The Danger of Normaliut
In her groundbreaking lead article this month, which begins on page 17, Evelyn Gordon explores the catastrophic decline in Israel’s global standing despite 16 years of “taking risks for peace” (Bill Clinton’s demand of the Jewish state), which is entirely unprecedented in the annals of statecraft and diplomacy. Israel undertook these risks in large part to win the world over. Instead, its actions have generated nothing but anger, outrage, contempt, violence, and open explosions of the vilest anti-Semitism to be seen in respectable European company since the end of the Second World War.
The relative positions of Israel and the United States could not be more different, of course. Israel is tiny and isolated; the United States is gigantic and populous and still the richest and most powerful country in the world, offering a global lifeline to and gaining succor from every continent. And yet there are lessons the United States might learn from the example of the failure of Israel’s outreach and the conceptual flaw behind it.
In the wake of the 1993 Oslo accords, Israeli intellectuals began to speak favorably of normaliut, or “normalness,” as the particular gift the deal with the Palestinians would bequeath to the Jewish state. An end to Israel’s isolation would grant it full membership in bourgeois Western society. As the columnist Gidon Samet put it in 1995, “Madonna and Big Macs are only the most peripheral of examples of . . . a normaliut which means, among other things, the end of the terrible fear of everything that is foreign and strange.”
One might say that, in the wake of George W. Bush’s presidency, Barack Obama is promising his fellow citizens and the world a kind of American normaliut—only he is not promising full access to Madonna and McDonald’s but rather universal health care and European-style social democracy. To achieve this normaliut, Obama needs to preside over a less internationally active United States. “Obama’s America,” as John R. Bolton details in his splendidly pungent piece beginning on page 24, “need only be restrained, patient, and deferential.” Obama, Bolton writes, “focuses not on America’s virtues but on why it is ordinary.”
What Israel learned, to its sorrow, is that the Palestinians had no interest in helping them become ordinary. For America’s adversaries, as with Israel’s, Barack Obama’s interest in retreat does not slake their thirst for advance; rather, it makes them believe that the avoidance of confrontation on the part of the United States is an opportunity to secure the submission of others. That is what we learned, to our sorrow, in the 1970s, when an impotent America watched as the Soviet Union and its allies began to move aggressively in the Third World and revolutionary Iran kidnapped and held 52 Americans for 444 days without fearing the consequences. For those who wish power at any cost, the pursuit of normaliut on the part of its enemies engenders not good feeling but contempt.
For all those who look to the United States for leadership and as a moral beacon, American normaliut is ominous. It invokes the chaos of Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the world in which the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Thus, even in those moments when President Obama rejects the siren song of normaliut—as he has done courageously in committing to a troop surge in Afghanistan—he speaks with an uncommon lack of conviction. This will not do at a moment when an irredentist Islamofascist regime—whose apocalyptic millenarian president speaks with complete conviction about wiping the Jewish state off the map—is coming ever closer to possessing the world’s most devastating weaponry.
That once unimaginable reality will soon be upon us unless the president of the United States demonstrates passionate intensity of his own. He will need to show an intensity of a kind that may not win him the friendships he seems to think he needs, but will win him something more important—the frightened respect of those for whom the only check against genocidal barbarism is a healthy fear of the power of the United States.