It can be...if the Israelis allow it to happen.
They will feast on the abundance of the seas, and on the treasures of the sands.
Tamar sits 56 miles off the coast of Israel, an offshore gas platform rising up from the Mediterranean like a white steel beacon whose roots reach down 1,000 feet to the seabed. Named for the natural-gas field beneath the sea floor, Tamar is the symbol of a bright future for Israel if Israel is ready for it: as the newest energy producer and exporter in the Middle East, and potentially the most important.
A classic quip since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 has been that Moses brought his people out of Egypt to the one spot in the Middle East that didn’t have oil. “We proved that joke to be wrong,” says Gideon Tadmor, chairman of the Delek Group, one of a consortium of companies that built the Tamar platform. Delek and its partners began extracting gas from Tamar in March 2013 and has been doing so with the natural gas from three other fields as well. Ten years ago, Israel was a country 80 percent powered by coal, with the remaining 20 percent from oil—all of which had to be imported. Now, natural gas supplies half those energy needs. The known fields could contain more than 900 billion cubic meters of natural gas. In global terms, that’s not much—roughly the amount the United States consumes in a year. But for a country of only 8 million people, it’s an energy bonanza. And, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Levant basin in which Israel’s fields sit may contain a total of 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—about half the reserves in the United States with a fraction of the demand.
Nor is that all. Even before the first discoveries of natural gas in 1999, geologists had determined there were huge oil-shale fields stretching along Israel’s coastal plain. Those fields contained recoverable reserves, according to the latest estimate, of up to 250 billion barrels—almost equal to Saudi Arabia’s.
In short, Israel is poised not only for future energy independence, but for becoming a major regional energy player—maybe even, if it uses its resources wisely, the next energy superpower. The looming question, however, is not whether the world is ready for Israel to be the next Texas. It’s whether the Israelis are ready.
I got my introduction to the Tamar platform, and to Israel’s adventure in becoming an energy player, even before my wife, Beth, and I arrived in Israel, on the plane from Newark bound for Tel Aviv. The passenger sitting next to us looked as if he was headed for a country-music festival. He wore a baseball cap with the logo of Noble Energy—one of the key players in the natural-gas revolution. We learned he had spent 30 years in the oil and gas business as a platform operator, including in West Africa and Thailand, before Noble had sent him out to Israel. Now he works on the Tamar platform. After 28 days there, he’ll head home to Louisiana for four weeks to see his family and kids; they will be able to afford college thanks to the money he’s earned working for Noble in Israel.
He also pointed out his fellow workers on the plane scattered among the Orthodox and Hasidic passengers—“roughnecks” (members of a drilling crew), “tool pushers,” and mechanics. They all hailed from Texas, Oklahoma, and his native Louisiana, and one or two wore baseball caps with Hebrew lettering. These are the migrant laborers of Israel’s newest industry, and proof of how much Israel depends on the United States for exploring, drilling, and developing its new-found energy resources. That may change as Israel’s talent for innovation gets focused on energy technologies; Israelis themselves may accelerate the transition to faster, more efficient, and environmentally safer exploitation of both deep-water gas reserves and what are called the “unconventional oil sources,” meaning oil shale and oil sands.
Indeed, it is in oil shale that the story of Israel’s energy revolution really begins.
Israel has had a long and bitter history of looking for oil and finding none. Beginning in 1953, the National Oil Industry began launching a series of exploratory drilling holes. In just over 33 years, it sank more than 410 wells—and found exactly five gas fields and three oil fields. The country’s most productive oil field is near Helez, and it wasn’t even discovered by Israel; Iraq Petroleum found it before 1948 and then sealed it up when Israel achieved its independence. Since the Israelis opened it again in 1955, Helez has produced 17.2 million barrels—an amount that would power Israel’s current economy for only five weeks. In 1986, the Israeli government finally gave up and suspended its three-decade ritual of frustration.
Then, just two years later, the ground shifted, almost literally, under the government’s feet. The very first comprehensive geological survey of Israel, including the coastal plain, revealed the existence of large deposits of oil shale, or kerogen.
Kerogen is a pre-petroleum organic compound of dead algae from long-extinct bodies of water. It is, in effect, a precursor to oil. Under great pressure and heat, kerogen can turn into the same kind of hydrocarbon compound as conventional petroleum. Rich kerogen deposits are found all over the world, from the Green River formation in Colorado to the Jordan River valley, including Israel.
Once the discovery was confirmed in 2006, the Israeli government began looking for partners in the United States. American companies had been wildcatting in Israel for decades. But while most knew how to drill, they were clueless about where. Instead, like Zion Oil’s John Brown, they were managed by Christian fundamentalists who were literally relying on the Word of God as their guide. One wildcatter in the 1960s was led by a passage from Deuteronomy to conclude there was oil located somewhere on the ancient lands of the tribe of Asher, on “the foot of Asher” between Haifa and Caesarea. No luck.
In 2007 the search for an American partner brought an Israel Petroleum Authority official to Houston and the offices of Shell Oil. It was a smart choice. Shell had been making breakthrough discoveries in how to produce oil from shale rock, thanks to its chief scientist, Harold Vinegar. He had modified a process, developed by the Swedes during World War II, of distilling kerogen into a usable fuel—an innovation that made the extraction of oil shale in Colorado’s Green River formation feasible and economical.
Vinegar had been working in Colorado when he learned about the rich kerogen deposits in Israel that extended into Jordan. Shell had already partnered with Jordan’s King Abdullah—and Vinegar, a Jew, was unhappy that the project didn’t include Israel, especially since the best shale rock was known to be on the Israeli side of the border. But he also knew that Shell, like all the other major oil companies, feared offending the Saudis by involving itself in Israeli oil speculation. Vinegar knew the Israeli official was on a fool’s errand.
One night the official came to dinner with Harold and his wife, Robin, and pressed Vinegar again and again. “Are you sure you can’t get Shell to come to Israel?” Vinegar had to keep repeating, no there was no way that was going to happen.
So the official suddenly changed gears. “Then you come!” he urged Vinegar. “Start a company. Put in an application for oil-shale exploration rights.”
Vinegar had been to Israel exactly once, back in 1972. His roots were in America. He had never formed a company in his life. But as Vinegar tells the story, the Israeli wouldn’t take no for an answer. Finally the Israeli took his leave, but not before he made one last pitch: “You just come,” he told Vinegar. “The money will find you.”
On October 31, 2008, Vinegar wrapped up his job at Shell and made the move. He was joined soon afterward by Yuval Bartov, who was teaching petroleum geology at the Colorado School of Mines. With backing from an American investor named Howard Jonas, whose path he had crossed working in Colorado, Vinegar was able to raise the money to create Israel Energy Initiatives in 2009, with Yuval Bartov as its first employer.
Today Israel Energy Initiatives sits in Har Hotzvim, the modernistic office park outside Jerusalem where many of Israel’s most innovative high-tech companies have their headquarters (some have taken to calling it “Shalom Valley”). Vinegar is a broadly girthed, vigorous, and gregarious sixtysomething with a shock of white curly hair and a loud, infectious laugh. He reminded me instantly of Herman Kahn, whose iconoclastic theories of thermonuclear warfare sent shock waves through the American public consciousness—just as Harold Vinegar and his investors are sending shock waves through Israel’s.
Sitting down to an afternoon with Vinegar and Bartov means having an engaging seminar not just on the technology of oil shale and its extraction, but on the opportunities as well as obstacles to their vision of an oil-rich Israel. The company drilled a test well in the Elah Valley southwest of Jerusalem. Based on the information they gleaned from that test, Bartov now thinks there are at least 40 to 60 billion barrels of recoverable oil there—about one-quarter of the 250 billion barrels Bartov and the Israeli Geological Survey estimate are within Israel’s reach.
But here is the problem. Current techniques for extracting oil, including the relatively new method called fracking, won’t work with kerogen. And it is too time-consuming and expensive to mine the kerogen and then, after pulling it up, apply the heat and pressure necessary to turn it into oil.
The trick, as Vinegar and Bartov explain it, is heating and pressuring the kerogen while it’s still in the ground. To do so, they would use a series of heater wells, each six inches in diameter, driven down into the kerogen. The wells would act like a pot still for whisky, literally cooking the shale at around 300 degrees Celsius until its various components are distilled and collected. Those include natural gas, water, and hydrogen sulfide (which is highly toxic but can be isolated to make by-products such as fertilizer).
But mostly, the process (called “retorting”) would produce oil—roughly 25 barrels per ton (which equals roughly a cubic meter of oil shale). It would come out as a translucent golden-brown liquid instead of the typical black sludge that passes as crude oil—ready to go to one of Israel’s two refineries for conversion into fuel.
The process is expensive, but it can still produce oil at $40 a barrel, well below the current global price of $80–$100 dollars a barrel. If it sounds complicated or wasteful, consider: A single square kilometer of shale could supply enough oil to meet Israel’s entire needs for a year. That’s because horizontal drilling—the other technology besides hydraulic fracking that’s opened up oil and gas reserves once considered inaccessible—enables the direction of drilling to turn sideways, allowing a much wider area of shale rock to be exposed. In effect, a single well can spread its drilling tentacles wide and deep underground, making development not only more efficient, but also economical in terms of land use.
For now, Vinegar and Bartov envision a pilot program involving a series of wells in the Elah Valley heating a 30-meter zone and producing the first 500 barrels in the first year, in order to establish the commercial viability of the oil-shale project. And with reserves holding the equivalent of 250 billion barrels, that would just be the start.
In the meantime, however, their discoveries have been overshadowed by natural gas.
As with oil shale, Israel’s natural-gas story involves Israeli and American entrepreneurs working together to change the country’s energy fortunes.
The Israeli in this case was Gideon Tadmor, a former lawyer who in 1991 set up his own gas-drilling company, on the bet that the same offshore fields that provided Egypt with its natural gas from the Nile Delta might extend into Israeli territorial waters. Like his Israel Petroleum Authority counterpart, he then set off on a pilgrimage to America to find a company bold enough to open the offshore fields, and brave enough to defy any possible Arab boycott.
That company was Noble Energy of Houston—an oil-drilling company founded in southern Oklahoma by Lloyd Noble in the 1930s that had expanded its operations to offshore natural gas. For its CEO, Charles Davidson, the Israeli offer was an opportunity to use their deep-water expertise to make some money while helping the state of Israel.
Noble engineers arrived in 1999 and, with deep seismic testing, confirmed the existence of hitherto unknown deposits of natural gas just a few miles off the Israeli coast. Noble helped to sink Israel’s first offshore gas well in 2002, called Noa, followed by Mari-B in 2004. Then in 2009, Noble’s geologists disclosed to Tadmor and the Israelis that they had found a much larger field named Tamar, with roughly 10 trillion cubic feet of gas. Those were reserves rich enough to invest in erecting a $3 billion offshore platform to which gas from the entire Tamar field could be piped—the biggest infrastructure project in Israeli history. Divers operating as deep as 800 feet installed 457 miles of pipe and 1,200 miles of umbilical tubing to move the gas from fields 90 miles out to shallower water where the platform sits—the longest undersea “tie back” in the history of the offshore-energy world. The platform itself weighs 34,000 tons, and from sea floor to the tip of the platform measures 950 feet, 150 feet higher than Israel’s tallest skyscraper, the Moshe Aviv Tower in Ramat Gan.
Fifty workers labor around the clock, monitoring the flow from six principal wells—some more than 20 miles away and three miles below the seabed—to the platform, where various contaminates (sand, water, sulphur, and extraneous gases) are extracted so the final product can be shipped via a 150-kilometer pipeline to a terminal at Ashdod, from which it is fed to power stations that supply Israel’s electrical grid.
Tamar opened for business in March 2013. It currently pumps 1 billion cubic feet of gas a day, more than enough to serve Israel’s natural-gas needs—even though, thanks to Tamar and Mari-B, almost 40 percent of Israel’s electricity supply has now switched over to natural gas. The opening of Tamar was pronounced “historic” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. It was the crucial element in the Netanyahu government’s 2010 plan to enable Israel to achieve energy independence in 10 years.
But nothing prepared anyone for the next discovery, dubbed Leviathan. Found in 2010, Leviathan is more than double the size of Tamar, with 16 to 18 trillion cubic feet of gas. The full extent of the field is still unknown, but energy consultant Paul Mecray told me it’s easily one of the biggest offshore gas discoveries in a decade.
Together with Tamar, Leviathan is big enough to supply all of Israel’s energy needs for decades, even if everything in the country is switched over to natural gas from electricity to cars—and with plenty left over for a booming export business. Noble’s estimate is that Israel will be looking at $145 billion in energy savings and in revenue from taxes.
As Noble awaits approval of a lease to develop the massive field, a wealth of options open up, both for Noble and her Israeli partners Delek Drilling and Avner Oil and Gas Exploration, and for Israel. Almost all involve exporting the bulk of Leviathan’s gas. As Amit Mor, former assistant to Israeli Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure and now CEO of Eco Energy, says, “We now have gas for 50–60 years, in terms of domestic reserves, and that’s even with the most [pessimistic] figures.”
One option involves building an export pipeline to Turkey, which would want the gas as a cheaper alternative to buying from Russia. Given Israel’s up-and-down state of relations with Turkey, however—and a lack of encouragement from the current Turkish government—that option has few supporters.
More attractive is building a pipeline to Egypt, where facilities already exist to collect and process the gas—a special irony considering Egypt was once Israel’s own longtime source of natural gas until the now-ousted President Mohammed Morsi cut off the supply in early 2013.
A third option would be to create a major liquid-natural-gas hub in conjunction with Cyprus, only 250 miles as the crow flies from Israel. The island nation has recently discovered its own huge offshore fields—more than 500 billion cubic feet’s worth. The government of Cyprus would love to see that gas exported as a way to resuscitate its economy, but it needs 600 billion cubic feet to build an export facility that’s economically feasible. If Israel supplied that extra 100 billion, and shipped its own gas to the same facility, Israel and Cyprus together could become important players in the European energy market. Russia is now the principal supplier, at more than three times the global market price for natural gas—and Vladimir Putin is not afraid to use the threat of cutting off supplies for political leverage.
A European Union market for Israeli liquid natural gas could have huge geopolitical ramifications in changing Europe’s perception of the Jewish state. It’s one reason the Israeli government is negotiating with Woodside Petroleum, an Australian company that specializes in building liquid-natural-gas facilities, for a 30 percent stake in the development of Leviathan. Such a market might even make internal European pressures to boycott Israel go away. Yet Cyprus’s close ties to Russia, and its dealings with Russia’s state-run gas monopoly Gazprom, raise questions about whether relying on the Cypriot connection might be sowing the seeds of trouble later on.
Another idea I discussed with Noble officials would be to construct a floating liquid-natural-gas plant (or FLNG) that would collect, process, and liquefy natural gas for export directly from a Leviathan-based platform. FLNGs are huge and expensive—the one Royal Dutch Shell is building in South Korea for the western Australian gas fields is the size of six aircraft carriers—but it costs less than an onshore facility. A Leviathan-based FLNG could serve as the anchor for processing and liquefying Cypriot gas as well—except under Israel’s control instead of Cyprus’s.
These and other scenarios have one thing in common: the assumption that exporting a sizable portion of Israel’s gas finds is the key to getting the most out of the discoveries, financially as well as politically, and that includes exporting to Israel’s more immediate neighbors.
One of those is Jordan. Israel now has a fast-growing network of gas pipelines running from Noble and Delek’s processing center at Ashdod up the coast, and across to the east. Extending the pipeline into Jordan would help not only to create an economic bond between the two countries but also to stabilize Jordan’s economy and King Abdullah’s government, especially since Jordan’s own oil-shale project, so elaborately put together with Shell, might not produce anything until the 2020s.
The other is the Palestinian Authority. Its own offshore gas fields, Gaza Marine, lie untapped and unexplored because Hamas refuses to allow anyone to get near them—largely because Hamas’s patron, Iran, has ordered that they lie fallow. So while Hezbollah and Hamas are managing to keep Israeli gas out of Gaza and Lebanon, at least for now, Israel is opting instead to pump to the West Bank. Noble already signed a 20-year contract to supply the Palestine Power Company, starting in 2016 or 2017. A similar contract with Jordan is in the works.
There is time to weigh all options. No supplies from Leviathan can start flowing until Noble and its partners have built an onshore terminal in Israel for supplying the domestic market (two sites are now pending). That won’t happen before 2017. A FLNG couldn’t begin operating until sometime in 2018. A link-up with Cyprus would not come until after that.
All the same, combined with the promise of oil shale, Tamar and Leviathan together seem an unbelievable bonanza for the state of Israel, including its foreign relations. Back in his office at Har Hovitzim, Vinegar sees the two projects working together in harmony. “The natural gas in the Mediterranean will have a very favorable impact on the economy; but this will have a greater effect,” Vinegar told me. “[The kerogen production] means energy security for Israel, almost forever. It means an enormous continuing source of income. It means so many jobs—in both primary and related industries.” But with a wry smile, he adds, “I wish it were going faster.” The fact is, many Israelis are skeptical about Vinegar’s project and Israel’s offshore gas prospects.
And, incredibly, there are even some who’d like to put a halt to the entire proceedings.
During our visit to Israel, friends took my wife and me to a large beach north of the city of Benyamina that sits within walking distance of their former kibbutz. They explained that this beach was one of the sites where Noble Energy had proposed building a reception terminal for Leviathan, until residents and communities banded together to say no, and in a series of furious public meetings blocked the plan.
For many in the Benyamina area, including our friends, the words Noble Energy are dirty. Listening to the roar of the surf and watching the sun set in an explosion of orange and pink over sand dunes that have been largely untouched since Phoenicians came to trade here three millennia ago, it was easy to see why.
The sudden oil and gas explosion has set off a predictable blowback from elements of the Israeli public, and the Israeli political class, especially on the left. It’s not just the “not in our back yard” mentality and fears of burgeoning industrial sites where there used to be pristine beaches, or the specter of historic sites in the Holy Land destroyed in a reckless quest for oil (Elah Valley is where the Bible tells us David fought Goliath). It has also triggered a furious campaign from environmentalists, who’ve gone after the oil-shale project with the same rage and determination as opponents of fracking in this country.
Leading the environmentalist charge since 2011 has been Orr Karassin, who represents the Green Zionist Alliance on the board of directors of the Jewish National Fund. She spearheaded a high-profile report opposing oil-shale production and Vinegar’s pilot program. “There are too many questions,” she told the Jerusalem Post, “regarding the environmental consequences,” especially regarding safety concerns, including pollution of the water table, the possibility of underground fires, and even, she says, “very substantial indications of seismic activity, to the point of earthquakes.”
Others share her apocalyptic vision of what might happen if Vinegar and his team get their way. “The Elah Valley will be turned into a great oil-shale production site,” an article in Haaretz claimed. “Its vistas will likely be ruined, its soil and groundwater polluted by heavy metals, and its clean air will become a distant memory.”
Vinegar rolls his eyes at the suggestion that his production method will trigger earthquakes. The retorting process he and his team would use is “environmentally sound,” he says emphatically. Since the process is operated at pressures below hydrostatic pressure, any flow will be into the heated zone, not out into the aquifer, which is protected by thick layers of impermeable rock.
In addition, he points out, unlike conventional oil drilling, the retorting process will leave a tiny environmental footprint: less than a square kilometer over the life of 30 years of production, thanks to horizontal drilling.
Karassin and her supporters remain unconvinced. Any oil-shale pilot program, she says, “must be defined to the point where the impact of the technology is clear.” But as Vinegar and Bartov point out, there’s no way to understand the impact without a pilot program: “I’m sure we’ll have a very small impact on air and no effect on water. But the pilot has to show it.”
It’s a classic catch-22, with opponents saying a project should be blocked because the technology is untested even though the only way the technology can be tested is by running the project. Yet Karassin is honest about the fact that, even if every environmental concern were answered, she would still be opposed: “Oil shale does not synchronize well with the current Israeli policy on alternative” energy sources such as wind, solar, and biofuels, she told the Post. (The Netanyahu government publicly pledged to convert 10 percent of Israel’s electricity production to so-called clean renewables.) “Israel’s wider interests must take precedence. And those require that the oil shale stays where it is.”
Vinegar is incensed at this myopia masquerading as farsightedness. Oil, even more than natural gas from the sea, “means energy security for Israel, almost forever.” It offers more options than just relying on gas exports as a national energy dividend, and in more concrete terms. Israel’s vehicle as well as civilian- and military-aircraft needs amount to 50,000 barrels of oil a day. A successful program in the Shfela basin could deliver as much as four times that, or 200,000 barrels a day—more than enough to sustain Israel’s fighting forces on the ground and in the air during a prolonged crisis.
Critics like Karassin refuse to listen, or don’t care. Yet the green lobby has twice failed to halt the Elah Valley pilot project in Israel’s Supreme Court. Vinegar’s Israel Energy Initiatives is now embarked on the final review process, which will take another nine months (it may be another year and a half before final approval of contracts to get started).
But the Greek chorus of critics doesn’t stop with the Vinegar project. Their attacks extend to the coming offshore gas bonanza as well.
A “clean” fossil fuel like natural gas makes a difficult target for attacks based on environmental grounds. But there are worries that the Israeli energy boom will have the dire economic impact known as the Dutch Disease. The term was coined by the Economist to describe what happened when discovery of natural gas in Holland in 1959 triggered a decisive decline of other sectors of the economy, especially manufacturing, as revenues from natural-gas exports pumped up the price of the guilder and made other Dutch exports less competitive. When the gas boom was over in the early 70s, the Dutch economy was in worse shape than when it started. In many ways, it still hasn’t recovered.
The Bank of Israel has dealt with a possible outbreak of the Dutch Disease in a report issued in April 2013. The bank recommended creating a sovereign wealth fund, or national pension fund, to ensure that export income from the sale of gas doesn’t convert into shekels or enter the Israeli economy or even the national budget. This should quell any distorting effects. Still, many remain skeptical and worry about what will happen to Israel if and when the gas runs out.
Still others worry about security concerns, and the possibility that Israel’s emerging oil and gas facilities, including its offshore gas platforms, make perfect targets for terrorist attacks. As Eco Energy’s Amit Mor notes, Israel’s current floating storage re-gasification unit six miles off Hadera already makes it a “sitting duck” for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. If jealous neighbors like Lebanon (which is already insisting that parts of the Leviathan field extend into its own EEZ) or oil-rich countries in the region, such as Iran feel the heat from Israel’s emergence as a major energy player, will they look for ways to shut it down—ones that include terrorist destruction? The specter of a Tamar platform hit by Hamas missiles and set ablaze, like BP’s Deep Horizon, dampens the mood in any discussion of Israel’s energy future.
Many inside and outside the Israeli Knesset also see in the rise of Israel’s gas industry a more sinister trap. Ariella Berger, at the Israel Institute for Economic Planning, thinks there may be far less gas in recoverable reserves than Noble and its partners claim. Even if all contingent proven gas reserves are included, she pushes a final figure closer to 650–680 billion cubic meters, far lower than the 950 billion figure the Netanyahu government accepts. That lower number, she points out, would put Israel at No. 29 on the list of nations with provable reserves, behind the Ukraine—which is hardly an energy superpower. From Berger’s perspective, an aggressive export-driven policy runs the risk of emptying the gas tank and leaving Israel high and dry just as it completes its shift from coal and oil to natural gas. She is urging instead that the vast bulk of the offshore finds should be kept at home for domestic use—and many in Israel agree with her.
In 2013, the export of natural gas became a fierce political issue. Matters came to head in June, when a select committee mandated by the government to study the issue and headed by Shaul Tzemach, director general of the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources, released its report. The committee recommended exporting up to 53 percent of Israel’s offshore gas while making sure Israel has a reserve to last for 25 years. Even after the Netanyahu cabinet voted to cut that number to 40 percent, it was still too high for the leaders of both the Likud and Labor parties, who denounced the decision as “reckless.” Release of the report triggered demonstrations that blocked roads in central Tel Aviv, while demonstrators also besieged the home of Minister of Energy and Water Silvan Shalom.
For once parties on the left and right in Israel could agree: Exporting Israel’s precious natural-gas resources would be a catastrophic mistake, no matter how much foreign currency it would draw in or how many minds in capitals in Europe or elsewhere it might change regarding Israel.
For those on the right, the debate largely hinges on a question of exports versus energy security. For those on the left, it’s also about profits versus people—more specifically, profits for Noble Energy and its Israeli partners. They see the current export model as a payoff by the Netanyahu government to its capitalist supporters; or as Dror Strum, former head of Israel Antitrust Authority, puts it, “There are actually [only] two sides to the story, the gas monopolies and the Israeli public.”
Indeed, it’s not hard to find those on the left who wonder, like their ideological allies in the Green Zionist Alliance, whether it would have been better if Israel hadn’t discovered its new energy resources at all—and whether Israel’s national identity can even survive the onslaught.
“Nonsense.” That is the reaction of Uri Aldubi, chairman of Israel’s Association of Oil and Gas Exploration Industries, to this rising tide of anti–fossil fuel propaganda and defeatist pessimism about Israel’s energy-rich future. On fears of the Dutch Disease, he points out that the Tamar field hasn’t added more than 1 percent of GDP to Israel’s already booming and diversified economy. Even Leviathan, for all its potential riches, won’t be able to overbalance an economy—which, unlike Holland’s in the 1960s and 70s, is one of the most dynamic and innovative in the world. “The Start-Up Nation will adjust,” Aldubi assures me, as will Israel’s thriving entrepreneurial culture. And far from misdirecting economic resources, Israel’s homegrown energy start-ups will only add more to the mix.
Aldubi has an even harsher reaction to worries that exporting too much gas will wreck Israel’s own domestic market. “Quite frankly, this is B.S.,” he says. “There is no way Israel can develop fields of this size without exporting.” No one, not even an Israeli energy company, would invest the time and resources in opening the Leviathan field just to meet the tiny Israeli market. It’s a point you hear from others who understand the energy business: Reserves in the ground count for nothing unless it’s economically feasible to open them up. Israel’s own neighbor Egypt is the classic example of a country that has very large natural-gas reserves and that suffers from an acute gas shortage. Israel could find itself in a similar squeeze once the Tamar field starts to play out, if there aren’t enough export-earned shekels to pay for new wells to serve that domestic demand.
As for Israel’s oil potential, he points out—like Harold Vinegar—that the aquifer in the Shfela basin is protected under the development scheme proposed by Israel Energy Initiatives. He, too, sees exploiting Israel’s oil-shale potential as a way to diversify risk as well as economic opportunity, and not just for Israel but for its neighbors.
Indeed, what many in the Israeli Knesset seem not to understand is that what looms on the horizon is more than just energy independence—or lots of new government revenue. Turning Israel into an energy-market player could be the beginning of a revolution in the country’s relations with its neighbors, who are already contracting to buy the gas. The list includes Jordan and Egypt—the latter, as Aldubi likes to point out, is the country that used to supply natural gas to both Israel and Jordan-—as well as the Palestinian territories.
And this is where the possibilities become intriguing.
Shlomi Fogel may be described in the financial press as “one of Israel’s wealthiest and most secretive billionaires,” but in the flesh he is affable, eloquent, and passionate about the most prolonged of all Israel’s agonies, the conflict with the Palestinians and the status of the West Bank. Fogel is no milk-and-water Israeli liberal; he is close to Netanyahu and his master architect of the government’s export-driven energy policy, Egon Kandel. But Fogel is also friends with key officials in the Palestinian Authority, as well as leading Palestinian businessmen, and he sees in Israel’s energy discoveries an unprecedented opening to a new Israeli–Arab future.
The founder in 1993 of Ampa Industries, one of Israel’s largest diversified companies, Fogel says he sees “four vectors signaling Israel’s future rise as a world-class economic power.” The first is its impressive command of leading high-tech industries. The second, its up-to-date infrastructure, including high-speed Internet, far ahead of any other Middle Eastern country and even in some respects the United States. The third, its gift for entrepreneurial flair. The fourth is now oil and gas.
When asked whether the growth of Israel’s oil and gas business can promote Palestinian–Israeli amity, Fogel is emphatic. “Absolutely,” he replies. People have had enough of politicians manipulating the issue for their own gain, he says. On both sides of the security fence, it’s time for a bottom-up solution, taking root in one business deal at a time and creating a powerful middle-class constituency that has a stake in creating wealth instead of fomenting war. The export of natural gas to revivify the economy of the West Bank, with Palestinians finding well-paying jobs on building and servicing pipelines or in oil-shale production, could be a compelling way to jump-start the process.
“Jordan is moving toward development and purchasing of gas from us,” he tells me. “I believe we will see better times with them.” He sees the same possibility with the Palestinians, even in Gaza. “The rockets are not giving them a better future,” he says. “Their young people will not accept misery and unemployment” for very long if they see a better more prosperous future unfolding in Jordan and the West Bank.
Of course, there are many reasons for believing ancient enmities won’t die away anytime soon, especially when there are outside powers ready to exploit them. In mid-January, Russia’s Gazprom announced it was talking to Palestinian officials about developing Gaza’s offshore gas fields. Gazprom had tried to take a stake in the development of the Leviathan field, even though it might pose a challenge to Russia’s natural-gas market in Europe. (The Israelis opted for the Australian company Woodside instead.) Making gestures toward Gaza might be Putin’s way of getting revenge, as well as reasserting Russia’s geopolitical stake in the eastern Mediterranean, as it did by taking a leading role in staving off an American attack on Syria last year. Certainly none of it bodes well for the future—especially with Russia’s partner in the Middle East, Iran, likely to follow close behind.
All the same, Fogel’s enthusiasm is infectious, especially when he looks at the impact Israel itself could have on the global energy picture. Once Israel commits itself to expanding its own energy sector, the results, he is convinced, will reverberate back to America and beyond. As the energy industry becomes increasingly high-tech, once the Israeli penchant for improving and innovating those technologies kicks in, what seems impossible today could become common practice. (Four years ago, a Noble Energy official told me that the idea of developing the Leviathan field entirely offshore would have seemed impossible.)
The ultimate question is, Can the Israelis live with this new bounty? Have they become so accustomed to living in survival mode and being under constant threat that they simply cannot believe their good fortune—and cannot act on the opportunity?
In the end, what Israelis do may depend on how the outside world does, especially the Jewish community and supporters of Israel in this country. In order for its oil and gas bonanza to succeed, Israel needs two things, says Uri Aldubi: “operators and investors.” Almost all of them, for now, will have to come from outside—not only from the United States but from Europe as well. Universal Oil and Gas is a London-based company that recently partnered with the Association of Oil and Gas Exploration Industries to host a series of conferences to champion those links and also possibly to prepare the way for a future European market for Israeli gas. The talks are to take place in Europe and in the Mecca of America’s energy industry, Houston. The Israeli ambassador in Norway organized a similar conference in Stavanger last November, where Norwegian service and exploration companies with long experience in offshore gas development along their own continental shelf came not only to offer their knowledge and skill to Israel but also to learn how Israeli expertise in high-tech pursuits might transform their own businesses. The first outlines of Shlomi Fogel’s prediction may be coming true.
But in the meantime, the world waits as Israel makes up its mind.
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Will Israel Be the Next Energy Superpower?
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.