Saturday, November 30, 2013

Long-Term versus Short-Term Thinking in the Middle East

People in the so-called “West” tend to accept certain basic principles.  One is that the West is intellectually superior to the rest of the world.  Another is that “long-term thinking” is superior to “short-term thinking.”  These days, however, these principles can’t both be true.

The deal between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran is but the latest example of how those who are fighting the West are digging in for the long haul, whereas America and her allies are thinking about little else than the present.  Perhaps that is a by-product of the fact that Western regimes are democracies, which tend to live from one election cycle to the next.  But whatever the cause, Westerners seem not only to lack crystal balls but any interest in finding them, whereas those who struggle with America are planning patiently for the future.  

Before we consider what is frequently being hailed by the American media as the Obama Administration’s “victory” in reaching a deal with the Iranians, let’s turn back to the one nation who may suffer most from that “victory” – the state of Israel.  It is in Israel where you see the short-term/long-term dichotomy in the starkest possible terms. 

Israel, in its first few decades, was a proud nation whose very existence was hailed among much of the world as miraculous.  Surrounded by hostile neighbors, many of whom weren’t afraid to attack at a moment’s notice, that small country defeated the odds time and time again, with the help of one of the world’s most modern and fierce militaries.  Israel had her enemies, to be sure, many of whom got together in the United Nations and proclaimed that “Zionism is racism.”  But whether you loved or hated her, you couldn’t help but view Israel as a force to be reckoned with.  As a result, her enemies abandoned the prospect of large scale military attacks against Israel and turned instead to isolated terrorist strikes of the type that only strengthened Israel’s resolve and undermined international support for her adversaries.

Some may still view Israel in that way, but increasingly, another reality is setting in.   For starters, most of her adversaries have abandoned terrorism as a strategy and are turning instead to what they call “non-violent resistance.”  That really is just a euphemism for waiting it out and allowing Israel to implode from within.  Maybe this anticipated implosion will take ten years, maybe fifty, but according to her adversaries, sooner or later Israel’s implosion is inevitable.  Allegedly, the destruction of the “Jewish State” as such is being led by her incessant drive to occupy more and more Palestinian land, which is contrary to the very essence of the obsession with justice that is at the heart of the Jewish religion.   Even as her leaders proclaim their support for peace and a “two-state solution,” the Palestinian narrative continues, Israel’s government is permitting the construction of additional West Bank settlements on the very land that the Palestinians would need if they were ever to have a viable state.   Whether this settlement construction stems from imperialist urges or simply the inability of the Israeli mainstream to stand up to the political power of the right-wing settler lobby, the fact is that for decades, no Israeli government – not even the ones on the political left – has been willing to “Just Say No” to the Occupation.  Consequently, Israeli’s adversaries argue, they can simply sit back, gather international support for their struggle against imperialism, watch Israel lose any sympathy whatsoever outside of its tiny borders, and ultimately fracture from within.

Even here in America, you hear more and more older Jews talking about how the younger generation of Jewish adults is abandoning not only their support of the Israeli government but the very principle of Zionism.  Who is going to defend Israel in 20 or 40 years, they wonder?   Evangelical Christians who think that Jews are heading for Hell?  Black-hatted Ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to fight in the military?   The Palestinians are betting that such a coalition will not be able to stand, and that soon enough, the isolated and fractured “Jewish State” will give up its claim to the West Bank and allow Palestinians and Jews to live together in a single bi-national state.   Call it the United States of Palestine – a melting pot for the 21st century.  Palestinians see it as a much more modern concept than that of Zionism, which is increasingly associated with occupation, discrimination, and xenophobia.  Or so goes the narrative.

Therein lays the Palestinian strategy for how they will someday regain power in their homeland.  On the Israeli side, the approach is more like a shrug than a strategy.  “We have the land, they don’t, and we’re not giving it up,” aptly summarizes the attitude.  The Israelis recognize that the Orthodox, the settlers and the other hard-liners comprise a powerful political force, and they see legitimate security issues in trying to accede to the demands of the peaceniks on the left.  So the easiest thing to do is simply pay lip service to “two states for two peoples,” while not proposing any dramatic concessions, and assume that the combination of the Wall, the Israeli Defense Forces, and the robust Israeli economy will continue to keep Israeli citizens secure and prosperous.  As for what to do with the Palestinians, the answer seems to be to ignore them, and as for what to do with Israel’s isolation and unpopularity in capitals throughout the world, the answer seems to be to ignore those problems as well.  In short, Israel has no plan for regaining international support, which you would think a tiny country would desperately need, and merely shrugs off the topic, as if the problem is the world’s and not Israel’s.   

            Truth be told, those Israelis who are primarily responsible for the Occupation aren’t so much worried about the Palestinian threat.  What scares those Israelis is Iran, and in particular, the prospect that Iran will come to acquire nuclear weapons and then furnish them to terrorists.  If that happens, Israelis will soon be an extinct sub-species.  

            The Israeli fear of Iran is legitimate, if you ask me. Iranian leaders have for years expressed the vilest anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiments imaginable, and have accumulated various allies in states that neighbor Israel who haven’t thought twice about using violence to take Jewish lives.  As someone who loves Israel, I am deeply depressed by the idea that the current regime in Iran could acquire nuclear weapons.    Yet as far as I am concerned, that is exactly what the present deal with the Obama Administration points to – at least if we think long-term, like they do in Nablus, Hebron and, apparently, Tehran.  

            Try to put aside all the pro-Administration propaganda that inevitably is spewed by the American media, no matter what Administration is in power.  Our recent deal with Iran is as interesting for what it doesn’t say as for what is does.  For example, as chronicled quite powerfully in yesterday’s Washington Post lead editorial, the deal (a) will “involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters” and no mention is made that Iran must close all its enrichment facilities (meaning that the oil-rich nation of Iran, which hardly seems to need nuclear power for non-military purposes, will also be able to enrich uranium for the indefinite future), and (b) the final deal will “have a specified long-term duration to be agreed upon” and that once that period is over, “the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party” to the treaty on non-proliferation (meaning that at some time in the not-so-distant future, the sanctions would be over and the uranium-enriching Iranian government would presumably be able to continue with its nuclear ambitions free from any special restrictions.  According to the Washington Post, Obama Administration officials claim that reference to a “long-term” sunset clause could last for 15-20 years, but the Iranians are proposing that it be more like 3-5 years, and the final number will surely be the product of negotiation.  In the meantime, economic sanctions will be lessened.   

            Put all that together and the upshot is that even though vicious anti-Israel rhetoric continues to flow from the Iranian government, there seems to be nothing stopping a more economically powerful Iran from emerging. What’s more, at some point between 2018 and 2028, that strengthened Iran will be given a virtual green light to realize its obvious ambition of being a nuclear power in the military sense of that word.  I’m willing to assume that the Iranians, like the Palestinians, are patient enough not to worry about whether that happens in five years or fifteen years.  Either way, the Iranians – and their aspirations for power -- are here to stay.  But can the same thing be said about Israel?  

            Those folks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Brooklyn who have been ignoring the Jews’ obligations to the Palestinians have kept hope alive that Israel could persuade the international community to stand up to Iran on the issue of weapons.  But the Jewish State cannot have it both ways.  It can’t continue to build out settlements and thumb its noses at the rest of the world on the topic of the Palestinians, and then expect that the international community will give a damn about what it has to say about Iran.  Quite frankly, fewer and fewer people outside of Israel give a damn about what Netanyahu has to say about ANYTHING; as a “pro-peace,” pro-Settlement leader, he has lost his credibility.   So when he cries wolf about the dangers inherent in the peace deal with the Iranians, nobody seems to notice that this time he might actually be right.

            If you are looking for a bright side about the Iranian deal, two quickly come to mind. First, feel good for the people of Iran who truly are not to blame for the noxious comments of their nation’s leaders, and who should be at least marginally more prosperous based on the deal’s lessening of economic sanctions against Iran.  Even those of us who support the continuation of sanctions as a means of fighting the Iranian leadership should not be at war with the Iranian people, who have as much of a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the residents of any other country.  Second, it is certainly plausible that the increased prosperity resulting from the lessening of the sanctions could lead to progressive changes within the Iranian regime itself – potentially including less of a willingness to support international terrorists who threaten the existence of Israel.  

            Yes, hope springs eternal.  But I remain cynical nonetheless about the regime in Iran.  Given all they have said over the decades to denigrate the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland, they have earned the cynicism of anyone who truly cares about Israel. 

From the standpoint of the Obama Administration, maybe the deal struck in Geneva was the best of a bad set of options.  Maybe the die was already cast, given how war weary the world is and how much the Iranians seem determined to build up their nuclear capabilities.   My frustration, though, is that not enough is being said here in Washington about the long-term/short-term dichotomy.  In a world where robust democracies are clashing with non-democracies, the latter have a hidden strategic advantage.  They are equipped to be patient, whereas we democracies seem to strategize with ants in our pants.  As a result, if we look ahead to, say, 2030, I am afraid that Tehran will have even more nukes, the West will have even more fears, and the Palestinians will have even more stories to tell about how Israel is splitting apart at her seams.  Can that trajectory be changed?  Perhaps, but only if the West figures out that sometimes, even power-rich democracies need to think about the future and not simply concern themselves with the power-dynamics of the present. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gone Conferencing

I want to apologize to the readers of this blog that there has been no substantive entry this week.  I have been away at an academic conference throughout the weekend and simply haven't had the time to write.

I will likely not blog again until the weekend of November 30-December 1.   So, in the meantime, please have the happiest of Thanksgivings ... and enjoy some tofurky for me!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Twinning Weekend is Upon Us Once Again

This week has been a tough week in many ways.  The death toll grows and grows in the Philippines from the type of natural disaster that is only going to become more common thanks to our reckless treatment of the environment.  The rollout of the health care law known alternatively as the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, or Obama’s Albatross is going so badly that even the President is counted among its critics.  And in the Holy Land, we are finally getting progress reports of Secretary Kerry’s efforts over the past few months to broker a peace treaty – and not surprisingly, those reports are every bit as dire as we would have feared.  Any way you slice it, picking up the newspaper these days doesn’t exactly bring in rays of sunshine.

But you’ll forgive me this morning if I sing a different, and indeed, happy tune.  Because we are now embarking on what is known by an increasing number of people as a “Weekend of Twinning.”  Thanks to a New York-based organization called the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding  ( ), this is the sixth annual weekend where Jews and Muslims from congregations all over the world get together in an effort to better appreciate their profound similarities and lovingly embrace their differences.   My own organization, the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS) ( is about to celebrate its fourth annual Twinning Weekend event this Sunday at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, MD.  A few years ago, that mosque received notoriety because the Ft. Hood shooter had frequently prayed there.  Yet I know this mosque as an incredibly welcoming environment for Jews and other non-Muslims that is led by an imam who exudes holiness and who I am proud to call my friend.  In fact, you can even find a copy of my Moses the Heretic in its library.   Like the vast majority of American mosques, MCC is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

In the last five years, Twinning Weekend has become a bigger and bigger deal around the world.  I have read that there are now “twins” getting together on six different continents and that the number of twins has reached the 300 mark.  In my own hometown of Washington, D.C., interested parties can find twinning events at multiple locations this weekend.   Even my own home synagogue is getting together with a mosque and a church – thereby serving as a “triplet.”

If you don’t mind how divisive religion has become, or how chauvinistically and condescendingly religious people can behave, then feel free to ignore the interfaith movement and “stick to your own kind” whenever you set foot in a place of worship.  But if you would like to see religion become a source of social unity and heightened understanding among different cultures and creeds, then please join this movement … and no time is too soon.  Whether you are a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, or a Secular Humanist, it’s time to reach out and embrace the Other.  In fact, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s theme for this Twinning Weekend is “Standing up for the Other.”  If ever there were a cause for the whole world to embrace, this is it.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cancerous Sub-cultures

“Hey Spiro, why don’t you come over to the [Delta Tau Delta] house on Saturday night.  We’re importing forty bush from Mills [College].”

It has been roughly 3 ½ decades since I heard that quotation, but I’ve never forgotten it.  I doubt I ever will.  It was in reference to the fraternity at Stanford known at the time as the “football frat,” though it was said by a resident of that house who was not on the football team.   He actually seemed to me to be  a pretty nice guy.   I suspect he wasn’t even a sexist, if by that term you mean someone who either looks down on or dislikes women.  He was simply speaking in the parlance of his subculture – for in certain fraternities at certain “elite schools,” when you bring in large numbers of women from lesser-known colleges, they are collectively known by words like “bush.”  All in fun, right?

A few years later, when I was attending Harvard Law School, I remember a group of guys getting together to form an organization known as the “Armadillo Club.”   The Club invited ladies from local women’s colleges to come and meet them – the thinking being that the women would hope that they could maybe snatch a Harvard Law Student, no pun intended, and persuade them to become their husband, whereas the men would take advantage of the opportunity and maybe “get lucky.”  While I never attended one of the Armadillo Club’s parties – just as I never joined a fraternity at Stanford -- my guess is that when the ladies walked into those affairs in droves, they were thought of as little more than potential sex objects.  All in fun, right?

It might be nice to get on one’s high horse and look down on such “animals” from above.  But the truth is that we all have an id, and some of us are just better able to sublimate it than others.  In my case, while I was never tempted to treat women the way they did at Delta Tau Delta or the Armadillo Club, I had no problem turning on a boxing match or a football game on TV and cheering on a devastating hit.  Clearly, there was something in my viscera that resonated with the violence I was watching, something that caused me to prefer those sports to more civilized alternatives, like golf, tennis or baseball. Taking extreme delight in watching a defensive end slam a quarterback to the ground isn’t exactly something that Mr. Spock would approve, but I know that emotion all too well.  I knew I had an issue when I felt that rush of pleasure in a situation where I didn’t even have a rooting interest in the game.  It is a purely animalistic feeling, but it is also an all-too-human feeling.  The last I checked, we are indeed very ape-like. 

I mention my own experience with the frat-boy subculture because that was what I was most reminded of when I first heard about the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito debacle a couple of weeks ago.  In case you aren’t familiar with the story, Martin and Incognito are two 300+ pound behemoths who, until very recently, started on the offensive line of the Miami Dolphins.  Incognito was presented in the media as the Cro-Magnon “bully,” whereas Martin was sometimes criticized as the “wuss” who couldn’t handle the bullying and ran to his parents … and his lawyer … for help.   I suppose that, like other scandals, we consumers of news are supposed to get on our high horse and look down on one or both of these men, and/or the “locker room culture” that spawned them.  But I was taking this scandal a bit more personally.   This time, part of me felt personally responsible for the scandal.

No, I haven’t engaged in the type of hazing that seemed to be at the root of this mess. But I am a loyal fan of the National Football League, and one might even say, I am a football addict who has stood by the league through thick and thin.  Until a few days ago, when I cancelled my subscription so as to avoid feeling any guiltier than I already felt, I had been paying hundreds of dollars a year to watch the “NFL Sunday Ticket,” a package that I’ve owned for 16 years.  I’ve also attended games and even a summer training camp, and have purchased several jerseys.  Ever since I was five years old, I’ve loved the sport and enjoyed watching it played at its highest level.  But after watching so many NFL players rush to the defense of the “bully” Incognito, I guess you can say I snapped.  I needed to do something to tell the league that I was sick of the culture of football, and that’s why I cancelled my subscription to the Sunday Ticket.  I had to at least make some kind of statement that enough is enough.

Do we really need locker room hazing – and I mean hazing of any kind, even the “harmless” variety where the rookies carry the veterans’ shoulder pads?   I think not.  We certainly don’t have that kind of junk in my law office.  It demeans people and there isn’t anything remotely funny about it. 
Nor is it funny when a veteran and team leader calls a relatively inexperienced player a “half n___er” and says that he is going to kill him and slap his mother.  And what truly isn’t funny is the number of players around the league who were quick to forgive that conduct and to condemn the recipient of that message because he didn’t keep his complaints “in house.”  When I watched these players interviewed, I realized that even though I too have an id, I couldn’t relate to their attitude.  Something is clearly profoundly wrong here, and it disgusted me to think that these problems might be swept under the rug.  

Of course, that is precisely what the NFL had been doing for years.  For this is the league that would tell players who had been pounded in the head to get back out on the playing field.  “He just had his bell rung,” was what the announcers would say.   And it was all in fun – until it was revealed that one former player after another after another … were coming down with serious brain injuries that either ended or at least ruined their lives.   What did the NFL know and when did it know it?  I couldn’t tell you, for the geniuses in the league office figured out a way to keep the problem “in house.”

What they couldn’t keep bottled up quite so easily was the evidence of all the players who had trouble walking without a limp because of all the abuse their bodies took, or the evidence of all the violent crimes that these players committed.   I had been hearing these stories for decades, but recently, the problems seem to be even harder to ignore.   In the words of a recent Thomas Boswell column in the Washington Post, “The NFL is now the league of murder charges against Aaron Hernandez – gang execution style.   The NFL is the league of murder, then suicide, with Jovan Belcher killing his girlfriend and then shooting himself in the head in a parking lot by his stadium as his coach and his general manager watched.   … The NFL is the league of chronic degenerative injuries and grotesquely crippled stars. …   The NFL is the league where famous teams and coaches … are fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for cheating, where a Super Bowl winning coach … is suspended for a year because his assistants offered cash bounties to injure opposing players (more if they are carried off the field).  It’s the league that suspends and fines [a player] for intentional hits to the head only to have him respond that he’ll just switch to ‘ending careers’ with hits to the knee. … The NFL is the league where star quarterbacks face sexual harassment or rape charges and a hero of the last Super Bowl has beaten a murder rap.”

I could go on for a while listing all of the things that shame football fanatics like me, and indeed, Boswell did just that.  But I think you get the point.  The Incognito/Martin mess was just another brick in the wall, as Pink Floyd might say.   It surely packed a stronger punch for me because Martin was a Stanford grad who came from a Harvard family, but I’d like to think that no matter where he attended school, I would have been sickened by the event … just as I have been sickened by so many other NFL stories that I have been reading about for years.  

When I called up Direct TV last week and told them that I had to suspend my subscription to the Sunday Ticket, I admitted that I loved football and could well resume my subscription next year but couldn’t in good conscience continue it for the present.  What I was thinking when I sent that message was that I couldn’t allow myself to watch grown men act with the stupidity of that kid who was psyched to see all those “bush” enter into his fraternity.  And yes, I see what is happening in the locker rooms of the NFL as part and parcel of the same attitude that I witnessed in college fraternities, and that is likely at the root of the dozens of thousands of sexual assaults in the military that purportedly go unpunished every year. 
We all have our ids.  But can’t we at least keep them to ourselves?  Do we have to reinforce each other’s animalistic sides, and then complain when one of our fellow animals doesn’t keep the problem “in house”?  

Some of the talking heads on TV like to differentiate between “harmless hazing” and conduct like Incognito’s that went “too far.”  But when it comes to demeaning other human beings – men or women, All-American football players or anonymous “bush” – what do you say we just put an end to it.  I mean all of it.  If that threatens to take away the locker room humor, I suggest that these football players might want to try making puns instead.  They are, after all, college boys, aren’t they?   Maybe it’s time that they put those “scholarships” to good use. 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

The Party That Cried Wolf

When my daughters were very young, I taught them the story of the boy who cried wolf.  My point was simple: if you don’t have credibility with people, nobody will listen to you even when you truly have something to say.  I’m seeing that point play out on the national stage with the Obamacare debacle.

Do I personally have questions about how the Administration could be this clueless and ill-prepared with respect to the all-important website?  Sure I do.   Do I question why the President repeatedly would say “If you like your plan, you can keep it” if, in fact, that statement did not apply to millions of Americans?   Absolutely.   Both of these issues raise questions that I would like to see further probed.   But that’s just me.  My sense is that after nearly five years of efforts to rake President Obama over the coals for everything from the nationality of his father, to his so-called “Islamic” faith, to his allegedly following the teachings of Karl Marx, most people are sick and tired of scandals, accusations, probes, and the sense that the powers-that-be care less about the national welfare than about scoring petty political points.  

So now that prominent conservatives might actually see some real wolves on the horizon, nobody believes them.  And who is to blame for that, my Republican friends?

Perhaps I’m in the minority in this country.  I’m still bothered when the politicians in my party behave inappropriately, and I’m happy to see the issue further explored if I think the public deserves more information.  In other words, no matter whose conduct is at issue – whether Democrats or Republicans – I’m open to the possibility that the benefits from investigating the past may exceed the inevitable costs of dwelling on it.  For example, unlike many of my fellow Democrats, I wasn’t willing to brush under the rug the indiscretions of President Clinton, who I believe behaved recklessly (and not merely negligently), particularly given the way that he essentially assured us in 1992 that his personal indiscretions were a thing of the past.  Indeed, I’m frankly sick of the way Democratic pundits love to take any kind of misconduct perpetrated by a Democratic leader (call it X) and say, “Of course we don’t condone X” or “Admittedly, X is inexcusable,” and then immediately stop trying to explore why X happened and instead turn their attention to blaming the Republicans about something related to X.  Whenever they behave that way, I can see why Democrats have taken the donkey (or ass) as their symbol.

So, to the extent there are important lessons to be learned from the mishandling of either the Obamacare rollout or the way the law was sold to the public, let’s air them!   Media figures shouldn’t permit Democratic spin doctors to change the subject away from their own party’s conduct and toward the ol’ “vast, right wing conspiracy.”  Democrats claim that they are the moderates, and the GOP is under the control of the ideologues, so let’s demand that the Democrats practice what they preach.   I want to know why the signature program of this administration is getting off to such an incredibly bad start.  I don’t want to hear that “other programs have had kinks before” or other excuses.   I want to know how this one went down and why, because it does have something to teach us about the ability of the federal government to manage a vast national program in the 21st century.  

But, I repeat, maybe I’m not in the majority in having these views.   If I weren’t such a public policy junkie who feels in my gut that the universe revolves around Washington, D.C., perhaps I’d be singing a different tune.   For example, I might be telling the Republicans/Tea Partiers that they have forfeited the right to criticize this Administration about anything ever again.   Birthergate.  Benghazi.  IRS.  NSA.  Shutting down the World War II Memorial.  Solyndra.  The list goes on.   On Fox News, they obsess about these “scandals.”  On MSNBC, they rip the Republicans for obsessing about them.  And pretty much, this is what passes for public discourse in contemporary America.
Can anyone blame the public for saying “Enough already!  Let’s focus on the future, and stop viewing the past with scandal-colored glasses”?

It’s unfortunate whenever a boy “cries wolf” and deprives himself of being taking seriously when he needs to be.  But it’s a truly scary thing when one of the two major political parties in the world’s most powerful country has stopped being taken seriously when it sends out alarm signals.  Like it or not, that’s where we stand.   And ironically, perhaps the biggest benefactor is President Obama himself.   No matter what he says or does wrong, the American public might be more willing to blame his critics than the President himself.    This could be just one more example of how, in the words of Bill Clinton (as reported in a new book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann), our President is “luckier than a dog with two dicks.”   

I agree with that assessment.  And I can also assure you that if the Republicans leadership were to see such a dog and take photographs of it, most people would swear they were photo-shopped.