As if this were not bad enough, in the current year the United States has suffered two other major blows–in Iran and Nicaragua–of large and strategic significance. In each country, the Carter administration not only failed to prevent the undesired outcome, it actively collaborated in the replacement of moderate autocrats friendly to American interests with less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasion. It is too soon to be certain about what kind of regime will ultimately emerge in either Iran or Nicaragua, but accumulating evidence suggests that things are as likely to get worse as to get better in both countries. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua appear to be as skillful in consolidating power as the Ayatollah Khomeini is inept, and leaders of both revolutions display an intolerance and arrogance that do not bode well for the peaceful sharing of power or the establishment of constitutional governments, especially since those leaders have made clear that they have no intention of seeking either.
It is at least possible that the SALT debate may stimulate new scrutiny of the nation’s strategic position and defense policy, but there are no signs that anyone is giving serious attention to this nation’s role in Iranian and Nicaraguan developments–despite clear warnings that the U.S. is confronted with similar situations and options in El Salvador, Guatemala, Morocco, Zaire, and elsewhere. Yet no problem of American foreign policy is more urgent than that of formulating a morally and strategically acceptable, and politically realistic, program for dealing with non-democratic governments who are threatened by Soviet-sponsored subversion. In the absence of such a policy, we can expect that the same reflexes that guided Washington in Iran and Nicaragua will be permitted to determine American actions from Korea to Mexico–with the same disastrous effects on the U.S. strategic position. (That the administration has not called its policies in Iran and Nicaragua a failure–and probably does not consider them such–complicates the problem without changing its nature.)
There were, of course, significant differences in the relations between the United States and each of these countries during the past two or three decades. Oil, size, and proximity to the Soviet Union gave Iran greater economic and strategic import than any Central American “republic,” and closer relations were cultivated with the Shah, his counselors, and family than with President Somoza, his advisers, and family. Relations with the Shah were probably also enhanced by our approval of his manifest determination to modernize Iran regardless of the effects of modernization on traditional social and cultural patterns (including those which enhanced his own authority and legitimacy). And, of course, the Shah was much better looking and altogether more dashing than Somoza; his private life was much more romantic, more interesting to the media, popular and otherwise. Therefore, more Americans were more aware of the Shah than of the equally tenacious Somoza.
But even though Iran was rich, blessed with a product the U.S. and its allies needed badly, and led by a handsome king, while Nicaragua was poor and rocked along under a long-tenure president of less striking aspect, there were many similarities between the two countries and our relations with them. Both these small nations were led by men who had not been selected by free elections, who recognized no duty to submit them selves to searching tests of popular acceptability. Both did tolerate limited apposition, including opposition newspapers and political parties, but both were also confronted by radical, violent opponents bent on social and political revolution. Both rulers, therefore, sometimes invoked martial law to arrest, imprison, exile, and occasionally, it was alleged, torture their opponents. Both relied for public order on police forces whose personnel were said to be too harsh, too arbitrary, and too powerful. Each had what the American press termed “private armies,” which is to say, armies pledging their allegiance to the ruler rather than the “constitution” or the “nation” or some other impersonal entity.
In short, both Somoza and the Shah were, in central ways, traditional rulers of semi-traditional societies. Although the Shah very badly wanted to create a technologically modern and powerful nation and Somoza tried hard to introduce mod- ern agricultural methods, neither sought to reform his society in the light of any abstract idea of social justice or political virtue. Neither attempted to alter significantly the distribution of goods, status, or power (though the democratization of education and skills that accompanied modernization in Iran did result in some redistribution of money and power there).
Both Somoza and the Shah enjoyed long tenure, large personal fortunes (much of which were no doubt appropriated from general revenues), and good relations with the United States. The Shah and Somoza were not only anti-Communist, they were positively friendly to the U.S., sending their sons and others to be educated in our universities, voting with us in the United Nations, and regularly supporting American interests and positions even when these entailed personal and political cost. The embassies of both governments were active in Washington social life, and were frequented by powerful Americans who occupied major roles in this nation’s diplomatic, military, and political life. And the Shah and Somoza themselves were both welcome in Washington, and had many American friends.
But once an attack was launched by opponents bent on destruction, everything changed. The rise of serious, violent opposition in Iran and Nicaragua set in motion a succession of events which bore a suggestive resemblance to one another and a suggestive similarity to our behavior in China before the fall of Chiang Kaishek, in Cuba before the triumph of Castro, in certain crucial periods of the Vietnamese war, and, more recently, in Angola. In each of these countries, the American effort to impose liberalization and democratization on a government confronted with violent internal opposition not only failed, but actually assisted the coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal security than under the previous autocracy–regimes, moreover, hostile to American interests and policies.
The pattern is familiar enough: an established autocracy with a record of friendship with the U.S. is attacked by insurgents, some of whose leaders have long ties to the Communist movement, and most of whose arms are of Soviet, Chinese, or Czechoslovak origin. The “Marxist” presence is ignored and/or minimized by American officials and by the elite media on the ground that U.S. sup- port for the dictator gives the rebels little choice but to seek aid “elsewhere.” Violence spreads and American officials wonder aloud about the viability of a regime that “lacks the support of its own people.” The absence of an opposition party is deplored and civil-rights violations are reviewed. Liberal columnists question the morality of continuing aid to a “rightist dictatorship” and provide assurances concerning the essential moderation of some insurgent leaders who “hope” for some sign that the U.S. will remember its own revolutionary origins. Requests for help from the beleaguered autocrat go unheeded, and the argument is increasingly voiced that ties should be established with rebel leaders “before it is too late.” The President, delaying U.S. aid, appoints a special emissary who confirms the deterioration of the government position and its diminished capacity to control the situation and recommends various measures for “strengthening” and “liberalizing” the regime, all of which involve diluting its power.
The emissary’s recommendations are presented in the context of a growing clamor for American disengagement on grounds that continued involvement confirms our status as an agent of imperialism, racism, and reaction; is inconsistent with support for human rights; alienates us from the “forces of democracy”; and threatens to put the U.S. once more on the side of history’s “losers.” This chorus is supplemented daily by interviews with returning missionaries and “reasonable” rebels.
As the situation worsens, the President assures the world that the U.S. desires only that the “people choose their own form of government”; he blocks delivery of all arms to the government and undertakes negotiations to establish a “broadly based” coalition headed by a “moderate” critic of the regime who, once elevated, will move quickly to seek a “political” settlement to the conflict. Should the incumbent autocrat prove resistant to American demands that he step aside, he will be readily overwhelmed by the military strength of his opponents, whose patrons will have continued to provide sophisticated arms and advisers at the same time the U.S. cuts off military sales. Should the incumbent be so demoralized as to agree to yield power, he will be replaced by a “moderate” of American selection. Only after the insurgents have refused the proffered political solution and anarchy has spread throughout the nation will it be noticed that the new head of government has no significant following, no experience at governing, and no talent for leadership. By then, military commanders, no longer bound by loyalty to the chief of state, will depose the faltering “moderate” in favor of a fanatic of their own choosing.
In either case, the U.S. will have been led by its own misunderstanding of the situation to assist actively in deposing an erstwhile friend and ally and installing a government hostile to American interests and policies in the world. At best we will have lost access to friendly territory. At worst the Soviets will have gained a new base. And everywhere our friends will have noted that the U.S. cannot be counted on in times of difficulty and our enemies will have observed that American support provides no security against the forward march of history.
Events in Nicaragua also departed from the scenario presented above both because the Cuban and Soviet roles were clearer and because U.S. officials were more intensely and publicly working against Somoza. After the Somoza regime had defeated the first wave of Sandinista violence, the U.S. ceased aid, imposed sanctions, and took other steps which undermined the status and the credibility of the government in domestic and foreign affairs. Between the murder of ABC correspondent Bill Stewart by a National Guardsman in early June and the Sandinista victory in late July, the U.S. State Department assigned a new ambassador who refused to submit his credentials to Somoza even though Somoza was still chief of state, and called for replacing the government with a “broadly based provisional government that would include representatives of Sandinista guerillas.” Americans were assured by Assistant Secretary of State Viron Vaky that “Nicaraguans and our democratic friends in Latin America have no intention of seeing Nicaragua turned into a second Cuba,” even though the State Department knew that the top Sandinista leaders had close personal ties and were in continuing contact with Havana, and, more specifically, that a Cuban secret-police official, Julian Lopez, was frequently present in the Sandinista headquarters and that Cuban military advisers were present in Sandinista ranks.
In a manner uncharacteristic of the Carter administration, which generally seems willing to negotiate anything with anyone anywhere, the U.S. government adopted an oddly uncompromising posture in dealing with Somoza. “No end to the crisis is possible,” said Vaky, “that does not start with the departure of Somoza from power and the end of his regime. No negotiation, mediation, or compromise can be achieved any longer with a Somoza government. The solution can only begin with a sharp break from the past.” Trying hard, we not only banned all American arms sales to the government of Nicaragua but pressured Israel, Guatemala, and others to do likewise–all in the name of insuring a “democratic” outcome. Finally, as the Sandinista leaders consolidated control over weapons and communications, banned opposition, and took off for Cuba, President Carter warned us against attributing this “evolutionary change” to “Cuban machinations” and assured the world that the U.S. desired only to “let the people of Nicaragua choose their own form of government.”
Yet despite all the variations, the Carter administration brought to the crises in Iran and Nicaragua several common assumptions each of which played a major role in hastening the victory of even more repressive dictatorships than had been in place before. These were, first, the belief that there existed at the moment of crisis a democratic alternative to the incumbent government: second, the belief that the continuation of the status quo was not possible; third, the belief that any change, including the establishment of a government headed by self-styled Marxist revolutionaries, was preferable to the present government. Each of these beliefs was (and is) widely shared in the liberal community generally. Not one of them can withstand close scrutiny.
Two or three decades ago, when Marxism enjoyed its greatest prestige among American intellectuals, it was the economic prerequisites of democracy that were emphasized by social scientists. Democracy, they argued, could function only in relatively rich societies with an advanced economy, a substantial middle class, and a literate population, but it could be expected to emerge more or less automatically whenever these conditions prevailed. Today, this picture seems grossly over-simplified. While it surely helps to have an economy strong enough to provide decent levels of well-being for all, and “open” enough to provide mobility and encourage achievement, a pluralistic society and the right kind of political culture–and time–are even more essential.
In his essay on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill identified three fundamental conditions which the Carter administration would do well to ponder. These are: “One, that the people should be willing to receive it [representative government]; two, that they should be willing and able to do what is necessary for its preservation; three, that they should be willing and able to fulfill the duties and discharge the functions which it imposes on them.”
Fulfilling the duties and discharging the functions of representative government make heavy demands on leaders and citizens, demands for participation and restraint, for consensus and compromise. It is not necessary for all citizens to be avidly interested in politics or well-informed about public affairs–although far more widespread interest and mobilization are needed than in autocracies. What is necessary is that a substantial number of citizens think of themselves as participants in society’s decision-making and not simply as subjects bound by its laws. Moreover, leaders of all major sectors of the society must agree to pursue power only by legal means, must eschew (at least in principle) violence, theft, and fraud, and must accept defeat when necessary. They must also be skilled at finding and creating common ground among diverse points of view and interests, and correlatively willing to compromise on all but the most basic values.
In addition to an appropriate political culture, democratic government requires institutions strong enough to channel and contain conflict. Voluntary, non-official institutions are needed to articulate and aggregate diverse interests and opinions present in the society. Otherwise, the formal governmental institutions will not be able to translate popular demands into public policy.
In the relatively few places where they exist, democratic governments have come into being slowly, after extended prior experience with more limited forms of participation during which leaders have reluctantly grown accustomed to tolerating dissent and opposition, opponents have accepted the notion that they may defeat but not destroy incumbents, and people have become aware of government’s effects on their lives and of their own possible effects on government. Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits. In Britain, the road from the Magna Carta to the Act of Settlement, to the great Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1885, took seven centuries to traverse. American history gives no better grounds for believing that democracy comes easily, quickly, or for the asking. A war of independence, an unsuccessful constitution, a civil war, a long process of gradual enfranchisement marked our progress toward constitutional democratic government. The French path was still more difficult. Terror, dictatorship, monarchy, instability, and incompetence followed on the revolution that was to usher in a millennium of brotherhood. Only in the 20th century did the democratic principle finally gain wide acceptance in France and not until after World War II were the principles of order and democracy, popular sovereignty and authority, finally reconciled in institutions strong enough to contain conflicting currents of public opinion.
Although there is no instance of a revolutionary “socialist” or Communist society being democratized, right-wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies–given time, propitious economic, social, and political circumstances, talented leaders, and a strong indigenous demand for representative government. Something of the kind is in progress on the Iberian peninsula and the first steps have been taken in Brazil. Something similar could conceivably have also occurred in Iran and Nicaragua if contestation and participation had been more gradually expanded.
But it seems clear that the architects of contemporary American foreign policy have little idea of how to go about encouraging the liberalization of an autocracy. In neither Nicaragua nor Iran did they realize that the only likely result of an effort to replace an incumbent autocrat with one of his moderate critics or a “broad-based coalition” would be to sap the foundations of the existing regime without moving the nation any closer to democracy. Yet this outcome was entirely predictable. Authority in traditional autocracies is transmitted through personal relations: from the ruler to his close associates (relatives, household members, personal friends) and from them to people to whom the associates are related by personal ties resembling their own relation to the ruler. The fabric off authority unravels quickly when the power and status of the man at the top are undermined or eliminated. The longer the autocrat has held power, and the more pervasive his personal influence, the more dependent a nation’s institutions will be on him. Without him, the organized life of the society will collapse, like an arch from which the keystone has been removed. The blend of qualities that bound the Iranian army to the Shah or the national guard to Somoza is typical of the relationships-personal, hierarchical, non-transferable–that, support a traditional autocracy. The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policymakers and journalists accustomed to public institutions based on universalistic norms rather than particularistic relations.
Confusion concerning the character of the opposition, especially its intransigence and will to power, leads regularly to downplaying the amount of force required to counteract its violence. In neither Iran nor Nicaragua did the U.S. adequately appreciate the government’s problem in maintaining order in a society confronted with an ideologically extreme opposition. Yet the presence of such groups was well known. The State Department’s 1977 report on human rights described an Iran confronted
with a small number of extreme rightist and leftist terrorists operating within the country. There is evidence that they have received substantial foreign support and training … [and] have been responsible for the murder of Iranian government officials and Americans….
The same report characterized Somoza’s opponents in the following terms:
A guerrilla organization known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) seeks the violent overthrow of the government, and has received limited support from Cuba. The FSLN carried out an operation in Managua in December 1974, killing four people, taking several officials hostage … since then, it continues to challenge civil authority in certain isolated regions.
In 1978, the State Department’s report said that Sandinista violence was continuing–after the state of siege had been lifted by the Somoza government.
When U.S. policymakers and large portions of the liberal press interpret insurgency as evidence of widespread popular discontent and a will to democracy, the scene is set for disaster. For if civil strife reflects a popular demand for democracy, it follows that a “liberalized” government will be more acceptable to “public opinion.”
Thus, in the hope of strengthening a government, U.S. policymakers are led, mistake after mistake, to impose measures almost certain to weaken its authority. Hurried efforts to force complex and unfamiliar political practices on societies lacking the requisite political culture, tradition, and social structures not only fail to produce desired outcomes; if they are undertaken at a time when the traditional regime is under attack, they actually facilitate the job of the insurgents.
Vietnam presumably taught us that the United States could not serve as the world’s policeman; it should also have taught us the dangers of trying to be the world’s midwife to democracy when the birth is scheduled to take place under conditions of guerrilla war.
At the time the Carter administration came into office it was widely reported that the President had assembled a team who shared a new approach to foreign policy and a new conception of the national interest. The principal elements of this new approach were said to be two: the conviction that the cold war was over, and the conviction that, this being the case, the U.S. should give priority to North-South problems and help less developed nations achieve their own destiny.
More is involved in these changes than originally meets the eye. For, unlikely as it may seem, the foreign policy of the Carter administration is guided by a relatively full-blown philosophy of history which includes, as philosophies of history always do, a theory of social change, or, as it is currently called, a doctrine of modernization. Like most other philosophies of history that have appeared in the West since the 18th century, the Carter administration’s doctrine predicts progress (in the form of modernization for all societies) and a happy ending (in the form of a world community of developed, autonomous nations).
The administration’s approach to foreign affairs was clearly foreshadowed in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1970 book on the U.S. role in the “technetronic era,” Between Two Ages. In that book, Brzezinski showed that he had the imagination to look beyond the cold war to a brave new world of global politics and interdependence. To deal with that new world a new approach was said to be “evolving,” which Brzezinski designated “rational humanism.” In the new approach, the “preoccupation” with “national supremacy” would give way to “global” perspectives, and international problems would be viewed as “human issues” rather than as “political confrontations.” The traditional intellectual framework for dealing with foreign policy would have to be scrapped:
Today, the old framework of international politics … with their spheres of influence, military alliances between nation states, the fiction of sovereignty, doctrinal conflicts arising from 19th-century crisis–is clearly no longer compatible with reality.
Only the “delayed development” of the Soviet Union, “an archaic religious community that experiences modernity existentially but not quite yet normatively,” prevented wider realization of the fact that the end of ideology was already here. For the U.S., Brzezinski recommended “a great deal of patience,” a more detached attitude toward world revolutionary processes, and a less anxious preoccupation with the Soviet Union. Instead of en- gaging in ancient diplomatic pastimes, we should make “a broader effort to contain the global tendencies toward chaos,” while assisting the processes of change that will move the world toward the “community of developed nations.”
The central concern of Brzezinski’s book, as of the Carter administration’s foreign policy, is with the modernization of the Third World. From the beginning, the administration has manifested a special, intense interest in the problems of the so-called Third World. But instead of viewing international developments in terms of the American national interest, as national interest is historically conceived, the architects of administration policy have viewed them in terms of a contemporary version of the same idea of progress that has traumatized Western imaginations since the Enlightenment.
In its current form, the concept of modernization involves more than industrialization, more than “political development” (whatever that is). It is used instead to designate “. . . the process through which a traditional or pre-technological society passes as it is transformed into a society characterized by machine technology, rational and secular attitudes, and highly differentiated social structures.” Condorcet, Comte, Hegel, Marx, and Weber are all present in this view of history as the working out of the idea of modernity.
The crucial elements of the modernization concept have been clearly explicated by Samuel P. Huntington (who, despite a period at the National Security Council, was assuredly not the architect of the administration’s policy). The modernization paradigm, Huntington has observed, postulates an ongoing process of change: complex, because it involves all dimensions of human life in society; systemic, because its elements interact in predictable, necessary ways; global, because all societies will, necessarily, pass through the transition from traditional to modern; lengthy, because time is required to modernize economic and social organization, character, and culture; phased, because each modernizing society must pass through essentially the same stages; homogenizing, because it tends toward the convergence and interdependence of societies; irreversible, because the direction of change is “given” in the relation of the elements of the process; progressive, in the sense that it is desirable, and in the long run provides significant benefits to the affiliated people.
This perspective on contemporary events is optimistic in the sense that it foresees continuing human progress; deterministic in the sense that it perceives events as fixed by processes over which persons and policies can have but little influence; moralistic in the sense that it perceives history and U.S. policy as having moral ends; cosmopolitan in the sense that it attempts to view the world not from the perspective of American interests or intentions but from the perspective of the modernizing nation with both revolution and morality, and U.S. policy with all three.
The idea that it is “forces” rather than people which shape events recurs each time an administration spokesman articulates or explains policy. The President, for example, assured us in February of this year;
The revolution in Iran is a product of deep social, political, religious, and economic factors growing out of the history of Iran itself.
And of Asia he said:
At this moment there is turmoil or change in various countries from one end of the Indian Ocean to the other; some turmoil as in Indo- china is the product of age-old enmities, inflamed by rivalries for influence by conflicting forces. Stability in some other countries is being shaken by the process of modernization, the search for national significance, or the desire to fulfill legitimate human hopes and human aspirations.
Harold Saunders, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, commenting on “instability” in Iran and the Horn of Africa, states:
We, of course, recognize that fundamental changes are taking place across this area of western Asia and northeastern Africa-economic modernization, social change, a revival of religion, resurgent nationalism, demands for broader popular participation in the political process. These changes are generated by forces within each country.
Or here is Anthony Lake, chief of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, on South Africa:
Change will come in South Africa. The welfare of the people there, and American interests, will be profoundly affected by the way in which it comes. The question is whether it will be peaceful or not.
Brzezinski makes the point still clearer. Speaking as chief of the National Security Council, he has assured us that the struggles for power in Asia and Africa are really only incidents along the route to modernization:
… all the developing countries in the arc from northeast Asia to southern Africa continue to search for viable forms of government capable of managing the process of modernization.
No matter that the invasions, coups, civil wars, and political struggles of less violent kinds that one sees all around do not seem to be incidents in a global personnel search for someone to manage the modernization process. Neither Brzezinski nor anyone else seems bothered by the fact that the political participants in that arc from northeast Asia to southern Africa do not know that they are “searching for viable forms of government capable of managing the process of modernization.” The motives and intentions of real persons are no more relevant to the modernization paradigm than they are to the Marxist view of history. Viewed from this level of abstraction, it is the “forces” rather than the people that count.
So what if the “deep historical forces” at work in such diverse places as Iran, the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America, and the United Nations look a lot like Russians or Cubans? Having moved past what the President calls our “inordinate fear of Communism,” identified by him with the Cold War, we should, we are told, now be capable of distinguishing Soviet and Cuban “machinations,” which anyway exist mainly in the minds of cold warriors and others guilty of oversimplifying the world, from evolutionary changes, which seem to be the only kind that actually occur.
What can a U.S. President faced with such complicated, inexorable, impersonal processes do? The answer, offered again and again by the President and his top officials, is, not much. Since events are not caused by human decisions, they cannot be stopped or altered by them. Brzezinski, for example, has said: “We recognize that the world is changing under the influence of forces no government can control….” And Cyrus Vance has cautioned: “The fact is that we can no more stop change than Canute could still the waters.”
Those who argue that the U.S. should or could intervene directly to thwart [the revolution in Iran] are wrong about the realities of Iran…. We have encouraged to the limited extent of our own ability the public support for the Bakhtiar government…. How long [the Shah] will be out of Iran, we have no way to determine. Future events and his own desires will determine that…. It is impossible for anyone to anticipate all future political events. . . . Even if we had been able to anticipate events that were going to take place in Iran or in other countries, obviously our ability to determine those events is very limited [emphasis added].
Vance made the same point:
In Iran our policy throughout the current crisis has been based on the fact that only Iranians can resolve the fundamental political issues which they now confront.
Where once upon a time an American President might have sent Marines to assure the protection of American strategic interests, there is no room for force in this world of progress and self-determination. Force, the President told us at Notre Dame, does not work; that is the lesson he extracted from Vietnam. It offers only “superficial” solutions. Concerning Iran, he said:
Certainly we have no desire or ability to intrude massive forces into Iran or any other country to determine the outcome of domestic political issues. This is something that we have no intention of ever doing in another country. We’ve tried this once in Vietnam. It didn’t work, as you well know.
There was nothing unique about Iran. In Nicaragua, the climate and language were different but the “historical forces” and the U.S. response were the same. Military intervention was out of the question. Assistant Secretary of State Viron Vaky described as “unthinkable” the “use of U.S. military power to intervene in the internal affairs of another American republic.” Vance provided parallel assurances for Africa, asserting that we would not try to match Cuban and Soviet activities there.
But there is a problem. The conceivable contexts turn out to be mainly those in which non-Communist autocracies are under pressure from revolutionary guerrillas. Since Moscow is the aggressive, expansionist power today, it is more often than not insurgents, encouraged and armed by the Soviet Union, who challenge the status quo. The American commitment to “change” in the abstract ends up by aligning us tacitly with Soviet clients and irresponsible extremists like the Ayatollah Khomeini or, in the end, Yasir Arafat.
So far, assisting “change” has not led the Carter administration to undertake the destabilization of a Communist country. The principles of self-determination and nonintervention are thus both selectively applied. We seem to accept the status quo in Communist nations (in the name of ‘diversity” and national autonomy), but not in nations ruled by “right-wing” dictators or white oligarchies. Concerning China, for example, Brzezinski has observed: “We recognize that the PRC and we have different ideologies and economic and political systems. . . . We harbor neither the hope nor the desire that through extensive contacts with China we can remake that nation into the American image. Indeed, we accept our differences.” Of Southeast Asia, the President noted in February:
Our interest is to promote peace and the withdrawal of outside forces and not to become embroiled in the conflict among Asian nations. And, in general, our interest is to promote the health and the development of individual societies, not to a pattern cut exactly like ours in the United States but tailored rather to the hopes and the needs and desires of the peoples involved.
But the administration’s position shifts sharply when South Africa is discussed. For example, Anthony Lake asserted in late 1978:
… We have indicated to South Africa the fact that if it does not make significant progress toward racial equality, its relations with the international community, including the United States, are bound to deteriorate.
Over the years, we have tried through a series of progressive steps to demonstrate that the U.S. cannot and will not be associated with the continued practice of apartheid.
As to Nicaragua, Hodding Carter III said in February 1979:
The unwillingness of the Nicaraguan government to accept the [OAS] group’s proposal, the resulting prospects for renewal and polarization, and the human-rights situation in Nicaragua … unavoidably affect the kind of relationships we can maintain with that government….
And Carter commented on Latin American autocracies:
My government will not be deterred from protecting human rights, including economic and social rights, in whatever ways we can. We prefer to take actions that are positive, but where nations persist in serious violations of human rights, we will continue to demonstrate that there are costs to the flagrant disregard of international standards.
Inconsistencies are a familiar part of politics in most societies. Usually, however, governments behave hypocritically when their principles conflict with the national interest. What makes the inconsistencies of the Carter administration noteworthy are, first, the administration’s moralism, which renders it especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy; and, second, the administration’s predilection for policies that violate the strategic and economic interests of the United States. The administration’s conception of national interest borders on doublethink: it finds friendly powers to be guilty representatives of the status quo and views the triumph of unfriendly groups as beneficial to America’s “true interests.”
This logic is quite obviously reinforced by the prejudices and preferences of many administration officials. Traditional autocracies are, in general and in their very nature, deeply offensive to modern American sensibilities. The notion that public affairs should be ordered on the basis of kinship, friendship, and other personal relations rather than on the basis of objective “rational” standards violates our conception of justice and efficiency. The preference for stability rather than change is also disturbing to Americans whose whole national experience rests on the principles of change, growth, and progress. The extremes of wealth and poverty characteristic of traditional societies also offend us, the more so since the poor are usually very poor and bound to their squalor by a hereditary allocation of role. Moreover, the relative lack of concern of rich, comfortable rulers for the poverty, ignorance, and disease of “their” people is likely to be interpreted by Americans as moral dereliction pure and simple. The truth is that Americans can hardly bear such societies and such rulers. Confronted with them, our vaunted cultural relativism evaporates and we become as censorious as Cotton Mather confronting sin in New England.
But if the politics of traditional and semi-traditional autocracy is nearly antithetical to our own–at both the symbolic and the operational level–the rhetoric of progressive revolutionaries sounds much better to us; their symbols are much more acceptable. One reason that some modern Americans prefer “socialist” to traditional autocracies is that the former have embraced modernity and have adopted modern modes and perspectives, including an instrumental, manipulative, functional orientation toward most social, cultural, and personal affairs; a profession of universalistic norms; an emphasis on reason, science, education, and progress; a deemphasis of the sacred; and “rational,” bureaucratic organizations. They speak our language.
Because socialism of the Soviet/Chinese/Cuban variety is an ideology rooted in a version of the same values that sparked the Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions of the 18th century; because it is modern and not traditional; because it postulates goals that appeal to Christian as well as to secular values (brotherhood of man, elimination of power as a mode of human relations), it is highly congenial to many Americans at the symbolic level. Marxist revolutionaries speak the language of a hopeful future while traditional autocrats speak the language of an unattractive past. Because left-wing revolutionaries invoke the symbols and values of democracy–emphasizing egalitarianism rather than hierarchy and privilege, liberty rather than order, activity rather than passivity–they are again and again accepted as partisans in the cause of freedom and democracy.
Where concern about “socialist encirclement,” Soviet expansion, and traditional conceptions of the national interest inoculated his predecessors against such easy equations, Carter’s doctrine of national interest and modernization encourages support for all change that takes place in the name of “the people,” regardless of its “superficial” Marxist or anti-American content. Any lingering doubt about whether the U.S. should, in case of conflict, support a “tested friend” such as the Shah or a friendly power such as Zimbabwe Rhodesia against an opponent who despises us is resolved by reference to our “true,” our “long-range” interests.
Stephen Rosenfeld of the Washington Post described the commitment of the Carter administration to this sort of “progressive liberalism”:
The Carter administration came to power, after all, committed precisely to reducing the centrality of strategic competition with Moscow in American foreign policy, and to extending the United States’ association with what it was prepared to accept as legitimate wave-of-the-future popular movements around the world-first of all with the victorious movement in Vietnam.… Indochina was supposed to be the state on which Americans could demonstrate their “post-Vietnam” intent to come to terms with the progressive popular element that Kissinger, the villain, had denied.
In other words, the Carter administration, Rosenfeld tells us, came to power resolved not to assess international developments in the light of “cold-war” perspectives but to accept at face value the claim of revolutionary groups to represent “popular” aspirations and “progressive” forces–regardless of the ties of these revolutionaries to the Soviet Union. To this end, overtures were made looking to the “normalization” of relations with Vietnam, Cuba, and the Chinese People’s Republic, and steps were taken to cool relations with South Korea, South Africa, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and others. These moves followed naturally from the conviction that the U.S. had, as our enemies said, been on the wrong side of history in supporting the status quo and opposing revolution.
In this adminstration’s time, Vietnam has been transformed for much of American public opinion, from a country wronged by the U.S. to one revealing a brutal essence of its own.This has been a quiet but major trauma to the Carter people (as to all liberals) scarring their self-confidence and their claim on public trust alike.
Presumably, however, the barbarity of the “progressive” governments in Cambodia and Vietnam has been less traumatic for the President and his chief advisers than for Rosenfeld, since there is little evidence of changed predispositions at crucial levels of the White House and the State Department. The President continues to behave as before–not like a man who abhors autocrats but like one who abhors only right-wing autocrats.
In fact, high officials in the Carter administration understand better than they seem to the aggressive, expansionist character of contemporary Soviet behavior in Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Central America, and the Caribbean. But although the Soviet/Cuban role in Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador (plus the transfer of MIG-23’s to Cuba) had already prompted resumption of surveillance of Cuba (which in turn confirmed the presence of a Soviet combat brigade), the President’s eagerness not to “heat up” the climate of public opinion remains stronger than his commitment to speak the truth to the American people. His statement on Nicaragua clearly reflects these priorities:
It’s a mistake for Americans to assume or to claim that every time an evolutionary change takes place in this hemisphere that somehow it’s a result of secret, massive Cuban intervention. The fact in Nicaragua is that the Somoza regime lost the confidence of the people. To bring about an orderly transition there, our effort was to let the people of Nicaragua ultimately make the decision on who would be their leader–what form of government they should have.
This statement, which presumably represents the President’s best thinking on the matter, is illuminating. Carter’s effort to dismiss concern about military events in this specific country as a manifestation of a national proclivity for seeing “Cuban machinations” under every bed constitutes a shocking effort to falsify reality. There was no question in Nicaragua of “evolutionary change” or of attributing such change to Castro’s agents. There was only a question about the appropriate U.S. response to a military struggle in a country whose location gives it strategic importance out of proportion to its size or strength.
But that is not all. The rest of the President’s statement graphically illustrates the blinding power of ideology on his interpretation of events. When he says that “the Somoza regime, lost the confidence of the people,” the President implies that the regime had previously rested on the confidence of “the people,” but that the situation had now changed. In fact, the Somoza regime had never rested on popular will (but instead on manipulation, force, and habit), and was not being ousted by it. It was instead succumbing to arms and soldiers. However, the assumption that the armed conflict of Sandinistas and Somozistas was the military equivalent of a national referendum enabled the President to imagine that it could be, and should be, settled by the people of Nicaragua. For this pious sentiment even to seem true the President would have had to be unaware that insurgents were receiving a great many arms from other non-Nicaraguans; and that the U.S. had played a significant role in disarming the Somoza regime.
The President’s mistakes and distortions are all fashionable ones. His assumptions are those of people who want badly to be on the progressive side in conflicts between “rightist” autocracy and “leftist” challenges, and to prefer the latter, almost regardless of the probable consequences.
To be sure, neither the President, nor Vance, nor Brzezinski desires the proliferation of Soviet-supported regimes. Each has asserted his disapproval of Soviet “interference” in the modernization process. But each, nevertheless, remains willing to “destabilize” friendly or neutral autocracies without any assurance that they will not be replaced by reactionary totalitarian theocracies, totalitarian Soviet client states, or worst of all, by murderous fanatics of the Pol Pot variety.
The foreign policy of the Carter administration fails not for lack of good intentions but for lack of realism about the nature of traditional versus revolutionary autocracies and the relation of each to the American national interest. Only intellectual fashion and the tyranny of Right/Left thinking prevent intelligent men of good will from perceiving the facts that traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies, that they are more susceptible of liberalization, and that they are more compatible with U.S. interests. The evidence on all these points is clear enough.
From time to time a truly bestial ruler can come to power in either type of autocracy–Idi Amin, Papa Doc Duvalier, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot are examples–but neither type regularly produces such moral monsters (though democracy regularly prevents their accession to power). There are, however, systemic differences between traditional and revolutionary autocracies that have a predictable effect on their degree of repressiveness. Generally speaking, traditional autocrats tolerate social inequities, brutality, and poverty while revolutionary autocracies create them.
Traditional autocrats leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other re- sources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.
Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes. They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will “fit” better in a foreign country than in their native land.
The former deputy chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly from 1976 to his defection early in August 1979, Hoang Van Hoan, described recently the impact of Vietnam’s ongoing revolution on that country’s more than one million Chinese inhabitants:
They have been expelled from places they have lived in for generations. They have been dispossessed of virtually all possessions–their lands, their houses. They have been driven into areas called new economic zones, but they have not been given any aid. How can they eke out a living in such conditions reclaiming new land? They gradually die for a number of reasons–diseases, the hard life. They also die of humiliation.
It is not only the Chinese who have suffered in Southeast Asia since the “liberation,” and it is not only in Vietnam that the Chinese suffer. By the end of 1978 more than six million refugees had fled countries ruled by Marxist governments. In spite of walls, fences, guns, and sharks, the steady stream of people fleeing revolutionary utopias continues..
There is a damning, contrast between the number of refugees created by Marxist regimes and those created by other autocracies: more than a million Cubans have left their homeland since Castro’s rise (one refugee for every nine inhabitants) as compared to about 35,000 each from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. In Africa more than five times as many refugees have fled Guinea and Guinea Bissau as have left Zimbabwe Rhodesia, suggesting that civil war and racial discrimination are easier for most people to bear than Marxist-style liberation.
Moreover, the history of this century provides no grounds for expecting that radical totalitarian regimes will transform themselves. At the moment there is a far greater likelihood of progressive liberalization and democratization in the governments of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile than in the government of Cuba; in Taiwan than in the People’s Republic of China; in South Korea than in North Korea; in Zaire than in Angola; and so forth.
Since many traditional autocracies permit limited contestation and participation, it is not impossible that U.S. policy could effectively encourage this process of liberalization and democratization, provided that the effort is not made at a time when the incumbent government is fighting for its life against violent adversaries, and that proposed reforms are aimed at producing gradual change rather than perfect democracy overnight. To accomplish this, policymakers are needed who understand how actual democracies have actually come into being. History is a better guide than good intentions.
A realistic policy which aims at protecting our own interest and assisting the capacities for self-determination of less developed nations will need to face the unpleasant fact that, if victorious, violent insurgency headed by Marxist revolutionaries is unlikely to lead to anything but totalitarian tyranny. Armed intellectuals citing Marx and supported by Soviet-bloc arms and advisers will almost surely not turn out to be agrarian reformers, or simple nationalists, or democratic socialists. However incomprehensible it may be to some, Marxist revolutionaries are not contemporary embodiments of the Americans who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and they will not be content with establishing a broad-based coalition in which they have only one voice among many.
If, moreover, revolutionary leaders describe the United States as the scourge of the 20th century, the enemy of freedom-loving people, the perpetrator of imperialism, racism, colonialism, genocide, war, then they are not authentic democrats or, to put it mildly, friends. Groups which define themselves as enemies should be treated as enemies. The United States is not in fact a racist, colonial power, it does not practice genocide, it does not threaten world peace with expansionist activities. In the last decade especially we have practiced remarkable forbearance everywhere and undertaken the “unilateral restraints on defense spending” recommended by Brzezinski as appropriate for the technetronic era. We have also moved further, faster, in eliminating domestic racism than any multiracial society in the world or in history.
For these reasons and more, a posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-a-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate. No more is it necessary or appropriate to support vocal enemies of the United States because they invoke the rhetoric of popular liberation. It is not even necessary or appropriate for our leaders to forswear unilaterally the use of military force to counter military force. Liberal idealism need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Dictatorships & Double Standards
Must-Reads from Magazine
Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable.
The liberal malaise that has followed Trump’s shocking victory is a by-product of the left’s unreasonable expectations. Many liberals and progressives were encouraged to see Barack Obama as messianic and to understand his politics as emancipatory, and they fell for it. But political shifts in America just aren’t that radical, and never have been—even though that’s what the flimflam men who run American politics always promise.
Delusions about what big election victories can achieve are nurtured by the politicians who stand to benefit from the passion of those who are swayed by their portentous prognostications. (“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says the party that needs to win to come back from defeat.) And they are husbanded by the commercial enterprises—paid consultants, super PACs, single-issue peddlers, cable networks—that profit from them. But the vows they make—primary among them the vanquishing for eternity of the bad guys on the other side—cannot be fulfilled, or cannot be fulfilled enough to satisfy the voters who are seduced by them. This is a problem for both sides of the ideological divide.
At the moment, what we’re living through is disillusion on the part of progressives, and on a grand scale. A consensus has begun to form on the politically engaged left that the day-to-day work of American politics—meaning what happens in government and in public service—is simply unequal to the challenges that plague our country. This follows, in turn, the same sort of consensus that rose among conservative voters in 2015 and 2016 that led to the rise of the insurgent Trump candidacy.
Fewer and fewer Americans see the grinding work of passing legislation and formulating policy as anything other than a sham, an act, a Washington con. This view encourages frustration and, eventually, fatalism. The conviction that the political process cannot address the most relevant issues of the day is paralyzing and radicalizing both parties. It is also wrong.
THE LIBERAL SOUNDTRACK OF DAILY LIFE
People on the american left have reason to be happy these days. Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life. But they’re not happy; far from it.
Superstar athletes don’t stand for the National Anthem. Awards shows have become primetime pep rallies where progressive celebrities address the nation on matters of social justice, diversity, and the plague of inequality. This year’s Academy Awards even featured the actress Ashley Judd’s endorsement of “intersectionality,” a once-abstruse pseudo-academic term meant to convey that every kind of prejudice against every victimized minority is connected to every other kind of prejudice against every other victimized minority. These are the outwardly observable signs of a crisis facing the liberal mission. The realization that the promise of the Obama era had failed predated Donald Trump’s election, but it has only recently become a source of palpable trauma across the liberal spectrum.
These high-profile examples are just the most visible signs of a broader trend. At the noncelebrity level, polls confirm a turning away from conservative social mores altogether. In 2017, Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.
Then there’s the ascension of supposedly advanced attitudes about religion, or rather, the lack of religion. In 2017, Gallup pollsters asked Americans: “How important would you say religion is in your own life?” A record low of 51 percent answered “very important,” while a record high of 25 percent said “not very important.” San Diego State University researcher Jean M. Twenge found that twice as many Americans said they did not believe in God in 2014 than was the case in the early 1980s. And a 2015 Pew poll revealed that “younger Millennials” (those born between 1990 and 1996) were less likely to claim religious affiliation than any previous generation.
Finally, a 2016 Harvard University survey found that, among adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent did not support capitalism. Positive views of socialism have been rising almost inexorably, even as a 2016 CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism.
But today’s progressive activist isn’t content with cultural domination; he’s after something grander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum dated March 2003:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself.”
The election of Obama seemed the moment at which the central liberal truth could finally be given shape and form and body. It didn’t quite work out as progressives hoped.
The first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was sold to progressives as a visionary effort to root out workplace discrimination. In fact, all it did was relax the statute of limitation on holding firms liable for discriminating on the basis of sex and race—a fine-tuning of one part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the “pay gap” persisted, and Obama and his administration spent the next seven years hectoring the private sector over it. They claimed that the figures showing that women in aggregate earned less than men in aggregate demonstrated that the entire society was somehow in violation of the spirit of the law. But the real source of this gap—as Obama’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics confessed—was individual behavior patterns that led women, on average, to work fewer hours than men over the course of their lives. “Among women and men with similar ‘human capital’ characteristics,” BLS economist Lawrence H. Leith wrote in 2012, “the earnings gap narrows substantially and in some cases nearly disappears.”
Similarly, in 2013, Obama credited his Violence Against Women Act with steep declines in rates of reported sexual assault. “It changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But this legislation did not change the culture. Many women continued to endure abuse at their places of work, with that abuse treated as just a consequence of doing business. The behaviors revealed by the #MeToo movement in the national outing of abusive men in positions of power had been addressed in law long ago, and long before Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act. The stroke of his pen did nothing to change the culture.
ObamaCare is another example of an exercise in cultural engineering that has failed to take. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t only a health-care law; it was an effort to transform society. The law’s true goal was a “culture of coverage” that would foster a new “norm” in which health coverage was an “expected” part of the social contract, according to California Health Benefit Exchange board member Kim Belshe. But once again, the political process failed to match the transformative ambitions of the progressive activist class. A late 2016 survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that tighter doctor networks as well as higher deductibles and co-payments meant people were cutting back on doctor visits—the precise opposite of the law’s philosophical objectives.
Donald Trump and his GOP majorities in Congress could not overturn the ACA (though they did manage to get rid of its mandatory aspect). But ObamaCare’s preservation has not prevented the health-care left from sinking into gloom. This is because the politicians who pursued these reforms set unrealistic expectations for what they could achieve. These are not blinkered ideologues, but they are in thrall to a grandiose idea of what politics should be and out of touch with what politics actually is: a messy, narrow, often unsatisfying project of compromise and incrementalism.
Some left-of-center thinkers have addressed this penchant for overreach and its consequences. “Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased our expectations,” lamented the clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in 2013. “The result is mass disappointment.” He reasoned that social isolation was a product of American institutions because, when those institutions resist reform, “we rebel.” That rebellion, he claimed, manifests itself in depression, aggression, self-medication, suicide, or even homelessness and psychosis. What can you expect when the problem is the system itself?
Progressives have come to believe that America is beset with difficulties that must be addressed if the country is to survive—but they recognize that the difficulties they diagnose are extraordinarily hard to deal with in conventional political terms. Income disparities. Sexual and racial inequities. The privileges and disadvantages associated with accidents of birth. Such matters increasingly dominate the agenda of leftist politicians because they preoccupy the minds of their voters and donors. But what can be done about them? Great Society legislation in the 1960s—the farthest-reaching effort to reorder and reframe our country along social-justice principles—was designed to extirpate these evils. It is clear that today’s progressives are convinced we have not progressed very far from those days, if at all. This can lead to only one devastating conclusion, which is that the United States is a structurally oppressive nation. The system is the problem.
For the left, no problem is more hopelessly systemic than racism. It is powerfully attractive to believe that because some American institutions were forged in racial bias, the country is forever soiled by discrimination and white supremacy. Economics, politics, education, criminal justice—all are soiled by what Harvard professor Derrick Bell has said was an indelible stain on American life. Bell’s theories have been amplified by celebrated literary figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. “White supremacy is neither a trick, nor a device, but one of the most powerful shared interests in American history,” he recently wrote. You can understand why exasperated activists might conclude that devoting themselves to a Sisyphean torment is not the best use of their time. “I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself,” wrote the British journalist and feminist speaker Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Zack Linly concurred. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated. I’m just tired.”
Violence, too, is seen as systemic. Acts of small-scale and mass violence are the result of many factors in American life. The individual who commits those heinous acts is often a secondary concern to activists on the left. For them, the problem rests in our militaristic national character, which is foremost exemplified by a pathological devotion to guns. As a recent headline at the New Republic put it: “America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns.”
What about substance abuse? “It became clear to us that there is something systemic going on,” said Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, on the issue of substance-abuse-related deaths in America. And poverty? “Poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guideline for elementary-school teachers. Its lesson plan is explicitly designed to convey to students that “poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.” Corruption? According to Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, when the courts find that corporate entities have much the same free-speech rights as individuals, “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.” Obesity and diabetes are systemic too, according to TakePart magazine’s Sophia Lepore, because they stem from the industrial world’s “increasingly commercialized food supply.”
When faced with this constellation of systemic challenges, progressives are left with a grim conclusion: We are impotent; change on the scale that is necessary is out of reach. Instead of practicing “the art of the possible,” they have made a totem of the impossible. The activists who are consumed by these phenomena have come (or are coming) to the conclusion that the political process cannot resolve them precisely because the oppression is a feature, not a bug, of the system. It is logical, therefore, for them to determine that engagement in traditional forms of politics is an exercise in naiveté.
Indeed, under this set of beliefs, legislative incrementalism and compromise seem like detestable half measures. Mistaking deep-rooted and immensely complex social and cultural circumstances for problems government can solve blinds participants in the political process to the unambiguous victories they’ve actually secured through compromise. This is a recipe for despair—a despair to which certain segments of the right are not immune.
LIBERAL DESPAIR TRUMPS CONSERVATIVE DESPAIR
By the time donald trump’s presidential candidacy sprang to life, dejected voices on the right had concluded that the country’s leftward drift constituted an existential emergency.
In late 2015, the author and radio host Dennis Prager devoted most of his time to mourning the “decay” of absolute moral categories, the blurring of gender distinctions, the corruption of education, and the dissolution of the family, all while blaming these conditions on a wrecker’s program. In the fall of 2016, the Claremont Institute published a piece by Republican speechwriter Michael Anton (under a pseudonym) in which he postulated that the United States was all but doomed. He compared the republic to United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, and its political and bureaucratic leadership to the suicidal Islamist hijackers who killed everyone on board. Four days before the 2016 election, the Heritage Foundation’s Chuck Donovan declared America in decline in almost every way and blamed a “dominant elite who thrive on the dissolution of civil society.” These catastrophists agreed on one thing: The time for modesty and gradualism was over.
The issues that most animate these conservatives are significant, but they are only indirectly related to conventional political matters. Disrespect for authority figures in law enforcement, the accessibility of pornography, assimilation rates among immigrant groups, the bewildering exploits on college campuses, and the ill-defined plague of “cultural Marxism”—these are widespread social trends that resist remedy from the inherently circumspect political process.
Also like those on the left, some conservatives have come to embrace their own forms of fatalism about the American system. “We need a king,” wrote the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin in 2014, “or something like one.” Auslin theorized that such a figure would liberate the presidency from weighing in on polarizing social issues, thereby lubricating the gears of government. Reflecting on the disillusionment and pessimism of his big-thinking peers in the middle of the Great Recession, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Patrick J. Buchanan devotes at least one column a month to the virtues of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Why? Because, as he wrote in January 2018, “Nationalism trumps democratism.”
Intellectuals like Buchanan and Anton have a profound weakness for extremism; it is one of the grave dangers posed by the life of the mind. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound found much to admire in how nationalists detested moderation. For Yeats, the “love of force” was a visionary trait. Pound, of course, literally became a fascist and rooted for America’s destruction. These perverse judgments on the right were nothing next to the seductive power of leftist totalitarianism. George Bernard Shaw was a Stalinist convinced of the virtue of eugenics and murderous purges. Theodore Dreiser became infatuated with the Soviets’ brutal adaptation of social Darwinism. Stuart Chase’s 1932 book A New Deal, predating FDR’s governing program of the same name, heaped praise on the nascent Soviet state. The book famously concluded, “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” Chase later became a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers.
When the political process fails to perform as they would like, activists and ideologues become disillusioned and embittered. They also become convinced not of the unreasonableness of their position but of the incompetence of their representatives. Thus conservative activists hate the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House, even though both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan work tirelessly to advance conservative ideas through the bodies they help manage. Leftists have turned on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is among the most effective legislative players in recent American history and easily the most progressive Democratic leadership figure of our time. McConnell and Ryan and Pelosi know from bitter experience that the Constitution places obstacles in the path of anyone who wants to use America’s political institutions to remake the culture wholesale. These marvelous obstacles are designed to thwart the human impulse for radical change.
The tragedy here is how this dynamic has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the political system is broken. Pull back from the granular view of events and try to examine America over the past decade and you see something else. You see American voters responding in complex ways to complex events. Obama overreaches and the voters elect a Republican House. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are losers, and he loses an election. Hillary Clinton says people who don’t care for her are “deplorables,” and she loses an election, too. The GOP appears to be on a path to electoral disaster in November 2018 because Trump may be bringing about a counterattack against the way he does business. Democratic overreach inspires conservative backlash. Republican overreach inspires liberal backlash. The electoral system is responsive to the views of the people. The system works. It works by restraining excessive ambition.
Those restraints annoy people who think change should just happen because they will it. In 2009, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was so annoyed by Congress’s failure to devise a bipartisan environmental bill that he lamented the fact that America did not have China’s political system. The People’s Republic, he wrote, was demonstrating the great “advantages” of a “one-party autocracy” led by “reasonably enlightened people.” Amazing how Chinese Communism had the ability to circumvent public opinion—the same ability also leads to the construction of well-populated labor camps.
You don’t need a one-party autocracy to effect change. Sometimes, when change is needed and needed urgently, government can rally to address the change—when voters make it clear that it must happen and when the change is preceded by rich experimentation and vital spadework. For example, New York City is no longer the crime-ridden, pornography-addled, graffiti-marred archipelago of needle parks that it once was. There has been a generation now of civil peace in the city, notwithstanding the act of war against it on 9/11.
But the change wasn’t the culmination of a grand governmental scheme. It was in part the product of work done by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in the early 1980s, which developed a model followed by the Rockefeller Center Complex, the Grand Central Partnership, and more than 30 other business-improvement districts. These parties engaged in a block-by-block effort to restore streets and relocate the homeless. The NYPD and the transit police could not focus on “quality of life” policing without hyper-local input that shaped what that campaign should entail and without an intellectual framework provided by the “broken windows” theory promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The zoning reforms that cleaned up Times Square began as an initiative submitted by the City Council member representing the porn-plagued blocks under the Queensboro Bridge, with input from the Manhattan Institute. By the time Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, a quiet consensus had been building for years about the nature of the problems afflicting New York City and how to solve them.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
Moynihan’s famous quote is usually cut off before the end. After identifying the divergent liberal and conservative truths about the junction of politics and culture, he observed: “Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
His insight into the American political equilibrium was not a lamentation or a diagnosis. It was a reflection on why America is forever reinventing and refining itself. But as partisan actors and media outlets confuse the practice of politics with exhilarating bouts of cultural warfare, this equilibrium begins to come apart.
The quotidian, custodial duties that typify public service are neither dramatic nor entertaining. Zoning laws are boring. Police reforms are boring. Business-improvement districts are boring. Functional governance in the United States is unexciting governance.
Unexciting governance is limited governance. And the fatalists are driven mad by the limits our system imposes on them because they don’t want governance to be limited. That is exactly why those limits are so necessary and why, rather than getting dirty fighting inch by inch for the things they believe in, fatalists write themselves out of our political life. The danger the fatalists pose is that they are convincing tens of millions more that our system doesn’t work when it most certainly does, just in a fashion they wish it wouldn’t. In doing so, they are encouraging mass despair—and that is an entirely self-imposed affliction.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Seventy years after Israel’s founding, we need it more than ever.
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values, and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you’re Jewish is liberating.
Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy process of getting in. It suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility, and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal—remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something one generation can pass on to the next.
Beyond that, the excitement—and, to be sure, the frustrations—of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The last remnant of Oslo crumbles
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The covert and overt sins of a celebrated scholar
Kristeva categorically denies the charges. Her critics argue that it is unlikely that the Bulgarian government would fabricate an 80-page dossier for the purpose of embarrassing a 76-year-old academic who is of no particular contemporary political importance. Professor Richard Wolin of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written extensively about Kristeva, says flatly: “She’s lying.” And he adds that the Bulgarian government’s claims about her did not materialize ex nihilo: Kristeva recently began writing for a Bulgarian journal, and Bulgarian policy is to publish the dossiers of public figures who had served the state intelligence agencies during the Communist era. That policy is carried out by “ComDos,” the Committee for Disclosure of Documents and Announcement of Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
But what Kristeva did or did not do in secret is if anything less troubling than what she did in public. For decades, she lent her intellectual prestige and her powers as a writer (and propagandist) to some of the most repressive and vicious regimes of the second half of the 20th century. And she did so as someone who had first-person experience with real-world socialism as it was practiced in what was arguably the single most suffocating regime in Eastern Europe.
Once inescapable on college campuses (I was assigned readings from her work in at least four different classes in the 1990s), Kristeva has faded a little: She has authored a number of novels that have not been generally well-regarded, and she has got on the wrong side of her fellow feminists by criticizing the subjection of the individual identity to the demands of identity politics. She belongs, with Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes and a few others of that kidney, to an era of postmodernist excess during which American academics aped the jargon-heavy (and famously unreadable) prose style of their Continental idols, especially the French ones. Discipline and Punish took on the totemic status later enjoyed by Capital in the 21st Century—which is to say, a book with many more owners than readers, A Brief History of Time for Reagan-era graduate students. Revolution in Poetic Language might not have generated quite as much awe as Foucault’s famous lump, but The Kristeva Reader ornamented a great many coffee tables—and who could resist “Experiencing the Phallus as Extraneous”?
Kristeva arrived in France in 1965 on a research fellowship. She soon moved from the École normale to the Sorbonne, and she studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, taking in the intellectual fashions of her time: psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, and, of course, radical left-wing politics. Indicting midcentury French intellectuals for covert or overt support of Communist dictatorships around the world is like writing speeding tickets at the Daytona 500, but Kristeva’s political history and that of the journal with which she was long affiliated, Tel Quel, is a remarkable testament to the weakness of Western intellectuals for totalitarianism—provided it is dressed in sufficiently exotic trappings—careering from Marxist-Leninist to Stalinist to Maoist. Kristeva was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Communist Party, arguably the most servile of all of the Western European Communist parties, indulging Adolf Hitler when it suited Moscow and later justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a necessary prophylactic against “counterrevolution.” There was no Communist outrage too great for Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers (Kristeva married him in 1967), declared in the familiar language of the period his opposition to all things “counterrevolutionary” and advertised his allegiance to “Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time.” V. I. Lenin was later displaced from the Tel Quel intellectual pantheon by Mao Zedong. Professor Wolin, an intellectual historian, tells the story in his 2017 book Wind from the East:
As a result of the May  events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truth…. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of cultural revolution was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.
There was a substantial intellectual component to the Maoism of the Kristeva-Sollers set, but there was also a superficial one: Sollers began affecting the Maoist mode of dress, and Kristeva, one of the most important feminist thinkers of her time, dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation. Calling to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren and her fictitious “Cherokee princess” ancestor, Kristeva boasted that she is a woman who “owes my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” Despite having almost no facility with the Chinese language and very little knowledge of its culture, she authored a widely read and translated book, About Chinese Women, in which she made unsupported claims about the “matrilineal” character of classical Chinese culture. Tel Quel adopted an editorial line that was uniformly and cravenly pro-Mao, even going so far as to argue that the absence of professional psychiatric practice from China resulted from the fact that Maoism had delivered the Chinese people from “alienation,” the traditional Marxist diagnosis for what ails the capitalist soul, rendering professional mental-health care unnecessary.
“I don’t fault her” for serving the Committee for State Security, Professor Wolin says. “It was the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe.” Signing on to inform for the Bulgarian government might well have been a condition for Kristeva’s being permitted to study in France in the first place, and she had vulnerable family members still living under the Bulgarian police state. “I don’t know why she doesn’t come clean,” he says.
But that is not the end of her story. “What I do fault her for is jumping on the Communist bandwagon,” Wolin adds. First she served the interests of Moscow and then those of Chairman Mao. Unlike most of her French colleagues, the Bulgarian expatriate was in a position to know better from direct experience. Nonetheless, Kristeva and the Tel Quel set undertook a pilgrimage to Maoist China in the middle 1970s, where they saw the usual Potemkin villages and came home to write fulsome encomia to the wisdom and efficacy of the Great Helmsman. “By ’74, everybody knew that the Cultural Revolution was a power play and a debacle on every level,” Wolin says, an excuse for the Chinese authorities to purge their rivals. “People who had been sent down wrote memoirs, and those were published in French in 1971 and 1972…. Kristeva knew how repressive these regimes were. She didn’t have to celebrate Communism. No one compelled her to do that.”
If this were only a question about a Bulgarian-French intellectual who is obscure beyond academic and feminist circles, then it would be of limited interest, one of those French intellectual scandals that give Anglophone writers and academics a twinge of envy. (When was the last time there was a truly national controversy in the United States over a book? The Bell Curve?)
But Kristeva’s advocacy of what was in terms of gross numbers the most murderous regime of the 20th century is only one tessera in the great mosaic of Western intellectuals’ seduction by totalitarian systems, especially those that come wearing exotic costumes. (Jeremy Jennings, writing in Standpoint, describes Kristeva’s Maoism as “part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism.”) Sometimes, that seduction has come from the right, as with Italian Fascism’s ensorcelling of Ezra Pound and F. A. Hayek’s embarrassing admiration for the government of Augusto Pinochet, a political crush that earned him a private rebuke from no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. But, more often, that seduction has come from the left: Lincoln Steffens returning from the Soviet Union to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Walter Duranty’s embarrassing misreportage in the New York Times, which still proudly displays the Pulitzer prize earned thereby. The moral equivalence and outright giddy enthusiasm with which Western intellectuals ranging from the left-wing to the merely liberal treated Lenin and Stalin. The New Republic’s footsie-playing with Communists under Henry Wallace. Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as an American propaganda invention. The reverence for Fidel Castro. The embrace of Hugo Chávez by everyone from Hollywood progressives to Democratic elected officials. Chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is going to win!” on the streets of New York in 1968. Ten million Che T-shirts.
“There are Western intellectuals who don’t succumb,” Professor Wolin says. “The George Orwells, Susan Sontags, and others who learn the lesson. Among the French leftists in the late 1960s who swooned for the Cultural Revolution, many of them came to their senses in the ’70s.” But what about those who are seduced? “Often, they’re naive about politics, and they project holistic and idealistic solutions—totalizing solutions—onto events that don’t admit of those kinds of solutions.”
Political ideologies tend to define themselves in two important ways: first, in opposition to the most important and prominent of their direct ideological competitors; second, in an effort to distinguish themselves from immediately adjacent ideologies and factions. In the case of 20th-century radicals such as Julia Kristeva, the enemy was capitalism, and the most prominent alternative to capitalism was Communism. Whether the pursuit of the idealized new man and his utopian new society took the form of old-fashioned bureaucratic Soviet socialism or the more rambunctious and anarchic mode of the Cultural Revolution was a dispute between adjacent factions, something that may seem almost immaterial from the outside but that is the source of all-consuming passions—and rage—inside the radical milieu.
The West is perversely fortunate that its hedonism and materialism have inoculated it against the premier radicalism of the early 21st century—jihadism, which has gained very little purchase in the West outside of poorly assimilated immigrant communities, mostly in Europe. But Islamic radicalism is not the only rival to democratic liberalism on the world stage: As Xi Jinping consolidates his position in Beijing (a project that goes far beyond the recent removal of the term limits that would have ended his rule at the conclusion of his second term), where are the Western intellectuals with the moral authority and political acumen to articulate a meaningful critique of what he represents? The left in Europe and in the English-speaking world has never been obliged to make an accounting—or a reckoning—for its indulgence of a far more dramatically violent expression of Chinese nationalism, and even liberal technocrats such as Thomas Friedman dream of turning America into “China for a day,” begrudgingly admiring the Chinese government’s raw ability to simply act, unencumbered by democratic gridlock.
And if the left and the center-left are ill-equipped to mount an intellectual defense of democratic liberalism, the right is even less prepared, having mired itself deeply in the very kind of authoritarian nationalism practiced by Beijing. Like the 20th-century left, the 21st-century right has gone looking for allies and inspiration abroad, and has settled upon Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the fascist Le Pen political dynasty in France, Alternative für Deutschland, neo-nationalism, neo-mercantilism, and ethnic-identity politics. The right-wing populists of Europe do not have Mao’s practically unbounded scope of action (or his body count), but they play for intellectuals on the radical right the same role that Maoism once played for intellectuals on the radical left.
It is not clear that Kristeva has learned very much from her political errors, or even indeed that she ever has come to understand them genuinely as errors. Her alleged collaboration with the Bulgarian secret police, tawdry as it might have been, would not constitute the greatest of those errors. But it is that allegation, and not the plain facts of her long career of advocacy on behalf of inhumane political enterprises, that embarrasses her. In that, she is typical of the radical tendency, a spiritual cousin to the Western progressives who once winked at Stalinists as “liberals in a hurry.” But radical chic is not an exclusively progressive fashion. Xi Jinping is in a hurry, and so is Marine Le Pen, and both have their attention set on matters of more consequence than “intersectionality,” the matter of who uses which pronouns, and the other voguish obsessions of our contemporary intellectuals.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
It was Ben-Gurion himself who proposed a compromise: Israel’s Declaration of Independence would conclude by asserting that each signer placed his trust in the “Rock of Israel,” the Tzur Yisrael, a phrase from the Jewish liturgy inspired by the biblical reference to God as tzuri ve-go’ali, my Rock and my Redeemer.
By referring to the “Rock of Israel,” but refraining from any explicit mention of divine redemption, Israel’s declaration was one that both devout and atheistic Zionists could affirm. For believers in the Bible, the phrase could refer to the divine defender of the Jewish people; for the secular socialist signers of the document, the words could instead make reference to the flint-like resolution of the Israeli army. The compromise was accepted, and the modern Jewish state was born by eliding the issue of the existence of God.
For myself, a religious Zionist and American-history aficionado, the story is doubly painful. Thomas Jefferson, the deistic drafter of the Declaration in Philadelphia, produced a first version without any reference to the divine designs of history. The continental Congress, however, representing an America obsessed with the Bible, edited the dramatic closing of the original draft so that it made clear that the revolution was being launched with “a firm reliance on divine providence.”
The irony is difficult to miss. America, inspired by the Israelite commonwealth in the Hebrew Bible, ordered that a reference to a providential God be added to its Declaration of Independence. But in the 20th century, the restored Israelite commonwealth went out of its way to remove any such reference.
For religious Zionists, however, removing God from a document did not do away with God’s role in the divinely directed drama that is Jewish history; in fact, the contrary is true. Sidney Morgenbesser, the kibitzing Columbia philosopher, once inquired of a colleague at the end of his life: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” Morgenbesser’s droll dialectic captures, for people of faith, something profound: It is those agnostic of God’s existence who can at times reify that very same existence. In a much more profound sense, the events that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of statehood are so staggering that providence alone explains them.
Harry Truman, the former member of the Missouri political machine whom no one had ever expected to become president of the United States, overrode his hero, General George C. Marshall, in supporting and recognizing the birth of a Jewish state. And he did so, in part, because of his relationship with a Jew named Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had run a haberdashery business decades before.
Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s, ordered the Soviet bloc at the United Nations to support partition, and then he allowed Czechoslovakia to sell airplanes and arms to the nascent state. The Jews of the IDF, fighting against overwhelming odds, did indeed illustrate flint-like toughness in their heroic victory; but the honest student of history can see that this is only part of the story.
Seventy years after May 14, 1948, religious Zionists still smart at the words with which Israel came into being. At the same time, they take comfort in the fact that what followed that extraordinary day vindicates their own interpretation of the words Tzur Yisrael. In his memoir, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, describes the moment when the concentration camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Many inmates, having longed for release, ran to the gates—and as they did so, the Nazis, in a final attempt at murdering the prisoners, opened fire from the guard tower. Lau was in the line of fire; suddenly, someone jumped on him and held him down until the shooting had stopped. Having no idea who had saved his life, Lau made his way to Palestine, attended yeshiva, and entered the rabbinate. The first position for which he interviewed was chief rabbi of Netanya. Interviewing for the job with city officials, he encountered hours of question from the mayor of Netanya and his staff. The deputy mayor of Netanya, a man by the name of David Anilevitch, who ought to have been deeply involved in the interview, sat on the side and oddly said nothing. As the interview came to a close, Anilevitch stood up and said:
Friends, honored rabbi, before we disburse, please allow me to say my piece…. I have been reliving 11 April 1945. I was deported from my hometown to Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, were first out of the barracks. As we ran, a hail of bullets passed us. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy.…I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me alive and well. Now I declare this to all of you: I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach, and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city.
Anilevitch, Lau concludes, then banged on the table so that all the glasses shook and said: “If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you that there is a God.”
The definition of a miracle is an event that should not naturally have occurred. For us, this tends to mean the splitting of the sea, the stopping of the sun, the opening of the earth. Yet, by the very same definition, it is a miracle that Israel was born, and endured in the way that it did. It is a miracle that after a generation in which many Jewish children grew up without parents, let alone grandparents, we have experienced the fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy that grandparents will watch their grandparents play in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a miracle that after so many civilizations have disappeared, Jewish children continue to be born. It is a miracle that as anti-Semitism continues to haunt the nations of Europe that persecuted the Jews for so long, religious Judaism flourishes in Israel even as a now secular Europe demographically declines.
More than any other event in the last 70 years, the state that was born in avoidance of any explicit affirmation of Israel’s God now stands as the greatest argument for the existence of that very same God. And that is why many Jews, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, will recite with renewed fervor prayers in the daily traditional liturgy that 70 years ago had been at least partially fulfilled:
O Rock of Israel,
Arise in Defense of Israel,
And redeem, as you have promised,
Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is your Name, the Sacred One of Israel
Blessed are you, O Lord, Who redeemed Israel.