Monday, October 22, 2012

Obama's Two Elections

The following is reposted from Open Ziona featured section of The Daily Beastwhere I contribute a regular column.

There will be two elections on the line when Obama and Romney debate foreign affairs tonight, though to understand the second, the one in Israel, you have to stretch your imagination more or less the way Ehud Olmert has been stretching his in recent days.

Olmert thinks Netanyahu has been a disaster, because the endless occupation has been a disaster; and as long as Abbas maintains his tenuous hold on power, Olmert thinks he and Abbas can reach a formula to end it. He is not afraid—so a very-reliable-senior-source-close-to-Olmert told me—to take the “garbage that will be thrown”; he knows, given his close brush with prison, and the continuing skepticism about his career given his “breach of trust” conviction, that he is not the most pristine challenger. He is prepared to fight if it comes to a fight. The real question is, can anyone make a run against Netanyahu and win?

The polls right now do not inspire confidence. Netanyahu’s Likud is now projected to win the greatest number of Knesset seats in the election, a plurality of around 28 out of 120, and his “natural partners” in any foreseeable coalition—the Mizrahi-Orthodox Shas, Lieberman’s Russo-nationalist-Yisrael Beiteinu, the Judean-settler parties, the Haredi parties, etc.—get to something north of 65. The liberal and secular parties, Labor, Kadima, Yair Lapid’s new list, etc., along with the Arab parties, poll around 55. Shaul Mofaz’s leadership of Kadima has imploded, and nobody on the center-left seems positioned to organize a coalition.

But now is not January. And here is where the American election comes in. Most who vote for Likud—and the other parties for that matter—do so out of habit and identity; I’ve written often about the unusually tribal nature of Israel’s electorate. But some—we can’t be sure how many, especially given the number of younger people entering the rolls—are backing Netanyahu because they are taking some big things of granted:

One, that the “neighborhood” is tough and Israel needs a “strong” leader; two, that even if territorial compromise is preferable, there is no Palestinian partner, and, anyway, Iran is the more urgent challenge just now; three, that the settlers and the Haredim may well be ripping off the state, and economic inequalities are bad news, but taking extreme rightists into government is the price one has to pay to solve one and two; and, four, that Netanyahu has held things together by wrapping—or getting AIPAC, Eric Cantor, etc., to wrap—Washington around Jerusalem’s finger.

This bundle unravels, in other words, if Obama is reelected—and comes into office with the mojo he will have to have brought to climax to get himself reelected. Olmert knows, and so do the pundits monitoring his every heartbeat just now, that Netanyahu’s position is vulnerable if, and only if, his Greater Israel policies are perceived to be a drag on American interests and an incitement of its diplomatic anger. One can see the friction developing already with Netanyahu’s resistance to the Obama administration’s anticipation of direct negotiations with Iran.

Which brings me back to Olmert and his (and our) rather public agonizing about whether he’ll return to the political fray. Actually, it seems unlikely that he will jump into the race, though it is hard to see who else can make a plausible case to occupy the prime minister’s job. Shelly Yachimovitch, the Labor leader, has refused to engage on the occupation in any depth and often seems more complacent about the Palestinians than she is about the cost of cottage cheese. Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, and others are all taking about pooling their forces, but behind whom, exactly?

Still, if Obama is reelected, begins talks with Iran, and reasserts American diplomatic support for reasonable Palestinian demands—as he did in January 2009—the atmospherics around Israel’s election will change completely. Washington’s backing, you see, is the Mandate of Heaven in Jerusalem. It enables Israel to cope with the region, Iran, economic stability, and is even the cultural outlet for secularists living surrounded by religious zealots. Good relations with Washington symbolize Global Israel, the rival good (if not the antidote to) Greater Israel. The only thing an Israeli prime minister may not be—at least, not for long—is persona non-grata in the White House.

And this, everybody knows, is exactly what Netanyahu is destined to become as the head of the rightist coalition he’s lead the past four years and, in effect, as an ally of Congressional Republicans. In this atmosphere, it is possible that Yachimovitch will find her voice; or someone new from the defense establishment—former Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, or former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan (who is recovering from a liver transplant)—will reassure voters that a center-left coalition can be counted on to produce an alpha animal for “the neighborhood” even with Netanyahu gone.

Israel’s election, in other words, would have a different narrative, as the political consultants say, a structural crisis which the incumbent seems the cause of rather than the solution for. In that case, a vacuum can suck a new leader into power. Then again, that is the danger in the American election, too, and precisely what will take Netanyahu off the hook.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Krauthammer's Libya Intervention


The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

Charles Krauthammer has the game all sized up. All Romney has to say about Libya on Monday night is:

You are offended by [my] accusation, Mr. President? The country is offended that your press secretary, your U.N. ambassador and you yourself have repeatedly misled the nation about the origin and nature of the Benghazi attack. 

The problem wasn’t the video, the problem was policies for which you say you now accept responsibility. Then accept it, Mr. President. You were asked in the last debate why more security was denied our people in Libya despite the fact that they begged for it. You never answered that question, Mr. President. Or will you blame your secretary of state?

Say what you want, the man understands sanctimony. (The kid did, too, but never mind.) The thing is, Monday’s debate is actually about managing foreign policy, or “policies,” as Krauthammer puts it, not about managing how the 24/7 heads spin. Has it still not sunk in that our ambassador in Benghazi was there and working and admired because the president had saved Benghazi the previous year from Gaddafi’s forces?

Oh, and he did this against the sage advice of Republican leaders, John Boehner, for example, who said: “I and many other members of the House of Representatives are troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America's role is in achieving that mission.”

Krauthammer was equally smarter than Obama about this. When Gaddafi fell, he fell later than he needed to because—so Krauthammer instructed us—Obama had not committed American forces to do the job the expeditious way it was done in Iraq and Afghanistan. “All of these events, these revolutions have two phases. They happened in Afghanistan and it happened here. Chapter one, get rid of the regime. And then chapter two is stabilization.” Afghanistan took only 63 days for the “get rid of.” I suppose only dummies worry about the stabilization part.

Presumably, Obama should not have built alliances with European forces or supported Libyans—who eventually finished the job themselves—with air support. He should have just bombed like hell and landed American forces. Then he would have had a “mission accomplished” party, too, and our ambassador in a nice, safe “green zone” in Tripoli, probably with Dan Senor popping Chardonnay for visiting pundits. What he would not have had was Benghazi residents outraged by the murder and running the consulate’s attackers out of the city.

Look, I don’t know yet what happened on the ground in Libya, but I know what is happening in the air in America. And it makes you wonder if journalism has not been so debased that foreign policy has become impossible. George Kennan once lamented that America doesn’t have foreign policy, only domestic politics. He meant that regional foreign policy requires context and expertise. I don’t think even Kennan had the imagination for how a foreign policy debate could turn on flocks of journalists, exhibiting unearned superiority, exploiting the tragic murder of diplomats.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Obama's Way: Defend 'The Conversation' Itself

Nobody's asked, but I think I know how President Obama can turn things around. In a way (I shudder to think), it mirrors how Newt Gingrich turned around his own campaign against Romney, at least for a few weeks, until his career, hypocrisy, nuttiness and hard facts caught up with him--not a risk for the president.

Remember the speech on race? Obama needs again to become the most responsible man on the stage, questioning the way political events are represented, and becoming custodian of the public conversation itself. As early as possible in the debate, Obama should say something like this:

You know, I've naturally thought a great deal about reactions to the last debate, and wondered about what more I might have said, but one common explanation for shifting opinion particularly caught my attention. Again and again, I've heard folks on news shows say that the best way to judge who won was to turn off the volume completely and just look at the faces of the debaters.

Well, really, is this what we've come to? Fitness for the presidency is judged by who looks how? And then journalists come in with the polls to tell us if a candidate's performance, never mind any dishonesty, inconsistency, and evasiveness, is working. 

If that's your conception of politics, folks, then Governor Romney's your candidate. I won't change positions every time I change states; I could never look sincere doing it.  He's a truly great salesman, Governor Romney. He's made a fortune closing deals.  The problem is, we all get stuck with the car--not a GM car, in his case.

But an even bigger question is, what's become of our public conversation? Our pundits, and they are everywhere, talk about the presidency as if I have been all powerful. As if there is no other half of the government called the Congress. 

I proposed the Dream Act, and a jobs bill to build roads and bridges. The Republicans in the Congress, Mr. Ryan, Mr. Cantor and his friends, blocked it. They said, without shame, that their first priority was to embarrass me, and that if things got better, I might look good. So why cooperate in making things better? I pushed for months for a Grand Bargin to manage growth and the deficit. The Republicans said, no way. 

And we know why.  Because they know, or think they know, that the way our 24/7 news cycle works, there is no penalty for 'getting in the way,' as Joe Biden said the other night.  The pundits would just come along and say, 'Well, the president hasn't delivered, has he?' That kind of soap opera is easier than learning about the separation of powers. right?

And then comes Mr. Romney--again, a candidate who tells us what he doesn't tell his big donors behind closed doors--to talk about 'leadership,' and that he will 'work across the aisle.' And a whole bunch of journalists say, 'Gee, didn't he say that well!'

I'm sorry, but our children are watching us. All of this matters. We need a better politics and a more responsible public conversation, including a press that believes in the old values: that we have a commonwealth to defend, and that their job is hold public officials to standards of evidence, what we used to call 'the truth.' 

I ran hoping to uphold this sense of decency in the public conversation. And now pundits, even those on my side, are telling me I should be more aggressive. As if what we need is more aggression, more flim-flam and show, and yet another poll showing how our faces played.

Folks, you know my party and his party, his people and mine. I refuse to ask for your trust by betraying it. I ran believing in a different kind of conversation. What you see is what you get. Help me finish the job. And let's make the pundits wonder about what they've been missing by voting, not only for me, but for a Democratic majority in the Congress.      

You see, Obama has to take control again, reframe the problem in a way that sharpens the choice between parties, not personalities--something Biden did, in his own way, but which could never be Obama's way.

Obama, again, has to seem the adult in the room exposing what is crass and simple-minded. Anyway, he could never be the pol. He has to make the reaction to his performance last time around seem a part of a larger social problem, which of course it was.

Groucho said, "Sincerity is everything; if you can fake sincerity you've got it made." Obama's challenge is to defend sincerity without faking it, or even appearing to. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Libya 'Debacle'?

The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column. 

Last night’s debate started off, as the presidential one on foreign policy assuredly will, with a hard question about the administration’s handling of Libya, where “hard” means presumptuous and “handling” means schmoozing the press. I can hear it already: “Mr. President, why didn’t you tell us this was a terrorist attack!” This chorus has been mounting so quickly that the ever transcendent David Brooks calls the event, without explanation, a “debacle.”

As if the administration “fails” any time an American diplomat is murdered; as if what the Islamic world is missing is another president who thinks foreign policy can be learned in a high-school gym. As if the president had any interest in holding back information about the attack in Benghazi and was so intent on apologizing to the Islamic street for YouTube and “Western values” that he overlooked the obvious.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the administration’s response has been that it entertains questions like this in the first place. The late Hitchens once said, “America is the only place in the world where some says, ‘You’re history,’ and they’re insulting you.” Can we not remember how Ambassador Stevens got to Libya in the first place?

There is a Libyan government to work with and ask questions about because of a lonely presidential decision to save Benghazi from its maniac dictator, and a patient year-long struggle to support insurgents, with air cover among other things, while Republicans aimed to discredit him. Obama’s alliance worked so well, and gained so much popular support in Libya, that Stevens’ killers were spontaneously run out of town.

Criticizing Obama's foreign policy for a "debacle" in Libya would be like criticizing him for economic incompetence after the next GM recall. “Mr. President, when did you know those brake-cylinders might leak fluid?” Brooks says that our generation of thinkers, like Ryan, stay cool and excellent at “demonstrating policy professionalism.” After last night, can he not hear the laughter?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Israeli Academia: Crossing The Line?


The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column. 

On September 5, a "subcommittee on quality assurance" of the Israeli Council of Higher Education (generally referred to by its Hebrew acronym Malag), met to vote a recommendation that registration of students to the Government Department at Ben Gurion University of the Negev be suspended. If, on October 23, this recommendation is accepted by the whole plenum of the Malag, the department will be, in effect, shut down and its faculty fired. This matter may seem, well, academic. It is hardly that.
The Malag is chaired, ex-officio, by Minister of Education Gideon Saar, an outspoken defender of Greater Israel, who engineered the certification of Ariel College in the occupied territories as a university. Appointments to the Malag are nominated by all institutions of higher education and approved by the Ministry.
Still, the threat to close down the BGU department is not a case of naked repression of academic freedom by Netanyahu’s ultra government. In a way, it  is worse than that, for it reflects an emergent “consensus” in the administration of higher education in Israel, aimed at stifling criticism of the occupation and its implications by advancing the presumed virtues of scientific neutrality; a consensus fueled by public officials and abetted by self-styled “Zionist” watchdog groups; a conformist partisanship advanced by muddled political language, intimidation, self-censorship, apathy, and garden-variety cowardice, much like what we saw during McCarthyism in the early 1950s.
Here is the story in brief. As a matter of course, the Malag appoints subcommittees, usually including international scholars, to review each university department and assess its standards. In this case, the subcommittee reviewing BGU’s department was chaired by Thomas Risse of Germany’s Freie Universitat, and its composition was contentious from the start. The Ministry, in effect, blocked the appointment of an American scholar who had been a well-known critic of the occupation to the initial subcommittee, eventually causing another American scholar to resign. In consequence, another Israeli scholar (a founder of Peace Now) filed a minority demurral. 
The Malag might have cried foul then. It did not. It’s not a government rubber stamp, but rather a consciously “centrist” institution, made up of representatives, nominated by home institutions and dependent on government funds; its members reflect the cautious attitudes typical of faculty drawn to administrative careers. No surprise, then, that when Risse’s committee reported back to the Malag a year ago, it suggested certain changes to the BGU department curriculum and hiring. The report noted, among other things:
[T]he strong emphasis on ‘community activism’ emphasized by the Department raises at least two questions.  First, are students receiving a sufficiently rigorous foundation in the discipline of politics and government to equip them…? Second, is there a balance of views in the curriculum and the classroom?
What exactly was meant by “community activism”? The report did not really get into this, as if to imply that the very effort of political scholars to embolden political engagement was self-evidently wrong. As for providing students a more “rigorous foundation in the discipline of politics,” the committee specified quantitative and “positivist” methods, where facts are presumably dissociated from “values.” The latter, presumably, were to be left out of classrooms.

It escaped no one’s attention that the subcommittee was reviewing a department that included Prof. Neve Gordon, who was alleged to have called for a boycott of Israeli businesses and universities so long as the occupation continues—a position I have myself opposed, but not his right to advocate it, obviously—and that others in the faculty argued for activism in various NGOs like Physicians for Human Rights. Meanwhile, Im Tirzu, the self-appointed cultural policeman that had campaigned against the New Israel Fund, was actively campaigning to increase “Zionist” advocacy in BGU’s classrooms. (You can read about the case in detail here and here.)
I hasten to add that Risse's subcommittee had never recommended shuttering the department. He recently reiterated, in writing, that he believed the BGU’s faculty was making progress toward the hiring goals his committee had set for it and objected to any radical steps against it. By September 5, however, the plot had thickened. A newer incarnation of the subcommittee on quality, without Risse or any international figures of note--and spear-headed by Hebrew University’s Moshe Maor, among others close to the Minister (Maor is a crusader for “positivism”)--decided on a different course: just close the thing down.

And it is important to understand how extraordinary a step the Malag is entertaining. Former Education Minister Yuli Tamir told me that, ordinarily, the Malag plenum deals with the expansion of teaching in poorer development towns, or the funding of colleges as compared with universities. “The Malag, never that I can remember, actually debated the content of what was taught in specific departments,” she said.
Indeed, the Malag’s action may be illegal. Law professor Uriel Procaccia writes in Haaretz that the Malag has jurisdiction only to accredit institutions and consider matters of process, but specifically does not have jurisdiction to interfere with the freedom of recognized institutions “to finance its administration and research..., appointments and promotion, methods of teaching…” The president of BGU, Rivka Carmi, stands firmly behind her department.

Incidentally, a similar subcommittee on quality had found the political science department at the National Orthodox Bar Ilan University wanting—for different reasons, but in an equally vehement report. (My friend, Prof. Menachem Klein, an internationally renown Middle East scholar, has seen his promotion held up for manifest political reasons over many years at Bar Ilan, a hotbed of the settler movement, but there has never been a hint of closing down any department there.)
But what of the Ben Gurion department’s call for “community activism”? Should professors not indeed strive for “balance”? Here we get to the heart of the matter.

Prof. Yoram Peri—Editor of Israel Studies Reviewnoted recently that many departments advance a school of thought: nobody would dream of closing down the University of Chicago’s economics department because it is dominated by a “laissez-faire” advocates. The key is to maintain common standards of academic rigor: peer review, professional distinction (hard as this is to prove) and, crucially, an openness for students to challenge all prevailing opinion with logic and rules of evidence.
Well, then, does “community activism” qualify as a school of thought, too? Actually, when you listen to how members of the department define this, they are advancing the school of thought, not only for teachers of politics, but for all university teachers as well.

Universities, after all, are not simply a place to teach “science” or “facts,” political or otherwise. Universities are rather the most perfect products, and most important custodians, of liberal standards of scientific doubt and intellectual freedom, underpinning what the University of Chicago’s famed president Robert Maynard Hutchins called “citizenship.” Academic freedom is, you see, merely an idealization of general political liberty; the classroom is a microcosm of equal rights under the law, of the nonviolent settlement of disputes—a framework to valorize individuality and tolerance, standards basic to allowing science to proceed.
And so when the Malag’s current subcommittee insists on “balance,” this may sound like an appeal for liberal standards, but it is actually an insistence on curtailing freedom for nationalist reasons, specific to what Israel has become with the occupation. “Balance,” in this sense, exposes how different the meanings of “right” and “left” are in Israel compared to Western democracies not corrupted by the need to cover up their double standard for civil rights.
In Israel today, a “rightist” may have some love of the free-market but is really committed to national exceptionalism, much like Joe McCarthy in his time and place, or neocons in theirs. Rightists in Israel harbor the idea that “Zionism” always justified special privileges for Jews, who would otherwise be kicked around by evil forces, and special rights for the Jewish people in the historic land, including an occupation that slowly completes the task of settling Israelis over Palestinian resistance.
So a “leftist,” in this context, is by definition a principled liberal who refuses to disregard individual and civil rights—including Palestinians’ rights to property, national distinction, and “citizenship”—in order to advance some improvised nationalist agenda. Think of Edward R. Morrow in his time and place.

The late Dan Patinkin, who established the hegemony of the University of Chicago school in the Hebrew University’s economics department, was also a vocal supporter of Peace Now. Today, he would be considered a radical “leftist,” a “post-Zionist,” in Im Tirzu’s lingo. So would Hutchins be a “leftist.” And so are BGU’s faculty, given their commitment to “social activism”—which implies just international liberalism anywhere else, but sedition, a lack of “balance,” in a country where world attention on ordinary human rights disrupts and discredits the plans of people committed to the status quo settlement project.
In other words, the “centrists” on the Malag call for “balance,” but what they mean to invite is what Orwell called double-think: their “consensus” entails lip-service to liberalism, at least when they attend international conferences, but not a commitment that undermines social solidarity.  They are arguing for a kind of social complacency, or tribal loyalty above justice to individuals, precisely what the BGU government department says it opposes.

Which is precisely why complaints about BGU faculty not teaching enough of quantitative and “positivist” methods seem so hollow. Yes, a student of politics should know something about polling techniques, or ways of gauging attitudes, narratives, “preferences.” But a political scientist is, first and foremost, someone who explores the legal and institutional frameworks in which officials exert power; not only whether what officials say is true, or the psychology of citizens, but whether the laws and institutions both uphold are consistent with a process in which truth—doubt, freedom, evidence—can continue to be established. Political scientists are not, or should not, just be people who teach students whether official lies are working. They are creatures of political freedom.
One thing is certain: if the Malag indeed closes down BGU’s politics department, it will ironically undermine international resistance to arguments for boycotting Israeli universities and colleges—the very arguments that got the Malag’s attention in the first place. For closure will call into question whether Israeli scholars are truly free or just pawns of the government, their institutions unworthy of international respect. You can’t argue for the freedom of scholarship at the same time as subjecting the freedom of your scholars to a nationalist “consensus.”  Or you can, I guess, but then you can’t expect international scholars to have anything to do with you.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Run Against The Congress, For God's Sake

Let us score last night's debate the way our profession mainly does, not analyze whether what candidates say is true, but whether their "narratives" (or lies) are working.

Obama's problem last night was not that he looked down, or tired, or distracted, or even failed to push the hapless Jim Lehrer around as well as Romney. His problem was that Romney managed to come off as the insurgent, the person representing the aggrieved, moved by indignation.

Obama, that is, had a decent-enough "vision" but failed to articulate a problem for which he is the presumed solution. Romney did that, which is just what brought about the "shellacking" of 2010. "Things are bad, you are the president, so it's your fault." Somehow Romney came off as the corrector of falsehoods, friend of the unemployed, champion of bipartisanship.

This has been a problem for Obama, and not just as a campaigner, from the start: an unwillingness to channel anger, or blame another--not when there are two sides to be seen. Whether the issue was Wall Street compensation or Republican sabotage or Bibi's settlements, the president seemed to believe that someone had to be the adult. Zadie Smith worried about this four years ago and I confess I did not take her apprehension seriously enough.

And it is the more frustrating because it is so obvious whom and how to blame. Bill Clinton gave Obama the opening at the convention. "We left you with a mess, you didn't clean it up fast enough, so put us back in charge." All Obama had to add to this was, "Oh, and we did everything we could to obstruct you, in the hope that things would take even longer to improve and voters would be so gullible as to blame you."

What Obama had to do, in other words, was run against the Republicans in Congress: remind people of the filibuster until 2010, of Mitch McConnell's dream, and why we didn't get a supplementary jobs bill, or cap-and-trade, or immigration reform, or Wall Street regulations with teeth; remind them of the Republican willingness, after 2010, to see the economy freeze up over the debt ceiling rather than tax the rich, or build roads and bridges, if this meant Obama might get credit.

Of course Obama should have thrown back at Romney his lies about the $716 billion, etc. But that's a detail. Nobody trusts CBO numbers any more than Bain Capital trusts the numbers in a business plan.  What we look for in leaders are people who can explain why things are as they are, and what voters have to do to fix things. Obama should have been saying since January 2009: "Congressional Republicans are half the government, and I can't govern unless you run them out of town."

Obama should have been making himself the insurgent, you see, which he always was, and didn't seem to notice. Certainly, his campaign should have been making Eric Cantor the face of power. Then, Romney would come off just the sly, self-invented, manifestly hypocritical agent of the status quo; and of a Congress run by the 1% that disdains the 47%. It is a story the vast majority of citizens, appalled by what's been happening over the past two years, and hating the Congress, can buy, even with Obama in the White House. (Reagan ran against "tax-and-spend" Democrats as hard in 1984 as 1980.)

Then the election would be a referendum on the House majority, the Tea-Party, not a referendum on how much patience a president deserves, or whether Obamacare hindered growth, which it could not, since it hasn't even been enacted yet. Obama could be appealing for a Congress to work with, "so that we can start getting things done again," like the auto bail-out, or health insurance reform after 100 years of Republican resistance; not about who is better about working "across the aisle," what Romney called (and here was his knock-out punch at the end of the debate) "leadership."

Anyway, Obama has somehow allowed himself to be held responsible, colluding in the idea that he is the president, and thus the economy is his--you know, the dumb thing the pollsters say and handsome journalists repeat.

Obama thought, in other words, that he could get reelected simply by discrediting Romney as a plutocrat--a depiction Romney seemed all too willing to cooperate with for a while. The thing is, a rich, white man with big energy can seem naturally presidential in America. Remember FDR and JFK? All Romney would have to do to is dispel the idea that he doesn't care about ordinary people or can't be bothered to do his homework. That's what he did last night.