Monday, July 28, 2008

The Kumbaya Thing


It's official: Barack Obama's speech in Berlin was a failure. David Brooks and Roger Cohen have both pronounced it loaded with mere platitudes and "kumbaya" moments, quite unlike, Brooks says, the gritty realism JFK would have given us. (Brooks: "Kennedy didn’t dream of the universal brotherhood of man. He drew lines that reflected hard realities"; Cohen: "Yes, Barack, and let us build lovely castles in the sky that the locusts of infamy will never unravel.") Of course, Charles Krauthammer had predicted this. Just speaking in Berlin, he writes, "is something you have to earn": "Imagine a German pol took a campaign trip to America and demanded the Statue of Liberty as a venue for a campaign speech."

Some examples of Obama's offending rhetoric:

History has led us to a new crossroad, with new promise and new peril. When you, the German people, tore down that wall – a wall that divided East and West; freedom and tyranny; fear and hope – walls came tumbling down around the world. From Kiev to Cape Town, prison camps were closed, and the doors of democracy were opened. Markets opened too, and the spread of information and technology reduced barriers to opportunity and prosperity.

While the 20th century taught us that we share a common destiny, the 21st has revealed a world more intertwined than at any time in human history.
Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future. But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more – not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.

And consider these flourishes:

Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process -- a way of solving problems...The quality and spirit of our own society must justify and support our efforts abroad. We must show it in the dedication of our own lives...

With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations.
World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor, it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement… No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue…

So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.


Oh, I forgot to tell you that these last three patches were not Obama's, but came from JFK's landmark speech at American University, which he gave in June of 1963, a couple of weeks before he went to Berlin. So much for the unrealism of acknowledging our planetary fate. In fact, doesn't Kennedy's notion of "common interests" sound so much savvier now that "the spread of information and technology reduced barriers to opportunity," revolutionary things Obama takes for granted but Kennedy had no way of anticipating?

THINK OF IT this way instead. Obama understood that the very fact that an American presidential candidate would claim to be a "global citizen" in the unofficial capital of the European Union--more important, that he could stand there as globalism's embodiment after months of bruising primaries--was important and inspiring. Some 200,000 Berliners obviously agreed. They came not to hear a great speech but to be a part of a great statement (and judge for yourself if the speech was really insubstantial).

Obama's words came, let's remember, just four years after George Bush visibly intimidated John Kerry in a presidential debate when the latter spoke of America's international reputation. (It was also, but who cares, some 18 years after one of the columnists above announced that America was, after the Berlin Wall came down, the hegemonic power in a unipolar world--an idea which should have forever disqualified him to judge who earns the right to speak in, or about, Berlin.)

Anyway, if a German pol could get 200,000 New Yorkers to cram into Central Park for a speech on globalism, God bless him or her. And God bless the columnists who'd applaud, and risk pitying glances at the next lunch of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Obama In Jerusalem: The Contradiction

This from Aluf Benn, one of Israel's most respected columnists:

To the Israeli establishment, McCain seems like the natural choice. With his white hair, expression lines and combat experience, he embodies the Israeli concept of leadership - a kind of American version of Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon. If McCain continues Bush's policies, Israel will benefit from the term of another U.S. president who understands its needs.

Obama represents an exciting option, albeit a more dangerous one: If he manages to rehabilitate America's international stature, reduce its dependence on oil and push through peace between Israel and the Arabs, Israel's strategic situation will improve dramatically. But on the way, he might have to pressure Israel. If he fails, Israel will have to pay the price without reaping any returns.

The contradiction in Benn's little piece is almost universally shared, and it explains why reading the newspaper with breakfast will give you reflux until about noon. Obama's approach will, according to Benn, dramatically improve Israel's strategic situation. But to get there, he will have to "pressure Israel"--that is, force Israel to do what is in its interest. McCain, on the other hand, looks like Rabin, will continue Bush's "beneficial" policies, and understands Israel's "needs."

And what's the "price" Israel will have to pay if a peace initiative fails? That it will have no peace, you mean like the price it is paying now?

None of this makes sense unless you understand the psychological code. What Israelis feel above all, alas, is the fear of rejection and abandonment. A friend is someone who lets you do what you want; someone who will overlook your "faults"--you know, the occupation, the settlements--and will not embarrass you in the world-at-large by calling attention to things you might do differently; someone who defines the world-at-large in a way that makes you seem necessary.

Less friendly is someone who believes, as Obama does, in the process of building cooperative agreements, collective security, etc., and who will therefore actually look at what the parties to a conflict are doing to exacerbate their problem
, that is, ask "what if everybody did that?"; someone who supposes all sides should be mutually respectful, and will offer criticism as diagnosis, not as condemnation.

Anyway, Benn's main point is that Obama is trying to influence American Jews, not Israelis. He might be interested in a new about-to-be-published J-Street poll, which asked American Jews:

Would you support or oppose the United States playing an active role in helping the parties to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict if it meant the United States publicly stating its disagreements with both the Israelis and the Arabs?

Over 85% said, "yes," 41% "strongly.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Connect The Dots #7: Captive Market


Adjacent stories from Haaretz today:

1. Video: The solution, a tribute to Israeli technological ingenuity and compassion.
2. Video: One enterprising Israeli's way of making the market.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Hebrew Republic, In Formation

Do not miss this article, and while you are reading it, listen to this stunning song by Yehudit Ravitz--it is about a great passion--and try to figure out all of the musical idioms it encompasses.

The Patients Have The Floor

Given how famous the “madman theory” of international affairs has become, it is increasingly hard to know whether people calling for an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear installations really mean it or just think they are doing diplomats a favor. In any case, a growing number of Israeli military analysts, officials, and political writers have declared the Iranian regime an “existential threat” and its nuclear program fair game for the Israeli Air Force. Resist such talk, and you become an appeaser in a chorus of Churchills. The patients have the floor.

One particularly brazen voice, the historian Benny Morris, predicts a strike “within 4-7 months,” roughly (and not inconveniently) the period after the American election but before the Bush Administration leaves office. In fact, Morris writes, if you scope out the choices left to Israel as Iran enriches uranium, an Israeli preemptive nuclear strike might be, if not inevitable, then prudential.

You see, any Israeli conventional strike will necessarily be partial and guarantee a retaliatory missile barrage from Iran and Hezbollah—missiles that (or so Israelis will have to assume) could be tipped with chemical or biological warheads. But an Israeli strike will also guarantee that Iran develops a bomb. It will greatly enhance its determination to use it. Why not--so Morris concludes--cut out the intermediate stage, which sets up the terrible endgame? Why not (we need George C. Scott here) just go for broke?

LEAVE ASIDE THE question of whether, if you believed a strike were just and imminent, you’d be wise to publish a column about it in the New York Times. Leave aside suspicions that Israeli military professionals who've comported themselves as America’s foremost regional asset—who, according to official commissions of inquiry, have cowed senior Israeli ministers with secret intelligence and contingency plans—naturally incline to a clash of civilizations.

The substantive problem for which a preemptive strike is the presumed solution boils down to something like the following argument: Iran’s president, hence its regime, is jihadist and fanatic; he considers Israel illegitimate, is bent on its annihilation, and his denial of the holocaust means he is capable of perpetrating one. The regime, meanwhile, is on a fast track to a nuclear weapon; the West, and if not the West, Israel standing alone, must treat the Iranian nuclear program something like a suicide bomber’s exploding belt.

Besides—so the argument continues—even if Iran does not actually attack Israel first, its acquisition of a nuclear weapon would change “geopolitical” dynamics in insufferable ways. Egypt and the Saudis will think themselves required to get one; the region will become a nest of mutually assured destroyers. An Iranian bomb will serve as an added deterrent to Israel, should that country have to strike against the tens of thousands of missiles now in the hands of Hezbollah, Iran’s client. It will curtail Israeli freedom of action.

I (WITH) OTHERS will have much more to say about this in the days ahead. But, meanwhile, it may be worth revisiting this post from May. Also, if you find yourself in a conversation with someone who argues, like Morris, in favor of a strike, insist on answers to the following questions, which cover what intelligence officers would call Iran's "motivation" and "capabilities":

  • Is the Iranian president the entire regime?
  • If not, what valence does hatred of Israel have in the Iranian government as a whole?
  • If we assume (as Jonathan Schell does) that an Iranian bomb is not ultimately stoppable, would a jihadist president, or any Iranian leader, fire-off a first strike, or give a bomb to a terrorist?
  • Would such a strike not incinerate or poison Palestinians and Hezbollah's Shi'a?
  • Would Iranian leaders really be willing to sacrifice Teheran, Qom, and other population centers to an Israeli retaliatory strike just for the ecstasy of ending Israel?
  • Then again, is the regime really capable of getting a weapon?
  • If so, what intervening economic or popular pressures will, over the years, make any plans for deployment moot?
  • Why have Egypt and the Saudis not gone for a bomb to compete with, well, Israel's?
  • Finally, if Iranian mullahs do not intend to use the bomb, and have such difficulty making it, what regional fears and grudges might explain why they are so apparently intent on getting one?
  • Can those be allayed by persistent diplomacy over time?
These are a lot of questions. The thing is, an attack on Iran would kill a lot of people.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Naked Ambition

I have been writing the blog for about nine months now, posting about 75 times. I hoped from the start to build its readership without any institutional affiliation--to approach this space with moral seriousness and see what happens. But the truth is, I don't really know what's happened. Standard blogging tools tell me that the blog has drawn something over 6000 "absolute unique visitors" during the past 6 weeks (and I confess that I love the idea of visitors being absolutely unique). But numbers can spike as a result of one especially widely read post, and the tools are rather impersonal.

So if you feel a certain loyalty to the blog, or would like to share an idea, I'd love to hear from you. You may write to a special purpose email address, b1@bernardavishai.info (no hyperlink, alas; you must cut-and-paste). I'll interpret a blank email as a word of encouragement. And if you have not already done so, might this be a time to recommend the blog to someone you feel would appreciate it? (Subscription options are to the right.)

Meanwhile, I'm going to take off a week or so and swim as much as possible in the appropriately named Pleasant Lake. As a beach present, here is my favorite poem from Yehuda Amichai's glorious Open Closed Open. (The translation is by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld.)

Whoever puts on a tallis when he was young will never forget;
Taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
Spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold.) Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it
around his head as in hide-and-seek, wrapping
his whole body in it, close and slow, snuggling into it like the cocoon of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.
And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black-and-white
like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.
Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go
like airport runways where angels land and take off.
Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.