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.
Israel and the United States: From Dependence to Nuclear Weapons?
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A foreign-policy approach based in security and pragmatism is now characterized by retrenchment and radicalism
And yet realism is currently in crisis.
Realism was once a sophisticated intellectual tradition that represented the best in American statecraft. Eminent Cold War realists were broadly supportive of America’s postwar internationalism and its stabilizing role in global affairs, even as they stressed the need for prudence and restraint in employing U.S. power. Above all, Cold War–era realism was based on a hard-earned understanding that Americans must deal with the geopolitical realities as they are, rather than retreat to the false comfort provided by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
More recently, however, those who call themselves realists have lost touch with this tradition. Within academia, realism has become synonymous with a preference for radical retrenchment and the deliberate destruction of arrangements that have fostered international stability and prosperity for decades. Within government, the Trump administration appears to be embracing an equally misguided version of realism—an approach that masquerades as shrewd realpolitik but is likely to prove profoundly damaging to American power and influence. Neither of these approaches is truly “realist,” as neither promotes core American interests or deals with the world as it really is. The United States surely needs the insights that an authentically realist approach to global affairs can provide. But first, American realism will have to undergo a reformation.
The Realist Tradition
Realism has taken many forms over the years, but it has always been focused on the imperatives of power, order, and survival in an anarchic global arena. The classical realists—Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes—considered how states and leaders should behave in a dangerous world in which there was no overarching morality or governing authority strong enough to regulate state behavior. The great modern realists—thinkers and statesmen such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Henry Kissinger—grappled with the same issues during and after the catastrophic upheaval that characterized the first half of the 20th century.
They argued that it was impossible to transcend the tragic nature of international politics through good intentions or moralistic maxims, and that seeking to do so would merely empower the most ruthless members of the international system. They contended, on the basis of bitter experience, that aggression and violence were always a possibility in international affairs, and that states that desired peace would thus have to prepare for war and show themselves ready to wield coercive power. Most important, realist thinkers tended to place a high value on policies and arrangements that restrained potential aggressors and created a basis for stability within an inherently competitive global environment.
For this very reason, leading Cold War–era realists advocated a robust American internationalism as the best way of restraining malevolent actors and preventing another disastrous global crack-up—one that would inevitably reach out and touch the United States, just as the world wars had. Realist thinkers understood that America was uniquely capable of stabilizing the international order and containing Soviet power after World War II, even as they disagreed—sometimes sharply—over the precise nature and extent of American commitments. Moreover, although Cold War realists recognized the paramount role of power in international affairs, most also recognized that U.S. power would be most effective if harnessed to a compelling concept of American moral purpose and exercised primarily through enduring partnerships with nations that shared core American values. “An idealistic policy undisciplined by political realism is bound to be unstable and ineffective,” the political scientist Robert Osgood wrote. “Political realism unguided by moral purpose will be self-defeating and futile.” Most realists were thus sympathetic to the major initiatives of postwar foreign policy, such as the creation of U.S.-led military alliances and the cultivation of a thriving Western community composed primarily of liberal democracies.
At the same time, Cold War realists spoke of the need for American restraint. They worried that America’s liberal idealism, absent a sense of limits, would carry the country into quixotic crusades. They thought that excessive commitments at the periphery of the global system could weaken the international order against its radical challengers. They believed that a policy of outright confrontation toward the Kremlin could be quite dangerous. “Absolute security for one power means absolute insecurity for all others,” Kissinger wrote. Realists therefore advocated policies meant to temper American ambition and the most perilous aspects of superpower competition. They supported—and, in Kissinger’s case, led—arms-control agreements and political negotiations with Moscow. They often objected to America’s costliest interventions in the Third World. Kennan and Morgenthau were among the first mainstream figures to go public with opposition to American involvement in Vietnam (Morgenthau did so in the pages of Commentary in May 1962).
During the Cold War, then, realism was a supple, nuanced doctrine. It emphasized the need for balance in American statecraft—for energetic action blended with moderation, for hard-headed power politics linked to a regard for partnerships and values. It recognized that the United States could best mitigate the tragic nature of international relations by engaging with, rather than withdrawing from, an imperfect world.
This nuance has now been lost. Academics have applied the label of realism to dangerous and unrealistic policy proposals. More disturbing and consequential still, the distortion of realism seems to be finding a sympathetic hearing in the Trump White House.
Realism as Retrenchment
Consider the state of academic realism. Today’s most prominent self-identified realists—Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Christopher Layne—advocate a thoroughgoing U.S. retrenchment from global affairs. Whereas Cold War realists were willing to see the world as it was—a world that required unequal burden-sharing and an unprecedented, sustained American commitment to preserve international stability—academic realists now engage in precisely the wishful thinking that earlier realists deplored. They assume that the international order can essentially regulate itself and that America will not be threatened by—and can even profit from—a more unsettled world. They thus favor discarding the policies that have proven so successful over the decades in providing a congenial international climate.
Why has academic realism gone astray? If the Cold War brokered the marriage between realists and American global engagement, the end of the Cold War precipitated a divorce. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. policymakers continued to pursue an ambitious global agenda based on preserving and deepening both America’s geopolitical advantage and the liberal international order. For many realists, however, the end of the Cold War removed the extraordinary threat—an expansionist USSR—that had led them to support such an agenda in the first place. Academic realists argued that the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s (primarily in the former Yugoslavia) reflected capriciousness rather than a prudent effort to deal with sources of instability. Similarly, they saw key policy initiatives—especially NATO enlargement and the Iraq war of 2003—as evidence that Washington was no longer behaving with moderation and was itself becoming a destabilizing force in global affairs.
These critiques were overstated, but not wholly without merit. The invasion and occupation of Iraq did prove far costlier than expected, as the academic realists had indeed warned. NATO expansion—even as it successfully promoted stability and liberal reform in Eastern Europe—did take a toll on U.S.–Russia relations. Having lost policy arguments that they thought they should have won, academic realists decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater, calling for a radical reformulation of America’s broader grand strategy.
The realists’ preferred strategy has various names—“offshore balancing,” “restraint,” etc.—but the key components and expectations are consistent. Most academic realists argue that the United States should pare back or eliminate its military alliances and overseas troop deployments, going back “onshore” only if a hostile power is poised to dominate a key overseas region. They call on Washington to forgo costly nation-building and counterinsurgency missions overseas and to downgrade if not abandon the promotion of democracy and human rights.
Academic realists argue that this approach will force local actors in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia to assume greater responsibility for their own security, and that the United States can manipulate—through diplomacy, arms sales, and covert action—the resulting rivalries and conflicts to prevent any single power from dominating a key region and thereby threatening the United States. Should these calculations prove faulty and a hostile power be poised to dominate, Washington can easily swoop in to set things aright, as it did during the world wars. Finally, if even this calculation were to prove faulty, realists argue that America can ride out the danger posed by a regional hegemon because the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and America’s nuclear deterrent provide geopolitical immunity against existential threats.
Today’s academic realists portray this approach as hard-headed, economical strategy. But in reality, it represents a stark departure from classical American realism. During the Cold War, leading realists placed importance on preserving international stability and heeded the fundamental lesson of World Wars I and II—that the United States, by dint of its power and geography, was the only actor that could anchor international arrangements. Today’s academic realists essentially argue that the United States should dismantle the global architecture that has undergirded the international order—and that Washington can survive and even thrive amid the ensuing disorder. Cold War realists helped erect the pillars of a peaceful and prosperous world. Contemporary academic realists advocate tearing down those pillars and seeing what happens.
The answer is “nothing good.” Contemporary academic realists sit atop a pyramid of faulty assumptions. They assume that one can remove the buttresses of the international system without that system collapsing, and that geopolitical burdens laid down by America will be picked up effectively by others. They assume that the United States does not need the enduring relationships that its alliances have fostered, and that it can obtain any cooperation it needs via purely transactional interactions. They assume that a world in which the United States ceases to promote liberal values will not be a world less congenial to America’s geopolitical interests. They assume that revisionist states will be mollified rather than emboldened by an American withdrawal, and that the transition from U.S. leadership to another global system will not unleash widespread conflict. Finally, they assume that if such upheaval does erupt, the United States can deftly manage and even profit from it, and that America can quickly move to restore stability at a reasonable cost should it become necessary to do so.
The founding generation of American realists had learned not to indulge in wishfully thinking that the international order would create or sustain itself, or that the costs of responding to rampant international disorder would be trivial. Today’s academic realists, by contrast, would stake everything on a leap into the unknown.
For many years, neither Democratic nor Republican policymakers were willing to make such a leap. Now, however, the Trump administration appears inclined to embrace its own version of foreign-policy realism, one that bears many similarities to—and contains many of the same liabilities as—the academic variant. One of the least academic presidents in American history may, ironically, be buying into some of the most misguided doctrines of the ivory tower.
Any assessment of the Trump administration must remain somewhat provisional, given that Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy is still a work in progress. Yet Trump and his administration have so far taken multiple steps to outline a three-legged-stool vision of foreign policy that they explicitly describe as “realist” in orientation. Like modern-day academic realism, however, this vision diverges drastically from the earlier tradition of American realism and leads to deeply problematic policy.
The first leg is President Trump’s oft-stated view of the international environment as an inherently zero-sum arena in which the gains of other countries are America’s losses. The post–World War II realists, by contrast, believed that the United States could enjoy positive-sum relations with like-minded nations. Indeed, they believed that America could not enjoy economic prosperity and national security unless its major trading partners in Europe and Asia were themselves prosperous and stable. The celebrated Marshall Plan was high-mindedly generous in the sense of addressing urgent humanitarian needs in Europe, yet policymakers very much conceived of it as serving America’s parochial economic and security interests at the same time. President Trump, however, sees a winner and loser in every transaction, and believes—with respect to allies and adversaries alike—that it is the United States who generally gets snookered. The “reality” at the core of Trump’s realism is his stated belief that America is exploited “by every nation in the world virtually.”
This belief aligns closely with the second leg of the Trump worldview: the idea that all foreign policy is explicitly competitive in nature. Whereas the Cold War realists saw a Western community of states, President Trump apparently sees a dog-eat-dog world where America should view every transaction—even with allies—on a one-off basis. “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” wrote National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn in an op-ed. “Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”
To be sure, Cold War realists were deeply skeptical about “one worldism” and appeals to a global community. But still they saw the United States and its allies as representing the “free world,” a community of common purpose forged in the battle against totalitarian enemies. The Trump administration seems to view U.S. partnerships primarily on an ad hoc basis, and it has articulated something akin to a “what have you done for me lately” approach to allies. The Cold War realists—who understood how hard it was to assemble effective alliances in the first place—would have found this approach odd in the extreme.
Finally, there is the third leg of Trump’s “realism”: an embrace of amorality. President Trump has repeatedly argued that issues such as the promotion of human rights and democracy are merely distractions from “winning” in the international arena and a recipe for squandering scarce resources. On the president’s first overseas trip to the Middle East in May, for instance, he promised not to “lecture” authoritarian countries on their internal behavior, and he made clear his intent to embrace leaders who back short-term U.S. foreign-policy goals no matter how egregious their violations of basic human rights and political freedoms. Weeks later, on a visit to Poland, the president did speak explicitly about the role that shared values played in the West’s struggle against Communism during the Cold War, and he invoked “the hope of every soul to live in freedom.” Yet his speech contained only the most cursory reference to Russia—the authoritarian power now undermining democratic governance and security throughout Europe and beyond. Just as significant, Trump failed to mention that Poland itself—until a few years ago, a stirring exemplar of successful transition from totalitarianism to democracy—is today sliding backwards toward illiberalism (as are other countries within Europe and the broader free world).
At first glance, this approach might seem like a modern-day echo of Cold War debates about whether to back authoritarian dictators in the struggle against global Communism. But, as Jeane Kirkpatrick explained in her famous 1979 Commentary essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” and as Kissinger himself frequently argued, Cold War realists saw such tactical alliances of convenience as being in the service of a deeper values-based goal: the preservation of an international environment favoring liberty and democracy against the predations of totalitarianism. Moreover, they understood that Americans would sustain the burdens of global leadership over a prolonged period only if motivated by appeals to their cherished ideals as well as their concrete interests. Trump, for his part, has given only faint and sporadic indications of any appreciation of the traditional role of values in American foreign policy.
Put together, these three elements have profound, sometimes radical, implications for America’s approach to a broad range of global issues. Guided by this form of realism, the Trump administration has persistently chastised and alienated long-standing democratic allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific and moved closer to authoritarians in Saudi Arabia, China, and the Philippines. The president’s body language alone has been striking: Trump’s summits have repeatedly showcased conviviality with dictators and quasi-authoritarians and painfully awkward interactions with democratic leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel. Similarly, Trump has disdained international agreements and institutions that do not deliver immediate, concrete benefits for the United States, even if they are critical to forging international cooperation on key issues or advancing longer-term goods. As Trump has put it, he means to promote the interests of Pittsburgh, not Paris, and he believes that those interests are inherently at odds with each other.
To be fair, President Trump and his proxies do view the war on terror as a matter of defending both American security interests and Western civilization’s values against the jihadist onslaught. This was a key theme of Trump’s major address in Warsaw. Yet the administration has not explained how this civilizational mindset would inform any other aspect of its foreign policy—with the possible exception of immigration policy—and resorts far more often to the parochial lens of nationalism.
The Trump administration seems to be articulating a vision in which America has no lasting friends, little enduring concern with values, and even less interest in cultivating a community of like-minded nations that exists for more than purely deal-making purposes. The administration has often portrayed this as clear-eyed realism, even invoking the founding father of realism, Thucydides, as its intellectual lodestar. This approach does bear some resemblance to classical realism: an unsentimental approach to the world with an emphasis on the competitive aspects of the international environment. And insofar as Trump dresses down American allies, rejects the importance of values, and focuses on transactional partnerships, his version of realism has quite a lot in common with the contemporary academic version.
Daniel Drezner of Tufts University has noted the overlap, declaring in a Washington Post column, “This is [academic] realism’s moment in the foreign policy sun.” Randall Schweller of Ohio State University, an avowed academic realist and Trump supporter, has been even more explicit, noting approvingly that “Trump’s foreign-policy approach essentially falls under the rubric of ‘off-shore balancing’” as promoted by ivory-tower realists in recent decades.
Yet one suspects that the American realists who helped create the post–World War II order would not feel comfortable with either the academic or Trumpian versions of realism as they exist today. For although both of these approaches purport to be about power and concrete results, both neglect the very things that have allowed the United States to use its power so effectively in the past.
Both the academic and Trump versions of realism ignore the fact that U.S. power is most potent when it is wielded in concert with a deeply institutionalized community of like-minded nations. Alliances are less about addition and subtraction—the math of the burden-sharing emphasized by Trump and the academic realists—and more about multiplication, leveraging U.S. power to influence world events at a fraction of the cost of unilateral approaches. The United States would be vastly less powerful and influential in Europe and Central Asia without NATO; it would encounter far greater difficulties in rounding up partners to wage the ongoing war in Afghanistan or defeat the Islamic State; it would find itself fighting alone—rather than with some of the world’s most powerful partners—far more often. Likewise, without its longstanding treaty allies in Asia, the United States would be at an almost insurmountable disadvantage vis-à-vis revisionist powers in that region, namely China.
Both versions of realism also ignore the fact that America has been able to exercise its enormous power with remarkably little global resistance precisely because American leaders, by and large, have paid sufficient regard to the opinions of potential partners. Of course, every administration has sought to “put America first,” but the pursuit of American self-interest has proved most successful when it enjoys the acquiescence of other states. Likewise, the academic and Trump versions of realism too frequently forget that America draws power by supporting values with universal appeal. This is why every American president from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama has recognized that a more democratic world is likely to be one that is both ideologically and geopolitically more congenial to the United States.
Most important, both the academic and Trump versions of realism ignore the fact that the classical post–World War II realists deliberately sought to overcome the dog-eat-dog world that modern variants take as a given. They did so by facilitating cooperation within the free world, suppressing the security competitions that had previously led to cataclysmic wars, creating the basis for a thriving international economy, and thereby making life a little less nasty, brutish, and short for Americans as well as for vast swaths of the world’s population.
If realism is about maximizing power, effectiveness, and security in a competitive global arena, then neither the academic nor the Trump versions of realism merits the name. And if realism is meant to reflect the world as it is, both of these versions are deeply deficient.
This is a tragedy. For if ever there were a moment for an informed realism, it would be now, as the strategic horizon darkens and a more competitive international environment reemerges. There is still time for Trump and his team to adapt, and realism can still make a constructive contribution to American policy. But first it must rediscover its roots—and absorb the lessons of the past 70 years.
The Seven Pillars of Realism
A reformed realism should be built upon seven bedrock insights, which President Trump would do well to embrace.
First, American leadership remains essential to restraining global disorder. Today’s realists channel the longstanding American hope that there would come a time when the United States could slough off the responsibilities it assumed after World War II and again become a country that relies on its advantageous geography to keep the world at arm’s length. Yet realism compels an awareness that America is exceptionally suited to the part it has played for nearly four generations. The combination of its power, geographic location, and values has rendered America uniquely capable of providing a degree of global order in a way that is more reassuring than threatening to most of the key actors in the international system. Moreover, given that today the most ambitious and energetic international actors besides the United States are not liberal democracies but aggressive authoritarian powers, an American withdrawal is unlikely to produce multipolar peace. Instead, it is likely to precipitate the upheaval that U.S. engagement and activism have long been meant to avert. As a corollary, realists must also recognize that the United States is unlikely to thrive amid such upheaval; it will probably find that the disorder spreads and ultimately implicates vital American interests, as was twice the case in the first half of the 20th century.
Second, true realism recognizes the interdependence of hard and soft power. In a competitive world, there is no substitute for American hard power, and particularly for military muscle. Without guns, there will not—over the long term—be butter. But military power, by itself, is an insufficient foundation for American strategy. A crude reliance on coercion will damage American prestige and credibility in the end; hard power works best when deployed in the service of ideas and goals that command widespread international approval. Similarly, military might is most effective when combined with the “softer” tools of development assistance, foreign aid, and knowledge of foreign societies and cultures. The Trump administration has sought to eviscerate these nonmilitary capabilities and bragged about its “hard-power budget”; it would do better to understand that a balance between hard and soft power is essential.
Third, values are an essential part of American realism. Of course, the United States must not undertake indiscriminate interventions in the name of democracy and human rights. But, fortunately, no serious policymaker—not Woodrow Wilson, not Jimmy Carter, not George W. Bush—has ever embraced such a doctrine. What most American leaders have traditionally recognized is that, on balance, U.S. interests will be served and U.S. power will be magnified in a world in which democracy and human rights are respected. Ronald Reagan, now revered for his achievements in improving America’s global position, understood this point and made the selective promotion of democracy—primarily through nonmilitary means—a key part of his foreign policy. While paying due heed to the requirements of prudence and the limits of American power, then, American realists should work to foster a climate in which those values can flourish.
Fourth, a reformed realism requires aligning relations with the major powers appropriately—especially today, as great-power tensions rise. That means appreciating the value of institutions that have bound the United States to some of the most powerful actors in the international system for decades and thereby given Washington leadership of the world’s dominant geopolitical coalition. It means not taking trustworthy allies for granted or picking fights with them gratuitously. It also means not treating actual adversaries, such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as if they were trustworthy partners (as Trump has often talked of doing) or as if their aggressive behavior were simply a defensive response to American provocations (as many academic realists have done). A realistic approach to American foreign policy begins by seeing great-power relations through clear eyes.
Fifth, limits are essential. Academic realists are wrong to suggest that values should be excised from U.S. policy; they are wrong to argue that the United States should pull back dramatically from the world. Yet they are right that good statecraft requires an understanding of limits—particularly for a country as powerful as the United States, and particularly at a time when the international environment is becoming more contested. The United States cannot right every wrong, fix every problem, or defend every global interest. America can and should, however, shoulder more of the burden than modern academic and Trumpian realists believe. The United States will be effective only if it chooses its battles carefully; it will need to preserve its power for dealing with the most pressing threat to its national interests and the international order—the resurgence of authoritarian challenges—even if that means taking an economy-of-force approach to other issues.
Sixth, realists must recognize that the United States has not created and sustained a global network of alliances, international institutions, and other embedded relationships out of a sense of charity. It has done so because those relationships provide forums through which the United States can exercise power at a bargain-basement price. Embedded relationships have allowed the United States to rally other nations to support American causes from the Korean War to the counter-ISIS campaign, and have reduced the transaction costs of collective action to meet common threats from international terrorism to p.iracy. They have provided institutional megaphones through which the United States can amplify its diplomatic voice and project its influence into key issues and regions around the globe. If these arrangements did not exist, the United States would find itself having to create them, or acting unilaterally at far greater cost. If realism is really about maximizing American power, true realists ought to be enthusiastic about relationships and institutions that serve that purpose. Realists should adopt the approach that every post–Cold War president has embraced: that the United States will act unilaterally in defense of its interests when it must, but multilaterally with partners whenever it can.
Finally, realism requires not throwing away what has worked in the past. One of the most astounding aspects of both contemporary academic realism and the Trumpian variant of that tradition is the cavalier attitude they display toward arrangements and partnerships that have helped produce a veritable golden age of international peace, stability, and liberalism since World War II, and that have made the United States the most influential and effective actor in the globe in the process. Of course, there have been serious and costly conflicts over the past decades, and U.S. policy has always been thoroughly imperfect. But the last 70 years have been remarkably good ones for U.S. interests and the global order—whether one compares them with the 70 years before the United States adopted its global leadership role, or compares them with the violent disorder that would have emerged if America followed the nostrums peddled today under the realist label. A doctrine that stresses that importance of prudence and discretion, and that was originally conservative in its preoccupation with stability and order, ought not to pursue radical changes in American statecraft or embrace a “come what may” approach to the world. Rather, such a doctrine ought to recognize that true achievements are enormously difficult to come by—and that the most realistic approach to American strategy would thus be to focus on keeping a good thing going.
The story of Britain’s unknown neoconservatives
During the decade that followed, the prospects of “the sick man of Europe” were seemingly transformed. With the free market unleashed and the authority of the democratic government restored, inflation fell, growth resumed, and the unions were tamed. Britain became the laboratory for an experiment—privatization—that would transform not just its economy, but that of many countries throughout the world that came to look to it for inspiration.
More than any other Briton, one person was responsible for this about-turn: Margaret Thatcher. The foundations for what came to be known as the Thatcher revolution were laid in the four years she spent as leader of the Opposition before the Conservative Party she led was returned to power at the 1979 general election. During this period, much of the groundwork was done by a curious and unlikely triumvirate. Thatcher, the daughter of a shopkeeper and Methodist lay preacher from the provincial Middle England town of Grantham, was both the leader and the follower of the other two. They were Sir Keith Joseph, the scion of a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family, and Alfred Sherman, a former Communist working-class Jew from London’s East End whose parents had fled Czarist Russia.
Traditionally, the relationship between Jews and the Conservative Party had been one of mutual distrust. It was the Tories, for instance, who had attempted to shut the door to Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, while it was the Labour Party in which many of their sons and daughters would find a sympathetic home. An all-too-common mix of snobbery and anti-Semitism dominated the upper echelons of the Conservative Party, seemingly undisturbed by the fact that, by the 1930s, upward mobility began to enable some Jews to leave behind the socialist citadels of the inner cities and find a home in Tory-voting suburbia.
After the war, the association between the Tory Party and prewar appeasement, indifference verging on hostility to the birth of the state of Israel, and occasional manifestations of anti-Semitism among its grassroots membership meant that many Jews continued to shun it. There were only two Jews on the Tory benches in the House of Commons in the 25 years between 1945 and 1970—as against, at its peak, 38 Jewish Labour MPs in 1966. During the 1970s, this began to shift: Further demographic changes within the Jewish community, Labour’s drift toward anti-Zionism, and the more meritocratic bent of the Conservative Party, begun under Prime Minister Ted Heath (1970–74) and accelerated by Thatcher, dramatically increased the number of Jews voting Tory and sitting on the party’s benches in parliament.
If the Tory Party had historically been unwelcoming toward Jews, it had also had little time for intellectuals. While the notion of the Conservatives as the “stupid party,” as Britain’s only Jewish prime minster called it, was overblown, it was also true that many Tories regarded ideas and those who traded in them as suspect and a distraction from the party’s mission to govern the nation unencumbered by the kind of intellectual baggage that might hinder its ruthlessly successful pursuit of power.
Thatcher, Joseph, and Sherman would change all that.
When Thatcher unseated Heath as the Conservative Party’s leader in February 1975, the party was suffering an acute crisis of confidence. Heath had lost three of the four elections he had fought against Labour’s wily leader, Harold Wilson. The previous October, the Tories had received their lowest share of the vote since 1945.
These political problems were accompanied by—indeed, caused by, Thatcher was certain—a lack of self-belief. For three decades, the Tories had embraced the postwar consensus of Keynesian economics and a welfare state. In 1970, the party’s “Selsdon Manifesto” had promised to break with that ignoble history by freeing up the economy, reining in government, and clipping the wings of the nation’s powerful trade unions. But, barely two years in office, Heath’s government had buckled at the first sign of resistance and executed a less than gracious U-turn: caving into miners in the face of a strike and rolling back some newly introduced restrictions on the unions; ditching fiscal caution in an ill-fated “dash for growth”; and introducing wage and price controls. Its Industry Act, crowed the leader of Labour’s left, Tony Benn, was “spadework for socialism.” As members of the Heath government, Thatcher and Joseph—respectively responsible for the high-spending education and health departments—were implicated in this intellectual and political betrayal. But, unlike many of their colleagues, the two most economically conservative members of Heath’s Cabinet were determined it would be the last.
The son of a former lord mayor of London, Joseph was an improbable revolutionary by both background and temperament. Sherman would later note his ally’s “tendency to wilt under pressure” and aversion to conflict.
And yet Joseph was to be the man who lit the touch paper that, as Sherman put it, “sparked off the Thatcher revolution.”
Thatcher and Joseph shared a common attribute: the sense that they were both outsiders. Hers stemmed from her grocer’s-daughter upbringing, the snobbery and disdain she encountered at Oxford from both the upper-class grandees of the Conservative Association and the liberal intelligentsia that dominated its academic body, and later, her gender, as she sought a safe Tory seat.
His originated from his Judaism. In later life, Joseph suggested that the advantage of being Jewish was that to be successful, “you have to spark on all four cylinders.” To put it less positively, Jews faced greater barriers to achievement than others and so had to be twice as able. Despite his rapid rise through the Tory ranks once he had entered parliament 1956, Joseph remained, in the words of one observer, “almost alien.” Nonetheless, Joseph was very much in the mainstream of postwar moderate Conservatism. He combined a liberal social outlook and concern for the poor with a belief in the importance of entrepreneurship.
Occasionally, as when the Conservatives lost power in 1964, Joseph would signal dissent with the leftward direction in which his party was drifting. In a series of speeches and articles, he bemoaned the Tories’ failure to free Britain from the collectivist constraints Labour had imposed upon it after the war, talking of the need to cut taxes further, give business greater freedom, and, perhaps most significantly for the future, raise the then virtually unheard-of prospect of privatization.
But for the most part he toed the party line, as did Thatcher. Neither indicated any personal misgivings or public signs of disagreement when Heath abandoned the free-market program on which the Conservative government had been elected in 1970.
Joseph’s weakness at this critical moment escaped neither the wrath nor the attention of Alfred Sherman. Sherman’s upbringing in the East End of London was one, he later suggested, in which “you were born a socialist, you didn’t have to become one.”
Struggling to assimilate against a backdrop of barely disguised official anti-Semitism, Sherman became a Communist. “When we deserted the God of our fathers,” he wrote, “we were bound to go whoring after strange gods, of which socialism in its various forms was a prominent choice.” At 17, he went to war in Spain. His turn from Marxism came after World War II, when he studied at the London School of Economics and came upon F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. It “set him thinking”—and in 1948 he was expelled from the Communist Party for “deviationism.” In the unpromising terrain of 1950s socialist Israel, where he went to work as an economic advisor, he developed his fervent support for the free market. It was a cause he would vociferously promote on his return to Britain.
The two future collaborators in the Thatcher project first met when Sherman—at this point a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, the house journal of the Conservative Party—came to interview Joseph shortly after he had become a Cabinet minister in 1962. Sherman soon began to help write Joseph’s speeches, including those in which, before the Tories’ return to government in 1970, Joseph first began to tentatively break with the postwar consensus. Sherman was thus dismayed not only by the Heath government’s abandonment of its pre-election free-market pledges, but Joseph’s supposed connivance in this betrayal. He later labeled his friend “a lion in opposition and a lamb in government.”
But the shattering blow of the Tories’ ejection from office in 1974 at the hands of the unions brought the two men back together. “Keith,” Sherman bluntly told Joseph over lunch one day, “the trouble is that you agree with me but you haven’t got the backbone to say so.” While Sherman was a Conservative, his disdain for the establishment did not recognize party labels. The Tories, he believed, appeared to judge virtue by the measure of whether it won them elections. The free-market revolution that he wanted Joseph to lead was designed not simply to sweep away socialism, but to cleanse the Conservative Party of its postwar ideological sins. And so it was that, with Sherman acting as his confessor, Joseph underwent his very public recantation and conversion to Conservatism.
What Sherman would later dub “the London Spring” commenced on June 24, 1974, when Joseph delivered the first of a series of speeches eviscerating the Tories’ record and his own part in it. The introductory lines of this first speech, drafted by Sherman, represented the opening volley in what was to become a five-year assault on the postwar settlement:
This is no time to be mealy-mouthed. Since the end of the Second World War we have had altogether too much Socialism.…For half of that 30 years Conservative Governments, for understandable reasons, did not consider it practicable to reverse the vast bulk of the accumulating detritus of Socialism which on each occasion they found when they returned to office.
Just over two months later, on the eve of 1974’s second election, called by Labour’s Harold Wilson to boost his weak parliamentary position, Joseph returned to the fray once again. He assailed the last Tory government for abandoning “sound money policies,” suggested that it had been debilitated by an unwarranted fear of unemployment, and warned that inflation was “threatening to destroy our society.” His solution—neither “easy nor enjoyable”— was to cut the deficit, gradually bear down on the money supply, and accept that there was a resultant risk of a temporary increase in unemployment.
This was the moment at which the Tories began to break with the principal tenet of Keynesianism—that government’s overriding goal should be to secure full employment. As Thatcher argued in her memoirs, it was “one of the very few speeches which have fundamentally affected a political generation’s way of thinking.” A decade later, when she had been prime minister for five years, the import of Joseph’s words in Preston was clearer still. By that point, Britain was being led by a woman whose government had broken decisively with the policies of its predecessors, placed the defeat of inflation above that of unemployment, and turned monetarism into its economic lodestar. Thatcher had determined that she would not, as Joseph had cautioned against, “be stampeded again” into a Heath-like surrender to Keynes.
But at the time, Thatcher’s response to the Tory defeat in February 1974 was publicly muted. Her pronouncements—“I think we shall finish up being the more radical party”—verged on the anodyne. But she did become a vice-chair of the new Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank that Joseph and Sherman had newly established to “question the unquestioned, think the unthinkable, [and] blaze a trail,” in Sherman’s world. Not for nothing would Geoffrey Howe describe Sherman as “a zealot of the right.” During this period, as she later acknowledged, Thatcher “learned a great deal” from Sherman and Joseph. Thatcher began to attend lunches and seminars at the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs think tank and, as co-founder of the IEA, Lord Harris of High Crosssaid, said, “ponder our writing and our authors’ publications.”
That Joseph would lead while Thatcher followed was not, then, surprising. She had always regarded him as “the senior partner” in their close political friendship. Thatcher urged Joseph to challenge Heath for the Tory Party leadership and discouraged speculation that she herself might seek it. Then Joseph delivered an ill-advised speech on social policy in which he suggested that “the balance of our population, our human stock is threatened” by the birth rates of the poor. It led to a media furor and the abandonment of his still-embryonic campaign. Frustrated, Thatcher stepped into the breach. Two months later, she was elected leader.
In her campaign to take command of the Conservative Party, Thatcher sounded many of the same notes as Joseph: that voters believed too many Conservatives “had become Socialists already” and that Britain was moving inexorably in the direction of socialism, taking “two steps forward” under Labour, but only “half a step back” under the Tories. Nonetheless, she was under no illusions that her victory in the leadership election represented a “wholesale conversion” by the party to her and Joseph’s way of thinking. Over the next four years, the support and counsel of Joseph would prove invaluable.
Thatcher had, in the words of one of her Downing Street policy advisors, “no interest in ideas for their own sake,” but she did regard politics as a clash of opposing philosophies. “We must have an ideology,” she declared to the Conservative Philosophy Group, which was formed in the year she became party leader. “The other side have got an ideology they can test their policies against.” She thus looked to Joseph and Sherman to articulate her “beliefs, feelings, instincts, and intuitions into ideas, strategies, and policies,” in Sherman’s telling. They were the builders of the intellectual edifice for the instincts—that “profligacy was a vice” and government, like a prudent household, should live within its means—that, Thatcher proudly declared, she had learned from “the world in which I grew up.”
Many Tories regarded the very notion of a “battle of ideas” as dangerous nonsense. For others, it was the ideas themselves that were suspect. When Joseph presented a paper in April 1975 urging a break with the “path of consensus” and a much greater defense of “what some intellectuals disparagingly call ‘middle-class suburban values,’ a desire to enjoy economic independence, to be well thought of, patriotism”—it met with a furious response from the Tory Shadow Cabinet. Joseph’s call for the Conservatives to push an agenda of higher defense spending, an assault on union power, deep cuts in public expenditure, and measures to curb immigration and bolster the family was greeted with horror by his colleagues. But as Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore, has noted, “this startling paper furnished the main elements of what came to be called Thatcherism, both in specific policy and in general psychological terms.”
Meanwhile, memos, letters, and speeches poured forth from Sherman, invariably urging Thatcher and Joseph to go further and faster. With Sherman as his navigator and companion, Joseph himself assumed the role of outrider— “the licensed thinker scouting ahead in Indian country,” as future MP and Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin put it—helping to open up new territory for the Tory leader to occupy when she deemed it politically safe to do so. Her political antennae, much sharper and more finely attuned than those of Joseph or Sherman, proved critical to this creative mix. They drew fire from the Tory old guard, allowing Thatcher to rise above the fray and then later make public pronouncements that frequently followed the Joseph-Sherman line.
Joseph marked the territory between the two camps clearly. He urged the Tories to reach for the “common ground.” He did not mean the centrist midpoint between the two main parties’ positions, which had been the Conservative approach since the end of the war. He meant the territory where a majority of the public found itself, on the opposite side of the political establishment. As Sherman wrote to Thatcher, in trying to compete with Labour in the ephemeral center ground, the Tories had abandoned the defense of those values—“patriotism, the puritan ethic, Christianity, conventional family-based morality”— that most voters supported. More prosaically, he urged her to speak out on issues such as “national identity, law and order, and scrounging.” He thus provided her with an electoral and moral justification for pursuing a populist political strategy that dovetailed with her own instinctive convictions.
This son of Jewish immigrants would later speak of his disapproval of the term “Judeo-Christian values” and would insist that Thatcher should root her message in her own Methodist upbringing and the Tories’ close relationship with Britain’s Established Church. Thatcher proved more ecumenical. As her close friendship with Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits illustrated, she saw, and often remarked upon, the close harmony between Judaism and the nonconformist insistence on individual responsibility, community self-help, and the moral necessity of self-improvement and wealth creation imparted by her father. Not for nothing would the Sunday Telegraph later admiringly suggest during her premiership that Judaism had become “the new creed of Thatcherite Britain.”
Sherman’s early political convictions had both positive and negative ramifications. Thatcher said he brought a “convert’s zeal to the task of plotting out a new kind of free-market Conservatism.” What Sherman referred to as his “Communist decade,” he wrote, had taught him “to think big, to believe that, aligned with the forces of history, a handful of people with sufficient faith could move mountains.” His understanding of the left also allowed him to recognize, in a way neither Joseph nor Thatcher intuitively did, the need to cast Thatcherism as an anti-establishment, radical force. Combined with his assiduous wooing of disenchanted former Labour supporters, this helped Thatcher win some high-profile converts, such as the novelist Kingsley Amis, the writer Paul Johnson, and the academic John Vaizey.
The intellectual development of Thatcherism in the 1970s was, of course, the work of many hands. While not by any means exclusively so, many were Jewish and some came from outside the Tory fold. The political scientist Shirley Robin Letwin and her husband, the economist Bill Letwin, both American-born, began to offer advice and assistance with Thatcher’s speeches. While recoiling from her devotion to “Victorian values,” the economist Samuel Brittan was nonetheless an influential exponent of monetarism. His economic commentary in the Financial Times was the only newspaper column Thatcher never missed reading. Arthur Seldon, a founder of the IEA, was a supporter of the Liberal Party who hankered in vain for it return to its Gladstonian belief in limited government. He ensured the flame of free-market economics was not completely extinguished in the 1950s, helped introduce the ideas of Milton Friedman to Britain, and willingly assisted in Thatcher’s effort to smash the postwar settlement.
However, it was Joseph and Sherman who were the preeminent warriors in the battle of ideas. Joseph’s 1976 Stockton Lecture, “Monetarism Is Not Enough,” called for a squeeze on the money supply to bring down inflation, substantial cuts in taxes and spending, and “bold incentives and encouragements” to wealth-creators. It encapsulated the governing agenda and underlying philosophy of the Thatcher governments. Thatcher biographer Hugo Young believed that Joseph’s speeches during this time contained “everything that is distinctive about the economic and political philosophy” of Thatcherism. Joseph took “the moral case for capitalism” into the lion’s den of the campuses, delivering 150 speeches in three years on the virtues of the free market. Despite the frequent attempts of hard-left students to disrupt his appearances, Thatcher later concluded that Joseph’s work had been critical in restoring the right’s “intellectual self-confidence.” She said that “all that work with the intellectuals” helped underlay her government’s later successes.
In the settling of scores that followed her dramatic defenestration in November 1990, Thatcher’s sense of betrayal was evident. Among the few who escaped her harsh words were Joseph and Sherman. In the first volume of her memoirs, which she dedicated to Joseph’s memory, Thatcher wrote simply: “I could not have become Leader of the Opposition, or achieved what I did as Prime Minister, without Keith. But nor, it is fair to say, could Keith have achieved what he did without …Alfred Sherman.”
Joseph and Sherman’s presence underlines the leading role played by Jews in the intellectual regeneration of British conservatism, a prominence akin to—and perhaps even greater than—that played by Jewish neoconservatives in the Reagan revolution.
Review of 'The Strange Death of Europe' By Douglas Murray
Since Christianity had shaped the “humanism of which Europe feels legitimately proud,” the ailing pontiff argued, the constitution should make some reference to Europe’s Christian patrimony. His appeal was met with accusations of bigotry. The pope had inflamed the post-9/11 atmosphere of “Islamophobia,” one “anti-racism” outfit said. Another group asked: What about the contributions made by the “tolerant Islam of al-Andalus”? Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing spoke for the political class: “Europeans live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role.”
Douglas Murray recounts this episode early on in his fiery, lucid, and essential polemic. It epitomized the folly of European elites who would sooner discard the Continent’s civilizational heritage than show partiality for their own culture over others’. To Murray, this tendency is quite literally suicidal—hence the “death” in his title.
The book deals mainly with Western Europe’s disastrous experiment in admitting huge numbers of Muslim immigrants without bothering to assimilate them. These immigrants now inhabit parallel communities on the outskirts of most major cities. They reject mainstream values and not infrequently go boom. Murray’s account ranges from the postwar guest-worker programs to the 2015 crisis that brought more than a million people from the Middle East and Africa.
This is dark-night-of-the-soul stuff. The author, a director at London’s Henry Jackson Society (where I was briefly a nonresident fellow), has for more than a decade been among Europe’s more pessimistic voices on immigration. My classically liberal instincts primed me to oppose him at every turn. Time and again, I found myself conceding that, indeed, he has a point. This is in large part because I have been living in and reporting on Europe for nearly four years. Events of the period have vindicated Murray’s bleak vision and confounded his critics.
Murray is right: Time isn’t mellowing out Europe’s Muslims. “The presumption of those who believed in integration is that in time everybody who arrives will become like Europeans,” Murray writes. Yet it is the young who are usually the most fanatical. Second- and third-generation immigrants make up the bulk of the estimated 5,000 Muslims who have gone off to fight with the Islamic State.
The first large wave of Muslim immigrants to Britain arrived soon after World War II. Seven decades later, an opinion survey conducted (in 2016) by the polling firm ICM found that half of Muslim Britons would proscribe homosexuality, a third would legalize polygamy, and a fifth would replace civil law with Shariah. A different survey, also conducted in 2016, found that 83 percent of young French Muslims describe their faith as “important or very important” to them, compared with 22 percent of young Catholics. I could go on with such polling data; Murray does for many pages.
He is also correct that all the various “integration” models have failed. Whether it is consensus-based social democracy in the Nordic countries, multiculturalism in Britain, or republican secularism in France, the same patterns of disintegration and social incohesion persist nearly everywhere. Different European governments have treated this or that security measure, economic policy, or urban-planning scheme as the integration panacea, to no avail.
Murray argues that the successive failures owe to a basic lack of political will. To prove the point he cites, among other things, female genital mutilation in the UK. Laws against the practice have been on the books for three decades. Even so, an estimated 130,000 British women have had their genitals cut, and not a single case has been successfully prosecuted.
Pusillanimity and retreat have been the norm among governments and cultural elites on everything from FGM to free speech to counterterrorism. The result has been that the “people who are most criticized both from within Muslim communities in Europe and among the wider population are in fact the people who fell hardest for the integration promises of liberal Europe.” It was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the fierce Somali-born proponent of Enlightenment values and women’s equality, who had to escape Holland under a death threat, not her persecutors.
And Murray is right when he says that Europeans hadn’t staged a real debate on immigration until very recently. The author might be too quick to dismiss the salutary fiscal and social effects of economic growth and immigration’s role in promoting it. At various points he even suggests that Europeans forgo economic as well as population growth if it means having to put up with fewer migrants. He praises hermetically sealed Japan, but he elides the Japanese model’s serious economic, demographic, and even psychological disadvantages.
All this is secondary to Murray’s unanswerable argument that European elites had for years cordoned off immigration from normal political debate. As he writes, “whereas the benefits of mass immigration undoubtedly exist and everybody is made very aware of them, the disadvantages of importing huge numbers of people from another culture take a great deal of time to admit to.” In some cases, most notably the child-sex grooming conspiracy in Rotherham, England, the institutions have tried to actively suppress the truth. Writes Murray: “Instead of carrying out their jobs without fear or favor, police, prosecutors, and journalists behaved as though their job was to mediate between the public and the facts.”I s it possible to imagine an alternative history, one in which Europe would absorb this many migrants from Islamic lands but suffer fewer and less calamitous harms? Murray’s surprising answer is yes. Had Europe retained its existential confidence over the course of the previous two centuries, things might have turned out differently. As it was, however, mass migration saw a “strong religious culture”—Islam—“placed into a weak and relativistic culture.”
In the book’s best chapters, Murray departs from the policy debate to attend to the sources of Europe’s existential insecurity. Germans bear much of the blame, beginning with 19th-century Bible scholarship that applied the methods of history, philology, and literary criticism to sacred scripture. That pulled the rug of theological certainty from under Europe’s feet, in Murray’s account, and then Darwin’s discoveries heightened the disorientation. Europeans next tried to substitute totalistic ideology for religion, with catastrophic results.
Finally, after World War II, they settled on human rights as the central meaning of Europe. But since Europeans could no longer believe, these rights were cut off from one of their main wellsprings: the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Catholic Church—having circumscribed the power of earthly kings across centuries and thereby “injected an anti-totalitarian vaccine into the European bloodstream,” as George Weigel has written in these pages–was scorned or ignored. Europeans forgot how they came to be free.
Somehow Europe must recover its vitality. But how? Murray is torn. On one hand, he sees how a rights-based civilization needs a theological frame, lest it succumb before a virile and energetic civilization like Islam. On the other, he thinks the leap of faith is impossible today. Murray can’t blame François, the professor-protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s 2016 novel Submission. Faced with an Islamic takeover of France, François heads to a monastery desperate to shake his spiritual torpor. But kneeling before the Virgin doesn’t do anything for him. Islam, with its simplicity and practicality (not least the offer of up to four nubile wives), is much harder to resist.
Murray wonders whether the answer lies in art. Maybe in beauty Europeans can recover the fulfillment and sense of mystery that their ancestors once found in liturgy–only without the cosmic truth claims. He laments that contemporary European art has “given up that desire to connect us to something like the spirit of religion,” though it is possible that the current period of crisis will engender a revival. In the meanwhile, Murray has suggested, even nonbelievers should go to church as a way to mark and show gratitude for Christianity’s foundational role in Europe.
He is onto something. Figure out the identity bit in the book’s subtitle—“Immigration, Identity, Islam”—and the other two will prove much easier to sort out.
A maestro’s morality
How is it possible that a man who made his conducting debut when Grover Cleveland was president should still be sufficiently well known and revered that most of his recordings remain in print to this day? Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, Harvey Sachs’s new biography, goes a long way toward defining what made Toscanini unique.1 A conductor himself, Sachs is also the author of, among other excellent books, a previous biography of Toscanini that was published in 1978. Since then, several large caches of important primary-source material, most notably some 1,500 of the conductor’s letters, have become available to researchers. Sachs’s new biography draws on this new material and other fresh research. It is vastly longer and more detailed than its predecessor and supersedes it in every way.
Despite its length and thoroughness, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience is not a pedant’s vade mecum. Clearly and attractively written, it ranks alongside Richard Osborne’s 1998 biography of Herbert von Karajan as one of the most readable biographies of a conductor ever published. For Toscanini, as Sachs shows us, had a volatile, immensely strong-willed character, one that in time caused him to clash not only with his colleagues but with the dangerous likes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The same fierce integrity that energized his conducting also led him to put his life at risk at a time when many of his fellow musicians were disinclined to go even slightly out of their way to push back against the Fascist tyrants of the ’30s.T oscanini: Musician of Conscience does not devote much space to close analysis of Toscanini’s interpretative choices and technical methods. For the most part, Sachs shows us Toscanini’s art through the eyes of others, and the near-unanimity of the admiration of his contemporaries, whose praise is quoted in extenso, is striking, even startling. Richard Strauss, as distinguished a conductor as he was a composer, spoke for virtually everyone in the world of music when he said, “When you see that man conduct, you feel that there is only one thing for you to do: take your baton, break it in pieces, and never conduct again.”
Fortunately for posterity, Toscanini’s unflashy yet wondrously supple baton technique can be seen up close in the 10 concerts he gave with the NBC Symphony between 1948 and 1952 that were telecast live (most of which can now be viewed in part or whole on YouTube). But while his manual gestures, whose effect was heightened by the irresistible force of his piercing gaze, were by all accounts unfailingly communicative, Toscanini’s ability to draw unforgettable performances out of the orchestras that he led had at least as much to do with his natural musical gifts. These included an infallible memory—he always conducted without a score—and an eerily exact ear for wrong notes. Such attributes would have impressed orchestra players, a hard-nosed lot, even if they had not been deployed in the service of a personality so galvanizing that most musicians found it all but impossible not to do Toscanini’s musical bidding.
What he wanted was for the most part wholly straightforward. Toscanini believed that it was his job—his duty, if you will—to perform the classics with note-perfect precision, singing tone, unflagging intensity, and an overall feeling of architectural unity that became his trademark. When an orchestra failed to give of its best, he flew into screaming rages whose verbal violence would likely not be believed were it not for the fact that there were secret tapes made. In one of his most spectacular tantrums, which has been posted on YouTube, he can be heard telling the bass players of the NBC Symphony that “you have no ears, no eyes, nothing at all…you have ears in—in your feet!”
Toscanini was able to get away with such behavior because his own gifts were so extraordinary that the vast majority of his players worshipped him. In the words of the English bassoonist Archie Camden, who played under Toscanini in the BBC Symphony from 1935 to 1939, he was “the High Priest of Music,” a man “almost of another world” whose artistic integrity was beyond question. And while his personal integrity was not nearly so unblemished—he was, as Sachs reports with unsalacious candor, a compulsive philanderer whose love letters to his mistresses are explicit to the point of pornography—there is nonetheless a parallel between the passionate conscientiousness of his music-making and his refusal to compromise with Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom were sufficiently knowledgeable about music to understand what a coup it would have been to co-opt the world’s greatest conductor.
Among the most valuable parts of Toscanini: Musician of Conscience are the sections in which Sachs describes Toscanini’s fractious relations with the German and Italian governments. Like many of his fellow countrymen, he had been initially impressed by Mussolini, so much so that he ran for the Italian parliament as a Fascist candidate in 1919. But he soon saw through Mussolini’s modernizing rodomontade to the tyrant within, and by the late ’20s he was known throughout Italy and the world as an unswerving opponent of the Fascist regime. In 1931 he was beaten by a mob of blackshirted thugs, after which he stopped conducting in Italy, explaining that he would not perform there so long as the Fascists were in power. Mussolini thereupon started tapping his telephone line, and seven years later the conductor’s passport was confiscated when he described the Italian government’s treatment of Jews as “medieval stuff” in a phone call. Had public and private pressure not been brought to bear, he might well have been jailed or murdered. Instead he was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. He did not return to Italy until after World War II.
If anything, Toscanini’s hatred for the Nazis was even more potent, above all because he was disgusted by their anti-Semitism. A philo-Semite who referred to the Jews as “this marvelous people persecuted by the modern Nero,” he wrote a letter to one of his mistresses in the immediate wake of the Anschluss that makes for arresting reading eight decades later:
My heart is torn in bits and pieces. When you think about this tragic destruction of the Jewish population of Austria, it makes your blood turn cold. Think of what a prominent part they’d played in Vienna’s life for two centuries! . . . Today, with all the great progress of our civilization, none of the so-called liberal nations is making a move. England, France, and the United States are silent!
Toscanini felt so strongly about the rising tide of anti-Semitism that he agreed in 1936 to conduct the inaugural concerts of the Palestine Symphony (later the Israel Philharmonic) as a gesture of solidarity with the Jews. In an even more consequential gesture, he had already terminated his relationship with the Bayreuth Festival, where he had conducted in 1930 and 1931, the first non-German conductor to do so. While the founder of the festival, Richard Wagner, ranked alongside Beethoven, Brahms, and Verdi at the top of Toscanini’s pantheon of musical gods, he was well aware many of the members of the Wagner family who ran Bayreuth were close friends of Adolf Hitler, and he decided to stop conducting in Germany—Bayreuth included—when the Nazis came to power. Hitler implored him to return to the festival in a personal letter that praised him as “the great representative of art and of a people friendly to Germany.” Once again, though, there was to be no compromise: Toscanini never performed in Germany again, nor would he forgive those musicians, Wilhelm Furtwängler among them, who continued to do so.I mplicit throughout Sachs’s book is the idea that Toscanini the man and Toscanini the musician were, as his subtitle suggests, inseparable—that, in other words, his conscience drove him to oppose totalitarianism in much the same way that it drove him to pour his heart and soul into his work. He was in every sense of the word a driven man, one capable of writing in an especially revealing letter that “when I’m working I don’t have time to feel joy; on the contrary, I suffer without interruption, and I feel that I’m going through all the pain and suffering of a woman giving birth.”
Toscanini was not striking a theatrical pose when he wrote these melodramatic-sounding words. The rare moments of ecstasy that he experienced on the podium were more than offset by his obsessive struggle to make the mere mortals who sang and played for him realize, as closely as possible, his vision of artistic perfection. That was why he berated them, why he ended his rehearsals drenched with sweat, why he flogged himself as unsparingly as he flogged his musicians. It was, he believed, what he had been born to do, and he was willing to move heaven and earth in order to do it.
To read of such terrifying dedication is awe-inspiring—yet it is also strangely demoralizing. To be sure, there are still artists who drive themselves as relentlessly as did Toscanini, and who pull great art out of themselves with the same iron determination. But his quasi-religious consecration to music inevitably feels alien to the light-minded spirit of our own age, dominated as it is by pop culture. It is hard to believe that NBC, the network of Jimmy Fallon and Superstore, maintained for 17 years a full-time symphony orchestra that had been organized in 1937 for the specific purpose of allowing Toscanini to give concerts under conditions that he found satisfactory. A poll taken by Fortune that year found that 40 percent of Americans could identify Toscanini as a conductor. By 1954, the year in which he gave up conducting the NBC Symphony (which was then disbanded), the number was surely much higher.
Will there ever again be a time when high art in general and classical music in particular mean as much to the American people as they did in Toscanini’s heyday? Very likely not. But at least there will be Harvey Sachs’s fine biography—and, far more important, Toscanini’s matchlessly vivid recordings—to remind us of what we once were, what we have lost, and what Arturo Toscanini himself aspired to be and to do.
1 Liveright, 923 pages. Many of Toscanini’s best commercial American recordings, made with the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, were reissued earlier this year in a budget-priced box set called Arturo Toscanini: The Essential Recordings (RCA Red Seal, 20 CD’s) whose contents were chosen by Sachs and Christopher Dyment, another noted Toscanini scholar. Most of the recordings that he made in the ’30s with the BBC Symphony are on Arturo Toscanini: The HMV Recordings (Warner Classics, six CD’s).
A blockbuster movie gets the spirit right and the details wrong
But enough about Brexit; what about Christopher Nolan’s new movie about Dunkirk?
Dunkirk is undoubtedly a blockbuster with a huge cast—Nolan has splendidly used thousands of extras rather than computer cartooning to depict the vast numbers of Allied troops trapped on the beaches—and a superb score by Hans Zimmer. Kenneth Branagh is a stiff upper-lipped rear-admiral, whose rather clunking script is all too obviously designed to tell the audience what’s going on; One Direction pop star Harry Styles is a British Tommy, and Tom Hardy is a Spitfire pilot who somehow shoots down two Heinkels while gliding, having run out of fuel about halfway through the movie. Mark Rylance, meanwhile, plays the brave skipper of a small boat taking troops off the beaches in the manner of Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver.
Yet for all the clichéd characterization, almost total lack of dialogue, complete lack of historical context (not even a cameo role for Winston Churchill), a ludicrous subplot in which a company of British soldiers stuck on a sinking boat do not use their Bren guns to defend themselves, problems with continuity (sunny days turn immediately into misty ones as the movie jumps confusingly through time), and Germans breaking into central Dunkirk whereas in fact they were kept outside the perimeter throughout the evacuation, Dunkirk somehow works well.
It works for the same reason that the 1958 film of the same name directed by Leslie Norman and starring Richard Attenborough and John Mills did. The story of the nine-day evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 is a tale of such extraordinary heroism, luck, and intimate proximity to utter disaster that it would carry any film, even a bad one, and Nolan’s is emphatically not a bad one. Although the dogfights take place at ridiculously low altitudes, they are thrilling, and the fact that one doesn’t see a single German soldier until the closing scene, and then only two of them in silhouette, somehow works, too. See the film on the biggest screen you can, which will emphasize the enormity of the challenge faced by the Allies in getting over 336,000 troops off the beaches for the loss of only 40,000 killed, wounded and captured.
There is a scene when the armada of small boats arrives at the beaches that will bring a lump to the throat of any patriotic Briton; similarly, three swooping Spitfires are given a wonderfully evocative moment. The microcosm of the evacuation that Nolan concentrates on works well, despite another silly subplot in which a British officer with PTSD (played by Cillian Murphy) kills a young boy on Rylance’s small boat. That all the British infantry privates, not just Harry Styles, look like they sing in boy-bands doesn’t affect the power of seeing them crouch en masse under German attack in their greatcoats and helmets on the foam-flecked beaches.
On the tenth of May in 1940, Adolf Hitler invaded France, Belgium, and Holland, unleashing Blitzkrieg on the British and French armies—a new all-arms tactic of warfare that left his enemies reeling. He also sent tanks through the forests of the Ardennes mountains, which were considered impassable, and by May 16, some panzer units had already reached the English Channel. With the British and French in full retreat, on May 24 the Fuhrer halted his tanks’ headlong advance for various sound military reasons—he wanted to give his men some rest, did not want to over-extend the German army, needed to protect against counter-attack, and wanted his infantry to catch up. From May 26 to June 3, the Allies used this pause to throw up a perimeter around the French port of Dunkirk, from whose pleasure beaches more than a quarter of a million British and more than 80,000 French troops embarked to cross the Channel to safety in Britain.
Protected by the Royal Air Force, which lost 144 pilots in the skies over Dunkirk, and by the French air force (which plays no part in this movie) and transported by the Royal Navy (which doesn’t seem to be able to use its guns against the Luftwaffe in this film, but which luckily did in real life), British and French troops made it to Dover, albeit without any heavy equipment which they had to destroy on the beach. An allusion is made to that when Tom Hardy destroys the Spitfire he has (I must say quite unbelievably) landed on a beach in order to prevent its falling into German hands.
In response to a call from the British government, more than 700 private vessels were requisitioned, including yachts, paddle steamers, ferries, fishing trawlers, packet steamers and lifeboats. Even today when boating down the Thames it is possible to see small pleasure vessels sometimes only fifteen feet long with the plaque “Dunkirk 1940” proudly displayed on the cabins. That 226 were sunk by the Luftwaffe, along with six destroyers of the 220 warships that took part, shows what it meant to rise to what was afterwards called “the Dunkirk Spirit.” It was a spirit of defiance of tyranny that one glimpses regularly in this film, even if Nolan does have to pay obeisance to the modern demands for stories of cowardice alongside heroism, and the supposedly redemptive cowardice-into-heroism stories that Hollywood did not find necessary when it made Mrs. Miniver in 1942.
Nolan’s Dunkirk implies that it was the small boats that brought back the majority of the troops, whereas in fact the 39 destroyers and one cruiser involved in Operation Dynamo brought back the huge majority while the little ships did the crucial job of ferrying troops from the beaches to the destroyers. Six of which were sunk, though none by U-boats (which the film wrongly suggests were present).
Where Nolan’s film commits a libel on the British armed services is in its tin ear for the Anglo-French relations of the time. In the movie, a British beach-master prevents French infantrymen from boarding a naval vessel, saying “This is a British ship. You get your own ships.” The movie later alleges that no Frenchmen were allowed to be evacuated until all the Britons were safely back home. This was not what happened. The French were brought across the Channel in Royal Navy vessels and small boats when their units arrived on the beaches.
There was no discrimination whatsoever, and to suggest there was injects false nationalist tension into what was in truth a model of good inter-Allied cooperation. Only much later, when the Nazi-installed Vichy government in France needed to create an Anglophobic myth of betrayal at Dunkirk, did such lies emerge. It is a shame that Nolan is now propagating them—especially since this might be the only contact that millions of people will ever have with the Dunkirk story for years, perhaps even a generation. At a time when schools simply do not teach the histories of anything so patriotism-inducing as Dunkirk, it was incumbent on Nolan to get this right.
In a touching scene at the end, one of the Tommies is depicted reading from a newspaper Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, 1940, with its admonition: “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Churchill made no attempt to minimize the scale of what he called a “colossal military disaster,” but he also spoke, rightly, of the fact that it had been a “miracle of deliverance.” That is all that matters in this story.
So despite my annoyance at how many little details are off here—for example, Tom Hardy firing 75 seconds’ worth of ammunition when he would really have only had 14.7, or choppy weather when the Channel was really like a mill pond—I must confess that such problems are only for military history pedants like me. What Nolan has gotten right is the superb spirit of the British people in overcoming hatred, resentment, and fury with calmness, courage, and good humor.
Which brings us back to Brexit.
The Swoon has several symptoms: extreme praise, a disinclination to absorb contrary facts, a weakness for adulation, and a willingness to project one’s own beliefs and dispositions onto an ill-suited target, regardless of evidence. The first thing to know about the Swoon, though, is that it is well rooted in reality. John McCain is perhaps the most interesting non-presidential figure in Washington politics since Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Any piece of journalism that aims to assess him objectively should be required to include, as a stipulation, a passage like this one from Robert Timberg’s masterful book about Vietnam, The Nightingale’s Song.
“Do you want to go home?”
“Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you.”
The [chief jailer] gleefully led the charge as the guards, at [another guard’s] command, drove fists and knees and boots into McCain. Amid laughter and muttered oaths, he was slammed from one guard to another, bounced from wall to wall, knocked down, kicked, dragged to his feet, knocked back down, punched again and again in the face. When the beating was over, he lay on the floor, bloody, arms and legs throbbing, ribs cracked, several teeth broken off at the gum line.
“Are you ready to confess your crimes?” asked [the guard].
The ropes came next . . .
This scene is, of course, from McCain’s five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. It helps to know that before this gruesome episode began—there were many more to come—McCain’s arms had been broken and gone untreated. It helps, too, to know that the point of the torture was to force McCain to leave the prison and return home to his father, the highest ranking naval officer in the Pacific. In other words, they hung him by his broken arms because he refused to let them let him go.
Every reporter who’s done his homework knows this about McCain, and most civilians who meet him know it, too. This is the predicate for the Swoon. It began to afflict liberal journalists of the Boomer generation during the warm-up to his first run for president, against Governor George W. Bush, in the late 1990s. The reporter would be brought onto McCain’s campaign bus and receive a mock-gruff welcome from the candidate. No nervous handlers would be in evidence, like those who ever attend other candidates during interviews.
And then it happens: In casual, preliminary conversation, McCain makes an indiscreet comment about a Senate colleague. “Is that off the record?” the reporter asks, and McCain waves his hand: “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” In a minute or two, the candidate, a former fighter pilot, drops the F bomb. Then, on another subject, he makes an offhanded reference to being “in prison.” The reporter, who went through four deferments in the late 1960s smoking weed with half-naked co-eds at an Ivy League school, feels the hot, familiar surge of guilt. As the interview winds down, the reporter sees an unexpected and semi-obscure literary work—the collected short stories of William Maxwell, let’s say—that McCain keeps handy for casual reading.
By the time he’s shown off the bus—after McCain has complimented a forgotten column the reporter wrote two years ago—the man is a goner. If I saw it once in my years writing about McCain, I saw it a dozen times. (I saw it happen to me!) Soon the magazine feature appears, with a headline like “The Warrior,” or “A Question of Honor,” or even “John McCain Walks on Water.” Those are all real headlines from his first presidential campaign. This really got printed, too: “It is a perilous thing, this act of faith in a faithless time—perilous for McCain and perilous for the people who have come to him, who must realize the constant risk that, sometimes, God turns out to be just a thunderstorm, and the gold just stones agleam in the sun.”
Judging from inquiries I’ve made over the years, the only person who knows what that sentence means is the writer of it, an employee of Esquire magazine named Charles Pierce. No liberal journalist got the Swoon worse than Pierce, and no one was left with a bitterer hangover when it emerged that McCain was, in nearly every respect, a conventionally conservative, generally loyal Republican—with complications, of course. The early Swooners had mistaken those complications (support for campaign-finance reform, for example, and his willingness to strike back at evangelical bullies like Jerry Falwell Sr.) as the essence of McCain. When events proved this not to be so, culminating in his dreary turn as the 2008 Republican presidential nominee—when he committed the ultimate crime in liberal eyes, midwifing the national career of Sarah Palin—it was only Republicans who were left to swoon.
So matters rested until this July, when McCain released the news that he suffers from a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. Many appropriate encomiums rolled in, some from the original Swooners. But another complication arose. Desperate to pass a “motion to proceed” so that a vote could be taken on a lame and toothless “repeal” of Obamacare, Senate Republicans could muster only a tie vote. McCain announced he would rise from his hospital bed and fly to Washington to break the tie and vote for the motion to proceed.
Even conservatives who had long remained resistant to the Swoon succumbed. Even Donald Trump tweet-hailed McCain as a returning hero. His old fans from the left, those with long memories, wrote, or tweeted, more in sorrow than in anger. Over at Esquire, poor Charles Peirce reaffirmed that God had turned out to be just a thunderstorm again. “The ugliest thing to witness on a very ugly day in the United States Senate,” he wrote, “was what John McCain did to what was left of his legacy as a national figure.” A longtime Swooner in the Atlantic: “Senator McCain gave us a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for.” Answers: a hypocrite, and nothing!
The old fans weren’t mollified by a speech McCain made after his vote, in which he sounded notes they had once thrilled to—he praised bipartisanship and cooperation across the aisle. Several critics in the press dismissed the speech with the same accusation that his conservative enemies had always leveled at McCain when he committed something moderate. He was pandering…to them! “McCain so dearly wants the press to think better of him for [this] speech,” wrote the ex-fan in the Atlantic. But the former Swooners were having none of it. Swoon me once, shame on me. Swoon me twice . . .
Then the next day in the wee hours, McCain voted against the actual bill to repeal Obamacare. Democrats were elated, and Republicans were forced to halt in mid-Swoon. His reasons for voting as he did were sound enough, but reasons seldom enter in when people are in thrall to their image of McCain. The people who had once loved him so, and who had suffered so cruelly in disappointment, were once more in love. Let’s let Pierce have the last word: “The John McCain the country had been waiting for finally showed up early Friday morning.” He had done what they wanted him to do; why he had done it was immaterial.
The condescension is breathtaking. Sometimes I think McCain is the most misunderstood man in Washington. True enough, he’s hard to pin down. He’s a screen onto which the city’s ideologues and party hacks project their own hopes and forebodings. Now, as he wages another battle in a long and eventful life, what he deserves from us is something simpler—not a swoon but a salute, offered humbly, with much reverence, affection, and gratitude.