The Carter administration's Middle East policy began in the shadows of a report by the Brookings Institution which declared that…
The Carter administration’s Middle East policy began in the shadows of a report by the Brookings Institution which declared that “peace-making efforts should henceforth concentrate on negotiation of a comprehensive settlement.” Most of 1977 was spent in a futile effort to reconvene the Geneva conference, culminating in a joint U.S.-Soviet statement of October 1. At that point, Anwar Sadat, able to recognize stalemate even if Washington could not, saved U.S. diplomacy “in spite of itself” by interposing his own dramatic peace initiative. Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem caught Washington flat-footed; the administration could hardly avoid the conclusion that it must be a good thing, but Carter quickly confirmed that it would not deflect him from his pursuit of the Holy Grail:
We . . . have taken the position . . . that a separate peace agreement between Egypt and Israel is not desirable. This is predicated upon the very viable hope that a comprehensive settlement can be reached among all the parties involved.
Thus, when Egypt and Israel began bilateral negotiations, Secretary of State Vance insisted that such meetings should only “pave the way toward an ultimate Geneva conference.” And throughout the first half of 1978 the United States supported enlargement of the agenda to include more divisive issues.
By the time of the Egypt-Israel meeting in Leeds, England, in July 1978, insistence upon a “package deal” had again paralyzed negotiations by linking soluble issues to the most intractable aspects of the entire Arab-Israel complex. At this point the U.S., badly in need of results rather than the preservation of doctrinal purity, convened the Camp David meeting and set its sights on what could be achieved rather than what defied solution. The result, to be sure, falls far short of a framework for a comprehensive peace; consider the vagueness of the general framework as opposed to the precision of the Egypt-Israel document. But that is exactly what made the Camp David accords possible—namely, a recognition of the value of agreements with only some of the parties and on only some of the issues.
By this time, two years of its own experience, reinforced by the lessons of the Kissinger period, might have led the Carter administration to a clearer recognition of the requirements for diplomatic progress on Arab-Israel issues. Progress had been achieved when issues were separated rather than linked, when negotiations were pursued bilaterally rather than en masse, when uncooperative parties were excluded rather than courted, when diplomacy was conducted privately rather than through the media, when the United States served as honest broker rather than trying to impose its own conceptions—and when the overall aim was conceived as a process of building peace gradually rather than as the achievement of an all-encompassing one-time solution. Instead, U.S. diplomacy after Camp David returned to its comfortable habits, diverted only temporarily by a spasm of realism when the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was at stake. Consider the following activity in the wake of Camp David:
- Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders reassures Jordanians and West Bank Arabs that the United States envisions total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, including settlements, in any future peace agreement.
- The U.S. Consul in Jerusalem and members of his staff engage in high-profile consultations with West Bank Arabs, including PLO supporters.
- The Carter administration wages a valiant fight for its full $90-million aid request for Syria—immediately after that country has rejected the Camp David framework in vitriolic terms.
- Following the earlier sale of F-15’s to Saudi Arabia (justified as a reward for moderation) the administration meets Saudi opposition to Camp David by approving another $5.1 billion in arms sales during fiscal 1979. In addition, rejectionist Libya is allowed to buy militarily useful 727’s and 747’s, and Jordan’s Hussein is allotted 300 M-60 tanks. In December 1979, there is a further sale to Saudi Arabia of some 6,500 advanced missiles and bombs, including 916 Maverick missiles and 660 Sidewinder missiles.
- After Camp David and during the Egypt-Israel peace talks, U.S. negotiators press for closer “linkage” to a general settlement, forcing Sadat to demand no less. When Israel rejects an American proposal that would essentially make the Egypt-Israel peace treaty conditional on progress elsewhere, Carter angrily and publicly blames Israel for the impasse.
- When the Egyptian-Israeli treaty is finally signed, the United States immediately makes a number of gestures toward those whose exclusion had made the achievement possible. Carter publicly restates his previously-rejected offer to open contact with the PLO if it accepts UN Security Council Resolution 242, stressing that he would “immediately start working directly” with that organization in such a case. Shafiq al-Hout, director of the PLO office in Beirut, is given a visa for a U.S. speaking tour, even though U.S. law forbids the admission of officials of groups that espouse terrorism.
- The State Department’s annual review of Middle East policy, presented by Assistant Secretary Saunders in July 1979, stresses the need to accommodate rejectionist states and argues that “negative reaction in the Arab world has demonstrated the validity of our premise that there must be a comprehensive peace that achieves acceptance of Israel by all of its neighbors and an honorable and secure peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.”
- In the West Bank autonomy talks, the United States suddenly proposes discussion of legislative powers for the elected authority, voting rights and repatriation of Palestinian Arabs living outside the West Bank, and inclusion of East Jerusalem representatives—thereby going well beyond what even Egypt had proposed for the immediate agenda.
- Similarly, U.S. special envoy Robert Strauss proposes that the issue of Jerusalem, which the Camp David framework wisely defers to a later stage, be given top priority in negotiations.
- The U.S. pledge of no recognition of and no negotiation with the PLO is increasingly stretched in practice, especially with the growing frequency of “social encounters.” A U.S. ambassador who clearly violates the pledge (Andrew Young) resigns his post, but the impression is created that his real sin is not so much the fact of a “non-social” meeting with a PLO official as his misrepresentation of that meeting. The President allows six weeks to pass before denying publicly that “Jewish pressure” led to the envoy’s resignation, and there are indications that State Department officials knew of the meeting and did not disapprove so long as it was not public knowledge.
- Finally, the United States tries to float a Security Council resolution that would “complement” Resolution 242 and entice the PLO to accept the 242 framework, thus making possible official U.S.-PLO ties. The effort is dropped only after protests from both Egypt and Israel that it undermines the autonomy talks.
What explains the persistence of this “fundamentalism” in the Carter administration, this dogged devotion to total salvation rather than limited but practical achievements?
In the first place, it is consonant with a traditional American style in foreign affairs; regarding conflict among nations as an aberration, Americans have tended to seek total solutions and to posit utopian goals. Carter, as a born-again Wilsonian, is nothing if not representative of this spirit. In this he is reinforced by the future-oriented globalism of his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has described the Arab-Israel conflict—and even U.S.-Soviet rivalry—as anachronistic phenomena that need to be resolved so that mankind can address the problems of the “technetronic age.” In addition, the advice of Arabists within the administration has long been loudly in favor of a comprehensive approach, since these advisers tend inevitably to be responsive to Arab thinking (and Arabs stress a “comprehensive” peace because the phrase is used to affirm that the “basic” problem of the Palestinians must be dealt with). Needless to say, the influence of the foreign-policy bureaucracy is strong when presidential leadership is weak or lacks a clear direction of its own. Thus the unanimous recommendations of Middle East advisers have tended to prevail under normal circumstances, and only in brief periods of close presidential involvement (Camp David, the treaty shuttle) has Carter overcome both bureaucratic inertia and his own natural inclination.
Another crucial element in the administration’s outlook is the link to energy and to U.S.-Saudi relations. Administration officials accept at face value the Saudi insistence that oil supply and pricing are tied to the Arab-Israel conflict. Treatment of the nation’s energy problems is thus dependent on prior resolution of the “Palestinian problem” on terms acceptable to Saudi Arabia. The administration’s sensitivity to the views of Riyadh is nothing short of remarkable; as Senator Church has said, “We have had our neck in the OPEC noose since 1973, and thus we tend to catch cold when the Saudis sneeze.”
The final link in the chain of logic is the tendency—promoted again by those most sensitized to current dogmas in the area—to regard Palestinians and the PLO as practically synonymous. The resolution of the Palestinian question is seen as the key to stability in the Middle East, and the PLO is seen as the key to the Palestinian issue. Thus there can be no serious movement toward a Middle East settlement without PLO participation. In tacitly acting on these assumptions, the administration accepts at face value the public statements of Arab states, seeing in them a sincerity not often matched in practice by even the most vocal sponsors of Arafat and company.
In such a frame of mind, the Camp David accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty indeed appear as dubious achievements.
The strengths of the Camp David framework, which are considerable, are not readily apparent when the focus is on ultimate goals. Camp David needs to be seen as part of a process in which the immediate concrete terms may be less important than the fact of the process itself. It needs to be set in the perspective of current and future trends in the area; while it demonstrates that what was unimaginable only a few years ago is now possible, it also shows clearly what is still unimaginable (but may, with patience, also become possible in the future). As documents marking a point of passage in the evolution of the conflict, Camp David and the Egypt-Israel treaty are obviously “inadequate” as a final destination, but this does not impair their significance. To quote Meg Greenfield, “Viewed as exercises in process, these documents do take on a peculiar virtue and importance way out of proportion to their actual ability to make some things happen and guarantee that others never do.”
One significant change marked by Camp David, and a peculiar strength of the peace-making process it represents, is the altered perception of interests and tactics among immediate parties. In the Egyptian view, the new state of relations with Israel is itself an improved means of gaining Israeli concessions on long-range issues. In the words of Butros Ghali, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs:
I believe that now that there is peace Egypt will have more leverage than before. . . . I will have power over, leverage over, Israel according to this normalization of relations. . . . The Israelis are interested in moving from peace-keeping to peace-building. So they want to build peace. My leverage is that it will be impossible to build the peace unless we find a solution to the Palestinian problems.
The Egyptian use of normalization as leverage on Israel might be seen as a weakness in Camp David, as an indication that commitments to the agreements are conditional. But a better reading would be that the Egyptian commitment is not based on wishful thinking or on the arbitrary whims of one man, but rather on the calculation that relations with Israel serve Egypt’s tactical interest. This is a more solid foundation than good will alone. And whether the Egyptians are right or wrong at the moment, an important watershed has been passed when a major Arab belligerent argues publicly that normalization of relations with Israel, rather than non-recognition, is a more effective means of achieving Arab goals—including the resolution of the Palestinian question.
The Egyptians obviously have a high stake in showing that they, and not their Arab critics, are correct. They have resisted procedures that would have undermined the Camp David process. They have muted their public reactions to Israeli moves that they deeply oppose, and have cooperated to head off serious crises. They have refrained from raising or stressing difficult issues that could be postponed. Had the Carter administration followed the same wise principle, the path of negotiations would have run considerably more smoothly.
The Egyptian tactical interest in Camp David is, of course, an outgrowth of the more general Egyptian interest in peace, an interest derived from the futility and costs of war, enormous economic pressures, a returning sense of Egyptian particularism, and reactions to new radical threats in the area. In many cases these Egyptian concerns are shared by Israel, so that Camp David is shored up by bilateral interests that go beyond Arab-Israel issues. Though this shared approach has only begun to find expression, it is one of the more striking aspects of the Camp David framework and should be included—though it seldom is—in any discussion of Camp David’s strengths and weaknesses.
The fact that Egypt and Israel worked out their own arrangements for joint peace-keeping operations in Sinai, with minimal U.S. help, is one indication of cooperative action going beyond treaty terms. The image of the Egyptian Minister of Defense being escorted into the inner sanctum of the Israeli Defense Ministry is yet more vivid. There have been references to “common strategic understandings” reached by Israeli and Egyptian leaders at the Alexandria meeting in July of last year, which was described by Menachem Begin as the most important meeting in two years of Egypt-Israel talks. Foremost among such understandings were, presumably, opposition to Soviet moves throughout the area, concern about the spread of Khomeini-style unrest, agreement on Lebanon (Syria should get out), and reaction to events on the Arabian peninsula. It should be stressed that the leaders of the two countries were speaking and acting not on behalf of U.S. or Western interests, though they perceived their interests similarly, but rather on behalf of their own common strategic interests—a much more solid base upon which to build.
Aside from these broader issues, Camp David has already served immediate Egyptian interests very well. Sadat, alone of all Arab leaders, has achieved the commitment of total Israeli withdrawal from all of his country’s occupied lands. In doing so, he has established the precedent of total Israeli withdrawal despite the vows of four Israeli governments that Israel would never surrender control over the Straits of Tiran (and Begin’s right-wing critics are perfectly correct in stressing just how important this precedent may turn out to be). Furthermore, Sadat can argue that, whatever its defects from the Arab point of view, the Camp David framework embodies for the first time explicit Israeli recognition that the future of the West Bank will not be determined by Israel, but by international negotiation.
The advocates of comprehensiveness will perhaps concede that the agreements serve Egyptian interests, but argue that Egypt cannot afford to ignore broader Arab interests. The isolation of Egypt in the Arab world seems to them insupportable in the long run. Of course it is not at all obvious why an Egyptian policy serving Egyptian interests should be so problematic. But let us answer the practical question: given the demonstrated hostility of other Arab states, can Egypt continue for long in “isolation”?
The strengths of Egypt’s position should not be overlooked. By virtue of location, demography, and cultural preeminence, Egypt is the natural center of gravity in the Arab world. It is not easy to “isolate” a nation that represents nearly half of all Arabs (in fact, Egypt and two relatively friendly regimes—Sudan and Morocco—together comprise well over two-thirds of the Arab world). Without Egypt, the rest of the Arab world is weak and divided; Egypt’s Arab opponents are well aware of this weakness and deeply frustrated by it—hence the violence of their response.
Egypt clearly has little to fear from external threats. It is shielded to the east by Israel, while the Sudanese regime to the south is friendly. As for Libya, Qaddafi has more to fear from Egypt than vice versa. Economic sanctions are ineffective; only a small part of Egypt’s trade has been with other Arab countries, and Egypt’s balance of payments has actually improved with the help of Western aid, remittances from Egyptians abroad, and increased revenues from oil and the canal.
Only internal upheaval (possibly promoted from without) is likely to divert Egypt from the course it has chosen. Yet neither Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem nor the signing of the peace treaty occasioned significant shows of opposition—in fact, the only mass demonstrations have been in support of Sadat. Even critics have lately admitted that Sadat “apparently” has the support of his public. To be sure, open opposition is not encouraged in Egypt, and in any event opponents might not want to upset the planned Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. But behind this is a change of attitudes in Egypt that has been noted by every close observer over the last decade: a decline in Nasserist pan-Arab-ism, and a growing assertion of Egyptian interests. In this climate, the hostility of other Arab states arouses in Egypt not trepidation, but defiance. At the same time, far from being a withdrawal from Arab affairs, Sadat’s initiatives can be seen as a bold and domestically popular reassertion of Egypt’s “rightful” role in the area. As stated by Patrick Seale:
A likely hypothesis is that the treaty is Egypt’s rebellion against the mendicant status forced upon it by the surge of revenues enjoyed by the oil producers since 1973-74. . . . Resentment of “rich Arabs,” a sentiment felt at many levels of Egyptian society, bred a determination in the leadership at least to rectify this unnatural state of affairs. Sadat’s bold peace-making, his cavalier treatment of his former allies, his outrage when Saudi Arabia and Kuwait forsook him after Camp David, all suggest that he is making a bid to regain that Arab predominance which Egyptians feel is theirs by right. As Sadat has said, there can be no war without Egypt and there can be no peace without Egypt. The trips to Jerusalem, to Camp David, and then to Washington to sign the treaty are so many “lessons” which his Arab critics have to learn and in their turn recite. This is not isolationism, but the will to reassert leadership.
It seems unlikely that Egypt will in fact remain “isolated” for very long. Splits among other Arab countries and domestic instability elsewhere (Syria, Iraq) will inevitably create points of entry for Egyptian diplomacy. Already, Morocco is quietly accepting Egyptian aid in its Saharan war. Saudis, whatever they say publicly, do not want an unstable Egypt; the Saudi tycoon Adnan Khashoggi is even now helping to finance a new telephone system for Cairo. From Tunis, the New York Times reports that at the “relocated” Arab League headquarters, the feeling is that the move “is temporary and that a way will eventually be found to move back to Cairo.”
But even if formal isolation should continue for a while, Egypt’s position is viable. Butros Ghali has announced that when an autonomy plan is concluded, Egypt will consider its responsibilities on the Palestinian question fulfilled. At that point the Palestinians will have to speak on their own behalf. If they still refuse to participate, the Egypt-Israel treaty can and will stand on its own (and should Egyptians be tempted to renege once Israeli withdrawal is complete, a demilitarized Sinai, open to quick Israeli reoccupation, would serve as hostage for future good behavior).
As a peace strategy, therefore, the Camp David framework has quite substantial strengths, and in fact U.S. policy does not so much negate them (at least intentionally) as it tries to incorporate them into something broader. Camp David is explicitly envisioned as the first chapter of a comprehensive settlement, and any conflict between the short-term requirements of effective diplomacy and the long-term vision of a peace accepted by all parties is deliberately minimized. Of course reality is not so simple: it is not possible at one and the same time to give full support to the Camp David process and full satisfaction to the Saudis and others with their own particular conception of comprehensive peace. Choices and trade-offs are inevitable; the best peace strategy is not the most effective strategy for winning Saudi applause, at least in the short run.
In making such choices, the practical dictates of successful peace-making should have priority over any other concern, both because peace is more important and because real progress is the best guarantee for achieving other goals in the long run. Pursuing the good will of the Saudis and other “moderate” Arabs on their terms, by contrast, will undercut the peace process, for the simple reason that the Saudi conception of a comprehensive settlement is unworkable.
The general unworkability of a comprehensive settlement under present circumstances should need little elaboration. In fact, the burden of proof should be on those who insist, in the face of contrary evidence, that a total settlement is feasible. The basic position of the PLO (which in Arab eyes defines Palestinian rights) and that of Israel are so far apart that any settlement would have to be imposed forcibly on one or the other or both. Comprehensiveness prevents any narrowing of this gap by tying the entire process to the most insoluble issues, the most intractable party, and the most unworkable diplomatic procedures. Continued faith in the possibility of a sudden resolution of this deeply-rooted conflict is testimony to the persistence of human optimism, but says something far less positive about one’s grasp of historic realities.
It is important to realize how the Saudis, who are not especially known for empty utopianism, expect this process to work. The comprehensive settlement which they project is hardly a compromise, but satisfies all outstanding Arab demands aside from the destruction of Israel itself. Such a settlement would still not satisfy the PLO—let alone the rejection front—but would obviously have to be imposed on Israel. In the Saudi scenario, the United States would in fact impose these terms on Israel, which, given its dependence on American support, would have to submit. In other words, for the Saudis (and Jordanians, moderate Palestinians, etc.), a comprehensive settlement is a euphemism for an American-forced total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories (and possibly includes the “repatriation” of Palestinians).
Aside from the Saudi connection, there is no reason to think that such a course of action is any more in American interests now than at any time since the 1967 war. But even if the idea seemed good in theory, it would not work in the real world. For the United States to impose on Israel a settlement so detrimental to what Israelis see as their most vital interests would require more than just leverage; it would require complete control of Israeli politics and society. Advocates of an imposed peace (like George Ball) misread the bargaining situation between patron and client. It is not a one-way street, and especially not on a matter the client considers basic to survival, but which for the patron is only one of a spectrum of concerns around the globe. The perceived importance of the issue, the degree of determination, and the willingness to pay costs in order to prevail will all be substantially greater for the client. And when the risk of submitting to the pressure seems greater than the risk of going without superpower support (the principal “lever”), the patron’s ability to dictate is very slight. But does anyone really expect an American President to push to that point?
Advocates of an imposed peace cite as a model Eisenhower’s imposition of withdrawal on Israel in 1957. But it is precisely this experience that fortifies Israeli resistance; the 1957 withdrawal did not contribute to Middle East stability, but solidified Nasserism in the region and prepared the way for a war fought under more adverse conditions ten years later. U.S.-Israel confrontations—in 1957, 1969-70, 1975, and to some extent in 1977—have never produced progress in Arab-Israel diplomacy. Israeli concessions have been forthcoming, on the other hand, when confidence in the peace process and in the United States was strengthened. Sadat’s initiative led to a total revision of Israeli attitudes on Sinai and the Straits of Tiran, after years of American pressure had added nothing. Sadat, though still entertaining an exaggerated notion of American leverage on Israel, has come to appreciate these complexities more fully and now pays closer attention to the dynamics of attitude change in Israel. Unfortunately, the other Arab states cling to the scenario of an American-imposed settlement that will “deliver” Israel with little or no need for concessions on their part.
Rather than feed these illusions, the United States would do better to combat them. There is a difference in kind between a peace of mutual accommodation, in whch American influence is used to strengthen the confidence of both sides, and a dictated “settlement” in which basically unacceptable terms are unilaterally imposed on one side. The United States is committed to the first kind of peace, but words and actions that seem to denigrate partial achievements help to keep alive a belief in the imposed-peace scenario. The expectation that the United States can and will force Israel to accept Arab demands, outside the framework of mutual compromise and adjustment, is a chimera; the Saudis need to understand this.
In any case, the Arab-Israel conflict is hardly the only or even the main issue in Saudi relations with the United States. As such Arab observers as Abeed Dawisha have pointed out, the Saudis are concerned first of all with security and stability in the face of a number of internal and external threats: rising radicalism in the area, Soviet penetration, the unsettling effects of rapid development, encirclement by hostile regimes, and so forth. The recent clear manifestations of internal instability underline the basic weakness of a feudal regime seeking to hoard a significant part of mankind’s mineral wealth in the heart of one of the world’s more volatile regions. As Dawisha notes, it is vital for Saudi Arabia to be perceived as an active participant in the “struggle against Zionism” in order to avoid involvement in quarrels that could expose its basic weakness. Cooperation with the United States is also an essential element in the Saudi reading of its own security interests; attitudes to the United States will be determined largely on this basis and not in response to the American position on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Nor is the link to oil pricing and supply as direct as John Connally and George Ball proclaim. A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee study confirms what should be obvious to any serious analyst of post-1973 oil marketing: OPEC prices, and decisions on production levels by particular countries, are determined by economic criteria and not by political motives. The same can be said of decisions on the disposition of surplus revenues; they are invested for maximum profit and not for political effect. The Western position on oil price and supply would not be improved by one iota if the Arab-Israel conflict were to be magically resolved tomorrow. The problem of politically-inspired selective embargos is somewhat different, but as the Iranian case shows, not even this is a function of the Arab-Israel conflict alone. So long as the West is vulnerable to oil cut-offs, any source of instability in the Middle East is a potential threat. The solution must involve more than the elimination of one source of instability; it must attack the fact of dependence itself.
In light of these considerations, there is even less justification for the United States being deflected from what is clearly the only workable peace strategy. American ambivalence not only reflects an oversensitivity to public declarations by Arab states that ought not to be taken at face value, but also tends to undercut the chances of real diplomatic progress that would in the end win Saudi and other moderate Arab support—assuming the “moderates” genuinely believe that stabilization of the Arab-Israel conflict will reduce radical and Soviet influence in the area. Hints of U.S. backing for a comprehensive imposed peace can only be pernicious to the negotiating process, since they encourage Arab opponents of negotiation and discourage moderation among both Arabs and Israelis.
A case in point is U.S. Palestinian policy; the constant flirtation with the PLO has worked against moderating trends among Palestinians.
The PLO, whatever its leaders may privately hint about future changes of heart, is at present totally opposed to the negotiating process and the framework to which the United States is presumably committed. In positing as its goal a Palestinian state in place of, and not alongside, Israel, the PLO platform is a minority position among Arabs and probably even among Palestinians, despite their widespread verbal support for the PLO. On the other hand, there is little doubt that the PLO faithfully and authentically reflects the views of many Palestinians among the 1948 refugees, who in fact comprise its historic base of support and who are not entranced with the idea of a state confined to the West Bank. This, of course, does not prevent innumerable outside observers, with as much persistence as illogic, from urging a PLO-led state on the West Bank as an ultimate solution to the conflict.
Take, for example, George Ball in one of his more recent fulminations (Worldview, December 1979):
[We must] direct our diplomatic efforts at trying, in a realistic way, to deal with these recalcitrant and complex issues that lie at the center of the Arab-Israeli problem. . . . That means, in the first instance, being prepared not only to talk directly with the PLO but to say to them that the United States will support an arrangement providing self-determination to the peoples of the occupied areas, provided they in return are prepared, as a part of the final arrangement, to recognize the legitimate rights of the people of Israel to territorial integrity within the pre-1967 borders, subject to such minor rectifications as may be negotiated, and are prepared to agree to necessary measures of restraint to reinforce Israeli security. . . . Only when we frankly offer support for self-determination can we hope to gain the support of other Arab states in the area that have themselves accepted Resolution 242; only then can we expect the peoples now living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to respond in a manner that will enable the more moderate leaders of the PLO to agree to participate in a serious diplomatic effort.
Obviously Ball believes that self-determination in the occupied territories is sufficient to engage the PLO—or at least its “more moderate leaders”—in a final resolution of the conflict. He assumes that an Israel “within the pre-1967 borders” will pose no residual problems in a comprehensive settlement based on the formula of withdrawal in exchange for peace and recognition. This ahistorical tendency to treat the conflict as rooted in the events of 1967 is confirmed in Ball’s comments on terrorism: “If one cannot condone terrorism, one can at least identify its roots, and historically terrorism has been a psychotic response to a military occupation.” As though there were no terrorism used against Israel before 1967!
The idea of a West Bank Palestinian state or autonomous entity as centerpiece of an Arab-Israel settlement has tremendous and apparently unshakable appeal to some minds. It seems to tie up all the loose ends: the future of the occupied territories, a negotiating partner for Israel, a role for the PLO. And there is indeed compelling logic behind the idea of dividing the area into self-governing Jewish and Arab states; after all, that was the basis of the 1947 UN partition plan. But the idea was rejected then by Palestinian Arabs on grounds that it was unjust and involved “grave practical difficulties . . . commerce would be strangled, communications dislocated, and the public finances upset.”
Now, apparently, there are at least some Arabs willing to contemplate a Palestinian Arab state in part of Palestine as the key to resolving the conflict. And George Ball is not the only observer to seize on this idea as a means of escaping basic contradictions in the positions of the two sides. The Carter administration, from its original espousal of a “Palestinian homeland” in 1977 to its insistent pressures in the current autonomy talks, obviously believes that the Palestinian problem can be solved—to the satisfaction of enough parties to make it stick—with a program centering on the West Bank and Gaza.
There is, however, one small defect in this vision: the solution is irrelevant to the problem it is designed to solve.
The PLO did not originate in the 1967 war. It was founded by and still essentially represents the interests of the 1948 refugees from what is now Israel. Refugees from Acre, Jaffa, or Haifa are not interested in “returning” to Nablus or Hebron; had they wanted to resettle on the West Bank, they could have done so at any time between 1948 and 1967. But refugees in the West Bank area remain registered as refugees. The persistence of outside observers in trying to link the PLO and the West Bank illustrates the marvelous imperviousness of the human mind to facts and evidence that contradict comfortable notions (or, as a psychologist might put it, the avoidance of cognitive dissonance). The PLO cannot be blamed for this confusion, for its own statements and internal debates have been admirably clear on the topic. Over the disclaimers of their well-wishers in the West, PLO leaders have consistently confirmed the obvious implication of their basic goals: they do not regard a West Bank state, let alone West Bank autonomy (no matter how complete), as satisfaction of their grievances.
In 1974, at the 12th session of the Palestine National Council, the PLO position on the liberation of the West Bank was debated at length and solemnly pronounced. It was decided that the PLO would agree to establish an “independent and fighting authority” on the West Bank if and when Israeli withdrawal there could be effectuated. Some factions opposed this on the grounds that even a “temporary” West Bank stale would divert energy and attention from the basic struggle to liberate the rest of Palestine. The majority position, however, accepted the idea of a West Bank state as an interim step in the achievement of the final goal, it being understood that such acceptance did not imply any change of attitude toward other occupied areas (i.e., what the rest of the world recognizes as Israel within its pre-1967 lines):
The PLO will struggle against any plan for the establishment of a Palestinian entity the price of which is recognition, conciliation, secure borders, renunciation of the national right, and our people’s deprivation of their right to return and their right to determine their fate on their national soil.
In March 1977, the 13th National Council substituted the word “state” for the word “authority,” but otherwise made no substantive changes. As Farouk al Kadoumi, the PLO “Foreign Minister,” carefully explained:
We accept at this stage that we have this state on only part of our territory. But this doesn’t mean that we are giving up the rest of our rights. . . . There are two [initial] phases to our return. The first phase to the 1967 lines, and the second to the 1948 lines . . . the third stage is the democratic state of Palestine.
In August 1977, there was a serious American effort to get the PLO to accept UN Resolution 242, which at least implies recognition of Israel, in order to draw Arafat into the negotiating process and meet the requirements for initiation of U.S.-PLO diplomatic contact. President Carter, basing himself on apparently sincere Saudi and Egyptian assurances, conjectured optimistically that “Palestinian leaders have indicated indirectly that they might adopt Resolution 242,” and offered publicly to begin U.S.-PLO talks if they would do so. But within hours a PLO spokesman had disclaimed any intention of accepting 242 unless it were fundamentally rewritten, thus leaving Carter in a somewhat exposed position and embarrassing the Saudis and Egyptians.
Just recently, as noted earlier, the administration floated the idea of another Security Council Resolution “complementing” 242, despite a lack of indication that it would have any greater success in attracting the PLO to a peace negotiation based on coexistence with Israel; this effort was abandoned after protests from both Israel and Egypt that it undercut the autonomy talks by discouraging the cooperation of Palestinians who would accept that basic framework of the Camp David accords.
The PLO position has been reiterated so often, and so recently, that refuting the tiresome wishful thinking of the George Balls becomes in itself tiresome. For example, the recent statement by the PLO representative in Saudi Arabia (a “moderate” in PLO politics): “Every entity set up in a part of Palestine will be a starting point for the liberation of the rest of the territories of Palestine” (Al Riyadh, November 13, 1979). From time to time a visiting journalist or politician, convinced that he alone has been privy to the innermost thoughts in PLO circles, emerges from a tête-à-tête with Arafat and declares that the PLO is ready to recognize Israel. Usually PLO leaders repudiate such self-appointed spokesmen at once; Arafat could not long maintain his position or the organization were he to try to redefine its raison d’être by personal fiat. And why should greater trust be put in private assurances that PLO leaders do not dare make public, than on solemn statements of policy that have been painstakingly debated and negotiated within the organization over the years? In any event, until changes in the PLO position are made public, they can hardly serve as a basis for negotiations.1
Even if PLO leaders were to accept the idea, a West Bank state would not solve the problems of the 1948 refugees. The West Bank is about a quarter the size of Massachusetts, and much of it is barren. Generally it has been an exporter rather than an importer of people; the “Palestinizing” of Jordan before 1967, with a steady population flow to the East Bank, was in large part an expression of the population pressure and lack of economic opportunity on the West Bank. The West Bank population now is about 700,000, while there are more than 1.5 million registered refugees outside the West Bank. In no conceivable way could more than a fraction of them be accommodated on the West Bank itself.
This does not exhaust the practical problems of a PLO-led state in such close proximity to Israel. Even if the will to suppress terrorism were present, the divisions and internal dynamics of the PLO would make control of provocations next to impossible. Conventional security issues have been stressed at length by military analysts. Modern military technology, far from reducing the significance of the West Bank for Israel, increases that significance; for example, modern surface-to-air missiles from West Bank territory could effectively block all Israeli airfields. Critics point out that Israel survived a hostile government on the West Bank before 1967, but there is no comparison between the military capabilities of pre-1967 Jordan and the potential of a Soviet-equipped and Soviet-trained military establishment in the 1980’s—stationed in an area commanding the strip of territory with three-quarters of Israel’s population. Nor, given the distances, would demilitarization solve the problem; a hostile army, if allowed free movement on the West Bank, could cross the Jordan and reach the Mediterranean before Israel could mobilize. Thus any Israeli government must be extremely sensitive to the nature of any regime or leadership in an autonomous or independent West Bank, and certainly would never, so long as it was in touch with reality, relinquish control to any group associated with the PLO’s current aims and tactics.
There is, of course, the notion that being given a state to run would domesticate and moderate the PLO leadership. The evidence for this pious assertion is elusive. The weight of recent evidence—Iran, Vietnam, Libya, South Yemen, Cuba, Uganda—would indicate that radical leaders are seldom absorbed by domestic problems but in fact prefer to rally their countries against foreign “enemies” as such problems mount.
And why should West Bank residents have PLO rule, dominated by refugees not from the West Bank, imposed upon them? In what way is this any more just than the rule of Nationalist Chinese refugees over native Taiwanese? Of course, at the present time West Bank leaders proclaim their support of the PLO, as a means of showing their opposition to Israel and acting in conformity with the prevailing Arab mood. But one can be skeptical about the extent to which they would actually welcome rule by Yasir Arafat; their interests, their outlook, and their own personal and communal aspirations all point the other way. As a non-displaced, non-refugee population, they have repeatedly indicated their acceptance of permanent coexistence with Israel. Even the emergence of a new, assertive, presumably pro-PLO leadership in the mayoral elections of 1976 may in the end undermine the PLO’s position, since it is much more difficult for the PLO to discredit such leadership, while the mayors are emerging as an authentically indigenous power center, to the unhappiness of the PLO.
Most Palestinians are not refugees, and most already reside in the Palestinian “homeland” in its broader definition (including the East Bank). The non-refugee population of the West Bank takes in some 15-20 per cent of all Palestinians, and is one of four major Palestinian constituencies. The others are West Bank residents who have moved (voluntarily) to the East Bank, the original East Bank population, and the 1948 refugees (living mainly in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Arab oil-producing states). Applying the rule of self-determination, West Bank residents should have a great deal to say about the future of the West Bank, while the PLO has no clear mandate to participate in such discussions. The autonomy talks in the Camp David framework are based on this assumption, and rightfully assign the key negotiating role to an elected local authority. Furthermore, once the PLO is excluded, the definition of the remaining issues becomes clearer and the chances for success more substantial.
Once we assume mutual acceptance and the end of Israeli control of Arab-inhabited areas, discussion of the future of the West bank becomes a matter of defining autonomy or independence both with regard to Israel and with regard to Jordan. With regard to Israel, it is obvious that even the Likud does not want to perpetuate direct control of a large Arab population. To be sure, the present Israeli government has proposed a severely restricted operational definition of autonomy, and there remains the emotional issue of Jewish settlement, but one can expect further concessions toward meaningful autonomy as bargaining continues (especially if Labor, as expected, wins the next Israeli election). In addition, the Israeli position on autonomy is very sensitive to the evolution of West Bank leadership; a genuinely autonomous leadership, free of PLO domination, would win more Israeli concessions on autonomy.
The growth of Israeli willingness to contemplate genuine local autonomy is reflected in the recent statements of Moshe Dayan, who has urged an end to Israeli military government and the unilateral extension of home rule, even in advance of and without reference to the Egypt-Israel autonomy talks. Dayan, long considered almost an annexationist on West Bank issues, now argues that the Israeli presence there should be limited to security-related matters: preventing the entrance of Arafat, the establishment of terrorist bases, etc. As for the reluctance of local officials to cooperate, he points out that elected officials already exist and that it is unlikely they would refuse to wield additional powers that were unilaterally and unconditionally extended to them.
As for autonomy vis-à-vis Jordan, when stripped of the PLO connection this is simply the issue of the future linkage between West and East Banks. In this more limited context, and despite the eclipse of Jordan’s role in recent years, there is still a strong case for close linkage. In the first place, closer ties to Jordan make it possible for Israel to contemplate a reduction of its own role; in other words, less autonomy from Jordan makes possible more autonomy from Israel. But, more substantively, the West and East Banks are driven together by objective facts. By any test of geography, history, demography, linguistics, culture, or sociology, East and West Banks belong together. Both were a part of the original British mandate of Palestine. Even by the narrow definition of “Palestine” as only that territory west of the Jordan River, half of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin. In its basic documents the PLO refers to Jordanians and Palestinians as “one people,” and has called for a government in Amman “that will cohere with the Palestine entity.” These ties are reinforced by economic complementarity and demographic realities (with the movement across the Jordan, there is hardly a family that is not split between the two banks). Geographically, the West Bank’s only Arab border is with Jordan.
Given the PLO tide of the last few years, Jordanian officials have been very coy about reunification. But they do, nevertheless, make every effort to maintain their influence on the West Bank. Salaries are still paid to West Bank officials, municipal budgets are still underwritten, and maps including the West Bank are still issued. Despite appearances, the likelihood of at least some linkage between the West Bank and Jordan remains quite high, and in this respect also the Camp David framework is realistic in specifying a Jordanian role in negotiations.
Finally, it should be noted that although the PLO enjoys near universal verbal support in the Arab world, PLO leaders complain regularly and bitterly in the Arab press over the subordination of the Palestinian cause to the interests of Arab states (Libya being the latest case). No Arab state regards support of the PLO as a primary interest; most seek to manipulate the Palestinian issue to their own benefit in intra-Arab rivalries. As Carter was indiscreet enough to note publicly, in his experience no Arab leader had ever privately urged the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. One of the last things that Jordan or Saudi Arabia wants is to strengthen the power and influence of Yasir Arafat. Even the Syrians are happy to see the PLO militarily weak, internally divided, and totally dependent on Arab governments. The idea that the PLO alone could disrupt any Middle East settlement overlooks this dependence; Arab states could control the PLO any time by withdrawing their support.
The presence of all these differences not only within the Arab world at large but in the narrower world of the Palestinians themselves is something U.S. policy should be making use of in order to promote a practical settlement. Instead, the U.S. has persistently ignored these differences in favor of signaling its desire to deal with a PLO still committed to total ends. Thus it is no wonder that West Bank moderates have not stepped forward, and that U.S. policy has succeeded only in defeating itself.
It is conceivable that moderate Palestinian representation can come from within as well as from outside the PLO, but in either case the strategy for encouraging moderation must include a clear and unambiguous rejection of the PLO as now constituted. Anything else creates the impression among PLO leaders that they can gain acceptance without altering their goals. As Elie Kedourie has noted, American policy toward the PLO risks repeating the mistake committed in the 1930’s by the British, who made Palestinian diplomacy dependent on the most extreme elements of the Arab community and thus effectively guaranteed the failure of their efforts—and the creation of today’s problems.
With a U.S. policy of unambiguous support for the Camp David framework, the chances for substantial diplomatic progress on Arab-Israel issues would be much better than the experts would have us believe. The current hostility to Sadat should not obscure the fact that basic trends have been positive; consider the public positions of Arab countries now against their positions one or two decades ago. Even the Syrians followed Sadat’s lead up to a point after the 1973 war, and remain formally committed to a settlement, based on UN Security Council Resolution 242, that implies acceptance of Israel. In fact only the PLO, together with Libya, Iraq, and South Yemen, cling to the rejectionist position that was universal in the Arab world only twelve years ago, at the time of the Khartoum conference after the 1967 war.
Against this background, it is not inconceivable that the Camp David framework could prove attractive. Much of the Arab criticism of Sadat involves timing and tactics; Sadat has moved too fast for his Arab partners and has in their minds given away too much in return for vague formulas. But if future negotiations achieve concrete results, the major criticism will have been met. Many moderate Palestinians originally reacted favorably to Sadat’s initiative. In December 1977, 9,000 Nablus residents signed a petition in support of his moves (since then, pressure to conform, reinforced by events like the murder of the Imam of Gaza, has discouraged such public expressions). Clearly the actions of the radicals indicate a real fear that the Camp David framework might “seduce” the moderates; the unusual frequency of visits to Hussein by formerly hostile Arab leaders shows in a perverse way their recognition of Camp David’s potential appeal and the need to counter it.
Nor should one despair of the autonomy talks. Egypt and Israel both have strong interests in keeping the diplomatic process moving, and as the deadline approaches there will be greater pressure to make concessions. Israel’s initial proposals, so widely condemned, should be seen as an initial bargaining position, and we need to recall that the present government has more than once abandoned demands that had been described as basic and non-negotiable. But even if the deadline is missed (as it was with the Egypt-Israel treaty), negotiations will continue, and the Egypt-Israel treaty can in the meantime stand on its own. Eventually pressures for results, combined possibly with the return of a Labor government and growing disillusionment with the costs of military occupation in Israel, will produce an agreed-upon autonomy plan. The completion of such a plan would put an end to the immediate Egyptian role; if West Bank residents still declined to cooperate, the plan could simply be put on the shelf until attitudes changed. But it would become increasingly difficult for West Bank leaders to refuse to run their own affairs—especially as many aspects of autonomy could even be unilaterally put into effect by Israel.
But the United States must in the meantime put its full weight behind the delicate process of peace-building that is now unfolding. It must convincingly reject once and for all the Arab conception of an imposed peace, and stop sending signals that cast doubt on its commitment to the Camp David framework. It must make certain that military options remain unappealing, and that American actions strengthen the moderates rather than the militants in each country. The appeal of cooperation can be reinforced by stress on other issues of importance to countries in the area, getting away from the illusion that all relations with Arab countries are a function of U.S. ties with Israel. Aid to Egypt and actions to counter radical threats in the area are two possible courses.
When the United States has adhered to the realistic approach embodied in the Camp David documents, it has made progress. When it has tried to satisfy the opponents of the Camp David approach, it has succeeded only in jeopardizing the entire process. To recognize this simple truth is the beginning of wisdom for the United States in dealing with the Arab-Israel conflict.
1 The January 1980 issue of the pro-Arab journal The Middle East surveyed Palestinian leaders on the question of whether the Palestinian National Charter, which calls for armed struggle until the liberation of all of Palestine, should be changed. Eleven PLO officials and Palestinian intellectuals associated with the PLO (but no West Bank or Jordan residents) were interviewed, covering the full spectrum of opinion among expatriate Palestinians, the PLO's basic constituency. All eleven opposed any changes in the Charter.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
In Defense of Camp David
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The 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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
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
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.