Why did the negotiations for a peaceful settlement between Egypt and Israel break down? Why has the breakdown been so…
Why did the negotiations for a peaceful settlement between Egypt and Israel break down? Why has the breakdown been so difficult to overcome? The search for an explanation cannot be limited to the negotiations themselves; it can even be hindered by sticking too closely to the day-by-day “peace process.” The issues that led to the breakdown of the negotiations did not arise at Camp David and could not be settled by the negotiations at Camp David.
To get our bearings, we need to step back and view the negotiations from a greater distance. It is necessary to step at least as far back as 1967. For the Six-Day War in June of that year produced the hard territorial problems which the negotiations sought to resolve. What to do with the Sinai? The West Bank? The Gaza Strip? The Golan Heights? The Israeli settlements? These and other questions did not exist before June 1967-How they came to be is the starting point of any serious effort to find answers for them.
Mustafa Amin, a leading Egyptian commentator and confidant of President Sadat, recently provided an additional reason for going back to the 1967 war. The New York Times of December 24, 1978, reported him as having written: “This may be the first instance in history where a thief claims compensation for his own crime.”
Mustafa Amin’s allusion to the Israeli occupation of Arab territory after the 1967 war was not novel or original. It was typical of the steady journalistic diet fed Arab readers for the past decade. If all that had happened were no more than simple thievery and the criminal were so clearly identified, there would be very little more to say about it.
But the matter is hardly so simple. In fact, we now have it on the highest Egyptian authority how unsimple and how double-edged is the charge that a “crime” was committed in 1967.
The Egyptian authority is Anwar el-Sadat. His autobiography, In Search of Identity, appeared in English and other languages last year. In it he tells of the events leading up to the 1967 war. Although he leaves out a good deal, what he includes is enough.
Sadat relates that his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, knew that war with Israel was inevitable if the Straits of Tiran, leading to the Israeli port of Eilat in the south, were closed. The United Nations Emergency Force had been stationed at Sharm el-Sheikh in 1957 for the precise purpose of keeping the Straits open. In May 1967, according to Sadat, Nasser convened a meeting of his top leaders, including Sadat, at which he declared: “Now with our concentrations in Sinai, the chances of war are fifty-fifty. But if we close the Straits, the war will be a 100 per-cent certainty.” Nasser then turned to his Minister of War, Abdel Hakim Amer, and asked whether the Egyptian armed forces were ready. Amer assured him that everything was “in tiptop shape.”
With the Straits closed, Sadat writes, “war became a certainty.” Nasser also knew that the Israelis were going to aim their first blow at the Egyptian air force; he deliberately took that risk because he was assured by the Air Force Commander, General Sidqi Mahmoud, that the Egyptian losses would come to no more than 10 per cent of the air force. Nasser even correctly guessed the exact timing of the Israeli attack. He expected it to come at latest by June 5. He was right.
We have long known all this and more from other sources.1 Yet it is reassuring to have Sadat himself confirm how Egypt decided with calculated premeditation to set up a situation which could only lead to war.
If ever a war was deliberately instigated, it was instigated by Egypt in June 1967. Of this there cannot be the shadow of a doubt—except on the part of the present ranking Middle East expert on the National Security Council.2
But Sadat hardly told the whole story, or even the most important part of it. What he does not mention in his memoirs is the war aim that Nasser repeatedly and unequivocally announced to the world before the outbreak of hostilities,
On May 26, 1967, Nasser said: “The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.” On May 28, 1967, he said: “Israel’s existence in itself is an aggression.” On June 1, 1967, Ahmad Shukairy, then head of the PLO, at that time subsidized and controlled by Egypt, was asked what would happen to native-born Israelis if the Arab armies were successful. “Those who survive will remain in Palestine,” he replied. “I estimate that none of them will survive.”
It may be contended that Nasser’s words should not have been taken seriously. Nasser’s threats, however, were more restrained than popular Arab propaganda. We will never know whether Nasser would have gone as far as his henchman, Shukairy, but he fired up his armed forces for the battle with the language of the jihad—the holy war of Muslims against non-Muslims, which must end in death, conversion, or submission to Islam. The least that Nasser promised his followers was that the state of Israel would cease to exist in the event of an Egyptian victory.
The war, of course, ended with Israel in possession of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. That is how Israel became a “thief” and committed the “crime” to which Mustafa Amin referred.
We also know from the highest Jordanian authority, King Hussein, how Israel happened to occupy the West Bank. Two books, neither of which has been published in the United States, contain his version of how he got into the 1967 war. The story, told largely in Hussein’s own words, is this:
Hussein decided that war was inevitable as soon as Nasser announced the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba on May 22, 1967. It took him only two more days to decide to get into it. Hussein flew to Cairo on May 30 for a reconciliation with Nasser as the prerequisite for joint Egyptian-Jordanian action. Nasser assured Hussein that his forces were superior to the Israelis.’ Hussein’s own words are: “Nasser never appealed to us. We were the ones who appealed to him.”3
On the eve of the outbreak, Israel promised Jordan immunity from the war if it would stay out. One such message was transmitted through then Under Secretary of State Eugene V. Rostow to the Jordanian Ambassador in Washington. But Hussein was tempted by the jackal’s share of the easy victory held out by Nasser. After joining in the attack and getting punished for it, Hussein justified his poor showing on the battlefield by leading Nasser to believe that Jordanian forces had been attacked by hundreds of American war planes.4
And that is how Israel became the “thief” of the West Bank.
As for Syria, its leaders claimed to be in the vanguard of the struggle to destroy Israel. Hafez al-Assad, then Syrian Defense Minister and now President, was particularly outspoken. He anticipated Nasser by saying early in 1967: “The mere existence of Zionism in Palestine constitutes an aggression, and aggression and peace cannot coexist in the same territory.” In the same speech made to army units, he declared: ‘The people’s revolution has decreed that the enemy shall be humiliated until zero hour strikes, after which no enemy will remain in Palestine.” The Syrians actually attacked Israel on the morning of the first day of the Six-Day War and were, in fact, the only Arab force to stage an abortive raid into Israeli territory during the entire war. The bulk of the Syrian army was stationed on the Golan Heights, from which the Israeli settlements below had long been terrorized. This Syrian force was virtually wiped out in the last two days of the war.
Which was how Israel became the “thief” of the Golan Heights, too.
Without keeping in mind how Israel came to occupy the Sinai area, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights in 1967, the conflict over them becomes a travesty. I do not mean to suggest that the way Israel came to occupy these territories answers the question whether Israel should keep all or any part of them. That is a much more complex problem, involving other factors in past and future Arab-Israeli relationships. But the original basis of the Israeli occupation in a war of self-defense, deliberately provoked by Egypt, cannot be ignored or falsified without making it impossible to understand the events leading up to the Camp David agreement and beyond.
Why were all attempts to get serious negotiations started so futile until Sadat went to Jerusalem in 1977?
One reason stands out. Again we have Sadat to thank for confirming it in one, short sentence in his speech to the Israeli Knesset: “We used to reject you.” Just before making this frank admission, Sadat had said: “You want to live with us, in this part of the world.” Rejection, therefore, had meant that he and his fellow Arabs had not wanted Israel to live in that part of the world. Other rationales, such as Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory or recognition of a new Palestinian state, had been used in diplomatic negotiations or for public consumption. But this one—the survival of Israel—had always gone to the heart of the matter.
When Sadat also said, “We welcome you among us with full security and safety,” he for the first time broke away from the “rejectionist” Arab front to which he had in principle belonged. There was nothing else in Sadat’s speech that differed from the previous Arab negotiating position. Sadat himself recognized where the break had come. Immediately after his word of welcome, he added: “This in itself is a tremendous turning point, one of the landmarks of a decisive historical change.”
It was. But it also cast a lurid light on what the real issue had been from the birth of Israel in 1948 to that 20th of November almost thirty years later. For this reason, the rest of the Arab world responded to Sadat’s initiative with execration. The one thing for which Sadat could not be forgiven was his acceptance of Israel’s existence and survival as a nation, even if that acceptance was not unencumbered.
For Sadat named a price for the “tremendous turning point” and the “decisive historical change.” He went out of his way to stress that he had not come for a separate peace between Egypt and Israel. He spoke of “our land” that could not be the subject of bargaining or even open to argument. He demanded “complete withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied after 1967.” He made the Palestinian Arabs, not the Egyptians, “the crux of the entire problem.” He specified that Israel had to accept a new Palestinian state. On everything but the tolerated existence of pre-June 1967 Israel, his conditions were maximalist. If he had left out his acceptance of Israel’s existence and had not chosen to announce it in Jerusalem, his speech would have been unexceptionable from the point of view of the past Arab position.
Almost all attention was subsequently paid to Sadat’s concession of Israel’s national survival. This one-sidedness was understandable. The circumstances were so dramatic, not to say theatrical, that no one wished to spoil the effect. One could even believe that if the Egyptian acceptance of Israel was possible, everything else was possible. It was as if the fine print in a contract had been ignored.
Thus one important implication of Sadat’s approach was by and large overlooked in the general euphoria. To take Sadat’s speech seriously meant accepting him as the representative of the entire Arab world. He spoke as if he was not worried about what he could get for Egypt and even knew what he could expect to get. He devoted most of his speech to what he wanted for the other Arab states and interests. This assumption by him of Arab leadership was something of a tour de force. He asked to be accepted by Israel as the representative of the entire Arab world in the very act of breaking with that world on what it considered to be the essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
That Sadat had this representative role very much in mind was soon confirmed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sadat, he related, told him in Ismailia, where they met in December 1977, that he “represents the Arab cause and he would like to see a solution to the problem of the Palestinian Arabs.” Begin accepted Sadat as just such a representative. The future negotiations were mortgaged to this understanding.
It was a peculiar understanding. Sadat did not have a mandate to negotiate for any other state than Egypt. He had, in fact, mortally offended the other Arab leaders by going to Jerusalem without consulting them,5 by offering a deal with Israel for which they vilified him and even threatened his life, and by appointing himself to negotiate for them. It was a wonderful trick, if he could get away with it.
Sadat evidently calculated that the other Arab states would have to come in with him sooner or later. This calculation was by virtue of Sadat’s strategy hardly more than a possibility. Sadat set up a situation which made it most humiliating for Assad of Syria to follow along meekly in the Egyptian leader’s footsteps. The PLO would have had to violate the dictates of its own “Covenant,” something it had stubbornly refused to do despite all sorts of bribes and blandishments in the past. Sadat had not consulted his paymasters in Saudi Arabia, for the good and sufficient reason that they would not have countenanced his initiative. Jordan’s Hussein, seeing all choices as dangerous, had become a perennial fence-sitter. The more extreme “rejectionists,” such as Iraq and Libya, were certain to cry out for revenge.
In any event, Sadat’s strategy of pulling off a diplomatic coup by himself and somehow imposing it on the other Arab states left him vulnerable to their disapproval and retaliation. If all of them, including the Palestinian Arabs, refused to go along, he faced the prospect of going back to the other Arabs or going forward with Israel, in which case, whatever the appearance, he would have the separate peace he had renounced. When Sadat, inferentially, volunteered to represent all Arab interests at Jerusalem and did so outrightly at Ismailia, he presented no credentials for assuming this role other than the vision in his own head of what an Arab peace with Israel could or should look like.
Sadat’s offer to Israel sought to hold in tandem Egypt’s national interest and Egypt’s interests in the Arab world. A separate peace with Israel would substantially serve Egypt’s national interest but only by risking the sacrifice of Egypt’s putative role as leader of the Arab world. Sadat clearly assumed, with good reason, that he could have a separate peace for the asking. He rejected that prospect in his Jerusalem speech with such dispatch and finality that he was obviously determined to emphasize that he was not ready to give up Egypt’s pan-Arab calling. All he was ready to do was to work it out in a different way; yet the difference was so hazardous that it could jeopardize both of his objectives—the Egyptian and the Arab.
Some observers could not believe that Sadat was aiming at anything other than a separate peace, suitably camouflaged. Israelis hotly debated whether Sadat merely wanted to have a “fig leaf” for his separate peace. Meanwhile Sadat had one inestimable advantage if there was to be any negotiation at all. There was no one else for the Israelis to bargain with.
Begin’s response to Sadat’s challenge also broke with the past. The Israeli counter-proposals never received the appreciation they deserved. They were virtually taken for granted, even though they were, in fact, startling, most of all in Israel itself.
At their meeting in Ismailia in December 1977, one month after the Jerusalem visit, Begin offered Sadat at one stroke the return to Egyptian sovereignty of all occupied Egyptian territory in the Sinai, including the key post at Sharm el-Sheikh, guarding the entrance to the Straits of Tiran, the immediate casus belli of the 1967 war. There was one qualification—that the Israeli settlements in the so-called Rafiah area, representing no more than 1 per cent of the Sinai, should be linked to Israeli administration and defended by an Israeli military force. This qualification was withdrawn, despite a great deal of embarrassment and anguish in Israel, when Sadat announced that he would not permit “one square centimeter” of Israeli settlement within Egypt’s international borders. In the end, Egypt was offered the return of its entire territory and everything in it.
This offer was not something that should have been taken for granted. No such flat, unconditional offer had ever been made or even contemplated by any Israeli government before. Sadat did not even have to enter into negotiations to get back the whole of Egyptian territory. By holding out for the Sinai unconditionally, Sadat was able to get Israel to throw in three strategically important airfields in eastern Sinai, the major naval base at Sharm el-Sheikh, the oilfields which Israel had developed and which supplied it with 20 per cent of its oil needs, and ultimately the dismantlement of the Israeli settlements on the eastern coast adjoining Gaza. Begin and his chief lieutenants, Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, considered the move to be their most original and imaginative achievement. They boasted that their Labor-party predecessors would never have dared to make it. Indeed, it was widely criticized in Israel as premature and unnecessarily generous.
It is well to recall once more how Egypt had lost the Sinai to Israel. It had been lost in 1967 in a war deliberately provoked by Egypt with the open aim of extinguishing the Jewish state. The Egyptians had started a second war in 1973 to get it back and had nearly succeeded before they were turned around, narrowly avoiding total military disaster, thanks in part to pressure exerted on Israel by the United States. The issue was not merely that it was Egyptian territory that had been lost; it was also how Egypt had lost it.
Again, I am not suggesting that it is wise or necessary for Israel to hold on to the Sinai or any other part of the occupied territories in perpetuity just because they were won in a demonstrably defensive war. But I am concerned that this Israeli offer should not have been taken for granted, as if all past history were not full of countless examples of the opposite, including in the relatively recent past the vast territory acquired by the Soviet Union as a result of World War II and the even more recent seizure by force of almost half of Cyprus by Turkey.
The brute fact is that Begin was offering Sadat the fruit of war without war. Such an offer may well have been ultimately advantageous for both sides, but that is no reason for disregarding or discounting the rich prize freely tendered to the Egyptian side.
If Begin expected gratitude from Sadat for the offer of virtually total withdrawal from the Sinai, he received none. Sadat responded in the spirit of his Jerusalem speech—that he was not interested in a separate peace and that his responsibility for representing all other Arab interests took precedence over or was indistinguishable from Egypt’s national interest. As a result, Begin might have saved himself the trouble of offering to give back the Sinai in advance of any serious negotiation on all other aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In effect, Sadat forced the issue of the Palestinian Arabs to the forefront. Here also Begin and especially Dayan thought that they had something new and original to offer.
Compared with previous Israeli positions, the so-called Begin plan for the West Bank and Gaza Strip presented in late December 1977 was new and original.
Labor governments had proposed a “compromise” solution. Their compromise, however, was “territorial.” It implied some sort of division of the West Bank, generally between Israel and Jordan, leaving the heavily populated areas under Arab sovereignty with an outlying, peripheral area going to Israel. Most Israeli settlements had been set down in this latter area. The emphasis in this plan was on “security.”
Begin’s old position had made Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and the Golan Heights negotiable but not withdrawal from the West Bank, which he always referred to as Judea and Samaria to emphasize the area’s Jewish origins. “I believe that Judea and Samaria are an integral part of our sovereignty,” Begin said as late as May 22, 1977, six months before Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. “It’s our land.” In principle, this was Begin’s “hardline” position. In reality, he made very little change in day-to-day conduct on the West Bank, except for authorizing a handful of new settlements by Israeli extremists. The emphasis in this approach, however, was on “sovereignty.”
As long as Begin claimed the West Bank totally for Israel, the Laborite position could appear to be “dovish” because it entailed keeping only a part of the West Bank. In fact, neither conception had the slightest chance with the Arabs and amounted to little more than the Israelis talking to themselves. The West Bank’s administration was actually a peculiar kind of tacit Israeli-Jordanian admixture, with security entirely in Israeli hands while Jordanian books were used in the schools, Jordanian law prevailed in the courts, and Jordan’s old retainers in the West Bank received their accustomed stipends.
Begin’s new plan did not fall into either of these two previous categories. It is worth more attention than it has received because parts of it later reappeared in different form in the Camp David agreement. In essence, the Begin government separated “administration” from “security.” Under administration it included everything from education and finance to the administration of justice and supervision of local police forces. While the Israeli military government was to be abolished, Israeli armed forces were still to remain in charge of security.
To this extent, the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza were to be given control over their own affairs with the exception of the armed forces. On all other matters, however, the plan pointed in the direction of Jordan.
One provision, curiously, permitted residents of the West Bank and Gaza to choose either Israeli or Jordanian citizenship. Those who opted for Jordan could be elected to the Jordanian parliament, sitting in Amman. Negotiations between Israel and Jordan were provided for to settle questions arising from the vote to the Jordanian parliament by West Bank-Gaza residents, and other matters into which Jordan was to be drawn. Israeli citizens were to be allowed to acquire land and settle in the West Bank and Gaza, but only those Arabs who opted for Israeli citizenship could acquire land and settle in Israel.
Finally, the plan addressed itself directly to the question of “sovereignty.” At this point, too, Begin backed down from his previous hard, fixed position. His proposal declared that Israel stood by its right and claim to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza district. But it recognized that other claims also existed. To reach agreement, it proposed to leave open the question of sovereignty and to review the entire matter after a five-year period.
The Begin plan presented such a complex set of conditions that sovereignty might ultimately go to the local Palestinian Arabs as an outgrowth of their “administrative” responsibilities, to an Israeli-Jordanian condominium, or to the Israelis alone. Yet, despite all the possible combinations and permutations, it was held together by a basic conception of the future of the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of Palestine.
This conception is chiefly identified with Dayan, who first put it forward in the early 1970’s when he was still a Laborite in good standing. The main idea behind it is that Jews and Arabs should “live together” from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. It differs from the Laborite conception of a territorial division of the West Bank between Israel and Jordan in some manner that would leave a formal border between them. It also differs from what may be called the Egyptian conception—to create a formal border between pre-June 1967 Israel and a new Palestinian state or some autonomous Palestinian “entity” within Jordan. It differs from both of them by putting the main emphasis on some way of “living together” rather than on some way of living separately. Begin was apparently won over to this approach, judging from an interview on December 18, 1977, in which he said that “we should live together”—Dayan’s favorite slogan.
In an interview on April 30, 1978, Dayan himself explained what he had in mind:
So now this time we come forward with an absolutely different concept about it, not dividing the West Bank between Jordan and Israel, but living together, both the Arabs and Israelis living in the West Bank, the way we live in Jerusalem now (and no one really is now recommending dividing Jerusalem) so we say the same thing about the entire West Bank.
Dayan’s analogy with Jerusalem left something to be desired. Jerusalem is under total Israeli sovereignty, as the West Bank might or might not be. As anyone who visits Jerusalem can see, the city is united juridically, not socially. There was some movement toward “living together” after the 1967 war, but it was reversed after 1973. Nevertheless, Dayan’s aim of “living together” may well be as good a definition of peace in Palestine as is possible, for tomorrow or the day after if not for today. His conception, at any rate, helps to explain some of the complexity of the so-called Begin plan for Palestinian “self-rule” of late December 1977.
It was, from an Israeli point of view, a genuine innovation. It avoided both the Laborite formula of dividing the West Bank and Begin’s old dogma that the West Bank belonged by ancient prescription to Israel. It was so unconventional that it succeeded in throwing the “hawk-dove” lineup in Israeli politics into disarray. Some former Laborite doves now began to attack Begin for having given away too much. Begin’s hawkish followers began to feel the ground under them slipping away because the Palestinian Arabs were offered too much autonomy, while Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza would be moot for five years. Begin himself became temporarily unclassifiable as he alternately resorted to old-time Beginisms and anti-Beginisms. “Our preoccupation, our worry, is security,” he told the Knesset on July 2, 1978, just the way Laborites used to talk. On July 23, 1978, he attacked the Laborite leader, Shimon Peres, on the ground that the latter was ready to give up parts of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip. “I am not,” Begin protested, while his critics were shouting and wailing that he was ready to give up practically everything.
From the Arab point of view, Begin’s plan never had a chance. In June 1978, Sadat presented his own plan for the West Bank and Gaza. Like Begin’s, it provided for a five-year “transitional period.” But whereas Begin had merely stipulated a review of the entire procedure after five years, Sadat demanded that “the Palestinian people will be able to determine their own future” after a maximum of five years. Sadat also injected Jordan into his plan by proposing that the future would be decided by representatives of Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Arabs. Begin’s plan would not have touched the existing Israeli settlements or Israeli armed forces. Sadat required them to be removed at the very beginning of the transitional period, during which Jordan would supervise the administration of the West Bank and Egypt of the Gaza Strip. Jordan and Egypt would thus have had five years of administering the two areas before the final adjudication.
Sadat’s plan never had a chance with the Israelis. It was followed by the stalemate broken three months later at Camp David. Still, both the Begin and Sadat plans had elements which could be juggled or compromised. Most noteworthy in view of later developments was the agreement on a five-year transitional period before a final decision on sovereignty. Jordan was brought into both schemes. The inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza were drawn into varying degrees of immediate management of their own affairs. There were plenty of significant differences, but they were the stuff of which diplomatic compromises are made.
All during this period, the initiative belonged to Sadat. He had seized it in Jerusalem, and he held on to it with skill and tenacity.
His trump card throughout was U.S. policy. The relationship of forces in the Arab world vis-à-vis Israel was such that Sadat could not hope to prevail without the backing of Washington. By going to Jerusalem on his own, Sadat had found himself almost totally isolated in the Arab world. Egypt alone was in no position to enforce its demands on Israel. Egypt plus the United States was something else. Every move by Sadat was calculated primarily with an eye on the United States.
Sadat himself said as much repeatedly with disarming candor. Sometimes he said that the United States held 100 per cent of the cards. Sometimes he reduced the figure to a mere 99 per cent. The implication of this favorite observation was clear. If the United States held 100 per cent or 99 per cent of the cards and Israel none or 1 per cent, Sadat was inferentially negotiating with the party that held all those cards, not with the party without them. Thus Sadat’s strategy was to get the United States to make up for what Egypt lacked. He set up and worked within a triangle—Egypt-Israel-United States. His success or failure was made to depend on his manipulation of the United States. This schema was designed as if all that mattered were American “leverage” on Israel. It left out of the account Egypt’s leverage on the other Arab states.
Of greatest interest to Sadat must have been President Carter’s choice of Zbigniew Brzezinski as his National Security Adviser.
Brzezinski is no exception to the rule that political intellectuals give literary hostages to fortune before they reap political rewards for their intellectual labors. In his case, efforts to find out what he had in mind for the Middle East before he took office have focused on the report issued by a Brookings Institution Study Group, of which he was a prominent member, in December 1975. But it was signed by fifteen others, some of whom did not agree with him on everything. For Brzezinski’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict before it became advisable for him to watch his words for their immediate political effect, it is necessary to turn to an article, “Peace In An International Framework,” which he—together with François Duchêne of England and Kiichi Saeki of Japan—published in the Summer 1975 issue of Foreign Policy. This article put Brzezinski on record as advocating, among other things, that:
- The United States should overtly take the initiative to present the substance of an international framework for an eventual settlement.
- The solution had to “treat the whole problem” at once, not piecemeal.
- Israel should trade occupied territories for Arab acceptance of the pre-June 1967 borders.
- The result of such a trade-off would most likely be a PLO-dominated state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such a state was seen on one page of the article as coming “probably” and on another page “almost certainly.”
- The Soviet Union must be drawn into the negotiations. It was needed to provide a “joint guarantee by the superpowers” of any territorial settlement. No peace treaty was feasible without Soviet participation.
One more tenet was perhaps the most revealing of all. It appeared in this form:
But the United States is also keenly aware that its relations with the Arab world impinge on its status as a superpower, and its support of Israel cuts across American raisons d’état.
This oracular pronouncement must be understood in terms of a longstanding argument in American policy-making circles about where the true American raisons d’etat are located—in Israel, the Arab states, or some combination of both. The article by Brzezinski et al. shifted them sharply over to the Arab side. The Arabs were said really to matter so far as America’s “status as a superpower” was concerned; Israel cut across American raisons d’etat. The implication was inescapable—we may sympathize with Israel but we must in the final analysis support the Arabs, or at least get their support. This assessment was slipped in unostentatiously, though its implications informed the entire argument. With the exception of the stress on Soviet participation, there was nothing in the article that Sadat could not accept.
Despite this open manifesto on how to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict only a year before the presidential campaign and his choice of Jimmy Carter as his standard-bearer, Brzezinski’s views were conspicuously absent from candidate Carter’s campaign commitments in 1976. Carter denounced the Ford administration for having “tried to make Israel the scapegoat for the problems in the Middle East.” He came out for “defensible borders,” the Israeli code term for substantial changes. He rejected a Soviet-American imposed settlement. He told the Israelis that he himself would not relinquish direct control of the Golan Heights or Old Jerusalem. He advised them not to deal with the PLO. He put almost the entire onus for peace on the Arabs, from whom he demanded recognition of Israel, diplomatic relations, and a peace treaty as the “heart” of the matter.
After the election, most of these professions of deeply held convictions were consigned to the famous “dust heap of history,” which in American politics receives another delivery in only as much time as it takes to get from the campaign to the election, All through 1977, the Middle East policy of the Carter administration moved in directions suspiciously similar to those which Brzezinski had charted in 1975.
- The United States decided to adopt a more overt, operative role leading to a settlement. “We are not just an idle bystander,” said President Carter on September 16, 1977. “We are not just an uninterested intermediary or mediator.” A few days later came word from Brzezinski that the United States had “the legitimate right to exercise its own leverage” and was not “just an interested bystander, not even a benevolent mediator.”6
- The United States was committed to an all-inclusive “comprehensive” settlement, extending from Egypt to Syria. President Assad was persistently wooed; systematic efforts were made to find out what would be acceptable to him. As late as July 5, 1978, Carter called Assad “a major force for peace in the Middle East for many years.”
- Israel’s “defensible borders” turned out to be just what they had been in the previous Nixon and Ford administrations. On March 9, 1977, Carter came out for “some minor adjustments in the 1967 borders.” (A “minor adjustment” is understood to be something on the order of the reunification of a village cut in half by the 1949 armistice lines, which are all that the 1967 borders are based on.)
- On a PLO-dominated state in the West Bank and Gaza the official policy began to move by degrees toward Brzezinski’s 1975 prescription. On March 16, 1977, the President for the first time came out for a Palestinian “homeland.” On September 16, he endorsed a Palestinian “entity,” preferably associated with Jordan. Repeated efforts were also made to get the PLO to say the right words or even to pretend that they had done so in order to gain admittance for them at a reconvened Geneva conference.
- The climax of all this American activity was the Soviet-American statement of October 1, 1977. It anthologized almost every important recommendation in Brzezinski’s 1975 article. It called for a “comprehensive” settlement “incorporating all parties concerned and all questions.” It recommended joint Soviet-American “guarantees” of any settlement. It maintained that a reconvened Geneva conference, no later than December 1977, was the only way to achieve a solution. It edged even closer to the PLO by employing the Arab formula of “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”7
In large part, this statement followed the line that had been urged by George W. Ball, Professor Stanley Hoffmann, and Nahum Goldmann as well as by the Brzezinski-Duchêne-Saeki article and the Brookings Report. What they had in common was the premise that the United States and the Soviet Union had to arrive at a prior agreement on the terms of a settlement in order to make an agreement by the parties themselves feasible.8
Not only that. The Soviet-American statement came as close to imposing a settlement on the interested parties as could be conceived of in the circumstances, despite official protestations to the contrary. The logic behind it had been worked out in the 1975 article by Brzezinski et al. It had envisaged a statement negotiated by the United States and the Soviet Union to provide a joint guarantee for a return to the pre-June 1967 borders. Such a statement, it had delicately hinted, “would put great pressure on the Arabs and the Israelis, especially if it were then endorsed by Western Europe and Japan” (p. 16). The United States and the Soviet Union did not have to present their statement as an imposed settlement; their “great pressure” was expected to do it for them.
Instead of great pressure, there was great shock in Egypt, Israel, and not least the United States.
The Soviet-American statement of October 1 was negotiated so secretively that neither Sadat nor Begin had been taken into Washington’s confidence. Sadat let it be known that he was appalled by American sponsorship of Soviet intervention in a matter which primarily concerned Egypt without full Egyptian cognizance of what had been afoot. Israel was infuriated because the Carter administration had issued the statement with no advance consultation, in flagrant violation of a previous commitment dating from September 1, 1975, to consult fully and to seek to concert position and strategy with Israel in advance of any effort to reconvene the Geneva conference. Begin and Dayan were permitted to see the statement only twenty-four hours before it was issued. Congressional opinion, also taken by surprise, reflected incredulity and hostility. The most enthusiastic public support for the statement came from Syria and the PLO.
This diplomatic coup was the culmination of months of policy planning and weeks of diplomatic negotiations—“long weeks,” President Carter later said. It could not possibly be attributed to a fit of absent-mindedness. Anyone who wants to know what the original Carter-Brzezinski-Vance policy for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict really was need only read this statement; the Soviets astutely recognized that that policy was good enough for them and their Arab clients. If such a coup was worth pulling off at all, however, it should have been followed by an exhibition of that “great pressure” which a Soviet-American statement was supposed to generate.
Pressure there was, but in the end it was not great enough. The Israelis protested bitterly and succeeded in getting some minor concessions. They were told that they did not have to accept the Soviet-American statement in advance of a reconvened Geneva conference. They obtained some nominal changes in the PLO’s presence at the conference. But the Carter administration would not budge on essentials; the President still insisted at the end of October that the Soviet-American statement was a “major move in the right direction.” American policy was hell-bent on going to Geneva and working in conjunction with the Soviet Union, with or without Egyptian and Israeli approval and cooperation.
One surprise begat another. While Washington was preparing to go to Geneva in December, Israel and Egypt quietly began to put out feelers to each other. Sadat’s bolt-out-of-the-blue bid on November 9 for an invitation to Jerusalem was his way of rejecting Geneva. Begin’s invitation and Sadat’s speech in the Knesset—all within eleven days-came so quickly that all control of events was lost by Washington, which was reduced to watching them unfold on television. As significant as anything that was said in Jerusalem was what was unsaid—that the road to peace led from Cairo to Jerusalem, not from Washington to Moscow.
The effect of Sadat’s Jerusalem speech was almost magical. The Soviet-American statement was put in cold storage. The new Geneva conference was indefinitely postponed. The plan to bring a recalcitrant Syria, an immobile Jordan, and a disinfected PLO into early, all-inclusive negotiations was sidetracked. The Soviets were again relegated to the sidelines.
Thus was a year of American policy-making for the Middle East undone. The only thing our policy-makers and planners could take credit for was that they had unwittingly helped to send Sadat to Jerusalem.
The first reaction in Washington to Sadat’s visit was compounded of bewilderment, embarrassment, and hesitation. But it would be a mistake to think that the American-Soviet statement was simply written off. It represented too great an investment and too deliberate a decision to be permanently abandoned. Instead, after a suitable period of recuperation and reflection, a determined effort was made to recover the ground lost without direct reference to the statement itself.
The most ambitious effort along these lines was made by Brzezinski, who now introduced the concept of three concentric circles. In the first, the United States supported an Egyptian-Israeli settlement. In the second, the “moderate” Palestinian Arabs and Jordan would be brought in. And the third was reserved for Syria and the Soviet Union, preferably at a comprehensive, reconvened Geneva conference. What the Soviet-American statement had contemplated achieving at one stroke, Sadat’s visit was now supposed to accomplish in three stages.
Another way to achieve the same end was to make Sadat the negotiator for all the other Arab states. As we have already seen, Sadat had assigned this role to himself, and Begin had gone along with him. Now Carter also associated himself with it. In an interview on January 6, 1978, after meeting with Sadat, Hussein, and King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, Carter asserted that he—and Hussein—felt “that Sadat is adequately representing the Arab position.” Hussein and Khalid allegedly supported Sadat “unequivocally.” Even more, Sadat was “almost uniquely trusted” not only by his own people but by the rest of the world, including “to a substantial degree” the Israelis. Only Syria was still inscrutable. But if Sadat could adequately represent the Arab position, we were in effect returning to the long sought “comprehensive” agreement.
Unfortunately, Hussein did not say that Sadat represented him. Khalid did not say that Sadat represented him. Carter said it for them. It remained to be seen how right the President was or how gullible he had been.
At about the same time, Sadat was given the opportunity to find out where the real “leverage” was.
The Begin plan for Palestinian “self-rule” had been submitted to the United States before it was made public at the end of December 1977. Carter told Begin, according to the latter, that he considered the plan “a fair basis for negotiation to achieve peace.” Publicly, Carter confirmed that he had been decidedly encouraging. In an interview on December 28, he agreed that Begin’s plan “certainly is a realistic negotiating position” and declared that Begin “already has shown a great deal of flexibility.” Begin had every reason to think that the Americans would back the Israeli proposals as a basis of negotiation with Egypt.
The test of American “leverage” came when Sadat categorically rejected the Israeli plan. Thereupon the Americans also discarded it. The lesson was not lost—that Sadat’s “leverage” upon American policy was greater than American “leverage” upon Sadat’s policy, and that Sadat’s “leverage” on American policy set in motion American “leverage” upon Begin’s policy. The 100 or 99 per cent of the cards that the Americans held, according to Sadat, was apparently to be played only in games between the United States and Israel.
Another example of how this “leverage” worked was given in a speech on April 5, 1978, by Alfred L. Atherton, Jr., who had just been appointed U.S. special negotiator for the Middle East. Atherton was discussing the provision in Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, which was to assure Israel of secure and recognized borders. Atherton explained why such borders were not achievable:
But borders that might give Israel the greatest sense of security in geographic and military terms are not those acceptable to Israel’s neighbors. They could not, therefore, provide true security.
This reasoning was an American version of a familiar Arab argument. The Israelis might get a greater sense of security if their borders were substantially changed, but it would not be true security unless the Arabs decided what those borders should be. Inasmuch as the Arabs at best wanted no change from the pre-June 1967 borders, the Israelis therefore could not get a greater sense of security in geographic and military terms. Thus the United States had to accept the Arab demand for Israeli “withdrawal”—not qualified on this occasion by “substantial” or any other adjective—to the pre-June 1967 borders. There may be good reasons why Israel should agree to a total withdrawal, or to something substantially or insubstantially less, but this reason is surely not among them. It is, in effect, a rationale for giving the Arabs a veto power over both Israeli and American policy. Yet it was seriously propounded by the leading State Department official in direct charge of Middle East affairs.
By mid-1978, American “leverage” was demonstrated in still another way. It concerned Begin’s proposal of December 1977 for Palestinian “self-rule”—still the official Israeli position. By this time, Israelis and Egyptians were deadlocked over, among other things, the outcome of the transition period. Was the decision on Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza to be left open after the five-year period, as the Israelis proposed, or were the Palestinian Arabs to decide the issue at the end of this period, as the Egyptians urged?
In June 1978, the United States virtually took over the negotiations. It sent a questionnaire to Jerusalem, the nub of which was the question whether Israel would be willing to negotiate a final status for the occupied territories after a five-year transitional period. The response reiterated the original Israeli position—that “the nature of future relations between the parties will be considered and agreed upon” at the end of the period. The Carter administration clearly intended its question as a signal to the Israeli cabinet that only an affirmative answer would be considered satisfactory. No other supposition can account for the reaction in Washington to the Israeli reply. The State Department spokesman publicly expressed “regret that the Israeli replies did not fully respond to our questions.” In a news conference on June 26, President Carter censured the Israeli responses as “very disappointing.” He was clearly incensed.
On this occasion the Carter administration might just as well have issued instructions to Jerusalem on how to respond. The trouble with the Israeli response was that it was fully responsive but not according to Washington’s intention or liking. In fact, the Israeli response would not have been so “disappointing” if it had been less responsive. Another peculiar aspect of this diplomatic exchange was the way it was flaunted in public. A request for information between governments is usually made discreetly. This incident was played up as if the Carter administration were determined to humiliate the Israeli government by getting it to reverse itself upon American demand or face a public dressing-down by the combined disciplinarians in the State Department and the White House.
If this sort of American “leverage” upon Israel had worked, there would have been no need for the command performance at Camp David in September. Not that the United States was without leverage; it was merely without sufficient leverage to make Israel give up what it considered a vital interest. The distinction was critical to the success—and later breakdown—of the agreements reached at Camp David. The basic reasons for both went back to Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem.
In his speech almost a year before, Sadat had anticipated no trouble reaching agreement between Egypt and Israel, which, he said, was not the problem. He proved to be right. The Egyptians correctly surmised that the Israelis would not permit their few settlements in the Sinai to stand in the way of an Egyptian-Israeli peace, however painful it might be to remove them. But most of Sadat’s Jerusalem speech had been spent on his role as representative of the entire Arab world in its disputes with Israel, and the Camp David negotiations hinged on this aspect of Egyptian policy. Thus the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” was three times as long as the “Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty Between Egypt and Israel.” The presupposition of the former was that Egypt did or could represent the Arab states and interests in the Middle East. Without this presupposition, the agreement made little sense.
The Middle East framework made no secret of this assumption of pan-Arab representation on the part of Sadat. It was intended, the text said, “to constitute a basis for peace not only between Egypt and Israel, but also between Israel and each of its other neighbors which is prepared to negotiate with Israel on this basis.” To make sure that no one missed the point, the document reiterated: “Egypt and Israel state that the principles and provisions described below should apply to peace treaties between Israel and each of its neighbors—Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.” And once more, the framework invited “the other parties to the conflict” to negotiate peace treaties simultaneously with Egypt and Israel “with a view to achieving a comprehensive peace in the area.” One can imagine Sadat’s reaction if Assad of Syria or Hussein of Jordan had made a deal with Israel and told Egypt to go and do likewise.
The most troublesome part of the Middle East framework, dealing with the Palestinian Arabs, had Sadat implicitly negotiating not only for the Palestinian Arabs but for Jordan. Sadat’s ostensible aim had been to gain recognition for “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”—and this language was incorporated in the framework. Sadat had also held out for a determination—not merely a review—of the final status of the West Bank and Gaza within a transitional period not exceeding five years. Begin’s greatest concession came at this point, though he could claim that he had not promised any particular outcome of this determination. The entire process was, however, to be controlled from the outside—by Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. The three, according to the document, first had to agree on the “modalities for establishing an elected self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza,” defined in the next paragraph as merely an “administrative council.” The Egyptian and Jordanian delegations might—not would—include Palestinian Arabs. Jordan was brought into the exercise at every opportunity. After the “modalities” were agreed on, the next step was to be negotiations to determine the “final status” of the Palestinian Arabs. These negotiations were again to be carried on by Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, this time joined by the elected representatives of the West Bank and Gaza. Arab immigration into the West Bank during the transitional period was also to be decided by this quadrumvirate.
Nothing in the Palestinian framework committed Israel—or any other party—to any particular outcome or “final status.” Nothing in the Egyptian-Israeli peace framework referred to the Palestinian framework or to Egyptian treaties with other Arab states. The peace framework was so worked out that it concerned Egypt and Israel only, and therefore could be controlled and carried out by them. The Palestinian Arab framework was so put together that it had to have the cooperation of at least two other parties—Jordan and the Palestinian Arabs. If Sadat was not really representing them, that framework was bound to come apart at the seams.
There was reason for this singular solicitude for Jordan on the part of Egypt, Israel, and the United States. However much they differed, the three of them agreed on one thing—that the new Palestinian Arab homeland or entity or self-governing authority should in some way be linked to Jordan. This was the only kind of “linkage” actually built into the West Bank-Gaza framework. And all the while, Hussein could not make up his mind whether to say yes or no. The autocratic Jordanian state could easily be disrupted by permitting an “authority” in Palestine to be “self-governing,” and Palestinian Arab “self-government” could easily end up without much authority by linking itself to the autocracy in Amman.
Egypt, Israel, and the United States wanted the Jordanian link as a form of insurance against a PLO-controlled Palestinian state. Israel wanted this link the most, but Sadat had also resorted to the double-talk of an “independent” Palestinian state “linked with Jordan.” Carter had never gone further than a Palestinian homeland or entity “in a very strong federation or confederation with Jordan.” Meanwhile, no one had heard from Jordan how much independence it was willing or able to grant a state or entity which was also a constituent part of itself. At the same time, the Camp David formulas had, without Jordan’s approval, assumed Jordan’s participation in the determination of the Palestine Arabs’ “final status.”
The Jordanian link in the Camp David framework again put Sadat’s representative function to the test. If he had had a prior understanding with Hussein, or could count on his support without it, the framework might not have crumbled so quickly. But Hussein had been sulking all the while, as decisions were made for him thousands of miles away. He finally asserted himself by publicly posing fifteen querulous questions about the Camp David agreement.
One would imagine that the answers should have come from Sadat, who, after all, signed the agreements and supposedly represented the Arab side. But no, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders rushed off to Amman to answer the King’s questions. Saunders succeeded only in making a bad situation worse. He failed to satisfy Hussein, and he infuriated Begin. The Israeli Prime Minister understood Saunders’s answers to imply that the Camp David framework was tantamount to a commitment to establish Arab sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza after the five-year transition period. Begin had given way on the issue, but not that much; he had agreed that the “final status” would be determined within five years, not what that status would be. And so Begin sent off a letter to Washington protesting that Saunders had distorted the plain language of the agreement. Saunders’s indiscretion strengthened the already disturbing suspicion that the American side had never been wholly happy with the Camp David agreements and was trying ex post facto to smuggle into them more of what the Egyptians had originally demanded.
In effect, the Palestinian framework of the Camp David agreements was a self-destructive diplomatic instrument. It needed little help from the outside to explode from within. Once Jordan and the Palestinian Arabs let it be known that they would not play their allotted roles, the framework fell of its own weight. Only those who had not read the fine print could imagine that Egypt, Israel, and the United States were enough to make it stand up without Jordan or the Palestinian Arabs, not to mention Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. The verdict was in even as President Carter’s standing in the public-opinion polls shot up for his seeming diplomatic triumph and Prime Minister Begin went to Stockholm to receive a peace prize he had not earned.
And yet, there was something about the Camp David agreements that let a glimmer of reality into the murk of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The glimmer came through the crack between the Israeli-Egyptian framework and the West Bank-Gaza framework. The separation of the two frameworks was itself a decision of utmost significance. It implied that the negotiators formally distinguished between what was binding and what was contingent. A separation between the two frameworks did not mean that they were unrelated. It meant that they were not necessarily related. They were related, if only because Israel was central to both of them, and one could help the other to succeed. But Israel was not central to both in the same way, and one could also hurt the other. If they had been necessarily related, there would have been no need for the two frameworks at all, or there would have been a built-in connection between them. In the latter case, the Camp David agreements would have been only as strong as their weakest link. The only way out of this predicament was to separate the two.
This move was clearly understood by the Americans at Camp David. A “senior White House official,” whose disguise deceived no informed reader, told reporters that each of the frameworks “stands on its own.” President Carter clearly distinguished between the legal and the psychological relationships when he said: “The two discussions on the Sinai, which relate to Egypt and Israel only on the one hand, and the West Bank-Gaza Strip discussions on the other, are not legally interconnected, but I think throughout the Camp David talks and in the minds of myself, Prime Minister Begin, and President Sadat, they are interrelated.” In agreements of this sort, there is a world of difference between what is legally interconnected and what is mentally interrelated.
One word has bedeviled this subject. It is “comprehensive.” Sadat, Begin, and Carter have all paid tribute or lip-service to this shibboleth, which Carter seems to cherish the most. The term lends itself to different interpretations in different circumstances, so that it is hard to know just what is meant by it. The Egyptian-Israeli framework was a comprehensive peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, but not comprehensive enough to take in the West Bank and Gaza. The other framework was designed to be comprehensive for the West Bank and Gaza, but still left out Syria. A truly comprehensive settlement of the conflict would have to embrace all the neighboring states and perhaps even get the blessings of Saudi Arabia. Such a settlement is not considered possible in present circumstances even by the most wild-eyed advocates of comprehensiveness à outrance. In practice, no one expects a truly comprehensive agreement by all interested parties at one stroke; all that is immediately attainable are degrees of comprehensiveness—which is the same as degrees of non-comprehensiveness.
The trouble with a fully comprehensive agreement in these circumstances is that it is illusory in practice, not that it is wrong in principle. The more comprehensive an agreement sets out to be, the more it has to take in Arab states that are the most intransigent. Comprehensiveness thus negates itself. What is important here is not how comprehensive an agreement is, but how effectively an agreement can be carried out within its own terms.
The French saying that “the best is the enemy of the good” may be reworded in the Arab-Israeli context as “the impossible is the enemy of the possible.” The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was possible because the issues were not intractable and, above all, because Sadat had a mandate to negotiate them. The West Bank-Gaza treaty was not possible at this time because the issues were much less tractable and, above all, because Sadat did not have a mandate to negotiate them. Yet in order to get the negotiations started at all, it was necessary to assume or to pretend that Sadat represented the Arab and not merely the Egyptian side.
But Sadat did not and could not represent the Arab side. His self-appointment as representative of the other interested Arab states inevitably excited their resentment and hostility. Hussein spoke for them rancorously in an interview which appeared in the New York Times on January 12, 1979. Sadat had to understand, Hussein told Christopher S. Wren, that “it is not a situation where Egypt is a shepherd and the rest are a herd that can be moved in any direction without question.” The implications of Sadat’s representative role were never clearly understood, or at least never made understandable to the wider public. For Sadat was not merely reaching agreements with Israel, whether for a peace with Egypt or disposition of the West Bank and Gaza issues. He was not merely protecting his Arab flanks. He was doing both, but he could not do them both without at the same time imposing Egyptian leadership on Arab states, which were put in the position of taking or leaving an agreement which he had negotiated for them.
The intractability of the non-Egyptian issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict is not merely the result of willfulness or pettiness. With the best will in the world on all sides, the issues would still be cruel and painful. Words cannot make them go away, and good intentions cannot change the realities on the ground. One of the greatest obstacles to a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the assumption that all such differences are amenable to rational, practical arrangements. This sort of remote-control optimism makes a settlement all the harder by making agreement seem too easy and by encouraging a susceptibility to gimmicks and shortcuts.
Take the pre-June 1967 borders of Israel, which are so much in dispute. They are merely the armistice lines of 1949, where the opposing armies happened to come to a halt. The West Bank was taken by Jordan by force of arms. The Jordanians had invaded the West Bank in 1948 in defiance of the UN partition plan in order to prevent the emergence of an independent Palestinian Arab state called for by the plan. In all the years since then, only two states, Great Britain and Pakistan, and no other Arab state, had ever recognized Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank. On July 29, 1977, Secretary of State Vance acknowledged that it is “an open question as to who has legal right to the West Bank.” Legally, then, the position of the West Bank could not be more ill-defined. If forcible occupation is illegal, Jordan had no more right to it than has Israel—and Israel at least has the justification of having occupied it in a war of self-defense.
The geopolitical aspect of the pre-June 1967 borders also resists easy manipulation. The hardest strategic nut to crack is the fact that the 1949 armistice lines left Israel with a waist about ten miles wide at the narrowest point between Arab territory and the Mediterranean sea. Israel’s largest city, Tel Aviv, was only about fifteen miles from the Arab lines. The Gaza Strip under Egyptian military control—never legitimized as part of Egypt—was situated at the tip of the traditional southern invasion route into Palestine. The Golan Heights provided the Syrians with a fortress-sanctuary from which to harass the Israeli settlements below. None of these strategic monstrosities left by the 1949 armistice lines can be ameliorated by “insubstantial” territorial changes. But if the changes are “substantial,” they must cut into territory that Arabs inhabit or consider their own.
Anyone who has ever set foot on the Golan Heights knows how little leeway they permit. From one direction on a clear day one can see the Israeli city of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast; from the opposite direction, the Syrian capital of Damascus. The plains below on both sides of the Heights are virtually defenseless, or at least desperately difficult to defend against an enemy entrenched overhead. Both sides have too little space at their disposal. The space factor in any Arab-Israeli conflict governs the time factor; there is just too little room for taking risks or making serious compromises so long as tensions remain high.
The most frequent suggestion by outsiders of a way out of this impasse has been “guarantees” by the superpowers. Unfortunately, Israel’s position is such that guarantees would not be worth the paper they were written on. Among other reasons, the time factor in any Arab-Israeli war is against them. Israel won the 1967 war in the first two days and almost lost the 1973 war in the first three days. An effective guarantee would have to go into effect immediately, which would be possible only if the guarantor’s protective forces were in place in sufficient numbers with sufficient arms on all fronts before the outbreak of hostilities. Israel, in effect, would give up responsibility for its own self-defense, and American soldiers would conceivably have to die instead of Israeli soldiers (it is too great a strain on the imagination to see Soviet soldiers dying to save Israel). Any threat to the guarantee would set off an international hubbub over who was to blame, whether and how to make the guarantee work, and what sort of resolution to pass in the United Nations. Those who advocate a guarantee make no provisions for enforcing it, want foreign soldiers to swarm all over the area, or assume that it would not have to be enforced.9
The problem of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is another vexing dilemma. At the heart of it is a question which is rarely considered: should there be any Jews in the West Bank? And if so, where and how?
There are about 500,000 Arabs in Israel itself out of a population of about 3,500,000. If the same proportion of one-seventh of the population of about 700,000 in the West Bank were permitted for Jews, the latter would number about 100,000. This figure is so unrealistic that no one gives it a thought, for which very reason the imbalance in any proposed distribution of Arabs and Jews in Israel and the West Bank is all the more glaring.
The Jewish communities in the West Bank happened to be the oldest in Palestine. The oldest of all Jewish communities was situated at Hebron, south of Jerusalem, where David was first anointed King of Judah. It survived the destruction of both Temples but not Arab violence in 1929 and 1936. Only one Jewish family remained in Hebron when Jordan took over in 1948 and made the entire West Bank Judenrein. The Jewish return to a suburb of Hebron, now called Kiryat Arba (the older name of Hebron), with a population of a few hundred, came after the June 1967 war. Kiryat Arba is atypical in that it is a relatively large Jewish community owing to its biblical associations for the Orthodox; it is typical in that it is still a small, self-enclosed Jewish enclave in a hostile Arab environment.
What constitutes historical justice here? Who is to say?
A few of the other Israeli settlements in the West Bank are like Kiryat Arba—a return to places where Jews lived before 1948. But many are not real settlements by long-term homesteaders; they are military-farming outposts for young people organized by “Nahal,” a youth branch of the Israeli army. Others are civilian settlements of various political colorations. At latest count, there were 48 Jewish settlements in the West Bank with a total population of about 4,500, most of whose support comes from those who work in Israel and commute morning and evening. Gush Emunim, the extremist religious faction, claims 15 of these settlements, few of whose residents work in them and some of whom merely spend the weekend there. If the number of existing settlements and settlers were doubled, the result would still be nothing but small, barbed-wire-enclosed Israeli enclaves drawing their sustenance from Israel itself and numbering fewer than 10,000 Jews. Meanwhile, Israelis worry about the natural increase of the Arab population in the Galilee and the reluctance of Jewish immigrants to settle in that part of Israel in sufficient numbers to offset the growing Arab concentrations.
The tenacity with which these settlements are espoused by many Israelis and opposed by most Arabs tells us something else about this problem. It is not altogether amenable to ordinary diplomacy or practical politics. Its roots are too deeply historical, religious, and in some cases irrational. In present circumstances, isolated settlements are the only way for Jews to live in the West Bank, which also happens to be the Judea and Samaria that constituted the original Jewish homeland. The only way is, however, more symbolic than real. In the 1973 war, the settlements on the Golan Heights demonstrated the difference between symbols and realities, when the hard-pressed Israeli army had to deflect soldiers desperately needed elsewhere to pull out the settlers at the first sign of danger.
Whatever one has in one’s head, the reality is paradoxical on the ground. If the West Bank is Jewish territory, it is a peculiar kind of Jewish territory on which Arabs live and will continue to live almost exclusively. If it is Arab territory, it is a peculiar kind of Arab territory which was previously denuded of Jews by coercion and violence, was lost in a war provoked by Arabs, and is so situated that in the wrong hands it could mortally endanger both Jordan and Israel. The worst thing about the problem of the West Bank is that it is so tormentingly intractable; it would be much easier to resolve if it were only the product of ill-will or stupidity.
What, one may ask, has all this to do with the Camp David agreements? The answer is that it has everything to do with them.
As I have tried to show, one of those agreements, dealing with the future of the West Bank-Gaza area, was fatally flawed. But its faults should not blind us to its chief virtue. It recognized that this problem was one that had to be dealt with circumspectly and experimented with in order for there to be a chance of finding a solution with which all interested parties could live.
The old Labor-party compromise of partition could never work because it was totally unacceptable to the Arabs and made no provision for anything but an Israeli-Jordanian future for the Palestinian Arabs. The Camp David arrangement was a different type of compromise. It was based on the provisional distinction between Palestinian Arab civil autonomy and Israeli security, the former very broad in scope, including a strong local police force, the latter limited to a thinned-out Israeli military deployment—numbering only 6,000 soldiers—within specified security locations. For such a compromise, the five-year transition period was minimally indispensable. It would have given all sides an opportunity to move toward a new relationship without feeling totally hedged in. The negotiations for a final status were set to begin almost midway through the transition period—no later than three years. If “peace process” has any meaning, this arrangement was just such a process.
It was, moreover, a genuine compromise. It was especially a compromise on the part of Prime Minister Begin. He was the one who gave away the most. How much he gave away can be seen by comparing the open-ended Camp David agreement with the 1977 election platform of Begin’s electoral Likud bloc, which called for “Jewish sovereignty alone between the sea and Jordan.” Not a single one of Begin’s chief lieutenants in his own party went along with him in favor of the Camp David agreements; several of those who had been closest to him attacked him the most savagely; he was put in the curious position of being saved from defeat by the opposition. Sadat compromised by agreeing to leave some Israeli security forces in place in the West Bank for the time being, to postpone the final status for up to five years, and to exclude the disposition of East Jerusalem, on which the sides were too far apart. But the compromise was uneven. What the Israelis gave up, they actually had; what the Egyptians gave up, they had merely wanted.
We may now come back to Dayan’s formula of “living together.” It can be misused, as it is misused when it is applied to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These settlements are evidence of just the opposite. They are in the West Bank only in a geographic sense; socially, they might just as well be in Israel; their inhabitants live farther apart from their Arab neighbors than Jews and Arabs live apart in Israel.
Yet the ultimate validity of the idea cannot be rejected. Whatever the juridical arrangements, Jews and Arabs can have peace in the small, cramped space of Palestine only by “living together” in some manner. There is no other way to make any arrangement work, and any peaceful arrangement must finally be judged by how it contributes to living together, not by largely unrealizable abstractions—whether Israeli or Arab—about sovereignty in the West Bank.
Can Jews and Arabs live together some day in the whole of Palestine? In this matter, optimism is futile, pessimism fatal. When it comes to staying alive, people do what they must—not always, but often enough to give some hope for the survival of the human race. The Camp David framework for the West Bank and Gaza, shorn of its flaws, offered some hope for a peaceful future for Jews and Arabs in Palestine. That much cannot be said for the all-or-nothing proposals for an Arab-Israeli settlement.
The first loser as a result of the breakdown of the Camp David agreements was Egypt.
It was a classical case of giving up a bird in the hand by chasing a bird in the bush. The bird in the hand was the Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement. It would have been no mean feat of diplomacy to regain all that Egyptian territory without war. But the bird in the bush lured Sadat into an effort to bulldoze his way to a West Bank-Gaza settlement without assured cooperation from the Palestinian Arabs, Jordan, or any other Arab state. That Begin and Carter played along with Sadat in his pretense that he could represent all Arab states and interests does not make him any less responsible for putting himself and them in that position.
That Sadat chose to reopen the Camp David negotiations at all was far more important than the grounds he gave for reopening them. These grounds, moreover, undermined the most realistic aspects of the agreements and magnified the most illusory.
The necessarily loose connection between the Egyptian-Israeli framework and the West Bank-Gaza framework was undercut by the demand for a rigidly set, time-bound linkage between the two. To make matters worse, another linkage was proposed making the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty subject to the vicissitudes of Egypt’s treaties with other Arab powers, which have never repudiated the political doctrine enunciated in 1967 by Nasser and Assad, the latter with far more power today, that the very existence of Israel in itself is an “aggression.”
The West Bank-Gaza framework had been built around the basic design of a five-year transitional period, which was to proceed by stages with Jordanian and Palestine-Arab cooperation. All previous proposals, Egyptian as well as Israeli, had provided for a five-year interval. When Sadat insisted on rushing ahead with the elections for the West Bank-Gaza administrative council—the first Egyptian proposal made the intervening period as short as three months, then altered it to six, and finally to nine—without Jordan and with no sign of support by the Palestinian Arabs, he was short-circuiting the transition period to the point of ensuring that nothing of lasting value could come out of it.
Sadat did not need the oppositionist Baghdad summit meeting of Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, on November 2-5, 1978, to tell him that he had lost his gamble at Camp David. The West Bank-Gaza framework had been so constructed that it could not work without prior agreement with, or almost immediate acquiescence by, Jordan and the Palestinian Arabs. When they refused to go along, before the Baghdad meeting, the framework fell apart. What the Baghdad meeting did, by uniting “extremists” and “moderates” against Sadat, was to serve notice that Egypt had to be humiliated and punished for breaking ranks, attempting to serve its own interest, and presuming at the same time to represent the Arab world. The message of the meeting was not that Sadat’s version of peace with Israel is wrong; it was that any peace with Israel is wrong. It was not merely a verdict on the past; it was also a mobilization for the future. For that mobilization, Egypt was told that it could no longer count on being the dominant factor, as it had liked to think of itself. The point of the exercise was to confront Egypt with the choice of having peace with Israel or peace with the other Arab states, but not with both. It is too often forgotten that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the only one going on in the Middle East; there is also an inter-Arab conflict, sometimes reflected in the jockeying for position against Israel, sometimes quite apart from Israel.
Sadat’s greatest problem is that his policy tends to outstrip his power. He seeks to manipulate forces much greater than those at his disposal. Ironically, he has found it much easier to manipulate the United States than his Arab brethren.
The second loser as a result of the breakdown of the Camp David agreements was the United States.
The American performance was not one to be proud of. Nothing could have been more embarrassing than the outcome of the policy consecrated in the Soviet-American statement of October 1977. To make a deal with the Soviet Union that neither Egypt nor Israel nor much of the U.S. Congress could tolerate must set some sort of record for wrong-headedness. After Sadat’s end run to Jerusalem, the Carter administration had to limp along after him. When Sadat’s momentum finally gave out after Camp David, the chief executive of the United States completely lost his bearings. By saying that the Egyptian-Israeli differences over Sadat’s new demands were nothing more than “tiny technicalities, phrasing of ideas, legalisms” which had “absolutely no historical significance,” President Carter unwittingly confessed that the full meaning of Sadat’s turnabout had eluded him.
In its initial spasm of disappointment, the Carter administration turned the full force of its wrath on the Israeli government. After recovering from shock, the masterminds of U.S. policy came up with a “compromise”—they stretched Egypt’s new demand for nine months between treaty signing and West Bank-Gaza elections to twelve months, as if they did not understand what the real issue was. Mechanically tacking on another three months could make no difference so long as Jordan and the Palestinian Arabs refused to cooperate. Without one or the other, and probably both, a hasty election imposed by Egypt, Israel, and the United States was sure to make the existing confusion worse.
The Carter administration would have been better advised to expend some of its wrath on Jordan. If any Arab country is beholden to the United States, it is Jordan.10 The Camp David framework was composed as if there were good reason to believe that Jordan could be counted on. Yet Hussein had burned his fingers so often that he could least afford to take chances. His reflexive disposition is to stay on the fence or join forces with the prospective winner. Hussein’s defection to the anti-Sadat camp did more to undermine the Camp David agreements than any other single action or inaction. It was at the same time a stunning defeat for and blatant affront to the United States. That Hussein can get away with this ambidexterity without the slightest sign of official disapproval or a whimper of protest from the American press suggests that some American leverage has been misdirected.11 Now that Hussein has been flirting with Syria and even the PLO, one wonders how much longer he can count on American indulgence. To be sure, he has not always guessed right. He jumped the wrong way in 1967; he may be jumping the wrong way again.
The fundamental problem facing American policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict is whether, as Brzezinski thought, “Israel cuts across American raisons d’état.” The State Department’s Middle East specialists tried to prevent American recognition of Israel in 1948 with essentially the same argument, and the attitude has survived underground or above ground ever since.12 The upheaval in Iran should especially bring this thesis into question. The resurgence of militant Islamic orthodoxy on the Iranian model threatens the raisons d’état of the United States in the entire region more than any other single force. It cannot be held back by the movement of an American battle fleet toward the Persian Gulf (recalled) or a visitation by F-15’s to Saudi Arabia (unarmed). The reaction of the Saudi rulers to the events in Iran should be most disturbing in Washington. If all the Saudi rulers could think of was to blame the United States for the Shah’s debacle, they have not begun to understand the social and political conditions which can also erupt in Saudi Arabia and have shown how ready they are to turn on the United States for an alibi. In comparison to most Islamic states, Israel stands out in the area as a rock of steadfastness. I do not mean to propose that Israel should be the only state in the Middle East befriended by the United States. I mean that it is self-defeating to befriend other states at the expense of Israel rather than in addition to Israel.
The third loser was Israel.
The Camp David agreement was extremely costly to the Israeli political system. It tore up each party and left wounds that may be difficult to heal. Begin suffered a major ideological split in his own party and gave up a lifetime of political consistency. In the opposition, the former dovish spokesman, Yigal Allon, turned hawkish, and only the critical support of the Labor-party leader, Shimon Peres, saved the Camp David agreements from parliamentary disaster. The Gush Emunim fanatics and their fellow-travelers resorted to actions and language that amounted to civil disobedience.
The political turmoil which the Camp David agreements provoked might have been a cheap price to pay for a peace with Egypt and a transition period in the West Bank and Gaza with a reasonable chance of success. But when they were quickly frustrated by Sadat’s equivocations, the damage to Israeli political institutions was not matched by any equivalent reward.
The U.S.-Israeli relationship was also subjected to unprecedented strain. Sadat’s entire strategy was based on the 100 or 99 per cent of the cards that the United States was supposed to hold against Israel. On this account, he could always make the United States responsible for anything he did not get from Israel; the Carter administration tried its best not to disappoint him and, in any case, considered that it had far more “leverage” to move Israel than to influence Egypt. As a result, Israeli resistance to Egyptian demands could be translated into Israeli defiance of American desires, and Egypt could sometimes exercise a virtual veto power over American policies. The classic instance in the first case was Israel’s rejection on the same grounds of both Egypt’s nine months and America’s twelve months for the West Bank-Gaza electoral timetable. In the second case, a classic example was Carter’s initial praise for Begin’s West Bank-Gaza self-rule plan of December 1977 as “a long step forward” and then his backing away as soon as the Egyptians made known their refusal to consider it.
Because, at times of hard bargaining, Israel was not negotiating with Egypt alone but rather with Egypt backstopped by the United States, the future Israeli negotiating position may have been seriously compromised. Prospective negotiations as a result tend to start from what Israel has already conceded and turn on what more Egypt wants. Made-in-America “compromises” usually give the Egyptians much or most of what they want and thereby raise the level of Israeli concessions to only a little lower than the original Egyptian demands. All the post-Camp David demands by Egypt were designed to provide Egypt with escape clauses for scaling down Egyptian obligations without any compensatory way out for Israel. So long as this type of bazaar diplomacy goes on, with tacit and sometimes open U.S. connivance, the end for Israel is never in sight.
The paradox in the Israeli position is that it may well be true that only Begin could have made the concessions necessary for the Camp David agreements and that Begin could make them only by acting as if he were his old political enemy, David Ben-Gurion. The tension between David Begin and Menachem Ben-Gurion is so great, however, that it may not be able to stand the strain of much more pulling and hauling.
We may yet look back at the Camp David agreements as having been in essence the most that Israel could give and the least that Arabs could accept. If so, sturdier frameworks for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors need a better understanding of what was right and what went wrong at Camp David.
1 I dealt with these sources in detail in my article, “From 1967 to 1973: The Arab-Israeli Wars,” COMMENTARY, December 1973, pp. 33-35.
2 In his book, Decade of Decisions (University of California Press, 1977), William B. Quandt criticizes American policy-makers in 1967 for having been “ultimately insensitive to the danger that war might break out at Israel's instigation” (p. 39). The book was completed just before Quandt was chosen by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski for the Middle East post on the National Security Council.
3 Hussein de Jordanie: Ma “Guerre” avec Israël by Vick Vance and Pierre Lauer (Albin Michel, Paris, 1968); Hussein by Peter Snow (Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1972).
4 Who misled whom still needs some clarification. A telephone conversation between Nasser and Hussein intercepted by the Israelis made it appear that Nasser may have suggested to Hussein that they should blame the United States and Great Britain for aiding Israel. But this conversation was obviously garbled and fragmentary in transcription. Nasser later, in a speech on July 23, 1967, related that Hussein had phoned him on the evening of June 7, 1967, and had told him that Jordan had been attacked by 400 aircraft. Nasser implied that the planes could only have come from the United States.
5 Before going to Jerusalem, Sadat had merely informed Assad of his intention.
6 Brzezinski liked the term “leverage”, so much that he repeated it at the Overseas Writers' Club on October 18, 1977. The term was not original with him. It had been used twice by George W. Ball in his article, “How to Save Israel in Spite of Herself,” in Foreign Affairs, April 1977, pp. 454, 459. Ball had made clear just what “leverage” meant—that “America's continued involvement in the area depends upon acceptance by both sides of the terms it prescribes” (p. 459).
7 Brzezinski for one could not have failed to understand what this term was supposed to mean. The 1975 article had noted that the “commitment [of the Arabs] to the ‘legitimate rights of the Palestinian people’ would under the traditional interpretation mean the demise of Israel . . .” (P. 9).
8 With varying degrees of emphasis and discretion, this premise may be found in the articles in Foreign Affairs by George W. Ball, April 1977, especially p. 468; Stanley Hoffmann, April 1975, especially pp. 421-422; Nahum Goldmann, October 1975, especially p. 124.
The origin of this statement is somewhat confusing. Reporters were first told that it was a Soviet idea and that the final text was based on a Soviet draft. Then the story was changed so that Secretary Vance had conceived the idea two months earlier but the Soviets had submitted a draft which had been modified by both sides. In any case, it must have been clear to the Soviets from previous articles and statements by leading officials in the Carter administration what they could expect and how far they could go.
9 George W. Ball provides a good example of how a guarantee can be bandied about without giving the slightest hint of what it would entail (Foreign Affairs, April 1977, p. 461).
Professor Stanley Hoffmann would have had foreign troops, not excluding the possibility of Soviet and American soldiers, stationed in the Sinai, at Sharm el-Sheikh, the Golan Heights, and those portions of the West Bank closest to the Mediterranean “for a long period.” His “guarantee” would have virtually amounted to a foreign military occupation by an international conglomeration under the aegis of the United Nations, whose tender mercies toward Israel are so well known. Professor Hoffmann thought of guarding against “the tragic experience of UNEF in 1967” through an agreement “against the arbitrary dismissal of the peace forces by one of the countries in which they are stationed, or the arbitrary removal of a national contingent by the country of origin.” Apart from the fact that all these agreements would hinge on the interpretation of the term “arbitrary,” and every participating country would interpret it as it pleased, Hoffmann chose to ignore the larger problem—that such a UN force would ultimately be controllable by the Arab bloc and its allies, and a good part of it would have to be contributed by countries which do not recognize Israel, do not see fit to have diplomatic relations with Israel, or are subject to Arab oil blackmail (Foreign Affairs, April 1975, p. 425).
Professor Richard H. Ullman has proposed a plan for guarantees, the effect of which “would be to make it exceedingly unlikely that those forces would ever be involved in combat” (Foreign Policy, Summer 1975, p. 26).
10 Someone ought to remind Hussein of what happened to him in 1970. When Jordan was invaded by Syria in support of the PLO in September of that year, Hussein frantically called for U.S. help. The U.S. in turn, having no other immediate way to help Jordan, turned to Israel for assistance. Hussein himself urged Israel to engage in ground action against Syria. Then Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger worked out a plan for Israel to send 200 tanks into Syria; President Nixon finally approved an Israeli plan for an Israeli air strike and, if necessary, tank attack against Syrian forces in Jordan. As the present Middle East expert on the National Security Council tells the story: “Hussein, with the assurance that Israel and the United States were behind him, finally ordered his own small air force to attack the Syrian tanks around Irbid, which it did with satisfactory results” (William B. Quandt, Decade of Decisions, pp. 116-19). Faced with evidence that Hussein had recovered his nerve and with the threat of U.S.-Israeli intervention, the Syrians withdrew.
11 The responsibility of the American press and especially television for this sorry state of affairs is, I believe, considerable. The personal favoritism and political myopia exhibited by the media have been flagrant. I have seen interviewers fawn on Sadat and badger Begin or Dayan. The Egyptians could not demand too much and the Israelis give up too much to please most of them. Sadat could say, with a straight face, “We have given Israel everything,” without being challenged to name anything in particular that he proposed to give Israel beyond what it already had, without his help, within the pre-June 1967 armistice lines. I can well understand that American correspondents and interviewers should find Sadat's personality more beguiling than Begin's or Dayan's. But even Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman received the same prosecutorial treatment. I have watched an interview with Weizman by Barbara Walters in which she dropped the mask of interviewer midway through the program and openly announced that she was going to adopt the role of antagonist. The television bias was so flagrant that it seemed to be competitive.
12 One who should know from his personal experience as deputy in the Middle East office of the National Security Council staff from 1972 to 1974 described this view as follows: “The conventional wisdom, especially in the State Department, was that American support for Israel was an impediment to U.S.-Arab relations. By granting economic and military aid to the enemy of the Arabs, the United States was providing the Soviet Union with an opportunity to extend its influence in the Middle East. Although few questioned that Israel's existence should be defended by the United States in an extreme case, many felt that an ‘even-handed’ policy, whereby the United States would not always align itself with Israel and would not become her primary arms supplier, was the best guarantee of the United States interests in the region. In this view, Israel was more of an embarrassment for the United States policy than a strategic asset. Even if Israel was an impressive military power, that power could be used only to defend Israel, not to advance American interests elsewhere in the region” (William B. Quandt, Decade of Decisions, p. 120).
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How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East
Must-Reads from Magazine
Sex and Work in an Age Without Norms
In the Beginning Was the ‘Hostile Work Environment’
In 1979, the feminist legal thinker Catharine MacKinnon published a book called Sexual Harassment of Working Women. Her goal was to convince the public (especially the courts) that harassment was a serious problem affecting all women whether or not they had been harassed, and that it was discriminatory. “The factors that explain and comprise the experience of sexual harassment characterize all women’s situation in one way or another, not only that of direct victims of the practice,” MacKinnon wrote. “It is this level of commonality that makes sexual harassment a women’s experience, not merely an experience of a series of individuals who happen to be of the female sex.” MacKinnon was not only making a case against clear-cut instances of harassment, but also arguing that the ordinary social dynamic between men and women itself created what she called “hostile work environments.”
The culture was ripe for such arguments. Bourgeois norms of sexual behavior had been eroding for at least a decade, a fact many on the left hailed as evidence of the dawn of a new age of sexual and social freedom. At the same time, however, a Redbook magazine survey published a few years before MacKinnon’s book found that nearly 90 percent of the female respondents had experienced some form of harassment on the job.
MacKinnon’s views might have been radical—she argued for a Marxist feminist jurisprudence reflecting her belief that sexual relations are hopelessly mired in male dominance and female submission—but she wasn’t entirely wrong. The postwar America in which women like MacKinnon came of age offered few opportunities for female agency, and the popular culture of the day reinforced the idea that women were all but incapable of it.
It wasn’t just the perfect housewives in the midcentury mold of Donna Reed and June Cleaver who “donned their domestic harness,” as the historian Elaine Tyler May wrote in her social history Homeward Bound. Popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Redbook reinforced the message; so did their advertisers. A 1955 issue of Family Circle featured an advertisement for Tide detergent that depicted a woman with a rapturous expression on her face actually hugging a box of Tide under the line: “No wonder you women buy more Tide than any other washday product! Tide’s got what women want!” Other advertisements infantilized women by suggesting they were incapable of making basic decisions. “You mean a -woman can open it?” ran one for Alcoa aluminum bottle caps. It is almost impossible to read the articles or view the ads without thinking they were some kind of put-on.
The competing view of women in the postwar era was equally pernicious: the objectified pinup or sexpot. Marilyn Monroe’s hypersexualized character in The Seven Year Itch from 1955 doesn’t even have a name—she’s simply called The Girl. The 1956 film introducing the pulchritudinous Jayne Mansfield to the world was called The Girl Can’t Help It. The behavior of Rat Pack–era men has now been so airbrushed and glamorized that we’ve forgotten just how thoroughly debased their treatment of women was. Even as we thrill to Frank Sinatra’s “nice ’n’ easy” style, we overlook the classic Sinatra movie character’s enjoying an endless stream of showgirls and (barely disguised) prostitutes until forced to settle down with a killjoy ball-and-chain girlfriend. The depiction of women either as childish wives living under the protection of their husbands or brainless sirens sexually available to the first taker was undoubtedly vulgar, but it reflected a reality about the domestic arrangements of Americans after 1945 that was due for a profound revision when the 1960s came along.
And change they did, with a vengeance. The sexual revolution broke down the barriers between the sexes as the women’s-liberation movement insisted that bourgeois domesticity was a prison. The rules melted away, but attitudes don’t melt so readily; Sinatra’s ball-and-chain may have disappeared by common consent, but for a long time it seemed that the kooky sexpot of the most chauvinistic fantasy had simply become the ideal American woman. The distinction between the workplaces of the upper middle class and the singles bars where they sought companionship was pretty blurred.
Which is where MacKinnon came in—although if we look back at it, her objection seems not Marxist in orientation but almost Victorian. She described a workplace in which women were unprotected by old-fashioned social norms against adultery and general caddishness and found themselves mired in a “hostile environment.” She named the problem; it fell to the feminist movement as a whole to enshrine protections against it. They had some success. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court embraced elements of MacKinnon’s reasoning when it ruled unanimously in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that harassment that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” enough to create “a hostile or abusive work environment” was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued rules advising employers to create procedures to combat harassment, and employers followed suit by establishing sexual-harassment policies. Human-resource departments spent countless hours and many millions of dollars on sexual-harassment-awareness training for employees.
With new regulations and enforcement mechanisms, the argument went, the final, fusty traces of patriarchal, protective norms and bad behavior would be swept away in favor of rational legal rules that would ensure equal protection for women in the workplace. The culture might still objectify women, but our legal and employment systems would, in fits and starts, erect scaffolding upon which women who were harassed could seek justice.
But as the growing list of present-day harassers and predators attests—Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes, Glenn Thrush, Mark Halperin, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, et al.—the system appears to have failed the people it was meant to protect. There were searing moments that raised popular awareness about sexual harassment: (Anita Hill’s testimony about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991; Senator Bob Packwood’s ouster for serial groping in 1995). There was, however, still plenty of space for men who harassed and assaulted women (and, in Kevin Spacey’s case, men) to shelter in place.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Why did it?
Sex and Training
What makes sexual harassment so unnerving is not the harassment. It’s the sex—a subject, even a half-century into our so-called sexual revolution, about which we remain deeply confused.
The challenge going forward, now that the Hollywood honcho Weinstein and other notoriously lascivious beneficiaries of the liberation era have been removed, is how to negotiate the rules of attraction and punish predators in a culture that no longer embraces accepted norms for sexual behavior. Who sets the rules, and how do we enforce them? The self-appointed guardians of that galaxy used to be the feminist movement, but it is in no position to play that role today as it reckons not only with the gropers in its midst (Franken) but the ghosts of gropers past (Bill Clinton).
The feminist movement long ago traded MacKinnon’s radical feminism for political expedience. In 1992 and 1998, when her husband was a presidential candidate and then president, Hillary Clinton covered for Bill, enthusiastically slut-shaming his accusers. Her sin was and is at least understandable, if not excusable, given that the two are married. But what about America’s most glamorous early feminist, Gloria Steinem? In 1998, Steinem wrote of Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey: “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” As for Monica Lewinsky, Steinem didn’t even consider the president’s behavior with a young intern to be harassment: “Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one.”
The consequences of applying to Clinton what Steinem herself called the “one-free-grope” rule are only now becoming fully visible. Even in the case of a predator as malevolent as Weinstein, it’s clear that feminists no longer have a shared moral language or the credibility with which to condemn such behavior. Having tied their movement’s fortunes to political power, especially the Democratic Party, it is difficult to take seriously their injunctions about male behavior on either side of the aisle now (just as it was difficult to take seriously partisans on the right who defended the Alabama Senate candidate and credibly accused child sexual predator Roy Moore). Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s initial hemming and hawing about denouncing accused sexual harasser Representative John Conyers was disappointing but not surprising. As for Steinem, she’s gone from posing undercover as a Playboy bunny in order to expose male vice to sitting on the board of Playboy’s true heir, VICE Media, an organization whose bro-culture has spawned many sexual-harassment complaints. She’s been honored by Rutgers University, which created the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. One of the chair’s major endowers? Harvey Weinstein.
In place of older accepted norms or trusted moral arbiters, we have weaponized gossip. “S—-y Media Men” is a Google spreadsheet created by a woman who works in media and who, in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, wanted to encourage other women to name the gropers among us. At first a well-intentioned effort to warn women informally about men who had behaved badly, it quickly devolved into an anonymous unverified online litany of horribles devoid of context. The men named on the list were accused of everything from sending clumsy text messages to rape; Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker confessed that she didn’t believe the charges lodged against a male friend of hers who appeared on the list.
Others have found sisterhood and catharsis on social media, where, on Twitter, the phrase #MeToo quickly became the symbol for women’s shared experiences of harassment or assault. Like the consciousness-raising sessions of earlier eras, the hashtag supposedly demonstrated the strength of women supporting other women. But unlike in earlier eras, it led not to group hugs over readings of The Feminine Mystique, but to a brutally efficient form of insta-justice meted out on an almost daily basis against the accused. Writing in the Guardian, Jessica Valenti praised #MeToo for encouraging women to tell their stories but added, “Why have a list of victims when a list of perpetrators could be so much more useful?” Valenti encouraged women to start using the hashtag as a way to out predators, not merely to bond with one another. Even the New York Times has gone all-in on the assumption that the reckoning will continue: The newspaper’s “gender editor,” Jessica Bennett, launched a newsletter, The #MeToo Moment, described as “the latest news and insights on the sexual harassment and misconduct scandals roiling our society.”
As the also-popular hashtag #OpenSecret suggests, this #MeToo moment has brought with it troubling questions about who knew what and when—and a great deal of anger at gatekeepers and institutions that might have turned a blind eye to predators. The backlash against the Metropolitan Opera in New York is only the most recent example. Reports of conductor James Levine’s molestation of teenagers have evidently been widespread in the classical-music world for decades. And, as many social-media users hinted with their use of the hashtag #itscoming, Levine is not the only one who will face a reckoning.
To be sure, questioning and catharsis are welcome if they spark reforms such as crackdowns on the court-approved payoffs and nondisclosure agreements that allowed sexual predators like Weinstein to roam free for so long. And they have also brought a long-overdue recognition of the ineffectiveness of so much of what passes for sexual-harassment-prevention training in the workplace. As the law professor Lauren Edelman noted in the Washington Post, “There have been only a handful of empirical studies of sexual-harassment training, and the research has not established that such training is effective. Some studies suggest that training may in fact backfire, reinforcing gendered stereotypes that place women at a disadvantage.” One specific survey at a university found that “men who participated in the training were less likely to view coercion of a subordinate as sexual harassment, less willing to report harassment and more inclined to blame the victim than were women or men who had not gone through the training.”
Realistic Change vs. Impossible Revolution
Because harassment lies at the intersection of law, politics, ideology, and culture, attempts to re-regulate behavior, either by returning to older, more traditional norms, or by weaponizing women’s potential victimhood via Twitter, won’t work. America is throwing the book at foul old violators like Weinstein and Levine, but aside from warning future violators that they may be subject to horrible public humiliation and ruination, how is all this going to fix the problem?
We are a long way from Phyllis Schlafly’s ridiculous remark, made years ago during a U.S. Senate committee hearing, that “virtuous women are seldom accosted,” but Vice President Mike Pence’s rule about avoiding one-on-one social interactions with women who aren’t his wife doesn’t really scale up in terms of effective policy in the workplace, either. The Pence Rule, like corporate H.R. policies about sexual harassment, really exists to protect Pence from liability, not to protect women.
Indeed, the possibility of realistic change is made almost moot by the hysterical ambitions of those who believe they are on the verge of bringing down the edifice of American masculinity the way the Germans brought down the Berlin wall. Bennett of the Times spoke for many when she wrote in her description of the #MeToo newsletter: “The new conversation goes way beyond the workplace to sweep in street harassment, rape culture, and ‘toxic masculinity’—terminology that would have been confined to gender studies classes, not found in mainstream newspapers, not so long ago.”
Do women need protection? Since the rise of the feminist movement, it has been considered unacceptable to declare that women are weaker than men (even physically), yet, as many of these recent assault cases make clear, this is a plain fact. Men are, on average, physically larger and more aggressive than women; this is why for centuries social codes existed to protect women who were, by and large, less powerful, more vulnerable members of society.
MacKinnon’s definition of harassment at first seemed to acknowledge such differences; she described harassment as “dominance eroticized.” But like all good feminist theorists, she claimed this dominance was socially constructed rather than biological—“the legally relevant content of the term sex, understood as gender difference, should focus upon its social meaning more than upon any biological givens,” she wrote. As such, the reasoning went, men’s socially constructed dominance could be socially deconstructed through reeducation, training, and the like.
Culturally, this is the view that now prevails, which is why we pinball between arguing that women can do anything men can do and worrying that women are all the potential victims of predatory, toxic men. So which is it? Girl Power or the Fainting Couch?
Regardless, when harassment or assault claims arise, the cultural assumptions that feminism has successfully cultivated demand we accept that women are right and men are wrong (hence the insistence that we must believe every woman’s claim about harassment and assault, and the calling out of those who question a woman’s accusation). This gives women—who are, after all, flawed human beings just like men—too much accusatory power in situations where context is often crucial for understanding what transpired. Feminists with a historical memory should recall how they embraced this view after mandatory-arrest laws for partner violence that were passed in the 1990s netted many women for physically assaulting their partners. Many feminist legal scholars at the time argued that such laws were unfair to women precisely because they neglected context. (“By following the letter of the law… law enforcement officers often disregard the context in which victims of violence resort to using violence themselves,” wrote Susan L. Miller in the Violence Against Women journal in 2001.)
Worse, the unquestioned valorization of women’s claims leaves men in the position of being presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Consider a recent tweet by Washington Post reporter and young-adult author Monica Hesse in response to New York Times reporter Farhad Manjoo’s self-indulgent lament. Manjoo: “I am at the point where i seriously, sincerely wonder how all women don’t regard all men as monsters to be constantly feared. the real world turns out to be a legit horror movie that I inhabited and knew nothing about.”
Hesse’s answer: “Surprise! The answer is that we do, and we must, regard all men as potential monsters to be feared. That’s why we cross to the other side of the street at night, and why we sometimes obey when men say ‘Smile, honey!’ We are always aware the alternative could be death.” This isn’t hyperbole in her case; Hesse has so thoroughly internalized the message that men are to be feared, not trusted, that she thinks one might kill her on the street if she doesn’t smile at him. Such illogic makes the Victorian neurasthenics look like the Valkyrie.
But while most reasonable people agree that women and men both need to take responsibility for themselves and exercise good judgment, what this looks like in practice is not going to be perfectly fair, given the differences between men and women when it comes to sexual behavior. In her book, MacKinnon observed of sexual harassment, “Tacitly, it has been both acceptable and taboo; acceptable for men to do, taboo for women to confront, even to themselves.”
That’s one thing we can say for certain is no longer true. Nevertheless, if you begin with the assumption that every sexual invitation is a power play or the prelude to an assault, you are likely to find enemies lurking everywhere. As Hesse wrote in the Washington Post about male behavior: “It’s about the rot that we didn’t want to see, that we shoveled into the garbage disposal of America for years. Some of the rot might have once been a carrot and some it might have once been a moldy piece of rape-steak, but it’s all fetid and horrific and now, and it’s all coming up at once. How do we deal with it? Prison for everyone? Firing for some? …We’re only asking for the entire universe to change. That’s all.”
But women are part of that “entire universe,” too, and it is incumbent on them to make it clear when someone has crossed the line. Both women and men would be better served if they adopted the same rule—“If you see something, say something”—when it comes to harassment. Among the many details that emerged from the recent exposé at Vox about New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush was the setting for the supposedly egregious behavior: It was always after work and after several drinks at a bar. In all of the interactions described, one or usually both of the parties was tipsy or drunk; the women always agreed to go with Thrush to another location. The women also stayed on good terms with Thrush after he made his often-sloppy passes at them, in one case sending friendly text messages and ensuring him he didn’t need to apologize for his behavior. The Vox writer, who herself claims to have been victimized by Thrush, argues, “Thrush, just by his stature, put women in a position of feeling they had to suck up and move on from an uncomfortable encounter.” Perhaps. But he didn’t put them in the position of getting drunk after work with him. They put themselves in that position.
Also, as the Thrush story reveals, women sometimes use sexual appeal and banter for their own benefit in the workplace. If we want to clarify the blurred lines that exist around workplace relationships, then we will have to reckon with the women who have successfully exploited them for their own advantage.
None of this means women should be held responsible when men behave badly or illegally. But it puts male behavior in the proper context. Sometimes, things really are just about sex, not power. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat bluntly noted in a recent debate in New York magazine with feminist Rebecca Traister, “I think women shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which male sexual desire is distinctive and strange and (to women) irrational-seeming. Saying ‘It’s power, not sex’ excludes too much.”
Social-Media Justice or Restorative Justice?
What do we want to happen? Do we want social-media justice or restorative justice for harassers and predators? The first is immediate, cathartic, and brutal, with little consideration for nuance or presumed innocence for the accused. The second is more painstaking because it requires reaching some kind of consensus about the allegations, but it is also ultimately less destructive of the community and culture as a whole.
Social-media justice deploys the powerful force of shame at the mere whiff of transgression, so as to create a regime of prevention. The thing is, Americans don’t really like shame (the sexual revolution taught us that). Our therapeutic age doesn’t think that suppressing emotions and inhibiting feelings—especially about sex—is “healthy.” So either we will have to embrace the instant and unreflective emotiveness of #MeToo culture and accept that its rough justice is better than no justice at all—or we will have to stop overreacting every time a man does something that is untoward—like sending a single, creepy text message—but not actually illegal (like assault or constant harassment).
After all, it’s not all bad news from the land of masculinity. Rates of sexual violence have fallen 63 percent since 1993, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, and as scholar Steven Pinker recently observed: “Despite recent attention, workplace sexual harassment has declined over time: from 6.1 percent of GSS [General Social Survey] respondents in 2002 to 3.6 percent in 2014. Too high, but there’s been progress, which can continue.”
Still, many men have taken this cultural moment as an opportunity to reflect on their own understanding of masculinity. In the New York Times, essayist Stephen Marche fretted about the “unexamined brutality of the male libido” and echoed Catharine MacKinnon when he asked, “How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions in which men and women are not equal?” He would have done better to ask how we can raise boys who will become men who behave honorably toward women. And how do we even raise boys to become honorable men in a culture that no longer recognizes and rewards honor?
The answers to those questions aren’t immediately clear. But one thing that will make answering them even harder is the promotion of the idea of “toxic masculinity.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently argued that “we have to re-examine our toxic, privileged, encroaching masculinity itself. And yes, that also means on some level reimagining the rules of attraction.” But the whole point of the phrase “rules of attraction” is to highlight that there aren’t any and never have been (if you have any doubts, read the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel that popularized the phrase). Blow’s lectures about “toxic masculinity” are meant to sow self-doubt in men and thus encourage some enlightened form of masculinity, but that won’t end sexual harassment any more than Lysistrata-style refusal by women to have sex will end war.
Parents should be teaching their sons about personal boundaries and consent from a young age, just as they teach their daughters, and unequivocally condemn raunchy and threatening remarks about women, whether they are uttered by a talk-radio host or by the president of the United States. The phrase “that isn’t how decent men behave” should be something every parent utters.
But such efforts are made more difficult by a liberal culture that has decided to equate caddish behavior with assault precisely because it has rejected the strict norms that used to hold sway—the old conservative norms that regarded any transgression against them as a seriousviolation and punished it accordingly. Instead, in an effort to be a kinder, gentler, more “woke” society that’s understanding of everyone’s differences, we’ve ended up arbitrarily picking and choosing among the various forms of questionable behavior for which we will have no tolerance, all the while failing to come to terms with the costs of living in such a society. A culture that hangs the accused first and asks questions later might have its virtues, but psychological understanding is not one of them.
And so we come back to sex and our muddled understanding of its place in society. Is it a meaningless pleasure you’re supposed to enjoy with as many people as possible before settling down and marrying? Or is it something more important than that? Is it something that you feel empowered to handle in Riot Grrrl fashion, or is getting groped once by a pervy co-worker something that prompts decades of nightmares and declarations that you will “never be the same”? How can we condemn people like Senator Al Franken, whose implicit self-defense is that it’s no big deal to cop a feel every so often, when our culture constantly offers up women like comedian Amy Schumer or Abbi and Ilana of the sketch show Broad City, who argue that women can and should be as filthy and degenerate as the most degenerate guy?
Perhaps it’s progress that the downfall of powerful men who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior is no longer called a “bimbo eruption,” as it was in the days of Bill Clinton, and that the men who harassed or assaulted women are facing the end of their careers and, in some cases, prison. But this is not the great awakening that so many observers have claimed it is. Awakenings need tent preachers to inspire and eager audiences to participate; our #MeToo moment has plenty of those. What it doesn’t have, unless we can agree on new norms for sexual behavior both inside and outside the workplace, is a functional theology that might cultivate believers who will actually practice what they preach.
That functional theology is out of our reach. Which means this moment is just that—a moment. It will die down, impossible though it seems at present. And every 10 or 15 years a new harassment scandal will spark widespread outrage, and we will declare that a new moment of reckoning and realization has emerged. After which the stories will again die down and very little will have changed.
No one wants to admit this. It’s much more satisfying to see the felling of so many powerful men as a tectonic cultural shift, another great leap forward toward equality between the sexes. But it isn’t, because the kind of asexual equality between the genders imagined by those most eager to celebrate our #MeToo moment has never been one most people embrace. It’s one that willfully overlooks significant differences between the sexes and assumes that thoughtful people can still agree on norms of sexual behavior.
They can’t. And they won’t.
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The U.S. will endanger itself if it accedes to Russian and Chinese efforts to change the international system to their liking
A “sphere of influence” is traditionally understood as a geographical zone within which the most powerful actor can impose its will. And nearly three decades after the close of the superpower struggle that Churchill’s speech heralded, spheres of influence are back. At both ends of the Eurasian landmass, the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are carving out areas of privileged influence—geographic buffer zones in which they exercise diplomatic, economic, and military primacy. China and Russia are seeking to coerce and overawe their neighbors. They are endeavoring to weaken the international rules and norms—and the influence of opposing powers—that stand athwart their ambitions in their respective “near abroads.” Chinese island-building and maritime expansionism in the South China Sea and Russian aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of the Baltic states are part and parcel of the quasi-imperial projects these revisionist regional powers are now pursuing.
Historically speaking, a world made up of rival spheres is more the norm than the exception. Yet such a world is in sharp tension with many of the key tenets of the American foreign-policy tradition—and with the international order that the United States has labored to construct and maintain since the end of World War II.
To be sure, Washington carved out its own spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere beginning in the 19th century, and America’s myriad alliance blocs in key overseas regions are effectively spheres by another name. And today, some international-relations observers have welcomed the return of what the foreign-policy analyst Michael Lind has recently called “blocpolitik,” hoping that it might lead to a more peaceful age of multilateral equilibrium.
But for more than two centuries, American leaders have generally opposed the idea of a world divided into rival spheres of influence and have worked hard to deny other powers their own. And a reversion to a world dominated by great powers and their spheres of influence would thus undo some of the strongest traditions in American foreign policy and take the international system back to a darker, more dangerous era.I n an extreme form, a sphere of influence can take the shape of direct imperial or colonial control. Yet there are also versions in which a leading power forgoes direct military or administrative domination of its neighbors but nonetheless exerts geopolitical, economic, and ideological influence. Whatever their form, spheres of influence reflect two dominant imperatives of great-power politics in an anarchic world: the need for security vis-à-vis rival powers and the desire to shape a nation’s immediate environment to its benefit. Indeed, great powers have throughout history pursued spheres of influence to provide a buffer against the encroachment of other hostile actors and to foster the conditions conducive to their own security and well-being.
The Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta, and Rome all carved out domains of dominance. The Chinese tribute system—which combined geopolitical control with the spread of Chinese norms and ideas—profoundly shaped the trajectory of East Asia for hundreds of years. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the British Empire, Japan’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the Soviet bloc.
America, too, has played the spheres-of-influence game. From the early-19th century onward, American officials strove for preeminence in the Western Hemisphere—first by running other European powers off much of the North American continent and then by pushing them out of Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823, America staked its claim to geopolitical primacy from Canada to the Southern Cone. Over the succeeding generations, Washington worked to achieve military dominance in that area, to tie the countries of the Western Hemisphere to America geopolitically and economically, and even to help pick the rulers of countries from Mexico to Brazil.
If this wasn’t a sphere of influence, nothing was. In 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney declared that “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” After World War II, moreover, a globally predominant United States steadily expanded its influence into Europe through NATO, into East Asia through various military alliances, and into the Middle East through a web of defense, diplomatic, and political arrangements. The story of global politics over the past 200 years has, in large part, been the story of expanding U.S. influence.
Nonetheless, there has always been something ambivalent—critics would say hypocritical—about American views of this matter. For as energetic as Washington has been in constructing its geopolitical domain, a “spheres-of-influence world” is in perpetual tension with four strong intellectual traditions in U.S. strategy. These are hegemony, liberty, openness, and exceptionalism.
First, hegemony. The myth of America as an innocent isolationist country during its first 170 years is powerful and enduring; it’s also wrong. From the outset, American statesmen understood that the country’s favorable geography, expanding population, and enviable resource endowments gave it the potential to rival, and ultimately overtake, the European states that dominated world politics. America might be a fledgling republic, George Washington said, but it would one day attain “the strength of a giant.” From the revolution onward, American officials worried, with good reason, that France, Spain, and the United Kingdom would use their North American territories to strangle or contain the young republic. Much of early American diplomacy was therefore geared toward depriving the European powers of their North American possessions, using measures from coercive diplomacy to outright wars of conquest. “The world shall have to be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America,” wrote John Quincy Adams in 1819. The only regional sphere of influence that Americans would accept as legitimate was their own.
By the late-19th century, the same considerations were pushing Americans to target spheres of influence further abroad. As the industrial revolution progressed, it became clear that geography alone might not protect the nation. Aggressive powers could now generate sufficient military strength to dominate large swaths of Europe or East Asia and then harness the accumulated resources to threaten the United States. Moreover, as America itself became an increasingly mighty country that sought to project its influence overseas, its leaders naturally objected to its rivals’ efforts to establish their own preserves from which Washington would be excluded. If much of America’s 19th-century diplomacy was dedicated to denying other powers spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere, much of the country’s 20th-century diplomacy was an effort to break up or deny rival spheres of influence in Europe and East Asia.
From the Open Door policy, which sought to prevent imperial powers from carving up China, to U.S. intervention in the world wars, to the confrontation with the Soviet Empire in the Cold War, the United States repeatedly acted on the belief that it could be neither as secure nor influential as it desired in a world divided up and dominated by rival nations. The American geopolitical tradition, in other words, has long contained a built-in hostility to other countries’ spheres of influence.
The American ideological tradition shares this sense of preeminence, as reflected in the second key tenet: liberty. America’s founding generation did not see the revolution merely as the birth of a future superpower; they saw it as a catalyst for spreading political liberty far and wide. Thomas Paine proclaimed in 1775 that Americans could “begin the world anew”; John Quincy Adams predicted, several decades later, that America’s liberal ideology was “destined to cover the surface of the globe.” Here, too, the new nation was not cursed with excessive modesty—and here, too, the existence of rival spheres of influence threatened this ambition.
Rival spheres of influence—particularly within the Western Hemisphere—imperiled the survival of liberty at home. If the United States were merely one great power among many on the North American continent, the founding generation worried, it would be forced to maintain a large standing military establishment and erect a sort of 18th-century “garrison state.” Living in perpetual conflict and vigilance, in turn, would corrode the very freedoms for which the revolution had been fought. “No nation,” wrote James Madison, “can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Just as Madison argued, in Federalist No. 10, that “extending the sphere”—expanding the republic—was a way of safeguarding republicanism at home, expanding America’s geopolitical domain was essential to providing the external security that a liberal polity required to survive.
Rival spheres of influence also constrained the prospects for liberty abroad. Although the question of whether the United States should actively support democratic revolutions overseas has been a source of unending controversy, virtually all American strategists have agreed that the country would be more secure and influential in a world where democracy was widespread. Given this mindset, Americans could hardly be desirous of foreign powers—particularly authoritarian powers—establishing formidable spheres of influence that would allow them to dominate the international system or suppress liberal ideals. The Monroe Doctrine was a response to the geopolitical dangers inherent in renewed imperial control of South America; it was also a response to the ideological danger posed by European nations that would “extend the political system to any portion” of the Western Hemisphere. Similar concerns have been at the heart of American opposition to the British Empire and the Soviet bloc.
Economic openness, the third core dynamic of American policy, has long served as a commercial counterpart to America’s ideological proselytism. Influenced as much by Adam Smith as by Alexander Hamilton, early American statecraft promoted free trade, neutral rights, and open markets, both to safeguard liberty and enrich a growing nation. This mission has depended on access to the world’s seas and markets. When that access was circumscribed—by the British in 1812 and by the Germans in 1917—Americans went to war to preserve it. It is unsurprising, then, that Americans also looked askance at efforts by other powers to establish areas that might be walled off from U.S. trade and investment—and from the spread of America’s capitalist ideology.
A brief list of robust policy endeavors underscores the persistent U.S. hostility to an economically closed, spheres-of-influence world: the Model Treaty of 1776, designed to promote free and reciprocal trade; John Hay’s Open Door policy of 1899, designed to prevent any outside power from dominating trade with China; Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy in his “14 Points” speech of 1918 for the removal “of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all nations”; and the focus of the 1941 Atlantic Charter on reducing trade restrictions while promoting international economic cooperation (assuming the allies would emerge triumphant from World War II).
Fourth and finally, there’s exceptionalism. Americans have long believed that their nation was created not simply to replicate the practices of the Old World, but to revolutionize how states and peoples interact with one another. The United States, in this view, was not merely another great power out for its own self-interest. It was a country that, by virtue of its republican ideals, stood for the advancement of universal rights, and one that rejected the back-alley methods of monarchical diplomacy in favor of a more principled statecraft. When Abraham Lincoln said America represented “the last best hope of earth,” or when Woodrow Wilson scorned secret agreements in favor of “open covenants arrived at openly,” they demonstrated this exceptionalist strain in American thinking. There is some hypocrisy here, of course, for the United States has often acted in precisely the self-interested, cutthroat manner its statesmen deplored. Nonetheless, American exceptionalism has had a pronounced effect on American conduct.
Compare how Washington led its Western European allies during the Cold War—the extent to which NATO rested on the authentic consent of its members, the way the United States consistently sought to empower rather than dominate its partners—with how Moscow managed its empire in Eastern Europe. In the same way, Americans have often recoiled from arrangements that reeked of the old diplomacy. Franklin Roosevelt might have tolerated a Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe after World War II, for instance, but he knew he could not admit this publicly. Likewise, the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which required Washington to acknowledge the diplomatic legitimacy of the Soviet sphere, proved controversial inside the United States because they seemed to represent just the sort of cynical, old-school geopolitics that American exceptionalism abhors.
To be clear, U.S. hostility to a spheres-of-influence world has always been leavened with a dose of pragmatism; American leaders have pursued that hostility only so far as power and prudence allowed. The Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to stay out of the Americas, but the quid pro quo was that a young and relatively weak United States would accept, for a time, a sphere of monarchical dominance within Europe. Even during the Cold War, U.S. policymakers generally accepted that Washington could not break up the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe without risking nuclear war.
But these were concessions to expediency. As America gained greater global power, it more actively resisted the acquisition or preservation of spheres by others. From gradually pushing the Old World out of the New, to helping vanquish the German and Japanese Empires by force of arms, to assisting the liquidation of the British Empire after World War II, to containing and ultimately defeating the Soviet bloc, the United States was present at the destruction of spheres of influence possessed by adversaries and allies alike.
The acme of this project came in the quarter-century that followed the Cold War. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself, it was possible to envision a world in which what Thomas Jefferson called America’s “empire of liberty” could attain global dimensions, and traditional spheres of influence would be consigned to history. The goal, as George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy proclaimed, was to “create a balance of power that favors human freedom.” This meant an international environment in which the United States and its values were dominant and there was no balance of power whatsoever.
Under presidents from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, this project entailed working to spread democracy and economic liberalism farther than ever before. It involved pushing American influence and U.S.-led institutions into regions—such as Eastern Europe—that were previously dominated by other powers. It meant maintaining the military primacy necessary to stop regional powers from establishing new spheres of influence, as Washington did by rolling back Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait in 1990 and by deterring China from coercing Taiwan in 1995–96. Not least, this American project involved seeking to integrate potential rivals—foremost Russia and China—into the post–Cold War order, in hopes of depriving them of even the desire to challenge it. This multifaceted effort reflected the optimism of the post-Cold War era, as well as the influence of tendencies with deep roots in the American past. Yet try as Washington might to permanently leave behind a spheres-of-influence world, that prospect is once again upon us.B egin with China’s actions in the Asia-Pacific region. The sources of Chinese conduct are diverse, ranging from domestic insecurity to the country’s confidence as a rising power to its sense of historical destiny as “the Middle Kingdom.” All these influences animate China’s bid to establish regional mastery. China is working, first, to create a power vacuum by driving the United States out of the Western Pacific, and second, to fill that vacuum with its own influence. A Chinese admiral made this ambition clear when he remarked—supposedly in jest—to an American counterpart that, in the future, the two powers should simply split the Pacific with Hawaii as the dividing line. Yang Jiechi, then China’s foreign minister, echoed this sentiment in a moment of frustration by lecturing the nations of Southeast Asia. “China is a big country,” he said, “and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Policy has followed rhetoric. To undercut America’s position, Beijing has harassed American ships and planes operating in international waters and airspace. The Chinese have warned U.S. allies they may be caught in the crossfire of a Sino-American war unless Washington accommodates China or the allies cut loose from the United States. China has simultaneously worked to undermine the credibility of U.S. alliance guarantees by using strategies designed to shift the regional status quo in ways even the mighty U.S. Navy finds difficult to counter. Through a mixture of economic aid and diplomatic coercion, Beijing has also successfully divided international bodies, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, through which the United States has sought to rally opposition to Chinese assertiveness. And in the background, China has been steadily building, over the course of more than two decades, formidable military tools designed to keep the United States out of the region and give Beijing a free hand in dealing with its weaker neighbors. As America’s sun sets in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese leaders calculate, the shadow China casts over the region will only grow longer.
To that end, China has claimed, dubiously, nearly all of the South China Sea as its own and constructed artificial islands as staging points for the projection of military power. Military and paramilitary forces have teased, confronted, and violated the sovereignty of countries from Vietnam to the Philippines; China is likewise intensifying the pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. Economically, Beijing uses its muscle to reward those who comply with China’s policies and punish those not willing to bow to its demands. It is simultaneously advancing geoeconomic projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Project (RCEP) that are designed to bring the region into its orbit.
Strikingly, China has also moved away from its long-professed principle of noninterference in other countries’ domestic politics by extending the reach of Chinese propaganda organs and using investment and even bribery to co-opt regional elites. Payoffs to Australian politicians are as critical to China’s regional project as development of “carrier-killer” missiles. Finally, far from subscribing to liberal concepts of democracy and human rights, Beijing emphasizes its rejection of these values and its desire to create “Asia for Asians.” In sum, China is pursuing a classic spheres-of-influence project. By blending intimidation with inducement, Beijing aims to sunder its neighbors’ bonds with America and force them to accept a Sino-centric order—a new Chinese tribute system for the 21st century.A t the other end of Eurasia, Russia is playing geopolitical hardball of a different sort. The idea that Moscow should dominate its “near abroad” is as natural to many Russians as American regional primacy is to Americans. The loss of the Kremlin’s traditional buffer zone was, therefore, one of the most painful legacies of the Cold War’s end. And so it is hardly surprising that, as Russia has regained a degree of strength in recent years, it has sought to reassert its supremacy.
It has done so, in fact, through more overtly aggressive means than those employed by China. Moscow has twice seized opportunities to humiliate and dismember former Soviet republics that committed the sin of tilting toward the West or throwing out pro-Russian leaders, first in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014. It has regularly reminded its neighbors that they live on Russia’s doorstep, through coercive activities such as conducting cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 and holding aggressive military exercises on the frontiers of the Baltic states. In the same vein, the Kremlin has essentially claimed a veto over the geopolitical alignments of neighbors from the Caucasus to Scandinavia, whether by creating frozen conflicts on their territory or threatening to target them militarily—perhaps with nuclear weapons—should they join NATO.
Military muscle is not Moscow’s only tool. Russia has simultaneously used energy exports to keep the states on its periphery economically dependent, and it has exported corruption and illiberalism to non-aligned states in the former Warsaw Pact area to prevent further encroachment of liberal values. Not least, the Kremlin has worked to undermine NATO and the European Union through political subversion and intervention in Western electoral processes. And while Russia’s activities are most concentrated in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it’s also projecting its influence farther afield. Russian forces intervened successfully in Syria in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad, preserve access to warm-water ports on the Mediterranean, and demonstrate the improved accuracy and lethality of Russian arms. Moscow continues to make inroads in the Middle East, often in cooperation with another American adversary: Iran.
To be sure, the projects that China and Russia are pursuing today are vastly different from each other, but the core logic is indisputably the same. Authoritarian powers are re-staking their claim to privileged influence in key geostrategic areas.S o what does this mean for American interests? Some observers have argued that the United States should make a virtue of necessity and accept the return of such arrangements. By this logic, spheres of influence create buffer zones between contending great powers; they diffuse responsibility for enforcing order in key areas. Indeed, for those who think that U.S. policy has left the country exhausted and overextended, a return to a world in which America no longer has the burden of being the dominant power in every region may seem attractive. The great sin of American policy after the Cold War, many realist scholars argue, was the failure to recognize that even a weakened Russia would demand privileged influence along its frontiers and thus be unalterably opposed to NATO expansion. Similarly, they lament the failure to understand that China would not forever tolerate U.S. dominance along its own periphery. It is not surprising, then, to hear analysts such as Australia’s Hugh White or America’s John Mearsheimer argue that the United States should learn to “share power” with China in the Pacific, or that it must yield ground in Eastern Europe in order to avoid war with Russia.
Such claims are not meritless; there are instances in which spheres of influence led to a degree of stability. The division of Europe into rival blocs fostered an ugly sort of stasis during the Cold War; closer to home, America’s dominance in the Western Hemisphere has long muted geopolitical competition in our own neighborhood. For all the problems associated with European empires, they often partially succeeded in limiting scourges such as communal violence.
And yet the allure of a spheres-of-influence world is largely an illusion, for such a world would threaten U.S. interests, traditions, and values in several ways.
First, basic human rights and democratic values would be less respected. China and Russia are not liberal democracies; they are illiberal autocracies that see the spread of democratic values as profoundly corrosive to their own authority and security. Just as the United States has long sought to create a world congenial to its own ideological predilections, Beijing and Moscow would certainly do likewise within their spheres of dominance.
They would, presumably, bring their influence to bear in support of friendly authoritarian regimes. And they would surely undermine democratic governments seen to pose a threat of ideological contagion or insubordination to Russian or Chinese prerogatives. Russia has taken steps to prevent the emergence of a Western-facing democracy in Ukraine and to undermine liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere; China is snuffing out political freedoms in Hong Kong. Such actions offer a preview of what we will see when these countries are indisputably dominant along their peripheries. Further aggressions, in turn, would not simply be offensive to America’s ideological sensibilities. For given that the spread of democracy has been central to the absence of major interstate war in recent decades, and that the spread of American values has made the U.S. more secure and influential, a less democratic world will also be a more dangerous world.
Second, a spheres-of-influence world would be less open to American commerce and investment. After all, the United States itself saw geoeconomic dominance in Latin America as the necessary counterpart to geopolitical dominance. Why would China take a less self-interested approach? China already reaps the advantages of an open global economy even as it embraces protectionism and mercantilism. In a Chinese-dominated East Asia, all economic roads will surely lead to Beijing, as Chinese officials will be able to use their leverage to ensure that trade and investment flows are oriented toward China and geopolitical competitors like the United States are left on the outside. Beijing’s current geoeconomic projects—namely, RCEP and the Belt and Road Initiative—offer insight into a regional economic future in which flows of commerce and investment are subject to heavy Chinese influence.
Third, as spheres of influence reemerge, the United States will be less able to shape critical geopolitical events in crucial regions. The reason Washington has long taken an interest in events in faraway places is that East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East are the areas from which major security challenges have emerged in the past. Since World War II, America’s forward military presence has been intended to suppress incipient threats and instability; that presence has gone hand in glove with energetic diplomacy that amplifies America’s voice and protects U.S. interests. In a spheres-of-influence world, Washington would no longer enjoy the ability to act with decisive effect in these regions; it would find itself reacting to global events rather than molding them.
This leads to a final, and crucial, issue. America would be more likely to find its core security interests challenged because world orders based on rival spheres of influence have rarely been as peaceful and settled as one might imagine.
To see this, just work backward from the present. During the Cold War, a bipolar balance did help avert actual war between Moscow and Washington. But even in Europe—where the spheres of influence were best defined—there were continual tensions and crises as Moscow tested the Western bloc. And outside Europe, violence and proxy wars were common as the superpowers competed to extend their reach into the Third World. In the 1930s, the emergence of German and Japanese spheres of influence led to the most catastrophic war in global history. The empires of the 19th century—spheres of influence in their own right—continually jostled one another, leading to wars and near-wars over the course of decades; the Peace of Amiens between England and Napoleonic France lasted a mere 14 months. And looking back to the ancient world, there were not one, but three Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage as two expanding empires came into conflict. A world defined by spheres of influence is often a world characterized by tensions, wars, and competition.
The reasons for this are simple. As the political scientist William Wohlforth observed, unipolar systems—such as the U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order—are anchored by a hegemonic power that can act decisively to maintain the peace. In a unipolar system, Wohlforth writes, there are few incentives for revisionist powers to incur the “focused enmity” of the leading state. Truly multipolar systems, by contrast, have often been volatile. When the major powers are more evenly matched, there is a greater temptation to aggression by those who seek to change the existing order of things. And seek to change things they undoubtedly will.
The idea that spheres of influence are stabilizing holds only if one assumes that the major powers are motivated only by insecurity and that concessions to the revisionists will therefore lead to peace. Churchill described this as the idea that if one “feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”
Unfortunately, today’s rising or resurgent powers are also motivated—as is America—by honor, ambition, and the timeless desire to make their international habitats reflect their own interests and ideals. It is a risky gamble indeed, then, to think that ceding Russia or China an uncontested sphere of influence would turn a revisionist authoritarian regime into a satisfied power. The result, as Robert Kagan has noted, might be to embolden those actors all the more, by giving them freer rein to bring their near-abroads under control, greater latitude and resources to pursue their ambitions, and enhanced confidence that the U.S.-led order is fracturing at its foundations. For China, dominance over the first island chain might simply intensify desires to achieve primacy in the second island chain and beyond; for Russia, renewed mastery in the former Soviet space could lead to desires to bring parts of the former Warsaw Pact to heel, as well. To observe how China is developing ever longer-range anti-access/area denial capabilities, or how Russia has been projecting military power ever farther afield, is to see this process in action.T he reemergence of a spheres-of-influence world would thus undercut one of the great historical achievements of U.S. foreign policy: the creation of a system in which America is the dominant power in each major geopolitical region and can act decisively to shape events and protect its interests. It would foster an environment in which democratic values are less prominent, authoritarian models are ascendant, and mercantilism advances as economic openness recedes. And rather than leading to multipolar stability, this change could simply encourage greater revisionism on the part of powers whose appetite grows with the eating. This would lead the world away from the relative stability of the post–Cold War era and back into the darker environment it seemed to have relegated to history a quarter-century ago. The phrase “spheres of influence” may sound vaguely theoretical and benign, but its real-world effects are likely to be tangible and pernicious.
Fortunately, the return of a spheres-of-influence world is not yet inevitable. Even as some nations will accept incorporation into a Chinese or Russian sphere of influence as the price of avoiding conflict, or maintaining access to critical markets and resources, others will resist because they see their own well-being as dependent on the preservation of the world order that Washington has long worked to create. The Philippines and Cambodia seem increasingly to fall into the former group; Poland and Japan, among many others, make up the latter. The willingness of even this latter group to take actions that risk incurring Beijing and Moscow’s wrath, however, will be constantly calibrated against an assessment of America’s own ability to continue leading the resistance to a spheres-of-influence world. Averting that outcome is becoming steadily harder, as the relative power and ambition of America’s authoritarian rivals rise and U.S. leadership seems to falter.
Harder, but not impossible. The United States and its allies still command a significant preponderance of global wealth and power. And the political, economic, and military weaknesses of its challengers are legion. It is far from fated, then, that the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe will slip into China’s and Russia’s respective orbits. With sufficient creativity and determination, Washington and its partners might still be able to resist the return of a dangerous global system. Doing so will require difficult policy work in the military, economic, and diplomatic realms. But ideas precede policy, and so simply rediscovering the venerable tradition of American hostility to spheres of influence—and no less, the powerful logic on which that tradition is based—would be a good start.
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What does the man with the baton actually do?
Why, then, are virtually all modern professional orchestras led by well-paid conductors instead of performing on their own? It’s an interesting question. After all, while many celebrity conductors are highly trained and knowledgeable, there have been others, some of them legendary, whose musical abilities were and are far more limited. It was no secret in the world of classical music that Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949, found it difficult to read full orchestral scores and sometimes learned how to lead them in public by first practicing with a pair of rehearsal pianists whom he “conducted” in private.
Yet recordings show that Koussevitzky’s interpretations of such complicated pieces of music as Aaron Copland’s El Salón México and Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (both of which he premiered and championed) were immensely characterful and distinctive. What made them so? Was it the virtuosic playing of the Boston Symphony alone? Or did Koussevitzky also bring something special to these performances—and if so, what was it?
Part of what makes this question so tricky to answer is that scarcely any well-known conductors have spoken or written in detail about what they do. Only two conductors of the first rank, Thomas Beecham and Bruno Walter, have left behind full-length autobiographies, and neither one features a discussion of its author’s technical methods. For this reason, the publication of John Mauceri’s Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting will be of special interest to those who, like my friend, wonder exactly what it is that conductors contribute to the performances that they lead.1
An impeccable musical journeyman best known for his lively performances of film music with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Mauceri has led most of the world’s top orchestras. He writes illuminatingly about his work in Maestros and Their Music, leavening his discussions of such matters as the foibles of opera directors and music critics with sharply pointed, sometimes gossipy anecdotes. Most interesting of all, though, are the chapters in which he talks about what conductors do on the podium. To read Maestros and Their Music is to come away with a much clearer understanding of what its author calls the “strange and lawless world” of conducting—and to understand how conductors whose technique is deficient to the point of seeming incompetence can still give exciting performances.P rior to the 19th century, conductors of the modern kind did not exist. Orchestras were smaller then—most of the ensembles that performed Mozart’s symphonies and operas contained anywhere from two to three dozen players—and their concerts were “conducted” either by the leader of the first violins or by the orchestra’s keyboard player.
As orchestras grew larger in response to the increasing complexity of 19th-century music, however, it became necessary for a full-time conductor both to rehearse them and to control their public performances, normally by standing on a podium placed in front of the musicians and beating time in the air with a baton. Most of the first men to do so were composers, including Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. By the end of the century, however, it was becoming increasingly common for musicians to specialize in conducting, and some of them, notably Arthur Nikisch and Arturo Toscanini, came to be regarded as virtuosos in their own right. Since then, only three important composers—Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez—have also pursued parallel careers as world-class conductors. Every other major conductor of the 20th century was a specialist.
What did these men do in front of an orchestra? Mauceri’s description of the basic physical process of conducting is admirably straightforward:
The right hand beats time; that is, it sets the tempo or pulse of the music. It can hold a baton. The left hand turns pages [in the orchestral score], cues instrumentalists with an invitational or pointing gesture, and generally indicates the quality of the notes (percussive, smoothly linked, sustained, etc.).
Beyond these elements, though, all bets are off. Most of the major conductors of the 20th century were filmed in performance, and what one sees in these films is so widely varied that it is impossible to generalize about what constitutes a good conducting technique.2 Most of them used batons, but several, including Boulez and Leopold Stokowski, conducted with their bare hands. Bernstein and Beecham gestured extravagantly, even wildly, while others, most famously Fritz Reiner, restricted themselves to tightly controlled hand movements. Toscanini beat time in a flowing, beautifully expressive way that made his musical intentions self-evident, but Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan often conducted so unclearly that it is hard to see how the orchestras they led were able to follow them. (One exasperated member of the London Philharmonic claimed, partly in jest, that Furtwängler’s baton signaled the start of a piece “only after the thirteenth preliminary wiggle.”) Conductors of the Furtwängler sort tend to be at their best in front of orchestras with which they have worked for many years and whose members have learned from experience to “speak” their gestural language fluently.
Nevertheless, all of these men were pursuing the same musical goals. Beyond stopping and starting a given piece, it is the job of a conductor to decide how it will be interpreted. How loud should the middle section of the first movement be—and ought the violins to be playing a bit softer so as not to drown out the flutes? Someone must answer questions such as these if a performance is not to sound indecisive or chaotic, and it is far easier for one person to do so than for 100 people to vote on each decision.
Above all, a conductor controls the tempo of a performance, varying it from moment to moment as he sees fit. It is impossible for a full-sized symphony orchestra to play a piece with any degree of rhythmic flexibility unless a conductor is controlling the performance from the podium. Bernstein put it well when he observed in a 1955 TV special that “the conductor is a kind of sculptor whose element is time instead of marble.” These “sculptural” decisions are subjective, since traditional musical notation cannot be matched with exactitude. As Mauceri reminds us, Toscanini and Beecham both recorded La Bohème, having previously discussed their interpretations with Giacomo Puccini, the opera’s composer, and Toscanini conducted its 1896 premiere. Yet Beecham’s performance is 14 minutes longer than Toscanini’s. Who is “right”? It is purely a matter of individual taste, since both interpretations are powerfully persuasive.
Beyond the not-so-basic task of setting, maintaining, and varying tempos, it is the job of a conductor to inspire an orchestra—to make its members play with a charged precision that transcends mere unanimity. The first step in doing so is to persuade the players of his musical competence. If he cannot run a rehearsal efficiently, they will soon grow bored and lose interest; if he does not know the score in detail, they will not take him seriously. This requires extensive preparation on the part of the conductor, and an orchestra can tell within seconds of the downbeat whether he is adequately prepared—a fact that every conductor knows. “I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do,” Bernstein once told an interviewer. “I work extremely hard and all the time.”
All things being equal, it is better than not for a conductor to have a clear technique, if only because it simplifies and streamlines the process of rehearsing an orchestra. Fritz Reiner, who taught Bernstein among others, did not exaggerate when he claimed that he and his pupils could “stand up [in front of] an orchestra they have never seen before and conduct correctly a new piece at first sight without verbal explanation and by means only of manual technique.”
While orchestra players prefer this kind of conducting, a conductor need not have a technique as fully developed as that of a Reiner or Bernstein if he knows how to rehearse effectively. Given sufficient rehearsal time, decisive and unambiguous verbal instructions will produce the same results as a virtuoso stick technique. This was how Willem Mengelberg and George Szell distinguished themselves on the podium. Their techniques were no better than adequate, but they rehearsed so meticulously that their performances were always brilliant and exact.
It also helps to supply the members of the orchestra with carefully marked orchestra parts. Beecham’s manual technique was notoriously messy, but he marked his musical intentions into each player’s part so clearly and precisely that simply reading the music on the stand would produce most of the effects that he desired.
What players do not like is to be lectured. They want to be told what to do and, if absolutely necessary, how to do it, at which point the wise conductor will stop talking and start conducting. Mauceri recalls the advice given to a group of student conductors by Joseph Silverstein, the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony: “Don’t talk to us about blue skies. Just tell us ‘longer-shorter,’ ‘faster-slower,’ ‘higher-lower.’” Professional musicians cannot abide flowery speeches about the inner meaning of a piece of music, though they will readily respond to a well-turned metaphor. Mauceri makes this point with a Toscanini anecdote:
One of Toscanini’s musicians told me of a moment in a rehearsal when the sound the NBC Symphony was giving him was too heavy. … In this case, without saying a word, he reached into his pocket and took out his silk handkerchief, tossed it into the air, and everyone watched it slowly glide to earth. After seeing that, the orchestra played the same passage exactly as Toscanini wanted.
Conducting, like all acts of leadership, is in large part a function of character. The violinist Carl Flesch went so far as to call it “the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary.” While that is putting it too cynically, Flesch was on to something. I did a fair amount of conducting in college, but even though I practiced endlessly in front of a mirror and spent hours poring over my scores, I lacked the personal magnetism without which no conductor can hope to be more than merely competent at best.
On the other hand, a talented musician with a sufficiently compelling personality can turn himself into a conductor more or less overnight. Toscanini had never conducted an orchestra before making his unrehearsed debut in a performance of Verdi’s Aida at the age of 19, yet the players hastened to do his musical bidding. I once saw the modern-dance choreographer Mark Morris, whose knowledge of classical music is profound, lead a chorus and orchestra in the score to Gloria, a dance he had made in 1981 to a piece by Vivaldi. It was no stunt: Morris used a baton and a score and controlled the performance with the assurance of a seasoned pro. Not only did he have a strong personality, but he had also done his musical homework, and he knew that one was as important as the other.
The reverse, however, is no less true: The success of conductors like Serge Koussevitzky is at least as much a function of their personalities as of their preparation. To be sure, Koussevitzky had been an instrumental virtuoso (he played the double bass) before taking up conducting, but everyone who worked with him in later years was aware of his musical limitations. Yet he was still capable of imposing his larger-than-life personality on players who might well have responded indifferently to his conducting had he been less charismatic. Leopold Stokowski functioned in much the same way. He was widely thought by his peers to have been far more a showman than an artist, to the point that Toscanini contemptuously dismissed him as a “clown.” But he had, like Koussevitzky, a richly romantic musical imagination coupled with the showmanship of a stage actor, and so the orchestras that he led, however skeptical they might be about his musical seriousness, did whatever he wanted.
All great conductors share this same ability to impose their will on an orchestra—and that, after all, is the heart of the matter. A conductor can be effective only if the orchestra does what he wants. It is not like a piano, whose notes automatically sound when the keys are pressed, but a living organism with a will of its own. Conducting, then, is first and foremost an act of persuasion, as Mauceri acknowledges:
The person who stands before a symphony orchestra is charged with something both impossible and improbable. The impossible part is herding a hundred musicians to agree on something, and the improbable part is that one does it by waving one’s hands in the air.
This is why so many famous conductors have claimed that the art of conducting cannot be taught. In the deepest sense, they are right. To be sure, it is perfectly possible, as Reiner did, to teach the rudiments of clear stick technique and effective rehearsal practice. But the mystery at the heart of conducting is, indeed, unteachable: One cannot tell a budding young conductor how to cultivate a magnetic personality, any more than an actor can be taught how to have star quality. What sets the Bernsteins and Bogarts of the world apart from the rest of us is very much like what James M. Barrie said of feminine charm in What Every Woman Knows: “If you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have.”
2 Excerpts from many of these films were woven together into a two-part BBC documentary, The Art of Conducting, which is available on home video and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube
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Not that he tries. What was remarkable about the condescension in this instance was that Franken directed it at women who accused him of behaving “inappropriately” toward them. (In an era of strictly enforced relativism, we struggle to find our footing in judging misbehavior, so we borrow words from the prissy language of etiquette. The mildest and most common rebuke is unfortunate, followed by the slightly more serious inappropriate, followed by the ultimate reproach: unacceptable, which, depending on the context, can include both attempted rape and blowing your nose into your dinner napkin.) Franken’s inappropriateness entailed, so to speak, squeezing the bottoms of complete strangers, and cupping the occasional breast.
Franken himself did not use the word “inappropriate.” By his account, he had done nothing to earn the title. His earlier vague denials of the allegations, he told his fellow senators, “gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done.” How could he have confused people about such an important matter? Doggone it, it’s that damn sensitivity of his. The nation was beginning a conversation about sexual harassment—squeezing strangers’ bottoms, stuff like that—and “I wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”
Well, not all women. The women with those bottoms and breasts he supposedly manhandled, for example—their experiences don’t deserve to be taken seriously. We’ve got Al’s word on it. “Some of the allegations against me are not true,” he said. “Others, I remember very differently.” His accusers, in other words, fall into one of two camps: the liars and the befuddled. You know how women can be sometimes. It might be a hormonal thing.
But enough about them, Al seemed to be saying: Let’s get back to Al. “I know the work I’ve been able to do has improved people’s lives,” Franken said, but he didn’t want to get into any specifics. “I have used my power to be a champion of women.” He has faith in his “proud legacy of progressive advocacy.” He’s been passionate and worked hard—not for himself, mind you, but for his home state of Minnesota, by which he’s “blown away.” And yes, he would get tired or discouraged or frustrated once in a while. But then that big heart of his would well up: “I would think about the people I was doing this for, and it would get me back on my feet.” Franken recently published a book about himself: Giant of the Senate. I had assumed the title was ironic. Now I’m not sure.
Yet even in his flights of self-love, the problem that has ever attended Senator Franken was still there. You can’t take him seriously. He looks as though God made him to be a figure of fun. Try as he might, his aspect is that of a man who is going to try to make you laugh, and who is built for that purpose and no other—a close cousin to Bert Lahr or Chris Farley. And for years, of course, that’s the part he played in public life, as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. When he announced nine years ago that he would return to Minnesota and run for the Senate—when he came out of the closet and tried to present himself as a man of substance—the effect was so disorienting that I, and probably many others, never quite recovered. As a comedian-turned-politician, he was no longer the one and could never quite become the other.
The chubby cheeks and the perpetual pucker, the slightly crossed eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses, the rounded, diminutive torso straining to stay upright under the weight of an enormous head—he was the very picture of Comedy Boy, and suddenly he wanted to be something else: Politics Boy. I have never seen the famously tasteless tearjerker The Day the Clown Cried, in which Jerry Lewis stars as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, but I’m sure watching it would be a lot like watching the ex-funnyman Franken deliver a speech about farm price supports.
Then he came to Washington and slipped right into place. His career is testament to a dreary fact of life here: Taken in the mass, senators are pretty much interchangeable. Party discipline determines nearly every vote they cast. Only at the margins is one Democrat or Republican different in a practical sense from another Democrat or Republican. Some of us held out hope, despite the premonitory evidence, that Franken might use his professional gifts in service of his new job. Yet so desperate was he to be taken seriously that he quickly passed serious and swung straight into obnoxious. It was a natural fit. In no time at all, he mastered the senatorial art of asking pointless or showy questions in committee hearings, looming from his riser over fumbling witnesses and hollering “Answer the question!” when they didn’t respond properly.
It’s not hard to be a good senator, if you have the kind of personality that frees you to simulate chumminess with people you scarcely know or have never met and will probably never see again. There’s not much to it. A senator has a huge staff to satisfy his every need. There are experts to give him brief, personal tutorials on any subject he will be asked about, writers to write his questions for his committee hearings and an occasional op-ed if an idea strikes him, staffers to arrange his travel and drive him here or there, political aides to guard his reputation with the folks back home, press aides to regulate his dealings with reporters, and legislative aides to write the bills should he ever want to introduce any. The rest is show biz.
Oddly, Franken was at his worst precisely when he was handling the show-biz aspects of his job. While his inquisitions in committee hearings often showed the obligatory ferocity and indignation, he could also appear baffled and aimless. His speeches weren’t much good, and he didn’t deliver them well. As if to prove the point, he published a collection of them earlier this year, Speaking Franken. Until Pearl Harbor, he’d been showing signs of wanting to run for president. Liberal pundits were talking him up as a national candidate. Speaking Franken was likely intended to do for him what Profiles in Courage did for John Kennedy, another middling senator with presidential longings. Unfortunately for Franken, Ted Sorensen is still dead.
The final question raised by Franken’s resignation is why so many fellow Democrats urged him to give up his seat so suddenly, once his last accuser came forward. The consensus view involved Roy Moore, in those dark days when he was favored to win Alabama’s special election. With the impending arrival of an accused pedophile on the Republican side of the aisle, Democrats didn’t want an accused sexual harasser in their own ranks to deflect what promised to be a relentless focus on the GOP’s newest senator. This is bad news for any legacy Franken once hoped for himself. None of his work as a senator will commend him to history. He will be remembered instead for two things: as a minor TV star, and as Roy Moore’s oldest victim.
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Review of 'Lioness' By Francine Klagsbrun
Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, moved to Palestine from America in 1921, at the age of 22, to pursue Socialist Zionism. She was instrumental in transforming the Jewish people into a state; signed that state’s Declaration of Independence; served as its first ambassador to the Soviet Union, as labor minister for seven years, and as foreign minister for a decade. In 1969, she became the first female head of state in the Western world, serving from the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and through the nearly catastrophic but ultimately victorious 1973 Yom Kippur War. She resigned in 1974 at the age of 76, after five years as prime minister. Her involvement at the forefront of Zionism and the leadership of Israel thus extended more than half a century.
This is the second major biography of Golda Meir in the last decade, after Elinor Burkett’s excellent Golda in 2008. Klagsbrun’s portrait is even grander in scope. Her epigraph comes from Ezekiel’s lamentation for Israel: What a lioness was your mother / Among the lions! / Crouching among the great beasts / She reared her cubs. The “mother” was Israel; the “cubs,” her many ancient kings; the “great beasts,” the hostile nations surrounding her. One finishes Klagsbrun’s monumental volume, which is both a biography of Golda and a biography of Israel in her time, with a deepened sense that modern Israel, its prime ministers, and its survival is a story of biblical proportions.Golda Meir’s story spans three countries—Russia, America, and Israel. Before she was Golda Meir, she was Golda Meyerson; and before that, she was Golda Mabovitch, born in 1898 in Kiev in the Russian Empire. Her father left for America after the horrific Kishinev pogrom in 1903, found work in Milwaukee as a carpenter, and in 1906 sent for his wife and three daughters, who escaped using false identities and border bribes. Golda said later that what she took from Russia was “fear, hunger and fear.” It was an existential fear that she never forgot.
In Milwaukee, Golda found socialism in the air: The city had both a socialist mayor and a socialist congressman, and she was enthralled by news from Palestine, where Jews were living out socialist ideals in kibbutzim. She immersed herself in Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), a movement synthesizing Zionism and socialism, and in 1917 married a fellow socialist, Morris Meyerson. As soon as conditions permitted, they moved to Palestine, where the marriage ultimately failed—a casualty of the extended periods she spent away from home working for Socialist Zionism and her admission that the cause was more important to her than her husband and children. Klagsbrun writes that Meir might appear to be the consummate feminist: She asserted her independence from her husband, traveled continually and extensively on her own, left her husband and children for months to pursue her work, and demanded respect as an individual rather than on special standards based on her gender. But she never considered herself a feminist and indeed denigrated women’s organizations as reducing issues to women’s interests only, and she gave minimal assistance to other women. Klagsbrun concludes that questions about Meir as a feminist figure ultimately “hang in the air.”
Her American connection and her unaccented American English became strategic assets for Zionism. She understood American Jews, spoke their language, and conducted many fundraising trips to the United States, tirelessly raising tens of millions of dollars of critically needed funds. David Ben-Gurion called her the “woman who got the money which made the state possible.” Klagsbrun provides the schedule of her 1932 trip as an example of her efforts: Over the course of a single month, the 34-year-old Zionist pioneer traveled to Kansas City, Tulsa, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and three cities in Canada. She became the face of Zionism in America—“The First Lady,” in the words of a huge banner at a later Chicago event, “of the Jewish People.” She connected with American Jews in a way no other Zionist leader had done before her.
In her own straightforward way, she mobilized the English language and sent it into battle for Zionism. While Abba Eban denigrated her poor Hebrew—“She has a vocabulary of two thousand words, okay, but why doesn’t she use them?”—she had a way of crystallizing issues in plainspoken English. Of British attempts to prevent the growth of the Jewish community in Palestine, she said Britain “should remember that Jews were here 2,000 years before the British came.” Of expressions of sympathy for Israel: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.” And perhaps her most famous saying: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”
Once she moved to the Israeli foreign ministry, she changed her name from Meyerson to Meir, in response to Ben-Gurion’s insistence that ministers assume Israeli names. She began a decade-long tenure there as the voice and face of Israel in the world. At a Madison Square Garden rally after the 1967 Six-Day War, she observed sardonically that the world called Israelis “a wonderful people,” complimented them for having prevailed “against such odds,” and yet wanted Israel to give up what it needed for its self-defense:
“Now that they have won this battle, let them go back where they came from, so that the hills of Syria will again be open for Syrian guns; so that Jordanian Legionnaires, who shoot and shell at will, can again stand on the towers of the Old City of Jerusalem; so that the Gaza Strip will again become a place from which infiltrators are sent to kill and ambush.” … Is there anybody who has the boldness to say to the Israelis: “Go home! Begin preparing your nine and ten year olds for the next war, perhaps in ten years.”
The next war would come not in ten years, but in six, and while Meir was prime minister.
Klagsbrun’s extended discussion of Meir’s leadership before, during, and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War is one of the most valuable parts of her book, enabling readers to make informed judgments about that war and assess Meir’s ultimate place in Israeli history. The book makes a convincing case that there was no pre-war “peace option” that could have prevented the conflict. Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, was insisting on a complete Israeli withdrawal before negotiations could even begin, and Meir’s view was, “We had no peace with the old boundaries. How can we have peace by returning to them?” She considered the demand part of a plan to push Israel back to the ’67 lines “and then bring the Palestinians back, which means no more Israel.”
A half-century later, after three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state on substantially all the disputed territories—with the Palestinians rejecting each offer, insisting instead on an Israeli retreat to indefensible lines and recognition of an alleged Palestinian “right of return”—Meir’s view looks prescient.
Klagsbrun’s day-by-day description of the ensuing war is largely favorable to Meir, who relied on assurances from her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, that the Arabs would not attack, and assurances from her intelligence community that, even if they did, Israel would have a 48-hour notice—enough time to mobilize the reserves that constituted more than 75 percent of its military force. Both sets of assurances proved false, and the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack took virtually everyone in Israel by surprise. Dayan had something close to a mental breakdown, but Meir remained calm and in control after the initial shock, making key military decisions. She was able to rely on the excellent personal relationships she had established with President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and the critical resupply of American arms that enabled Israel—once its reserves were called into action—to take the war into Egyptian and Syrian territories, with Israeli forces camped in both countries by its end.
Meir had resisted the option of a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria when it suddenly became clear, 12 hours before the war started, that coordinated Egyptian and Syrian attacks were coming. On the second day of the war, she told her war cabinet that she regretted not having authorized the IDF to act, and she sent a message to Kissinger that Israel’s “failure to take such action is the reason for our situation now.” After the war, however, she testified that, had Israel begun the war, the U.S. would not have sent the crucial assistance that Israel needed (a point on which Kissinger agreed), and that she therefore believed she had done the right thing. A preemptive response, however, or a massive call-up of the reserves in the days before the attacks, might have avoided a war in which Israel lost 2,600 soldiers—the demographic equivalent of all the American losses in the Vietnam War.
It is hard to fault Meir’s decision, given the erroneous information and advice she was uniformly receiving from all her defense and intelligence subordinates, but it is a reminder that for Israeli prime ministers (such as Levi Eshkol in the Six-Day War, Menachem Begin with the Iraq nuclear reactor in 1981, and Ehud Olmert with the Syrian one in 2007), the potential necessity of taking preemptive action always hangs in the air. Klagsbrun’s extensive discussion of the Yom Kippur War is a case study of that question, and an Israeli prime minister may yet again face that situation.
The Meir story is also a tale of the limits of socialism as an organizing principle for the modern state. Klagsbrun writes about “Golda’s persistent—and hopelessly utopian—vision of how a socialist society should be conducted,” exemplified by her dream of instituting commune-like living arrangements for urban families, comparable to those in the kibbutzim, where all adults would share common kitchens and all the children would eat at school. She also tried to institute a family wage system, in which people would be paid according to their needs rather than their talents, a battle she lost when the unionized nurses insisted on being paid as professionals, based on their education and experience, and not the sizes of their families.
Socialism foundered not only on the laws of economics and human nature but also in the realm of foreign relations. In 1973, enraged that the socialist governments and leaders in Europe had refused to come to Israel’s aid during the Yom Kippur War, Meir convened a special London conference of the Socialist International, attended by eight heads of state and a dozen other socialist-party leaders. Before the conference, she told Willy Brandt, Germany’s socialist chancellor, that she wanted “to hear for myself, with my own ears, what it was that kept the heads of these socialist governments from helping us.”
In her speech at the conference, she criticized the Europeans for not even permitting “refueling the [American] planes that saved us from destruction.” Then she told them, “I just want to understand …what socialism is really about today”:
We are all old comrades, long-standing friends. … Believe me, I am the last person to belittle the fact that we are only one tiny Jewish state and that there are over twenty Arab states with vast territories, endless oil, and billions of dollars. But what I want to know from you today is whether these things are the decisive factors in Socialist thinking, too?
After she concluded her speech, the chairman asked whether anyone wanted to reply. No one did, and she thus effectively received her answer.
One wonders what Meir would think of the Socialist International today. On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration last year, the World Socialist website called it “a sordid deal” that launched “a nakedly colonial project.” Socialism was part of the cause for which she went to Palestine in 1921, and it has not fared well in history’s judgment. But the other half—
Zionism—became one of the great successes of the 20th century, in significant part because of the lifelong efforts of individuals such as she.
Golda Meir has long been a popular figure in the American imagination, particularly among American Jews. Her ghostwritten autobiography was a bestseller; Ingrid Bergman played her in a well-received TV film; Anne Bancroft played her on the Broadway stage. But her image as the “71-year old grandmother,” as the press frequently referred to her when she became prime minister, has always obscured the historic leader beneath that façade. She was a woman with strengths and weaknesses who willed herself into half a century of history. Francine Klagsbrun has given us a magisterial portrait of a lioness in full.
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Back in 2016, then–deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes gave an extraordinary interview to the New York Times Magazine in which he revealed how President Obama exploited a clueless and deracinated press to steamroll opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes told journalist David Samuels. “They”—writers and bloggers and pundits—“were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Rhodes went on to explain that his job was made easier by structural changes in the media, such as the closing of foreign bureaus, the retirement of experienced editors and correspondents, and the shift from investigative reporting to aggregation. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” he said. “That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
And they haven’t learned much. It was dispiriting to watch in December as journalists repeated arguments against the Jerusalem decision presented by Rhodes on Twitter. On December 5, quoting Mahmoud Abbas’s threat that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would have “dangerous consequences,” Rhodes tweeted, “Trump seems to view all foreign policy as an extension of a patchwork of domestic policy positions, with no regard for the consequences of his actions.” He seemed blissfully unaware that the same could be said of his old boss.
The following day, Rhodes tweeted, “In addition to making goal of peace even less possible, Trump is risking huge blowback against the U.S. and Americans. For no reason other than a political promise he doesn’t even understand.” On December 8, quoting from a report that the construction of a new American Embassy would take some time, Rhodes asked, “Then why cause an international crisis by announcing it?”
Rhodes made clear his talking points for the millions of people inclined to criticize President Trump: Acknowledging Israel’s right to name its own capital is unnecessary and self-destructive. Rhodes’s former assistant, Ned Price, condensed the potential lines of attack in a single tweet on December 5. “In order to cater to his political base,” Price wrote, “Trump appears willing to: put U.S. personnel at great risk; risk C-ISIL [counter-ISIL] momentum; destabilize a regional ally; strain global alliances; put Israeli-Palestinian peace farther out of reach.”
Prominent media figures happily reprised their roles in the echo chamber. Susan Glasser of Politico: “Just got this in my in box from Ayman Odeh, leading Arab Israeli member of parliament: ‘Trump is a pyromaniac who could set the entire region on fire with his madness.’” BBC reporter Julia Merryfarlane: “Whether related or not, everything that happens from now on in Israel and the Pal territories will be examined in the context of Trump signaling to move the embassy to Jerusalem.” Neither Rhodes nor Price could have asked for more.
Network news broadcasts described the president’s decision as “controversial” but only reported on the views of one side in the controversy. Guess which one. “There have already been some demonstrations,” reported NBC’s Richard Engel. “They are expected to intensify, with Palestinians calling for three days of rage if President Trump goes through with it.” Left unmentioned was the fact that Hamas calls for days of rage like you and I call for pizza.
Throughout Engel’s segment, the chyron read: “Controversial decision could lead to upheaval.” On ABC, George Stephanopoulos said, “World leaders call the decision dangerous.” On CBS, Gayle King chimed in: “U.S. allies and leaders around the world say it’s a big mistake that will torpedo any chance of Middle East peace.” Oh? What were the chances of Middle East peace prior to Trump’s speech?
On CNN, longtime peace processor Aaron David Miller likened recognizing Jerusalem to hitting “somebody over the head with a hammer.” On MSNBC, Chris Matthews fumed: “Deaths are coming.” That same network featured foreign-policy gadfly Steven Clemons of the Atlantic, who said Trump “stuck a knife in the back of the two-state process.” Price and former Obama official Joel Rubin also appeared on the network to denounce Trump. “American credibility is shot, and in diplomacy, credibility relies on your word, and our word is, at this moment, not to be trusted from a peace-process perspective, certainly,” Rubin said. This from the administration that gave new meaning to the words “red line.”
Some journalists were so devoted to Rhodes’s tendentious narrative of Trump’s selfishness and heedlessness that they mangled the actual story. “He had promised this day would come, but to hear these words from the White House was jaw-dropping,” said Martha Raddatz of ABC. “Not only signing a proclamation reversing nearly 70 years of U.S. policy, but starting plans to move the embassy to Jerusalem. No one else on earth has an embassy there!” How dare America take a brave stand for a small and threatened democracy!
In fact, Trump was following U.S. policy as legislated by the Congress in 1995, reaffirmed in the Senate by a 90–0 vote just last June, and supported (in word if not in deed) by his three most recent predecessors as well as the last four Democratic party platforms. Most remarkable, the debate surrounding the Jerusalem policy ignored a crucial section of the president’s address. “We are not taking a position on any final-status issues,” he said, “including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” What we did then was simply accept the reality that the city that houses the Knesset and where the head of government receives foreign dignitaries is the capital of Israel.
However, just as had happened during the debate over the Iran deal, the facts were far less important to Rhodes than the overarching strategic goal. In this case, the objective was to discredit and undermine President Trump’s policy while isolating the conservative government of Israel. Yet there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical toward the disingenuous duo of Rhodes and Price. Trump’s announcement was bold, for sure, but the tepid protests from Arab capitals more worried about the rise of Iran, which Rhodes and Price facilitated, than the Palestinian issue suggested that the “Arab street” would sit this one out.
Which is what happened. Moreover, verbal disagreement aside, there is no evidence that the Atlantic alliance is in jeopardy. Nor has the war on ISIS lost momentum. As for putting “Israeli–Palestinian peace farther out of reach,” if third-party recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital forecloses a deal, perhaps no deal was ever possible. Rhodes and Price would like us to overlook the fact that the two sides weren’t even negotiating during the Obama administration—an administration that did as much as possible to harm relations between Israel and the United States.
This most recent episode of the Trump show was a reminder that some things never change. Jerusalem was, is, and will be the capital of the Jewish state. President Trump routinely ignores conventional wisdom and expert opinion. And whatever nonsense President Obama and his allies say today, the press will echo tomorrow.