It is altogether likely that future historians will find in the Yom Kippur war, as most contemporary observers have already…
It is altogether likely that future historians will find in the Yom Kippur war, as most contemporary observers have already found, the great turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although affording no solutions to the seemingly intractable issues that have defined this conflict, the war clearly marked a radical change in the circumstances attending and conditioning it. The war, moreover, may be seen as the major precipitant that opened the way to implementing a new diplomatic design for the United States. If Mr. Kissinger did not anticipate the war, the record indicates that he quickly sensed the possibilities it held out for a new policy. The essential feature of this new policy was simplicity itself. It was not the Soviet Union but the United States that could satisfy Arab demands for the return of territories taken from them in 1967. This being so, it was the United States that could establish itself as mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict and thereby largely displace Russian influence, particularly in Egypt. Still, it was essential that Israel's adversaries first come to appreciate what the Soviet Union could not do for them, and this lesson they could only learn from experience. For Egypt, at least, the lesson seemed to have been largely learned in the years preceding the Yom Kippur war. The war provided the opportunity to confirm it while affording the occasion for a first demonstration of what the United States could do.
Given the principal goal of establishing the United States as mediator in the Middle Eastern conflict, the war had to be terminated in circumstances which would give the Secretary a viable bargaining position with both sides. At the same time, the structure of détente—Mr. Kissinger's principal monument—had somehow to be preserved. Finally, it was desirable, and even necessary, to demonstrate the very great dangers of any further resort to arms not only for the parties to the conflict but, in the potential for superpower confrontation, for the world.
These were not easily reconcilable objectives. Yet Mr. Kissinger succeeded on the whole in reconciling them. The arms deliveries to Israel were managed in such a way as to afford a striking demonstration of Israeli dependence on the U.S. (a dependence, it must be added, that the Israeli government went out of its way to confirm). This dependence was given further confirmation by the act of denying to Israeli forces the victory held out to them through the near encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army. That act of denial, it is true, was formally imposed by both superpowers. In effect, it was made possible by the United States and was evidently intended by Mr. Kissinger to preserve a viable bargaining position with the Egyptians in the postwar period. Mr. Kissinger's trip to Moscow and the subsequent imposition of a cease-fire by the superpowers were exhibited as the “fruits of détente.” But though the structure of détente was thus preserved, the Soviet threat to send forces to Egypt and the American reaction in calling a strategic alert demonstrated the grave dangers held out for superpower confrontation by any further resort to force. The “lesson” has not been forgotten. During the past two years both the Secretary and his critics have been as one in emphasizing the terrible dangers inherent in another round of hostilities.
Although the sudden intrusion of the oil weapon cannot be said to have provided the initial promptings of the new policy, there is no question but that it gave this policy greatly added incentive and a seemingly compelling logic. For the lesson widely drawn from the Arab embargo set off by the October war has been that a future war between Israel and the Arab states would in all probability provoke another and more serious embargo. In this event the United States would be confronted with the choice of passivity or intervention, and while the risks of intervention in the Persian Gulf have been well advertised—indeed, exhausted almost with relish—there is no gainsaying the risks of remaining passive once again. Critics of intervention have argued, among other things, that our resort to force in the Middle East would strain relations with our major allies to a breaking point. Even if the argument is accepted without question, there remains the equally weighty argument that passivity before another and more stringent embargo would demonstrate America's impotence to the world and, particularly, to those very allies who are on record as being resolutely opposed to intervention. If intervention would subject the American alliance system to great strain, passivity would do so as well.
It is not difficult, then, to understand Washington's compelling interest in preventing another round of hostilities and its penchant for indulging in apocalyptic visions of the consequences further hostilities hold out. Yet these dangers—in part real, though in large part exaggerated and self-serving—must be balanced against what are seen as the opportunities presented by the new policy. In the competition, despite détente, with the Soviet Union, to establish oneself as mediator in the Middle East is to score a considerable success. That success, moreover, need not be bought at the price of détente. For whatever we may think of the official version of détente, it is necessary to recognize that even in the official version détente has been given only limited applicability in the Middle East. The parties have been at pains to employ verbal discretion, but not much more. Nor is it only with respect to our principal rival that the new policy holds out opportunities. Of even greater importance, perhaps, are the opportunities offered for retaining America's predominant position over major allies vitally dependent upon Middle Eastern oil. If it is the failure of the new policy that may one day be held responsible for shutting off oil to Western Europe and Japan, it is the success of this policy that can be exploited by its managers as a means of leverage in allied relationships.
It is in the light of these general considerations that the present relationship between Israel and the United States must be examined. That this relationship has changed and very markedly so in the past two years, if only in the sense that Israel has become more dependent on the United States, will not be disputed. Yet the dangers inherent in the relationship are, when not simply glossed over, seriously underestimated. For the congruence of interests that might make so increasingly dependent a relationship tolerable—if never desirable—no longer exists. Indeed, it has never really existed, though it more nearly approximated the ideal in earlier years. Today, it is to indulge in nothing less than sheer delusion to speak of a congruence of interests between the two states. Whereas Israel's preoccupation with insuring her physical security remains as dominant as ever, Washington's interests in the Middle East have become more diverse and complex than ever. The security of Israel is only one of these interests that must be balanced against others which may at any time be seen as threatened by the manner in which an Israeli government interprets its essential security requirements. Yet the relationship of dependence that has now developed is such that anything markedly less than a congruence of interests holds out very considerable dangers for both parties.
The administration's step-by-step diplomacy cannot square the circle of an ever more dependent relationship that is nevertheless marked by a substantial divergence of interest. One can only wonder at those who apparently believe that it can or, just possibly, might do so. The objective requirements of step-by-step diplomacy, if it is to register continuing success, are that the Arab states—certainly those states directly involved in this diplomacy—retain confidence in the ability of the American government to effect a return of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. In turn, the ability of the American government to effect this return is a critical function of the degree of dependence—not confidence, let it be emphasized, but dependence—that Israel has on the United States. For without a marked dependence, Israel would surely remain unwilling to make territorial concessions—at any rate, to do so in the absence of those concessions on the part of the Arabs which the latter remain as unwilling as ever to make.
It is perfectly true that Israel would be dependent upon America in any event, given the newly found wealth and power of the Arabs. The point, however, is not that step-by-step diplomacy has created a dependence where there was none, but that the logic of this diplomacy is inevitably to make Israel more dependent. Nor is this point turned aside by the argument that the Geneva alternative might result in an equally dependent Israel. The answer to this argument is that it would indeed have the same result if employed to extract concessions from Israel in return for American aid and support, though not Arab concessions. The logic of step-by-step may be applied to the Geneva alternative just as it may be applied to proposals for an American guarantee.
All this is so evident that one wonders why step-by-step diplomacy has been charged with obfuscating the fact that the American government has abandoned its former support of the concept whereby peace in the Middle East would have to come through a process of direct negotiation between Israel and the Arabs. In retrospect, the question arises how serious this support has ever been, at least in Mr. Kissinger's mind. Today, at any rate, it is clearly displaced by a policy which can do no more than hold out the distant hope that the day may come when there will be direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. For an indefinite period, however, the diplomatic reality will be an America that negotiates separately with the parties to the conflict and to whom the parties must in practice bring their complaints.
In these respects step-by-step diplomacy is anything but ambiguous—the vice against which its critics have, for the most part, concentrated their fire. The logic of the relationships required by this diplomacy, if it is to work, is quite clear. What remains unclear and therefore ambiguous are the substantive results the step-by-step process is expected eventually to yield. To supporters, this lack of clarity, far from being a vice, is in the circumstances a virtue. Thus it is argued that the Middle East represents a classic example of a conflict which can only be resolved by the diplomatic process if deliberate ambiguity is maintained over the shape of the ultimate outcome. Where neither side to a conflict can acknowledge the outlines of a settlement that both may nevertheless be willing to accept in time, ambiguity is indispensable. What adversaries will not accept when presented as a whole, they may very well accept when unfolded over a period of time in increments—or steps. To this theorem is appended a corollary. Ambiguity over ends is a valid and, indeed, essential procedure where there is a reasonable expectation that differences between adversaries, though profound at the outset of the step-by-step process, can eventually be narrowed through agreements which slowly establish an increasing measure of trust and confidence.
Is this now familiar defense of ambiguity and, more generally, of step-by-step diplomacy plausible when applied to the Middle East conflict? One must doubt that it is. The ambiguity that may characterize step-by-step diplomacy is a virtue where the contending parties, though still unwilling and perhaps unable to acknowledge the outcome of a conflict, are nevertheless persuaded, for whatever reasons, that time is no longer working in their favor—that victory, as they have heretofore defined it, is no longer within their grasp. There is no reason for assuming that the Arab states have reached this point.1 If we compare the position of the Arab world in 1967 with its position today, it is quite the contrary assumption that must be made. Even in 1967, in the after-math of a crushing defeat and without the immense political leverage the Arabs have subsequently come to enjoy, there was not much evidence of a disposition to compromise. Why should one expect such a disposition to manifest itself in a period when Arab wealth and power are rapidly increasing, when Arab states are persuaded that October 1973 represented an Arab victory, and when the isolation of and pressures on Israel by a world that fears another embargo are only too apparent?
One possible answer is that it is precisely because of their new position that the Arabs will eventually prove willing to make concessions. What could not be done from a position of inferiority and sense of humiliation may now be done from a position and sense of growing equality. Another answer is that a disposition to compromise the conflict will come from domestic pressures to undertake internal reform and to concentrate on the task of modernizing economies. In the case of Egypt, these pressures are increasingly seen as creating a substantial question over Egypt's continuing commitment to the conflict. Then, too, there is always the answer that if the eventual return of the territories taken by Israel in 1967 is also attended by a settlement of the Palestinian problem, which can only be taken to mean the creation of a Palestinian state, the principal sources of the conflict must dry up.
None of these answers can be dismissed. Any one of them represents a possible solution, and surely all taken together do so. At the same time, none carries much plausibility. An increase in power and a growing sense of equality with the Western states is a thin reed on which to base expectations of a new Arab willingness to compromise the conflict with Israel. Whether domestic pressures might induce, or force, this or a future Egyptian government to alter its commitment to the conflict must depend, in the first place, upon Egyptian willingness to abandon long-held claims to leadership of the Arab world. Even if it is assumed that so wrenching a move could be made, the question remains whether an inward-oriented Egyptian leadership could make much progress domestically without very substantial outside assistance. It may be that an increasingly desperate domestic situation in Egypt will eventually prompt this or a succeeding regime to move against one of its oil-rich neighbors. But it is very difficult to say what bearing this might have on the conflict with Israel.
The insistence upon the centrality of the Palestinian issue to any resolution of the Middle East conflict at least serves the purpose of avoiding the question: why should the Arab states be satisfied by a return to the pre-1967 boundaries if they were not satisfied then? In stressing the key significance of a solution to the Palestinian issue, one obviously goes beyond the pre-1967 situation. Still, the question persists why this issue is commonly regarded today as so important. The answer cannot be the intrinsic justice of the Palestinian claims, since these claims fell on largely deaf ears for two decades. It was not until the Palestinian guerrillas began to constitute a nuisance, and more, to the West, circa 1969-70, that the justice of their claims found an increasingly sympathetic audience. But the quantum jump in Western sensitivity to these claims clearly followed the October war and reflected the rising influence of the Arab states, an influence based on the threat to employ the oil weapon. To say this is in no way to pass on the justice of the Palestinians' claim to self-determination; it is only to identify one of the moral wellsprings of a cynical world. The Palestinian issue has become central largely because the Arab states find it expedient to make the issue central and most of the world in turn finds it expedient to agree.
There is no apparently plausible reason, then, for the assumption that step-by-step diplomacy will lead the Arab states to make concessions in the future which they have been unwilling to make in the past. It may be the case that this diplomacy “buys time” and that to those who believe the risks of another Middle East war are intolerable there need be no further justification. On another view of these risks, however, the question must arise, buying time for what? Unless we are to retrace largely the same responses that have been given above, we are left with the corollary of the step-by-step theorem: that incremental agreements will eventually result in an increasing measure of trust and confidence between the contending parties. As one administration official, in rather more pragmatic terms, has put it: “Success will breed success, some peace will breed more peace.” Why should this be so, however, if either side believes that time is working in its favor? In this case, success may only breed more exorbitant demands.
There is a far more telling objection, though. The trust and confidence that this particular version of step-by-step diplomacy may be expected to bring is not trust and confidence between adversaries. It is trust and confidence between each contending party and the state that has initiated and presides over this diplomacy. It is not trust and confidence between Egypt (or Syria, or Jordan) and Israel that we may reasonably look forward to but, at most, trust and confidence between each of these states and the United States. Even so, such trust and confidence as America may enjoy will depend upon the nature of the steps this country can induce the respective adversaries to take. And since, in the absence of a credible threat of force against the Arabs, America's power of “inducement” as well as its power to guarantee each step are functions of the dependence of Israel, we are once again back to the logic of the relationships required by the new diplomacy and the dangers it holds out both for Israel and for the United States.
There are two reasons that go far toward explaining the persisting tendency to underestimate the dangers in Israel's increasing dependence on the United States. One is the belief that a special relationship holds between the two countries, a relationship that transcends ordinary calculations of state interest. The other is the conviction that Israel is no ordinary small nation but one that has an almost obsessive concern over compromising its independence through loss of self-reliance. To be sure, this trait not infrequently makes dealing with Israel quite difficult and aggravating. Still, these drawbacks are thought to be more than compensated for by the assurance they give that the dependence will not bring the psychological and moral erosion of the dependent it has so regularly brought on other occasions.
Taken together, then, the belief in a special relationship and the conviction of a special nation open the prospect of entertaining a markedly dependent relationship without incurring the dangers normally held out by such relationships. Understandably it is the recent experience of Vietnam that forms for many the reference point and standard of comparison when considering the American-Israeli relationship. That the referent and standard may prove relevant to Israel remains, however, a minority view. Israel is not Vietnam, the prevailing consensus would have it, and the relationship of Vietnam to the United States cannot be meaningfully compared with the relationship of Israel to the United States. This being so, the dangers revealed by Vietnam are deemed largely irrelevant in the case of Israel.
Does it matter, though, that Israel is not Vietnam and that the two cases must be distinguished? Perhaps it is precisely for the reason that Israel is not Vietnam that the growing dependence of Israel holds out serious dangers for the United States. For whatever the emotions aroused in this country over Vietnam, the emotions that might one day be aroused over Israel could make that former experience pale by comparison. Vietnam was, after all, “a far away country” for Americans and the Vietnamese were “a people of whom we knew nothing,” to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain's statement about Czechoslovakia at the time of the Munich crisis. Can we say the same of Israel? If not, the internal divisiveness brought by Vietnam could appear almost benign alongside the divisive potential of Israel. Considering this potential, it would almost seem comforting if Israel could be placed in the same relationship to this nation that Vietnam was placed.
Moreover, does it matter that Israel is not Vietnam when considering the dangers of dependence for Israel? However obsessive Israel's concern with remaining independent, the reality of dependence cannot be obscured. It would be different if the Israelis had a viable alternative to the United States and to which they could turn, if only temporarily, when pushed too far. The North Vietnamese had such an alternative, and the fact that they did must in considerable measure account for their success in maintaining a remarkable political independence while being militarily very dependent. But the Israelis do not enjoy the advantages conferred by a strategy of alternate dependencies. On what grounds is it so confidently asserted that they will nevertheless successfully resist the debilitation a marked dependence has so often brought to others?
It is not enough to reply by pointing to the profound consciousness of a past that is seen so largely in terms of betrayal and insecurity. The issue is whether this consciousness will prove a reliable source of resistance and fortitude in straitened circumstances. There is no assurance that it will, unless it is assumed that a history of persecution and fear must eventually give rise to, or find its compensation in, an extraordinary fortitude and sense of self-confidence. It may do so, though the instances in which the reverse has been true are, to say the least, rather impressive. If the Israelis are expected to prove so resistant to the dangers of dependence, one can only hope for a more reassuring argument than this. Indeed, it is significant that many in this country who press the argument do not do so with consistency. The same observers who assure us that Israeli confidence and self-reliance cannot be broken, however dependent that nation may become, also assure us—in another context—that because of a history (and thus an expectation) of victory that goes back to the founding of the state, Israeli morale could not survive a defeat in war. A boundless confidence and self-reliance are projected in the one situation, and the utter disappearance of these traits projected in the other. Whereas the former assurance serves to defend the pursuit of a policy designed to make Israel increasingly dependent, the latter assurance serves as a warning to the Israelis against thoughts of any further recourse to arms.
The truth is that no one can say with confidence what the effects of prolonged and marked dependence might promise for Israel. What can be said is that in the light of the history of dependent relationships, the dangers held out are very real. These dangers cannot be made light of by appeal to a special character the Israelis are assumed to possess. That character has already given signs of wavering under the pressures of the past two years. It may be argued that despite these pressures the wavering would not have occurred with the leadership of yesterday. The prospect of more Ben-Gurions is not very promising, though. Instead, the outlook is for a competent leadership, like the present one, that reflects the growing bureaucratization of state and society.
Nor should it be forgotten that in this case the issue of dependence cuts deeply since it raises the issue of the very legitimacy of the Jewish state. The basic idea of Zionism was not simply to create another small nation-state, but one in which the Jews would live without fear and one in which they could be masters of their own destiny rather than protected individuals. Admittedly, the world has become a much more dangerous place since the early days of the Zionist movement. This being so, it will be said, small states must reconcile themselves to varying degrees of dependence. Still, there are degrees of dependence; in Israel's case, particularly, a dependence that has no readily discernible limits must place in question the very raison d'être of the state.
There remains the special relationship that is counted on to rule out the dangers of dependence. The first thing that must be said of the special relationship is that even if one takes its existence for granted, it does not preclude the debilitation of the dependent. It may preclude the abandonment of Israel to forces threatening the latter's survival as a state. It does not preclude pressures on Israel to make concessions that in Israeli eyes are one-sided and that, in consequence, are seen to result in a diminished security. For this reason, the special relationship does not preclude the “wearing down” of Israel, just as it does not preclude the corrosive effects that follow from the realization that one's destiny is in the hands of others. No doubt, the pressures applied to Israel would be attended by the conviction of many that, given the special relationship, such pressures were for Israel's ultimate benefit. But this conviction, particularly to the extent it is sincere, may only mean that the pressures applied to Israel are applied with a good conscience, for the risks Israel is required to take for peace may therefore be justified by the assurance that a special relationship makes the taking of these risks only reasonable.
The principal bases of the special relationship are the common dedication of the two countries to free institutions and the ties of American Jewry to Israel. Are these bases such as to insure against the hazards of dependence in a context of otherwise divergent interests? Once again, the hazards of dependence should not be identified simply with physical survival. It is not only Israel's bare physical survival that is at issue here, though one day it could possibly come to this, but the loss of control that may lead to the psychological and moral erosion of a people. Certainly, the special relationship is a modest affair if all that it can promise is that, whatever else may happen, Israel will not be physically destroyed.
Whether the special relationship can even promise this remains an open question. Still, assuming that it can do so, there is always the further question: which Israel, physically or territorially, will not be destroyed? It is interesting that anything more than physical security is treated with a marked impatience. If one raises the issue of the debilitating effects of dependence, one is reminded that independence is “a state of mind,” a matter largely of “perceptions.” Presumably, then, if Israelis would adopt the proper outlook, they could adjust to the new realities without danger. Of course, what is really conveyed by this argument, though those making it wish to put the point delicately, is that the independence of small states may require severe limitation when such independence is seen to jeopardize the interests of great powers.
These considerations apart, there is the question of the extent to which the United States is committed today to the preservation of free institutions in the world. The question is not rhetorical, for it is clear that the “new maturity” has already moved some distance away from an earlier outlook in which security was broadly defined to include the protection of those societies that shared our institutions and values. Even in an earlier period, though, it is misleading to find in the preservation of free institutions the mainspring of American policy. The nation's physical security and material well-being provided the compelling interest of policy, and it is this interest that was crucial in leading the United States to intervene in World War II and subsequently to join the cold war with the Soviet Union. In the period following World War II, the commitments made to Western Europe and Japan responded, in the first place, to conventional balance-of-power calculations. The preservation of free institutions was no doubt an important consideration in making these commitments, but it was a narrower conception of interest that must above all acount for them. In Israel's case, this narrower conception of interest has never been fully apparent to American policy-makers; hence the cautious and often uneasy relationship entertained with Israel since the early 1950's. It is less apparent today than ever, yet we are asked to believe that its absence will be satisfactorily compensated for, and the dangers of dependence safeguarded against, by a common dedication to free institutions. On the face of it, the argument cannot but provoke skepticism.
It is true that the public continues to manifest considerable sympathy and support for Israel. This sympathy and support, surveys indicate, reflect a varying motivation of which a common dedication to free institutions is an element. There is no evidence, however, that the public gives this element marked emphasis. Nor is there much evidence that the public is committed to the idea of a special relationship with Israel. It is largely by contrast with the reservations widely held toward the Arab world, reservations recently reinforced by resentment over the manner in which Arab states are seen to have used their oil power, that the relationship with Israel appears special. Then, too, it is Israel's past self-reliance that has appealed to the public, particularly by contrast with the experience in Vietnam.
How would the public react to a dependent Israel, yet an Israel that is increasingly at odds with American diplomacy in the Middle East? Although the uncertainties attending public opinion need not be labored, it takes a determined optimist to resist the conclusion that this formula holds out anything but trouble. Dependents are expected to be grateful for what they are given. And if they are unable or unwilling to show gratitude, they are at least expected not to cause trouble for those who have supported them. But the divergence of interests today between Israel and the United States is bound to place the former in the position of “causing trouble,” that is, of appearing resistant to American interests in the Middle East. Even without the guidance of an administration intent upon equating these interests with achieving a just peace, opinion is likely to react adversely. With a determined effort by government to guide public opinion, Israeli resistance to American pressures will be increasingly seen, as it is already seen by a substantial portion of the foreign-policy elites, as intransigence.2
In this situation, the ties of American Jewry to Israel can scarcely be expected to moderate the clash of interests between the two states. If anything, these ties may be expected to aggravate further Israeli-American relations. Israel will be tempted to appeal for more than the normal support it receives from American Jews. In turn, an American government as well as a majority of the American public will resent this appeal and the resentment will be directed not only against those making the appeal but against those to whom it is made. The ties of American Jewry to Israel may well prove to be least effective precisely when they are most needed by Israel.
In any event, the divisive domestic potential of this situation for America is clear. Insofar as it continues to support the Israeli position, a substantial and important minority will be increasingly vulnerable to the charge of subordinating American foreign policy to the interests of Israel. Moreover, there will be a certain ironic justice in the charge, given the many critical American interests that are presently linked to the Middle East conflict. Nor is it sufficient to reply that if America were pursuing the proper foreign policy today, a divergence of interests between the two countries would not arise. Even if this reply were well-taken, it is unavoidably open to the criticism that it equates what is good for Israel with what is good for the United States.
Would the dangers implicit in the present American-Israeli relationship be lessened by an American security guarantee to Israel?3
It should be clear that a guarantee is not involved in the Sinai accords, for this nation bears no formal responsibility for the agreements that result from the step-by-step process. It is responsible, at best, only for those unilateral undertakings it may make with the individual parties. The American position thus cannot be equated with that of a guarantor, whether in a formal sense or in a practical sense. It cannot be so equated in a formal sense for the simple reason that we have not agreed to guarantee the steps so far taken. It cannot be so equated in a practical sense because—short of a credible threat of force—we have no reliable sanctions to invoke against the Arab states should they choose not to abide by an agreement. Our credibility as a guarantor extends only to the state whose dependence on us is such that only in extremis would it choose to violate an agreement and thereby jeopardize our step-by-step diplomacy.4
A guarantee would not lessen Israel's dependence on the United States. This is acknowledged by the proponents of a guarantee who conclude that Israel's dependence on this country is in any event unavoidable. At the same time, it is argued, there is dependence and dependence. Although a guarantee would establish a dependent relationship, those urging a guarantee contend that it would make dependence much less dangerous for the two parties than the dependence attending step-by-step diplomacy.
The initial issue that is raised by proposals for an American guarantee is why it is necessary at all if, as many supporters of a guarantee insist, the United States has always been committed to the preservation of Israel. If the United States will not permit Israel to be destroyed, why should an explicit commitment to this effect now prove so important? Surely it is not enough to point to the emergent power of the Arab states. If the commitment to Israel is of long standing, and regarded as reliable, then whatever the change in the position of the Arab states, Israel's position remains essentially unimpaired. Moreover, it remains essentially unimpaired regardless of the support given Israel's neighbors by the Soviet Union.
Are the purposes of the guarantee, then, to appease the Israelis' insatiable need for security reassurance while clearly depriving them of further justification for remaining in the occupied territories? Unquestionably, for some proponents these are the purposes a guarantee is designed to serve. In their view, the guarantee is little more than a manipulative device for forcing Israel into a more tractable position. Since it is taken for granted that the Israelis will not obtain the concessions they have demanded of the Arabs as a condition of withdrawal, they must be given reassurance by the United States. But this explicit reassurance is seen to add very little to the preexisting American commitment. The guarantee is significant primarily in that it formalizes this commitment. Not surprisingly, those who take this view manifest only a modest concern over the credibility of the guarantee to others and the many difficult problems its implementation may be expected to raise.
Whether or not this view of an American guarantee should be considered as a thinly-veiled deception is a fine point. For those who apparently are persuaded that the Israelis have exaggerated their security problem out of all proportion, particularly given the American commitment not to permit Israel's destruction, the charge of deception may seem excessive. The charge of obtuseness does not. In 1967 the American government refused to commit itself to the forcible reopening of the Straits of Tiran. Would it have nevertheless prevented Arab intrusion into Israeli territory? In 1973 the American government delayed for more than a week in sending war material to Israel. Would it have nevertheless committed forces against Syria had the latter taken the Golan Heights and carried its attack into northern Israel? If these questions are absurd, so is the manner in which Israel's security and the American commitment to that security are often presented. The American commitment has never been a commitment to defend Israel. It has not even been a clear commitment to provide Israel with such war material as it may need to defend itself, else the initial days of the 1973 war would be inexplicable.
Another view of the guarantee does acknowledge that whatever the American commitment to Israel, past or present, it is inadequate as a substitute for the security conferred by the territorial buffers. Though in this view as well the guarantee is a means for making Israel tractable, it is also put forth as a real and necessary substitute for the security presently conferred by the occupied territories. By explicitly insuring Israel's security, the guarantee presumably opens the way for the return of the occupied territories and the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. It does so though the deeper sources of the Arab-Israeli conflict are expected to persist. The guarantee, as we are often reminded by its supporters, cannot be expected to remove these deeper sources. It is not designed to effect a normalization of relations. Instead, it is intended to provide an alternative to the peace Israel has for so long demanded, since that kind of peace will remain unattainable for many years. Nor would there be much point to a guarantee, were it not for the assumption that the condition attending the guarantee will be, at best, a de facto peace.
What is the difference between the strategy of the guarantee and the strategy of step-by-step diplomacy? With respect to what is required of Israel, there is no apparent difference in principle between the two. The concessions Israel is eventually expected to make as a result of step-by-step diplomacy are, by and large, the concessions required by the guarantee. From this standpoint, the latter strategy may be regarded as a telescoped version of the former strategy. Whereas the guarantee draws the concessions at once, and as a condition of making the guarantee, step-by-step draws them incrementally over a prolonged period.
Nor is there an apparent difference in principle between the two strategies with respect to what is expected of the Arabs. Neither expects the Arabs to recognize Israel (certainly not formally so), to make treaties of peace, and to take those measures normally consequent upon such actions. It may even be argued that there is no apparent difference in principle between the two strategies with respect to what the Israelis are to be given by the United States in return for concessions made to the Arabs. For step-by-step diplomacy does not reject the notion of a formal guarantee. Instead, it reserves this issue to a much later point, while content to give largely informal “assurances” along the way. Assuming that step-by-step diplomacy is not averse to the notion of a formal guarantee, the principal difference between the two strategies is one over when the guarantee is to be offered.
Is the latter difference critical? To many supporters of the guarantee strategy it is, for a guarantee given at the outset would presumably enable Israel to escape from the dilemma imposed on her by step-by-step diplomacy—that is, either of appearing intransigent or of running considerable risks. But one horn of that dilemma is surely apparent in the guarantee strategy, unless the reliability of the guarantee is placed beyond question. For Israel is being asked to make vital concessions at the outset as a condition of receiving the guarantee. Although the risks inherent in step-by-step diplomacy are not to be denied, these risks are taken only incrementally. Time holds out the prospect at least of somehow compensating for them. When they are taken all at once, this prospect necessarily diminishes.
If a guarantee is to reduce the risks Israel incurs through step-by-step diplomacy, it must be quite credible to all of the concerned parties. Proponents concede there is a problem of making a security guarantee credible to Israel, and so there is. Quite apart from the permanence of a guarantee, once given, the Israelis are skeptical that the United States would employ force against the Arab states. This skepticism is scarcely allayed by concentrating on the strictly deterrent effects of a guarantee almost to the exclusion of examining American power, and willingness to use that power, to defend Israel should the deterrent fail. Yet it is on the known willingness and the power to defend, and if necessary to punish, that the power to deter must rest.
Those who speak with such confidence about the deterrent effect of an American guarantee appear to assume that the magisterial authority of the United States remains undiminished. Yet many who make this assumption have insisted during the past year that successful American intervention in the Persian Gulf must prove militarily beyond our capability as well as being politically disastrous. This response has not exactly contributed to our magisterial authority. A deterrent threat must be very seriously eroded if those against whom it is made have already been assured of our limitations. How reliable would an American guarantee to Israel be if invoking it were to bring on an oil embargo that, by our own admission, we either would not respond to by forcible intervention or could not do so without disaster?
The threat of an embargo alone, then, must cast doubt upon the credibility of an American guarantee. In turn, the doubt raised by the prospect of an embargo illustrates an obvious, though critical, point. A guarantee will be credible only to the degree that there is a substantial identity of interest between the United States and Israel. Yet the absence of such identity of interest is at the heart of the difficulties presently besetting American-Israeli relations. Unless we assume that these difficulties will be subordinated to the imperative of the special relationship, they may well persist despite a guarantee. And if they do, will not the credibility of a guarantee be undermined from the outset?
It has been argued that the very condition of making the guarantee guards against this danger, since the guarantee will be made only if the difficulties presently besetting American-Israeli relations are largely resolved. Once Israel agrees to give up the occupied territories an identity of interest will emerge, and this identity will give credibility to the guarantee. One may doubt whether matters are quite this simple. The Arab-Israeli conflict will not disappear once the occupied territories are given up (and if it were to disappear what would be the purpose of a guarantee?). Besides, “giving up” the occupied territories is, as everyone knows, not to be taken literally, since quite apart from the issue of a Palestinian state there is little, if any, prospect for a full restoration of the 1967 boundaries. The issue of Jerusalem alone precludes this. The dangers of further hostilities, with the attendant threat of an embargo, will accordingly persist.
These considerations nevertheless suggest that the credibility its supporters assume the guarantee will have is a function of the concessions Israel is expected to make as a condition. The greater the concessions, this reasoning goes, the smaller the divergence of interests. The smaller the divergence of interests, the greater the credibility. The logic of the guarantee, therefore, is to place Israel in a very vulnerable and dependent position, since it is only by virtue of this position that the guarantee is extended and that it achieves real credibility. But this must mean that the guarantee will be attended by substantial American forces in and around the territory of the guaranteed state. It will not do to argue for the attractiveness of the guarantee by emphasizing the efficiency of Israeli forces, the implication being that, after all, these forces will continue to provide for Israel's security as they have provided for it in the past. If the guarantee is to serve as a substitute for the territorial buffers, and for the other concessions Israel is expected to make, then it should serve as a substitute, and this it can do only through a very substantial American military presence—a presence that, among other things, will leave no doubt over American capability effectively to react, if necessary, against the threat of an embargo. If, on the other hand, it is Israeli forces that are to provide for Israel's security, then the real “substitute” for the territorial buffers Israel is to give up is not the guarantee but Israeli forces. In this event the guarantee is indeed a fraud and for the reason that the purpose it is alleged to serve it will not in fact serve and is not intended to serve.
There seems no escape from the conclusion that an American guarantee to Israel is either a deception, however unconscious, or a very serious undertaking. It is a deception if it seeks to exchange the substance for the shadow, the occupied territories for a commitment of doubtful credibility. If it represents a serious undertaking, however, it must expect to encounter great difficulty in obtaining congressional approval. Certainly, it would not be approved at all unless the Senate knew at the time of ratification what it was approving. This it could only know if the details of a territorial settlement had already been worked out (and if the methods for policing such a settlement were also clearly defined). But what would induce Israel to agree to a settlement in the absence of a credible guarantee? Given the Israeli reluctance to enter into any guarantee, however credible, it is a bad joke to suggest that withdrawal might be undertaken in exchange for a contingent guarantee.
The problem of timing, though not insoluble, poses very considerable difficulties. It does so because the guarantee is expected to stabilize a territorial settlement once reached, yet to provide an indispensable condition for reaching such a settlement. These difficulties might be overcome by a guarantee that takes effect as the territorial settlement takes effect, though to bring this off would be a feat of almost heroic proportion. Even so, its achievement would leave entirely open the issue of the guaranteed state's dependence on the guarantor and the dangers held out by this relationship for both parties. A credible guarantee might represent one improvement over the present form of dependence in reducing the corrosive uncertainties of step-by-step diplomacy. Apart from this improvement, though, the dangers of dependence already alluded to would very likely remain. It is not a guarantee that holds out the promise of removing these dangers but a congruence of interests, which, it cannot be repeated too often, does not exist. A guarantee can “create”—or perhaps impose—a congruence of interests, though only at the risk of the guaranteed state's becoming a virtual protectorate of the guarantor.
It is one thing to warn against a relationship that is almost certainly destined for trouble and quite another to discern a viable alternative. Clearly, any alternative to the present relationship will have to come from initiatives taken by Israel rather than the United States. The immediate and tangible advantages to Washington of step-by-step diplomacy are such that one cannot expect them to be given up by the prospect of dangers which may or may not impress those entrusted with the conduct of policy and which, in any event, are still some way down the road. Yet the initiatives open to Israel are not exactly plentiful. A strategy of alternate dependencies, as already noted, appears foreclosed so long as the candidates—and there are very few—themselves remain dependent upon Middle Eastern oil. In the best of circumstances, Israel is not an attractive ally, and the present circumstances are evidently not the best. The idea, put forward by a number of observers here and abroad, that Western Europe might provide an alternative to the United States, if only in the sense of moderating the Arab position toward Israel, must largely ignore the influence of oil. Even if it had the will to do so, Western Europe is scarcely in a position to moderate Arab behavior.
In the absence of viable alternate dependencies, Israel can seek to limit its dependence on the United States principally by developing to the maximum extent feasible its own sources of arms. This it is of course doing, but there are limits to what can be done. In part, these limits are technological; in larger part, they are economic. Even if technological constraints were eventually reduced to negligible proportions, economic constraints could not be so reduced, since whether in its domestic development or foreign procurement of conventional weapons Israel cannot hope indefinitely to compete with the growing economic power of the Arab states. It is already apparent that an attempt to do so has put the Israeli economy under serious strain. The United States can provide the military aid that Israel cannot afford given its limited resources, but this only underscores the dependence of Israel.
In these circumstances, a new and hard look at the role of nuclear weapons in future Israeli military strategy is very likely. It is true that the present military balance in the Middle East favors Israel and will probably continue to do so for several years. Beyond this intermediate period, though, there is marked uncertainty. How will this uncertainty be resolved, if indeed it is consciously resolved at all? One possible resolution is that Israel will choose whatever policy appears to hold out the greatest prospect of limiting its dependence on others while keeping defense expenditures within manageable proportions. If so, the change from its present policy of maintaining a “nuclear option” to a policy based on a known nuclear deterrent will inevitably have to be given the most serious consideration.
It is safe to predict that such consideration will provoke a uniformly adverse reaction abroad. Even within Israel it may be expected to lead to controversy, though the depth and seriousness of the controversy will surely reflect what are seen as the consequences of dependence. If these consequences are found to be a progressive deterioration of the country's security position and of its morale, the controversy may well dissolve. But whatever the nature of the debate within Israel, the reaction abroad permits of little doubt, and this despite the now common expectation that Israel would employ nuclear weapons if the survival of the state were ever placed in serious question. Statements to this effect are by this time almost ritualistic. Yet they are regularly attended by the judgment that Israel would make a grave mistake by converting its present and widely advertised option to produce nuclear weapons into a reality.
How is one to make sense of all this? Is it by assuming that the world only recognizes, and is prepared to tolerate, the fact—since it is taken as a fact—that Israel's nuclear option would become a reality in the event survival itself were placed in serious question? If this is so, then the option presumably already serves as a deterrent against the limiting case, though how an option can safely serve as a deterrent is left unclear (a nuclear option being only a promised deterrent—an embryonic deterrent, as it were—and not the deterrent itself). This difficulty aside, the further implication is that the world does not recognize the need for Israel explicitly to move to a military strategy based on a nuclear deterrent and would condemn the move if taken. For such a step would be seen as leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, thereby destabilizing what military balance exists at present, while greatly heightening the dangers of superpower confrontation, whether in the context of a future Middle East crisis or simply by virtue of the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. In effect, the world is prepared to adjust to what Israel is already known to have done, to accept what in all probability would be done in the limiting case, but to resist what might still be done to insure against the dangers of a growing Israeli dependence on the United States and the hazards such dependence might eventually entail.
There is no need here either to repeat once again the general arguments against the proliferation of nuclear weapons or to examine the assumptions on which these arguments are based. Even if the arguments against proliferation are based in part on questionable assumptions, there is no gainsaying the contention that the greater the number of states possessing nuclear weapons, the greater the prospects these weapons will one day be used. States that do not have nuclear weapons evidently cannot be tempted to use them. At the same time, it is clear that the drift toward proliferation has not been checked and probably cannot be checked in the absence of world government. In the period ahead we may expect a number of states to acquire nuclear weapons. Some will do so if only because the possession of such weapons will be seen as indispensable to achieving a status of equality with those who possess nuclear weapons. Others will do so from the conviction that independence must remain incomplete without nuclear weapons. Still others will do so for reasons of security or, however frightening the prospect, for reasons of expansion. The motives of states in obtaining nuclear weapons in the future are very likely to be much the same as the motives of states in obtaining nuclear weapons in the past. It is a familiar story by now that the possessors of these weapons at any given time are loath to acknowledge this, but their reluctance to do so does not alter the point.
It is not the general arguments against proliferation that require much consideration in this case but the special dangers expected to attend an Israeli move to a military strategy based on a nuclear deterrent. No doubt, the general arguments may also be, and have been, applied. But unless one takes into account the special circumstances of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the distinctive circumstances of the Israeli position, these more general objections are not very impressive. The case for Israel's possession of a nuclear deterrent appears quite as strong, if not a good deal stronger, than for most of the present nuclear powers. To be sure, the latter are not small states whereas Israel is, and by hallowed custom the needs of small states are not to be equated with the needs of large states. Put in less delicate terms, small states are not to make nuisances of themselves whatever their needs. It may be that one cannot argue with power, but candor at least requires saying so rather than taking resort in a double standard of need.
Although on the face of it Israel's need for a nuclear deterrent is as compelling as that of any state, in the circumstances of the Arab-Israeli conflict the questions persist whether an overt move to a deterrent strategy would not on balance prove injurious to Israel's security interests while holding out special dangers for the region and, ultimately, the world. With respect to Israel's security, the standard case opposing an overt move to a nuclear deterrent stresses the irrelevance of a nuclear force for most of the military threats Israel faces. Against guerrilla operations, limited military strikes, and wars of attrition, nuclear weapons would prove of little, if any, utility. A nuclear force would therefore serve to deter only the one contingency of an all-out attack upon the “core areas” of the state. Moreover, in moving to a nuclear deterrent the Israelis not only risk provoking the Soviet Union to new forms of support for the Arabs—increased conventional arms support and perhaps even a nuclear guarantee—but would risk a break with the United States, since the latter must be expected emphatically to oppose the move. And even if an open break were avoided, Israel would still face the prospect of sharply reduced American arms support. Thus, a deterrent that would not deter the most likely of military contingencies would result in a declining capability to counter those very contingencies. Finally, to these considerations must be added the commonplace view that the overt move to a nuclear deterrent by Israel would provide in turn a compelling incentive for the Arabs to obtain nuclear weapons. The projected consequence is a balance of terror that will prove inherently unstable given the profound distrust between Israel and the Arab states.
To a certain extent, the above case draws its strength from the scenario of an Israel that one day dramatically confronts its Arab adversaries and the world with a nuclear deterrent. The scenario is highly unlikely, though, if Israel's past record in these matters affords an indication of its future behavior. There is no reason why Israel cannot move to the stage of a known nuclear deterrent in the manner it moved to the stage of a known nuclear option. To avoid giving unnecessary provocation, whether to adversaries or to friends, would be no more than elementary prudence. The move would be no less effective for being taken without fanfare and in stages, since the important thing is that it be known.
In considering what an Israeli nuclear deterrent would deter, we may remind ourselves that after twenty years of experience and speculation on this experience, strategic theorists are by no means confident they can define with great precision the scope and purposes of deterrence in the case of the United States and the Soviet Union. Nor are the governments of the major nuclear powers so confident, else they would not constantly go through the exercise of deciding upon the proper allocation of resources to non-nuclear forces. There is no reason, then, to ask for a precision in the case of Israel that cannot be found elsewhere. Nor is there reason to criticize a deterrent force for failing to deter what it is either not intended or not primarily intended to deter. Thus it is not a persuasive argument, even if true, to point out that an Israeli nuclear deterrent could not deter guerrilla operations, limited military incursions, or wars of attrition. What it can credibly deter is a direct attack upon the vital, or core, areas of the state as well as military operations that, in their scope and intensity, constitute a proximate threat to these areas. This may not be everything, but for Israel it is still a great deal.
The view that this is all a nuclear force could deter is not persuasive, however. Unless we are to assume that past experience has no relevance to the present case, uncertainty over what is or is not peripheral and, accordingly, over what action might or might not risk a nuclear response, will itself have a deterrent effect. How much effect it will have we cannot know, but a deterrent effect it will have, for the the fear of escalation can be expected to operate here as elsewhere. A new and important inhibition on the resort to large-scale military operations, even though initially confined to border areas, will be operative. So, too, the Arab states will be inhibited from undertaking a long and costly war of attrition, since the latter—if of sufficient intensity—could lead to tensions and a process of escalation that could carry appreciable risk. Even with respect to guerrilla warfare, it is misleading to say that a nuclear deterrent would have little, if any, effect. Guerrilla forces do not inhabit a vacuum but the territory of sovereign states who have something to lose by permitting guerrilla movements to operate at liberty. When the possibility—even though small—arises that guerrilla operations may one day bring mass destruction rather than mere inconvenience, governments can be expected to take a rather different view of these activities.
In sum, while an Israeli nuclear force clearly would not deter all threats to the security of the state, and would not be designed to do so, it would nevertheless deter a great deal. It would probably do so, moreover, even if one assumes a substantial change in the conventional arms balance, a change that no longer leaves Israel in the favored position of today. For with nuclear weapons Israel would no longer require its present superiority in conventional arms. It is true that it also could not risk a position of marked inferiority, particularly in the context of a gradual relinquishment of the territorial buffers. But a position of marked inferiority would not occur unless the Soviet Union responded by a sharp increase in conventional arms support to the Arabs while the United States responded by an equally sharp decrease in such support to the Israelis. Of these two possibilities, it is the latter that is by far the more important, since even a sharp increase in Soviet conventional aid to the Arabs would prove significant only if the United States either withdraws all arms support to Israel or cuts such support to negligible amounts.
Some analysts have argued that the Soviet Union would go beyond this and respond by offering a nuclear guarantee to the Arab states until such time as the latter possessed nuclear weapons of their own. This argument is not given much support by past Russian behavior. Eastern Europe apart, the Soviet Union has refrained from extending nuclear guarantees. Besides, what if the Russians did extend a nuclear guarantee? If the guarantee applied to an offensive war on Israel's part, it might have a stabilizing influence in that it would serve to reduce Arab fears that Israel might use nuclear weapons for expansionist purposes. In the absence of an Arab deterrent, then, a Soviet guarantee could serve a useful purpose. On the other hand, a guarantee might, though this is very unlikely, extend to any first use of nuclear weapons by Israel, regardless of circumstance. But if this is intended to prevent Israel from using nuclear weapons even though being overrun, the guarantee will not prove credible.
It is, in fact, the American reaction that is the decisive argument in the case that has often been made against an Israeli nuclear deterrent. Yet that argument has seldom been examined with the critical care it deserves. That the American government is opposed to an Israeli strategy explicitly based on a nuclear deterrent is apparent. What is not apparent is why it is opposed and how strongly it is opposed. Surely it is not enough to argue that an Israeli nuclear deterrent would provoke an intensely hostile American reaction because it would be seen to threaten détente with the Soviet Union and, as a corollary to this, to increase the risk of a superpower confrontation in the Middle East. Why should it have these effects unless Israel were to use a deterrent for the pursuit of expansionist goals? But the prospect of this may be excluded if for no other reason than that such pursuit would, almost without question, lead to a rupture with America and thereby complete Israel's isolation in the world. Instead, a plausible danger at least is that a nuclear deterrent would tempt Israel to freeze the status quo, or much of it, though now without any real justification for doing so. This danger should not be exaggerated, since it too would eventually risk a rupture with America. Yet even if the worst is assumed—an Israel intent upon keeping the status quo though no longer able to invoke the “secure borders” argument as a justification for doing so—why should this threaten détente and increase the risk of superpower confrontation?
The principal response, though often inarticulate, is simply the fear that with an Israeli nuclear deterrent the superpowers would no longer be able to “manage” crises in the Middle East. The loss of this ability would carry the risk that future crises might well “get out of hand,” with the result that the superpowers would ultimately find themselves directly involved. But an Israeli nuclear deterrent would not heighten the prospect of future crises getting out of hand. If anything, it would diminish this prospect since the Israelis would be in a position that permitted them to exercise restraint while the Arab states would be in a position that—with or without nuclear weapons—compelled them to exercise restraint. It is true that an Israeli nuclear deterrent would decrease superpower leverage, though that leverage would still remain considerable (after all, in the Israeli case there would still be a need for American support, though now reduced). Does it follow from this that détente would be threatened? It would not seem so. What does follow is that the great nuclear states oppose any change that threatens their managerial powers, however modest the change may be, because they equate these powers with stability and the cause of world peace.
The point is often made that by explicitly moving to a strategy of nuclear deterrence Israel would thereby surrender the advantages derived from the nuclear option. In this view, the nuclear option is a form of insurance against Israel's desertion by America and, more concretely, a bargaining chip in Israel's requests for conventional arms. That bargaining chip—in effect, a polite form of blackmail—would presumably be lost once Israel openly moved to a nuclear deterrent. And so it would. But the critical issue for Israel is not only whether a price would have to be paid by abandoning the nuclear option and moving to a nuclear deterrent. It is also how large a price will eventually have to be paid by refusing to go beyond the nuclear option. If the price is an ever increasing dependence attended by rising pressures to surrender the territorial buffers, though without adequate concessions in turn from the Arab states, will it be a wise bargain?
An Israeli nuclear strategy would set limits for both America and Israel to a dependent relationship that is ultimately in the interests of neither state. With a nuclear deterrent, Israel's destiny need no longer rest in American hands. In turn, American responsibility would no longer be without distinct bounds.
The point is commonly made that an Israeli nuclear deterrent must prompt the major Arab states to follow Israel's path. But these states are altogether likely to do so, sooner or later, in any event. An Israeli nuclear deterrent would surely sharpen their incentive to do so. That incentive has already been created, however, by the Israeli nuclear option. Given the growing wealth and power of the Arabs as well as the ever increasing availability of nuclear technology, the acquisition of a nuclear capability cannot be indefinitely denied them. Then, too, the very distrust that is held to make a balance of terror inherently unstable in the Middle East provides a further reason for concluding it will be next to impossible to prevent these states from obtaining nuclear weapons.
In this respect, one must also question whether the stated reason is the real reason for assuming that a Middle East balance of terror must prove inherently unstable. The profound distrust between the Arab states and Israel seems no greater than the distrust between the Soviet Union and China, yet the balance of terror between the latter is not commonly regarded today as inherently unstable. It is true that in the Middle East distrust is also attended by a territorial status quo one side views as illegitimate and intolerable. Even so, this territorial status quo would not of itself make a balance of terror inherently unstable. An Egyptian government would not risk its national substance for the Sinai, nor a Syrian government for the Golan. A Palestinian leadership might risk all, were it in possession of nuclear weapons, but not the governments of the major Arab states.
It is not so much the distrust between the Arab states and Israel that is at the root of the presumed inherent instability of a Middle East balance of terror as the conviction of a distinctive Arab psychology which finds alien the rational calculation a balance of terror requires. It is useful, perhaps even comforting, to recall that a decade or so ago the question was also widely raised whether the Chinese could learn to cope with the demanding requirements brought by the possession of nuclear weapons. That essentially the same question should be raised with respect to Arab states is understandable, though one must still ask for the basis of this questioning. In recent years the Arabs have given the world some notaable lessons in politically astute—and rational—behavior.
The arcane aspects of pan-Arabism apart, much of the conviction in the West of a distinctive Arab psychology—a euphemism in this context for Arab irrationality—is rooted in an inability to comprehend why the Middle East conflict persists when it has become so costly and enervating, and seemingly incapable of successful resolution. Whether its continuation suggests Arab irrationality is a moot question. What is clear is that this Western reaction is an illustration of the ancient adage that other peoples' conflicts always seem irrational.
We have no persuasive reason for believing that, in a nuclear environment, the major Arab countries would behave irrationally. We do have reason for believing they will have every inducement to behave with marked circumspection, just as they will have every inducement to bend their efforts to insure that others in the region do so. A Qaddafi may be willing to take foolish risks—though even this can be seriously questioned—but the major states that are exposed will not. In a nuclear environment, the less responsible activists would be seen as posing enormous dangers to all parties and the need to control them would soon be expressed in policy. Far from proving destabilizing, a nuclear balance between Israel and the major Arab states would have a stabilizing effect. On the Arab side, there would no longer be reason to fear that Israel might be tempted to use its nuclear deterrent for expansionist purposes. On the Israeli side, the present preoccupation with secure borders could markedly diminish. On both sides, the will to resort to a military solution of differences would decline and, in time, disappear.5
Nuclear power cannot provide a solution to the basic problems which define the Middle East and it would be absurd to suggest otherwise. What nuclear power can provide is an environment in which these problems either must remain unresolved or their resolution sought through means other than war. In a nuclear environment, the Arabs' goals—or rather the goals of pan-Arabism—cannot be fulfilled save at an unbearable cost to those major Arab states who alone can fulfill these goals. Nuclear weapons cannot force the Arab states formally to abandon these goals, just as they cannot force the Arab states to negotiate directly with Israel and thereby to recognize Israel's existence. But a nuclear environment can give these states a very great incentive and justification to move in this direction, however fitfully, and to do so under cover of an Arab version of coexistence. In a word, a nuclear environment can give the major Arab protagonists the way out that so many Western observers assert they dearly want but cannot presently admit.
On the other side, nuclear power can serve in large measure as a substitute for the territorial security that is presently expressed in Israeli policy. A nuclear deterrent would transform Israel's security problem and enable the relinquishment of the occupied territories without the need to insist upon concessions the Arabs will almost surely not make (and will not make during the period in which Israel is the sole Middle East nuclear power). With the decline in significance of “secure borders,” not only would the justification for holding on to the territorial buffers be stripped away but also the security arguments for opposing the creation of a Palestinian state (the security arguments being the only ones that deserve a hearing). And if there nevertheless remains a justification for insisting upon the demilitarization of a Palestinian state—at least, for an initial period—there is no justification for arrangements, however euphemistically explained, which make such a state a virtual protectorate of Israel. The Israelis, above all, are in no position to extol the benefits of protectorate status for those who do not want these benefits.
It is ironic that perhaps the most serious danger attending an Israeli nuclear strategy, apart from the danger of a complete break with America, is so seldom mentioned. A nuclear deterrent would, I have argued here, largely deliver Israel from the dangers it presently faces. But what would prevent Israel, once delivered from these dangers, from pursuing a hawkish policy and employing a nuclear deterrent to freeze the status quo (or, at any rate, all of it save the Sinai)? It is hardly enough to respond that such a policy would be unwise if only because it would leave Israel forever unreconciled with its adversaries while possessed of a large and hostile Arab population that either must be denied the right to participate fully in the political process or, if given the right, might one day be in a position to subvert it. All this is true, but Israel has acted unwisely before and, if left to its own devices, might do so again.
Nor will it do to respond that with Israel delivered from its principal security fears, a hawkish position will no longer carry any persuasiveness, that the argument for a “greater Israel” must appear as little more than an imperialist program, and that, all else failing, a hawkish position will be seen to carry the risk of further conflagration which courts catastrophe for both Israel and Arab countries. It is much too simple to argue that a hawkish position carries appeal only in the present circumstances, just as it is much too simple to argue that the many attractions of holding the West Bank would be warded off by exposing them as imperialism. Without pressure to yield the West Bank and to permit the creation of a Palestinian state we are thrown back on the wisdom and foresight the Israelis might, or again might not, show. And if it is true that a hawkish policy might lead to catastrophe, with a nuclear deterrent the odds are that it would not.
Israel might well be able to pursue a hawkish policy, particularly with respect to the West Bank, if all it needed to fear was the retaliation of its principal protagonists. For they might well be neutralized over the issue of the West Bank through a combination of concessions and threats. If this combination cannot be ruled out even in the present circumstances, it certainly could not be ruled out once Israel were to possess a nuclear deterrent. In a nuclear environment, the Palestinian Arabs would become the most likely losers.
This prospect might be reduced by the United States, since Israel would remain sensitive to American pressures and certainly to the risk of breaking with this country. Ironically, perhaps, it is the United States that could afford a “guarantee” of sorts that justice be done to the Palestinians. This is a far cry from the guarantee I have earlier criticized, though surely one which the present proponents of a guarantee to Israel should prefer, assuming they are as concerned as they profess to be over the fate of the Palestinians.
All conflicts eventually come to an end. In the past they have done so through the irrevocable defeat of one side, the gradual exhaustion of both, the breakup of coalitions, or the intrusion of outside powers. The nuclear age has added still another possibility: the danger of the physical destruction of both sides. It is the latter danger that a nuclearization of the Middle East conflict must raise. In seeking to minimize this danger, the protagonists cannot but alter, and profoundly so, the manner in which they view their conflict.
To say this is not to preclude other, and more traditional, methods of conflict termination (or transformation). The realization that the continuation of a conflict could jeopardize the very existence of the contestants might well provide a significant opening for differences to develop among the partners in the Arab coalition, differences which might otherwise remain suppressed. We are often reminded, and with reason, that Israel faces a coalition, that coalitions do not last forever, and that there are many divisive forces at work within the Arab coalition. All this is true, though it is also true that until now the Arab coalition has demonstrated remarkable staying power. The view that the coalition will break up only when the object which brought it into being has ceased to exist is perhaps excessively pessimistic—though this pessimism seems no more unwarranted than the optimism that for two decades has resulted in periodic frustration.
Given the present circumstances, it is not surprising that speculation has once again turned to the possibility of detaching the principal Arab state from the conflict. The contrast between the rich and the poor in the Arab world daily grows more vivid. Egypt remains among the poor, the desperately poor, yet it has borne the brunt of the conflict with Israel. Why should Egypt not decide to improve its domestic situation, even if by “betraying” the common cause? Egypt's Arab partners hold out little promise of saving it from economic disaster. If such disaster is to be avoided, many argue today, it will only be by turning to more promising sources for assistance—above all, the United States. And if the United States is unwilling or unable to provide assistance of the kind and magnitude Egypt needs, it may yet turn against one of its neighbors to obtain the means for alleviating severe distress. Libya is a likely candidate. Yet the occupation of Libya would both divert Egypt's energies away from the conflict with Israel while placing it in opposition to other Arab states.
These prospects cannot be disregarded. Taken alone, however, they form but modest grounds for optimism over the possibility of the Arab coalition's breaking up. That possibility, if it is to materialize, requires yet another element: the realization that the objective which has formed the coalition's raison d'être can no longer be achieved. It is this element that nuclear deterrence can provide.
1 Curiously, the belief that time is on one's side is more often attributed by Western observers to the Israelis than to the Arabs. In fact, the belief is entertained only by the minority of hardliners in Israel and even among many of them one is left in doubt over whether they are true believers. Even so, the critical point here is not the pervasiveness of the belief—whether among Arabs or Israelis—but the objective basis, or lack thereof, for it.
2 The well-publicized survey of Louis Harris (see “Oil 01 Israel,” the New York Times Magazine, April 6, 1975) does not contradict these remarks. Harris writes: “An Israel which appears to shun all peace efforts and boasts of its military power could well be told to find its backing elsewhere. In sharp contrast, an Israel which appeared eminently reasonable about negotiations can easily make its case for continued military aid. At the moment, Israel is benefiting as much from anti-Arab sentiment over oil as from pro-Israeli feeling in its own right.” But whether Israel appears “eminently reasonable” about negotiations will depend in large measure upon how an American government and opinion leaders define what is reasonable, and this cannot be separated from how American interests are defined.
3 We discuss in these pages only proposals for an American guarantee rather than proposals for a superpower (Soviet-American) guarantee and various kinds of multilateral, or collective, guarantees. Considerations of space apart, the reasons for so limiting the discussion may be stated in summary form. The history of guarantees indicates that unilateral guarantees have been more credible and effective than those based on a consensus, whether of two (or more) great powers or a number of middle-rank and small states. A general experience is not decisive for a specific case, but it cannot safely be ignored. Proponents of a Soviet-Amercian guarantee in the Middle East almost always fall back, at some point, on the reliability of America as a guarantor should the Soviet Union withdraw from a joint guarantor force. In so doing, they acknowledge the obvious difficulties of a Soviet-American guarantee even while championing it. Moreover, the argument that a unilateral guarantee to Israel could be effectively exploited by the Soviet Union depends very largely upon what is guaranteed and how the guarantee operates. One might just as well argue that an American guarantee, attended by Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and employed to constrain Israel in the use of force, would consolidate America's present position in the area. Then, too, it is significant that proposals for either superpower or multilateral guarantees are singularly vague about the nature and size of guaranteeing forces. One can only infer that these forces would be quite modest. In this particular case, however, modest forces will not do. Is it even remotely plausible to assume, though, that the superpowers would establish a substantial joint force, or that the middle and small states would bear the brunt of such a force?
4 It may be argued, however, that in the event of serious Arab violation of an agreement we could credibly threaten sanctions by proxy, that is, through Israel. If this is true, our dependent remains the principal guarantor—our guarantor as well as its own—for Arab fidelity to agreements over which we have presided. There is some merit to this argument. But its limitations are clear. We may be counted upon to be extremely loath ever seriously to consider invoking our sanction by proxy, if only for the reason that to do so would mean the effective end of the new policy. Then, too, the “unleashing” of Israel—for that is how it would be seen in the eyes of the Arabs and, very likely, of most of the world—raises for Washington the specter of an oil embargo with its incalculable consequences for American interests.
5 It is of course assumed here that the nuclear forces of both sides would be second-strike forces and that the technical nature of the force structures would not be such as to generate a new, and compelling, instability. Many observers are skeptical of the possibilities of developing second-strike forces which are relatively invulnerable to attack and for this reason insist that the introduction of nuclear weapons in the Middle East conflict will have a destabilizing effect. This skepticism overlooks the considerable evolution in weapons and the means of protecting them that has occurred since the 1950's. Missiles may be dispersed and concealed; aircraft may be specially sheltered and protected. Weapons systems may be made mobile, etc. There are all sorts of possibilities for the development of second-strikes forces today. There will be even more in the years ahead. Moreover, stability need not rest on the certainty that nuclear forces will survive a first strike. A substantial probability of survival is quite enough.
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Israel and the United States: From Dependence to Nuclear Weapons?
Must-Reads from Magazine
Last year, we asked experts to examine Candidate Trump’s policy proposals. This year, we’ve asked them to examine how he has executed these proposals in office.
On Trade By Scott Lincicome
Last year, economic, legal, and geopolitical calamity lurked in the shadows of almost every trade-policy promise made by presidential candidate Donald Trump. Eight months into the Trump presidency, those problems have—thankfully—not yet materialized. Instead, Trump trade policy has been a mixture of bluster, disappointment, relief, and uncertainty. This last category warrants close attention: In the coming months, Trump’s dangerous trade ambitions could remain in check, thus keeping a global trade system alive. Or politics, legal ambiguity, and Trump’s own emotional impulses could deal that system a fatal blow.
There is no doubt that President Trump has already done serious damage to the United States’ longstanding position as a world leader on trade policy, the American political consensus in favor of trade liberalization, and Republican views of trade and globalization. His constant vituperation has offended U.S. allies and trading partners, causing them to turn to Europe, Asia, or Latin America in search of alternatives to the once-welcoming and predictable U.S. market. He has accelerated (not started) the American retreat from the World Trade Organization, further wounding a multilateral trading system that was a U.S. invention—an invention that has, contrary to popular belief, served U.S. economic and foreign-policy interests well since the 1940s.
Trump’s day-one withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the flawed-yet-deserving Asia-Pacific trade agreement started by President Bush and ultimately signed by President Obama—has left vacuums in both Asia-Pacific trade and international economic law. TPP was far from perfect, but it was widely supported by U.S. trade and foreign-policy experts because of its economic and geopolitical benefits. The deal contained important new rules for 21st-century issues such as e-commerce, GMOs, and state-owned enterprises. Moreover, it would have provided small but significant benefits for U.S. workers and the economy, while cementing the United States’s influence in a region increasingly covered by China’s shadow. Now, TPP parties are working to complete a “TPP-11” deal that excludes the United States, while China is negotiating its own version of the TPP—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. And many of TPP’s novel provisions are being relitigated in contentious NAFTA renegotiations with Canada and Mexico (both TPP parties).
All of this is disappointing, but it’s probably survivable and hardly the fire and brimstone of the Trump campaign trail (hence, the relief). Trump has repeatedly threatened tariffs and other forms of dangerous unilateral protectionism, but economic, legal, and political realities have intervened. For example, when Trump promised new “national security” tariffs on steel and aluminum under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the opposition from Congress, business groups, strategic allies, NGOs, and even members of Trump’s administration was unrelenting. As a result, planned tariffs have quietly been shelved (for now). Other presidential threats have similarly come and gone without major action, giving market participants some heartburn but little long-term pain. Only in the opaque area of trade remedies—antidumping, countervailing duty, and safeguard measures—has there been a marked uptick in U.S. protectionism. But this is the result of long and technical administrative proceedings initiated by U.S. industries or unions that formally petitioned the government under relevant domestic law—hardly the wave-of-the-hand actions that Trump promised.
Some measure of relief is warranted, but we’re not out of the woods just yet. Indeed, in the last eight months, Trump has publicly threatened to
- block steel and aluminum imports for national-security reasons or bring new cases against semiconductors and ships, under the aforementioned Section 232;
- withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Korea FTA;
- slap tariffs on Chinese imports under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 because of alleged Chinese intellectual-property-rights violations; and
- impose onerous new “Buy American” requirements on U.S. pipelines and government-funded infrastructure projects.
And those are just the public threats. Behind closed doors, Trump has reportedly considered enacting sweeping import restrictions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The president reportedly yelled, “I want tariffs. Bring me some tariffs!” when told by his “globalist” advisers that legal and economic realities prevent him from imposing broad-based protectionism on a whim.
None of the threats on Trump’s wish list is officially off the table, and any one of them would have serious economic consequences: Steel tariffs alone would put more than 1.3 million American jobs at risk; NAFTA withdrawal could destroy 250,000 more; and several nations have promised immediate retaliation against American goods, services, or investment in response to Trumpian protectionism. Trump’s actions would also raise major legal issues. For example, the World Trade Organization’s broad, subjective “national security” exception wasn’t intended to be used as a get-out-of-jail free-card for steel tariffs, and a dispute over a member’s right to invoke it could imperil the multilateral trading system. Meanwhile, Trump’s withdrawal from a free-trade agreement without congressional consent would raise major constitutional questions as to whether the president had that authority and what would happen to the myriad U.S. tariffs and other commitments that were embedded in legislation and passed into law. Lawsuits over these and other issues surrounding presidential trade powers would throw billions of dollars of cross-border trade and investments into legal limbo.
The president’s unpredictability, political weakness, and clear affinity for protectionism, combined with ample (though ambiguous) legal authority to act unilaterally, mean that any one of his trade threats could still materialize in the coming months. The White House’s internationalists may have won the early battles, but the war will rage for as long as Trump is president. Continued vigilance and advocacy for the benefits of freer trade remain critical.
And congressional legislation clarifying and limiting the president’s trade powers might not be a bad idea either…just in case.
Click here to read what Scott Lincicome wrote about Candidate Trump and trade last year.
Scott Lincicome is an international trade attorney, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and visiting lecturer at Duke University Law School. The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.
On Taxes By James Pethokoukis
At some point in his first term, President Donald Trump will likely sign legislation that cuts taxes by some amount for somebody. This modest prediction is based less on reading the political tea leaves than understanding conservative politics. If any issue made the modern Republican Party, it was tax cuts. Not surprising, then, that candidate Trump promised big cuts for individuals and businesses. And with the GOP now holding the White House and Congress, failure to deliver is almost unimaginable.
Of course it’s almost equally unimaginable that the Trump tax cuts will at all resemble the ambitious plans devised by Trump advisers during the campaign. There were two of those blueprints. The first, rolled out September 2015, proposed lowering the top personal rate to 25 percent from the current 39.6 percent, and cutting the corporate rate to 15 percent from the current 35 percent. Along with other changes, including eliminating the alternative minimum tax and estate tax, this initial plan might have lowered annual government revenue by a whopping $1 trillion a year or more (even if one assumes much faster economic growth).
This was, in other words, more a fantasy proposal cooked up by Reagan-era supply-siders than a serious effort to reform the tax code without worsening our historically high federal debt. Indeed, Trump’s sole purpose in signing on to the plan may have been to win over that very same group, still influential among base voters. Trump himself talked little about the plan while on the hustings, especially compared with immigration, trade, and The Wall.
The Trump campaign’s second bite at the apple a year later was a scaled-back plan, but still a colossal one. Instead of losing a trillion bucks a year, maybe the government would be out just a half trillion or so. Again, since the plan was unaccompanied by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, it was more a set of glorified campaign talking points than a serious proposal. And like the first, Trump didn’t talk much about it.
So after Trump’s shock election, there really was no realistic Trump tax plan. No worries, however, since there was a House Republican tax plan all ready to go, with an enthusiastic House Speaker Paul Ryan ready to push it hard through the lower chamber. It was an ambitious proposal but one within reality, especially with a bit of fiscal tweaking. That plan called for, among other things, lowering the top personal rate to 33 percent and the corporate rate to 20 percent, immediately expensing new capital investment, and expanding the child tax credit.
And more so than the Trump campaign plans, the House plan intended to reform the tax code, not just cut taxes. For example, it eliminated all personal itemized deductions other than mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The House plan also made a stronger attempt to pay for the tax through a border-adjustment tax and limiting business-interest deductibility. All in all, the plan cost a couple of trillion dollars over a decade, not assuming economic feedback. On such a dynamic basis, according to Tax Foundation modeling, the House plan would reduce 10-year revenues by just under $200 billion.
So if Republicans really wanted to make their plan revenue neutral, it was certainly doable through relatively minor changes, such as less dramatic corporate or personal rate cuts. Yet the plan would still be a massive improvement over the status quo, both in terms of encouraging more domestic investment and providing middle-class tax relief.
With a detailed plan at the ready and Republicans running Washington, it is easy to understand why many in the GOP thought it reasonable to predict that Trump would be signing a mega tax bill by August of this year, just as Ronald Reagan did in the first year of his first term. Reagan did it from his ranch in Santa Barbara, California. Maybe Trump would repeat the feat from his Trump Tower penthouse in Manhattan.
But that did not happen. Then again, very little of Trump’s ambitious domestic agenda has happened as planned. Repeal and replace was promised by Easter, leaving plenty of time to hash out the fine details of tax reform and move legislation through the House and Senate. But the GOP health reform was a long slog consuming valuable time, attention, and political capital. Also deserving blame was Trump’s inability to focus on pushing policy priorities rather than pounding political opponents on Twitter. As of now, it seems highly unlikely that significant tax reform will occur in 2017. And 2018 looks challenging as well.
Yes, Trump has provided more distraction than leadership on this issue. And trying to pass major legislation in a midterm year only adds to the political difficulties. But the biggest problem is that there is no tax-reform plan for Republicans to push.
What happened to the ready-to-serve House plan? It suffered from not being a fantasy. It acknowledged both political and policy constraints, something the populist president almost never does. For instance: the House plan tried to pay for the tax cuts—a political necessity to placate debt-hawk Republicans. That requires making somebody somewhere unhappy. Ryan knew that without such an effort, it would be extraordinarily difficult to reduce the corporate tax rate to anywhere close to 20 percent. But while exporters supported the border tax, importers hated it, complaining that it would raise costs. Nor was the Trump White House happy about axing business-interest deductibility.
Still, as problematic as those pay-fors were, the alternatives—limiting tax breaks for mortgages, 401(k)s, and state and local taxes—are equally if not more so. The state and local tax deduction is a case in point. Pushed hard by Republican leaders as the primary revenue generator to replace border adjustment, it seems unlikely to survive criticism from blue-state Republicans. Eventual legislation is likely to be a far smaller and less comprehensive bill than first envisioned—more cut than reform—with some temporary parts designed to satisfy congressional budget rules. Indeed, Senate budget writers cleared room for just a $1.5 trillion tax cut, and even that might be overly ambitious. Expect Trump and his people to call whatever passes a “down payment” on true tax reform. Pro-growth conservatives should call it a missed opportunity.
Click here to read what James Pethokoukis wrote about Candidate Trump and taxes last year.
James Pethokoukis is the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also an official CNBC contributor.
‘The Wall’ By Linda Chavez
“We’re going to build a wall. That wall will go up so fast, your head will spin.” Donald Trump made this promise on August 23, 2016, repeated it throughout his presidential campaign, and has reiterated it in tweets and at press conferences and rallies ever since. But the only spinning going on lately has been the president’s own efforts to assure his base that he will eventually build a wall, or a fence, or some barrier along the U.S. border with Mexico, except maybe for those areas that don’t need one or already have one. Oh, and someone will pay for it—preferably Mexico, as he promised—but if not, Congress, unless Democrats or even Republicans refuse to go along. A year after winning the presidency, Trump’s most ubiquitous pledge, The Great Wall separating the U.S. from Mexico, remains largely a figment of his imagination and evidence of his supporters’ gullibility.
No issue defined Trump’s campaign more viscerally than immigration, and on none was his position less ambiguous. Trump’s presidential record on immigration enforcement and policy, however, is decidedly more mixed. He continues to promise that construction of the wall is going to start soon: “Way ahead of schedule. Way ahead of schedule. Way, way, way ahead of schedule,” he said in February. But the cost, with estimates as high as $70 billion, and the sheer impracticality of erecting a solid barrier along 1,900 miles make little sense in light of recent trends in illegal immigration. Illegal immigration is at historically low levels today (roughly the same, in absolute numbers, as it was in the early 1970s) and has been falling more or less consistently since the peak in 2000, mostly because fewer people are crossing the border from Mexico. Apprehensions of Mexicans are at a 50-year low, as are all apprehensions along the southern border. Year-to-date in 2017, apprehensions at the Mexican border have dropped 24 percent compared with those in 2016, when a slight uptick occurred as more people tried to cross in advance of a feared Trump victory and border crackdown. The population of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. is down as well and now stands at roughly 11 million, from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007; and two-thirds of these unauthorized immigrants have lived here a decade or longer. More Mexicans—whom Trump described as “bringing drugs. . . crime. They’re rapists”—are now leaving the U.S. than arriving. In 2013, for the first time since the 1960s, Mexico fell as the top source of immigrants to the U.S., behind both China and India.
Trump’s pledge to build a wall, of course, wasn’t his only promise on immigration, but he hasn’t lived up to his own hype in other areas either, which is a good thing. He said he’d end on day one the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that provided temporary protection from removal for young people who arrived here illegally before age 16. Instead, Trump waited until September 5 to send his beleaguered Attorney General Jeff Sessions out to announce that DACA would end in six months unless Congress acted. Trump then almost immediately backtracked in a series of tweets and offhand statements. Polls show that large majorities of Americans, including some two-thirds of Trump voters, have no interest in deporting so-called Dreamers, half of whom came before they were seven years old and 90 percent of whom are employed and paying taxes. Trump’s own misgivings and the backlash over the policy’s announcement led him into a tentative deal with Democratic leaders Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer in September to support legislation granting legal status for Dreamers who complete school, get jobs, or join the military. Trump’s most nativist supporters have already dubbed him “Amnesty Don” for even suggesting that Dreamers should be allowed to remain and gain temporary legal status, much less earn a path toward citizenship. But whether such legislation will make it through Congress is still uncertain. Similar bills have repeatedly passed one chamber and died in the other over the past 10 years, but the potential threat that the administration might begin deporting many of the 800,000 young adults who signed up for DACA should concentrate the minds of the Republican leadership to allow legislation to move forward. One of the complications in the House is the “Hastert Rule,” named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, an informal agreement that binds the speaker from bringing a bill to the floor unless a majority of the majority party supports it.
To be sure, Trump’s rhetoric and his appointment of hard-line immigration restrictionists to posts in his administration have led to fear among immigrants, as have the administration’s erratic, irrational enforcement policies. Previous administrations, including Barack Obama’s, gave priority to detaining and deporting aliens convicted of serious crimes, but in one of his first executive orders and Department of Homeland Security memoranda, Trump broadened the priorities for detention and removal to include anyone even suspected of committing a crime, with or without charges or conviction. As a result, arrests for immigration offenses have increased under Trump and have swept up hundreds of individuals who pose no threat to safety or security, some picked up outside their children’s schools or when seeking court orders against domestic abuse. Actual deportations, on the other hand, are down slightly in Trump’s first eight months compared with the same period in Obama’s last year. This is largely because the overloaded system isn’t equipped for mass deportation. Trump promised to rid the country of a greatly exaggerated 2 million criminal aliens and “a vast number of additional criminal illegal immigrants who have fled or evaded justice.” But his boasting that “their days on the run will soon be over” has always been aimed less at promoting sensible immigration policy than at stoking nativist anger in pursuit of his own brand of identity politics. Trump’s America will be a less welcoming place for immigrants—legal as well as illegal—if Trump gets his way on proposed legislation to reduce legal immigration by half over the next decade. But labor shortages and an aging population make it unlikely that Trump’s efforts will succeed. The simple fact is that we need more, not fewer, immigrants if the economy is to grow. Building walls and deporting workers is exactly the wrong way to go about needed immigration reform, whether Trump and his hard-core base can admit it or not.
Click here to read what Linda Chavez wrote about Candidate Trump and ‘The Wall’ last year.
Linda Chavez is the president of the Becoming American Institute and a frequent contributor to Commentary.
On Infrastructure By Philip Klein
A massive infrastructure bill was supposed to be one of the early triumphs of President Trump’s administration. Instead, Trump’s inability to advance the ball on one of his signature issues has highlighted the lack of focus, inattention to detail, and difficulties working with Congress that are emblematic of his presidency to date.
The idea of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, though overshadowed by daily controversies during the wild 2016 campaign, wove together several elements of the Trump phenomenon.
His experience in building projects such as luxury hotels, resorts, skyscrapers, and golf courses became central to his argument that he had the skills required to get things done in Washington. By touting the economic benefits of infrastructure during his campaign, Trump also signaled that he was an unorthodox Republican, breaking with decades of conservative critiques of Keynesian stimulus projects. Trump also spoke of infrastructure in nationalist terms, integrating it into riffs about how the United States was constantly losing to China. “They have trains that go 300 miles per hour,” he said during the campaign. “We have trains that go: Chug. Chug. Chug.”
When Trump pulled off his election-victory upset, Washington insiders quickly focused on infrastructure as one issue on which he could get a legislative win and box Democrats into a corner. After all, could Democrats really resist passing a major policy priority that had eluded them when one of their own was in the White House?
In his Inaugural Address, Trump threw a jab at Bush-era Republicanism, declaring that the U.S. “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” Going forward, he said, “America will start winning again, winning like never before.” He promised: “We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”
Now in the fall of the first year of his presidency, any effort to advance infrastructure legislation has been drowned out by daily controversies involving White House intrigue, the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, and Trump’s raucous Twitter feed. Congress, meanwhile, spent much of the year focused on repealing and replacing Obamacare.
This isn’t to say that the Trump administration didn’t try, in fits and starts, to push infrastructure. In May, with the release of his first budget, Trump included $200 billion in funding for infrastructure as the first step in his $1 trillion infrastructure initiative. He also released a six-page fact sheet outlining his vision for infrastructure, which remains the most detailed resource on his infrastructure goals.
The document, broadly speaking, argues that current infrastructure money is spent inefficiently. It proposes greater selectivity in using federal dollars for infrastructure investments that are in the national interest and recommends giving state and local governments more leeway over their own projects. It also calls for more public-private partnerships.
Specifically, the proposal would create a nongovernment entity to manage the nation’s air-traffic-control system. It would also support private rest stops, give states the ability to work with private companies to manage their toll roads, and streamline the environmental-review process. The proposal received little attention, as it was rolled out during a week when Russia hearings took center stage in Congress and Trump was traveling in Europe and the Middle East.
Such inattention was supposed to end in early June, when White House officials announced “Infrastructure Week.” This was a carefully orchestrated campaign in which Trump was supposed to deliver speeches and lead staged events to highlight different aspects of his infrastructure initiative. But during this week, Washington was captivated by testimony of fired FBI Director James Comey, and Trump veered way off message in his speeches and on his favorite social-media platform.
He went on a Twitter tear. Trump attacked his own Justice Department for pursuing a “watered down” travel ban, took a shot at the mayor of London in the wake of a terrorist attack, unloaded on “fake news” outlets, and hit Comey as a liar. During a speech meant to make the case for both parties to get behind his infrastructure effort, Trump went off on a tangent, blasting Democrats as “obstructionists” on health care.
In truth, any hope of getting Democrats on board for the Trump infrastructure push had been fading even before this implosion. Liberals had already pressured lawmakers to pursue a policy of total resistance to Trump. But during Trump’s big policy push, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared overtly that Democrats had no appetite for his infrastructure initiative due to its reliance on privatization.
Before long, the phrase “Infrastructure Week” had become a punch line—an ironic metaphor for a presidency gone off the rails.
Trump has made little progress on infrastructure since then, beyond issuing an executive order in August aimed at making the permitting process for building roads, bridges, and pipelines more efficient. But again, this announcement was overshadowed, as it came during the same news conference in which he blamed “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville and complained about the slippery slope of removing the Robert E. Lee statue.
On the other hand, by striking a deal with Democratic leaders on the debt ceiling and negotiating with them on immigration, Trump has revived talk about the possibility that he could be ready to compromise with them to get infrastructure legislation passed as well. It is important to note, however, that in both cases—DACA and the debt ceiling—there was a ticking-time-bomb element that forced action. No such urgency exists when it comes to infrastructure.
From the perspective of a limited-government conservative, Trump’s inability thus far to negotiate a trillion-dollar federal infrastructure package with Democrats is nothing to shed tears about. But if we’re looking at the issue through the broader lens of whether or not Trump has been able to deliver on his ambitious campaign promises and make the transition from being a bombastic reality-television star to governing, it’s a case study in failure.
Click here to read what Philip Klein wrote about Candidate Trump and infrastructure last year.
Philip Klein is managing editor of the Washington Examiner.
On NATO By Tod Lindberg
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump was unsparing in his disparagement of U.S. alliances. In a word, allies were freeloaders—complacent in their reliance on the United States to provide them security, contributing nothing like their “fair share” of the cost of their defense, and lavishing the dividend on their domestic needs. Maybe that was acceptable when they were flat on their backs after a war that left the United States on top, but now that they are prospering and the United States has pressing needs of its own, it’s time for the allies to pay up. He also mused about NATO being “obsolete.”
This was alarming (to put it mildly) to most American foreign-policy specialists—to say nothing of the reaction of U.S. allies. The postwar alliance structure in Europe has been the backbone of security on a continent where the United States fought two wars. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization underpinned the postwar revival of Western Europe and subsequently, after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the demise of the Soviet Union, of Central and Eastern Europe. The relevance of the alliance has gained renewed salience with Russia’s aggression against its neighbors, first in Georgia in 2008, then in Ukraine in 2014.
At the heart of the alliance is Article 5 of the Washington Treaty of 1949—the commitment of each member to regard an armed attack on any as an attack on all. In practical terms, the meaning of Article 5 is that American power provides a security guarantee for Europe, a commitment upheld and explicitly reiterated by U.S. presidents since Harry S. Truman. The treaty is binding, yet equally in practical terms, it is the
American president whose commander-in-chief powers will dictate the response of the U.S. military to any attack—and by extension, the sincerity of his commitment determines the deterrent value of Article 5 against potential aggressors. Would a President Trump abrogate the U.S. commitment? Or hold it hostage to defense-spending increases by allies—perhaps even by demanding the payment of a much larger past-due bill, as the candidate suggested on at least one occasion?
In Asia, the biggest long-term challenge is the rise of China; the U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines (as well as the more complicated commitment enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act) represent the underpinning of Pacific security. Would this, too, be up for grabs under Trump? Was “America First” shorthand for an isolationist retooling of U.S. relations with the rest of the world? The short answer to these questions turns out to be no. Trump has no apparent intention to do away with U.S. alliance relationships, however cumbersome and expensive he perceives them to be, and he evinces no intention to try to replace the postwar security architecture with something new and different, whatever that might be. So what happened? Were his many critics sounding the alarm therefore wrong about his intentions? Did he change his mind? Is the question of alliances now settled? Since Trump has taken office, alliance policy seems to have operated on two tracks within the U.S. government. The first track is the president’s own. He has continued to warn allies that they need to pay up—though his demands have moderated considerably, coalescing around the 2 percent of GDP that allies have pledged to spend on defense (though very few do). And although he has reaffirmed the U.S. Article 5 commitment on some occasions, on others when it would have been appropriate for him to do so, he has declined, apparently intentionally. Still, he has never repudiated the commitment. There seem to be two possibilities here: either a deliberate exercise in ambiguity, or incompetence and confusion of the kind his critics have long diagnosed.
I think the evidence points distinctly toward the former. That evidence is the second track of policy within the government. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis—as well as officials junior to them—have been on something close to a nonstop reassurance tour of U.S. allies and partners since the beginning of the administration. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has joined the chorus since he stepped in to replace the ousted Michael Flynn. Their message has been unambiguous: The United States stands by its security and alliance commitments, and allies must contribute more to collective defense. True, some allies continue to harbor doubts centered on the persona of Trump. Yet—therefore?—many are moving to spend more on defense.
Now, the simple fact is that Trump could order his Cabinet members and senior staff to desist from repeating the first half of their message—the reassurance. Trump might have had some resignations to cope with, but it is well within his power to issue such an edict, and he hasn’t done so. The most likely reason he hasn’t is that he has concluded that too much is riding on these alliances. To continue in this speculative vein, what Trump knew to be true about U.S. allies during the campaign season was that they weren’t contributing enough; that’s a message that Washington has been sending with little effect for decades. What he didn’t know on the campaign trail and has since determined is how central these alliances are to U.S. national security. U.S. alliances aren’t quite so fragile as some feared. The case for them, competently made by the likes of Mattis, must be compelling, including to the skeptic in chief.
It’s here that we may be getting a little lesson in the cunning of history. From his skeptical premise, Trump sparked a very broad debate over alliances. Senior officials of his administration have probably devoted more time and energy to making the public case for NATO and our Pacific alliances during his first 10 months in office than their predecessors did in the previous 10 years. The latter had taken the utility of alliances to U.S. national security as a given.
All this attention has had an effect on public opinion. But the effect has not been, as many feared, a groundswell of support for isolationist or anti-alliance sentiment. Just the opposite. For the past three years, the Chicago Council Survey has asked, “How effective do you think [maintaining effective alliances is] to achieving the foreign-policy goals of the United States?” In 2015, 32 percent of all respondents responded “very effective.” In 2016, the figure was 40 percent. In 2017? Forty-nine percent. Specifically on NATO, 69 percent say the alliance is “essential” to U.S. security, a slight increase from 65 percent in 2016 and well above the 57 percent who said the same when the Chicago Council first asked the question in 2002.
For the first time in the history of the survey, a majority of Americans, 52 percent, say they would support “the use of U.S. troops…if Russia invades a NATO ally like Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia.” The Trump administration has had little to say about the Russian threat to the Baltics but a great deal to say about the danger of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program. A year ago, 47 percent said they would favor “the use of U.S. troops…if North Korea invaded South Korea.” That was the view of 26 percent of Americans in 1990. Today, it’s what 62 percent think.
Finally, on the question of allies paying up, the survey asked which comes closer to the respondent’s views: “The United States should encourage greater allied defense spending through persuasion and diplomatic means” or “The United States should withhold its commitment to defend NATO members” until they actually spend more. Overall, 59 percent said persuasion and diplomacy; 38 percent (including 51 percent of Republicans) would put Article 5 at risk. Maybe I’m hearing things, but that sounds to me more like a warning to our allies to take seriously American insistence that they spend more on defense starting now than it does an abrogation of the commitments at the center of U.S. national-security strategy for 70 years.
Click here to read what Tod Lindberg wrote about Candidate Trump and NATO last year.
Tod Lindberg is a member of the Chicago Council Survey’s foreign policy advisory board.
On Asia By Michael Auslin
Despite continued Russian threats in Eastern Europe and the lurking danger of an Iranian race to a nuclear bomb, it is Asia that has vaulted to the top of the national-security agenda. Barack Obama had warned Donald Trump that North Korea would be the major national-security threat he would face, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has proved him right. Kim is on the threshold of fielding a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach U.S. territory in the Pacific and even the American homeland. He is within striking distance of achieving his family’s long-held dream of possessing the ultimate weapon. Not since 1994, when Bill Clinton initially ordered and then called back an air strike on Pyongyang’s nascent nuclear facilities, has the region seemed so close to war.
Beyond the Korean peninsula, Asia has arguably been Trump’s central foreign preoccupation since his entry into politics. He talked during his campaign about a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. And despite his noninterventionist affect, he began his transition phase by getting tough on China for its increasingly assertive actions during the Obama years, including the successful building and militarization of islands in contested waters in the South China Sea.
Then Trump retreated from his tough stance toward Beijing, initiating a period of seesawing between cooperation and confrontation and mixing together trade and economic concerns with security and diplomatic issues. His explicit linkage of the two, carefully separated by previous presidents, has been particularly unnerving to Beijing. China’s regime has warned of the risks of a larger trade war if Trump continues to threaten economic retaliation for disagreement on security issues. Of equal concern to Beijing has been his recent willingness to permit more frequent freedom-of-navigation operations by the U.S. Navy in the disputed South China Sea waters off the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Trump’s initial hard line, including an unprecedented transition-period phone call to Taiwan’s president, put Beijing on its back foot. But his subsequent inconstancy has led to a reassertion of Chinese activism on economic and diplomatic issues. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and general anti-free-trade stance have allowed Chinese President Xi Jinping to claim the mantle of global economic leadership—promoting free-trade alternatives and grandiose policies such as the “Belt and Road Initiative,” in which Xi has promised more than $1 trillion of infrastructure investment to link the world in a trading network centered in China.
In contrast, Trump’s relations with America’s Asian allies, particularly Japan and South Korea, have been surprisingly smooth. Again backing down from campaign rhetoric, Trump early on reaffirmed the importance of both alliances, and buried talk of making the two pay more for hosting U.S. forces on their territory. His bond with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been particularly close, and his conversations with South Korea’s new left-leaning president, Moon Jae In, have gone better than some expected. Far from scaling back the alliances, Trump and his top officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have put them at the center of American strategy in the Pacific, especially with respect to North Korea.
It is North Korea, however, that remains the first great test of the Trump administration. Trump clearly inherited a failed policy, stretching over past Democratic and Republican administrations alike, and was doubly cursed in coming to office on the eve of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and ICBM breakout.
Yet despite Trump’s heated rhetoric, he and his team have actually moved cautiously on North Korea. Like its predecessors, the administration has combined shows of force, such as flying B-1 bombers over the peninsula, with appeals to the United Nations for further sanctions on Pyongyang. Two new rounds of sanctions, in July and September, may indeed have been harder than those previously levied, but, just as in the past, the administration had to settle for less than it wanted. More worrying, Trump appears to be adopting the long-held goal of presidents past: North Korean denuclearization. This is a strategic mistake that threatens to lock him into an unending series of negotiations that have served over the past quarter-century to buy time for Pyongyang to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities. I believe it would be a far more realistic move for Trump to drop the chimera of denuclearization and instead tacitly acknowledge that North Korea is a nuclear-weapons-capable state. This would free up the administration to focus on the far more important job of deterring and containing a nuclear North Korea. Since Trump is almost certainly sure to avoid a preventive war to remove Kim’s nuclear weapons, given the associated military and political risks, he will be forced in the end to accept them. That then mandates a credible and comprehensive policy to restrict North Korea’s actions abroad while making clear that any nuclear use will result in a devastating counterstrike. Washington has been deterring North Korea ever since the end of the Korean War. This new approach explicitly makes deterrence the center of U.S. policy, dropping the unobtainable goal of denuclearization or the imprudent goal of normalizing relations with North Korea. To be successful, Trump will need to get the support of both Seoul and Tokyo, which is a tall order. The alternative, however, is another round of Kabuki negotiations and the diversion of U.S. attention from the far more necessary task of ensuring that Kim Jong Un is kept in his nuclear box.
Click here to read what Michael Auslin wrote about Candidate Trump and Asia last year.
Michael Auslin is the Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of The End of the Asian Century (Yale).
On Israel By Daniella J. Greenbaum
As a candidate, Donald Trump’s positions on Israel were a blend of incoherence and inconsistency. He was an isolationist, except he was also Israel’s biggest supporter; he would enforce the Iran deal, except he wanted to rip it up on day one; he was the most pro- Israel candidate on the stage, except that he wanted to be “the neutral guy”; he wouldn’t commit to a policy on Jerusalem, except he declared his plan to immediately move the American Embassy to Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.
Words—especially a president’s—matter, but until Trump took office, it was impossible to predict how his administration would treat the Jewish state. Some Israel advocates became convinced that Trump’s victory would lead to the fulfillment of their bucket list of Middle East dreams—in particular, resolution of the long-simmering issue involving the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. The Jerusalem Embassy Act, which became law in 1995, recognized that “each sovereign nation, under international law and custom, may designate its own capital” and that “since 1950, the city of Jerusalem has been the capital of the State of Israel.” It ordered that “the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.”
And yet, despite all that, the American Embassy has remained in Tel Aviv. (Presidents were given the power to push the date back on national-security grounds.) Much like then-candidates Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Trump pledged to move the embassy if elected president. In a March 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference, Trump said unequivocally: “We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
The American Embassy belongs in Jerusalem, and Trump’s evolution on the issue was, for the most part, encouraging. (Early on in his candidacy, he was booed at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual meeting after refusing to take a position on Jerusalem’s status.) But for Israelis, who face myriad threats on a daily basis—both physically, from their many hostile neighbors, and economically, through an international boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign—the location of the embassy ranks low on the list of urgent political matters. Even the most ardent proponents of this policy shift acknowledge it has the potential to inflame tensions in the region. Like his predecessors, Trump signed the waiver and suspended the move.
Next on the bucket list: discarding Barack Obama’s cataclysmic Iran deal. When Trump was a candidate, his intentions for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) were anything but clear. He told AIPAC, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” But he also said, “We will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before folks, believe me.” It’s hard to know which part of his schizophrenic speech the audience—and the country—was supposed to believe. The schizophrenia has continued during his tenure, with Trump certifying the Iran deal twice before announcing in October his decision not to recertify a third time. Despite signaling his extreme displeasure with the deal, Trump has so far opted not to terminate it. But, by refusing to recertify, he has instead left to Congress the decision whether or not to reimpose sanctions.
Most important, perhaps, to pro-Israel forces was Trump’s choice of foreign-policy team. While Jared Kushner’s lack of political experience made him an odd choice for Middle East maven—Trump exclaimed at an inauguration event: “if [he] can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can”—there is no denying that Kushner is a Zionist. Along with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy to the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, Kushner visited Israel this summer to determine whether restarting peace talks was a viable course of action. The duo have articulated their desire to refrain from repeating the mistakes of previous administrations: “It is no secret that our approach to these discussions departs from some of the usual orthodoxy. … Instead of working to impose a solution from the outside, we are giving the parties space to make their own decisions about the future,” Greenblatt explained. Maybe that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu seems so elated. Bibi’s friction with Obama was well documented, and the prime minister has expressed his jubilation at the changed nature of his relationship to Washington. During the United Nations General Assembly, he tweeted: “Under your leadership, @realDonaldTrump, the alliance between the United States and Israel has never been stronger.”
During the campaign, it was hard to imagine that might be the case. Trump’s repeated use of the phrase “America First,” a classic isolationist trope with anti-Semitic overtones, was deeply concerning to pro- Israel voters. He continually insisted that foreign governments were a drain on the American economy: “I want to help all of our allies, but we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world…where they’re not paying us what we need.” According to a 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.” The report calculates that the United States has, over the years, provided Israel with more than $127 billion in bilateral assistance. If words and campaign promises meant anything to Trump, the candidate who insisted that Israel could pay “big league” would have metamorphosed into the president who ensured that it did.
But Trump’s campaign promises seem to have had no bearing on his actions. In an appropriations bill, Congress pledged an extra $75 million in aid to Israel, on top of the annual $3.1 billion already promised for this year. As part of negotiations for the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding, the Israeli government promised to return any funds that surpassed the pre-negotiated aid package. In what was doubtlessly a major disappointment to Trump’s America-first base, the State Department confirmed it will not be asking the Israelis to return the additional funds.
His behavior toward Israel during his eight months in office has confirmed what was evident throughout the campaign: Donald Trump’s words and actions have, at best, a haphazard relationship to each other. So far Israel has benefited. That may not always be the case.
Click here to read what Jordan Chandler Hirsch wrote about Candidate Trump and Israel last year.
Daniella J. Greenbaum is assistant editor of Commentary.
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Of Hobbes and Harvey Weinstein
In man’s natural state, with no social or religious order to impose limits upon his hungers and passions, “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, force and fraud are…the cardinal virtues.” Thus did Thomas Hobbes, in 1651, anticipate and describe the sordid story of the film producer Harvey Weinstein.
The reason Weinstein’s three decades of monstrous personal and professional conduct are so appalling and fascinating in equal measure is that he was clearly functioning outside the “social compact” Hobbes said was necessary to save men from a perpetual state of war they would wage against one another in the state of nature. For that is what Weinstein was doing, in his own way: waging Hobbesian war against the women he abused and finding orgasmic pleasure in his victories.
And Weinstein did so while cleverly pretending to leadership within the social compact and disingenuously advocating for its improvement both through political change and artistic accomplishment. Hobbes said the life of man in the state of nature was nasty, brutish, and short, but he did not say the warrior could not be strategic. Rochefoucauld’s immortal declaration that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue is entirely wrong in this case. Weinstein paid off feminists and liberals to extend his zone of protection and seduction, not to help support the virtues he was subverting with his own vices.
Hobbes said that in the state of nature there was “no arts; no letters; no society.” But if the man in the state of nature, the nihilistic warrior, coexists with people who live within the social compact, would it not be a brilliant strategy to use the arts, letters, and society as cover, and a means of infiltrating and suborning the social compact? Harvey Weinstein is a brutal thug, a man of no grace, more akin to a mafioso than a maker of culture. And yet as a movie producer he gravitated toward respectable, quality, middlebrow, elevated and elevating fare. People wanted to work with him because of the kinds of movies he made. I think we can see that was the whole point of the exercise: It was exciting to be called into his presence because you knew you would do better, more socially responsible, more praiseworthy work under his aegis than you would with another producer.
And then, garbed only in a bathrobe, Weinstein would strike.
Weinstein was universally known to be a terrible person long before the horrifying tales of his sexual predation, depredation, and assault were finally revealed. And—this is important—known to be a uniquely terrible person. His specific acts of repugnant public thuggishness were detailed in dozens of articles and blog items over the decades, and were notable precisely because they were and are not common currency in business or anywhere else. It was said of him after the latest revelations that he had mysterious abilities to suppress negative stories about himself, and perhaps he did; even so, it was a matter of common knowledge that he was the most disgusting person in the movie business, and that’s saying a lot. And that’s before we get to sex.
To take one example, Ken Auletta related a story in the New Yorker in 2001 about the director Julie Taymor and her husband, the composer Eliot Goldenthal. She had helmed a movie about Frida Kahlo produced by Weinstein. There was a preview screening at the Lincoln Square theater in Manhattan. The audience liked it, but some of its responses indicated that the plotline was confusing. Weinstein, whose hunger to edit the work of others had long since earned him the name “Harvey Scissorhands,” wanted to recut it to clarify the picture. Taymor didn’t, citing the audience’s favorable reaction. Then this happened:
He saw Taymor’s agent…and yelled at him, “Get the fuck out of here!” To Goldenthal, who wrote the score for Frida, Weinstein said, “I don’t like the look on your face.” Then, according to several witnesses, he moved very close to Goldenthal and said, “Why don’t you defend her so I can beat the shit out of you?” Goldenthal quickly escorted Taymor away. When asked about this incident, Weinstein insisted that he did not threaten Goldenthal, yet he concedes, “I am not saying I was remotely hospitable. I did not behave well. I was not physically menacing to anybody. But I was rude and impolite.” One member of Taymor’s team described Weinstein’s conduct as actually bordering on “criminal assault.”
Weinstein told the late David Carr in 2002 that his conduct in such cases had merely been the result of excess glucose in his system, that he was changing his diet, and he was getting better. That glucose problem was his blanket explanation for all the bad stories about him, like this one:
“You know what? It’s good that I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” Weinstein said that to Andrew Goldman, then a reporter for the New York Observer, when he took him out of a party in a headlock last November after there was a tussle for Goldman’s tape recorder and someone got knocked in the head.
Goldman’s then-girlfriend, Rebecca Traister, asked Weinstein about a controversial movie he had produced. Traister provided the predicate for this anecdote in a recent piece: “Weinstein didn’t like my question about O, there was an altercation…[and] he called me a c—.”
Auletta also related how Weinstein physically threatened the studio executive Stacey Snider. She went to Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and told him the story. Katzenberg, “one of his closest friends in the business,” told Weinstein he had to apologize. He did, kind of. Afterward, Katzenberg told Auletta, “I love Harvey.”
These anecdotes are 15 years old. And there were anecdotes published about Weinstein’s behavior dating back another 15 years. What they revealed then is no different from what they reveal now: Weinstein is an out-and-out psychopath. And apparently this was fine in his profession…as long as he was successful and important, and the stories involved only violence and intimidation.
Flash-forward to October 2017. Katzenberg—the man who loved Harvey—publicly released an email he had sent to Weinstein after he was done for: “You have done terrible things to a number of women over a period of years. I cannot in any way say this is OK with me…There appear to be two Harvey Weinsteins…one that I have known well, appreciated, and admired and another that I have not known at all.”
So which Weinstein, pray tell, was the one from whom Katzenberg had had to protect Stacey Snider? The one he knew or the one he didn’t know? Because they are, of course, the same person. We know that sexual violence is more about power than sex—about the ultimate domination and humiliation. In these anecdotes and others about Weinstein, we see that his great passions in life were dominating and humiliating. Even if the rumors hadn’t been swirling around his sexual misconduct for decades, could anyone actually have been surprised he sought to secure his victory over the social compact in the most visceral way possible outside of murder?
The commentariat’s reaction to the Weinstein revelations has been desperately confused, and for once, the confusion is constructive, because there are strange ideological and moral convergences.
The most extreme argument has it that he’s really not a unique monster, that every working woman in America has encountered a Weinstein, and that the problem derives from a culture of “toxic masculinity.” This attitude is an outgrowth of the now-fashionable view that there have been no real gains for women and minorities over the past half-century, that the gains are illusory or tokenish, and that something more revolutionary is required to level the playing field.
As a matter of fact in the Weinstein case, this view is false. Women have indeed encountered boors and creeps in their workplaces. But a wolf-whistler is not a rapist. Someone who leers at a woman isn’t the same as someone who masturbates in front of her. Coping with grotesque and inappropriate co-workers and bosses is something every human being, regardless of gender, has had to deal with, and will have to deal with until we are all replaced by robots. It’s worse for women, to be sure. Still, no one should have to go through such experiences. But we all have and we all do. It’s one of the many unpleasant aspects of being human.
Still, the extreme view of “toxic masculinity” contains a deeper truth that is anything but revolutionary. It takes us right back to Hobbes. His central insight—indeed, the insight of civilization itself—is that every man is a potential Weinstein. This clear-eyed, even cold-eyed view of man’s nature is the central conviction of philosophical conservatism. Without limits, without having impressed upon us a fear of the legal sanction of punishment or the social sanction of shame and ostracism, we are in danger of seeking our earthly rewards in the state of nature.
The revolutionary and the conservative also seem to agree there’s something viscerally disturbing about sex crimes that sets them apart. But here is where the consensus between us breaks down. Logically, if the problem is that we live in a toxic culture that facilitates these crimes, then the men who commit them are, at root, cogs in an inherently unjust system. The fault ultimately is the system’s, not theirs.
Harvey Weinstein is an exceptionally clever man who spent decades standing above and outside the system, manipulating it and gaming it for his own ends. He’s no cog. Tina Brown once ran Weinstein’s magazine and book-publishing line. She wrote that “strange contracts pre-dating us would suddenly surface, book deals with no deadline attached authored by attractive or nearly famous women, one I recall was by the stewardess on a private plane.” Which means he didn’t get into book publishing, or magazine publishing, to oversee the production of books and articles. He did it because he needed entities through which he would pass through payoffs both to women he had harassed and molested and to journalists whose silence he bought through options and advances. His primary interest wasn’t in the creation of culture. It was the creation of conditions under which he could hunt.
Which may explain his choice of the entertainment industry in the first place. In how many industries is there a specific term for demanding sexual favors in exchange for employment? There’s a “casting couch”; there’s no “insurance-adjustor couch.” In how many industries do people conduct meetings in hotel rooms at off hours anyway? And in how many industries could that meeting in a hotel room end up with the dominant player telling a young woman she should feel comfortable getting naked in front of him because the job for which she is applying will require her to get naked in front of millions?
Weinstein is entirely responsible for his own actions, but his predatory existence was certainly made easier by the general collapse of most formal boundaries between the genders. Young women were told to meet him in private at night in fancy suites. Half a century earlier, no young woman would have been permitted to travel alone in a hotel elevator to a man’s room. The world in which that was the norm imposed unacceptable limitations on the freedoms of women. But it did place serious impediments in the paths of predators whose despicable joy in life is living entirely without religious, spiritual, cultural, or moral impediment.
Hobbes was the great philosopher of limits. We Americans don’t accept his view of things; we tend to think better of people than he did. We tend to believe in the greater good, which he resolutely did not. We believe in self-government, which he certainly did not. But what our more optimistic outlook finds extraordinarily difficult to reckon with is behavior that challenges this complacency about human nature. We try to find larger explanations for it that place it in a more comprehensible context: It’s toxic masculinity! It’s the residue of the 1960s! It’s the people who enabled it! The truth is that, on occasion—and this is one such occasion—we are forced to come face to face with the worst of what any of us could be. And no one explanation suffices save Hamlet’s: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?”
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The education-reform outfit’s hard-left shift
In remaking itself, TFA has subtly downgraded the principles that had won it allies across the spectrum. George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Chris Christie, and Meg Whitman are a few of the Republicans who championed TFA. The group attracted such boldface names, and hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the largest American firms and philanthropies, because it stood for a simple but powerful idea: that teacher quality is the decisive factor in the educational outcomes produced by schools.
Judging by its interventions in recent debates, it isn’t all that clear that senior TFA executives still believe this. These days, TFA’s voice on charters, accountability, and curricular rigor is decidedly muffled. Such education-reform essentials have been eclipsed in TFA’s discourse by immigration, policing, “queer” and transgender-identity issues, and other left-wing causes. TFA’s message seems to be that until numerous other social ills are cured—until immigration is less restricted, policing becomes more gentle, and poverty is eliminated—an excellent education will elude the poor. That was the status-quo defeatism TFA originally set out to challenge.
Wendy Kopp conceived TFA when she was a senior at Princeton in 1989. Unable to get a New York City teaching job without a graduate degree and state certification, Kopp wrote a thesis calling for the creation of a nontraditional recruitment pipeline that would bring America’s most promising young people to its neediest classrooms. TFA members would teach for two years, applying their energy and ambition to drive achievement at the classroom level. She speculated that some would stay in education, while others would go on to careers in law, medicine, business, journalism, etc. But all would remain “lifelong leaders in the effort to end educational inequity.”
The following year, Kopp launched TFA with a corps of 489 new teachers who were dispatched to schools in six regions—a virtuoso feat of social entrepreneurship. Since then some 50,000 teachers have completed the program. This year’s corps counts around 6,400 members, serving 53 regions from coast to coast.
By the time I joined, in 2005, TFA had distilled the experience of its best corps members into a theory of educational transformation called “Teaching as Leadership.” Most people, it said, aren’t natural-born educators. But they could rise to classroom greatness by setting “big goals” for all students, planning engaging lessons, continually assessing their students, maintaining tough discipline, and investing parents and the wider community in their goals.
Mostly, great teachers work hard—really hard. TFA brought the work habits usually associated with large law firms and high-end management consultancies to America’s K–12 failure factories. Its “summer institute” for new recruits was a grueling ordeal of tears, sweat, and 16-hour days. When I was a corps member, we were told that this is what it would take to overcome the forces of the status quo, which were chronically low expectations; broken homes and criminality in the streets; messy, undisciplined classrooms; and bloated bureaucracies that put the needs of adults above those of children.
The TFA worldview diverged sharply from the one that predominated in the education industry. The leading lights of the profession held that the achievement gap was a product of inadequate funding and larger social inequalities. Thus they transferred blame for classroom outcomes from teachers to policymakers and society at large. Teachers’ unions were particularly fond of this theory, since it provided cover for resisting accountability and high expectations.
TFA raged against all this. The assumption that some kids were doomed to underachievement was wrong and, indeed, bigoted. Ditto for the notion that inner-city children couldn’t be expected to behave like young scholars. These children could pull themselves up, provided they had dedicated educators who believed in them. This wasn’t to say that external factors were discounted altogether. But TFA concentrated on the things that educators and school leaders could control. It would emphasize self-help and uplift. And it would accept friends and allies across political divides to fulfill the promise of educational equality.T oday’s Teach for America is a different story. TFA’s leaders have now fully enlisted the organization in the culture war—to the detriment of its mission and the high-minded civic sensibility that used to animate its work.
This has been most visible in TFA’s response to the 2016 election. TFA chief executive Elisa Villanueva Beard, who took over from Kopp four years ago, doesn’t bother to mask either her progressivism or her revulsion at the new administration. When, a couple of weeks after the election, the president-elect announced his choice of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education, Beard’s response was swift and cold.
A November 23 TFA news release began by decrying Trump’s “indisputably hostile and racially charged campaign” and called on DeVos to uphold “diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.” The statement went on to outline 11 TFA demands. Topping the litany was protection of the previous administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which granted legal status to certain illegal immigrants brought into the country as children. Then came the identity-politics checklist: “SAFE classrooms for LGBTQ youth and teachers,” “safe classrooms for students and teachers with disabilities,” “safe classrooms for Muslim students and teachers,” “culturally responsive teaching,” and so on.
Of the 11 demands, only three directly touched core education-reform areas—high expectations, accountability, and data-driven instruction—and these were couched in the broadest terms possible. Most notably, there wasn’t a single kind word for DeVos: no well wishes, no hope of “working together to achieve common goals,” no call for dialogue, nothing but angry demands. This, even though the secretary-designee was a passionate charter advocate and came from the same corporate philanthropy and activism ecosystem that TFA had long inhabited.
It is true that inner-city educators were horrified at the election of a candidate who winked at David Duke and suggested that a federal judge’s Mexican heritage was disqualifying. TFA’s particular concern about DACA makes sense, since many corps members work with illegal-immigrant children in border states. (My own stint took me to the Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas.)
Even so, TFA’s allergic reaction to the Trump phenomenon reflects faulty strategic thinking. Beard isn’t Rachel Maddow, and TFA isn’t supposed to be an immigration-reform outfit, still less a progressive think tank. With Republicans having swept all three branches of the federal government, as well as a majority of statehouses and governors’ mansions, TFA must come to terms with the GOP. Condemning the new education secretary as barely legitimate wasn’t wise.
Beard is also making a grave mistake by attempting to banish legitimate conservative positions from the reform movement. In the wake of the bloody white-nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, she blasted an email to the organization that denounced in one breath opposition to affirmative action and “racist and xenophobic violence.” Some two-thirds of Americans oppose race-based affirmative action. Will these Americans give TFA a fair hearing on educational reform when the organization equates them with alt-right thugs? In a phone interview, Beard said she didn’t intend to link white nationalism with opposition to affirmative action.
As for DACA, the amount of attention TFA devotes to the fate of those affected is out of all proportion. TFA has a full-time director for DACA issues. A search of its website reveals at least 31 news releases, statements, and personal blogs on DACA—including a 2013 call for solidarity with “UndocuQueer students” that delved into the more exotic dimensions of intersectionality. As one education reformer told me in an interview, “They are super-concerned with ‘can’t wait’ issues—DACA and so on—and so much of their mental space [is filled up] by that kind of thing that less of their attention and time is being spent” on central priorities. “Personally, I think that’s such a shame.” (This reformer, and others I interviewed for this article, declined to speak on the record.)
By contrast, TFA didn’t call out Mayor Bill de Blasio on his attempts to roll back charter schools in New York. The organization has rarely targeted teachers’ unions the way it has ripped into Trump. But it is the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that pose the main obstacle to expanding school choice and dismissing ineffective teachers. It is the unions that are bent on snuffing out data-driven instruction. It was a teachers’ union boss (Karen Lewis of Chicago), not the 45th president, who in 2012 accused TFA of supporting policies that “kill and disenfranchise children.”T
each for America’s turn to the harder left predated Trump’s ascent, and it isn’t mainly about him. Rather, it tracks deeper shifts within American liberalism, from the meritocratic Clintonian ideas of the 1990s and early aughts to today’s socialist revival and the fervid politics of race, gender, and sexuality.
Culturally, TFA was always more liberal than conservative. Educators tend to be liberal Democrats, regardless of the path that brings them to the classroom. But education reformers are unwanted children of American liberalism. They are signed up for the Democratic program, but they clash with public-sector labor unions, the most powerful component of the party base.
As TFA went from startup to corporate-backed giant, it sustained withering attacks from leftist quarters. On her influential education blog, New York University’s Diane Ravitch (a one-time education reformer who changed sides) relentlessly hammered corps members as “woefully unprepared,” as scabs “used to take jobs away from experienced teachers,” as agents of “privatization” and the “neoliberal attack on the public sector.” It was Ravitch who publicized Lewis’s claim that TFAers “kill” kids.
Michelle Rhee, the Korean-American alumna who in 2007 was tapped as chancellor of the District of Columbia system, became a lightning rod for anti-TFA sentiment on the left. Rhee’s no-nonsense approach to failing schools was summed up in a Time magazine cover that showed her holding a broom in the middle of a classroom. When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty didn’t win reelection in 2010, it was seen as a popular verdict against this image of TFA-style reform.
In 2013, one university instructor, herself a TFA alumna, urged college professors not to write letters of recommendation for students seeking admission to the organization. Liberal pundits took issue with TFA’s alleged elitism and lack of diversity, portraying it as the latest in a long line of “effete” white reformist institutions that invariably let down the minorities they try to help. TFA, argued a writer in the insurgent leftist magazine Jacobin, is “another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality. At worst, it’s a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education-reform movement.” By “unseemly,” the writer meant conservative and corporate.
The assaults have had an effect. Applications to TFA dropped to 37,000 last year, down from 57,000 in 2013. Thus ended a growth spurt that had seen the organization increase the size of its corps by about a fifth each year since 2000. Partly this was due to more jobs and better salaries on offer to elite graduates in a rebounding private sector. But as Beard conceded in a statement in April 2016, partly it was the “toxic debate surrounding education” that was “pushing future leaders away from considering education as a space where they can have real impact.”
The temptation for any successful nonprofit crusade is to care more about viability and growth than the original cause. Wounded by the union-led attacks, TFA leaders have apparently concluded that identity politics and a progressive public presence can revive recruitment. With its raft of corporate donors and the massive Walton-family endowment, TFA would never fit in comfortably with an American liberalism moving in the direction of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But talk of Black Lives and “UndocuQueers” might help it reconnect with younger millennials nursed on race-and-gender theory.
Thus, TFA leads its current pitch by touting its diversity. Beard opened her keynote at last year’s 25th-anniversary summit in Washington by noting: “We are more diverse than we have ever been. . . . We are a community that is black, that is Latino, that is white, that is American Indian, that is Asian and Pacific Islander, that is multiracial. We are a community that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and trans.” The organization’s first priority, Beard went on, will always be “to build an inclusive community.”
It makes sense to recruit diverse teachers to lead classrooms in minority-majority regions, to be sure. But one can’t help detecting a certain liberal guilt behind this rhetoric, as if TFA had taken all the attacks against it to heart: We aren’t elite, we swear! Yet the 90 percent of black children who don’t reach math proficiency by eighth grade need good math teachers, period. Their parents don’t care how teachers worship (if at all), what they look like, or what they get up to in the bedroom. They want teachers who will put their children on a trajectory out of poverty.
Minority parents, moreover, fear for their kids’ well-being in chaotic schools and gang-infested streets. Yet to hear many of the speakers at TFA’s summit, you would have thought that police and other authority figures represent the main threat to black and Hispanic children. At a session titled “#StayWoke,” a TFA teacher railed against the police:
I teach 22 second-graders in Southeast D.C., all of them students of color. Sixteen of them are beautiful, carefree black and brown boys, who, despite their charm and playfulness, could be slain in the streets by the power that be [sic], simply because of the color of their skin, what clothes they wear, or the music they choose to listen to.
Educators must therefore impart “a racial literacy, a literacy of resistance.” Their students “must grow up woke.” Another teacher-panelist condemned anti-gang violence initiatives that
come from the same place as the appetite to charge black and brown people with charges of self-destruction. The tradition of blaming black folk keeps us from aiming at real sources of violence. If we were really interested in ending violence, we would be asking who pulled the trigger to underfund schools in Philadelphia? Who poisoned our brothers and sisters in Flint, Michigan? Who and what made New Orleans the incarceration capital of the world? We would teach our students to raise these questions.
Throughout, he led the assembly in chants of “Stay Woke!”
Talk of teaching “resistance” represented a reversion to the radical pedagogy and racial separatism that left a legacy of broken inner-city schools in the previous century. TFA’s own experience, and that of TFA-linked charter networks such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, had taught reformers that, to thrive academically, low-income students need rigid structure and order. Racial resentment won’t set these kids up for success but for alienation and failure—and prison.
Another session, on “Academic Rigor, Social and Political Consciousness, and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” pushed similar ideas. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, an associate professor of “Raza studies” at San Francisco State University, urged teachers to develop an ultra-localized race-conscious curriculum:
Don’t even essentialize Oakland’s culture! If you’re from the town, you know it’s a big-ass difference between the west and the east [sic]. We talk differently, we walk differently, we dress differently, we speak differently. The historical elements are different. So if you use stuff from the west [of Oakland] you have to really figure out, ‘How do I modify this to be relevant to the communities I’m serving in East Oakland?’ Develop curriculum, pedagogy, assessment that is responsive to the community you serve. You gotta become an ethnographer. You gotta get on the streets, get into the neighborhoods and barrios…talk to the ancestors…
If your curriculum is not building pathways to self-love for kids who at every turn of their day are taught to hate themselves, hate the color of their skin, hate the texture of their hair, hate the color of their eyes, hate the language they speak, hate the culture they come from, hate the ‘hood that they come from, hate the countries that their people come from, then what’s the purpose of your schooling?
Other sessions included “Native American Community Academy: A Case Study in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy”; “What Is the Role of White Leaders?”; “Navigating Gender Dynamics”; “Beyond Marriage Equality: Safety and Empowerment in the Education of LGBTQ Youth”; “A Chorus of Voices: Building Power Together,” featuring the incendiary Black Lives Matter activist and TFA alumnus DeRay McKesson; “Every Student Counts: Moving the Equity Agenda Forward for Asian American and Pacific Islander Students”; “Intentionally Diverse Learning Communities”; and much more of the kind.
Lost amid all this talk of identitarian self-love was the educator’s role in leading poor children toward things bigger and higher than Oakland, with its no doubt edifying east–west street rivalries—toward the glories of the West and the civic and constitutional bonds that link Americans of all backgrounds. You can be sure that the people who participate in TFA see to it that their own children learn to appreciate Caravaggio and Shakespeare and The Federalist. The whole point of the organization was to ensure that kids from Oakland could do the same.
Twenty-seven years since Teach for America was founded, the group’s mission remains vital. Today fewer than 1 in 10 children growing up in low-income communities graduate college. The basic political dynamics of education reform haven’t changed: Teach for America, and the other reform efforts it has inspired, have shown what works. The question is whether Teach for America is still determined to reform schools and fight for educational excellence for all—or whether it wants to become a cash-flush and slick vehicle for the new politics of identity.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'iGen' By Jean Twenge
n 1954, scientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran some experiments on rats in a laboratory at McGill University. What they found was remarkable and disturbing. They discovered that if electrodes were implanted into a particular part of the rat brain—the lateral hypothalamus—rats would voluntarily give themselves electric shocks. They would press a lever several thousand times per hour, for days on end, and even forgo food so that they could keep pressing. The scientists discovered that the rats were even prepared to endure torture in order to receive these shocks: The animals would run back and forth over an electrified grid if that’s what it took to get their fix. They enjoyed the shocks so much that they endured charring on the bottoms of their feet to receive them. For a long time afterward, Olds and Milner thought that they had discovered the “bliss center” of the brain—but this was wrong. They had discovered the reward center. They had found the part of the brain that gives us our drives and our desires. These scientists assumed that the rats must have been in a deep state of pleasure while receiving these electric shocks, but in reality they were in a prolonged state of acute craving.
Jean Twenge’s important new book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, talks about a new form of electronic stimulation that appears to be driving young people to extreme distraction. A professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Twenge has built her career on looking at patterns in very large samples of people across long periods of time. She takes data from the General Social Survey, which has examined adults 18 years and older since 1966; the American Freshman Survey, which has questioned college students since 1991; the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System; and the Monitoring the Future databases. She looks to see whether there have been any changes in behavior and personality across time for people the same age but from different generations. Prior to iGen, she was the author of The Narcissism Epidemic (2009), co-written with psychologist W. Keith Campbell, and Generation Me (2013), a book about self-entitled Millennials. Twenge knows whereof she speaks.
Unlike previous patterns of rising narcissism, the trends of self-regard and self-entitlement associated with those born after 1995 appear to have petered out. What Twenge does find, however, is that reversals in trends of narcissism have been replaced by sharp increases in anxiety. Rates of anxiety and depression are spiking rapidly in young people, while at the same time their engagement with adult behaviors is declining. Using dozens of graphs, Twenge shows the reader how teenagers today drink less, go out less, socialize less, are less motivated to get their driver’s license, work less, date less, and even have sex less.
At first glance, the data seem counterintuitive, because the social pressures to abstain from alcohol and casual sex have never been more relaxed. But, on further reading, it appears that young people’s avoidance of adult behaviors has at least something to do with the addictive and distracting nature of smartphones and social media. Of course, Twenge is careful to point out that this is all “correlational.” She does not have a smoking gun and cannot prove causality. But the speculation seems plausible. All of the changes she observes started accelerating after 2007, when smartphones became ubiquitous. She writes:
I asked my undergraduate students what I thought was a very simple question: “What do you do with your phone while you sleep? Why?” Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phones, putting them under their pillows, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. They checked social media websites and watched videos right before they went to bed and reached for their phones again as soon as they woke up in the morning (they had to—all of them used it as their alarm). Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to bed and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke up in the middle of the night they often ended up looking at their phones. They talked about their phones the way an addict would talk about crack: “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it.”
Recent experiments also lend support to the hypothesis. In an experiment carried out in 2013, psychologists Larry Rosen and Nancy Cheever brought 163 university students into a room. Some students had their phones unexpectedly taken away and others were told to put their phones on silent and out of sight. All students were then asked to fill out a brief anxiety questionnaire in 20-minute intervals. Those who were the heaviest smartphone users and heaviest social-media users recorded anxiety levels that kept climbing over the 90-minute period. The kids who used their smartphones the least did not have any increase in anxiety. This experiment lends strong support to the hypothesis that smartphones, by their propensity to promote constant use, do in fact cause agitation.
Twenge’s chapter on mental health in the generation born after 1995 makes for the book’s most disturbing reading. Heavy smartphone and social-media use correlates with higher anxiety and increased feelings of loneliness, particularly in girls. Social media seems to allow girls to bully one another in much more subtle and effective ways than were previously available. They constantly include or exclude one another from online activities such as group “chats,” and they are forever surveilling their peers’ presentation and appearance. This means that if girls aren’t vigilantly checking their social-media accounts, they won’t know if they’re being gossiped about or excluded from some fun activity. Like the electrodes placed on Olds and Milner’s rats, this new technology seems to activate the reward center—but it does not induce states of contentment, satisfaction, or meaning. It also takes time away from other activities such as sports and in-person socializing that would induce feelings of contentment and satisfaction. For a young person who is developing his personality and his competencies in the real world, this could have a profound and long-lasting effect.
Twenge tries not to be alarmist, and she presents her findings in a cautious, conscientious manner. She takes care to make caveats and eschew emotionally laden language. But it’s hard not to be alarmed by what she has found. In the six years between 2009 and 2015, the number of high-school girls who attempted suicide increased by 43 percent and the number of college students who “seriously considered” ending their lives rose by 51 percent. Suicides in young people are carefully tracked—there can be no ambiguity in this data—and increasing rates of children killing themselves are strong evidence that something is seriously amiss. From 2007 (the year smartphones became omnipresent) to 2015, suicide among 15- to 19-year-olds rose by 46 percent, and among those aged 12 to 14, it rose by half. And this rise is particularly pronounced for young girls. Three times as many 12- to 14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007; among boys that age, suicide doubled in the same period. The suicide rate is always higher for boys (partly because they use more violent methods), but girls are now beginning to close this gender gap.
Another startling chapter in Twenge’s book focuses on sex, relationships, and family formation. We all know that young people are putting off marriage and child-rearing until later years, often for sensible reasons. But what is less well known is that young people are dating a lot less and spending a lot more time alone. It appears that old-fashioned romance and courtship norms are out the window, and so too is sex among young people. Twenge writes:
[M]ore young adults are not having sex at all. More than twice as many iGen’ers and late Millennials (those born in the 1990s) in their early twenties (16 percent) had not had sex at all since age 18 compared to GenX’ers at the same age (6 percent). A more sophisticated statistical analysis that included all adults and controlled for age and time period confirmed twice as many “adult virgins” among those born in the 1990s than among those born in the 1960s.
But if 16 percent are virgins, that means 84 percent of young people are having sex. Perhaps, then, there’s only a small segment bucking the trend toward more libertine lifestyles? Not so. Twenge writes:
Even with age controlled [in samples], Gen X’ers born in the 1970s report having an average of 10.05 sexual partners in their lifetimes, whereas Millennials and iGen’ers born in the 1990s report having sex with 5.29 partners. So Millennials and iGen’ers, the generations known for quick, casual sex, are actually having sex with fewer people.
For decades, conservatives have worried about loosened social and sexual mores among young people. It’s true that sexual promiscuity poses meaningful risks to youths’ well-being, especially among women. But there are also risks that manifest at a broader level when there is a lack of sexual activity in young people. And this risk can be summed up in three words—angry young men. Anthropologists are well aware that societies without strong norms of monogamous pairing produce a host of negative outcomes. In such populations, crime and child abuse increase while savings and GDP decline. Those are just some of the problems that come from men’s directing their energies toward competing with one another for mates instead of providing for families. In monogamous societies, male-to-male competition is tempered by the demands of family life and planning for children’s futures.
These trends identified by Twenge—increased anxiety and depression, huge amounts of time spent on the Internet, and less time spent dating and socializing—do not bode well for the future of Western societies. It should come as no surprise that young people who struggle to connect with one another and young men who can’t find girlfriends will express their anxieties as political resentments. Twenge’s book reveals just how extensive those anxieties are.
Like the rats that forgo food to binge on electric shocks, teenagers are forgoing formative life experiences and human connection in order to satiate their desire for electronic rewards. But the problem is not necessarily insurmountable. Twenge identifies possible protective factors such as playing sports, real-life socializing, adequate sleep, sunlight, and good food. Indeed, phone apps designed to encourage good habits are becoming popular, as are those that lock people out of their social-media accounts for predetermined periods of time. Twenge also argues that iGen has several positive indicators. They are less narcissistic and are more industrious than the generation before them, and they are also more realistic about the demands of work and careers. But harnessing those qualities will require an effort that seems at once piddling and gargantuan. IGen’s future well-being, and ours, depends on whether or not they can just put down their phones.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Playwrights and politics
No similar incidents have been reported, but not for lack of opportunity. In the past year, references to Trump have been shoehorned into any number of theatrical productions in New York and elsewhere. One Trump-related play by a noted author, Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall, has already been produced off Broadway and across America, and various other Trump-themed plays are in the pipeline, including Tracy Letts’s The Minutes and Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, both of which will open on Broadway later this season.
The first thing to be said about this avalanche of theatrical activity is that these plays and productions, so far as is known, all show Trump in a negative light. That was to be expected. Save for David Mamet, I am not aware of any prominent present-day American playwright, stage actor, director, or technician who has ever publicly expressed anything other than liberal or progressive views on any political subject whatsoever. However, it appears one can simultaneously oppose Trump and still be skeptical about the artistic effects of such lockstep unanimity, for many left-of-center drama critics have had unfavorable things to say about the works of art inspired to date by the Trump presidency.
So even a political monoculture like that of the American theater can criticize the fruits of its own one-sidedness. But can such a culture produce any other kind of art? Or might the Theater of Trump be inherently flawed in a way that prevents it from transcending its limitations?F rom Aristophanes to Angels in America, politics has always been a normal part of the subject matter of theater. Not until the end of the 19th century, though, did a major playwright emerge whose primary interest in writing plays was political rather than aesthetic. George Bernard Shaw saw himself less as an artist than as a propagandist for the causes to which he subscribed, which included socialism, vegetarianism, pacifism, and (late in his life) Stalinism. But Shaw took care to sugar the political pill by embedding his preoccupations in entertaining comedies of ideas, and he was just as careful to make his villains as attractive—and persuasive-sounding—as his heroes.
In those far-off days, the English-speaking theater world was more politically diverse than it is today both on and off stage. It was only in the late ’40s that the balance started to shift, at first slowly, then with steadily increasing speed. In England, this ultimately led to a theater in which it is now common to find explicit political statements embedded not merely in plays but also in such commercial musicals as Billy Elliot, a show about the British miners’ strike of 1984 in which a chorus of children sings a holiday carol whose refrain runs as follows: “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher / We all celebrate today / Cause it’s one day closer to your death.”
As this example suggests, postwar English political theater is consumed with indictments of the evils arising from the existence of a rigid class system. American playwrights, by contrast, are typically more inclined to follow in the footsteps of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, both of whose plays portray (albeit for different reasons) the spiritual and emotional poverty of middle-class life. In both countries, most theater is neither explicitly nor implicitly political. Nevertheless, the theater communities of England and America have for the last half-century or so been all but unanimous in their offstage political convictions. This means that when an English-language play is political, the views that it embodies will almost certainly be left-liberal.
This unanimity of opinion is responsible for what I called, in a 2009 Commentary essay about Miller, the “theater of concurrence.”1 Its practitioners, presumably because all of their colleagues share their political views, take for granted that their audiences will also share them. Hence they write political plays in which no attempt is made to persuade dissenters to change their minds, it being assumed that no dissenters are present in the theater. In the theater of concurrence, disagreement with left-liberal orthodoxy is normally taken to be the result either of invincible ignorance or a deliberate embrace of evil. In the U.S. and England alike, it has become rare to see old-fashioned Shavian political plays like David Hare’s Skylight (1995) in which the devil (in this case, a Thatcherite businessman in love with an upper-middle-class do-gooder) is given his due. Instead, we get plays whose villains are demoniacal monsters (Tony Kushner’s fictionalized portrayal of Roy Cohn in Angels in America is an example) rather than flawed humans who, like Tom in Skylight, have reached the point of no moral return.
All this being the case, it makes perfect sense that Donald Trump’s election should have come as so disorienting a shock to the American theater community, which took for granted that he was unelectable. No sooner were the votes tallied than theater people took to social media to angrily declare their unalterable resistance to the Trump presidency. Many of them believe both Trump and his supporters to be, in Hillary Clinton’s oft-quoted phrase, members of “the basket of deplorables . . . racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
What kind of theater is emerging from this shared belief? Building the Wall, the first dramatic fruit of the Trump era, is a two-character play set in the visiting room of a Texas prison. It takes place in 2019, by which time President Trump has been impeached after having responded to the detonation of a nuclear weapon in Times Square by declaring nationwide martial law and locking up every foreigner in sight. The bomb, it turns out, was a “false flag” operation planted not by terrorists but by the president’s men. Rick, the play’s principal character, has been imprisoned for doing something so unspeakably awful that he and his interlocutor, a sanctimonious black journalist who is interviewing him for a book, are initially reluctant to talk about it. At the end of an hour or so of increasingly broad hints, we learn that Rick helped the White House set up a Nazi-style death camp for illegal immigrants.
Schenkkan has described Building the Wall as “not a crazy or extreme fantasy,” an inadvertently revealing remark. It is possible to spin involving drama out of raging paranoia, but that requires a certain amount of subtlety, not to mention intelligence—and there is nothing remotely subtle or intelligent about Building the Wall. Rick is a blue-collar cartoon, a regular-guy Texan who claims not to be a racist but voted for Trump because “all our jobs were going to Mexico and China and places like that and then the illegals here taking what jobs are left and nobody gave a damn.” Gloria, his interviewer, is a cartoon of a different kind, a leftsplaining virtue signal in human form who does nothing but emit smug speeches illustrating her own enlightened state: “I mean, at some point in the past we were all immigrants, right, except for Native Americans. And those of us who didn’t have a choice in the matter.” The New York production of Building the Wall closed a month ahead of schedule, having received universally bad reviews (the New York Times described it as “slick and dispiriting”).
The Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, by contrast, received mixed but broadly positive reviews. But it, too, was problematic, albeit on an infinitely higher level of dramatic accomplishment. Here, the fundamental problem was that Eustis had superimposed a gratuitous directorial gloss on Shakespeare’s play. There have been many other high-concept productions of Julius Caesar, starting with Orson Welles’s 1937 modern-dress Broadway staging, which similarly transformed Shakespeare’s play into an it-can-happen-here parable of modern-day fascism. But Eustis’s over-specific decision to turn Caesar into a broad-brush caricature of Trump hijacked the text instead of illuminating it. Rather than allowing the audience to draw its own parallels to the present situation, he pandered to its prejudices. The result was a quintessential example of the theater of concurrence, a staging that undercut its not-inconsiderable virtues by reducing the complexities of the Trump phenomenon to little more than boob-baiting by a populist vulgarian.
Darko Tresjnak committed a venial version of the same sin in his Hartford Stage revival of Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1919), which opened around the same time as Building the Wall and Julius Caesar. Written in the wake of World War I, Heartbreak House is a tragicomedy about a group of liberal bohemians who lack the willpower to reconstruct their doomed society along Shaw’s preferred socialist lines. Tresjnak’s lively but essentially traditional staging hewed to Shaw’s text in every way but one: He put a yellow Trump-style wig on Boss Mangan, the bloated, parasitical businessman who is the play’s villain. The effect was not unlike dressing a character in a play in a T-shirt with a four-letter word printed across the chest. The wig triggered a loud laugh on Mangan’s first entrance, but you were forced to keep on looking at it for the next two hours, by which time the joke had long since grown numbingly stale. It was a piece of cheap point-making unworthy of a production that was otherwise distinguished.How might contemporary theater artists engage with the Trump phenomenon in a way that is both politically and artistically serious?
For playwrights, the obvious answer is to follow Shaw’s own example by allowing Trump (or a Trump-like character) to speak for himself in a way that is persuasive, even seductive. Shaw himself did so in Major Barbara (1905), whose central character is an arms manufacturer so engagingly urbane that he persuades his pacifist daughter to give up her position with the Salvation Army and embrace the gospel of high explosives. But the trouble with this approach is that it is hard to imagine a playwright willing to admit that Trump could be persuasive to anyone but the hated booboisie.
Then there is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which transferred to Broadway last March after successful runs at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. First performed in the summer of 2015, around the time that Trump announced his presidential candidacy, Sweat is an ensemble drama about a racially diverse group of unemployed steel workers in Reading, the Pennsylvania city that has become synonymous with deindustrialization. Trump is never mentioned in the play, which takes place between 2000 and 2008 and is not “political” in the ordinary sense of the word, since Nottage did not write it to persuade anyone to do anything in particular. Her purpose was simply to show how the people of Reading feel, and try to explain why they feel that way. Tightly structured and free of sermonizing, Sweat is a wholly personal drama whose broader political implications are left unsaid. Instead of putting Trump in the pillory, it takes a searching look at the lives of the people who voted for him, and it portrays them sympathetically, making a genuine good-faith attempt to understand why they chose to embrace Trumpian populism.
Sweat is a model for serious political art—artful political art, if you will. Are more such plays destined to be written about Donald Trump and his angry supporters? Perhaps, if their authors heed the wise words of Joseph Conrad: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Only the very best artists can make political art with that kind of revelatory power. Shaw and Bertolt Brecht did it, and so has Lynn Nottage. Will Tracy Letts and Beau Willimon follow suit, or will they settle for the pandering crudities of Building the Wall? The answer to that question will tell us much about the future of political theater in the Age of Trump.
1 “Concurring with Arthur Miller” (Commentary, June 2009)