To the likely delight of the stumbling Romney campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu threw a temper tantrum, after a week of warnings from his allies, bulldozing his way into the Presidential race and attempting to blackmail the American political establishment into joining him in an unnecessary war of aggression against Iran. The last three years have been an amazing case of the tail wagging the dog. The United States is committed to the preservation of Israel. But both are sovereign nations with independent interests. Yet the entire Republican party and a large chunk of the Democratic party have essentially sworn fealty to Israel and given Netenyahu carte blanche in the West Bank. Even worse they have backed the Obama administration into a position likely to lead to a premptive war.
The war drums on Iran are insane. Nobody has proven that Iran actually wants to build a nuclear weapon. Many people think, what Iran actually wants is what Japan has – the ability to build one if needed. And that unfortunately is not explicitly barred by the ridiculous Non Proliferation Treaty. Maintaining a nuclear arsenal is expensive and if that is the goal, it would be a smart one. Iran having a nuclear weapon or the capacity is highly undesirable, because it would remove a check on their actions and would trigger a domino effect in the region. Yet it would not be the end of the world. The far more psychotic North Korean regime has one and has been contained.
Contrary to propaganda, Iran’s Ayatollahs have shown a high sense of personal preservation. During the Iran-Iraq war the actually issued a decree allowing deviation from Islamic tenets when national interest was at stake. This is not a behavior of a bunch of suicidal zealots. Oh and one other thing – Israel has nuclear weapons and is under the United States nuclear umbrella. Iran would have to be batshit crazy to launch a strike on Israel.
The other problem is that a military strike almost certainly will not work. For one thing, Israel may not have the capacity for such a long range strike even if it wanted to. In that case Netanyahu’s statement that “[t]hose in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” is even more offensive. Because it requires active American assistance in a war he wants to start even if America does not want to join. And by pulling this stunt just before a presidential election he is counting on the craven Mitt Romney attacking President Obama for “abandoning” Israel. Worse, even an American bombing campaign would at best delay Iran’s program, would likely make up their mind to actually build the bomb, would make it easier for the mullahs to make their countrymen rally around the flag and could send the global economy into a spiral.
Its not as if the Israeli establishment is united around the war drums. Israeli Defense Minister (and former prime minister) Ehud Barak is a hawk on Iran too. But he appears to have recognized the wisdom of trying to blackmail the United States at such a delicate time. Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game here. Most Americans oppose a war with Iran. Israel has benefited from bipartisan political support in the United States. If Netanyahu’s gambit helps throw the election to Romney (or is perceived to have done so), the backlash for Israel will be severe.
Increasing numbers of Americans (and for that matter American Jews) are no longer willing to give Israel free rein with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s tendency to refer to such critics as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews does not help matters. The brazen gambit by Netanyahu also reaffirms why all of his western allies – including the last 3 American presidents – distrust and dislike him.
It appears that calmer heads may be prevailing for now. However, I am pessimistic that this will be the last war gambit before the election.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
The neo-cons, theo-cons and other clowns who helped generate the Iraq fiasco are back with a vengeance. This time the target has shifted east to a country with five times the population. The world will be a better place without Iran’s loathsome regime. It dispensed with its veneer of popular support and democracy by rigging the presidential election three years ago. It has cheerfully backed entities such as Hezbollah. And the nuclear program is a cause for concern and could start a nuclear domino effect in an unstable neighborhood.
Yet the clamor for war is profoundly misguided. Iran is a third rate military power with a crumbling economy. The recent round of sanctions have all but brought its economy to its knees and almost made it impossible for Iran to conduct foreign exchange transactions. Iran’s mullahs may speak in apocalyptic terms but have never displayed suicidal instincts. Ayatollah Khomeini wrote an open letter in 1986 to the present Supreme Leader (who was at the time the president of the Islamic Republic) asserting that if the survival of the Islamic regime was at stake, even the basic tenets of the religion could be shut down to protect the Islamic system from destruction. Like tyrants everywhere the ayatollahs have a fine sense of self-preservation.
Almost no military expert has asserted that a surgical strike like Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq and its 2007 attack on a Syrian nuclear project would stop Iran’s nuclear program. The distances are too great, the sites are too spread out (and many are buried deep underground beyond the reach of Israeli bombs) and Israel may not have the military capacity to pull off such an assault. The result of such a strike would probably simply delay the Iranian march to the bomb (a popular policy goal that has been an Iranian dream since the reign of the last Shah) and convince the regime that only a nuclear device will protect it from future assaults (a lesson that the North Koreans appear to have taken from Saddam Hussein’s demise). Eliminating the current nuclear program would probably require a sustained bombing campaign (which would require American help), lead to far greater civilian casualties and further rile anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. And then there is the added economic shock of spiking oil prices and Iran unleashing its proxies in the region.
Finally the American army needs a break. The United States army was trained to fight the Red Army tank divisions in the plains of Central Europe. Yet for the last decade it has been fighting two draining counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the best trained army in the world can only take so much. It is a factor that must be considered before the chickenhawks send the army into yet another poorly thought out war.
There has been a tendency in the past decade to compare every nasty regime to Hitler. Hitler ruled the most populous and industrialized state in Europe whose industrial regions (unlike France) had not been damaged by World War I. He had an extremely well trained army and the industrial complex to support rearmament and conquest. Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad and the Iranian mullahs do not come close to measuring up. The Iranian army has never recovered from the purges after the fall of the Shah. Iran’s domestic politics force the regime to shower goodies on the revolutionary guard at the expense of the army at large. Barring the rally around the flag effect from a foreign attack, Iran’s youth despises its regime. With much of the world rallied around the United States in enforcing sanctions against Iran, a war makes no sense at this time.
The loudest cheerleader for war has been Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu – over the advice of many of his own military advisers. This blogger’s inner cynic notes that banging the war drums has allowed Netanyahu to avoid tough decisions on illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank that is slowly strangling what remains of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At present the Iranian regime is on its knees, the Syrian regime is struggling to survive, Hezbollah’s enthusiastic embrace of Assad is destroying its domestic support base and Hamas appears to have lost its Syrian support. A far sighted statesman would seize the favorable strategic environment to finalize a deal with the Palestinians (who do need to come to terms with the fact that the right of return is simply not happening). But then other than his enablers in the United States and the irredentist wing in Israel, nobody has accused Mr. Netanyahu of visionary statesmanship.
Barack Obama has held off the war cries for the last three years. Here’s hoping he holds strong in the face of a media campaign from people whose credibility should have been shot after Iraq.
It often comes down to what gets through the filter of the American media. To be fair, the United States is hardly unique in this. Few countries engage in serious introspection about their actions. However, there often seems to be a major disconnect between American self-image and the image as seen abroad.
To some extent it is understandable. Self-criticism is too hard to take and certain groups can often go too overboard on the critiques of America without acknowledging the good. But too often the American media goes to the other extreme by embracing the Pollyannaish version of American exceptionalism (like the ridiculous George W. Bush assertion “they hate us for our freedoms“) in which all American foreign policy actions are undertaken for noble reasons. As many Latin Americans would tell you, that has unfortunately not always been the case.
A column by Juan Cole brought this issue up for me recently. The column deals with the continuing human catastrophe in Gaza. Israel’s apologists in the United States often attribute any criticism of Israel to an undercurrent of anti-semitism and are only too willing to grant it unquestioned support. However, it is stories like the one linked above that have undercut the sympathy Israel attracts (including among some progressives in the United States) in many parts of the world.
Israel is no longer the plucky underdog of the Six Days War or the Yom Kippur War threatened by seemingly overwhelming odds. While the threat to Israel is real, the armies of its Arab neighbors have atrophied since the fall of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile the Israeli army built up with a steady diet of American aid is the 800 lb gorilla in the Middle East. Add to that the (not publicly acknowledged, but understood) second strike nuclear capability delivered to Israel by the United States and Israel has the ability to pulverize any of its neighbors (as Lebanon and the Gaza strip found out in the last two years).
However, with great power comes great responsibility. American media coverage generally fails to acknowledge this change in status for Israel or the extremely disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties in the last decade. American media has also not really delved into the details of the collective punishment inflicted on Gaza in the past year. When the destruction is covered, it is generally framed solely in the context of a response to terrorist attacks with little discussion of whether a hammer is being used to swat a fly. As a result, the United States remains one of the few countries where public opinion and elected officials generally uncritically support Israel.
In contrast, the rest of the world’s media has covered this issue extensively. So now a furious and sometimes bewildered Israel finds much of world opinion treating it as a bully for actions it feels are justified self-defense. Israel is also painfully learning the lesson the United States learned in Vietnam. Civilian suffering transmitted to the living rooms makes for awful public relations for a democracy, unless of course the media chooses not to cover it. It is unfair, but countries are generally held to higher standards than terrorist groups.
A critique I have had for the Cheneyian vision of the world is that it often seeks to lower American actions to the standards of the thugs they oppose while encouraging charges of hypocrisy by maintaining the high minded rhetoric that plays so well domestically. Israel does have a point that it should not have to take too many pious bromides from human rights “paragons” Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. who are only too willing to use the Palestinians as props while doing nothing to ameliorate their lot. However, the question does arise whether Israel really wants to lump itself on the issue of human rights with these countries?
Juan Cole’s column also brought about a sense of deja vu. The stories about Gaza sound distressingly similar to the stories about the sufferings of Iraqi civilians during the sanctions in the 1990s. These stories were circulated by human rights groups, dismissed by the Clinton and Bush administrations as solely Saddam Hussein’s fault and were largely ignored by the media. While nobody should discount Saddam’s brutality, hiding behind indifference of a tyrant to the suffering of his people is an odd way to absolve yourself of any responsibility. And ultimately all that suffering made not a whit of difference to toppling his regime. As the Iranian people are finding out and as the Chinese found in 1989, public outrage by itself cannot topple men with the guns who have no qualms about shedding blood. It is also very easy, as in the case of Iraq, for governments used to manipulating public opinion to transfer the blame to the people implementing the sanctions.
The result is a propaganda coup for the regime (another example would be Castro’s dictatorship in Cuba that blames the yanquis for the failures of its socialist revolution) and a recruiting boon for fanatics like Al Qaeda who tap into the resentment caused by the suffering that is transmitted into living rooms across the Middle East.
However, as little of this is transmitted to American living rooms the perspective of the American public is shaped very differently than the rest of the world.
A few links to follow up on the post a couple of days back. Matt Yglesias on the standards of international humanitarian law, the much maligned Richard Goldstone speaks up about his report, and Andrew Sullivan chimes in here and here. I have never been an amnesty international absolutist on international human rights law. Countries do bad things. Sometimes there are legitimate national security threats to act contrary to obligations. And every country is entitled to defend itself. But you cannot have a special set of standards or absolutely no limits for the exercise of military power for certain actors. That is essentially what the Bush administrations expansive reading of executive power attempted to do. That is the privilege Israel is claiming today.
It is also something the Cheneyites should ponder. Do the United States and Israel really want to stoop to the standards set out by Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda? And when they win in the face of international opprobrium will they like what they have become when they look at themselves in the mirror (assuming they have the objectivity left to make an honest self appraisal)?
An interesting read in Foreign Policy this week about the souring of tires between Israel and its only Muslim ally, Turkey. The last decade has seen a significant decline in support for Israel in most of the world except Washington, and even there Benjamin Netenyahu found it hard to drum up support in the usual corners earlier this year.
Israel does have the right to protect itself and its citizens from attacks and Hamas and Hezbollah’s part in the tragedy unfolding in the region should not be overlooked. However, what a large part of the world has balked at is the disproportionate Israeli response, a refusal to alleviate the human catastrophe in Gaza and a failure of the hardliners who constitute the Israeli government to appreciate that the right of the Jewish state to survive cannot mean carte blanche in keeping the Palestinians in a subjugated state for eternity.
The United States in Vietnam struggled to sustain popular support after images like the infamous picture of the 9 year old girl on fire after a napalm attack were transmitted to television sets worldwide. Winning the propaganda war today is harder. In an age where a cell phone can transmit the horrifying images instantaneously worldwide, anti-insurgency operations that appear cavalier about civilian casualties inflame world opinion. That appears to have led to the Israeli-Turkish breach.
This does not excuse the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah who have cynically exploited the suffering of their people for political gain. But as the stronger power (not to mention as a party to international treaty obligations regarding human rights) public opinion place a greater burden on Israel. Hamas’s bad acts cannot act as automatic exculpation for any Israeli action. Winning this propaganda war will require positive actions from Israel and its friends in delineating the procedures and responses on Israel’s legitimate self defense needs, instead of the reflexive and tedious accusations of anti-semitism that were hurled when the Goldstone Report was released that only serve to harden opinion against Israel.