What the rise of this ﬁrebrand foreign minister says about political change inside Israel
The Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman recently found a novel way to highlight the causes for the enthusiasm he generates and the hostility he provokes. In the midst of a live interview in April, Lieberman, now Israel’s foreign minister, apparently flushed the toilet during a discussion of Hamas. Utterly without airs and utterly without delicacy, Lieberman is the most polarizing figure in Israel. In 2009, his party, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, closed election night with its highest showing ever: 15 seats in the Knesset. The strength he displayed compelled Benjamin Netanyahu to give Lieberman the plum position of foreign minister and the title of deputy prime minister.
In most democratic systems, a figure as controversial as Lieberman could not rise any higher. But thanks to the fragmented nature of Israeli party politics, the possibility of Lieberman becoming prime minister of the Jewish state must be taken seriously. That is a nightmarish prospect to those who deem themselves holders of enlightened opinion in Israel and those who pay attention to Israeli politics in the West. Among them, he occupies a position somewhat akin to Sarah Palin’s, with a little Al Sharpton in the mix.
Lieberman is suspicious of the loyalties of Israel’s Arab citizens. He is also an advocate for a land swap whereby Arab towns in Israel would be traded for Israeli settlements. Favoring that swap has opened him up to the charge of supporting wholesale population transfer—one step away from ethnic cleansing. But that accusation has lost a little of its force, given that even the United States envisions some form of land swap will be part of a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
These sorts of provocations are far from novel in Israeli politics, and the views from which they derive have been part of the Israeli national discussion for decades. But Lieberman is a master of a form of symbolic politics familiar to American voters but somewhat innovative in an Israeli context. He proposes legislation and policy that would have little practical value but whose framing delights his base voters even as it drives his opponents into choleric and impotent rage. Lieberman has called for prospective non-Jewish citizens to pledge an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state as a Jewish state, something Arabs and the Israeli left regard as both racist and fascist. And in March, a bill Lieberman pushed to revoke the citizenship of anyone found guilty of treason or espionage passed the Knesset. These initiatives would affect very few people overall, but the fact that they dominated the political discussion for weeks affords us a sense of how clever and divisive Lieberman can be.
There is one way in which Lieberman’s political career represents a new paradigm in Israeli politics: he is a heterodox political figure for the 21st century in Israel, a secular nationalist immigrant. His base is within the enormous Russian community, but, unlike previous ethnic politicians, he has interests and goals far more ambitious than bringing home the kosher bacon to his constituents through the use of government largesse. And unlike his predecessors in the ethnic political game, like the Moroccan populist David Levy or the religious Sephardi leader Aryeh Deri, he is playing on a far larger field.
Evet Lieberman came to Israel from Moldova, then a part of the Soviet Union, in 1978 at the age of 20 and changed his name to Avigdor. After a stint in the Israel Defense Forces, he became active in the nascent world of Soviet-immigrant politics. Eventually, he teamed up with Netanyahu and managed Bibi’s 1993 campaign for Likud leadership. After Netanyahu’s victory, Lieberman effectively became the Likud party’s CEO and then Bibi’s chief of staff when his mentor became prime minister in 1996. Like Netanyahu himself, Lieberman developed a reputation for brass-knuckles politics and dishonest personal dealings, and he became extremely unpopular in Likud circles.
Lieberman resigned from the Likud in protest of Netanyahu’s concessions in 1998 to President Bill Clinton at the Wye River Plantation and went on to form his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu, in 1999. He was elected to the Knesset along with three other members of the party. He served in Ariel Sharon’s cabinet in 2004, until he voiced his opposition to the Gaza disengagement plan and was dropped. But after his party’s great success in the 2006 elections, garnering 11 seats, he was invited into Ehud Olmert’s cabinet and served his first stint as deputy prime minister as well as minister of strategic affairs, a new portfolio designed to counter the Iranian threat.
Lieberman’s rise has long been accompanied by the shadow of scandal. In this he is like many other Israeli politicians. (Recall that Ehud Olmert was indicted while prime minister, and Ariel Sharon would likely have been, too, had he not been felled by a stroke in 2005.) Lieberman is being investigated by Israeli police about whether he has profited from a business registered under his daughter’s name while serving in the Knesset. (Ministers aren’t allowed to earn income besides their Knesset salaries while serving in the government.) Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that he intends to indict Lieberman, though Lieberman will be granted a hearing on the evidence before the indictment is filed, and any case against him could take years to prosecute. Lieberman insists he is innocent, and will likely not resign even if the indictment goes through. A poll released on May 2 shows why: despite the attorney general’s announcement, Yisrael Beiteinu would gain three more seats if elections were held now. “The Smith Institute survey,” observed Israel National News, “reveals that any future government will not be able to form a coalition majority without Yisrael Beiteinu.”
Lieberman’s empty but catchy political gambits (like the loyalty oath and the treason bit) would not be considered so threatening if he were an outrageous gadfly like Israel’s one-time leading supporter of population transfer, Rehavam Ze’evi, who was shot and killed by Palestinian terrorists in 2001. But liberals in Israel and the U.S. rightly fear that Lieberman is a popular manifestation of political currents that have rarely found mainstream political expression. He speaks for those who have decided that the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs who seem to support them are intractable enemies who cannot be dealt with and must instead be countered at all costs.
Lieberman doesn’t just silently protest policies with which he disagrees, as his departure from the Netanyahu government demonstrated. When Sharon proposed releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to bolster Mahmoud Abbas in 2003, Lieberman responded, “It would be better to drown these prisoners in the Dead Sea.” And he doesn’t stand on niceties. In 2009, with the 30-year anniversary of the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal looming, Lieberman suggested that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visit Jerusalem the way his predecessor did. If Mubarak disagreed, Lieberman said, “he can go to hell.”
Late in his second term, George W. Bush called together a summit at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and laid out a framework for ongoing peace talks. Upon taking office as foreign minister, Lieberman pronounced the summit irrelevant: “There is one document that obligates us—and that’s not the Annapolis conference, it has no validity.” No one had taken the Annapolis framework particularly seriously, but it was a breach of international etiquette for Lieberman to speak about an American initiative that way. Which is why his ascent to the post of foreign minister has been so maddening to so many. It is also why Defense Minister Ehud Barak, when he travels to Washington, meets not only with American defense officials but also with diplomats at the State Department; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not alone among Lieberman’s Western counterparts, has made it clear she prefers to deal with Barak.
A 2009 Der Spiegel profile of Lieberman was titled “Israel’s Pragmatic Thug.” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, rarely given to hyperbole, called Lieberman “Putin-like,” an intentionally ethnic slight. Tablet’s Marc Tracy recently described him as “Avigdor Lieberman, the former Moldovan nightclub bouncer turned hard-right Israeli foreign minister”—this on a nominally Zionist and Israel-friendly site. The relentless references to Lieberman’s status as an immigrant and the references to goonish Russian-Soviet pseudo-dictators may be insulting, but they get at an important part of his political success—and the changes his success indicates in the Israeli body politic.
The first serious Russian-Jewish politician was Natan Sharansky, the legendary refusenik and Soviet dissident. His arrival in Israel in 1986, after years of prison and torture, to be reunited with his indefatigable wife Avital, was one of the great moments of unity in Israeli history. In his new history of the effort to save Soviet Jewry, Gal Beckerman recounts the moment: “He was a Jewish hero, the latest symbol of Jewish suffering, husband to a pious woman, herself redeemed, and possibly a recruit to the cause of messianic Zionism. He contained both. And until he opened his mouth he could represent everything to everyone. Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s most beloved poet, watched the ecstasy of [Sharansky’s] arrival and worried. ‘I hope they don’t ruin him,’ he said.”
They didn’t. Sharansky was then, and remains, immensely admired. And he was followed by a human flood of one million immigrants from the Soviet Union—in proportional terms, the largest influx of immigrants into any country in history. All this gave Sharansky an opportunity to transform Israeli politics single-handedly, but he didn’t have the stomach or skills to do so.
Sharansky was not a natural politician, and when he entered the arena, his extraordinarily dry and intellectual sense of humor, and thick accent that made his Hebrew all but impenetrable to native speakers, did not draw followers. The party he began, Yisrael Ba’aliyah, won seven seats in the 1996 Knesset elections but soon fell to two seats before it folded into the Likud.
Sharansky came to embody two strains in the Israeli body politic, as a Soviet refugee and as a religious Jew whose wife had found her home without him among the religious settlers. In the end, he was not settler enough for the settlers—and oddly, he might not have been Russian enough for the Russians. The two sociopolitical species had many things in common, including a hostility to surrendering land, but they actually had far more dividing them.
In 1992, three researchers—Eliezer Ben-Rafael, Elite Olshtain, and Idit Geijst—conducted a survey of Russian immigrants called Identity and Language: The Social Insertion of Soviet Jews in Israel. Its findings provide a window into the causes of Sharansky’s failure and Lieberman’s success.
What the results depicted was an immigrant group that was far from the haggard, penniless, suffering masses that Israel had seen in previous waves. As the authors write, the Soviet immigrants believe that “due to their qualifications and motivation, they contribute more to Israel’s economic progress than Israel does to further their own economic advancement—their difficulties in obtaining jobs constituting a major argument here. Their number, too, serves, in their eyes, as an asset for the security of the state; Soviet Jews tend to emphasize that by immigrating they have agreed to come to live in a troubled, insecure area.”
The Russians did not come with an open hand, looking for help, as others had; rather, they came with résumés in hand. They clearly viewed their aliyah as a partnership. They weren’t just being saved; they had a lot to offer. And that was true as well of those of mixed parentage, who counted as Soviet refugees because their Jewish blood had led to their persecution. Those Russians who aren’t Jewish according to religious law proudly serve in the IDF. Because strict Orthodox conversions in Israel are time-consuming and considered overly onerous by many, Lieberman has pushed for a law that would validate all conversions performed in the IDF. Despite opposition from the Orthodox Shas party, the bill passed its first reading of the Knesset overwhelmingly in December.
All Jewish weddings in Israel must be performed by Orthodox rabbis (as part of a longtime political arrangement). The absence of civil unions is a point of great resentment for Russians because many of them are of mixed parentage. Several prime ministers have made gestures toward establishing nonreligious weddings in Israel, usually as a sop to Russian voters and dropped as soon as the sun set on election day. But when Yisrael Beiteinu was negotiating with Likud after the 2009 elections, Lieberman made advancement on the matter of civil unions a precondition for joining Netanyahu’s coalition. Last year, a limited civil-union bill passed. In neither of these areas has there been a complete revolution in Israeli policy, but Lieberman has nonetheless moved both causes further along than anyone else has. As a partner in a coalition with religious parties, that is no minor feat. And it is an indication of Lieberman’s underrated political savvy as well as his broad base of support.
Far from being harbingers of Putinist totalitarianism, Russian olim see themselves as the cure for statist overreach—overreach demonstrated not only by an overly regulated economy but also by heavy-handed religious impositions on civil society. The Russians didn’t just come bearing credentials as scientists, engineers, and musicians. They came bearing the scars of their time as veterans of one of history’s most successful democratic upheavals. Lieberman has come to represent their aspirations and their desire to bring Israel more in line with their beliefs. They are nationalists with no patience for airy talk about peace with people who want to kill them and who were backed by the Soviet government that tormented them. And they are modernizers who want a greater degree of freedom in Israel.
This is what Lieberman understands, and it is why he has succeeded as an ethnic politician where Sharansky could not, and it’s also why—if he can stay out of jail—he is unlikely to fade as a political force. The longer he remains a player, the more thinkable his ascension to greater heights becomes.
The degree to which other politicians, of various parties on both sides of the aisle, are alienated by Lieberman’s politics would seem to put a ceiling on his political aspirations. But even a low ceiling, in the current Israeli political landscape, might be high enough for Lieberman to claim the premiership. Two facets of the modern Israeli system work to his advantage: the fragmentation of party politics and the antielitism of non-Ashkenazi voters.
The days when a single party could win a near-majority in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset and effectively govern by itself might never return. Indeed, since 2003 no party has won more than 30 seats. The Labor party is not merely a shadow of the force that controlled Israeli politics for the country’s first 30 years, it is a specter of a shadow. It may not get more than single digits in the next election, and the last Laborite to serve as prime minister, Ehud Barak, has left it to form a new party. (A recent Israeli opinion poll suggested Barak may seek to join Likud to keep his career alive.)
Netanyahu’s Likud party is in better shape, but not radically so. And Kadima, the party started by Ariel Sharon in 2005 before his incapacitation, has stalled out as well. If, indeed, Lieberman’s party wins another few seats in the next election, it may end up nearing Kadima’s total and trailing Likud by only eight or nine seats.
The atomization of Israel’s parties has brought to the surface another advantage for Lieberman. He may not need to expand his party’s vote share all that much in order to take the premiership. The rise of third (and fourth and fifth) parties threatens Likud almost as much as it does Labor and Kadima. This state of affairs prevails for a reason Americans should recognize: antielitism.
The Shas party, at first glance, has almost nothing in common with Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas is Orthodox; Yisrael Beiteinu is secular. Shas gets its base of support from the Mizrahi community (Sephardic Jews from the Middle East and North Africa); Yisrael Beiteinu’s base is the Russian immigrant community. But Mizrahi Jews have long felt discriminated against by the Ashkenazi elite, especially the Labor party. They have usually been willing to join up with Likud for majority representation, which gives them two coalition parties when Shas is part of the government (Shas won 11 seats in the last elections and currently sits in the Likud-led coalition).
But that is a marriage of political convenience—and often an uneasy marriage. After all, are not the Likudniks an elite party?
The Russians have a chip on their shoulder as well. They believe they have brought culture and brains to the country; among sabras, however, they have gained a reputation as importers of organized crime, alcohol abuse, and prostitution to Israel. And the constant caricaturing of Lieberman as a thug (his critics insist it is not a caricature at all) only encourages them to nurse that resentment.
Many Mizrahim think the same was done to Amir Peretz, the former defense minister who resigned after the Second Lebanon War in 2006. When Peretz, who was born in Morocco, ran for the Labor party’s leadership post in 2005, he pronounced, “After I’m elected I will conduct a burial ceremony for the ethnic demon,” a reference to the historically tense relationship between Mizrahi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews of European descent, and to the subtle discrimination that many Mizrahim believe still persists. Peretz’s term as Labor leader and defense minister did not go well, to say the least. Still, Mizrahim thought that he was lampooned as a fool because of his Moroccan heritage.
Peretz certainly didn’t help himself when he was photographed looking through binoculars that still had the caps on the lenses. But Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy wrote a scathing piece criticizing the press for harping on that photo: “Do we similarly disparage other leaders who are no lesser failures—the prime minister [Ehud Olmert], for example? The main reason for the mockery—to be distinguished from legitimate, deserved criticism—is rooted in dark places: the problem is in our bigoted binoculars.”
It is because of this shared resentment that Lieberman’s chances are actually improved by his standing as an outsider who is reviled by the elite and his status as his community’s ethnic champion. And though the “fools” and the “thugs” can be forgiven for awaiting their chance to turn the tables, they are not the only ones who are receptive to the complaint of elitism. When Netanyahu was running for party leadership for the second time in 2007, someone tied to another Likud candidate purchased a dot-com in Netanyahu’s name and set it up as a spoof site. One page of the site was a list of suggested slogans for his election campaign, all making fun of Netanyahu’s past. One of the slogans was “Netanyahu: Because it’s my turn again!”
The site conveyed the sense of frustration within Likud ranks that Netanyahu was simply cycling back because there was no one on the right with his standing, his background, and his position among the elite. One of the recent changes in Israeli politics is that no one loves his party or associates his party with a greater cause. Voters on the right have no strong ties to Likud any longer; many of them would happily throw their votes behind another conservative party if they believed it had a real shot at winning. The question is, how many voters will, at some point in the future, want to see what a non-Likud/Labor/Kadima government is capable of?
There is more at stake, however, in Lieberman’s rise than the ambitions of Russian immigrants or the discomfort of Israeli elites. There is the question of the effect of a Prime Minister Lieberman on both Diaspora Jewry and American support for Israel. Though Israelis may speak at times of their defiance of foreign opinion, the country’s diplomatic and military survival is still linked to the good opinion of Americans. Israeli leaders of all political stripes have always understood that cultivating the goodwill of American Jews, as well as the American people’s as a whole, is a vital part of their responsibilities. Despite the rocky relationship between the Obama administration and Netanyahu, bipartisan backing for Israel remains strong. But it must be admitted that the ascension to power in Jerusalem of a politician like Lieberman is the sort of thing that is bound to make a great many of the Jewish state’s friends queasy, whether they are Jewish or not.
Lieberman would not be the first Israeli leader to frighten Americans (the ascension of every non-Labor prime minister has been greeted with horror by both liberal Jews and much of the Washington foreign-policy establishment), but he would represent a clear departure from all his predecessors. Because he is a politician who seems to have little affinity for the American alliance and a Jew who seems to lack the sensibility or ability to reach out to American Jews, the growth of his influence will be seized upon by critics of Israel and liberals who are always ready to seize upon any excuse to further their alienation from Zionism.
Although the notion of an American veto or even a vote on the identity of Israel’s leader is an affront to Israeli democracy, Israelis are still prone to think of their prime minister as the de facto leader of the Jewish people. That idea is a controversial one, but there is no question that at times a prime minister needs to be able to speak as such a leader. Lieberman may be a tough Russian politician who ably represents the ambitions of his fellow immigrants and understands the populist current that is never far below the surface in Israeli politics.
But at the moment, he is ill prepared to assume a role in which he would need to speak not only for an ethnic group but for the fate of all Jews. Even if the accusations of thuggery or Putinism were unfair exaggerations, a Prime Minister Lieberman would need to demonstrate qualities he has conspicuously lacked thus far. One can only hope that the trends in Israeli politics that seem to be pushing him inexorably to the top will also compel him to adapt to the very different responsibilities such a role would entail.
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The Other Lieberman
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The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?