Wednesday, December 31, 2008

George Washington's warnings and U.S. policy towards Israel

By: Glenn Greenwald
Tuesday Dec. 30, 2008 05:33 EST

University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes -- July 1, 2008:

A new poll of 18 countries finds that in 14 of them people mostly say their government should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just three countries favor taking the Palestinian side (Egypt, Iran, and Turkey) and one is divided (India). No country favors taking Israel's side, including the United States, where 71 percent favor taking neither side.

CQ Politics, yesterday:

Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle rallied to Israel’s cause Monday as it pressed forward with large-scale air attacks against Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip. . . .

“I strongly support Israel’s right to defend its citizens against rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza, which have killed and injured Israeli citizens, and to restore security to its residents,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev. . . .

His view was echoed by leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Israel has a right, indeed a duty, to defend itself in response to the hundreds of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza over the past week,” Howard L. Berman , D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House committee, also expressed support for the Israeli offensive. . . .

The White House on Monday also took Israel’s side in the fighting, demanding that Hamas halt its rocket fire into Israel and agree to a last ceasefire.

Earlier this week, Nancy Pelosi issued an identical statement, and yesterday Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer did the same.

There sure is a lot of agreeing going on -- one might describe it as "absolute." The degree of mandated orthodoxy on the Israel question among America's political elites is so great that if one took the statements on Gaza from George Bush, Pelosi, Hoyer, Berman, Ros-Lehtinen, and randomly chosen Bill Kristol-acolytes and redacted their names, it would be impossible to know which statements came from whom. They're all identical: what Israel does is absolutely right. The U.S. must fully and unconditionally support Israel. Israel does not merit an iota of criticism for what it is doing. It bears none of the blame for this conflict. No questioning even of the wisdom of its decisions -- let alone the justifiability -- is uttered. No deviation from that script takes place.

By itself, the degree of full-fledged, absolute agreement -- down to the syllable -- among America's political leaders is striking, even when one acknowledges the constant convergence between the leadership of both parties. But it becomes even more striking in light of the bizarre fact that the consensus view -- that America must unquestioningly stand on Israel's side and support it, not just in this conflict but in all of Israel's various wars -- is a view which 7 out of 10 Americans reject. Conversely, the view which 70% of Americans embrace -- that the U.S. should be neutral and even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally -- is one that no mainstream politician would dare express.

In a democracy, one could expect that politicians would be afraid to express a view that 70% of the citizens oppose. Yet here we have the exact opposite situation: no mainstream politician would dare express the view that 70% of Americans support; instead, the universal piety is the one that only a small minority accept. Isn't that fairly compelling evidence of the complete disconnect between our political elites and the people they purportedly represent?

There is, of course, other evidence for that proposition: the fact that overwhelming majorities of Americans have long wanted to withdraw from Iraq was completely dismissed and ignored by our bipartisan political class, which continued to fund the war indefinitely and with no conditions. But at least there, Democratic leaders paid lip service to the idea that they agreed with that position and some Democrats went beyond rhetoric and actually tried to stop or at least limit the war. But in the case of Israel, not even that symbolic nod to American public opinion occurs among the political leadership.

The other striking aspect of this lockstep American consensus is that the Gaza situation is very complex, and a wide range of opinions fall within the realm of what is reasonable. Even many who believe that Israel's attack is morally and legally justifiable as a response to Hamas rockets and who generally side with Israel -- such as J Street -- nonetheless oppose this attack on strictly pragmatic grounds: that it won't achieve anything positive, that it will exacerbate the problem, that it makes less likely a diplomatic resolution, that there is no military solution to the rocket attacks. Others condemn Hamas rocket attacks but also condemn the devastating Israeli blockade and expanding settlements. Others still who may be supportive of Israel's right to attack at least express horror over the level of Palestinian suffering and urge greater restraint.

Anyone minimally objective and well-intentioned finds Hamas rocket attacks on random Israeli civilians to be highly objectionable and wrong, but even among those who do, one finds a wide range of views regarding the Israeli offensive. But not among America's political leadership. There, one finds total, lockstep uniformity almost more unyielding than what one finds among Israeli leaders themselves -- as though Israel's wars are, by definition, America's wars; its enemies are our enemies; its disputes and conflicts and interests are, inherently, ours; and America's only duty when Israel fights is to support it uncritically.

* * * * *

All of that underscores one vital point I want to emphasize with regard to the commentary I've written on Israel and Gaza the last couple of days. Yesterday, George Mason Law Professor David Bernstein wrote another thoroughly childish response to something I wrote, and it merits very little attention [he continues to insist that I let him pay for me to vacation in Sderot so that I will see the light on the justifiability of Israel's assault on Gaza, which is exactly the same type of "argument" as if I offered to sponsor an online fundraiser to pay for him and his family tomorrow to travel to and vacation in Gaza City so he can blog from there about how restrained and justified and necessary the Israeli strikes and blockade are, which -- one would have thought (wrongly) -- anyone above the age of 12 would recognize as a juvenile and emotionally manipulative means of argumentation].

Bernstein's mentality is echoed by The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who defends Israel's actions by approvingly quoting Barack Obama's statement that "If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." But that mindset justifies any and all actions by any group with a legitimate grievance, as in: "if my family and I were forced to live under a 4-decade foreign occupation and had our land blockaded and were not allowed to exit and my children couldn't access basic nutrition or medical treatment, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Palestinians to do the same thing." That happens also to be the same mentality that was used to justify the 9/11 attacks ("if my family and I were forced to live in a region in which a foreign superpower dominated our politics and propped up brutal dictators for its own ends, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Muslims to do the same thing").

But -- just like those who insist that American Torture is different because American leaders use it for noble ends -- this is nothing more elevated than an adolescent refusal to view the world through any prism other than complete self-centeredness, where one's own side merits infinite empathy and the "other side" merits none. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute -- like most intractable, bloody, hate-driven, decades-long wars -- there is endless blame to go around to countless parties. Commentary which fails to recognize that, or, worse, which insists it's not true, is almost certainly the by-product of this blind self-regard.

* * * * *

The real point here is that none of these intractable disputes between Israel and its various neighbors should be a focal point of American policy at all. Yet the above-documented orthodoxy has ensured that it is. And -- at least in the U.S. -- that is the real issue, the reason why the Israeli attack merits so much discussion in the U.S. even among those who would just as soon refrain from having any involvement. In his reply yesterday, Bernstein wrote:

I find it rather amusing that Greenwald refers to me as an "Israel-obsessive." I blog a fair amount about Israel, not least because I'm there twice a year and my wife is Israeli. Greenwald, meanwhile, blogs far more about Israel, without similar ties. What does that make him?

Bernstein obviously has absolutely no idea what "ties" to Israel I do or don't have; he simply fabricated that claim. But (other than for those interested in Bernstein's honesty -- and I'm not one of them), that point is entirely irrelevant. The reason Americans need to be interested in what Israel does is obvious, and it has nothing to do with one's "ties" to that country.

As I wrote on Saturday regarding Israel's varied wars, walls and blockades: "since we fund a huge bulk of it and supply the weapons used for much of it and use our veto power at the U.N. to enable all of it, we are connected to it -- intimately -- and bear responsibility for all of Israel's various wars, including the current overwhelming assault on Gaza, as much as Israelis themselves." With our bipartisan policy of blind and absolute support for Israel -- not just rhetorical but military and material as well -- our political leadership has inextricably (and foolishly) tied American interests to Israel's interests.

Matt Yglesias made a similar point yesterday:

Jonathan Zasloff offers the futility argument with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

All those who insist that the United States should “solve” the problem should explain how. And if they can’t do that, then maybe they should take some quiet time.

I think that would be an appealing solution to a lot of people who have no real desire to try to sit in delicate judgment weighing the moral balance between a Hamas movement that seems indifferent to human life, and an Israeli government that’s lashing out brutally as part of a domestic political drama. But as long as Israel is by far the largest recipient of US foreign assistance funds and by an even larger margin the largest per capita recipient of US foreign assistance funds, then I don’t see how “quiet time” is a realistic option.

Americans shouldn't be in the position of endlessly debating Israel's security situation and its endless religious and territorial conflicts with its neighbors. That should be for Israeli citizens to do, not for Americans. But that distinction -- between the U.S. and Israel -- barely exists because our political leaders have all but eliminated it, and have thus imposed on U.S. citizens responsibility for the acts of Israel.

In doing so, they have systematically ignored the unbelievably prescient warnings issued by George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address, and have thereby provoked exactly the dangers he decried:

Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? . . . . .

In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.

It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. . . .

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.

It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

Uncritical support for someone's destructive behavior isn't "friendship"; it is, as Washington said, slavishness, and it does no good either for the party lending the blind support nor the party receiving it. It's hard to overstate the good that would be achieved if the U.S. simply adhered to those basic and self-evidently compelling principles of George Washington, who actually knew a thing or two about the perils of war.

* * * * *

If someone asked me to recommend just one must-read article on the Israeli-Gaza conflict, I would select this column... from yesterday in The Guardian by Israeli-American journalist Nir Rosen. I disagree with several of his points, particularly some of the specific ones about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his generalized explanation about how the concept of "terrorism" is distorted and exploited by stronger countries can't be emphasized enough.

*UPDATE: To underscore the point: during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, the Bush administration purposely expedited shipments of bombs to Israel to enable Israel to drop those bombs on Lebanon. We fed Israel the bombs they used on the Lebanese. A similar American action seems to have occurred with regard to the bombs that the Israelis are now dropping on Gaza.

*UPDATE II: Polls taken in the U.S. during the 2006 Israeli incursion into Lebanon bolster the above point regarding American public opinion. A USA Today/Gallup poll (.pdf) asked: "In the current conflict, do you think the United States should take Israel's side, take the side of Hezbollah, or not take either side?" A large majority (65%) answered "neither," while only 31% wanted to take Israel's side.

A Washington Post poll actually found that a plurality of Americans (46%) blamed "both sides equally" (Israel and Hezbollah) for the war and believed (48%) that Israel's claimed "bombing [of] rocket launchers and other Hezbollah targets located in civilian areas" was "not justified." The lockstep, uncritical support for everything Israel does in the political class is completely unrepresentative of American public opinion.