To the Editor: As a senior member of the Israeli team negotiating with Syria for the first five rounds of…
To the Editor:
As a senior member of the Israeli team negotiating with Syria for the first five rounds of the peace process that started in Madrid, and as a close observer of the five additional rounds of talks that have been held since the change of government in Israel, I would like to add a few pertinent facts about that area of the peace process to the debate over Norman Podhoretz’s two Statements on the Peace Process [April and June 1993].
Syria refuses to sign a bilateral peace treaty with Israel. Nor is Syria ready for peace in the true sense. As defined by then-President Bush, true peace means the normalization of relations between the two countries, including the exchange of ambassadors, tourism, commerce, etc. Syria rejects this. It contends that the aim of the negotiations is the implementation of Security Council Resolution 242, which Syria interprets as commanding Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied in the Six-Day War of 1967 (though, of course, Resolution 242 does not use the word “all”), in exchange for nothing more than an end to the state of belligerency (though, of course, Resolution 242 calls for the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries”).
The Syrian position has not changed since day one. Even a major Israeli concession—the agreement by the Labor government to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights (the degree of which to be determined by the degree of peace to which Syria will agree)—has failed to produce any reciprocal Syrian move. “Peace is not a treaty,” the chief Syrian negotiator, Ambassador Muwaffaq al-Allaf, insists in repeatedly avoiding a contractual bilateral commitment, “peace is a state of mind.”
Ambassador Allaf has made the Syrian position clear not only behind closed doors but also in public. Thus, on September 20, 1992, in an interview with Radio Monte Carlo, he stated that “even after Israel’s withdrawal from all the occupied territories, the peace treaty will be left for the time being. . . .”
Indeed, when Syrian spokesmen, on all levels, speak about a “full,” “comprehensive,” or “total” peace, they never include the essential element of peace in its true sense: a bilateral treaty with Israel involving normalization of relations in (to use President Bush’s words) “all its aspects.”
President Clinton also used these words in a letter sent to Hafez al-Assad between the ninth and tenth rounds. In that letter Clinton strongly implied that if Syria would agree to such a peace, the United States would put pressure on Israel to make additional concessions. But Assad never replied, except indirectly through the press, where he once again made clear his refusal to conclude a contractual peace in all its aspects with Israel, and urged the U.S. to pressure Israel in order to advance the negotiations.
This refusal is what blocked any progress in the talks at the time of the Likud government, and it is precisely what blocks them now.
A document reiterating the Syrian position was officially submitted to the Israeli negotiating team in the second part of the sixth round (after the Israeli concession over the Golan!). Syria was willing to make the document public but Israel requested that it be kept secret.
Syria also rejects the following:
- An interim settlement.
- A “security settlement” in Lebanon to be concluded by Syria and Israel, as a first step. Both Israel and the U.S. proposed this but were turned down. (Syria has also prevented Lebanese authorities from disarming Hezbollah, which thus remains the only armed militia continuously causing crises on the Israeli-Lebanese front—the most serious of which, of course, erupted in the last week of July.)
- Confidence-building measures.
- Incremental agreements, such as one to refrain from hostile propaganda (in which Israel is not engaged anyway).
- A summit meeting between President Assad and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin or between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and his counterpart Farouk al-Sharaa, who called this Israeli suggestion “a silly idea.”
None of this necessarily means that the Syrian position is written in stone and will never change. Conceivably Assad might some day follow Sadat’s historic example and opt for real peace. But he has not done so yet.
I am not against concessions in principle. On the contrary, I consider them essential to any peace process, and I personally support a willingness on the part of Israel to make concessions. What I do not support—and what I consider insupportable—are unilateral concessions by Israel. Such concessions are, in fact, a form of appeasement that should be judged—given the implications for Israel’s security and survival—first and foremost on a moral basis. Not to mention that appeasement never works.
To the Editor:
As a former head of Israeli Military Intelligence, I would like to respond to Norman Podhoretz’s criticism of the Rabin government’s peacemaking policy. Mr. Podhoretz categorically rejects the peace process. He argues that:
- The Middle East is still not ripe for peace.
- The Arabs have not indicated serious intent to make peace.
- The rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism further decreases prospects for peace.
Mr. Podhoretz could be right or wrong. There is no way to find out short of holding negotiations to assess the other side’s readiness for concessions. That is exactly what Menachem Begin did with Egypt from 1977 to 1979. And that is what Israel is trying to do today.
In my opinion, we may have a chance to reach an acceptable solution. And if we miss this opportunity we will not only lose time but will pay with blood and a growing socioeconomic burden. In several years we could end up back at the negotiating table under considerably worse conditions.
Every negotiation entails risks, but I fail to see where Mr. Podhoretz gets the impression that Israel, led by Yitzhak Rabin, will ever accept agreements that could jeopardize its security.
Let me now discuss first Syria and then the Palestinians.
1. Syria. Syria has no reason to believe that it can get all or most of the Golan Heights back without making full peace with Israel. Of course, Assad would prefer to avoid paying this price. Like Sadat, he would no doubt have been glad to see Israel disappear altogether.
The Syrians will accept a peace treaty with Israel only because of:
- A deep conviction that the Arabs are incapable of militarily destroying Israel.
- A psycho-political need to regain the Golan Heights.
- Increasing pressure within Syria, fueled by war fatigue, to change the national order of priorities.
When Syria offers us “Total Peace for Total Withdrawal,” we do not know what it means by “Total Peace.” But it certainly sounds like more than mere “nonbelligerence.”
Mr. Podhoretz asks, appropriately: even if we sign a treaty, how can we be assured that Assad’s heir will honor it? We cannot, and yet my answer is: Assad’s successor will likely be guided by the same considerations of Syrian interests that guide Assad today, as happened in Egypt; it is one thing to oppose a policy prior to implementation, and another to reverse a political reality after a treaty has been signed and implemented; and if the treaty includes reliable security arrangements (and Israel will never agree to anything less), then even a change in the Syrian regime is manageable. Security arrangements will be a major deterrent to renewed aggression.
Mr. Podhoretz sees no signs that Syria has changed its position regarding peace. . . . Yet if he read the Syrian media, he would see that since the beginning of the peace process, and especially in the last six months, Assad has been preparing Syrian public opinion for peace with Israel. A June 27 New York Times article, in which Syrian officials and ordinary people openly discussed peace with Israel, reinforces this assessment.
What does the Syrian citizen read in his own official press? Assad has become the “hero of war and peace.” The media again and again explain the importance of peace for Syrian welfare, prosperity, and economic development. They write, “Syria is heading for peace” and “Peace is a central Syrian interest,” while Israel is portrayed as resisting the peace process.
2. The Palestinians. Mr. Podhoretz asks whether Israel could prevent the transformation of Palestinian “autonomy” into an independent state.
This is the wrong question. The real question is whether an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel could pose a threat to Israel’s existence. For decades we held as sacred the idea that raising a Palestinian flag in a sovereign state would be tantamount to a death sentence for Israel. The time has come to reexamine this assumption.
A Palestinian state might or might not pose a serious security threat, depending on the outcome of the negotiations. Clearly, we cannot depend on Palestinian good will. I personally know many Palestinians whose intentions I fully trust, but they may not prevail. Moreover, a Palestinian state could someday be overtaken by radical Islamic fundamentalism, which rejects Israel’s very existence.
Also, we cannot trust international political and military guarantees. In the end, we can count only on the Israeli army’s ability to defend Israel under all contingencies.
A peace treaty must contain the following elements:
- The treaty must be comprehensive, including agreements on all disputed issues. With the Palestinians this means ending violent struggle, and agreeing on borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and the Israeli settlements in the territories. From talks that I have held with Palestinians, I believe that an understanding on these questions is feasible.
- The timetable for implementation must link progress in resolving the above issues to the transfer of authority and Israeli withdrawal.
- A Palestinian state must accept indefinite demilitarization of its entire territory.
- Some Israeli security forces must remain stationed within the territories—by mutual consent—for as long as is deemed necessary.
Will the Palestinians accept such stringent conditions? Perhaps not. However, we cannot know until we negotiate fully.
The choice is not between a risk-free solution versus a dangerous adventure. The real choice is between two difficult and risky options. Eventually both sides will have to compromise and choose the lesser of two evils: a political settlement, offering the Palestinians a far-reaching and generous proposal that in no way compromises Israel’s ability to defend itself against any military threat.
If Norman Podhoretz is indeed right and the Arabs are not ready for such a solution, Israel is smart and strong enough to resist a disadvantageous deal. However, it would be foolish of us to quit the negotiations without fully exploring the chances for a real agreement.
I fail to see why, as Mr. Podhoretz suggests, we should forgo this opportunity to put the Arab side to the test.
Tel Aviv, Israel
To the Editor:
. . . Israel’s strategic situation has changed fundamentally in the last five to ten years, and the time factor is beginning to work against and not for us. As a matter of historical record, during the Yom Kippur war our first worry was to bring the Golan settlers and their families into safety in Israel, before even thinking of fighting the Syrians. An empty Golan may eventually be a fortress against an attacking army, but this is obviously not true of a populated one; instead of the Golan Heights protecting us, thanks to the settlers, we have to protect them! . . .
The Gulf war brought the fundamental change in the overall strategic situation to everyone’s attention. The advent of medium and long-range missiles in the Middle East has changed the rules of war for us and has brought the war to the main population centers of Israel. Norman Podhoretz rightly points out that Assad is arming himself with missiles; we are doing the same and for the same reasons, but with one small difference: we are producing them, while Assad has to buy them. However, the point of the matter is that our pain threshold is very low indeed. The few Iraqi handmade low-grade Scud missiles, which just made it and hit Tel Aviv, brought home to us that a demilitarized Golan Heights may perhaps be a better deal than having Tel Aviv destroyed and/or gassed by Syrian or perhaps Iranian missiles. While conventional missiles will not decide the outcome of the war, gas or nuclear ones may wipe out our population. . . .
Mr. Podhoretz says he does not believe Assad, Faisal Husseini, and Arafat, but what is the alternative? He quotes Kissinger saying that most wars have broken out between nations previously at peace; but then the opposite is also true: every peace begins by talking to your enemy. . . .
The danger for us lies not in any parallel with the destruction of the First Temple and Jeremiah’s prophecy, but rather with the destruction of the Second Temple and the role played in it by the Zealots, Bar Kochba, and their fundamentalist followers. . . . Some 600,000 Jews lost their lives to the Roman soldiers and Dio Cassius commented laconically, “all of Judea became almost a desert.” Today we have a lot of Rabbi Akibas, Bar Kochbas, and, especially, a lot of zealots.
Yes, Mr. Podhoretz should meddle in Israeli affairs, but he should choose the side of reason and democracy and not that of messianic nationalistic zealotry.
To the Editor:
As someone who fully shares Norman Podhoretz’s concern for Israel’s security and his skepticism regarding the Rabin government’s approach to current negotiations, I take every opportunity to listen to representatives of the governing parties in Israel, hoping, like Mr. Podhoretz, to have my concerns dispelled. But every such encounter only intensifies my misgivings.
A recent talk given in the Boston area by Knesset member and Meretz leader Ran Cohen is a case in point. I had anticipated that Cohen, a respected reserve officer whose military expertise must surely have included a capacity for clear-eyed assessment of challenging situations, would offer carefully thought-out arguments. Instead, he uttered the same nebulous and untenable analyses one hears from other coalition representatives.
To be sure, Cohen opened by asserting that he is determined Israel will remain capable of defending itself. But he also made clear his conviction that Israel ought to cede virtually all the territory captured in 1967, including the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley, and retain only Jerusalem. He said nothing of how Israel’s security might be maintained after such withdrawals.
Cohen went on to declare that war is bad, Israel needs peace, and the current government, unlike its predecessor, is intent on hammering out agreements with Israel’s neighbors. But those skeptical about the current peace process fear that, by its concessions in pursuit of unenforceable agreements, the government will undermine Israel s capacity to defend itself and increase, rather than decrease, the likelihood of war. Mr. Cohen never touched on this possibility.
Similarly, he stressed that Israel must move quickly to secure agreements because conditions for negotiations are more promising now than they might be later. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism, for example, may eventually render the Arab parties less amenable to negotiations. But in arguing that negotiating conditions are better now than they may be later, Cohen failed to address a more fundamental point: are these conditions sufficient to attain a genuine, durable peace in return for Israeli concessions?
Cohen assured his audience that Syria is prepared for genuine peace, but referred only to some cryptic public statements by Assad as evidence. Nor did he address the issue of similar, highly ambiguous public statements having been made in the past by many other Arab leaders when they were wooing Western, particularly American, opinion, only to be withdrawn later. Examples include remarks by Saddam Hussein in the late 1980’s, shortly before he shifted to threats to incinerate half of Israel and, subsequently, to missile attacks on Tel Aviv.
Cohen also assured his audience that the future Palestinian state which he advocates would be democratic because, he explained, the Palestinians, having lived under an occupation, have come to appreciate the value of democracy. This novel piece of reasoning would no doubt startle the Palestinians’ Arab brethren, who, in their almost two-dozen countries, have invariably seen the achievement of Arab sovereignty accompanied by the installation of homegrown dictatorships.
Addressing the rising power of Hamas in the Palestinian community, Cohen attributed the influence of the fundamentalists to the absence of progress in the peace talks, decried the “negative” response of the government—the temporary expulsion of 400 Hamas militants—as simply promoting the prestige of the rejectionists, and called for “positive” steps to aid Palestinian moderates.
During a question-and-answer period, I asked why he attributed a rise in fundamentalist fervor among the Palestinian Arabs simply to Israeli policies when that same fervor is sweeping much of the Arab world. Moreover, its key social precipitants, including disgust with a corrupt secular leadership, are to be found among the Palestinian Arab population irrespective of the conflict with Israel.
Cohen’s response was merely to assert that while my comments had some validity, his personal friendships with Palestinians persuaded him that peace could be had. . . .
Other comments by Cohen were at once uglier and more peculiar. He informed his audience that evacuation of the settlers from the territories posed no problem because the settlers’ ultimate concern is money and they can be paid to abandon their homes and return to pre-1967 Israel. He believed that the Palestinians, despite their statements to the contrary, would allow the few Jews who actually might want to remain to do so on condition that Israel would be generous in permitting Palestinians into pre-1967 Israel. Apparently, he saw nothing wrong with Arab insistence on a Judenrein West Bank and Gaza and did not regard the nearly 900,000 Arabs already living as citizens in pre-1967 Israel as precedent enough for Jews being tolerated in potentially Arab-controlled areas. . . .
Missing from Ran Cohen’s talk, as it is from most statements by the current Israeli government, was any serious discussion of how well or ill the government’s negotiating objectives conform to the conditions necessary for a secure and lasting peace.
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz need make no apologies. The substance of his criticism of the Rabin coalition’s headlong pursuit of “peace” is totally consistent with his past positions. . . .
Clearly, any responsible critic of or commentator on the peace process has to treat seriously . . . the reality that—unrelated to the Arab-Israel dispute—the Middle East remains “a conflict-ridden and conflict-generating area.” It is a region dominated by inter-Arab tensions and hostilities; ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions; political and religious ferment. These divisive forces threaten every Arab ruling regime, exert decisive influence on Arab attitudes and policies, and thwart development of the basic political stability that is an essential precondition for peace.
Simply and sadly put, force and violence still are the usual means of conflict-resolution within and between Arab states. Respect for human rights and democratic norms is absent; international treaties, agreements, and the rule of law are paid little heed.
This last point is especially pertinent. The historical record testifies to the fact that treaties, pledges, and agreements among Arab nations are easily discarded when power alignments shift in the Arab world. By what conceivable logic can one argue that treaties and agreements with Israel would be treated differently?
Further, responsibility demands that the seekers of “peace now” directly address the continuing Arab boycott of companies dealing with Israel; the increased sponsorship of terrorism by Syria, Sudan, Iran, and others; the continued flow of anti-Semitic canards in the state-controlled media of Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and the race for long-range missile systems and other sophisticated weaponry that is now taking place throughout the Arab world. . . .
Responsibility also demands that rather than uncritically accepting the double-speak of Yasir Arafat or the whispered blandishments of a few Arab intellectuals, the seekers of “peace now” account for the ongoing spate of official and unofficial statements from PLO and other Arab leaders, prominently played up in the Arab media, which demonstrate their continuing rejection of Israel’s right to exist. . . .
And, of course, one cannot ignore Hamas, widely regarded as the fastest growing influence among the Palestinian Arabs. Hamas . . . simply states, unequivocally, that “Israel will continue to exist until Islam eliminates it, just as Islam eliminated what preceded it.” . . .
Where is convincing evidence that a hostile Arab world has been transformed and is prepared now to accept Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state in the Middle East? As the current peace negotiations themselves attest, such evidence still does not exist. And that is the most fundamental reality the seekers of “peace now” cannot or will not recognize. . . .
The long-term challenges to real Middle East peace and Israel’s survival can be met only if we demand a more sober-minded recognition of the history, culture, and political realities of the Middle East. The surrender of territory, an irrevocable act, in return for a paper peace that is easily repudiated does nothing to address those realities or to ensure Israel’s survival. In time, however, if Israel maintains genuinely defensible borders and an effective military deterrent, the Arab world can be brought to accept the pragmatic reality of Israel.
Only then will the chance for durable peace be real. Only then will we be able to speak responsibly of “peace now.” That, I believe, is the essential substance of Norman Podhoretz’s position, now as in the past.
Arnold M. Soloway
Center for Near East Policy Research
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s Statements offer, for the first time, a realistic approach to a situation which is becoming more and more untenable. We cannot simply be intoxicated by the word “peace.” We should, to begin with, be suspicious that the Arabs refuse to define what kind of peace they want, what form it should take, and whether it means more than the absence of war. . . .
The Arabs have learned that their “no” to every concession the Rabin government makes has produced more concessions. They are well aware of the fact that . . . Rabin’s promise during the election campaign that peace with the Palestinians would be achieved in nine months, and with the Syrians within a year, is coming to haunt him. He is also under pressure from the Americans who are chasing after their illusions and are eager to keep the talks going at any price. It is not a pleasant situation. . . . What the Arabs could not achieve on the battlefield, they want to gain at the peace table.
What kind of peace can we expect? Let us consider the case of Egypt, the only Arab country to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt has violated the military provisions of the treaty. . . . Trade between the two countries is one-sided: Israel imports Egyptian goods but Egypt buys only a limited amount of Israeli goods. Egyptian companies still participate in the Arab boycott of Israel. Hostile propaganda in the government-controlled press continues unabated. Israeli tourists go to Egypt, but Egyptian tourists do not come to Israel. . . .
Sixty years of preaching hatred, conducting wars, and indulging in every kind of terror have created an Arab attitude of unlimited hostility that cannot be wiped out by a peace conference. Although the Arabs have been deprived of their Soviet protector and ally, they have not grasped the fact that their value to the West is rapidly declining. The price and consumption of oil are going down; disunity among Arab governments is growing; dictators like Assad do not live forever. Future events will change perceptions of power and principles of diplomacy and strategy.
There is an alternative to the peace process, expressed in an editorial in the Jerusalem Post: “The obvious, painful conclusion Israel must draw is that its hopes of integrating into the region and establishing true and lasting peace will have to await a sea change in Arab attitudes.” The situation in the Middle East is fluid and developments quite uncertain. . . . If Israel does not succumb to Arab bullying and American “partnership” in the peace process, maybe playing a waiting game will result in real peace.
Union, New Jersey
To the Editor:
. . . No one in his right mind would object to the Arabs and Israel talking to each other—when the time is ripe. But is this the time? . . .
The Arabs have managed to split the peace process into two independent segments, “peace” and “process,” making the latter the dominant issue. They procrastinate, sensing that time is on their side and that delay may help them achieve their goal of an independent Palestinian state which would be a way station to the eventual destruction of the “Zionist entity.”
Neither side is sure of the direction that the third party, the United States, will take during the negotiations. Both sides see the inexperience and vacillation of the Clinton-Christopher foreign policy. Israel particularly is afraid that the Clinton administration will try to save face by imposing an unacceptable solution on Israel.
Instead of being maligned, Mr. Podhoretz ought to be praised for his far-sightedness. The political reality is that now is not the time for meaningful negotiations. Therefore, negotiations are not in Israel’s interest. Unless and until Rabin widens his coalition, he is in no position to achieve his promise for peace—real peace, not a scrap of meaningless paper.
Samuel L. Tennenbaum
West Orange, New Jersey
To the Editor:
I have been following the debate about “criticizing” Israel in COMMENTARY and in the Sunday New York Times. Let me say that there is no real contradiction between Norman Podhoretz’s new position and his earlier one: his consistency is the survival of Israel. The military facts cannot be denigrated as the product of either a “hard-line” or a “conservative” mentality. As I once noted, Napoleon said that geography is strategy. The new Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands this clearly. He points out that the Judean and Samarian mountain ranges make virtually impossible an invasion of Israel from the east. He also understands that, militarily, the Golan Heights are necessary to the military security of Israel (though Gaza is not). Militarily, the formula “land for peace” is a recipe for suicide.
Israel’s Arab and Egyptian neighbors are anything but stable. The area is being revolutionized by Islamic fundamentalism. What sort of “peace” under these conditions is worth diminishing military security?
Lyme, New Hampshire
To the Editor:
I recently summarized what has been happening in the Arab-Israeli peace process since the last Israeli elections as follows: the Israeli government has embarked on a process of self-induced suicide, with the U.S. State Department acting as Dr. Kevorkian. . . . My frame of reference is “The Peace Imperative,” an official document distributed . . . by Israeli diplomatic missions. From the June issue of COMMENTARY I learned that it was primarily written in response to Norman Podhoretz’s April “Statement on the Peace Process.” . . . In his June Statement, Mr. Podhoretz handled two of the most important issues raised by that document very well. Here I will deal with other sections which reveal the mind-set of the authors of the document, and which lead me to conclude that he was too mild in his criticism. . . .
“The Peace Imperative” . . . contains a strange mixture of fear (e.g., warning of potential danger from Iran) with an inflated sense of importance. For example, the claim that Israeli actions, which in this document invariably mean concessions, will significantly reduce “Islamic fundamentalism” in the region and the world. This obsession with Islamic fundamentalism raises some unsettling issues: (1) Here is another example of Israel trying to justify its existence not on self-evident right, but by claiming it can provide service to the world. (2) Israel used to encourage Islamic activities as a counterweight to PLO “nationalists”; this policy ended up facilitating the foundation of Hamas. (3) Now Israel has reversed course and is dangerously close to “koshering” the PLO, whose Covenant is not much less murderous toward Israel than that of Hamas.
The only Jewish ideology recognized in “The Peace Imperative” is the East European turn-of-the-century socialist notion of a “new Jewish person,” . . . and we all know what happened to its cousin, Stalin’s “new Soviet person.” . . . Equally pathetic is the rather flimsy rationale used to justify dangerous concessions. For example: “Assad made a thinly veiled appeal to Israeli public opinion, noting ‘the increased number of Israelis who want peace.’” I read this again and again and it is clear to me that Assad is not offering anything, let alone peace. On the contrary, he blames the absence of peace so far on the alleged absence of peace-lovers in Israel. He also obviously wants to influence Israeli public and official opinion to yield to his demands, and in this he has had some success, as Mr. Podhoretz has shown.
Reading this document eliminated my earlier hopes that there was some hidden sophistication behind the strange moves of the Israeli government. Reluctantly and with trepidation, because I do not wish to insult honorable and otherwise intelligent persons, I have to conclude that the closest model into which we can fit recent Israeli moves is that of the simpletons of Jewish folklore, “the wise men of Chelm.”
How else can one explain the rather innovative “bargaining strategy” of giving away even before the sessions start much of what was supposed to be haggled over? . . . As could have been expected, the Arabs treated these concessions as a given and proceeded to demand further concessions. . . .
The following should remove any doubts about the Chelmite nature of such a “strategy.” Israel has given up, one by one, matters of principle and safety valves that had originally been part of the Madrid formula. One of the latest was agreeing that Faisal Husseini, who is a resident of Jerusalem, be an official leader of the “Palestinian” delegation (one no longer hears that these people were supposed to be part of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation). Rabin said that this would not affect the status of Jerusalem, which is the eternal united capital of Israel and is not subject to negotiations. Then, lo and behold, recently Jerusalem has been discussed . . . and it has already been decided to allow the Arab residents of Jerusalem to participate in the autonomy voting. . . .
The document contains lists of what Israel is giving up but no demands on the Arabs, not even that they stop the economic boycott now that no new Jewish communities are allowed in the territories. Even the not-too-friendly Bush-Baker regime demanded that. The only apparent exception—that Israel will not engage in discussion over the dimensions of withdrawal until the Syrians clarify whether they are prepared for full peace and normalization of relations—has already been violated. No such “clarification” was issued, yet Israel could not wait to make a major uncalled-for gift to Syria. An item on the front page of the July 1 Wall Street Journal says: “A senior Israeli official disavowed any permanent claim by Israel to the Golan Heights which he described as ‘occupied territory.’” Were I Assad, I would continue to sit tight and wait for the next Chelmite free gift, knowing that I would not have to wait long. . . .
Then there is the tinkering with history. . . . Consider the following: “Fate has decreed that the Israeli and Palestinian people share a narrow patch of land.” I don’t know who “fate” is and when he/ she “decreed” anything. The current situation is a direct result of what Israelis and Arabs did or did not do.
The next sentence is an abomination: “The resulting hatred and violence have slowly worked [their] poison on both sides.” I do not believe there is a single Israeli textbook containing anti-Arab instruction. In fact, I cannot recall an article in any of the many Israeli newspapers which denigrates Arabs as Arabs. This is rather remarkable given the history of the conflict. In the Arab states, on the other hand, the textbooks and the media are full of ferocious anti-Semitic and anti-Israel lies and hatred. And this did not start in 1967, nor did it start, as the Israeli document claims, “during the almost half-century of conflict which followed the creation of the state” (this is a typical internalization of the Arab line which maintains that trouble started when Israel was established). It started long before and was highlighted by the riots of 1920, 1929 (when the old Jewish community of Hebron was obliterated), 1936-39 (when quite a number of Jews were killed), and the years in between. . . .
The current Israeli government says that “Zionism emerged as the answer to perpetual insecurity. The Jewish catastrophe during World War II made the establishment of Israel an imperative.” . . . In other words, the government accepts the Arab version of why Israel was established, and, thereby, the Arabs’ collateral complaint that they have been asked to pay for the crimes the Europeans committed against the Jews. This official (!) document thus spits in the face of all those whose superhuman effort and dedication for more than a century (and the dreams of almost 2,000 years) came to fruition with Israel’s independence and subsequent flourishing. And these are the people in whose hands the future of Israel now lies.
University of Illinois
To the Editor:
At the conclusion of his June article, Norman Podhoretz writes that he is “praying with all my might that my analysis is wrong and the Rabin government and its spokesmen are right.” Save your prayers for the people of Israel, Mr. Podhoretz. If the anti-national, socialist ideologues of the present government succeed in their goal of peace-at-any-price, Israel will be stripped of its strategic frontiers and historic heritage and emerge as a tiny, indefensible enclave able to survive only as a protectorate of the United States or the United Nations—if it still exists and has not already been destroyed in a second Holocaust after the fifth Arab war against Israel. . . .
George E. Rubin
New York City
To the Editor:
It is clear, after reading both of Norman Podhoretz’s Statements, that he sees the “peace process [as] a trap from which it will be very hard for Israel to escape.” Why, then, does COMMENTARY continue to use the misleading label “peace process”?
The Israelis want peace, but history has shown that the Arab nations are, and have been, uniformly opposed even to the idea of a Jewish state. What in fact has been going on ever since Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt . . . should more accurately be called the “surrender process.” . . .
What the use of the phrase “peace process” accomplishes is to make Jews feel good with every step Israel takes toward the trap, and make them feel bad every time Israel balks at an outrageous Arab demand. Let COMMENTARY take the lead in calling this nefarious trap the “surrender process” that it is.
Matthew A. Rosenblatt
To the Editor:
The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s attack on Norman Podhoretz’s “Statement on the Peace Process” is a disturbing manifestation of the topsy-turvy policy some elements in the Israeli government seem to be pursuing: attack Israel’s American friends while coddling Israel’s enemies. Consider the following:
- An article in the Boston Globe reports that, according to a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Israeli embassies may no longer distribute (in the words of the article) “inflammatory PLO material, such as its charter which calls for the destruction of Israel.” Thus, statements which attack longstanding friends of Israel are freely issued by the Ministry, but even something as uncontroversial as a translation of the PLO Covenant may not be distributed, lest terrorists be offended.
- The recent forced resignation of Harvey Friedman, a vice president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), after complaints from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Friedman reported that in a meeting with three American Congressmen Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin expressed willingness to see Israel return to its pre-’67 borders (save for Jerusalem), a significant deviation from official Israeli policy. Beilin denied the report and took his revenge by having the Foreign Ministry intercede with AIPAC to force Friedman out. Incidentally, Friedman claims that his account of the meeting can be verified by the three Congressmen present.
- The highly partisan remarks of Avraham Burg, the number-three man in the Israeli Labor party, at a public meeting in Pittsburgh this past November at which he attacked AIPAC as radically right wing and excoriated the audience for not speaking out against the Israeli government during the period it was led by Likud.
Norman Podhoretz—like several other pro-Israel American commentators who have recently found themselves in the Foreign Ministry’s sights—has been a loyal and consistent defender of the Jewish state. Under his stewardship, COMMENTARY has been an important and influential voice speaking out on behalf of Israel. The hysterical reaction that greeted his April Statement says more about the character of his critics—and their dubious “peace-in-our-time” ideology—than it does about Mr. Podhoretz’s well-reasoned, temperate, and carefully-considered essay.
Mountain View, California
To the Editor:
I would like to express my disagreement with Norman Podhoretz. But let me say first that this does not stem from any quarrel with Mr. Podhoretz’s view that the current Israeli administration is leading itself down the primrose path in the peace negotiations and that it seems to have taken too literally the old admonition that it is better to give than to receive. I also have no problem with Mr. Podhoretz’s characterization of many of his “dovish” critics in Israel and in the U.S. as hypocritical. The hypocrisy of the “peace activists” in both countries is neither new nor surprising. . . .
Second, I have no argument with the distinction he draws between his own criticism of Israeli policy, which is motivated by a sincere desire for Israeli security, and that of the Jewish Left, which, in spite of its protestations, is frequently not so motivated. Nor, in contrast to the Jewish Left, does Mr. Podhoretz argue that criticizing Israeli policy is legitimate, while criticizing the critics of Israeli policy is McCarthyite suppression.
Having said this, I am nevertheless unhappy with the implicit message in both of Mr. Podhoretz’s Statements that American Jews should take sides in internal Israeli partisan politics. Let me briefly summarize my views:
- Representation without taxation is just as objectionable as taxation without representation. (Any American Jew who thinks that contributing to the Jewish National Fund or other charities is the moral equivalent of taxation should try living in Israel and paying Israeli taxes.)
- U.S. Jews do not bear the consequences of Israeli policy choices. Hence it is unethical of them to try to influence those choices. Israelis bear the consequences, economic and strategic, of their decisions, including their foolish ones. It is morally uncourageous to try to particpate in internal Israeli political debate without taking the admittedly quite difficult road of actually living in Israel.
- In the last election, 37 parties ran for office in Israel, not counting political groups who chose not to run (like Peace Now). If American Jews were to pick sides in Israeli electoral politics, they would squander their energies and resources on partisan bickering. If politicization were carried to its logical conclusion, with U.S. Jews allied with the Israeli parties of their choice, and if each group were to withhold financial and moral support for Israel when its party of preference was out of power, the bulk of American support for Israel would disappear, regardless of who was in power.
- U.S. Jews, who do not face daily conditions of life in Israel and who do not know the language, are at a disadvantage in terms of information and so should be cautious about second-guessing the Israeli electorate.
- Advice and pressure from outside Israel probably have little effect on Israeli public thinking and choice, and may even have a perverse effect, given the famous Israeli “davka” syndrome (doing the opposite out of orneriness).
- Media misrepresentation notwithstanding, the Israeli consensus on most strategic issues is broad enough so that friends of Israel may endorse that consensus without taking partisan sides.
University of Haifa
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s argument about Jewish dissent on Israel leads inevitably to two propositions: (1) no American Jew, liberal or conservative, has the moral right to say anything about any Israeli security policy, and (2) Israelis themselves do not even have the moral right to criticize their own government’s policy if that government is in the hands of Likud.
Mr. Podhoretz writes that in the days of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir he counseled against American Jews criticizing Israel on security issues: since their lives were not “on the line,” they did not have the “standing to participate in the public debate.”. . . But American Jewish supporters of Likud’s Greater-Israel-Forever approach were also participating in the “public debate,” and their lives were certainly not on the line. . . .
Another way that Likud’s American Jewish advocates had of muzzling dissent against their favorite government was to say: “We don’t have the right to urge Israel to give up territory because we won’t have to bear the consequences.” Now no one really knows what the consequences of such a withdrawal might be; they could be either good or bad. But we do know what the consequences of a Likud-favored status quo on the West Bank and Gaza already are, the most obvious being that to keep the territories forever, Israelis must forever risk their lives policing the Palestinians there. That is a real and current consequence, not a hypothetical one—and American Jewish Likudniks do not have to face it, do they? So what moral right did they have to speak out in favor of the Likud government’s policy? . . . (There is a saying about such blood-and-fire right-wing American “Zionists”: they will defend Israel down to the last drop of Israeli blood.)
So, based on Mr. Podhoretz’s notion of the dues one has to pay to enter the debate over the occupation, not even American Jewish hawks have the right to open their mouths. But he actually goes one step further. American Jews, he writes, were morally forbidden from criticizing Likud policy because such criticism had
dangerous political consequences. For one thing, [it] provided cover for ideological enemies of Israel and even outright anti-Semites, who were overjoyed at being able to quote Jews instead of having to rely exclusively on their own easily discounted forms of vilification.
I doubt whether these American Jews helped Israel’s enemies. But if Mr. Podhoretz is correct, and Likud’s American Jewish critics did bring joy to Israel’s enemies, imagine the ecstasies these enemies must have experienced upon hearing Likud’s Israeli critics. It follows, then, that if American Jews were morally required to fall in line behind Begin and Shamir, Israeli Jews were required to stand at the head of that line. . . .
Tel Aviv, Israel
To the Editor:
. . . Like Norman Podhoretz, I was infuriated during the Begin-Shamir era by the incessant hectoring of Israel from the Diaspora Jewish Left, which often abetted Israel’s most unrelenting enemies. Certainly Mr. Podhoretz is correct to note that with the arrival of Yitzhak Rabin and the departure of George Bush, political reality has changed dramatically. Criticism of Israel may subject Mr. Podhoretz to the charge of hypocrisy, but it no longer exposes Israel to Diaspora sabotage.
As a Diaspora Jew, however, I remain uneasy about criticism of the government of Israel on security matters. Diaspora Jews cannot save Israel from itself if its own government is committed to the dubious proposition that relinquishing the Golan to Syria and Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians will, miraculously, increase the security of the Jewish state. . . .
To frame the issue exclusively in “security” terms, however, narrows the debate needlessly. If Diaspora Jews are not Israelis, certainly we share some common concerns as Jews. About these, at least, all Jews may speak; and Israel, which identifies itself as a Jewish state, for all the Jews in the world, may even be obligated to listen. In its proclamation of independence, the “Land of Israel” was identified as the “birthplace of the Jewish people,” the source of our “spiritual, religious, and national identity.” Israel declared itself the reconstituted national custodian for covenantal promises made long ago to the entire Jewish people. (As David Ben-Gurion once asserted, “The Bible is our mandate.”) If Jews, all of us standing at Sinai, were not silent then about assuming our responsibilities as a people, why should we be silent now?
To some of Mr. Podhoretz’s critics (like Alfred H. Moses writing in the June issue), this begins to sound suspiciously like an argument for a “‘greater Israel’ based on religious grounds or Revisionist ideology”—as though religion or Revisionism were, ipso facto, reasons for instant dismissal. And the Israeli embassy, clearly stung by Mr. Podhoretz’s initial Statement, conveniently narrowed Zionist purpose to “spiritual and ethical goals,” excluding religious imperatives or historic rights. But in any inclusive understanding of Judaism, or Zionism, these are not so easily relinquished.
Take what one fervently hopes is an extremely slim possibility: the government of Israel decides, for peace and security with the Palestinians, to relinquish the Old City of Jerusalem forever. Given the centrality of Jerusalem to Jews for historic and religious reasons, would anyone seriously question the responsibility of Diaspora Jews to participate in that debate? Is the answer to be found in “security,” or in the very essence of the meaning of Jerusalem within Judaism? What about Hebron, an even more ancient holy and historical place for Jews? And Shiloh, where the ark of the covenant rested on its journey from Sinai to the Jerusalem Temple? Or Judea and Samaria in their entirety, the geographical and historical heartland of the biblical Land of Israel? . . .
Ultimately, exclusive focus on the debate about Israeli security is misplaced. Issues of national security may indeed be for Israelis to decide. But as long as Israel claims to be the national home of the entire Jewish people, certain decisions with Jewish consequences are far too important to be left solely to Israelis. No government of Israel may relinquish the Jewish historical patrimony and expect Diaspora silence. It is not a question of who may speak, but whose speech is most faithful to Jewish imperatives. Jews, in the United States or Israel, who continue to align themselves with the demands of Israel’s implacable Arab enemies, can hardly make this claim in good faith.
Jerold S. Auerbach
To the Editor:
. . . The heart of all the criticisms of Norman Podhoretz is that he is, at best, inconsistent, and, at worst, hypocritical in his attitudes toward the Likud and Labor parties in Israel.
Mr. Podhoretz’s response to his critics includes partly pleading guilty and partly explaining the circumstances and the manner in which he intends to criticize Israel. But the charge against him is left essentially unanswered. One must conclude that the editor has gone a long way downhill between “J’Accuse” a decade ago [September 1982] and his two Statements. In the distinguished history of Norman Podhoretz as writer, journalist, editor, and Jew, these pieces will not be recalled as high points. . . .
Mr. Podhoretz ends his second Statement with the hope that time may prove him wrong and his critics correct. To which I can only add a fervent “amen.”
Teaneck, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz is not to blame for the misconception of his critics that his “Statement on the Peace Process” contradicts his earlier call for silence by Jews outside Israel who object to Israeli government policies. Inconsistent perhaps, but not contradictory: to contradict his earlier position, Mr. Podhoretz would have to defend the expression of all such disagreement, and he explicitly denies this by setting two conditions. So (he writes in the June issue), there is “all the difference in the world between attacking Israel as an immoral or criminal state . . . and expressing doubts and anxieties over the prudence of the policies being pursued by the Israeli government. . . .” And then: “The political dangers involved in Jewish criticism of Israel’s policies have for the moment faded.”
I take these conditions to mean that external criticism is legitimate with respect to practical but not to moral issues and only if the criticism is unlikely to affect adversely the attitude toward Israel of other governments (principally, of course, the U.S.). But does Mr. Podhoretz really mean this? He says himself that he hopes for the failure of present peace negotiations. Would he not also hope, or allow the possibility, that his reasoning will influence readers, perhaps even members of the Clinton administration? . . . And would he not then be encouraging American pressure on Israel to prevent the concessions he opposes? If not this, for whom is he writing?
Perhaps having moved this far, Mr. Podhoretz may yet grant what in easier times would be commonplace: that of course it is Israeli citizens who will in the end decide Israel’s policies—and that of course Jews outside Israel are entitled to express their views about these policies, even if the country they live in does not subsidize their implementation, but especially if it does. The alternative to this is a pretense of consensus that no knowledgeable observer would credit—a forced unanimity that does not exist in Israel itself and that new Israeli governments with other priorities may rightly resent—and the assumption that in order to support Israel one has to defend every one of its policies or acts. What is there to recommend this alternative on either prudential or moral grounds?
West Hartford, Connecticut
To the Editor:
In his last two articles, Norman Podhoretz discussed whether American Jewish criticism of Israeli policy is appropriate. What must be understood is that some types of criticism hurt Israel’s image while others do not. . . .
Many American Jews have good reason to be legitimately concerned about extremist Arab attitudes, such as not even accepting Israel’s right to exist. The PLO still sponsors most anti-Israel terrorism and refuses to amend its Covenant, which calls for the destruction of Israel. The PLO’s Yasir Arafat told a group of Jewish journalists in Tunis recently that “Israel’s goal is to capture all the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates.” And the PLO continues to claim that the Holocaust did not occur. . . .
Syria continues its feverish efforts to develop chemical, biological, and other weapons, while its Minister of Information claims that Israeli policies are “reminiscent of Nazi methods” (Jerusalem Post, June 8, 1993). Faisal Husseini, the new leader of the Palestinian Arab delegation to the peace talks, has recently called for the dissolution of the Zionist entity in stages. When one adds to these belligerent statements and actions the fact that Arab regimes have repeatedly broken signed treaties (the Israeli-Arab armistice of 1949; the Iraqi recognition of Kuwait of 1962; the Iran-Iraq peace treaty of 1976)—it is no wonder that many American Jews look with skepticism upon current Arab rhetoric about making “peace” with Israel.
Morton A. Klein
Zionist Organization of America
Greater Philadelphia Chapter
To the Editor:
. . . Ironically, the same Israeli Labor-party officials who are now reportedly so upset about American Jewish dissent from Israeli policy were until recently actively involved in instigating such dissent—when it suited their purposes. When criticsm by the American Jewish Left helped Labor undermine Likud, it was hailed by Laborites as “courageous” and “a legitimate attempt to facilitate peacemaking.” From 1977 until Likud was toppled by Labor last year, prominent Israeli doves frequently visited America to whip up criticism of the Israeli government. Shimon Peres deserves a “frequent-flier” award for his many such trips, as does Abba Eban, whose torrent of op-ed pieces and lectures attacking the Israeli government made him the darling of the State Department and Israel-bashers in the American media. . . .
How ironic that the new Israeli ambassador in Washington, Itamar Rabinovich, who was so vividly offended by Mr. Podhoretz’s April article that his embassy sent a two-page rebuttal to all Jewish newspapers, himself denounced the Likud government during many of his U.S. appearances when he was associated with Tel Aviv University.
Rabin, Rabinovich, and the others, having urged U.S. Jews to exercise their right as American citizens to speak out on Israeli policy, cannot expect anything less today from American Jews. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . There is absolutely no comparison between Norman Podhoretz’s newly formulated position with regard to criticism of Israel and the Israel-bashing of liberal American Jews when Likud was in power. . . . Mr. Podhoretz has expressed reasoned concern, a position hardly comparable to the actions of such groups as American Friends of Peace Now, which placed an ad in the New York Times alleging that Israel constituted the only impediment to peace in the Middle East, or to other groups which have called on the U.S. to put pressure on the Israeli government or which have met with enemies of Israel. . . .
West Orange, New Jersey
To the Editor:
How can we begin to talk about consistency and inconsistency without first agreeing on a frame of reference? . . . Certainly in an unchanging world it would be perfectly reasonable to make a fetish out of constancy. But, as we all know, people in political life tend to be as flighty as break dancers.
Consider, for example, Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin: on the eve of last year’s election, he asserted that “anyone who comes down from the Golan forfeits Israel’s security interest.” That was last year. This year, as Prime Minister, he seems quite prepared to compromise this security interest.
Or consider the U.S. State Department: Washington is undoubtedly prodding Jerusalem to accede to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, but there is no similar prodding by the State Department for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.
Then there is the argument that only Israelis have the right to determine Israel’s security needs. But that is precisely the point. According to a recent Gallup poll, 75 percent of the Israeli electorate would insist upon a national referendum before making any territorial concessions. . . . Given all these contradictions, all these vacillations, isn’t it just a little glib to complain about inconsistency? . . .
I suspect that this debate has more to do with infidelity than with inconsistency. There are some Jews who would like to remain, at least in some measure, faithful to our ancient covenant, and there are others who would seek another covenant. Up until a few generations ago, Jewish civilization could be characterized as a religious civilization. Today, however, there are some Jews, both here and in Israel, who are indifferent to our religious past. What is particularly distressing about this development is that in the process of separating themselves from this past, these people have also abandoned large chunks of Jewish history. Without this history, without this past, there is really very little to keep the Jewish state, or, for that matter, the state of world Jewry, from becoming unglued. . . .
Of course I share Norman Podhoretz’s anxieties. The peace process is a cul-de-sac whose only exit is a return to the 1967 lines. Such an Israel would be terminally vulnerable, a mere garrison state. Such an Israel would have to commit every possible resource just to stay alive. How could such an Israel possibly achieve its prophetic fulfillment?
Silver Spring, Maryland
To the Editor:
In his extremely astute Statements on the Peace Process, Norman Podhoretz has provided a valuable service to the American Jewish community. Even those whose initial reaction was negative would be well advised to contemplate objectively the significance of what Mr. Podhoretz has written.
Another related matter affecting American Jews was the decision last spring by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to grant membership . . . to Americans for Peace Now (APN). The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) made energetic efforts to inform the Conference and the community at large of APN’s positions, and it succeeded in alerting those who had previously been unaware of APN to the true nature of the group. But in spite of these efforts, APN was accepted as a member of the Conference.
I was the last speaker at the tension-filled meeting on March 29, 1993, when the issue of admitting APN was voted on. I concluded my remarks with the following statement:
While all of us in this room may have different philosophical, ideological, religious, and political points of view, every member of the Conference of Presidents is totally in agreement on one fundamental issue: that Jerusalem is and will remain the undivided capital of the sovereign state of Israel. If the conference votes to admit Americans for Peace Now it would be the first member of the conference which has failed to support, unequivocally, the one historic position which has universally united our community.
This plea did not succeed in changing the minds of those present. And thus, major Jewish organizations, both religious and secular, which in the past had been united on the question of Jerusalem, voted to bring into their ranks a group which believes that there are “many options” in connection with the status of Jerusalem—that, in other words, Jerusalem is “negotiable.” . . .
APN boasts of its love for Israel and claims that its criticisms are voiced only out of concern for Israel’s welfare, security, and future. Yet the course it advocates—an accommodation with the terrorist PLO—is detrimental to all three. APN’s support for dialogue with the PLO is in fact contrary to the policies of Prime Minister Rabin’s government. . . .
Of course, APN has a right to urge Israel to negotiate with the PLO, and it has a right to vacillate on the issue of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the question must still be asked: should an organization whose leadership holds such views be a member of the American Jewish community’s highest decision-making body?
Executive Vice President Emeritus
Zionist Organization of America
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . In his June Statement, Norman Podhoretz calls Jacob Amir’s letter in that same issue “moving” and says that Mr. Amir “makes the case for Palestine statehood in a way that gives me pause and avoids lending aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies.” Having been a resident of Israel in 1951-52, and from 1954 to 1960, and as an avid reader of every news item during the pre-1967 period, I hereby attest to Jacob Amir’s total memory loss.
Contrary to what he says, Israeli civilians did not live a remarkably normal life during this period, and the terrorist infiltration was most certainly not confined to the border moshavim and kibbutzim during this period. Terrorism was explosive and pervasive in most of Israel, ranging from attacks on civilian buses with multiple fatalities to the massacre of schoolchildren in the city of Lod near Tel Aviv and the firing on buses on the Petah Tikvah-Tel Aviv route. In the north of Israel, death and destruction rained down from the Golan Heights and from the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
All travel in the Negev (two-thirds of Israel’s territory) was accompanied by armed escort or the mandatory carrying of weapons. . . .
As for the tranquility of Mr. Amir’s post-midnight walks in Jerusalem “just a few yards from the border,” his safety lay solely in the darkness of night because in daylight he could easily have become one of the victims of Jordanian Arab Legionnaires who were constantly firing on and, yes, killing and maiming Jews from the safety of their outposts on the Old City walls and their reinforced bunkers facing Jewish Jerusalem.
In fact, the overwhelming popularity of the Sinai campaign of 1956 lay in the absolute necessity to distance fedayeen terrorist squads from their access through the Gaza Strip. The formation of the famed anti-terrorist commando unit headed by a young army officer named Ariel Sharon and the unprecedented latitude granted to it were motivated by the desperate need to reduce terrorism against the civilian Jewish population.
As for the peaceful Israeli Arabs in the fantasyland of Jacob Amir’s pre-1967 Israel, I will make only two brief observations.
First and foremost, the government and army of Israel deemed it necessary to impose martial law on Israel’s Arabs and maintain it for a number of years.
Secondly, I was in the audience during a speech made by David Ben-Gurion in which he emphatically stated that, given the opportunity, the Arabs of Israel would support any war dedicated to the destruction of Israel and would rather live under the iron fist of an Arab dictator than be ruled by democratic Jewish sovereignty. These remarks were duly reported in the next day’s newspapers with little or no reaction.
Finally, if Mr. Amir intends to include Jerusalem in his fail-safe Jewish state, how does he intend to protect Jewish children from the stabbings in Jerusalem that he so poignantly described? The bulk of the hostile Palestinian population that he insists “Israel must separate itself from” lives both within or in very close proximity to that very Jerusalem.
If Mr. Amir has full confidence in the ability of Israel’s army to protect the 1949 sieve-like armistice borders from hostile and “sworn-to-war” Arab nations hovering above and around it, plus an autonomous Palestinian state seething with hatred and determination to regain its “conquered land,” why does he not find it possible for the army and the police and an alert, armed citizenry “to make the streets of its cities safe once again,” those streets which at their very worst are far safer than the cities in which most Americans live?
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
Jacob Amir forgets that the peaceful days in Jerusalem in the 1950’s that he describes in his letter were a fool’s paradise. That idyllic “peace” was punctuated by the war of 1967, when the Arabs used the territories they had illegally seized to launch hostilities against Israel. This means that there are no “good old days” for Mr. Amir to go back to. The events of 1967 show that Arab enmity is not related to possession of the territories, but to the existence of Israel itself. The plain fact is that there is no peace that the Arabs have the capacity to deliver. . . .
The Arabs must never get a second chance to repeat 1967. Israel should under no circumstances go back to the vulnerabilities of its pre-1967 borders . . . which, at a minimum, must ultimately be annexed by Israel so that they will never play a role in any potential Arab attack. . . .
Mr. Amir worries about radicalizing the 900,000 Israeli Arabs. What will he say when they become 2,500,000 in a few short decades and show even less capacity for understanding the defense needs of the Jewish state? If those Arabs do not support action now to counteract potential dangers to the state, they must be written off and encouraged to leave, in the interest of preserving the lives of the 4.5 million-plus Jews. . . .
It is such facts that the Amirs do not wish to face. It is bizarre that they would trust agreements with the Arabs—trust to pieces of paper that history has shown to have had no efficacy—instead of demanding the objective condition of militarily secure borders, which is what all other nations of the world demand for themselves. . . .
I note that at least one observer, in a recent New York Times op-ed article, maintains that population transfer for the purpose of saving lives is a legitimate solution to the problems of Bosnia. It is even more valid in the case of Israel. There is no reason for Israel to risk its future or to apologize for taking the proper action to protect its people.
West Hartford, Connecticut
To the Editor:
. . . The tragedy in Israel today is that there is essentially no difference between the Right and Left; both are motivated by fundamental selfishness for power. . . .
And, of course, dishonesty. The Left speaks of achieving peace by making insane concessions. The Right speaks of coexistence with the Arabs in our midst, and denies any demographic danger. Meanwhile, mention of the only real solution is prohibited and punishable.
Scarsdale, New York
To the Editor:
. . . All over the world ethnic cleansing seems to be the order of the day. In Germany we have xenophobia. In Japan ethnic cleansing has been in effect throughout the nation’s history, since only ethnic Japanese can become citizens and even Koreans, who have lived in Japan for generations, are denied citizenship. England has had to limit the number of Pakistani immigrants. And in the former Soviet Union we are probably about to find the ultimate ethnic cleansing, with the various republics anxious to rid themselves of the Russians who had been sent among them to maintain Russian-Soviet hegemony. And we all know about Bosnia and the Sudan. . . .
Today Israel is at risk. Yet the entire world insists that Israel alone may not resort to the almost universal practice of ethnic cleansing. Israel’s survival depends on guaranteeing its current boundaries. If possible, Israel should buy up the land owned by Israeli Arabs, or get the 22 Arab nations to welcome their co-religionists and rescue them from what they call the persecution they suffer in Israel. After all, Israel welcomed the unfortunate survivors of the Holocaust; why can’t the Arabs be as hospitable to their own? Maybe Jordan, which is already 70-percent Palestinian, should set an example. . . .
Israel can survive only by an exchange of populations, which has already been done several times in the modern era. Half of this process has already been accomplished—there are almost no Jews left in Arab lands. I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Laguna Hills, California
To the Editor:
Four years ago, in his article “Israel: A Lamentation from the Future” [COMMENTARY, March 1989] , Norman Podhoretz wrote: “It was therefore clear from the start of the U.S. dialogue with Arafat that it was likely to lead . . . to an American endorsement of a PLO state.” Recent news seems to point to the accuracy of this prediction. Mr. Podhoretz’s haunting article was written from an imaginary future in which Israel no longer existed. Though details of Israel’s demise were left out, Mr. Podhoretz made it clear that what had happened was that both the well-meaning and the cynical were seduced by the idea of peace and made territorial concessions that left the state unable to defend itself. In his two Statements on the Peace Process, Mr. Podhoretz has only been pointing out that many of those who are now seduced by the idea of peace are in positions of power in Israel today. . . .
To the Editor:
Reading Norman Podhoretz’s penetrating though sobering “Statement on the Peace Process” (and the published comments on the article) brings to mind another article he wrote some time ago, “Israel: A Lamentation from the Future.”
Has the “future” arrived?
Brooklyn, New York
Norman Podhoretz writes:
Having gone around the track twice now in these pages, and a few more times in interviews with the press, on the issue of why and how I have violated my old rule of staying out of the debate over Israel’s security, I am content to let my critics have their say without reiterating my position yet again. Nor do I have anything to add (except for my thanks) in response to the supporting letters on this particular issue. But Berel Lang raises an objection I have not adequately addressed before—an objection also raised by Abraham H. Fox-man, the executive director of the ADL, in a piece published both in the Jerusalem Post and in a number of Anglo-Jewish papers here in the U.S.
Neither Mr. Lang nor Mr. Fox-man is persuaded by my argument that to criticize the Rabin government for being too conciliatory, unlike the old left-wing attacks on the Shamir government for being intransigent and immoral, poses no political danger to Israel. How, asks Mr. Foxman, do I know what use will be made of my criticisms? And Mr. Lang, spelling out explicitly what Mr. Foxman only hints at, declares that I am “encouraging American pressure on Israel to prevent the concessions [I] oppose.”
What world do these people live in? Can they really envisage a situation in which the Clinton administration would pressure Israel to make fewer concessions or to take a tougher line in negotiations with the Arabs?
There is, however, a more plausible variant of the idea that my criticisms of the peace process pose a political danger to Israel. According to this variant—which, I am reliably informed, has been put forward in private conversation by an Israeli diplomat in Washington and has also been alluded to in a story in the Boston Globe—the Rabin government might at some juncture want and need American pressure so that, in making concessions that would be very unpopular at home, it would be able to blame Washington for leaving Israel no alternative. But, said this diplomat, if Clinton were persuaded by outcries like mine that such pressure on Israel would be unpopular with American Jews as well, then he would be reluctant to apply it for fear of losing Jewish votes in 1996.
Well, if Israeli officials believe that the deal they are contemplating can only be rammed through their domestic opposition under cover of American pressure, then they are on even shakier ground than I thought.
Moving on now from the question of my right to participate in the debate, I want to return to the substantive issues involved in the peace process which are, after all, the true heart of the matter. Before doing so, however, let me just say that “transfer” or “ethnic cleansing”—the solution proposed in a number of letters above—is in my judgment so unrealistic that it is hardly worth discussing. Even setting aside the obvious moral objections to so repellent a policy, can anyone seriously imagine its being adopted by a country which cannot even expel a few terrorists without tearing itself apart and incurring the wrath of the entire world? And even if, in spite of these considerations, transfer were to be attempted, can anyone seriously imagine that it would be permitted to go forward without an all-out military assault against Israel by the Arabs, quite possibly with the support of the UN?
But back now to the peace process itself.
When I was in Jerusalem this past June, I gave a talk based on my two Statements. There were many doves in the audience, and during the lengthy question period they did not fail to tax me with being callous about the sufferings which would continue to afflict both the Israelis and the Palestinians in the absence of a peaceful settlement. I was also accused by Professor Shlomo Avineri (a former Director General of the Foreign Ministry) of being a Manichean, from which he concluded that I must be as wrong in my analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict as, in his view, I had been about the U.S.-Soviet conflict. (To this I replied that in confronting evil—Nazi Germany, Soviet Communism, and the Arab dream of wiping Israel off the map—a Manichean was the only honorable thing to be, and that of course I had been right, not wrong, in my ideas about the cold war.)
Yet, astonishingly, in an hour-and-a-half of discussion, not only did it become apparent that the audience largely shared my doubts about the negotiations; it was also clear that the doves had nothing to say about the content of my analysis. That is, not a single person rose to argue that I had been mistaken on this or that detail of the Syrian position or the Palestinian position or even the position of the Rabin government. In fact, the only point that came seriously into dispute was my contention that the peace process is a trap from which Israel will find it very hard to escape without winding up weaker and more vulnerable to military assault.
Thus, Professor Yehoshua Porat of the Hebrew University, one of the leading academic authorities in Israel on the Arab world and a supporter of the leftist party Meretz (which is a member of Rabin’s governing coalition), shook most of the audience by agreeing “100 percent” with my analysis. At the same time, however, he disagreed with me about the peace process. Israel must, he contended, go on negotiating, because (I quote from memory) “unless our sons are convinced that we are doing everything possible to make peace, they will jump out of the tanks in the next war.”
My response was that if this was how young people in Israel actually felt, then they had been tragically miseducated to believe that it was up to their country to make peace when in truth only the Arabs could call off the war they had been waging against the Jewish state from the minute it came into existence. (I was later assured that only the children of doves, if even all of them, correspond to Porat’s description.)
I tell this story by way of confirming and adding to Kenneth Levin’s illuminating description of his encounter in Boston with a visiting Israeli dove. Yet even if I had not had this experience in Jerusalem, I would by now have known from the critical letters I have received (including, with all due respect, the one from Shlomo Gazit that appears above), as well as from articles in the public prints, that the position of the doves is based on little more than wishful thinking about the Arabs and about the terms they are willing to accept.
Just how wishful, so far as the Syrians are concerned, can be gauged from what Yigal Carmon tells us in his important letter about their intransigence. Furthermore, the Syrians, having turned down an Israeli request to disarm Hezbollah, then used it as a proxy for attacking Israeli soldiers in Lebanon and Israeli civilians in the Galilee, thereby provoking the retaliatory strikes of late July.
As for the Palestinians, they now insist not only on pushing Jerusalem to the top of the negotiating agenda but on making the “return” of East Jerusalem a condition for going on with the process. It is hard to know what this means. Are the Palestinians once again resuming their old habit of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity? Or do they believe that the Rabin government is so desperate for a deal that even East Jerusalem is now up for grabs?
If the Palestinians do believe this, and if it should turn out that they are right in believing it, then I would no longer be inclined to characterize a letter like the one from E.B. Ayal as overly harsh. To be sure, these are very big ifs indeed. Yet as Paul Flacks points out in his letter about the admission of Americans for Peace Now to the Presidents’ Conference, the solid front that used to exist on Jerusalem is already beginning to crack (and not only, I might add, among American Jews, but also on the Israeli Left).
On the other hand, I have discovered from the response to my two Statements that the fears and anxieties which led me to go public are very widely shared. It is also clear that they are not being allayed by the distressingly weak arguments put forward by the Rabin government and its apologists in defense of a strategy that looks less and less realistic and more and more dangerous (see David Bar-Illan’s powerful piece beginning on p. 27 below for the details).
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The Peace Process (Cont’d.)
Must-Reads from Magazine
Sex and Work in an Age Without Norms
In the Beginning Was the ‘Hostile Work Environment’
In 1979, the feminist legal thinker Catharine MacKinnon published a book called Sexual Harassment of Working Women. Her goal was to convince the public (especially the courts) that harassment was a serious problem affecting all women whether or not they had been harassed, and that it was discriminatory. “The factors that explain and comprise the experience of sexual harassment characterize all women’s situation in one way or another, not only that of direct victims of the practice,” MacKinnon wrote. “It is this level of commonality that makes sexual harassment a women’s experience, not merely an experience of a series of individuals who happen to be of the female sex.” MacKinnon was not only making a case against clear-cut instances of harassment, but also arguing that the ordinary social dynamic between men and women itself created what she called “hostile work environments.”
The culture was ripe for such arguments. Bourgeois norms of sexual behavior had been eroding for at least a decade, a fact many on the left hailed as evidence of the dawn of a new age of sexual and social freedom. At the same time, however, a Redbook magazine survey published a few years before MacKinnon’s book found that nearly 90 percent of the female respondents had experienced some form of harassment on the job.
MacKinnon’s views might have been radical—she argued for a Marxist feminist jurisprudence reflecting her belief that sexual relations are hopelessly mired in male dominance and female submission—but she wasn’t entirely wrong. The postwar America in which women like MacKinnon came of age offered few opportunities for female agency, and the popular culture of the day reinforced the idea that women were all but incapable of it.
It wasn’t just the perfect housewives in the midcentury mold of Donna Reed and June Cleaver who “donned their domestic harness,” as the historian Elaine Tyler May wrote in her social history Homeward Bound. Popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Redbook reinforced the message; so did their advertisers. A 1955 issue of Family Circle featured an advertisement for Tide detergent that depicted a woman with a rapturous expression on her face actually hugging a box of Tide under the line: “No wonder you women buy more Tide than any other washday product! Tide’s got what women want!” Other advertisements infantilized women by suggesting they were incapable of making basic decisions. “You mean a -woman can open it?” ran one for Alcoa aluminum bottle caps. It is almost impossible to read the articles or view the ads without thinking they were some kind of put-on.
The competing view of women in the postwar era was equally pernicious: the objectified pinup or sexpot. Marilyn Monroe’s hypersexualized character in The Seven Year Itch from 1955 doesn’t even have a name—she’s simply called The Girl. The 1956 film introducing the pulchritudinous Jayne Mansfield to the world was called The Girl Can’t Help It. The behavior of Rat Pack–era men has now been so airbrushed and glamorized that we’ve forgotten just how thoroughly debased their treatment of women was. Even as we thrill to Frank Sinatra’s “nice ’n’ easy” style, we overlook the classic Sinatra movie character’s enjoying an endless stream of showgirls and (barely disguised) prostitutes until forced to settle down with a killjoy ball-and-chain girlfriend. The depiction of women either as childish wives living under the protection of their husbands or brainless sirens sexually available to the first taker was undoubtedly vulgar, but it reflected a reality about the domestic arrangements of Americans after 1945 that was due for a profound revision when the 1960s came along.
And change they did, with a vengeance. The sexual revolution broke down the barriers between the sexes as the women’s-liberation movement insisted that bourgeois domesticity was a prison. The rules melted away, but attitudes don’t melt so readily; Sinatra’s ball-and-chain may have disappeared by common consent, but for a long time it seemed that the kooky sexpot of the most chauvinistic fantasy had simply become the ideal American woman. The distinction between the workplaces of the upper middle class and the singles bars where they sought companionship was pretty blurred.
Which is where MacKinnon came in—although if we look back at it, her objection seems not Marxist in orientation but almost Victorian. She described a workplace in which women were unprotected by old-fashioned social norms against adultery and general caddishness and found themselves mired in a “hostile environment.” She named the problem; it fell to the feminist movement as a whole to enshrine protections against it. They had some success. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court embraced elements of MacKinnon’s reasoning when it ruled unanimously in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that harassment that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” enough to create “a hostile or abusive work environment” was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued rules advising employers to create procedures to combat harassment, and employers followed suit by establishing sexual-harassment policies. Human-resource departments spent countless hours and many millions of dollars on sexual-harassment-awareness training for employees.
With new regulations and enforcement mechanisms, the argument went, the final, fusty traces of patriarchal, protective norms and bad behavior would be swept away in favor of rational legal rules that would ensure equal protection for women in the workplace. The culture might still objectify women, but our legal and employment systems would, in fits and starts, erect scaffolding upon which women who were harassed could seek justice.
But as the growing list of present-day harassers and predators attests—Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes, Glenn Thrush, Mark Halperin, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, et al.—the system appears to have failed the people it was meant to protect. There were searing moments that raised popular awareness about sexual harassment: (Anita Hill’s testimony about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991; Senator Bob Packwood’s ouster for serial groping in 1995). There was, however, still plenty of space for men who harassed and assaulted women (and, in Kevin Spacey’s case, men) to shelter in place.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Why did it?
Sex and Training
What makes sexual harassment so unnerving is not the harassment. It’s the sex—a subject, even a half-century into our so-called sexual revolution, about which we remain deeply confused.
The challenge going forward, now that the Hollywood honcho Weinstein and other notoriously lascivious beneficiaries of the liberation era have been removed, is how to negotiate the rules of attraction and punish predators in a culture that no longer embraces accepted norms for sexual behavior. Who sets the rules, and how do we enforce them? The self-appointed guardians of that galaxy used to be the feminist movement, but it is in no position to play that role today as it reckons not only with the gropers in its midst (Franken) but the ghosts of gropers past (Bill Clinton).
The feminist movement long ago traded MacKinnon’s radical feminism for political expedience. In 1992 and 1998, when her husband was a presidential candidate and then president, Hillary Clinton covered for Bill, enthusiastically slut-shaming his accusers. Her sin was and is at least understandable, if not excusable, given that the two are married. But what about America’s most glamorous early feminist, Gloria Steinem? In 1998, Steinem wrote of Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey: “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” As for Monica Lewinsky, Steinem didn’t even consider the president’s behavior with a young intern to be harassment: “Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one.”
The consequences of applying to Clinton what Steinem herself called the “one-free-grope” rule are only now becoming fully visible. Even in the case of a predator as malevolent as Weinstein, it’s clear that feminists no longer have a shared moral language or the credibility with which to condemn such behavior. Having tied their movement’s fortunes to political power, especially the Democratic Party, it is difficult to take seriously their injunctions about male behavior on either side of the aisle now (just as it was difficult to take seriously partisans on the right who defended the Alabama Senate candidate and credibly accused child sexual predator Roy Moore). Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s initial hemming and hawing about denouncing accused sexual harasser Representative John Conyers was disappointing but not surprising. As for Steinem, she’s gone from posing undercover as a Playboy bunny in order to expose male vice to sitting on the board of Playboy’s true heir, VICE Media, an organization whose bro-culture has spawned many sexual-harassment complaints. She’s been honored by Rutgers University, which created the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. One of the chair’s major endowers? Harvey Weinstein.
In place of older accepted norms or trusted moral arbiters, we have weaponized gossip. “S—-y Media Men” is a Google spreadsheet created by a woman who works in media and who, in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, wanted to encourage other women to name the gropers among us. At first a well-intentioned effort to warn women informally about men who had behaved badly, it quickly devolved into an anonymous unverified online litany of horribles devoid of context. The men named on the list were accused of everything from sending clumsy text messages to rape; Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker confessed that she didn’t believe the charges lodged against a male friend of hers who appeared on the list.
Others have found sisterhood and catharsis on social media, where, on Twitter, the phrase #MeToo quickly became the symbol for women’s shared experiences of harassment or assault. Like the consciousness-raising sessions of earlier eras, the hashtag supposedly demonstrated the strength of women supporting other women. But unlike in earlier eras, it led not to group hugs over readings of The Feminine Mystique, but to a brutally efficient form of insta-justice meted out on an almost daily basis against the accused. Writing in the Guardian, Jessica Valenti praised #MeToo for encouraging women to tell their stories but added, “Why have a list of victims when a list of perpetrators could be so much more useful?” Valenti encouraged women to start using the hashtag as a way to out predators, not merely to bond with one another. Even the New York Times has gone all-in on the assumption that the reckoning will continue: The newspaper’s “gender editor,” Jessica Bennett, launched a newsletter, The #MeToo Moment, described as “the latest news and insights on the sexual harassment and misconduct scandals roiling our society.”
As the also-popular hashtag #OpenSecret suggests, this #MeToo moment has brought with it troubling questions about who knew what and when—and a great deal of anger at gatekeepers and institutions that might have turned a blind eye to predators. The backlash against the Metropolitan Opera in New York is only the most recent example. Reports of conductor James Levine’s molestation of teenagers have evidently been widespread in the classical-music world for decades. And, as many social-media users hinted with their use of the hashtag #itscoming, Levine is not the only one who will face a reckoning.
To be sure, questioning and catharsis are welcome if they spark reforms such as crackdowns on the court-approved payoffs and nondisclosure agreements that allowed sexual predators like Weinstein to roam free for so long. And they have also brought a long-overdue recognition of the ineffectiveness of so much of what passes for sexual-harassment-prevention training in the workplace. As the law professor Lauren Edelman noted in the Washington Post, “There have been only a handful of empirical studies of sexual-harassment training, and the research has not established that such training is effective. Some studies suggest that training may in fact backfire, reinforcing gendered stereotypes that place women at a disadvantage.” One specific survey at a university found that “men who participated in the training were less likely to view coercion of a subordinate as sexual harassment, less willing to report harassment and more inclined to blame the victim than were women or men who had not gone through the training.”
Realistic Change vs. Impossible Revolution
Because harassment lies at the intersection of law, politics, ideology, and culture, attempts to re-regulate behavior, either by returning to older, more traditional norms, or by weaponizing women’s potential victimhood via Twitter, won’t work. America is throwing the book at foul old violators like Weinstein and Levine, but aside from warning future violators that they may be subject to horrible public humiliation and ruination, how is all this going to fix the problem?
We are a long way from Phyllis Schlafly’s ridiculous remark, made years ago during a U.S. Senate committee hearing, that “virtuous women are seldom accosted,” but Vice President Mike Pence’s rule about avoiding one-on-one social interactions with women who aren’t his wife doesn’t really scale up in terms of effective policy in the workplace, either. The Pence Rule, like corporate H.R. policies about sexual harassment, really exists to protect Pence from liability, not to protect women.
Indeed, the possibility of realistic change is made almost moot by the hysterical ambitions of those who believe they are on the verge of bringing down the edifice of American masculinity the way the Germans brought down the Berlin wall. Bennett of the Times spoke for many when she wrote in her description of the #MeToo newsletter: “The new conversation goes way beyond the workplace to sweep in street harassment, rape culture, and ‘toxic masculinity’—terminology that would have been confined to gender studies classes, not found in mainstream newspapers, not so long ago.”
Do women need protection? Since the rise of the feminist movement, it has been considered unacceptable to declare that women are weaker than men (even physically), yet, as many of these recent assault cases make clear, this is a plain fact. Men are, on average, physically larger and more aggressive than women; this is why for centuries social codes existed to protect women who were, by and large, less powerful, more vulnerable members of society.
MacKinnon’s definition of harassment at first seemed to acknowledge such differences; she described harassment as “dominance eroticized.” But like all good feminist theorists, she claimed this dominance was socially constructed rather than biological—“the legally relevant content of the term sex, understood as gender difference, should focus upon its social meaning more than upon any biological givens,” she wrote. As such, the reasoning went, men’s socially constructed dominance could be socially deconstructed through reeducation, training, and the like.
Culturally, this is the view that now prevails, which is why we pinball between arguing that women can do anything men can do and worrying that women are all the potential victims of predatory, toxic men. So which is it? Girl Power or the Fainting Couch?
Regardless, when harassment or assault claims arise, the cultural assumptions that feminism has successfully cultivated demand we accept that women are right and men are wrong (hence the insistence that we must believe every woman’s claim about harassment and assault, and the calling out of those who question a woman’s accusation). This gives women—who are, after all, flawed human beings just like men—too much accusatory power in situations where context is often crucial for understanding what transpired. Feminists with a historical memory should recall how they embraced this view after mandatory-arrest laws for partner violence that were passed in the 1990s netted many women for physically assaulting their partners. Many feminist legal scholars at the time argued that such laws were unfair to women precisely because they neglected context. (“By following the letter of the law… law enforcement officers often disregard the context in which victims of violence resort to using violence themselves,” wrote Susan L. Miller in the Violence Against Women journal in 2001.)
Worse, the unquestioned valorization of women’s claims leaves men in the position of being presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Consider a recent tweet by Washington Post reporter and young-adult author Monica Hesse in response to New York Times reporter Farhad Manjoo’s self-indulgent lament. Manjoo: “I am at the point where i seriously, sincerely wonder how all women don’t regard all men as monsters to be constantly feared. the real world turns out to be a legit horror movie that I inhabited and knew nothing about.”
Hesse’s answer: “Surprise! The answer is that we do, and we must, regard all men as potential monsters to be feared. That’s why we cross to the other side of the street at night, and why we sometimes obey when men say ‘Smile, honey!’ We are always aware the alternative could be death.” This isn’t hyperbole in her case; Hesse has so thoroughly internalized the message that men are to be feared, not trusted, that she thinks one might kill her on the street if she doesn’t smile at him. Such illogic makes the Victorian neurasthenics look like the Valkyrie.
But while most reasonable people agree that women and men both need to take responsibility for themselves and exercise good judgment, what this looks like in practice is not going to be perfectly fair, given the differences between men and women when it comes to sexual behavior. In her book, MacKinnon observed of sexual harassment, “Tacitly, it has been both acceptable and taboo; acceptable for men to do, taboo for women to confront, even to themselves.”
That’s one thing we can say for certain is no longer true. Nevertheless, if you begin with the assumption that every sexual invitation is a power play or the prelude to an assault, you are likely to find enemies lurking everywhere. As Hesse wrote in the Washington Post about male behavior: “It’s about the rot that we didn’t want to see, that we shoveled into the garbage disposal of America for years. Some of the rot might have once been a carrot and some it might have once been a moldy piece of rape-steak, but it’s all fetid and horrific and now, and it’s all coming up at once. How do we deal with it? Prison for everyone? Firing for some? …We’re only asking for the entire universe to change. That’s all.”
But women are part of that “entire universe,” too, and it is incumbent on them to make it clear when someone has crossed the line. Both women and men would be better served if they adopted the same rule—“If you see something, say something”—when it comes to harassment. Among the many details that emerged from the recent exposé at Vox about New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush was the setting for the supposedly egregious behavior: It was always after work and after several drinks at a bar. In all of the interactions described, one or usually both of the parties was tipsy or drunk; the women always agreed to go with Thrush to another location. The women also stayed on good terms with Thrush after he made his often-sloppy passes at them, in one case sending friendly text messages and ensuring him he didn’t need to apologize for his behavior. The Vox writer, who herself claims to have been victimized by Thrush, argues, “Thrush, just by his stature, put women in a position of feeling they had to suck up and move on from an uncomfortable encounter.” Perhaps. But he didn’t put them in the position of getting drunk after work with him. They put themselves in that position.
Also, as the Thrush story reveals, women sometimes use sexual appeal and banter for their own benefit in the workplace. If we want to clarify the blurred lines that exist around workplace relationships, then we will have to reckon with the women who have successfully exploited them for their own advantage.
None of this means women should be held responsible when men behave badly or illegally. But it puts male behavior in the proper context. Sometimes, things really are just about sex, not power. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat bluntly noted in a recent debate in New York magazine with feminist Rebecca Traister, “I think women shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which male sexual desire is distinctive and strange and (to women) irrational-seeming. Saying ‘It’s power, not sex’ excludes too much.”
Social-Media Justice or Restorative Justice?
What do we want to happen? Do we want social-media justice or restorative justice for harassers and predators? The first is immediate, cathartic, and brutal, with little consideration for nuance or presumed innocence for the accused. The second is more painstaking because it requires reaching some kind of consensus about the allegations, but it is also ultimately less destructive of the community and culture as a whole.
Social-media justice deploys the powerful force of shame at the mere whiff of transgression, so as to create a regime of prevention. The thing is, Americans don’t really like shame (the sexual revolution taught us that). Our therapeutic age doesn’t think that suppressing emotions and inhibiting feelings—especially about sex—is “healthy.” So either we will have to embrace the instant and unreflective emotiveness of #MeToo culture and accept that its rough justice is better than no justice at all—or we will have to stop overreacting every time a man does something that is untoward—like sending a single, creepy text message—but not actually illegal (like assault or constant harassment).
After all, it’s not all bad news from the land of masculinity. Rates of sexual violence have fallen 63 percent since 1993, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, and as scholar Steven Pinker recently observed: “Despite recent attention, workplace sexual harassment has declined over time: from 6.1 percent of GSS [General Social Survey] respondents in 2002 to 3.6 percent in 2014. Too high, but there’s been progress, which can continue.”
Still, many men have taken this cultural moment as an opportunity to reflect on their own understanding of masculinity. In the New York Times, essayist Stephen Marche fretted about the “unexamined brutality of the male libido” and echoed Catharine MacKinnon when he asked, “How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions in which men and women are not equal?” He would have done better to ask how we can raise boys who will become men who behave honorably toward women. And how do we even raise boys to become honorable men in a culture that no longer recognizes and rewards honor?
The answers to those questions aren’t immediately clear. But one thing that will make answering them even harder is the promotion of the idea of “toxic masculinity.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently argued that “we have to re-examine our toxic, privileged, encroaching masculinity itself. And yes, that also means on some level reimagining the rules of attraction.” But the whole point of the phrase “rules of attraction” is to highlight that there aren’t any and never have been (if you have any doubts, read the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel that popularized the phrase). Blow’s lectures about “toxic masculinity” are meant to sow self-doubt in men and thus encourage some enlightened form of masculinity, but that won’t end sexual harassment any more than Lysistrata-style refusal by women to have sex will end war.
Parents should be teaching their sons about personal boundaries and consent from a young age, just as they teach their daughters, and unequivocally condemn raunchy and threatening remarks about women, whether they are uttered by a talk-radio host or by the president of the United States. The phrase “that isn’t how decent men behave” should be something every parent utters.
But such efforts are made more difficult by a liberal culture that has decided to equate caddish behavior with assault precisely because it has rejected the strict norms that used to hold sway—the old conservative norms that regarded any transgression against them as a seriousviolation and punished it accordingly. Instead, in an effort to be a kinder, gentler, more “woke” society that’s understanding of everyone’s differences, we’ve ended up arbitrarily picking and choosing among the various forms of questionable behavior for which we will have no tolerance, all the while failing to come to terms with the costs of living in such a society. A culture that hangs the accused first and asks questions later might have its virtues, but psychological understanding is not one of them.
And so we come back to sex and our muddled understanding of its place in society. Is it a meaningless pleasure you’re supposed to enjoy with as many people as possible before settling down and marrying? Or is it something more important than that? Is it something that you feel empowered to handle in Riot Grrrl fashion, or is getting groped once by a pervy co-worker something that prompts decades of nightmares and declarations that you will “never be the same”? How can we condemn people like Senator Al Franken, whose implicit self-defense is that it’s no big deal to cop a feel every so often, when our culture constantly offers up women like comedian Amy Schumer or Abbi and Ilana of the sketch show Broad City, who argue that women can and should be as filthy and degenerate as the most degenerate guy?
Perhaps it’s progress that the downfall of powerful men who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior is no longer called a “bimbo eruption,” as it was in the days of Bill Clinton, and that the men who harassed or assaulted women are facing the end of their careers and, in some cases, prison. But this is not the great awakening that so many observers have claimed it is. Awakenings need tent preachers to inspire and eager audiences to participate; our #MeToo moment has plenty of those. What it doesn’t have, unless we can agree on new norms for sexual behavior both inside and outside the workplace, is a functional theology that might cultivate believers who will actually practice what they preach.
That functional theology is out of our reach. Which means this moment is just that—a moment. It will die down, impossible though it seems at present. And every 10 or 15 years a new harassment scandal will spark widespread outrage, and we will declare that a new moment of reckoning and realization has emerged. After which the stories will again die down and very little will have changed.
No one wants to admit this. It’s much more satisfying to see the felling of so many powerful men as a tectonic cultural shift, another great leap forward toward equality between the sexes. But it isn’t, because the kind of asexual equality between the genders imagined by those most eager to celebrate our #MeToo moment has never been one most people embrace. It’s one that willfully overlooks significant differences between the sexes and assumes that thoughtful people can still agree on norms of sexual behavior.
They can’t. And they won’t.
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The U.S. will endanger itself if it accedes to Russian and Chinese efforts to change the international system to their liking
A “sphere of influence” is traditionally understood as a geographical zone within which the most powerful actor can impose its will. And nearly three decades after the close of the superpower struggle that Churchill’s speech heralded, spheres of influence are back. At both ends of the Eurasian landmass, the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are carving out areas of privileged influence—geographic buffer zones in which they exercise diplomatic, economic, and military primacy. China and Russia are seeking to coerce and overawe their neighbors. They are endeavoring to weaken the international rules and norms—and the influence of opposing powers—that stand athwart their ambitions in their respective “near abroads.” Chinese island-building and maritime expansionism in the South China Sea and Russian aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of the Baltic states are part and parcel of the quasi-imperial projects these revisionist regional powers are now pursuing.
Historically speaking, a world made up of rival spheres is more the norm than the exception. Yet such a world is in sharp tension with many of the key tenets of the American foreign-policy tradition—and with the international order that the United States has labored to construct and maintain since the end of World War II.
To be sure, Washington carved out its own spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere beginning in the 19th century, and America’s myriad alliance blocs in key overseas regions are effectively spheres by another name. And today, some international-relations observers have welcomed the return of what the foreign-policy analyst Michael Lind has recently called “blocpolitik,” hoping that it might lead to a more peaceful age of multilateral equilibrium.
But for more than two centuries, American leaders have generally opposed the idea of a world divided into rival spheres of influence and have worked hard to deny other powers their own. And a reversion to a world dominated by great powers and their spheres of influence would thus undo some of the strongest traditions in American foreign policy and take the international system back to a darker, more dangerous era.I n an extreme form, a sphere of influence can take the shape of direct imperial or colonial control. Yet there are also versions in which a leading power forgoes direct military or administrative domination of its neighbors but nonetheless exerts geopolitical, economic, and ideological influence. Whatever their form, spheres of influence reflect two dominant imperatives of great-power politics in an anarchic world: the need for security vis-à-vis rival powers and the desire to shape a nation’s immediate environment to its benefit. Indeed, great powers have throughout history pursued spheres of influence to provide a buffer against the encroachment of other hostile actors and to foster the conditions conducive to their own security and well-being.
The Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta, and Rome all carved out domains of dominance. The Chinese tribute system—which combined geopolitical control with the spread of Chinese norms and ideas—profoundly shaped the trajectory of East Asia for hundreds of years. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the British Empire, Japan’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the Soviet bloc.
America, too, has played the spheres-of-influence game. From the early-19th century onward, American officials strove for preeminence in the Western Hemisphere—first by running other European powers off much of the North American continent and then by pushing them out of Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823, America staked its claim to geopolitical primacy from Canada to the Southern Cone. Over the succeeding generations, Washington worked to achieve military dominance in that area, to tie the countries of the Western Hemisphere to America geopolitically and economically, and even to help pick the rulers of countries from Mexico to Brazil.
If this wasn’t a sphere of influence, nothing was. In 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney declared that “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” After World War II, moreover, a globally predominant United States steadily expanded its influence into Europe through NATO, into East Asia through various military alliances, and into the Middle East through a web of defense, diplomatic, and political arrangements. The story of global politics over the past 200 years has, in large part, been the story of expanding U.S. influence.
Nonetheless, there has always been something ambivalent—critics would say hypocritical—about American views of this matter. For as energetic as Washington has been in constructing its geopolitical domain, a “spheres-of-influence world” is in perpetual tension with four strong intellectual traditions in U.S. strategy. These are hegemony, liberty, openness, and exceptionalism.
First, hegemony. The myth of America as an innocent isolationist country during its first 170 years is powerful and enduring; it’s also wrong. From the outset, American statesmen understood that the country’s favorable geography, expanding population, and enviable resource endowments gave it the potential to rival, and ultimately overtake, the European states that dominated world politics. America might be a fledgling republic, George Washington said, but it would one day attain “the strength of a giant.” From the revolution onward, American officials worried, with good reason, that France, Spain, and the United Kingdom would use their North American territories to strangle or contain the young republic. Much of early American diplomacy was therefore geared toward depriving the European powers of their North American possessions, using measures from coercive diplomacy to outright wars of conquest. “The world shall have to be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America,” wrote John Quincy Adams in 1819. The only regional sphere of influence that Americans would accept as legitimate was their own.
By the late-19th century, the same considerations were pushing Americans to target spheres of influence further abroad. As the industrial revolution progressed, it became clear that geography alone might not protect the nation. Aggressive powers could now generate sufficient military strength to dominate large swaths of Europe or East Asia and then harness the accumulated resources to threaten the United States. Moreover, as America itself became an increasingly mighty country that sought to project its influence overseas, its leaders naturally objected to its rivals’ efforts to establish their own preserves from which Washington would be excluded. If much of America’s 19th-century diplomacy was dedicated to denying other powers spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere, much of the country’s 20th-century diplomacy was an effort to break up or deny rival spheres of influence in Europe and East Asia.
From the Open Door policy, which sought to prevent imperial powers from carving up China, to U.S. intervention in the world wars, to the confrontation with the Soviet Empire in the Cold War, the United States repeatedly acted on the belief that it could be neither as secure nor influential as it desired in a world divided up and dominated by rival nations. The American geopolitical tradition, in other words, has long contained a built-in hostility to other countries’ spheres of influence.
The American ideological tradition shares this sense of preeminence, as reflected in the second key tenet: liberty. America’s founding generation did not see the revolution merely as the birth of a future superpower; they saw it as a catalyst for spreading political liberty far and wide. Thomas Paine proclaimed in 1775 that Americans could “begin the world anew”; John Quincy Adams predicted, several decades later, that America’s liberal ideology was “destined to cover the surface of the globe.” Here, too, the new nation was not cursed with excessive modesty—and here, too, the existence of rival spheres of influence threatened this ambition.
Rival spheres of influence—particularly within the Western Hemisphere—imperiled the survival of liberty at home. If the United States were merely one great power among many on the North American continent, the founding generation worried, it would be forced to maintain a large standing military establishment and erect a sort of 18th-century “garrison state.” Living in perpetual conflict and vigilance, in turn, would corrode the very freedoms for which the revolution had been fought. “No nation,” wrote James Madison, “can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Just as Madison argued, in Federalist No. 10, that “extending the sphere”—expanding the republic—was a way of safeguarding republicanism at home, expanding America’s geopolitical domain was essential to providing the external security that a liberal polity required to survive.
Rival spheres of influence also constrained the prospects for liberty abroad. Although the question of whether the United States should actively support democratic revolutions overseas has been a source of unending controversy, virtually all American strategists have agreed that the country would be more secure and influential in a world where democracy was widespread. Given this mindset, Americans could hardly be desirous of foreign powers—particularly authoritarian powers—establishing formidable spheres of influence that would allow them to dominate the international system or suppress liberal ideals. The Monroe Doctrine was a response to the geopolitical dangers inherent in renewed imperial control of South America; it was also a response to the ideological danger posed by European nations that would “extend the political system to any portion” of the Western Hemisphere. Similar concerns have been at the heart of American opposition to the British Empire and the Soviet bloc.
Economic openness, the third core dynamic of American policy, has long served as a commercial counterpart to America’s ideological proselytism. Influenced as much by Adam Smith as by Alexander Hamilton, early American statecraft promoted free trade, neutral rights, and open markets, both to safeguard liberty and enrich a growing nation. This mission has depended on access to the world’s seas and markets. When that access was circumscribed—by the British in 1812 and by the Germans in 1917—Americans went to war to preserve it. It is unsurprising, then, that Americans also looked askance at efforts by other powers to establish areas that might be walled off from U.S. trade and investment—and from the spread of America’s capitalist ideology.
A brief list of robust policy endeavors underscores the persistent U.S. hostility to an economically closed, spheres-of-influence world: the Model Treaty of 1776, designed to promote free and reciprocal trade; John Hay’s Open Door policy of 1899, designed to prevent any outside power from dominating trade with China; Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy in his “14 Points” speech of 1918 for the removal “of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all nations”; and the focus of the 1941 Atlantic Charter on reducing trade restrictions while promoting international economic cooperation (assuming the allies would emerge triumphant from World War II).
Fourth and finally, there’s exceptionalism. Americans have long believed that their nation was created not simply to replicate the practices of the Old World, but to revolutionize how states and peoples interact with one another. The United States, in this view, was not merely another great power out for its own self-interest. It was a country that, by virtue of its republican ideals, stood for the advancement of universal rights, and one that rejected the back-alley methods of monarchical diplomacy in favor of a more principled statecraft. When Abraham Lincoln said America represented “the last best hope of earth,” or when Woodrow Wilson scorned secret agreements in favor of “open covenants arrived at openly,” they demonstrated this exceptionalist strain in American thinking. There is some hypocrisy here, of course, for the United States has often acted in precisely the self-interested, cutthroat manner its statesmen deplored. Nonetheless, American exceptionalism has had a pronounced effect on American conduct.
Compare how Washington led its Western European allies during the Cold War—the extent to which NATO rested on the authentic consent of its members, the way the United States consistently sought to empower rather than dominate its partners—with how Moscow managed its empire in Eastern Europe. In the same way, Americans have often recoiled from arrangements that reeked of the old diplomacy. Franklin Roosevelt might have tolerated a Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe after World War II, for instance, but he knew he could not admit this publicly. Likewise, the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which required Washington to acknowledge the diplomatic legitimacy of the Soviet sphere, proved controversial inside the United States because they seemed to represent just the sort of cynical, old-school geopolitics that American exceptionalism abhors.
To be clear, U.S. hostility to a spheres-of-influence world has always been leavened with a dose of pragmatism; American leaders have pursued that hostility only so far as power and prudence allowed. The Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to stay out of the Americas, but the quid pro quo was that a young and relatively weak United States would accept, for a time, a sphere of monarchical dominance within Europe. Even during the Cold War, U.S. policymakers generally accepted that Washington could not break up the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe without risking nuclear war.
But these were concessions to expediency. As America gained greater global power, it more actively resisted the acquisition or preservation of spheres by others. From gradually pushing the Old World out of the New, to helping vanquish the German and Japanese Empires by force of arms, to assisting the liquidation of the British Empire after World War II, to containing and ultimately defeating the Soviet bloc, the United States was present at the destruction of spheres of influence possessed by adversaries and allies alike.
The acme of this project came in the quarter-century that followed the Cold War. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself, it was possible to envision a world in which what Thomas Jefferson called America’s “empire of liberty” could attain global dimensions, and traditional spheres of influence would be consigned to history. The goal, as George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy proclaimed, was to “create a balance of power that favors human freedom.” This meant an international environment in which the United States and its values were dominant and there was no balance of power whatsoever.
Under presidents from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, this project entailed working to spread democracy and economic liberalism farther than ever before. It involved pushing American influence and U.S.-led institutions into regions—such as Eastern Europe—that were previously dominated by other powers. It meant maintaining the military primacy necessary to stop regional powers from establishing new spheres of influence, as Washington did by rolling back Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait in 1990 and by deterring China from coercing Taiwan in 1995–96. Not least, this American project involved seeking to integrate potential rivals—foremost Russia and China—into the post–Cold War order, in hopes of depriving them of even the desire to challenge it. This multifaceted effort reflected the optimism of the post-Cold War era, as well as the influence of tendencies with deep roots in the American past. Yet try as Washington might to permanently leave behind a spheres-of-influence world, that prospect is once again upon us.B egin with China’s actions in the Asia-Pacific region. The sources of Chinese conduct are diverse, ranging from domestic insecurity to the country’s confidence as a rising power to its sense of historical destiny as “the Middle Kingdom.” All these influences animate China’s bid to establish regional mastery. China is working, first, to create a power vacuum by driving the United States out of the Western Pacific, and second, to fill that vacuum with its own influence. A Chinese admiral made this ambition clear when he remarked—supposedly in jest—to an American counterpart that, in the future, the two powers should simply split the Pacific with Hawaii as the dividing line. Yang Jiechi, then China’s foreign minister, echoed this sentiment in a moment of frustration by lecturing the nations of Southeast Asia. “China is a big country,” he said, “and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Policy has followed rhetoric. To undercut America’s position, Beijing has harassed American ships and planes operating in international waters and airspace. The Chinese have warned U.S. allies they may be caught in the crossfire of a Sino-American war unless Washington accommodates China or the allies cut loose from the United States. China has simultaneously worked to undermine the credibility of U.S. alliance guarantees by using strategies designed to shift the regional status quo in ways even the mighty U.S. Navy finds difficult to counter. Through a mixture of economic aid and diplomatic coercion, Beijing has also successfully divided international bodies, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, through which the United States has sought to rally opposition to Chinese assertiveness. And in the background, China has been steadily building, over the course of more than two decades, formidable military tools designed to keep the United States out of the region and give Beijing a free hand in dealing with its weaker neighbors. As America’s sun sets in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese leaders calculate, the shadow China casts over the region will only grow longer.
To that end, China has claimed, dubiously, nearly all of the South China Sea as its own and constructed artificial islands as staging points for the projection of military power. Military and paramilitary forces have teased, confronted, and violated the sovereignty of countries from Vietnam to the Philippines; China is likewise intensifying the pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. Economically, Beijing uses its muscle to reward those who comply with China’s policies and punish those not willing to bow to its demands. It is simultaneously advancing geoeconomic projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Project (RCEP) that are designed to bring the region into its orbit.
Strikingly, China has also moved away from its long-professed principle of noninterference in other countries’ domestic politics by extending the reach of Chinese propaganda organs and using investment and even bribery to co-opt regional elites. Payoffs to Australian politicians are as critical to China’s regional project as development of “carrier-killer” missiles. Finally, far from subscribing to liberal concepts of democracy and human rights, Beijing emphasizes its rejection of these values and its desire to create “Asia for Asians.” In sum, China is pursuing a classic spheres-of-influence project. By blending intimidation with inducement, Beijing aims to sunder its neighbors’ bonds with America and force them to accept a Sino-centric order—a new Chinese tribute system for the 21st century.A t the other end of Eurasia, Russia is playing geopolitical hardball of a different sort. The idea that Moscow should dominate its “near abroad” is as natural to many Russians as American regional primacy is to Americans. The loss of the Kremlin’s traditional buffer zone was, therefore, one of the most painful legacies of the Cold War’s end. And so it is hardly surprising that, as Russia has regained a degree of strength in recent years, it has sought to reassert its supremacy.
It has done so, in fact, through more overtly aggressive means than those employed by China. Moscow has twice seized opportunities to humiliate and dismember former Soviet republics that committed the sin of tilting toward the West or throwing out pro-Russian leaders, first in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014. It has regularly reminded its neighbors that they live on Russia’s doorstep, through coercive activities such as conducting cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 and holding aggressive military exercises on the frontiers of the Baltic states. In the same vein, the Kremlin has essentially claimed a veto over the geopolitical alignments of neighbors from the Caucasus to Scandinavia, whether by creating frozen conflicts on their territory or threatening to target them militarily—perhaps with nuclear weapons—should they join NATO.
Military muscle is not Moscow’s only tool. Russia has simultaneously used energy exports to keep the states on its periphery economically dependent, and it has exported corruption and illiberalism to non-aligned states in the former Warsaw Pact area to prevent further encroachment of liberal values. Not least, the Kremlin has worked to undermine NATO and the European Union through political subversion and intervention in Western electoral processes. And while Russia’s activities are most concentrated in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it’s also projecting its influence farther afield. Russian forces intervened successfully in Syria in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad, preserve access to warm-water ports on the Mediterranean, and demonstrate the improved accuracy and lethality of Russian arms. Moscow continues to make inroads in the Middle East, often in cooperation with another American adversary: Iran.
To be sure, the projects that China and Russia are pursuing today are vastly different from each other, but the core logic is indisputably the same. Authoritarian powers are re-staking their claim to privileged influence in key geostrategic areas.S o what does this mean for American interests? Some observers have argued that the United States should make a virtue of necessity and accept the return of such arrangements. By this logic, spheres of influence create buffer zones between contending great powers; they diffuse responsibility for enforcing order in key areas. Indeed, for those who think that U.S. policy has left the country exhausted and overextended, a return to a world in which America no longer has the burden of being the dominant power in every region may seem attractive. The great sin of American policy after the Cold War, many realist scholars argue, was the failure to recognize that even a weakened Russia would demand privileged influence along its frontiers and thus be unalterably opposed to NATO expansion. Similarly, they lament the failure to understand that China would not forever tolerate U.S. dominance along its own periphery. It is not surprising, then, to hear analysts such as Australia’s Hugh White or America’s John Mearsheimer argue that the United States should learn to “share power” with China in the Pacific, or that it must yield ground in Eastern Europe in order to avoid war with Russia.
Such claims are not meritless; there are instances in which spheres of influence led to a degree of stability. The division of Europe into rival blocs fostered an ugly sort of stasis during the Cold War; closer to home, America’s dominance in the Western Hemisphere has long muted geopolitical competition in our own neighborhood. For all the problems associated with European empires, they often partially succeeded in limiting scourges such as communal violence.
And yet the allure of a spheres-of-influence world is largely an illusion, for such a world would threaten U.S. interests, traditions, and values in several ways.
First, basic human rights and democratic values would be less respected. China and Russia are not liberal democracies; they are illiberal autocracies that see the spread of democratic values as profoundly corrosive to their own authority and security. Just as the United States has long sought to create a world congenial to its own ideological predilections, Beijing and Moscow would certainly do likewise within their spheres of dominance.
They would, presumably, bring their influence to bear in support of friendly authoritarian regimes. And they would surely undermine democratic governments seen to pose a threat of ideological contagion or insubordination to Russian or Chinese prerogatives. Russia has taken steps to prevent the emergence of a Western-facing democracy in Ukraine and to undermine liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere; China is snuffing out political freedoms in Hong Kong. Such actions offer a preview of what we will see when these countries are indisputably dominant along their peripheries. Further aggressions, in turn, would not simply be offensive to America’s ideological sensibilities. For given that the spread of democracy has been central to the absence of major interstate war in recent decades, and that the spread of American values has made the U.S. more secure and influential, a less democratic world will also be a more dangerous world.
Second, a spheres-of-influence world would be less open to American commerce and investment. After all, the United States itself saw geoeconomic dominance in Latin America as the necessary counterpart to geopolitical dominance. Why would China take a less self-interested approach? China already reaps the advantages of an open global economy even as it embraces protectionism and mercantilism. In a Chinese-dominated East Asia, all economic roads will surely lead to Beijing, as Chinese officials will be able to use their leverage to ensure that trade and investment flows are oriented toward China and geopolitical competitors like the United States are left on the outside. Beijing’s current geoeconomic projects—namely, RCEP and the Belt and Road Initiative—offer insight into a regional economic future in which flows of commerce and investment are subject to heavy Chinese influence.
Third, as spheres of influence reemerge, the United States will be less able to shape critical geopolitical events in crucial regions. The reason Washington has long taken an interest in events in faraway places is that East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East are the areas from which major security challenges have emerged in the past. Since World War II, America’s forward military presence has been intended to suppress incipient threats and instability; that presence has gone hand in glove with energetic diplomacy that amplifies America’s voice and protects U.S. interests. In a spheres-of-influence world, Washington would no longer enjoy the ability to act with decisive effect in these regions; it would find itself reacting to global events rather than molding them.
This leads to a final, and crucial, issue. America would be more likely to find its core security interests challenged because world orders based on rival spheres of influence have rarely been as peaceful and settled as one might imagine.
To see this, just work backward from the present. During the Cold War, a bipolar balance did help avert actual war between Moscow and Washington. But even in Europe—where the spheres of influence were best defined—there were continual tensions and crises as Moscow tested the Western bloc. And outside Europe, violence and proxy wars were common as the superpowers competed to extend their reach into the Third World. In the 1930s, the emergence of German and Japanese spheres of influence led to the most catastrophic war in global history. The empires of the 19th century—spheres of influence in their own right—continually jostled one another, leading to wars and near-wars over the course of decades; the Peace of Amiens between England and Napoleonic France lasted a mere 14 months. And looking back to the ancient world, there were not one, but three Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage as two expanding empires came into conflict. A world defined by spheres of influence is often a world characterized by tensions, wars, and competition.
The reasons for this are simple. As the political scientist William Wohlforth observed, unipolar systems—such as the U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order—are anchored by a hegemonic power that can act decisively to maintain the peace. In a unipolar system, Wohlforth writes, there are few incentives for revisionist powers to incur the “focused enmity” of the leading state. Truly multipolar systems, by contrast, have often been volatile. When the major powers are more evenly matched, there is a greater temptation to aggression by those who seek to change the existing order of things. And seek to change things they undoubtedly will.
The idea that spheres of influence are stabilizing holds only if one assumes that the major powers are motivated only by insecurity and that concessions to the revisionists will therefore lead to peace. Churchill described this as the idea that if one “feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”
Unfortunately, today’s rising or resurgent powers are also motivated—as is America—by honor, ambition, and the timeless desire to make their international habitats reflect their own interests and ideals. It is a risky gamble indeed, then, to think that ceding Russia or China an uncontested sphere of influence would turn a revisionist authoritarian regime into a satisfied power. The result, as Robert Kagan has noted, might be to embolden those actors all the more, by giving them freer rein to bring their near-abroads under control, greater latitude and resources to pursue their ambitions, and enhanced confidence that the U.S.-led order is fracturing at its foundations. For China, dominance over the first island chain might simply intensify desires to achieve primacy in the second island chain and beyond; for Russia, renewed mastery in the former Soviet space could lead to desires to bring parts of the former Warsaw Pact to heel, as well. To observe how China is developing ever longer-range anti-access/area denial capabilities, or how Russia has been projecting military power ever farther afield, is to see this process in action.T he reemergence of a spheres-of-influence world would thus undercut one of the great historical achievements of U.S. foreign policy: the creation of a system in which America is the dominant power in each major geopolitical region and can act decisively to shape events and protect its interests. It would foster an environment in which democratic values are less prominent, authoritarian models are ascendant, and mercantilism advances as economic openness recedes. And rather than leading to multipolar stability, this change could simply encourage greater revisionism on the part of powers whose appetite grows with the eating. This would lead the world away from the relative stability of the post–Cold War era and back into the darker environment it seemed to have relegated to history a quarter-century ago. The phrase “spheres of influence” may sound vaguely theoretical and benign, but its real-world effects are likely to be tangible and pernicious.
Fortunately, the return of a spheres-of-influence world is not yet inevitable. Even as some nations will accept incorporation into a Chinese or Russian sphere of influence as the price of avoiding conflict, or maintaining access to critical markets and resources, others will resist because they see their own well-being as dependent on the preservation of the world order that Washington has long worked to create. The Philippines and Cambodia seem increasingly to fall into the former group; Poland and Japan, among many others, make up the latter. The willingness of even this latter group to take actions that risk incurring Beijing and Moscow’s wrath, however, will be constantly calibrated against an assessment of America’s own ability to continue leading the resistance to a spheres-of-influence world. Averting that outcome is becoming steadily harder, as the relative power and ambition of America’s authoritarian rivals rise and U.S. leadership seems to falter.
Harder, but not impossible. The United States and its allies still command a significant preponderance of global wealth and power. And the political, economic, and military weaknesses of its challengers are legion. It is far from fated, then, that the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe will slip into China’s and Russia’s respective orbits. With sufficient creativity and determination, Washington and its partners might still be able to resist the return of a dangerous global system. Doing so will require difficult policy work in the military, economic, and diplomatic realms. But ideas precede policy, and so simply rediscovering the venerable tradition of American hostility to spheres of influence—and no less, the powerful logic on which that tradition is based—would be a good start.
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What does the man with the baton actually do?
Why, then, are virtually all modern professional orchestras led by well-paid conductors instead of performing on their own? It’s an interesting question. After all, while many celebrity conductors are highly trained and knowledgeable, there have been others, some of them legendary, whose musical abilities were and are far more limited. It was no secret in the world of classical music that Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949, found it difficult to read full orchestral scores and sometimes learned how to lead them in public by first practicing with a pair of rehearsal pianists whom he “conducted” in private.
Yet recordings show that Koussevitzky’s interpretations of such complicated pieces of music as Aaron Copland’s El Salón México and Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (both of which he premiered and championed) were immensely characterful and distinctive. What made them so? Was it the virtuosic playing of the Boston Symphony alone? Or did Koussevitzky also bring something special to these performances—and if so, what was it?
Part of what makes this question so tricky to answer is that scarcely any well-known conductors have spoken or written in detail about what they do. Only two conductors of the first rank, Thomas Beecham and Bruno Walter, have left behind full-length autobiographies, and neither one features a discussion of its author’s technical methods. For this reason, the publication of John Mauceri’s Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting will be of special interest to those who, like my friend, wonder exactly what it is that conductors contribute to the performances that they lead.1
An impeccable musical journeyman best known for his lively performances of film music with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Mauceri has led most of the world’s top orchestras. He writes illuminatingly about his work in Maestros and Their Music, leavening his discussions of such matters as the foibles of opera directors and music critics with sharply pointed, sometimes gossipy anecdotes. Most interesting of all, though, are the chapters in which he talks about what conductors do on the podium. To read Maestros and Their Music is to come away with a much clearer understanding of what its author calls the “strange and lawless world” of conducting—and to understand how conductors whose technique is deficient to the point of seeming incompetence can still give exciting performances.P rior to the 19th century, conductors of the modern kind did not exist. Orchestras were smaller then—most of the ensembles that performed Mozart’s symphonies and operas contained anywhere from two to three dozen players—and their concerts were “conducted” either by the leader of the first violins or by the orchestra’s keyboard player.
As orchestras grew larger in response to the increasing complexity of 19th-century music, however, it became necessary for a full-time conductor both to rehearse them and to control their public performances, normally by standing on a podium placed in front of the musicians and beating time in the air with a baton. Most of the first men to do so were composers, including Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. By the end of the century, however, it was becoming increasingly common for musicians to specialize in conducting, and some of them, notably Arthur Nikisch and Arturo Toscanini, came to be regarded as virtuosos in their own right. Since then, only three important composers—Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez—have also pursued parallel careers as world-class conductors. Every other major conductor of the 20th century was a specialist.
What did these men do in front of an orchestra? Mauceri’s description of the basic physical process of conducting is admirably straightforward:
The right hand beats time; that is, it sets the tempo or pulse of the music. It can hold a baton. The left hand turns pages [in the orchestral score], cues instrumentalists with an invitational or pointing gesture, and generally indicates the quality of the notes (percussive, smoothly linked, sustained, etc.).
Beyond these elements, though, all bets are off. Most of the major conductors of the 20th century were filmed in performance, and what one sees in these films is so widely varied that it is impossible to generalize about what constitutes a good conducting technique.2 Most of them used batons, but several, including Boulez and Leopold Stokowski, conducted with their bare hands. Bernstein and Beecham gestured extravagantly, even wildly, while others, most famously Fritz Reiner, restricted themselves to tightly controlled hand movements. Toscanini beat time in a flowing, beautifully expressive way that made his musical intentions self-evident, but Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan often conducted so unclearly that it is hard to see how the orchestras they led were able to follow them. (One exasperated member of the London Philharmonic claimed, partly in jest, that Furtwängler’s baton signaled the start of a piece “only after the thirteenth preliminary wiggle.”) Conductors of the Furtwängler sort tend to be at their best in front of orchestras with which they have worked for many years and whose members have learned from experience to “speak” their gestural language fluently.
Nevertheless, all of these men were pursuing the same musical goals. Beyond stopping and starting a given piece, it is the job of a conductor to decide how it will be interpreted. How loud should the middle section of the first movement be—and ought the violins to be playing a bit softer so as not to drown out the flutes? Someone must answer questions such as these if a performance is not to sound indecisive or chaotic, and it is far easier for one person to do so than for 100 people to vote on each decision.
Above all, a conductor controls the tempo of a performance, varying it from moment to moment as he sees fit. It is impossible for a full-sized symphony orchestra to play a piece with any degree of rhythmic flexibility unless a conductor is controlling the performance from the podium. Bernstein put it well when he observed in a 1955 TV special that “the conductor is a kind of sculptor whose element is time instead of marble.” These “sculptural” decisions are subjective, since traditional musical notation cannot be matched with exactitude. As Mauceri reminds us, Toscanini and Beecham both recorded La Bohème, having previously discussed their interpretations with Giacomo Puccini, the opera’s composer, and Toscanini conducted its 1896 premiere. Yet Beecham’s performance is 14 minutes longer than Toscanini’s. Who is “right”? It is purely a matter of individual taste, since both interpretations are powerfully persuasive.
Beyond the not-so-basic task of setting, maintaining, and varying tempos, it is the job of a conductor to inspire an orchestra—to make its members play with a charged precision that transcends mere unanimity. The first step in doing so is to persuade the players of his musical competence. If he cannot run a rehearsal efficiently, they will soon grow bored and lose interest; if he does not know the score in detail, they will not take him seriously. This requires extensive preparation on the part of the conductor, and an orchestra can tell within seconds of the downbeat whether he is adequately prepared—a fact that every conductor knows. “I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do,” Bernstein once told an interviewer. “I work extremely hard and all the time.”
All things being equal, it is better than not for a conductor to have a clear technique, if only because it simplifies and streamlines the process of rehearsing an orchestra. Fritz Reiner, who taught Bernstein among others, did not exaggerate when he claimed that he and his pupils could “stand up [in front of] an orchestra they have never seen before and conduct correctly a new piece at first sight without verbal explanation and by means only of manual technique.”
While orchestra players prefer this kind of conducting, a conductor need not have a technique as fully developed as that of a Reiner or Bernstein if he knows how to rehearse effectively. Given sufficient rehearsal time, decisive and unambiguous verbal instructions will produce the same results as a virtuoso stick technique. This was how Willem Mengelberg and George Szell distinguished themselves on the podium. Their techniques were no better than adequate, but they rehearsed so meticulously that their performances were always brilliant and exact.
It also helps to supply the members of the orchestra with carefully marked orchestra parts. Beecham’s manual technique was notoriously messy, but he marked his musical intentions into each player’s part so clearly and precisely that simply reading the music on the stand would produce most of the effects that he desired.
What players do not like is to be lectured. They want to be told what to do and, if absolutely necessary, how to do it, at which point the wise conductor will stop talking and start conducting. Mauceri recalls the advice given to a group of student conductors by Joseph Silverstein, the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony: “Don’t talk to us about blue skies. Just tell us ‘longer-shorter,’ ‘faster-slower,’ ‘higher-lower.’” Professional musicians cannot abide flowery speeches about the inner meaning of a piece of music, though they will readily respond to a well-turned metaphor. Mauceri makes this point with a Toscanini anecdote:
One of Toscanini’s musicians told me of a moment in a rehearsal when the sound the NBC Symphony was giving him was too heavy. … In this case, without saying a word, he reached into his pocket and took out his silk handkerchief, tossed it into the air, and everyone watched it slowly glide to earth. After seeing that, the orchestra played the same passage exactly as Toscanini wanted.
Conducting, like all acts of leadership, is in large part a function of character. The violinist Carl Flesch went so far as to call it “the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary.” While that is putting it too cynically, Flesch was on to something. I did a fair amount of conducting in college, but even though I practiced endlessly in front of a mirror and spent hours poring over my scores, I lacked the personal magnetism without which no conductor can hope to be more than merely competent at best.
On the other hand, a talented musician with a sufficiently compelling personality can turn himself into a conductor more or less overnight. Toscanini had never conducted an orchestra before making his unrehearsed debut in a performance of Verdi’s Aida at the age of 19, yet the players hastened to do his musical bidding. I once saw the modern-dance choreographer Mark Morris, whose knowledge of classical music is profound, lead a chorus and orchestra in the score to Gloria, a dance he had made in 1981 to a piece by Vivaldi. It was no stunt: Morris used a baton and a score and controlled the performance with the assurance of a seasoned pro. Not only did he have a strong personality, but he had also done his musical homework, and he knew that one was as important as the other.
The reverse, however, is no less true: The success of conductors like Serge Koussevitzky is at least as much a function of their personalities as of their preparation. To be sure, Koussevitzky had been an instrumental virtuoso (he played the double bass) before taking up conducting, but everyone who worked with him in later years was aware of his musical limitations. Yet he was still capable of imposing his larger-than-life personality on players who might well have responded indifferently to his conducting had he been less charismatic. Leopold Stokowski functioned in much the same way. He was widely thought by his peers to have been far more a showman than an artist, to the point that Toscanini contemptuously dismissed him as a “clown.” But he had, like Koussevitzky, a richly romantic musical imagination coupled with the showmanship of a stage actor, and so the orchestras that he led, however skeptical they might be about his musical seriousness, did whatever he wanted.
All great conductors share this same ability to impose their will on an orchestra—and that, after all, is the heart of the matter. A conductor can be effective only if the orchestra does what he wants. It is not like a piano, whose notes automatically sound when the keys are pressed, but a living organism with a will of its own. Conducting, then, is first and foremost an act of persuasion, as Mauceri acknowledges:
The person who stands before a symphony orchestra is charged with something both impossible and improbable. The impossible part is herding a hundred musicians to agree on something, and the improbable part is that one does it by waving one’s hands in the air.
This is why so many famous conductors have claimed that the art of conducting cannot be taught. In the deepest sense, they are right. To be sure, it is perfectly possible, as Reiner did, to teach the rudiments of clear stick technique and effective rehearsal practice. But the mystery at the heart of conducting is, indeed, unteachable: One cannot tell a budding young conductor how to cultivate a magnetic personality, any more than an actor can be taught how to have star quality. What sets the Bernsteins and Bogarts of the world apart from the rest of us is very much like what James M. Barrie said of feminine charm in What Every Woman Knows: “If you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have.”
2 Excerpts from many of these films were woven together into a two-part BBC documentary, The Art of Conducting, which is available on home video and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube
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Not that he tries. What was remarkable about the condescension in this instance was that Franken directed it at women who accused him of behaving “inappropriately” toward them. (In an era of strictly enforced relativism, we struggle to find our footing in judging misbehavior, so we borrow words from the prissy language of etiquette. The mildest and most common rebuke is unfortunate, followed by the slightly more serious inappropriate, followed by the ultimate reproach: unacceptable, which, depending on the context, can include both attempted rape and blowing your nose into your dinner napkin.) Franken’s inappropriateness entailed, so to speak, squeezing the bottoms of complete strangers, and cupping the occasional breast.
Franken himself did not use the word “inappropriate.” By his account, he had done nothing to earn the title. His earlier vague denials of the allegations, he told his fellow senators, “gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done.” How could he have confused people about such an important matter? Doggone it, it’s that damn sensitivity of his. The nation was beginning a conversation about sexual harassment—squeezing strangers’ bottoms, stuff like that—and “I wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”
Well, not all women. The women with those bottoms and breasts he supposedly manhandled, for example—their experiences don’t deserve to be taken seriously. We’ve got Al’s word on it. “Some of the allegations against me are not true,” he said. “Others, I remember very differently.” His accusers, in other words, fall into one of two camps: the liars and the befuddled. You know how women can be sometimes. It might be a hormonal thing.
But enough about them, Al seemed to be saying: Let’s get back to Al. “I know the work I’ve been able to do has improved people’s lives,” Franken said, but he didn’t want to get into any specifics. “I have used my power to be a champion of women.” He has faith in his “proud legacy of progressive advocacy.” He’s been passionate and worked hard—not for himself, mind you, but for his home state of Minnesota, by which he’s “blown away.” And yes, he would get tired or discouraged or frustrated once in a while. But then that big heart of his would well up: “I would think about the people I was doing this for, and it would get me back on my feet.” Franken recently published a book about himself: Giant of the Senate. I had assumed the title was ironic. Now I’m not sure.
Yet even in his flights of self-love, the problem that has ever attended Senator Franken was still there. You can’t take him seriously. He looks as though God made him to be a figure of fun. Try as he might, his aspect is that of a man who is going to try to make you laugh, and who is built for that purpose and no other—a close cousin to Bert Lahr or Chris Farley. And for years, of course, that’s the part he played in public life, as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. When he announced nine years ago that he would return to Minnesota and run for the Senate—when he came out of the closet and tried to present himself as a man of substance—the effect was so disorienting that I, and probably many others, never quite recovered. As a comedian-turned-politician, he was no longer the one and could never quite become the other.
The chubby cheeks and the perpetual pucker, the slightly crossed eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses, the rounded, diminutive torso straining to stay upright under the weight of an enormous head—he was the very picture of Comedy Boy, and suddenly he wanted to be something else: Politics Boy. I have never seen the famously tasteless tearjerker The Day the Clown Cried, in which Jerry Lewis stars as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, but I’m sure watching it would be a lot like watching the ex-funnyman Franken deliver a speech about farm price supports.
Then he came to Washington and slipped right into place. His career is testament to a dreary fact of life here: Taken in the mass, senators are pretty much interchangeable. Party discipline determines nearly every vote they cast. Only at the margins is one Democrat or Republican different in a practical sense from another Democrat or Republican. Some of us held out hope, despite the premonitory evidence, that Franken might use his professional gifts in service of his new job. Yet so desperate was he to be taken seriously that he quickly passed serious and swung straight into obnoxious. It was a natural fit. In no time at all, he mastered the senatorial art of asking pointless or showy questions in committee hearings, looming from his riser over fumbling witnesses and hollering “Answer the question!” when they didn’t respond properly.
It’s not hard to be a good senator, if you have the kind of personality that frees you to simulate chumminess with people you scarcely know or have never met and will probably never see again. There’s not much to it. A senator has a huge staff to satisfy his every need. There are experts to give him brief, personal tutorials on any subject he will be asked about, writers to write his questions for his committee hearings and an occasional op-ed if an idea strikes him, staffers to arrange his travel and drive him here or there, political aides to guard his reputation with the folks back home, press aides to regulate his dealings with reporters, and legislative aides to write the bills should he ever want to introduce any. The rest is show biz.
Oddly, Franken was at his worst precisely when he was handling the show-biz aspects of his job. While his inquisitions in committee hearings often showed the obligatory ferocity and indignation, he could also appear baffled and aimless. His speeches weren’t much good, and he didn’t deliver them well. As if to prove the point, he published a collection of them earlier this year, Speaking Franken. Until Pearl Harbor, he’d been showing signs of wanting to run for president. Liberal pundits were talking him up as a national candidate. Speaking Franken was likely intended to do for him what Profiles in Courage did for John Kennedy, another middling senator with presidential longings. Unfortunately for Franken, Ted Sorensen is still dead.
The final question raised by Franken’s resignation is why so many fellow Democrats urged him to give up his seat so suddenly, once his last accuser came forward. The consensus view involved Roy Moore, in those dark days when he was favored to win Alabama’s special election. With the impending arrival of an accused pedophile on the Republican side of the aisle, Democrats didn’t want an accused sexual harasser in their own ranks to deflect what promised to be a relentless focus on the GOP’s newest senator. This is bad news for any legacy Franken once hoped for himself. None of his work as a senator will commend him to history. He will be remembered instead for two things: as a minor TV star, and as Roy Moore’s oldest victim.
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Review of 'Lioness' By Francine Klagsbrun
Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, moved to Palestine from America in 1921, at the age of 22, to pursue Socialist Zionism. She was instrumental in transforming the Jewish people into a state; signed that state’s Declaration of Independence; served as its first ambassador to the Soviet Union, as labor minister for seven years, and as foreign minister for a decade. In 1969, she became the first female head of state in the Western world, serving from the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and through the nearly catastrophic but ultimately victorious 1973 Yom Kippur War. She resigned in 1974 at the age of 76, after five years as prime minister. Her involvement at the forefront of Zionism and the leadership of Israel thus extended more than half a century.
This is the second major biography of Golda Meir in the last decade, after Elinor Burkett’s excellent Golda in 2008. Klagsbrun’s portrait is even grander in scope. Her epigraph comes from Ezekiel’s lamentation for Israel: What a lioness was your mother / Among the lions! / Crouching among the great beasts / She reared her cubs. The “mother” was Israel; the “cubs,” her many ancient kings; the “great beasts,” the hostile nations surrounding her. One finishes Klagsbrun’s monumental volume, which is both a biography of Golda and a biography of Israel in her time, with a deepened sense that modern Israel, its prime ministers, and its survival is a story of biblical proportions.Golda Meir’s story spans three countries—Russia, America, and Israel. Before she was Golda Meir, she was Golda Meyerson; and before that, she was Golda Mabovitch, born in 1898 in Kiev in the Russian Empire. Her father left for America after the horrific Kishinev pogrom in 1903, found work in Milwaukee as a carpenter, and in 1906 sent for his wife and three daughters, who escaped using false identities and border bribes. Golda said later that what she took from Russia was “fear, hunger and fear.” It was an existential fear that she never forgot.
In Milwaukee, Golda found socialism in the air: The city had both a socialist mayor and a socialist congressman, and she was enthralled by news from Palestine, where Jews were living out socialist ideals in kibbutzim. She immersed herself in Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), a movement synthesizing Zionism and socialism, and in 1917 married a fellow socialist, Morris Meyerson. As soon as conditions permitted, they moved to Palestine, where the marriage ultimately failed—a casualty of the extended periods she spent away from home working for Socialist Zionism and her admission that the cause was more important to her than her husband and children. Klagsbrun writes that Meir might appear to be the consummate feminist: She asserted her independence from her husband, traveled continually and extensively on her own, left her husband and children for months to pursue her work, and demanded respect as an individual rather than on special standards based on her gender. But she never considered herself a feminist and indeed denigrated women’s organizations as reducing issues to women’s interests only, and she gave minimal assistance to other women. Klagsbrun concludes that questions about Meir as a feminist figure ultimately “hang in the air.”
Her American connection and her unaccented American English became strategic assets for Zionism. She understood American Jews, spoke their language, and conducted many fundraising trips to the United States, tirelessly raising tens of millions of dollars of critically needed funds. David Ben-Gurion called her the “woman who got the money which made the state possible.” Klagsbrun provides the schedule of her 1932 trip as an example of her efforts: Over the course of a single month, the 34-year-old Zionist pioneer traveled to Kansas City, Tulsa, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and three cities in Canada. She became the face of Zionism in America—“The First Lady,” in the words of a huge banner at a later Chicago event, “of the Jewish People.” She connected with American Jews in a way no other Zionist leader had done before her.
In her own straightforward way, she mobilized the English language and sent it into battle for Zionism. While Abba Eban denigrated her poor Hebrew—“She has a vocabulary of two thousand words, okay, but why doesn’t she use them?”—she had a way of crystallizing issues in plainspoken English. Of British attempts to prevent the growth of the Jewish community in Palestine, she said Britain “should remember that Jews were here 2,000 years before the British came.” Of expressions of sympathy for Israel: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.” And perhaps her most famous saying: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”
Once she moved to the Israeli foreign ministry, she changed her name from Meyerson to Meir, in response to Ben-Gurion’s insistence that ministers assume Israeli names. She began a decade-long tenure there as the voice and face of Israel in the world. At a Madison Square Garden rally after the 1967 Six-Day War, she observed sardonically that the world called Israelis “a wonderful people,” complimented them for having prevailed “against such odds,” and yet wanted Israel to give up what it needed for its self-defense:
“Now that they have won this battle, let them go back where they came from, so that the hills of Syria will again be open for Syrian guns; so that Jordanian Legionnaires, who shoot and shell at will, can again stand on the towers of the Old City of Jerusalem; so that the Gaza Strip will again become a place from which infiltrators are sent to kill and ambush.” … Is there anybody who has the boldness to say to the Israelis: “Go home! Begin preparing your nine and ten year olds for the next war, perhaps in ten years.”
The next war would come not in ten years, but in six, and while Meir was prime minister.
Klagsbrun’s extended discussion of Meir’s leadership before, during, and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War is one of the most valuable parts of her book, enabling readers to make informed judgments about that war and assess Meir’s ultimate place in Israeli history. The book makes a convincing case that there was no pre-war “peace option” that could have prevented the conflict. Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, was insisting on a complete Israeli withdrawal before negotiations could even begin, and Meir’s view was, “We had no peace with the old boundaries. How can we have peace by returning to them?” She considered the demand part of a plan to push Israel back to the ’67 lines “and then bring the Palestinians back, which means no more Israel.”
A half-century later, after three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state on substantially all the disputed territories—with the Palestinians rejecting each offer, insisting instead on an Israeli retreat to indefensible lines and recognition of an alleged Palestinian “right of return”—Meir’s view looks prescient.
Klagsbrun’s day-by-day description of the ensuing war is largely favorable to Meir, who relied on assurances from her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, that the Arabs would not attack, and assurances from her intelligence community that, even if they did, Israel would have a 48-hour notice—enough time to mobilize the reserves that constituted more than 75 percent of its military force. Both sets of assurances proved false, and the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack took virtually everyone in Israel by surprise. Dayan had something close to a mental breakdown, but Meir remained calm and in control after the initial shock, making key military decisions. She was able to rely on the excellent personal relationships she had established with President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and the critical resupply of American arms that enabled Israel—once its reserves were called into action—to take the war into Egyptian and Syrian territories, with Israeli forces camped in both countries by its end.
Meir had resisted the option of a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria when it suddenly became clear, 12 hours before the war started, that coordinated Egyptian and Syrian attacks were coming. On the second day of the war, she told her war cabinet that she regretted not having authorized the IDF to act, and she sent a message to Kissinger that Israel’s “failure to take such action is the reason for our situation now.” After the war, however, she testified that, had Israel begun the war, the U.S. would not have sent the crucial assistance that Israel needed (a point on which Kissinger agreed), and that she therefore believed she had done the right thing. A preemptive response, however, or a massive call-up of the reserves in the days before the attacks, might have avoided a war in which Israel lost 2,600 soldiers—the demographic equivalent of all the American losses in the Vietnam War.
It is hard to fault Meir’s decision, given the erroneous information and advice she was uniformly receiving from all her defense and intelligence subordinates, but it is a reminder that for Israeli prime ministers (such as Levi Eshkol in the Six-Day War, Menachem Begin with the Iraq nuclear reactor in 1981, and Ehud Olmert with the Syrian one in 2007), the potential necessity of taking preemptive action always hangs in the air. Klagsbrun’s extensive discussion of the Yom Kippur War is a case study of that question, and an Israeli prime minister may yet again face that situation.
The Meir story is also a tale of the limits of socialism as an organizing principle for the modern state. Klagsbrun writes about “Golda’s persistent—and hopelessly utopian—vision of how a socialist society should be conducted,” exemplified by her dream of instituting commune-like living arrangements for urban families, comparable to those in the kibbutzim, where all adults would share common kitchens and all the children would eat at school. She also tried to institute a family wage system, in which people would be paid according to their needs rather than their talents, a battle she lost when the unionized nurses insisted on being paid as professionals, based on their education and experience, and not the sizes of their families.
Socialism foundered not only on the laws of economics and human nature but also in the realm of foreign relations. In 1973, enraged that the socialist governments and leaders in Europe had refused to come to Israel’s aid during the Yom Kippur War, Meir convened a special London conference of the Socialist International, attended by eight heads of state and a dozen other socialist-party leaders. Before the conference, she told Willy Brandt, Germany’s socialist chancellor, that she wanted “to hear for myself, with my own ears, what it was that kept the heads of these socialist governments from helping us.”
In her speech at the conference, she criticized the Europeans for not even permitting “refueling the [American] planes that saved us from destruction.” Then she told them, “I just want to understand …what socialism is really about today”:
We are all old comrades, long-standing friends. … Believe me, I am the last person to belittle the fact that we are only one tiny Jewish state and that there are over twenty Arab states with vast territories, endless oil, and billions of dollars. But what I want to know from you today is whether these things are the decisive factors in Socialist thinking, too?
After she concluded her speech, the chairman asked whether anyone wanted to reply. No one did, and she thus effectively received her answer.
One wonders what Meir would think of the Socialist International today. On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration last year, the World Socialist website called it “a sordid deal” that launched “a nakedly colonial project.” Socialism was part of the cause for which she went to Palestine in 1921, and it has not fared well in history’s judgment. But the other half—
Zionism—became one of the great successes of the 20th century, in significant part because of the lifelong efforts of individuals such as she.
Golda Meir has long been a popular figure in the American imagination, particularly among American Jews. Her ghostwritten autobiography was a bestseller; Ingrid Bergman played her in a well-received TV film; Anne Bancroft played her on the Broadway stage. But her image as the “71-year old grandmother,” as the press frequently referred to her when she became prime minister, has always obscured the historic leader beneath that façade. She was a woman with strengths and weaknesses who willed herself into half a century of history. Francine Klagsbrun has given us a magisterial portrait of a lioness in full.
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Back in 2016, then–deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes gave an extraordinary interview to the New York Times Magazine in which he revealed how President Obama exploited a clueless and deracinated press to steamroll opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes told journalist David Samuels. “They”—writers and bloggers and pundits—“were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Rhodes went on to explain that his job was made easier by structural changes in the media, such as the closing of foreign bureaus, the retirement of experienced editors and correspondents, and the shift from investigative reporting to aggregation. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” he said. “That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
And they haven’t learned much. It was dispiriting to watch in December as journalists repeated arguments against the Jerusalem decision presented by Rhodes on Twitter. On December 5, quoting Mahmoud Abbas’s threat that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would have “dangerous consequences,” Rhodes tweeted, “Trump seems to view all foreign policy as an extension of a patchwork of domestic policy positions, with no regard for the consequences of his actions.” He seemed blissfully unaware that the same could be said of his old boss.
The following day, Rhodes tweeted, “In addition to making goal of peace even less possible, Trump is risking huge blowback against the U.S. and Americans. For no reason other than a political promise he doesn’t even understand.” On December 8, quoting from a report that the construction of a new American Embassy would take some time, Rhodes asked, “Then why cause an international crisis by announcing it?”
Rhodes made clear his talking points for the millions of people inclined to criticize President Trump: Acknowledging Israel’s right to name its own capital is unnecessary and self-destructive. Rhodes’s former assistant, Ned Price, condensed the potential lines of attack in a single tweet on December 5. “In order to cater to his political base,” Price wrote, “Trump appears willing to: put U.S. personnel at great risk; risk C-ISIL [counter-ISIL] momentum; destabilize a regional ally; strain global alliances; put Israeli-Palestinian peace farther out of reach.”
Prominent media figures happily reprised their roles in the echo chamber. Susan Glasser of Politico: “Just got this in my in box from Ayman Odeh, leading Arab Israeli member of parliament: ‘Trump is a pyromaniac who could set the entire region on fire with his madness.’” BBC reporter Julia Merryfarlane: “Whether related or not, everything that happens from now on in Israel and the Pal territories will be examined in the context of Trump signaling to move the embassy to Jerusalem.” Neither Rhodes nor Price could have asked for more.
Network news broadcasts described the president’s decision as “controversial” but only reported on the views of one side in the controversy. Guess which one. “There have already been some demonstrations,” reported NBC’s Richard Engel. “They are expected to intensify, with Palestinians calling for three days of rage if President Trump goes through with it.” Left unmentioned was the fact that Hamas calls for days of rage like you and I call for pizza.
Throughout Engel’s segment, the chyron read: “Controversial decision could lead to upheaval.” On ABC, George Stephanopoulos said, “World leaders call the decision dangerous.” On CBS, Gayle King chimed in: “U.S. allies and leaders around the world say it’s a big mistake that will torpedo any chance of Middle East peace.” Oh? What were the chances of Middle East peace prior to Trump’s speech?
On CNN, longtime peace processor Aaron David Miller likened recognizing Jerusalem to hitting “somebody over the head with a hammer.” On MSNBC, Chris Matthews fumed: “Deaths are coming.” That same network featured foreign-policy gadfly Steven Clemons of the Atlantic, who said Trump “stuck a knife in the back of the two-state process.” Price and former Obama official Joel Rubin also appeared on the network to denounce Trump. “American credibility is shot, and in diplomacy, credibility relies on your word, and our word is, at this moment, not to be trusted from a peace-process perspective, certainly,” Rubin said. This from the administration that gave new meaning to the words “red line.”
Some journalists were so devoted to Rhodes’s tendentious narrative of Trump’s selfishness and heedlessness that they mangled the actual story. “He had promised this day would come, but to hear these words from the White House was jaw-dropping,” said Martha Raddatz of ABC. “Not only signing a proclamation reversing nearly 70 years of U.S. policy, but starting plans to move the embassy to Jerusalem. No one else on earth has an embassy there!” How dare America take a brave stand for a small and threatened democracy!
In fact, Trump was following U.S. policy as legislated by the Congress in 1995, reaffirmed in the Senate by a 90–0 vote just last June, and supported (in word if not in deed) by his three most recent predecessors as well as the last four Democratic party platforms. Most remarkable, the debate surrounding the Jerusalem policy ignored a crucial section of the president’s address. “We are not taking a position on any final-status issues,” he said, “including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” What we did then was simply accept the reality that the city that houses the Knesset and where the head of government receives foreign dignitaries is the capital of Israel.
However, just as had happened during the debate over the Iran deal, the facts were far less important to Rhodes than the overarching strategic goal. In this case, the objective was to discredit and undermine President Trump’s policy while isolating the conservative government of Israel. Yet there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical toward the disingenuous duo of Rhodes and Price. Trump’s announcement was bold, for sure, but the tepid protests from Arab capitals more worried about the rise of Iran, which Rhodes and Price facilitated, than the Palestinian issue suggested that the “Arab street” would sit this one out.
Which is what happened. Moreover, verbal disagreement aside, there is no evidence that the Atlantic alliance is in jeopardy. Nor has the war on ISIS lost momentum. As for putting “Israeli–Palestinian peace farther out of reach,” if third-party recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital forecloses a deal, perhaps no deal was ever possible. Rhodes and Price would like us to overlook the fact that the two sides weren’t even negotiating during the Obama administration—an administration that did as much as possible to harm relations between Israel and the United States.
This most recent episode of the Trump show was a reminder that some things never change. Jerusalem was, is, and will be the capital of the Jewish state. President Trump routinely ignores conventional wisdom and expert opinion. And whatever nonsense President Obama and his allies say today, the press will echo tomorrow.