Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gaza and World Heritage

Philip 2 of Macedon and I, Thessaloniki

Is nationalism good or bad for archaeology? I can't say I'm entirely certain. There is much hand-wringing about it in and around Israeli archaeology, though the Israelis are hardly alone in the wider Mediterranean world in that they look for themselves in the remains of Antiquity. I've recently returned from Thessaloniki in "Greek Macedonia." I had an incredible archaeological tourist experience there, both in the regional hub's sophisticated and luxurious National Museum, and in the countryside, where sites that seldom receive visitors are displayed beautifully. All this because of a tepid struggle with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia over who "owns" the legacy of Philip II and Alexander the Great -- the very name "Macedonia" -- and a vague sense on the Greek side of latent Bulgarian dreams of a Mediterranean port and the question of an unrecognized "Slavic" population in northern Greece. Now, I certainly wouldn't in all cases apply to the objects displayed in these places the interpretations one finds there on their museum placards, but I was thrilled to see them at all, and in any case, much of the material is displayed with little regard for nationalistic sentiment.

The UK newspaper the Independent ran this profile on Saturday of Jawdat Khoudary, a Gaza construction magnate with a keen interest in archaeology. This man is pouring money into an archaeology museum to house Gaza's prolific ancient heritage, but fears locals won't support his efforts. I take it that he means they won't visit the museum, and that looting will continue unabated (as apparently it did in the aftermath of the '67 war, no doubt with Moshe Dayan's approval and participation). What's the solution here? Khoudary, who seems to recognize that transnational cooperation is also crucial, hopes to pique the pride of his countrymen. It's common sense: get people to take ownership of heritage, and they'll protect, promote it, etc. Call that the "Macedonian model." But will that work in Gaza? In East Jerusalem? Unfortunately, the archaeology of these places is often at cross-purposes with a number of political, military, and economic objectives. That's why in certain cases, I'm sympathetic to a different model, that of "world heritage." This, loosely, is one of the major lines of defense mounted by former colonial powers' against repatriation of ancient artifacts. The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum belong to everyone, so the argument goes, not just the Greek state -- though of course nationalist excitement of a different kind helped bring the stuff to London in the first place. James Cuno, former curator at the Art Institute of Chicago and at Harvard, has just written a book called Who Owns Antiquity: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage, in which he argues that the interests of world heritage should always trump national interests in archaeology or in the management of heritage. I fear that we won't be able to purify archaeology as Cuno might like. In fact, if Macedonia and Gaza are any indication, maybe we shouldn't.

The Destruction in South Ossetia

Ethnic diversity in the Caucasus (Source)

The Russian devastation of Georgian positions in the break-away region of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and, now, the Caucasian country's heartland signal a new reality not only in this part of the world but in Russia's role elsewhere.

As so many commentators have pointed out, this was the first time that we have seen Russia's military confront regular armed forces, as part of an international conflict, since its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. One could nitpick and point to the fighting in Chechnya, but here Russia faced a separatist insurgency carried out by irregular though effective bands of fighters. Russia's performance in that earlier conflict, however, was interpreted by many as a symptom of its military's disintegration.

Now, Russia has asserted its supremacy, before its doorstep - in the air, sea, and on (the rather treacherous) land. It faced down a modern fighting force by a small but rising power, whose army has been supplied by Ukraine, the US, and Israel (until recently). Interestingly enough, although the news showed up only on a few tickers several weeks ago, Israel suspended its arms shipments (primarily UAVs) to Georgia - probably after Russian pressure.

After the diplomatic defeat in Kosovo, which the Russians have always argued should also mean a green light for Abkhazian and Ossetian independence from Georgia, Putin and Medvedev have upped the ante - they are talking about an outright annexation of these regions to Russia. The South Caucasus, in retrospect, was a red line for Russia, beyond which it would not allow any more encroachments. With Georgia's foolish decision to launch a preemptive attack on the separatist positions in South Ossetia, Russia has seized the opportunity to take an even larger bite.

The implications for the former Soviet republics are clear - states from Turkmenistan to Ukraine (and their would-be allies in the West or elsewhere) must now own up to the fact that whatever support is delivered to them from afar better be significant if they are to assert themselves against Russia. For the weaker states among these republics, this will mean toeing a more neutral line between Russia and the West. The belligerent factions in Azerbaijan pressing for a renewal of hot war with Armenia, over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, may have been served notice. This would be a dramatic reconfiguration of the South Caucasus, with the the "TBC pipeline powers" folding their cards to Gazprom - though it remains to be seen how Turkey, another state whose current military capabilities in international conflict are still untested will react this state of affairs. To be sure, the reduction of Georgia to a rump state around Tblisi would be good news for the other resource-poor state in the region - the Republic of Armenia.

For larger former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, Russia's actions will accelerate coalition-building with the West and investment in their armed forces. Apparently, the Ukrainian navy is not standing idly by as Russia attempts to blockade the Georgian coast, to prevent Ukrainian arms dealers from shipping weapons there. But it remains to be seen how much force, if any, Ukraine will be able to wield against Russia in this round.

Beyond its immediate sphere of influence on its frontiers, Russia has made explicit its rejection of an international system that it perceives as stacked in the West's favor. It has also made the Western European powers preaching to it look like paper tigers. Although much of Russia's rhetoric in this conflict has been directed at the US, which it blames for inciting Georgia's attack in the first place, it has become clear that the Americans decided early on that Georgia was not worth an overt confrontation with Russia. No doubt, this will bring joy to many Russian analysts and to others riding the bandwagon of America's decline. They should be careful not to overstep the new borders demarcated for them.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

McCain's Jewish Card

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Photo: Huffington Post)

This morning on NBC’s Meet the Press, the McCain campaign deployed independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator and former vice-presidential and presidential candidate, to combat the negative press flung at their candidate for airing an ad that likens Barack Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He’s a celebrity, they’re celebrities; you wouldn’t want them running the so the “argument” goes. Joe may have had an easier time of it after Obama’s own controversial comments this week. The Illinois senator told a Missouri audience he anticipated being attacked with charges of “‘He’s not patriotic enough, he’s got a funny name.’ You know, ‘He doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.’” The McCain camp pounced: “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.”

Most will readily concede that the Republican strategy against Obama has of late played increasingly upon the deep-seated fears of ordinary Americans that “he’s not like us.” That, of course, was what Obama was responding to, but he slipped and gave his opponent a tactical opening when he contrasted a) his face, and b) a dollar bill. He slipped because in pointing up the difference between his skin color and George Washington’s, by so casually disassociating himself from a national symbol, he appeared to assert multiple identities: black, American, outsider, insider. While I think the outsider appeal can get him some emotional traction, the idea that he somehow secretly harbors a distinct, separate, even primary identity that most Americans don’t share is very dangerous. For what it's worth, the simultaneous presence of these various identities in a single soul is, to my mind, entirely unobjectionable, and actually renders Obama all the more American.

Contrast Obama’s tightrope act on the issue of his race with Lieberman’s freewheeling comments about his Jewishness on Meet the Press. Lieberman displayed, not for the first time, his utter lack of compunction about calling attention to his minority identity. First, Tom Brokaw asked, “Do you think running a campaign ad in which you feature Britney Spears and Paris Hilton with Barack Obama is respectful?”

Lieberman: “I do. First off, you know, we all ought to relax a little bit. It's, it's a bit of humor. It's a way to draw people into the ad. Incidentally, the McCain campaign has another ad up in which they seem to be comparing Obama to Moses. So, in my book, that's about a good comparison as you can ask for. I should say, in ‘The Book,’ it's about a good a comparison as you should ask for.”

It’s remarkable how Lieberman comes off as both pious, correcting “my book” to “the Book,” and ireverant, comparing, by means of the old transitive property, Moses to Britney! I suppose we’ve come to a point in American culture where the claim “I’m Jewish” is also a claim along the lines of “I can joke around in ways that border on the inappropriate.” The genius of Lieberman is he’s also signaling in very sober terms to America’s church-going population that he’s “just like them,” only fiercely loyal to his book.

Later, Lieberman returned to his Jewishness in a defense of McCain’s tolerance. After all, Joe pointed out, McCain and his wife adopted a girl from Bangladesh – and they love her! What’s more, Lieberman seemed to imply, so quickly did he move from the issue of the adoption to the issue of their personal friendship, the presumptive Republican nominee for president has been pals for twenty years with (gasp) – a Jew.

Lieberman: “Let me just add a final word, Tom. In 2000, Al Gore gave me the extraordinary honor of being the first Jewish-American to run for national office, and Al Gore said he had confidence in the American people that they would judge me based on my record, not on my religion. And I urge Barack Obama to have the same faith in the American people that they will judge him on his record, or lack of record, certainly not on his name or his race.”

Lieberman’s use of his Jewish identity is devastatingly cynical. He wants to be the macho minority, kicking some tail as a trailblazing Jew, only to revert to the American Everyman when he’s done bragging. Unlike Barack Obama, who will rarely ever choose the battle fields on which his black identity will be subject to the various pressures of public life, Lieberman is quite well positioned to inject his Jewishness into the mix when it’s politically expedient. In fact, I dare say Lieberman seemed to be taking advantage of the fact of his Jewishness to lend legitimacy to his attack on Obama for the gaffe. For McCain, Lieberman was the perfect operative for the week’s controversy. He played the Jewish card in order to denounce Obama for “playing the race card!”