Niebuhrian instincts.” Back then, Brooks was not certain he had:

When you ask about ways to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, he talks grandly about marshaling a global alliance. But when you ask specifically if an Iranian bomb would be deterrable, he’s says yes: ”I think Iran is like North Korea. They see nuclear arms in defensive terms, as a way to prevent regime change.”

In other words, he has a tendency to go big and offer himself up as Bromide Obama, filled with grand but usually evasive eloquence about bringing people together and showing respect. Then, in a blink, he can go small and concrete, and sound more like a community organizer than George F. Kennan.

It’s nice that in his Oslo speech, Obama confirmed that evil “does exist in the world” and that he “cannot be guided by [Martin Luther King Jr.'s and Gandhi’s] examples alone.” It is good that he insists that Iran and North Korea not “game the system” and that sanctions must “exact a real price.”

But the real question about Obama’s “doctrine” is whether — after Iran declines to unclench its fist and sanctions fail (they have yet to succeed with Cuba or North Korea, and Saddam Hussein turned a profit from the “crippling” ones on him) — his Niebuhrian instincts call for any other option. Iran is likely to react to diplomacy in one fashion if it thinks the answer is yes, and another if it thinks the answer is no.

So far, Iran is acting as if it has read Brooks’s 2007 column and knows the answer. It appears untroubled by the most profound speech of Obama’s life.

David Brooks asserted yesterday in “Obama’s Christian Realism” that Barack Obama’s Oslo speech was “the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life.”

Since Obama’s presidency is only 11 months old, and the Obama oeuvre is not large, this is actually faint praise. We all remember the great “Let Me Be Clear” speech at AIPAC, the emphatic “I Can No More Disown” Reverend Wright speech, the humble “Citizens of the World” address in Berlin, the stately “Greek Column” oration in Denver, the compelling “Unclench Your Fist” Inaugural, and the “Just Till July 2011” clarion call at West Point. There are really only about 10 lifetime speeches to be evaluated in terms of comparative profundity.

Brooks concludes that Obama’s Oslo speech is making his “doctrine” clear: a theological commitment to combat evil while avoiding righteousness. He quotes Obama’s 2007 remark on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s impact: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

Brooks originally reported that remark in a 2007 column entitled “Obama, Gospel and Verse,” in which he questioned whether Obama had “thought through a practical foreign policy doctrine of his own – a way to apply his Niebuhrian instincts.” Back then, Brooks was not certain he had:

When you ask about ways to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, he talks grandly about marshaling a global alliance. But when you ask specifically if an Iranian bomb would be deterrable, he’s says yes: ”I think Iran is like North Korea. They see nuclear arms in defensive terms, as a way to prevent regime change.”

In other words, he has a tendency to go big and offer himself up as Bromide Obama, filled with grand but usually evasive eloquence about bringing people together and showing respect. Then, in a blink, he can go small and concrete, and sound more like a community organizer than George F. Kennan.

It’s nice that in his Oslo speech, Obama confirmed that evil “does exist in the world” and that he “cannot be guided by [Martin Luther King Jr.'s and Gandhi’s] examples alone.” It is good that he insists that Iran and North Korea not “game the system” and that sanctions must “exact a real price.”

But the real question about Obama’s “doctrine” is whether — after Iran declines to unclench its fist and sanctions fail (they have yet to succeed with Cuba or North Korea, and Saddam Hussein turned a profit from the “crippling” ones on him) — his Niebuhrian instincts call for any other option. Iran is likely to react to diplomacy in one fashion if it thinks the answer is yes, and another if it thinks the answer is no.

So far, Iran is acting as if it has read Brooks’s 2007 column and knows the answer. It appears untroubled by the most profound speech of Obama’s life.

Read Less