Friday, December 14, 2007

Thankless

My pal Chris Lydon, who podcasts and blogs at Open Source Radio, did something remarkable recently. He remembered that five years ago, just before the impending Iraq invasion—on September 26, 2002—a group of American foreign relations specialists took out an ad in the New York Times to argue bluntly against war. (The Times would not run their argument as an op-ed.) The ad predicted the grim consequences of the war more or less exactly. So Chris interviewed a number of the signatories—Barry Posen and Steve Van Evera at MIT, Michael Desch at the University of Kentucky, Shibley Telhami at the University of Maryland among others—to ask how the letter came about and perhaps why others didn’t see what they did. (I, in Jerusalem, did not.) Then he asked each in turn a deceptively simple question. “America is a famously pragmatic country,” Chris said; “Did anyone ever thank you for being right?” Each laughed in his own way and said no.

The profound question Chris implied was why there seems to have been no particular penalty for being so terribly wrong. Which raises the question of what we really mean by right, as in right vs. left? Okay, certain famous men with Pentagon responsibilities and neoconservative connections have become foils for popular dismay. But what of the dozens of columnists, officials, and politicians who underestimated the nemesis of military violence in varying degrees but are still turned to for their expertise? (We know who we are.)

There is an Israeli version of this. The broad consequences groups like Peace Now have been warning about since 1978 have all come out pretty much as predicted. This is why Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni are now saying what they criticized the so-called left for saying while they were leaders of the Likud, now abandoned to Bibi Netanyahu. Likud leaders were wrong about post-67 settlements redeeming Zionism, wrong about settlements as a security advantage, wrong about the West’s adjustment to the occupation, wrong about preemptive war, wrong about peace having nothing to do with prosperity, wrong about forcing Fatah to try overpowering Hamas, wrong about pandering to Republican evangelicals (and alienating Democratic liberals), and really wrong about Israeli Arabs accepting second-class citizenship in return for a higher standard of living. Yet Netanyahu would win any election that were held today. Everyone remembers that Netanyahu warned against a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. But who remembers that peace process champion Yossi Beilin did, for different, smarter reasons?

It seems pretty clear that the secret of the right’s success—and here America and Israel are not so different—is something other than prescience. The right’s realism always boiled down to warning us about our enemies and warning our enemies about our elbows. But ordinary people, by which I mean people pressed for time, do not take such warnings to mean a prediction about what works. Rather, they assume that warnings of this kind are an exhortation to something like a group-hug: an implied appeal for loyalty, for common identity, for solidarity in the face of the unknown. Nobody remembers if you were right. Everybody remembers if you cared. To be right about Iraq, Chris’s letter writers required an analytical (if not ironic) distance from the very people they were trying to save. That made them right too soon, or left—you get the idea.