Monday, November 26, 2007

Will Annapolis Surprise Us All?

When making predictions about developments in the Middle East, I have learned to follow a simple formula over the past half-decade: imagine the worst and multiply that by two. At first glance, there seems little reason to deviate from that rule when thinking about what the Annapolis Summit, which begins on Tuesday, November 27, will bestow upon us. But pessimism is easy, so let us look deeper and find at least a few positive indicators. Annapolis may yet surprise us all.

The Americans - President Bush and Secretary of State Rice - desperately need a victory. They will be pushing down hard on the Israelis to make symbolic concessions, and to give the Arab states and Fatah something to write home about. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, for his part, seems to have prepared the ground for some bigger concession. So far, he has faced relatively little opposition. Despite a few whispering campaigns and speeches, the far right has not been able to mobilize its mass base to preempt Olmert.

One of the bigger concessions that Olmert could offer may not be related to the Palestinians at all. Rather, it may involve some overture on the Syrian side of things. There is no doubt that Syria's participation at the summit is highly significant. It may yet prove disastrous, but the potential exists for a big move forward.

Meanwhile, the Saudis' main concern, whatever their rhetoric, these days is Iran. Together with Egypt and Jordan, they will seek to reverse the Iranians' impressive muscle-flexing in the Gulf region as well as in the Levant. They have no choice but to turn the summit into something that can be exchanged on the market of Sunni public opinion.

The Palestinians, i.e., Abbas, Fayad, and the Fatah gang, can least afford to fail. They need to use the summit as an opportunity to gain solid commitments to Fatah rule in the West Bank. This will be more important to them than adherence to settlement freezes - as important as these are to the long-term viability of a Palestinian state.

Of course, Annapolis will not end the qassam strikes from Gaza on Sderot. Nor will it stop the IDF incursions into and roadblocks in the West Bank. However, the summit may very well initiate a major shift in the US's public commitments to the creation of a Palestinian state. We may witness something similar to President Bush's historic June 24, 2002 speech, but this time with a pro-Abbas tilt.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Benevolent Empire Strikes Back

What makes an empire great? What makes it really great – more durable and expansive than its rivals? What makes an empire a “hyper power,” the center of things in a unipolar world? Yale law professor Amy Chua wanted to know, and so she studied world history’s “hyper powers.” The label owes its origin to a Frenchman, who in 1999 uttered it in an anti-imperial – or at least, anti-American, tirade. But in Chua’s new book, Day of Empire, it’s drained of any prejudice. Her definition, which to me, sitting in on her lecture today on the campus of UC Berkeley, seemed a bit loose, focuses on scale – these empires aren’t on the Aztec scale, but on the Roman, Persian, or Mongol – and, on economic and military preeminence. She argues that radical tolerance or pluralism is the foundation upon which any hyper power stands, bearing in mind that what was progressive in early modern Holland won’t pass muster with liberals today.

From her public comments, and from what one can read in this LA Times review, Chua’s attempt to analyze ancient and modern empires comprehensively, while admirable and ambitious, appears to miss the mark. I asked her whether her notion of “strategic tolerance” could indeed be applied equally well to a decentralized ancient empire, which bows to local custom and rule as a matter of practicality – say, the Achaemenid Persians in a place like Upper Egypt – as to a modern empire, like the American, which might, in the interest of gaining a competitive advantage over the Chinese, selectively offer visas to highly skilled foreign nationals to keep them from setting up shop in Hong Kong. She answered that colleagues had warned her of the brutality of pedants and specialists, had charged that she wouldn’t be comparing apples and oranges, but apples and nuclear power plants, and still, alas, she had carried on, secure in the notion that “tolerance” is a flexible yet coherent concept, the “glue” of each of these societies, and, ultimately, what for us should paste them all together. I’m jealous. Would that I were a lawyer and not an ancient historian.

Defunct are the empires of the past; a simple fact, perhaps a justification for shallow study, but also the source of an unmistakable fear of the future that animated Chua’s talk and spread to the crowd. In the western tradition, one finds the idea that empires rise and fall cyclically as far back as Herodotus. Chua faces off with a more difficult problem, encountered by a later Greek historian, Polybius, who took for granted that empires rise and fall, but somehow sensed that Rome was different, that the empire under which he lived was both born of time’s perennial cycle and transcended it. Chua wanted today to look to the future, and in her lawyerly way, to imply that the United States can escape the fate of past empires that failed to negotiate between the extremes of excessive tolerance, whereby internal cohesion suffers, and the backlash of intolerance that, she argues, often seems to follow an externally produced catastrophe on the scale of 9/11.

Chua is a Chinese-American, the daughter of a Berkeley computer science professor. And so it seemed fitting that her comments looked forward to an American clash with China, and also seemed to juxtapose the absorption of Asian immigrants here on the Pacific Rim in California with a failed approach to immigration and integration for Hispanics here and across the country. She tempered optimism on China by pointing to Chinese ethnic chauvinism. But she also fastened upon Jews, repeatedly, as the quintessential beneficiary of imperial tolerance, arguing that hyper powers that took in Jews invariably profited big time. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was driving at the conclusion that what some have called market-oriented ethnic minorities are better positioned than others to profit from the tolerance of hyper powers, and, in turn, fuel the growth of their hosts. In fact, in response to my question, Chua almost seemed to bemoan the ideological restraints that prevent modern, liberal, democratic empires from more effectively cherry picking the kinds of immigrants they desire.

The Middle East had to fit in somewhere. Chua elicited chuckles by pointing out that Coca-Cola and American blockbusters won’t turn a Palestinian into an American – or a pro-American; or that the US isn’t about to draw an army of civil servants from the Iraqi population, à la the British in India. Her more serious point, and, I think, one of the major arguments of her book, is that the US had better not impose its values and culture on Middle Eastern nations. That wouldn’t be tolerant. Instead, it would spell the beginning of the end of America’s reign as hyper power. Given that she very much left open the question of whether or not American hegemony, or even hyper power per se, is a good thing, I couldn’t help feeling that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too. Tolerance and pluralism, no doubt, are by Chua’s reckoning, good things. And the powers that practice them, get rewarded. (Here, Stanford’s Josiah Ober, the preeminent historian and theorist of classical Athenian democracy, would wholeheartedly agree). Then why, one wonders, shouldn’t the West be intolerant about intolerance in the Middle East? To protect our competitive advantage? In other words, is hyper power a zero-sum game; we keep tolerance and pluralism to ourselves and thereby retain our dominance? If instead, tolerance is a universal good, an engine of economic growth, the fons et origo of happiness, why shouldn’t we be pushing with Thomas Friedman for the pope to visit Saudi Arabia? Liberal values may prove just as much a casualty of the neocon putsch as the tragic loss of human life in Iraq.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Delayed Reaction

Blogging about a Mearsheimer and Walt lecture a couple of weeks after the fact is a little odd, I know. The atmosphere surrounding this controversial and vaguely filial scholarly pairing usually elicits rapid fire rejoinders (think Alan Dershowitz on the Kennedy School website), easy labels, and point-by-point refutations. In my case, I’ve delayed posting my reaction to the talk Amos and I took in recently at Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school, not only because I’m busy, but because I’m rather uncomfortable with the blitz-style polemics one hears from some of M&W’s opponents.

Emotion, not dispassionate, scholarly curiosity, sells these professors’ book -- and prolongs their fifteen minutes of fame. And, frankly, I didn’t walk out of their talk very emotional. (Though the cry of, “Don’t taze me,” from an unruly audience member who was escorted out by the police, and the dark epiphany of a committed Darwinist during Q&A insured that I wasn’t unfazed). Much of what was said was reasonable, and, when young Walt spoke, well reasoned. That the pro-Israel lobby in Washington is a singularly efficacious interest group, with an enormous budget, and access to the inner circles of the Bush administration, isn’t something worth debating. These are the people who were eating at now disgraced – once wildly successful – lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s D.C. restaurant, and, sometimes, from his trough. As a case study in the sociology of the Beltway, The Israel Lobby, will probably read well. Then again, Mearsheimer did accuse the “Lobby” of driving former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee from office. As Walter Russell Mead points out in an excellent review of the book in Foreign Affairs, these guys tend to display a surprisingly naïve view of the American political system. Chafee was a moderate Republican from the northeast in the age of Karl Rove and Tom Delay, the men who've polarized politics. The evaporating congressional Center pushed him out, not the machinations of pro-Israel hawks!

That particular accusation is one that sexes up, even if it doesn’t strengthen M&W’s message. Moreover, it’s symptomatic of a larger attempt at inflating their story. They’re on much shakier ground as they move from their description and analysis of the “Israel Lobby,” broadly construed, to greater claims about the history of US foreign policy and contemporary international relations – this despite the fact that the two are eminently qualified to discuss those matters. One of their weakest claims has always been that the Israel Lobby got us (Americans) into Iraq. From what I understand, this is a claim that was toned down considerably along the way from article to book, but I still left their lecture utterly confused. The state of Israel and the Lobby – notice the conflation – were “two of the main driving forces” behind the war, they told the crowd in Berkeley. Their evidence? The Israeli population was gung-ho, with polls bearing out their support for the invasion. And the Lobby? Well, they brag – a lot. M&W place an inordinate weight on the boasts of AIPAC, et al., who claim to have had the ear of key neocons in Bush’s inner circle, (this being a major criticism of Mead).

Thankfully, in my opinion, the whims of the Israeli populace, in search of their psychological reprieve, and the puffed-up ambitions of a few Washington lobbyists aren’t enough to produce the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history. This country is having a hell of a time facing up to the debacle of Iraq. With so many culpable, it’s shocking how few are owning up. Those responsible are not just those who cheered on, nor only those who gave the Administration a pass out of political cowardice, but all those who lay down because they thought it would be easy. The most disheartening thing about M&W’s book is that it offers all these people amnesty, the comfort of a villain with real agency. AIPAC took us to war, not the Hillary Clinton’s of the world or the average American. We didn’t do it! Cindy Sheehan’s cry of, “My son died in Iraq for Israel” gets an academic imprimatur.

Finally, and here I’m indebted to a real political scientist, Asaf, M&W came off a bit disingenuous in their claim to be undermining with this book years of work that advanced “realist” theories of international relations. For Mearsheimer, this was something of a punch line: our book discredits us! In a way, the profs provide here an answer to the question, “Why this issue?” They didn’t take it on out of malice. They have no axe to grind. The absurdity of the matter is self-evident. According to realist orthodoxy, as I understand it, states operate rationally, and the United States, in the case of its relationship with Israel, has long been acting like an entirely irrational player in the world system. I don’t think M&W risk losing many realist diehards with this book. On the contrary, this is what Greek rhetoricians called auxesis – amplification. In a world of rational relationships this irrational alliance has no place. The most important challenge of M&W’s serious critics thus won’t be stubbornly making “the case for Israel,” but making anew the case American-Israeli cooperation in a brave, scary new world.