Archive for category War on Islamism

John Kerry – Raising the Bar for Wrongness

The Olympics are coming up, and in the judged sports, like figured skating, we’ll hear a lot about the judges deliberately grading skaters down in order to “leave room” for later competitors who might do better.  If we were to judge the Obama Administration on wrongness, we’d probably have given up and just awarded a perfect score a long time ago, but that wouldn’t have left room for the continuing improvements being demonstrated.

The latest comes via the Weekly Standard, which reports these remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry:

We talked about the common interest of Pope Francis and President Obama in addressing poverty and extreme poverty on a global basis. The United States of America is deeply involved in efforts in Africa and in other parts of the world – in Asia, South Central Asia – to address this poverty, as is the Catholic Church. And so we have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet.

The idea that poverty is the cause of terrorism has been so thoroughly debunked – most suicide bombers come from middle-class families, bin Laden was the wealthy son of a wealthy construction contractor, etc. – that his statement on the merits is hardly worth addressing.

That said, the second part of his statement, where he says that he and Theresa have therefore decided to set an example by donating their entire fortune to the Palestinian people, is really quite remarkable.

Ha, just kidding.  Of course, he didn’t say anything of the sort.  The solution, as always, will be to transfer billions of dollars of wealth from the middle-class and aspiring lower-class earners of the developed countries to the corrupt coffers of their “governments,” many of whom actively support terrorism, even as they pose as the most-reasonable-least-bad-alternative, in order to continue padding their Swiss bank accounts.  (Would that we pursued those half as assiduously as we went after law-abiding Americans with overseas money.)

In other words, Kerry wants to redistribute my future to people who want to kill me, enabling them to better do so, and feeding the contempt which is the real source of their murderousness.

Of course, Kerry himself won’t turn over his fortune to this good cause in defense of his countrymen.  He’ll pay some nominal increase in taxes, and continue to enjoy marvelous security at taxpayer expense (for a while) and then his own (for a while).

It’s really the foreign policy equivalent of Obama’s domestic policies.  Nobody thinks he or his rich backers from Silicon Valley are going to suffer from redistributionist policies.  It’s the middle-class and those just starting out who will see their futures bargained away, while the rest of us join the permanent renter class.

Foreign policy naivete combined with cronyism – the administration may finally have earned that Perfect 10.

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Volunteering For Our Own Victimization

Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution argues that the Iran deal is this days well-known version of the danegeld, in this case, making substantive concessions just for the purpose of keeping talks going:

…In my view, there will never be a final agreement. What the administration just initiated was, rather, a long and expensive process by which the West pays Iran to refrain from going nuclear. We are, in essence, paying Ayatollah Khamenei to negotiate with us. We just bought six months. What was the price?

We shredded the six United Nations Security Council resolutions that ordered the Islamic Republic to abandon all enrichment and reprocessing activities. We exposed fractures in the coalition against Iran. And we started building a global economic lobby that is dedicated to eroding the sanctions that we have generated through a decade of hard, very hard, diplomatic work.

It’s a dynamic that Washington has repeatedly foisted on Israel in its dealings with the Palestinians.  For all that, it’s hard to argue with any of Doran’s conclusions, and the incoherence with which Obama and Kerry are defending the agreement is the hallmark of an agreement with its own internal incoherence.  Smart, sensible dealings rarely need intellectual gymnastics in their defense.

Doran also suggests another parallel with the worst of the Israel-Palestinian dynamic, the attempt to build goodwill with our enemy through gestures:

In my view, that free hand was already visible in the chemical weapons deal that Obama cut with Syria’s Bashar al-Asad. I have long suspected that Obama’s retreat from Syria was prompted, in part, by his desire to generate Iranian goodwill in the nuclear negotiations. The evidence for that case is growing by the day. We now learn, for example, that the administration had opened a bilateral backchannel to Tehran well before the Syria crisis. I can only assume that the president backed away from the use of force against Assad because, in part, he saw the Syria challenge as a subset of the Iranian nuclear negotiation.

I’ve been working my way through Witness, Whittaker Chambers’s remarkable tour through the authoritarian mind.  In it, he tells this story in passing:

He [Sam Krieger] explained that he had once been a Wobbly (a member of the International Workers of the World).  He had been arrested somewhere in the West for some radical activity.  The Civil Liberties Union had come to his rescue, and Krieger had at last gone free.  For Roger Baldwin, the head of the Civil Liberties Union, he had a respect quite unusual among Communists.  For while Communists make full use of liberals and their solicitudes, and sometimes flatter them to their faces, in private they treat them with that sneering contempt that the strong and predatory almost invariably feel for victims who volunteer to help in their own victimization.

I’m quite certain that’s how the mullahs think of us.  The figures in Witness are all long dead, and many are kept alive in memory only through their inclusion in this book.  But the authoritarian mind goes on and on.

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The NSA Phone Warrants, Reconsidered

How bad is the revelation that the NSA is collecting phone call information on pretty much every call in the country?

I’ve had a lot of fun on Facebook making fun of the NSA Phone Records Extraction, Acquisition and all-Knowing (Phreaking) program.  In the current context, that sort of dark humor is entirely appropriate for the somewhat casual, breezy atmosphere of social media.  A more serious appraisal is required here.

So, here are some of the better discussions I’ve seen in the last few days:

They represent a variety of opinion, and Lawfare in particular is going to have its teeth into this for a while.  Keep going back to it and Volokh for serious legal and policy reporting.

I mentioned above that in the current context, dark humor is called for. This administration has demonstrated a truly unique talent for politicizing just about every aspect of a formerly professional civil service.  Therein lies the danger of the current context.

As a conservative, and not a liberal or a libertarian, I want the War on Terror, or War on Political Islam, if you prefer, to be pursued as a war, not as criminal investigation.  It’s the main reason I want Gitmo to stay open, since we can interrogate enemies there without certain restrictions that they’d have here on US soil.  We need to figure out how to make sure that the government has the tools it needs to prosecute that war without being able to turn them on us.

This is tricky work, with plenty of judgment calls, trial and error, and changes of rules as some thing work and others work too well.  It’s the hard work of making government work, and having the discussion start with, rather than end with first principles.

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Alliances and Their Discontents

The Sunday Times is reporting that several Arab countries are prepared to join Israel and Turkey in a missile-defensive alliance designed to contain the threat from a nuclear Iran:

The plan would see Israel join with Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to create a Middle Eastern “moderate crescent,” according to the Sunday Times, which cited an unnamed Israeli official. Israel does not currently maintain formal ties with Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, and relations with Ankara have been strained since 2009.

According to the report, Israel would gain access to radar stations in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and in exchange share its own early warning radar information and anti-ballistic missile defense systems, though it’s not clear in what form. The report details that Jordan would be protected by Israel’s Arrow long-range anti-missile batteries.

The so-called 4+1 plan is being brokered by Washington, and would mark a sharp shift in stated policy for the White House, which has insisted the US is not interested in containing Iran but rather stopping it before it reaches nuclear weapon capability.

This is an idea that may have some merit, but if overburdened with expectations, could also lead to catastrophe.

The idea of finally breaking the ice between Israel and its longtime Arab enemies in a meaningful way has got to be tremendously appealing.  If the stalwart Saudis could be brought publicly on board with such a plan, it makes it easier for other Gulf States and Arab countries to be added in eventually, and forces the more recalcitrant states to explain why their people’s survival is less important to their rulers than the Saudi subjects’ is to their king.

It puts the lie to the idea that the Palestinians present the paramount, insurmountable obstacle to such cooperation.  The Israelis will never agree to return to the Auschwitz boundaries, but for those obsessed with the “peace process,” by playing on Palestinian fears that Israel and the rest of the Arab world are prepared to move on without them, in however limited a way, it may force the Palestinians to re-examine their own obstructionism.  And it surely brings to the surface the internal contradictions of a Muslim world that tries to isolate Israel even as it makes its own accommodations to its existence.

Put in the context of recent developments, it also places Obama’s attempt to get Israel and Turkey talking again as a first move in a plan to contain Iran.  If the administration is finally looking to create more alternatives for itself, rather than paint itself into rhetorical corners, it’s also a welcome sign of some belated maturity.

But all of these are largely long-term effects, the sort of thing that take years, even decades to mature into tangible benefits.  It may be that a military threat from Iran is what is forcing the Arabs and Turkey to publicly look to Israel for cooperation, but a solid trade relationship would accomplish much the same thing.

The risk is that the military benefits and diplomatic durability of such an alliance get oversold, with the result that the lack of one leads to the collapse of the other.

In point of fact, none of the players very much likes any of the others; it’s a potential alliance with 10 difference two-way relationships, almost all of which are fraught with distrust and hostility.  Such alliances are often useful over the short-run, and become, over time, extremely vulnerable to diplomatic maneuvers designed to exploit these fault lines.  Moreover, the Turks have never really cut off trade relations with the Iranians, they they share a common interest in keepin’ the Kurd down.  Once the Syrian regime has fallen, it’s anyone’s guess whether that country will continue to be a source of irritation between Iran and Syria.

We don’t have to detail every individual scenario – some are obvious, others less so – in order to understand how that works.  Purely defensive alliances by definition put the initiative in the hands of the enemy.  Without persuasive offensive options, such alliances allow the enemy opportunities and time to manipulate the diplomatic landscape.  It allows them to choose when they’ll make their moves, and if they’re smart, they’ll wait until a moment of tension between two or more of those allies.  If they’re really smart, they’ll help create that tension themselves.  And the Iranians have shown themselves adept at avoiding actual containment, both through the threats of terror abroad, and the availability of their oil to willing buyers.

Ultimately, these are the wages of appeasement.  With the United States not only being evidently unwilling to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities itself, but also having publicly restrained Israel from doing so when it might have, we are now left with this option.  Instead of having acted when we might have, and still might, we seem resigned to the deeply immoral policy of MAD.   As long as we understand its severe time and extent limitations, it may serve as part of a fall-back plan.

 

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Maps

Still catching up from the New England trip.  Today was the Ceremonial Marking of the Maps.  It’s something I enjoy doing tremendously, marking out the routes that we took.  I usually end up doing it twice – once on the large US map, and once on the individual AAA maps.  If you like driving, the roads you’ve driven are sort of an archive unto themselves.  2001: the Columbia River Gorge and the Oregon coast.  1997, and then 1999 again: The Loneliest Road in America across Nevada.  2011: A helluva lot of Nebraska.  2012: The Grand Tour of New England.  You can’t really get to know a place by driving through it once, which it why great photographers often make a career out of one state.  But you can get a little sense of the lay of the land, see what you missed, and plan the next trip.

As for the photographs, I’m still working on those.  Posted a bunch of them to Facebook, but a two-week excursion into the Far Northeast deserves a section on The Site, not just a Facebook album.  Of course, you could say the same thing about Nebraska.

In the meantime, maybe someone needs to get the working press a map to what happened in Benghazi, and then perhaps they can politely ask for their manhood back from whatever jar Jay Carney is keeping it in.  I realize that what we used to affectionately call the MSM thinks that this time, they really show us who’s boss.  They thought they had done that during Katrina, when they finally got their revenge for being thwarted in the 2004 election.  (You remember 2004, don’t you?  The year that the Tiffany Network teamed up with 42nd Street to foist a false-document hoax on the public to unseat a sitting President?)  It must be tiring for them, having to do this over and over again.

I have a very old friend, a White House reporter for a newspaper you’ve probably heard of.  He wrote a piece a few days after the September 11 attacks this year, parroting the administration line about the whole thing being, as Mark Steyn put it, film criticism that got out of hand.  I wrote him a brief email, asking him how he could write this as fact, when it was clear, even then, that at a minimum, the attack in Libya didn’t have anything to do with the video, and that the video’s connection to the rest of what was going on was word-of-mouth and tenuous at best.  He replied that “the intel guys didn’t have indications of premeditation.”  Um, the intel guys were lying to you, my friend.  Now that is a story in its own right.  Count on it to be written sometime after January 21, 2017.

But just in case anyone in the briefing room wants to turn in their claim check on the family jewels, Bill Hobbs has helpfully put together a road map of the administration’s handling of this year’s September 11:

Fact: The Obama administration required our ambassador in Libya to be “protected” by “security” people who had no bullets in their guns.

Fact: The Obama administration was forewarned of the possibility of a terrorist attack against the U.S. in Libya days before 9/11/12. Fact: The Obama administration made zero changes to the security measures taken to protect our ambassador and defend our embassy and consulate.

Fact: the terrorist attack the Obama administration was warned was likely did in fact happen.

Fact: Our ambassador and three other Americans were killed.

Fact: For two weeks, the Obama administration continued to insist that the attack on the Benghazi consulate was a spontaneous riot of a mob angry about a YouTube video – when it KNEW that American intelligence services had determined within 24 hours that the attack was clearly a pre-planned, sophisticated terrorist attack.

Fact: Obama went to sleep the night of the attack while the ambassador was missing – and a four-hour terrorist assault was underway.

Fact: The morning after the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11/01, attack, Obama went to Las Vegas to campaign.

Fact: There NEVER WAS an angry mob rioting outside the Benghazi consulate.

Fact: The Obama administration sent our UN Ambassador onto FIVE different news programs last Sunday to lie and claim the attack on the embassy was an out of control mob – when the administration already knew it was a terrorist attack.

Fact: While the Obama administration claims the attack is “under investigation,” 16 days after the attack, FBI agents have not even gone to Benghazi.

Fact: The most significant piece of information found at the scene of the attack – Ambassador Stevens’ diary – was found by a CNN news crew.

Fact: Entries in that diary strongly suggest that Stevens had been warned he was the target of an impending attack.

Fact: The Obama administration, confronted with the contents of Stevens’ diary, chose instead to talk about whether CNN violated journalistic ethics by reporting from the diary.

Fact: In his UN speech yesterday, Obama continued to pretend that outrage over a YouTube video is what caused the deaths of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans at the Benghazi consulate

As much as I would like to have the luxury of this just being about media bias, there’s an election coming up, and the primary victims of journalistic malfeasance are going to be the voters, who will be confronted at some point with the fact that their government is taking them for fools, who probably already know that, but will never actually have that knowledge confirmed by so much as an editorial in their newspapers.  Somewhere down the line, the official story will change from “riots over a video,” to “terrorist attack,” and by then it will already be old news, so the change will go unnoticed, and Oceania will always have been at war with East Asia.  Which is what happens when an administration can conduct neither defense nor diplomacy.

It can’t do it because its thinking is a muddle, and its moral compass always seems to be operating near Iron Mountain.

As usual, it is left to Benjamin Netanyahu to provide both a conscience and clarity.  That bomb chart with the red line was simply brilliant, mostly because it was brilliant in its simplicity.  Naturally, the wags have been all over it, using the bomb’s blank interior as a canvas.  Here’s my favorite:

Anything that simplifies can be mocked. But it will mostly be mocked in Israel, where an open society can always make fun of its leaders, and nobody actually can afford to take the threat lightly. Netanyahu’s a big boy with a thick skin, and can take such lampooning easily, knowing he reached his target audience with clarity, two things Obama seems incapable of.

When we were kids, we used to try to make up different planets, and then game out world conquest.  But at one point, a friend of mine, I think the same one who’s the White House correspondent, said that they new maps were superfluous, because earth already had so many strategic choke points and such interesting terrain.  Right now, we’re worried about Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz.  But consider what happens when the Suez Canal is no longer a sure thing, and the Mediterranean coast of Africa starts bristling with anti-ship missiles with the names of our carriers on them.

These are deeply serious times, and we have a deeply unserious administration governing, and a deeply unserious press not covering them, but covering for them.

 

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Iran’s Latin American Bases

Israel Radio reported a couple of weeks ago that Iran and Hezbollah had established a base inside of Nicaragua, near the border with Honduras.  (Naturally, this has received zero attention from the American press, with the exception of Investor’s Business Daily.)  This is apparently an extension of Iran’s presence in Venezuela.  Obama’s claims notwithstanding, Hugo Chavez seems determined to prove himself a menace to the US.   And those who claimed that our old nemesis Danny Ortega, had turned over a new leaf, have been deceiving themselves.  (Many of us cheered the old Marxist’s fall from power; P.J. O’Rourke’s chapter on the Nicaraguan elections in Holidays in Hell is priceless.)

It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Hezbollah isn’t using a Latin American training facility to prepare for operations against Israel.  They have most of Lebanon at their disposal for that sort of thing.  The options for operations here in the Americas are multiple.  There’s a growing Muslim community in South America, portions of which could presumably be incited against US diplomatic facilities.  The operatives could directly target Mexican natural gas pipelines, or, given the porousness of the US-Mexican border, be bound for targets here in the US.  Also, given Hezbollah’s involvement with  the Latin American drug cartels, they could be training to help reinforce those efforts, or to provide additional training to those cartels in their fights against the Mexican and/or US military.

In fact, Iran’s presence in Nicaragua is not a new development.  Todd Bensman had been covering this story as far back as October of 2007, and we had noted it here on this blog at the time as something to be concerned about.  At that time, Iran was establishing a large, outsized presence in Nicaragua under diplomatic cover, claiming that it was there to promote economic development.  Anyone with an ounce of sense knew at the time that this was a precursor to something more serious, and now, that something more serious seems to have arrived.

 

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Taking Responsibility

If there’s one thing President Obama hasn’t been good at, it’s taking responsibility.  But it seems as though, in the matter of the anti-Muslim YouTube video, he may just have done so, and in the worst possible way.

Obama’s and the State Department’s line from the beginning has been threefold:

  1. We think the video is a miserable and offensive production
  2. The riots were a spontaneous response to the video
  3. It’s not the government’s position, and we didn’t have anything to do with it

On Point #1, there is near-universal agreement, although for reasons that I’ll discuss farther down, it’s questionable as to the wisdom of the US Government expressing such an opinion, and the way that they did comes pretty close to the acceptable limits.

Point #2 is absurd on the face of it.  All evidence is, and has been for some time, that the attacks were planned, and two overseas newspapers have reported that the US Government had warning in advance that something was up.  To what degree that intelligence was specific enough to be actionable is a matter for a Congressional investigation and another day.  It, along with the high degree of organization in the Libyan attack, help to establish that these attacks were anything but spontaneous.

Point #3 is where we start to get into real trouble, because even if it’s true, it’s far from clear that you want the US Government saying it.

A lot has been made of the migration of money away from political candidates’ official campaigns and to PACs and now, SuperPACs.  This can cause the candidate to lose control of his message, since there’s not supposed to be any coordination between the campaign and the PAC.  But it also gives supporters of a campaign latitude to say things that the campaign could never say, or shouldn’t say, and the non-coordination law gives the candidate the ability to wave away questions about PAC ads that might be edgy or even in poor taste.  In fact, it’s critical that the candidate do that, because as soon as he starts to question things his supporters are saying, he can be held responsible for their saying it.

While the video isn’t responsible for the riots, the riots can become a lever by which Arab and Islamist government move the US in the direction of self-censorship in the matter of Islam.  This has long been a desiderata of these governments, and one which the US has resisted, certainly better than European countries.  Which is why it’s so important that Obama and Clinton (and through Carney and others), make the appropriate response.

Now comes word that the US government is “asking” YouTube to review the video and re-decide that if it violates YouTube’s terms of service.  As lousy an idea as this is under normal circumstances, it runs afoul of the cardinal principle that not only can’t the government stop its people from talking, it has no moral right to, and doesn’t want to.

By putting pressure on YouTube to shut up, it’s tossing away all of Point #3, and putting us at risk for greater pressure down the line.  By saying that it does have the power to prevent certain kinds of speech on the basis of content, it also implicitly assumes responsibility for the kinds of speech it chooses to deal with.  If it claims that it doesn’t like something someone said, outsiders can ask why they don’t pressure YouTube, or whatever platform, to remove it.  If the government chooses not to do so, claims that the government must really agree with what’s being said (or at least, really like who’s saying it), gain currency.  Not only does it constrict the bounds of acceptable speech, it also has the potential to tie up the US government’s diplomacy.

One might question whether or not this is an appropriate “teachable moment,” as the lefties like to say, for anyone in the Arab world.  And yet, I would have a preferred a response from our State Department that focused on the virtues of open and robust debate, with the occasional abuses of that right, to one that focuses on the helplessness of the the US government to control the speech of its citizens.

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Who’s Your Abu?

Comes this report from Palestinian Media Watch, that a lecturer at Al-Najah University in Nablus is claiming that Moses led the Muslims out of Egypt.  (No jokes about how if this is true, he’s the last Egyptian to have successfully led his people across Sinai.)

“We must make clear to the world that David in the Hebrew Bible is not connected to David in the Quran, Solomon in the Hebrew Bible is not connected to Solomon in the Quran, and neither is Saul or Joshua son of Nun [of the Bible].  We have a great leader, Saul, [in the Quran] who defeated the nation of giants and killed Goliath. This is a great Muslim victory. The Muslims of the Children of Israel went out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses, and unfortunately, many researchers deny the Exodus of those oppressed people who were liberated by a great leader, like Moses the Muslim, the believing leader, the great Muslim, who was succeeded by Saul, the leader of these Muslims in liberating Palestine.  This was the first Palestinian liberation through armed struggle to liberate Palestine from the nation of giants led by Goliath. This is our logic and this is our culture.”

The Palestinians have a national obsession with delegitimizing not only Israel, but Jews and Judaism, in their effort to uproot Zionism, but you can’t help but laugh at this one.  After all, they’ve tried being descended from Canannites and Jebusites in their efforts to ante-date Jewish claims.  Back in his pre-Camp David days, Anwar Sadat wanted to avenge the killing of Palestinians like Goliath at the hands of shepherds like David.  So it was only a matter of time before one of them decided that Louis Farrakhan had the right idea and that the Jews were actually Palestinians, or the Palestinians were actually Jews, or something.  The Palestinian narrative has been so incoherent for so long, it’s surprising it took them until now to come out with this one.  (I suppose this ancestral confusion was transplanted to my 2008 primary opponent, who was variously born in Jordan, Saudi, Jerusalem, and recently claimed in a interview to be a child of the Levant, which must have come as quite a shock to him.)

Ultimately, of course, none of this matters.  If the Palestinians would leave the Israelis alone long enough to celebrate the Exodus peacefully, the Israelis would by and large be willing to leave the Palestinians alone to their genealogy.  But as long as “this is their logic (sic) and this is their culture,” there’s not much hope for that, I’m afraid.

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Exactly Whom Is Our Secretary of State Representing?

From the Washington Examiner’s Joel Gehrke, a report on Attempted Public Diplomacy by our Secretary of State the other day in Tunisia:

QUESTION: My name is Ivan. After the electoral campaign starts in the United States – it started some time ago – we noticed here in Tunisia that most of the candidates from the both sides run towards the Zionist lobbies to get their support in the States. And afterwards, once they are elected, they come to show their support for countries like Tunisia and Egypt for a common Tunisian or a common Arab citizen. How would you reassure and gain his trust again once given the fact that you are supporting his enemy as well at the same time?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, let me say you will learn as your democracy develops that a lot of things are said in political campaigns that should not bear a lot of attention. There are comments made that certainly don’t reflect the United States, don’t reflect our foreign policy, don’t reflect who we are as a people. I mean, if you go to the United States, you see mosques everywhere, you see Muslim Americans everywhere. That’s the fact. So I would not pay attention to the rhetoric.

Secondly, I would say watch what President Obama says and does. He’s our President. He represents all of the United States, and he will be reelected President, so I think that that will be a very clear signal to the entire world as to what our values are and what our President believes. So I think it’s a fair question because I know that – I sometimes am a little surprised that people around the world pay more attention to what is said in our political campaigns than most Americans, say, are paying attention. So I think you have to shut out some of the rhetoric and just focus on what we’re doing and what we stand for, and particularly what our President represents.

The first problem, the one where she acts as a partisan advocate for the President, she’s already admitted was a mistake: “My enthusiasm for the President got a little out of hand.”  I’ll say.  I realize the days of politics stopping at the shoreline are long gone, and have been at least since Ted Kennedy tried to cut a deal with the Soviets to defeat Ronald Reagan in the Presidential elections, and Jimmy Carter circulated a letter begging UN Security Council members to vote against President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to liberate Kuwait.  Nevertheless, I was operating under the quaint assumption that the Secretary of State represented the country, not her political party, when she traveled overseas.

The second problem is much more substantive.  Tunisians might well understand a personal loyalty from the Secretary of State, they’re more likely to attach significance to foreign policy pronouncements.  Her answer, roughly translated into English, is, “Don’t worry about what gets said in the campaign.  There’s a lot of pandering to small, specific lobbies.  We’re not really all that supportive of Israel.”

If she felt the need to be non-committal, there are about 100 ways she could have done that.  But what about an answer that defends not only the interests of the United States, but the good sense of the American people, and the interests of our allies, as well?  Something like:

Well, you have to understand that the American people as a whole, not just particular lobbies, feel a sympathy towards Israel, for its democracy, and its success in defending itself against enemies.  Naturally, we hope that that era is coming to an end, and Israel and her neighbors can live in peace.  but

Rather than defining your interests in opposition to Israel, perhaps you should look to them as a model in some ways.  It, too, is a small country, whose primary resource is the creativity of its own diverse population.  After all, your question implies an interest in our own democratic process for how we select leaders and how that affects policy, so it’s clear that Tunisians would like to develop a stable, lasting free system of their own.  And I think the Arab Spring could learn a lot from a close neighbor who also wants close relations.

I realize it’s much more fun to engage in “Smart Diplomacy,” but how about mastering actual, basic diplomacy first.  That starts with not accepting all the premises of a hostile question.

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Thucydides The Revisionist

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History

Prof. Donald Kagan

Since it was written, the prism through which we study the Peloponnesian War has been Thucydides’s History.  Virtually everything we know about the war, we know through his writing.  It was Thucydides who established the first recognizable historical standards, eschewing myth and legend in a way that even Herodotus did not.

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History is Donald Kagan’s attempt to apply – finally – the same critical approach to the History as we do to virtually every other historical record.  What makes it special is that it’s not merely Kagan’s attempt, it’s pretty much the only recent attempt to do so.

There must have been different opinions.  A war as long-lasting, as all-consuming, as destructive as the Peloponnesian War, must have produced different contemporaneous interpretations.  And yet, as Kagan points out, so effectively has Thucydides established his point of view as authoritative, that people aren’t even aware that there were other points of view.  In fact, even the facts that Kagan uses to challenge Thucydides’s conclusions come from the History itself.

Kagan would know.  He’s been a serious historian of the ancient Greeks at Yale for decades now.  (Yale just made his course lectures available in both video and audio online for the first time.  His discussion of Greek hoplite warfare alone is worth the price of admission.)  His one-volume study of the Peloponnesian War was even a popular hit.  “The damn thing sold 10,000 copies,” he says, in evident amazement.

So when Kagan decides that we must treat the History not as a dispassionate academic work, but an apologia pro vita sur, we should take him seriously.

This conclusion leads Kagan to take issue with a number of Thycydides’s conclusions.  Thucydides argues that the war was inevitable, the result of an insecure Sparta facing a rising and dynamic Athens, at odds with each other over the proper form of government for Greeks.

It’s true, Kagan says, that there was tension on this point.  The Spartans had invited other Greeks to help them put down a Helot rebellion, and then asked the Athenians – and only the Athenians – to leave, worried about where their sympathies might really lie.  Later, the Athenians do turn a captured city over to some Helots, frustrating Spartan plans to round them up and return them to servitude, and no doubt increasing their suspicion and mistrust at the same time.

And yet.  It wasn’t the two principals who dragged their alliances into war, but two allies who dragged the principals along.  Years earlier, with much better odds and with two armies actually facing each other in the field, Sparta had demurred.  Pericles knew the Spartan king to be a personal friend and an advocate of peace between the two alliances.  When the Spartans took almost a year to actually start the war, they had reduced their demands to something almost symbolic, something so minor that Pericles himself had to persuade the Athenians not to give in.  Those living through those years wouldn’t have seen an inevitable conflict between superpowers, but a series of events and miscalculations leading to war.

Thucydides argues that the Sicilian disaster was the result of the unchecked passions of Athenian democracy, in the absence of Periclean wisdom to restrain it.  Kagan shows instead that the general entrusted with the mission, Nicias, never really believed in it, made a series of mistakes of omission and commission, and bears primary responsibility for its failure.  Thucydides, having argued elsewhere that Athens under Pericles wasn’t really a democracy, is here trying to show what happened when it became one.  It’s a game partisan effort, but its central thesis is at least open to question.

Perhaps the most critical question for our times, however, has been what to make of Pericles’s war strategy, and his diplomatic strategy leading up to the war.  Pre-war signals that, to Pericles, must have seemed like subtle signals to the Spartans were evidently too subtle.  And his war strategy, instead of persuading the Spartans of the uselessness of fighting, merely encouraged them in thinking that they could go on fighting it out along these lines if it took all summer.  Or indefinitely.

In the entanglement that would eventually lead to the war, Pericles adopted a defensive treaty with Corcyra, primarily directed against Corinth.  Then, when the crunch came, he sent, from the ancient world’s largest navy, a force so small that it had to be doubled by the Athenian assembly, with instructions only to intervene if it looked as though their ally might lose.  While they eventually did intervene to save Corcyra, their manner of doing so neither assuaged the Corinthians, nor earned them the loyalty of their ally.

Nor did Pericles understand the internal politics of Sparta as well as he thought.  Knowing that at least one of the kings was opposed to war, he attributed to him far more political influence than he actually was able to exert in the Spartan assembly.  As a result, when Corinth accused Athens of breaking the 30-Years’ Truce – in fact, Athens had stayed just within the lines – Pericles had already undercut the position of a relatively weak office.

Kagan argues that Thucydides, as a member of the Periclean political party, is seeking to recast a series of bad decisions by Pericles as part of an irresistible chain of events.  Instead, his policy should be seen as one of weakness masquerading as diplomacy and moderation, combined with a deeply mistaken sense of when and where to take a stand.When Sparta did finally declare war, it eventually narrowed its demands down to a rescission of the Megaran Decree, a punitive prohibition of access to the Athenian marketplace to residents of Megara.  What led Pericles to argue against a tactful withdrawal from the Megaran Decree was his belief that he had a winning strategy for the war, one that would lower its cost in terms of both lives and treasure to the point where it would be worth it to make the point, and prevent potential unrest throughout the empire.  Contrary to all previous Greek strategy, Athens would barely fight.  It would play rope-a-dope, letting Sparta punch itself out with destructive, but ultimately futile raids, and make it pay a price by attacking its coastal cities, as only a naval power could do.  Eventually, the Spartans would decide that they couldn’t force Athens to surrender this way, and come to terms.

As we know, things didn’t quite work out that way.  And yet, even as he – along with a large portion of the Athenian population – was dying from a overcrowding-enhanced plague, Pericles (reports Thucydides) said that he was happy that his strategy had ensured that no Athenians had died by force.  Historians have long noted echoes of his Funeral Oration in the Gettysburg Address, but up until this point, in his handling of the crisis, Pericles reminds us more of another president.

Thucydides argues that had the Athenians but kept to Pericles’s strategy, they would have won the war.  This seems to stem more from his distaste for the low political tone set by Cleon, the successful commander and politician than from the evidence.  In fact, the Athenians, once they pursued an active ground war, quickly won victories and brought the Spartans to sue for peace.  Merely raiding coastal cities wasn’t enough; the Spartans had to be afraid that the Athenians would pursue and offensive strategy, invade, and potentially free the helots (or at least severely disrupt the Spartan social order), to sue for peace.  They had to fear being beaten, humiliated, and impoverished, not merely wasting their time.

It’s a point that those who would argue for a strategy based solely on missiles and naval power would do well to learn, and it bodes ill for a style of warfare dedicated to dismantling an opponent’s military while leaving the population at large untouched.

Likewise, societies can only absorb so many hits, even superficial ones, without reprisal, before morale begins to erode.  The Germans had to re-learn this lesson in WWI, as they sought a quick victory over France, while letting the Russians advance virtually unopposed over East Prussia, ancestral home to the Junker military professionals who had concocted the war in the first place.  Whether or not the troops removed from the French front to the east were dispositive is open to question; it’s certain that the second front was a distraction.

Why do we care about the Greeks? Why, even now, 2500 years later, do we still read about their wars, against each and against their neighbor, the imperial eastern superpower?

The Greeks are a lot like us, and by learning about them, we hope to learn about ourselves.  Not for nothing are the twin pillars of Western civilization Jerusalem and Athens.  We see in ourselves echoes of our fractious, democratic, pluralistic, pious, postmodern Greeks.  If we can see what stresses a long epoch of war places on a society, we can at least avoid being surprised.

If we’ve been learning those lessons from the wrong reading of Thucydides, then we’ve quite possibly been learning the wrong lessons.  If we believe that wars are inevitable, we will fail to take our decision-making seriously.  If we learn that “democracy” cannot make large strategic decisions, we abandon our core value of open debate, and are likely to fail to hold our generals properly accountable.

And if we learn that we can avoid wars by looking non-threatening, and win them merely by showing that we can, we’ll lose.

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