Today, February 3, marks one year since Barry Rubin, scholar and friend, lost his bout with an aggressive cancer. He was sixty-four. The many tributes published upon his passing celebrated him as a prolific and passionate advocate for his adopted country, Israel, and as a tireless scholar who generated a steady flow of writings and an astonishing array of initiatives: a think tank, several journals, and many conferences. His highly regarded expertise made him the go-to source on the Middle East for journalists, diplomats, and some Israeli public figures.
This was Barry Rubin, the finished product. Had you told me thirty-five years ago, when I first met him, that he would become not only “one of the great intellectual defenders of Israel,” but an Israeli, I would have dismissed you. Nothing would have seemed so improbable.
Barry grew up in northwest Washington to well-to-do parents who strived to assimilate. He later recalled having “no sense of my own history, coming from a family which had tried to obliterate its own past.” Barry had no Zionist upbringing whatsoever—no youth movement, no summer camp, no family trip to Israel. “When I attended one-day-a-week religious school at Washington’s premiere Reform synagogue,” he later wrote, “we were told that Jewish history began with the discovery of the New World. Hebrew was taught without any reference to the existence of the state of Israel.” (Personal experience would inspire the mature Barry to write a book-length critique of Jewish assimilation.)
Ron Radosh has noted that as a young student, Barry was “hard left—as left as they come.” Perhaps it was his youthful reaction to privilege. Barry’s father was a successful Washington property developer; his parents, Barry later wrote laconically, “changed their Thunderbirds every year or so [in the 1960s] and at some point, a few years later, would move into Mercedes.” Radosh tells of Barry’s enthusiasm for Castro’s Cuba, which he visited in 1975. (“You’ll love Cuba!” he told Radosh. “You’ll see how Castro is building a new socialist country right in our own backyard.”) But his radicalism extended to the Middle East. He published Marxist-inflected articles in the pro-Palestinian Journal of Palestine Studies and the far-left MERIP Reports. He even turned up in Beirut in 1974, in the company of his Georgetown mentor, the Palestinian professor Hisham Sharabi, whom Barry candidly described later as “one of the teachers who most influenced me.” “It is no secret,” he wrote in a 1977 letter to COMMENTARY, “that when I was young I was a leftist and anti-Zionist.”
By the time I met Barry in 1979, this was only a few years behind him. But he had already learned “what it’s like to believe in the totalitarian Left, to be misused and disillusioned, to go through difficult internal struggles, and finally to emerge from this dark period. Many of our finest intellectuals and journalists have had similar experiences.” The newly liberated Barry Rubin was about to forge a new persona as a serious researcher.
Walter Laqueur, the historian and author, had a major influence on Barry in the late 1970s, guiding him to a deeper understanding of the perils of the totalitarian mindset and serving as his model of a contemporary historian. Laqueur had closely dissected the vile ideological excesses of 20th-century Europe, from Nazism to Stalinism. He had written widely on the Holocaust and the Cold War, and had also authored a masterly history of Zionism. Barry’s later work showed the influence of Laqueur’s research agenda, his approachable prose, and his method of scholarly entrepreneurship. “He also taught me,” wrote Barry, “that being prolific is not a sin.” In a few cases they collaborated, and one of their joint projects, Barry’s revision and expansion of Laqueur’s Israel-Arab Reader, seems on track to stay in print forever.
According to Laqueur, he tried to dissuade Barry from specializing in the Middle East. But the unsettled region excited Barry’s own restless curiosity. Had he stayed on the left, and especially had he been willing to defame Israel, he would have been assured an academic position in the United States. Many radical Jewish academics did just that, and made comfortable careers in Middle Eastern studies. But Barry had progressed, and it left him unemployable. His only interview for a teaching position “was interrupted by one professor screaming at me, ‘How could you ever possibly represent the narrative of the Palestinian people?’ To which I responded that obviously, I didn’t think I was supposed to represent it, merely teach about it…. I think the problem was my last name.” Barry later wrote this about my own indictment of Middle Eastern studies, Ivory Towers on Sand: “When I first read it, I joked to Martin that it was my life story.”
Still, when Barry moved to Israel, in the early 1990s, I was surprised. It wasn’t as though Israel beckoned to him with open arms. Ironically, in Israel, too, Barry’s prospects of finding an academic position were slim: he hadn’t come up through the Israeli system, so he didn’t have a patron. For some years, he moved around Israeli academe in adjunct or research positions, and he did a long stretch at the Begin-Sadat Center (BESA) at Bar-Ilan University. It is to the credit of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya that it ultimately offered him a proper academic appointment.
Barry became best known not for his academic titles, but for his many book titles. The number of these books that appeared under the imprint of first-tier university presses exceeded the production of just about any Israeli academic. Oxford University Press published four of his books: Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran; Secrets of State: The State Department and the Struggle over U.S. Foreign Policy; Hating America; and Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography. Harvard University Press published two: Revolution Until Victory? The Politics and History of the PLO and The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-building. Yale University Press published two: Israel: An Introduction and, most recently, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Syracuse University Press issued The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, and Cambridge University Press published The Tragedy of the Middle East. When Barry wrote in a more journalistic style, he placed those books with commercial presses. My personal favorite is his Istanbul Intrigues, a historical study set in the Second World War that reads like a thriller.
At a memorial event for Barry held in Washington, Judith Colp Rubin—his devoted wife and occasional co-author—said that Barry would sometimes wonder aloud whether anyone was reading his books. I’m sure he carefully monitored the sales of all his books, and it’s sad to think that they disappointed him. But as a rule, books on the Middle East don’t find large audiences, unless publication neatly coincides with a crisis to which a book is immediately relevant. The closest Barry came was his 1980 book on Iran, Paved with Good Intentions (also the only book by him that I ever reviewed), which appeared in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis. It was widely and favorably reviewed (most prominently by Daniel Pipes in the New York Times Book Review), and it remains his most-cited work (so says Google Scholar).
But Barry was usually too prescient to get the timing right: his books often appeared before they became relevant. So it was with his study of Arab liberals, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, which preceded the “Arab Spring” by five years. No book came closer to predicting the explosions that eventually rocked the region. “If a large group in the Arab world,” Barry wrote, “whether a majority or sizeable minority, will someday speak and struggle for democracy, the views then expressed could confound all the public statements made in the last half-century about what people in Arab societies think.” Another book, The Truth About Syria, preceded the country’s breakup by three years. “With its mix of competing religious and ethnic groups,” Barry wrote in that book’s short description, “[Syria] is a 72,000-square-mile time bomb waiting to go off.” Contrary to other expert expectations, it did. Barry reached a broader audience through his journalism and blogging, and especially his long-running column in the Jerusalem Post. But he saw his fifteen books as his greater legacy, and one of his last projects was to make all but the newest pair freely available on the web. For students and younger scholars looking for a model of meticulous analysis combined with passionate prose, Barry Rubin’s virtual shelf is an excellent place to start. (It is maintained by the institute he founded, and which is soon to bear his name.)
Barry regarded his Tragedy of the Middle East as the book that best encapsulated his own view of the region. For Barry, the “tragedy” wasn’t simply the massive dysfunction of the region’s politics, but the compounding denial or deflection of blame, which made change nigh impossible. He came to his conclusions not by extensive travel (he traveled little in the Middle East, with the exception of Turkey), or by exhaustive reading (although he was very well read). Barry was informed by a vast network of Middle Easterners who knew they could share their opinions with him in total confidence. “Every single point you will read in this book,” he wrote in The Tragedy of the Middle East,
has been made a multitude of a thousand times in private conversation by Arabs of every description and location throughout the Middle East. Yet this hidden mountain of truth is invisible in public and ineffective in shaping the life of the nation.
“What you see is only a small portion of what goes on behind the scenes,” he insisted. Barry relied instead on his
contacts with people all over the region, sometimes people whose lives would be in danger if it were known they were talking to me…. As an Israeli, I often find it’s much easier to talk with Turks, Iranians and Arabs because we are on the same page—especially in private—about understanding the reality of the region compared to the fantasies often held in Western academic, media and governmental circles.
For Barry, the regimes of the Middle East were so many Cubas, deceptively concealing oppression behind a facade of revolution, and seducing gullible Westerners with lies. Why could others not see the “hidden mountain of truth” that seemed so obvious to him? They subscribed to those same radical shibboleths he himself had abandoned. The worst offenders were the denizens of Middle Eastern studies. “I cannot think of a single book of value on any subject regarding the Middle East produced by these hundreds of tenured radicals,” Barry once opined. It is a harsh verdict, to be sure, but it has the ring of truth.
Over the last decade, Barry reacquainted himself with America. Much of what he saw disturbed him. During a sabbatical stretch spent in the Washington area with Judy and the children, he saw how the educational curriculum had been emptied of any pride in America’s great achievements. To Barry’s mind, Barack Obama personified this abandonment of the American ethos, and in his posthumously published jeremiad against the left, Silent Revolution: How the Left Rose to Political Power and Cultural Dominance, he staked out his position clearly.
Yet he took heart from everyday Americans, such as the Civil War reenactors whose ranks he enthusiastically joined (on the Union side). Barry would go off almost annually to live for several days in tents with these history buffs—small contractors, office and construction workers, mechanics—and there he rediscovered the spirit of America that he so admired. They must have wondered at this eccentric man, and no more so than when Israel’s then-ambassador, Michael Oren, visited Gettysburg with an entourage for the 150th anniversary of the battle, and suddenly recognized and embraced a grizzled Union soldier. It was Barry in authentic uniform and kit, attending his very last reenactment.
Barry’s personal friendship, once given, was generous and enduring, and his love for Israel was unconditional. Born and raised in a cynical city at a troubled time, he embarked on a quest for a cause worthy of his fierce loyalty, and for people who would love him for who and what he was. After much trial and error, he found his place amidst his ancestral people, his true friends, and his adoring family. “I think it is likely that I will never leave Israel again,” he wrote to me during his illness, “but then with a country we love so much that’s not so bad. I am glad to have participated with you and so many others in trying to restore and preserve our nation, the miracle that we have made and has been given to us—with all of its flaws—after so many centuries of yearning.” Barry Rubin’s own improbable journey home was one of the more amazing small miracles of which Israel is the sum.
Barry Rubin’s Improbable Journey
Must-Reads from Magazine
Expect the impossible.
If the 2016 presidential election cycle demonstrated anything, it was that Republicans suffer from a crippling lack of imagination. That ordeal should have established that the unprecedented is not impossible. Even now, Republicans seem as though they are trying to convince themselves that their eyes are lying to them, but they are not. The tempo of the investigation into President Trump is accelerating, and a nightmare scenario is eminently imaginable. Only congressional Republicans can avert disaster, and only then by being clear about the actions they are prepared to take if Trump instigates a crisis of constitutional legitimacy.
The events of the last 36 hours unrolled like a cascade. Late Wednesday, the New York Times published an interview in which Trump delivered a stinging rebuke for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, scolding him for recusing himself from the investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russian operatives. In that interview, Trump appeared to warn special counselor Robert Mueller not to dig too deeply into his personal finances, or else.
Hours later, Bloomberg News revealed that Mueller’s probe was investigating Trump’s business transactions and tax records—a leak surely made in response to Trump’s arm-twisting. More leaks from the investigation confirmed that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was being investigated for involvement in a money-laundering scheme, a revelation made more discomfiting by the discovery that he owed pro-Russian interests $17 million before joining the Trump campaign.
With the noose tightening, the lead attorney on Trump’s personal defense team, Marc Kasowitz, and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, resigned. The Washington Post reported that “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.” Trump’s spokespeople insist the president has no intention of pursuing the dismissal of the special counsel investigating his campaign, but his every action indicates that this is a lie.
Prominent Republicans reacted to all this incredulously. “There is no possible way anybody at the White House could be seriously thinking about firing Mueller,” Sen. Bob Corker insisted. “We all know the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch. “He makes some of these comments that he really doesn’t mean.” Sen. Susan Collins was willing to go a bit farther: “It would be catastrophic if the President were to fire the special counsel.”
Off the record, however, Republican lawmakers are far less circumspect in relaying their fears about what the president is capable of doing to the republic. “Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling. It’s chilling,” an unnamed GOP senator told CNN. “One gets the impression that the President doesn’t understand or he willfully disregards the fact that the attorney general and law enforcement in general—they are not his personal lawyers to defend and protect him,” another added.
These tepid comments for the record, with courage reserved only upon condition of anonymity, expose how Republicans in Congress have again failed to meet the measure of the moment. These are dangerous days, and it is incumbent upon Donald Trump’s party in Congress to deter the executive branch from overstepping its authority. The only way to do that is to be clear about what the consequences for that kind of transgression will be.
The Congressional Research Service defines how the president could execute a nuclear option against the independent counsel’s office. The Attorney General has recused himself from campaign-related investigations, so Trump would have to insist Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remove Mueller. If Rosenstein declined, his resignation would likely be on offer, and his acting replacement (Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand) would have to field the same request. At this point, the comparisons between the Trump White House’s behavior and that of the Nixon administration ahead of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” are no longer hyperbolic.
In lieu of any ability to contain or control the special counsel’s office, Trump’s defenders have mounted a public relations campaign designed to undermine its authority and discredit its members. That will rally Trump’s diehard supporters, but the president remains unsatisfied. National Review’s Rich Lowry speculated convincingly that Trump would have little choice but to move against Mueller. Sooner rather than later, the conditions the president said would force his hand—a probe of Trump’s personal finances—will be met. Lowry observed that Trump seems to believe his tax records and business practices should be off limits and his experience has taught him “that fortune favors the recklessly bold.”
Republicans in Congress must stop comforting themselves with the notion that the worst cannot happen. They have to summon the courage to state publicly what they so freely tell reporters on background. If they are so concerned that the norms and traditions that have preserved the rule of law in this republic for 240 years are in jeopardy, they must say so. And they must say what the consequences will be for Trump, his associates, and his family if he goes too far. Republicans in office are disinclined to pursue a course of action against Trump that might jeopardize their standing with the voters who love him. None of that matters. Prioritizing their parochial careerist considerations over the best interests of their party and their country is how they got themselves into this mess.
Republicans may dislike the prospect, but it’s fast becoming time for them to start saying the “I” word if only to save the president from his most reckless impulses. The longer they tell themselves that the unthinkable is impossible, the more likely it becomes.
Are the warplane's secrets safe?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the newest generation air platform for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Lockheed-Martin, which builds the F-35, describes it as “a 5th Generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” For both diplomatic reasons and to encourage sales, Lockheed-Martin subcontracted the production of many F-35 components to factories abroad. Many program partners—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, for example—are consistent U.S. allies.
Turkey, however, is also part of the nine-nation consortium producing the plane, which gives Turkey access to the F-35’s technology. “As a program partner, Turkish industries are eligible to become suppliers to the global F-35 fleet for the life of the program. In total, F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion,” the warplane’s website explained. “Turkey plans to purchase 100 of the F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing variant. Its unsurpassed technological systems and unique stealth capabilities ensure that the F-35 will be the future of Turkish national security for decades to come.”
But is the F-35 safe with Turkey? In recent years, the Turkish government has leaked highly-classified information to America’s adversaries in fits of diplomatic pique. Back in 2013, for example, Turkey leaked to the Iranians the identities of Israeli spies in Iran. Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad, told USA Today that the incident would damage U.S. intelligence efforts, “because we will be much more reluctant to work via Turkey because they will fear information is leaking to Iran… We feel information achieved [by Israel] through Turkey went not only to Israel but also to the United States.”
On July 19, the Pentagon criticized Turkey’s state-controlled news agency for exposing ten covert U.S. bases in Syria in a way that can enable both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed forces to target Americans. Bloomberg reported that the leak also detailed aid routes and equipment stored at each base.
Both these incidents raise serious questions about whether Turkey can be trusted with the F-35, especially given Turkey’s growing military and diplomatic ties to Russia, and the wayward NATO state’s recent cooperation with China as well. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is rightly concerned about the security implications of a plan to service its F-35s in Turkey, but such concern should only be the tip of the iceberg.
Should Turkey even receive F-35s and, to the extent the program relies on Turkish factories, is it time to stand up quickly a Plan B? To do otherwise might squander the billions of dollars already spent on the program, risk increasing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to blackmail the West, and potentially land America’s latest military technology on Kremlin desks.
Too many martyrs make a movement.
If the GOP is to be converted into a vehicle for politicians who evince Donald Trump’s brand of pragmatic center-right populism, Trump will have to demonstrate his brand of politics can deliver victories for people other than himself. Presidential pen strokes help to achieve that, as do judicial appointments. Nothing is so permanent, though, as sweeping legislative change. On that score, the newly Trumpian Republican Party is coming up short. If the passive process of transformational legislative success fails to compel anti-Trump holdouts in the GOP to give up the ghost, there is always arm-twisting. It seems the Republican National Committee is happy to play enforcer.
The RNC’s nascent effort to stifle anti-Trump apostasy by making examples of high-profile heretics has claimed its first victim: New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. The Republican is running to replace the nation’s least popular governor, Chris Christie, and the effort has been a struggle. Trailing badly in the polls and facing the headwinds associated with trying to succeed an unpopular outgoing GOP governor in a blue state, Guadagno needs all the help she can get. That help won’t be coming from the RNC. According to NJ Advance Media, the committee’s objection to helping Guadagno isn’t the imprudence of throwing good money after bad. It’s that she was mean to President Trump in 2016, and she must be punished.
“[The president] is unhappy with anyone who neglected him in his hour of need,” said a source billed as an RNC insider. The specific complaint arises from an October 8 tweet from the lieutenant governor said that “no apology can excuse” Trump’s “reprehensible” conduct on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. “Christie was not as stalwart as some people in the party, but at least he didn’t go against him the way she did,” the insider added.
This source’s version of events was supported by former two-term New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. “She went down there, and the (Republican National) Committee was reluctant to back the campaign in the way one would have expected,” she said. “The implication was, ‘Well you were not a Trump supporter in the primary, and so don’t expect much money.'”
This is almost certainly a pretext. Republicans are facing stiff competition and an unfavorable political environment in November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017-2018, 27 GOP-held seats are up for grabs, nine of which are in some jeopardy of falling to Democrats. Republicans are going to have to husband their resources and triage their officeholders. That’s a forgivable, if demoralizing, condition. Declaring Guadagno to have offended the leader and to be cut off from the font of Republican goodwill is not only unjustifiable, it’s terribly foolish.
If Republican women are to be punished for saying that Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting unsuspecting females were unacceptable, there are going to be a lot fewer Republican women. Moreover, the RNC has invited the perception that there is a double standard at play here. A slew of Republicans called on Trump to drop out of the race after that tape, but the RNC is unlikely to withhold support for Senators Rob Portman or John Thune when they need it. Among those calling on Trump to drop out was his own chief of staff, Reince Priebus—a fact the president reportedly won’t let Priebus forget.
Cults of personality can be bullied into existence, but they rarely outlast the personality around whom they form unless that personality can claim some lasting achievements. In lieu of any compelling rationale, the effort to remake the GOP in Trump’s image by force will only create dissidents. The ideological conservatives who once dominated the Republican Party are unlikely to make peace with the ascendant populist faction at gunpoint. And the RNC is not solely to blame for this boneheaded move. Even if the notion that Guadagno is being punished for disloyalty is a pretense, it is a response to a clear set of incentives promoted by this White House.
Maybe the most intriguing question of the present political age is whether or not conservatives in the GOP will come to terms with a man they once saw as a usurper. A heavy hand will only catalyze resistance, and Trump needs his own party as much or more than they need him. Guadagno’s gubernatorial bid is on no firmer ground today than it was yesterday, but the Republican candidate’s allies can now legitimately claim persecution at the hands of personality cultists. Too many martyrs make a movement. The White House and the Republican National Committee should tread lightly.
Podcast: Conservatism in shackles while O.J. goes free?
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I ask Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman whether the health-care debacle this week is simply a reflection of the same pressures on the conservative coalition Donald Trump saw and conquered by running for president last year—and what it will mean for him and them that he has provided no rallying point for Republican politicians. And then we discuss OJ Simpson. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Hyperbole yields cynicism, not the other way around.
Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron surprised almost everyone when he invited President Donald Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in Paris, especially after the two leaders’ awkward first meeting in Brussels in May. After all, between now and then, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and Macron has become perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump among European leaders.
In hindsight, Macron’s reason for embracing Trump might have been to get the president to reverse course on the Paris agreement. From the Associated Press:
French President Emmanuel Macron says his glamorous Paris charm offensive on Donald Trump was carefully calculated — and may have changed the U.S. president’s mind about climate change…. On their main point of contention — Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement — Macron is quoted as saying that “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”
According to Macron, climate change causes droughts and migration, which exacerbates crises as populations fight over shrinking resources. If Macron really believes that, France and Europe are in for some tough times.
First, droughts are a frequent, cyclical occurrence in the Middle East, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. The difference between drought and famine is the former is a natural occurrence and the latter is man-made, usually caused by poor governance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Horn of Africa, where the same drought might kill a few dozens of Ethiopians but wipe out tens of thousands of Somalis.
Second, the common factor in the wars raging in the Middle East today is neither climate change nor extreme weather, but brutal dictatorship, radical ideologies, and the militias supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yemen could be a breadbasket. Its terraced fields rising up thousands of feet in the mountains grow almost every fruit imaginable. Yemen also catches the tail end of the monsoon. If Yemenis planted exportable crops like coffee rather than the mild drug qat, which does not bring in hard currency, they might be fairly prosperous.
It is not climate change that denied the Syrian public basic freedoms and liberty for decades, nor was it climate change that dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, or used chemical weapons. For that matter, when it comes to radicalization, the problem is Syria was less climate and more decades of Saudi-and Qatari-funded indoctrination and Turkish assistance to foreign fighters.
Regardless of all this, another obvious factor nullifies Macron’s thesis: When drought occurs in regions outside the Middle East, the result is seldom suicide bombing.
Terrorism does not have a one-size-fits-all explanation but, generally speaking, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, ideology plays a key role. Most terrorists are educated, middle class, and relatively privileged. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, has a Ph.D. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas recruits inside schools. Simply put, there is no linkage between climate change and terrorism.
Not only would Trump be foolish to buy Macron’s argument, but environmentalists who believe climate change puts the Earth in immediate peril should be outraged. It is hyperbole. Moreover, it is the casual invocation of climate change as a catch-all cause for every other issue that breeds the cynicism that leads so many to become so dismissive of everything climate activists say. Macron may look down up Trump as an ignorant bore, but Macron’s own logic suggests he is also living in a world where facts and reality don’t matter.