Relativism and Conflict

Ezra Klein references Nickolas Kristof’s column yesterday as bringing “striking clarity” on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but the clarity is all in Mr. Klein’s interpretation (“Tough Love for Israel?,” The New York Times, 24 July 2008; “The Dual Realities of Israel / Palestine,” TAPPED, The American Prospect, 24 July 2008, respectively):

But he [Kristof] offers a counter-fact: “B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, reports that a total of 123 Israeli minors have been killed by Palestinians since the second intifada began in 2000, compared with 951 Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces.”

When Jews talk about the ethics of the Israeli response, they tend to emphasize the recklessness and cruelty of Palestinian terrorists. The words most often heard are “target civilians.” The Israelis are right, in other words, because they carry out limited military operations against discrete targets, which sets them ethically apart from members of Hamas who murder innocents because it’s an effective tactic. That is indisputable.

Palestinians, by contrast, speak of the war in terms of absolute costs: They have suffered more, buried more, seen more of their freedoms and land and dignity taken from them. To them, it seems insane to condemn Palestinian tactics when the Israelis have killed so many more innocent children. That too is indisputable.

Both sides are right. There’s a passage in Aaron David Miller’s excellent book The Much Too Promised Land that makes this point elegantly. “The prospects of reconciling the interests of an occupied nation with those of a threatened one seemed slim to none,” he says. In many ways, that’s the essential truth of the conflict: The two sides don’t judge themselves similarly. The Israelis see themselves as threatened innocents, not oppressors. The Palestinians see themselves as an occupied and humiliated nation, not aggressors. The Israelis see themselves as inexplicably under attack, and acting only in defense. The Palestinians see themselves as losing a war against a much stronger, and demonstrably more brutal, occupier.

This is all true of Israel / Palestine and an important point to keep in mind when trying to understand the claims and counterclaims of the parties.

What Israel needs is, as Mr. Kristof calls it, tough love. What that means at a more operative level is the U.S. needs to provide Israeli moderates with additional reasons they can point to in opposing Israeli extremists (messianic Jews, settlers, etc.). The Palestinians aren’t the only ones whose country is being destroyed by the extremists in their midst.

In addition to pointing out some salient facts about the nature of the particular dispute in question, this is a perfect real-world example of relativism. Most people think of relativism and think it means amorality, or moral capitulation, or a dispensing-with of any notion of the facts of the matter. But what I think this explanation shows is that relativism is compatible with an objective account of things — or that relativism as an ethical theory is well compartmentalized from any particular metaphysical substratum. And relativism is a theory that provides a very good account of many disputes in the world. People aren’t necessarily in dispute over what is true and what false, or the proper moral criteria. For instance, no one in this situation is necessarily disputing the numbers killed or whether killing is right or wrong. The facts of the matter or the morality of any individual act considered in complete isolation is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the proper context in which to weigh the facts and adjudicate the contending claims of moral priority. It’s a question of interpretation. Different sets of acts of violence become at least plausibly justifiable depending on which gestalt narrative one adopts. Change total narrative and the moral weight of the various acts shifts around.

This is the way it is in almost all disputes. The rhetoric that people deploy usually very quickly leaves behind particular matters of fact or the morality or immorality of specific acts and it becomes a contest of dueling grand narratives. A conversation about a particular environmental harm becomes one about the tragedy of the commons and evil corporations versus the road to serfdom. A conversation about a reproductive decision becomes one of recidivist patriarchy versus the suicide of Western culture. The fact of the matter is that no one can quite see individuals as individuals and consider their actions as such. Everyone sees all people as deeply embedded in social structures and patterns and duty-bound to speculative forces of society and history.

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Last Days of the Bush Administration

Today the countdown begins: only 366 days left of the Bush administration (2008 is a leap year). On this day a year from now we will be swearing in a new president — provided that Dick Cheney’s office doesn’t dream up any new emergency powers of the presidency between now and then.

It’s amazing the degree to which President Bush has become a non-entity, given the collapse of the Bush Doctrine, the scuttling of their Iran agenda and the death of their domestic agenda as long ago as the defeat of the Bush Social Security privatization program in 2005. Of course, given the power and prerogative of the presidency, he could precipitate a crisis at any moment.

The turn of Bush & Co. to an announced program of peace in Israel — after seven years of neglect — is transparently unserious. Such efforts may play to a domestic audience, but, as in so many other issues, the administration seems unaware that the parties to such a peace have national security establishments of their own, bristling with salaried employees whose job it is to detect insincerity and deceit on the part of foreign powers. I imagine that whatever playing along the Israelis and Palestinians do is entirely diplomatic nicety.

A president truly committed to peace in Israel-Palestine would have to make it a top line issue for the duration of their administration and probably be prepared to hand off some unfinished business to a successor. And they would have to expend a significant portion of their political capitol on the issue. That means both time, travel and a willingness to take a lot of heat from the religious right and Israel lobby alliance.

Between campaign pandering to Christian Zionists and lame duck legacy hunting, the transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a substantive international relations issue, into domestic opportunity for atmospherics is one of the most dangerous capitulations on a very serious foreign policy blight. All roads to peace in the Middle East lead through Israel-Palestine, but in the indispensable nation it has sunk to the level of ethanol subsidies or a commencement address at Bob Jones University.

Confrontation Between Israel and Iran is Strategic, Not Ideological

Yesterday I went to the Center for American Progress event, Nuclear Meltdown: Rebuilding a Coherent Policy Towards Iran (Washington, D.C., 13 December 2007). It was moderated by Center for American Progress Director for Nuclear Policy Joseph Cirincione and consisted of a discussion with authors Barbara Slavin and Trita Parsi whose books are Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation and Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, respectively. Both Ms. Slavin and Mr. Parsi were phenomenally interesting and well informed. As Mr. Cirincione points out, their books really complement each other and both have been reviewed in tandem in most papers.

The single point that most fascinated me from their discussion — and apparently it impressed Mr. Cirincione as well as he allows in his question — is Mr. Parsi’s dismissal of the ideology and the rhetoric of Israeli-Iranian relations in favor of a purely geostrategic analysis. In this regard, the first Gulf War of 1991, rather than the Iranian revolution of 1979 was the real turning point in Israeli-Iranian relations.

The Center for American Progress already has a video of the event up and Mr. Parsi gives a thumb-nail version of his theory starting about a quarter of the way in, but here is a transcript of what he says:

… Iran and Israel did have a strong relationship during the 50s, 60s and 70s. From the Israeli’s side there was the doctrine of the periphery, the idea that Israel’s security was best achieved by making alliances with the non-Arab periphery states in the region — basically Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia — in order to weaken the Arab states in Israel’s vicinity — the inner and the outer circle.

And there is a myth out there in my view and I argue strongly against it in the book that Israeli-Iranian relations radically change in 1979 because of the revolution. And certainly the revolution did change a lot. Iran had a completely new ideology and very aggressive anti-Israeli rhetoric, but the common threats that had pushed Iran and Israel closer together during the preceding decades — the common threat from the Arab world and the common threat from the Soviet Union — was still there after 1979. And strategically Israel believed that Iran was still a very, very strong periphery power that it needed to have a strategic relationship.

And immediately after the revolution the Israelis were doing everything the could to reach out to Iran, to sell arms to Iran in spite of an American arms embargo and even lobby the United States not only to talk to Iran but also that the U.S. should sell arms to Iran and that the U.S. actually should not pay attention to Iranian rhetoric because the rhetoric was not reflective of the policy. Which is a drastically different position than the Israelis took only a couple of years later.

What really changes the relationship is the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Saddam in the first Persian Gulf War because then at the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union collapses and the last standing Arab army that could pose a conventional military threat to both Iran and to Israel was defeated by the United States. You have a completely new reconfiguration of the geopolitical map in the Middle East in which Iran and Israel emerge as two of the more powerful states. And just as much from the Israeli perspective Iran was needed to balance Iraq to a certain extent they also felt that Iraq was needed to balance Iran but there was no longer a balancer of Iran. They started to view Iran as a potential threat in the future.

So it’s in 1992 that you see a sudden shift in the Israeli position vis-à-vis Iran. Throughout the 1980s in spite of Khomeini’s tremendously aggressive rhetoric against Israel, the Israelis do not talk about an Iranian threat, they reach out to the Iranians. But after 1992 when the Iranians actually become much more pragmatic in their foreign policy their revolutionary zeal is plummeting, that’s when Israel starts to depict Iran as a global and existential threat, out of a fear that in the new Middle East if the United States was now reaching out to the Arab states as it was in the Persian Gulf War and if in addition to that they were to make some sort of a deal with the Iranians, the deal would come at the expense of Israel’s interest.

And the calculation on the Israeli side was they need to make sure that type of political process does not take place. And that is achieved by creating the political obstacles to such a process by imposing new sanctions, by depicting Iran as a global threat. And this initially actually came as a great surprise to the United States because only five years earlier the Israelis had been pushing the Iran-Contra scandal.

That last comment about the Iran-Contra scandal may just seem like a throw-away jibe at the Reagan administration, but I think it’s an important piece of evidence in favor of Mr. Parsi’s case. When I heard it, it really made things fall into place for me. I always wondered what the Israelis were doing as middle-men in that fiasco and how it was that their relationship with Iran was adequate to allow them to act in that capacity, whereas ours was not. Anyway, Mr. Parsi’s theory is what I was missing to explain that recalcitrant fact.

Jacksonians and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

My last two posts have been about the ways that the right seeks to undo the international system built up over the last 65 years. Robert Farley of Lawyers, Guns and Money assesses that they have also succeeded in ruining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well (“The NPT is Dead,” 13 October 2007):

The strike [by the Israeli air force on a possible Syrian nuclear reactor], and especially the apparent acquiescence of the United States in its planning and execution, means that the NPT is pretty much a dead letter… and has been replaced by a de facto arrangement in which states that the US approves of are allowed to have nuclear power, while states we dislike get airstrikes. … Combine this with the recent nuclear deal with India, and I’d have to say that the Bush administration’s effort to kill a legal cornerstone of international stability have been remarkably successful.

To which Matthew Yglesias adds (“The End of the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” The Atlantic.com, 14 October 2007),

Iraq was the neocons’ big chance to show that the approach to WMD policy they prefer — basically an ad hoc regime enforced by American military power and undergirded by nothing more principled than American whim — was workable. To make it work, they needed to show that we could successful topple a regime we didn’t like and replace it with one we liked better cheaply and easily enough to make it credible that we’d go and do it again. But it failed. The low-cost airstrike approach isn’t going to succeed against any kind of determined adversary, and the more we act like a rogue superpower the harder it will be to get our way.

This is another masterstroke for the Bush administration. They rip to shreds the one bulwark we do have against nuclear proliferation — one that has been fairly successful over the last 40 years — and have ready in its place absolutely nothing. In this case not even the credible threat of U.S. force.

Syria Gets the Osirak Treatment?

Also in nuclear news, despite some pretty severe smack-downs from some prominent names in the arms control community, Glenn Kessler and the Washington Post are apparently sticking by their story that Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear installation on 6 September 2007 (“Israel, U.S. Shared Data On Suspected Nuclear Site,” 21 September 2007, p. A1).

Joseph Cirincione, coauthor of the widely consulted reference, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats, calls this story “nonsense” (“North Korea-Syria Nuclear Ties: Déjà Vu All Over Again?,” Foreign Policy, Passport, 14 September 2007) and Jeffrey Lewis of Arms Control Wonk goes so far as to call it “bullshit” (“Did Israel Strike a Syrian Nuclear Facility?, 16 September 2007). Mr. Cirincione writes and Mr. Lewis excerpts approvingly:

The Washington Post story should have been headlined “White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection.” This is a political story, not a threat story. The mainstream media seems to have learned nothing from the run-up to war in Iraq. It is a sad commentary on how selective leaks from administration officials who have repeatedly misled the press are still treated as if they were absolute truth. Once again, this appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted “intelligence” to key reporters in order to promote a preexisting political agenda.

This is definitely the administration that has cried wolf too many times, but the Washington Post article seems pretty heavily sourced. And I don’t believe that Syria is an Israeli bombing range where the IDF just flies out for practice missions. If they went in, they must have had some pretty serious concerns. I’m going to need a lot more than unnamed Bush officials and bluster before passing judgment on this story.