March 25, 2009

All I Am Saying…Is Give Peace (with Iran) a Chance

All I am saying is give peace a chance. Yes, very John Lennon of me, I know. And I know these words are probably rubbing some of you anti-hippies the wrong way. But can you say that I’m wrong? As much as you might hate that phrase, won’t you concede that I’m onto something? Even if you don’t think that peace has a great shot of succeeding, won’t you agree that it doesn’t hurt to at least give it a chance?

President Obama claims that he’s willing to give peace a chance with Iran. As he said in a recent video to Iran’s leaders and citizens:

We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.
Now only time will tell us if Obama really is determined to achieve peace with Iran. But his stated commitment to diplomacy is certainly a good thing. In my mind anyway. Michael Ledeen of the National Review disagrees.

In a recent column, Ledeen claims that talking to Iran would be a complete waste of time. In fact, he goes so far as to liken Iran’s mullahs to the villain in the movie Goldfinger:
In the middle of the movie James Bond is spread-eagled on a sheet of gold, and there’s a laser beam cutting through it, about to slice him in half. Goldfinger is standing on a little balcony. Bond looks up and asks, “Do you expect me to talk?”

Goldfinger replies, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

Just as the mullahs do.

As evidence for his claim, Ledeen cites a recent BBC documentary which tells about Condoleeza Rice’s 2006 attempt to normalize relations with Iran. As the documentary recounts, Rice devised a plan in which the US would end sanctions and normalize relations with Iran, and in return Iran would stop its nuclear enrichment program. She received Bush’s approval and planned on formalizing the deal at the UN General Assembly in September.

But to Rice’s chagrin, the Iranians backed out. Though the Americans were expecting moderate Iranian official Ali Larijani to come to New York, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed up instead. Once there, Ledeen writes, Ahmadinejad “delivered his usual blistering denunciation of the United States, along with a visionary invocation of the imminent arrival of the 12th Imam,” and an agreement was never reached.

While Ledeen’s retelling of the story is accurate enough, he only tells half the story. The other half, which is also told in the BBC documentary, tells of three different times between 2001 and 2003 in which the Iranians attempted to improve relations with the US but were soundly rebuffed.

The first Iranian attempt occurred after 9/11 when a member of Iran’s UN delegation sent a message to the US government. According to Hillary Mann, head of the State Department’s Iran Section, “He said that Iran was prepared to work unconditionally with the United States in the war on terror, that if they could work with us on this issue it had the potential to fundamentally transform US-Iranian relations.” The State Department favored starting up a dialogue with Iran. But according to Richard Haass, head of policy planning for the State Department, “We couldn’t get support form the NSC, from the Pentagon, from the Vice President’s office. And in every case we ran up against this belief in regime change.” A few months later, President Bush further damaged US-Iranian relations by delivering his famous “axis of evil” speech.

But Iran wasn’t ready to give up. As the US prepared to invade Iraq, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami offered to “provide America with intelligence and advice to help get rid of Saddam Hussein.” British Foreign Minister Secretary Jack Straw conveyed the offer to the US. Again, the Bush administration said it wasn’t interested.

After the invasion, the Iranians sent another message to the US, this one through a Swiss diplomat. In the message, Iran proposed a roadmap for the normalization of relations between the two countries and indicated that all issues were on the table. After reading the memo, Mann believed it was “incredibly significant and groundbreaking” and felt the US needed to “call them on it” and sit down and talk. Yet the Bush administration not only refused to talk to the Iranians but even reprimanded the Swiss diplomat for conveying the message.

So that’s the whole story. I’d be the last one to call the Iranians a gentle, peace-loving nation. But, contrary to Ledeen, I don’t see any historical basis for concluding that talks with Iran would be a waste of time. Although there are certainly people in Iran who reject diplomacy with the US (just as there are people in the US who reject diplomacy with Iran)—there are also, as the BBC documentary makes clear, Iranians who desperately want better relations with us.

So what am I saying? That’s right—give peace a chance. And I don’t say this because I’m some dreamy-eyed idealist. (No offense, John Lennon.) Rather, I say it because I’m a realist who believes that the US has the moral and legal obligation to exhaust all peaceful solutions before it even begins thinking about “other options.”

March 19, 2009

How to Blog Without Losing Your Soul

If you want to lose your faith in human nature, spend ten minutes in the blogosphere. Hell, spend five minutes in the blogosphere. You’ll find enough ranting and raving and lying and name-calling and mud-slinging to make you want to go bash your head against a wall.

If, on the other hand, you want to restore your faith in human nature, spend ten minutes with any of those individuals whose blogs you just read. I mean, really spend time with them—not in a chat room, but in person. Go to a ballgame, grab a beer somewhere. And what you’ll find is that the same guy who was such a raging a-hole on his blogsite is actually a decent person in real life.

There will be exceptions, of course. But on average bloggers, who are almost always creeps when online, tend to be pretty decent human beings. On average.

One reason for this is cowardice. Most of us will say things behind someone’s back that we wouldn’t dare say to their face. Another reason is that it’s much harder to have compassion for someone who’s not in front of you. As Graham Greene wrote, hate is just a failure of imagination:

“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

Yes, hate is just a failure of the imagination. And when we’re sitting behind our computers, few of us take the time to actually think about those we’re attacking. We rave on and on about “the liberals” or the “the neocons” or this politician or that writer, saying all kinds of hurtful things. Yet when we actually find ourselves sitting across the table from our “enemies,” we almost always tone it down.

And not just because we’re cowards, but also because we see before us, not the personification of evil or stupidity, but someone not that different than ourselves. Even if we remain convinced that their motives are impure and their positions dishonestly held—even then, we often find ourselves sympathizing with them. By being near them, by looking at them, we’re forced to acknowledge our shared humanity and with it our shared hopes and dreams and fears.

Hate is just a failure of the imagination. And I’ve been as guilty of this failure, of this hatred, as anyone else. Put me in the middle of a party, and I quickly become everyone’s friend. Put me behind a computer screen, and watch out. Hell hath no fury like that of a guy given his own blog.

Over the past few weeks I’ve become more and more aware of the monster I can be once online. But it’s not too late to change. And I’m not incapable—you’re not incapable—of imagining that our opponents are sitting down next to us, of visualizing “the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grows.” We’re not incapable of attacking their arguments and not them. We’re not incapable of being civil.

Well at least I hope we’re not. If I turn out to be wrong, then, for the sake of my own soul, I’m going to have to find a new hobby.

March 11, 2009

And They Say There’s No Israel Lobby

The National Review wrote that he has an “irrepressible instinct for the appalling.” The Jerusalem Post called his appointment one of many ominous “vibes emanating from Washington.” And Fox News claimed that his critics (which of course means Fox News) believed his “strong views…might present a conflict of interest.”

His name is Chas Freeman, and he was slated to become the next director of the National Intelligence Council. Why, you might be asking, was there such an uproar? What evil things did this man say or do? Let me refer you to a March 4 National Review editorial:

He has distinguished himself as a rabid Israel-hater who regards the Jewish state’s defensive measures as the primary cause of jihadist terror. He is a shameless apologist for Saudi Arabia (where he once served as U.S. ambassador) despite its well-documented record of exporting terrorists and jihadist ideology. And he is a long-time sycophant of Beijing, where he served as Richard Nixon’s interpreter during the 1971 summit and later ran the U.S. diplomatic mission.

His Chinese associations are alarming. Since 2004, Freeman has sat on the international advisory board of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, which is owned by the Communist government. Its 2005 attempt to purchase Unocal, the American oil giant, was thwarted by Congress for national-security reasons.

Brutal as his benefactors in Beijing have been, Freeman wished them more brutal still: The
Weekly Standard has unearthed a 2006 e-mail in which Freeman faults Chinese authorities for not moving swiftly enough in 1989 to crush democracy demonstrators.

Though this is a long list of indictments, the only one which really concerned Freeman’s critics was his supposed hatred of Israel. Of course, as is becoming increasingly evident, those accused of hating Israel usually don’t hate Israel but are merely critical of some of its policies. And Freeman was no exception.

Nowhere in Chas Freeman’s statements have I found proof that he favors the destruction of Israel. Nowhere have I found proof that he rejects a two-state solution or supports Palestinian terrorism. What I have found, however, is reasonable, well-informed, and often blunt analysis. For instance, he has pointed out that the Israeli occupation is “inherently violent” and that as long as it continues “it is utterly unrealistic to expect that Palestinians will stand down from violent resistance and retaliation against Israelis.” As long as the United States, through its financial aid and political acquiescence, continues supporting the occupation, Freeman believes “there is little, if any, reason to hope that anything resembling the former peace process can be resurrected.”

In academic circles, these statements would be uncontroversial. In fact, one can easily imagine them being made by such Israeli scholars as Neve Gordon and Avi Shlaim. It is only among neoconservative and right-winged Israelis that such words are met with ire.

In order to see that the campaign against Freeman had everything to do with his views on Israel and nothing to do with his views on China or Saudi Arabia or anything else, one merely needs to examine some of the charges leveled against him. Take, for instance, the matter of his “Chinese associations.” The National Review called these associations “alarming”; the implication was that a conflict of interest might exist between Freeman’s loyalty to the United States and his loyalty to China. Now, while it was certainly legitimate to raise this issue, I don’t recall the National Review—or for that matter any other neoconservative publication—being alarmed over any of the Bush administration’s many conflicts of interest. For instance, I don’t recall anyone on the right being outraged when Dick Cheney’s old buddies at Halliburton were being awarded no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq. However they found Freeman’s possible conflict on interest problematic.

Regarding Freeman’s defense of the Tiananmen Square massacre, it should be noted that he never defended the Tiananmen Square massacre! Unlike the National Review claimed, he never said that the Chinese government should have moved more swiftly to “crush” the students. And he never said that the students didn’t have a right to demonstrate. What he said was that they didn’t have the right to occupy “the heart of the national capital” with the intention of “disrupting the normal functions of government.” For this reason, he faulted the Chinese government for failing to prevent the demonstrations from becoming so large that in the end the only way to stop them was through force.

Of course, as a libertarian I would point out that the Chinese government could have also stopped the demonstrations by submitting to the students’ demands. But Freeman, as he made clear at the end of his email, was taking a “Burkean” view on the matter. And Edmund Burke, let’s remember, while strongly opposing tyranny, did not feel that revolutions were an effective means to bring about change. So, too, it could legitimately be argued that Freeman, while wanting to see the Chinese government become less oppressive, did not believe that a mass uprising was the way to bring it about.

Say what you will about this view, but I certainly don’t think it’s proof that Chas Freeman is a “long-time sycophant of Beijing.” To the contrary, in a second email uncovered by the Weekly Standard, he wrote that, although China has made “very significant progress on many levels,” it “continues to fall far short of our minimal expectations for human and civil rights in many respects.”

Freeman’s actual views about China didn’t really matter, of course. All that mattered was his “hatred” of Israel. So from February 19, when Steve Rosen began sounding the alarm bells, until yesterday, the neocon smear campaign raged on, getting uglier and uglier, finally forcing Freeman to withdraw his candidacy.

Though Freeman’s critics won this battle, they would do well to heed his parting words:

There is a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government – in this case, the government of Israel. I believe that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel. It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so. This is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States.
As for those of us committed to justice, let this serve as a reminder not to underestimate our enemies. Say what you will about their morals, but there’s no denying that they know how to fight.

March 5, 2009

Israel Doesn't Want Peace

Israel claims that its recent assault on the Gaza Strip was meant to deter Palestinian rocket fire. But now, over a month since the assault has ended, the rockets continue falling. Which most people would take as evidence that the war didn’t work and that maybe, just maybe, Israel should look for another, non-military solution.

Not surprisingly, Israeli politicians don’t see things this way. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently announced that if the rockets continue he will order a “painful, harsh, strong and uncompromising” military response. Similarly, Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu tends to see military might as the answer to every problem involving the Palestinians. These individuals, it seems, just don’t want peace.

They would say that I’m wrong, of course. They would say that they in fact made an earnest attempt to achieve peace back in 2005 when they decided to “disengage” from the Gaza Strip. Speaking before the United Nations in September of that year, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared: “Now it is the Palestinians’ turn to prove their desire for peace. The end of Israeli control over and responsibility for the Gaza Strip allows the Palestinians, if they so wish, to develop their economy and build a peace-seeking society, which is developed, free, law-abiding, transparent, and which adheres to democratic principles.”

The disengagement, however, was anything but a cause for Palestinian celebration. Israel retained control over Gaza’s borders, territorial waters, and air space. Israel reserved the right to freely enter Gaza for military purposes. Israel continued restricting access to all but a small number of individuals wishing to travel between Gaza and the West Bank. And Israel continued violating Palestinian rights in the West Bank—seizing property, building new settlements, demolishing homes, and restricting the population’s freedom of movement.

In other words, the disengagement effectively changed nothing, as Israel continued trampling on the basic human rights of millions of Palestinians. The occupation was merely given a minor facelift. As Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to Ariel Sharon, admitted, the disengagement “supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” He continued: “Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a [U.S.] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

So it was no surprise that militants continued firing rockets into Israel. The occupation, with all its pernicious manifestations, raged on. And many Palestinians, just as they repeatedly had over the past several decades, felt that anything less than an armed response would be useless. In January 2006, these same Palestinians, fed up with the occupation and fed up with the corrupt Fatah leadership, gave an impressive parliamentary victory to Hamas.

But it turned out that Hamas—yes, even Hamas—was now willing to talk peace. Speaking to Wolf Blitzer on January 29, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar offered a long-term truce if Israel, in accordance with international law, would withdraw to its pre-1967 borders. This promise was echoed by other Hamas officials, including party leader Khaled Meshal. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh went so far as to say that Hamas would be prepared to recognize Israel.

Olmert responded to these offers, not by testing Hamas’ sincerity, but by announcing that Israel was determined to maintain a permanent presence in various parts of the West Bank. Shortly after this announcement, he declared that Israel would be withholding around $50 million in Palestinian Authority tax revenues. IDF raids in the Occupied Territories continued, and Palestinian militants continued firing rockets in retaliation.

Then in June of last year, Egypt brokered a six-month ceasefire in which both Israel and Hamas agreed to end all hostilities; Israel additionally agreed to end its blockade on all but weapons-related goods going into Gaza. To many people’s surprise, Hamas kept its end of the bargain. According to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a decidedly right-wing organization with close ties to the Israeli government, once the ceasefire went into effect, Hamas did not fire any rockets into Israel and even tried to stop various militant groups from doing so. Consequently, rocket fire came to a virtual halt.

Now you’d think that Israel’s leaders would have been pleased by this. You’d think that, for the sake of their citizens’ safety, they would have made sure to keep their end of the agreement. They chose not to, however. First of all, they only slightly eased the blockade. And then on November 4, IDF forces entered Gaza, purportedly to blow up a tunnel, and ended up killing six Hamas gunmen.

Predictably, intermittent fighting between the two sides resumed, and Israel again tightened the blockade. In mid-December, Hams attempted to renew the ceasefire. But Israel was not interested. (The IDF, it’s now known, had spent the previous six months preparing for war.)

And that pretty much brings us up to date. Today, after three years of half-starving the Gazan people, after Operations Summer Rains and Autumn Clouds, after making and then breaking a ceasefire with Hamas, after Operation Cast Lead, Israeli citizens find themselves no better off than before, with rockets continuing to fall in southern Israel. Yet its leaders insist on staying the course, dropping more bombs and preventing things like pasta, school notebooks, and hearing aids from entering Gaza.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize what the outcome of this militaristic policy will be; it will be exactly the same as it has been for the past sixty years. Violence only begets more violence. The more the IDF brutalizes the Palestinians, the more eager Palestinian militants will be to murder Israeli civilians.

So why do Israeli politicians continue to reject peace? As Norman Finkelstein suggests, the answer can only be that they don’t want peace. Or to be more precise, they don’t want some of the consequences of having peace, one of which would be increased international pressure to withdraw from the West Bank.

Now I’m not accusing Israeli politicians of being especially malicious. I’m simply suggesting that, like all people, they’re guided by the principle of self-interest. Therefore, it’s no surprise that they want to keep the West Bank, which affords all kinds of material benefits. As long as Palestinian terrorism continues, Israel can keep convincing the international community that it’s entitled to continue the occupation. After all, Israeli politicians claim, they can’t be expected to hand over all this land to a group of terrorists. So, provided that this terrorism doesn’t result in too many Israeli deaths, Israel’s leaders have no incentive for ending it.

So what’s the answer? What can we do to help end this disaster? I wish I had a brilliant, foolproof plan. But I don’t. I can only suggest that we pray. And we need to educate ourselves and others. And we need to petition our representatives in the Congress to stop funding the Israeli war machine. And then we need to pray some more.