The name of this blog Against the Current is accurate. But I don’t relish it. It saddens me. My latest disappointment comes upon finding that many with whom I agree on a great variety of issues, hold views that I consider to be untenable and even offensive when it comes to foreign policy.
I have said on this blog and elsewhere that foreign policy is out of my comfort zone – not my area of expertise. So now, provoked by my discomfort, I am taking the plunge. I don’t think I can avoid it any longer. Please accept these thoughts as very much the ruminations of an amateur with much to learn.
For clarity of exposition, permit me the inaccurate extensive use of the terms “we,” “us,” “they,” and “them”. Many of my friends take the L A L A approach – “leave them alone and they will leave us alone.” I think in many (most) cases, they may be right. But surely not in all cases. In most cases it may not matter. The default position should be “leave them alone.” We should not, without overwhelming evidence, assume that they are a real threat to us, one that justifies the kind of interventions that have occurred. I would argue our best position is mostly to wait and see and respond when absolutely necessary. Preemption may be indicated, but it needs to be very carefully justified.
I cannot but condemn much of the past and present actions of our international agencies and special forces who violate the freedoms and rights of domestic and foreign citizens sometimes with massive and enduring humanitarian consequences. The lack of success of almost all of our foreign invasions should give us pause as to what we can and should try to achieve. These “war actions” are types of central-planning and, as such, are doomed to fail. They face impossible knowledge problems in trying to build or rebuild societies and they face impossible incentive problems that prevent proper oversight, the detection and prevention of enormous waste and corruption. They are a very big part of our overgrown government and runaway fiscal problems, and are serious threats to the cause of freedom. Much more could, should and has been said about this – for example.
But, sometimes the threat IS real and significant. The tricky part is knowing when it is and (just as important) what to do about it. In these cases the LALA principle may not work.
The LALA principle rests on the assumption that it is OUR actions, our interventions, that are responsible for the hatred directed against us. The attack of 9/11 would not have occurred but for the cumulative affect of our provocative actions. This type of assertion meets with a very hostile reception. It seems to carry unpalatable moral implications, excusing acts of terror. And its proponents mostly poison the chances of it receiving adequate consideration by the contemptuous and patronizing way in which they present it. It may, however, be true. The traction and support that terrorists receive may be a result of the groundswell of resentment that we have created. The problem is, this is impossible to prove either way. And appeals to the history yield conflicting interpretations. This is no more evident that in the case of Israel vis a vis its enemies. In many ways the Israel-Palestinian situation is a microcosm of the bigger picture.
Some have asserted that (radical Islam) Islamism is a creature of our making and did not exist as a force until recently. But this is very contentious. Pan-Arabism, and the commitment to a unified Arabia cleansed of foreign influence, had strong affinities to Islamism. And the early Muslim Brotherhood, through its sister organization led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem (an active Nazi propagandist), effectively disrupted any attempt at the establishment a peaceful two-state solution as conceived by the British partition plan and as embraced by many Jews and Arabs alike in 1948. Everything that has transpired since then is basically an unfolding of this initial fateful turn of events.
Applying the LALA principle to Israel in light of the history from 1948 till today, makes little sense to me. There the threat is real. And it is an existential threat. There is a fundamental asymmetry of goals. “Leave them alone” will not suffice to placate them, because they don’t want Israel there – see here. It is not what Israel does that is the problem – though it may aggravate the problem. It is where and what Israel is.
So my LALA friends who seem to think that all that needs to be done is to force the parties to sit down and talk, are sadly and dangerously deluded. Any attempt to achieve real peaceful coexistence has to begin with a plan to get acceptance of Israel’s right to exist by those who have power in the Arab world. Clearly some of my LALA friends understand this. So, they conclude maybe it is for the best if Israel did not exist. It is this kind of cavalier conclusion that shuts down any type of civil discourse. It stinks of anti-Semitism. See also here.
But this really has little to do with American foreign policy fundamentals. LALAs should refrain from statements that indicate how little they understand or appreciate the threats that Israel faces. Their position opposing government foreign aid and military intervention does NOT imply an anti-Israel position. It does not imply the need to vilify Israel or call for its demise. It does not imply denying the right of Israelis to defend themselves.
Thus while we might oppose any government funding of settlements and any coercive displacement of Palestinians to facilitate the establishment of settlements (as I do), we cannot, in good conscience, require of Israel to dismantle its checkpoints, dismantle its fence, and generally stand down in its attempt to combat acts of terror. That makes no sense. These measures have proven incredibly effective in keeping Israel’s population safe after suffering for years a horrendous barrage of attacks directed specifically against civilians, where they live, shop, learn, and play. These measures create great hardships, but, in the final analysis, they are effectively imposed on Israel as much as they are imposed on the Palestinians, by the presence of a real, credible, significant, terrifying danger. Similarly, calls for Israel to withdraw to 1967 borders, or beyond, make no sense. The same threats that exist now, existed before 1967 all the way back to 1948, except that Israel was defending less secure borders. The settlements are not the fundamental obstacle to peace. Nor is the “occupation.” The refusal to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, and actions taken in support of that, are the fundamental problems. The LALA principle does not apply.
On the matter of foreign policy more generally, I am much less confident. When considering the state of the Muslim world in general, and especially the ubiquity and nature of Islamic fundamentalism, I find it difficult to believe that all of the resentment we face can be attributed to our actions. There is a definite chicken-egg problem. But this may be no obstacle to a the achievement of a much smaller foreign footprint. Careful, but sensible and effective diligence may be called for rather than grand interventions.
The case of Iran is very problematic because we cannot be sure we are dealing with a “rational” opponent, one that can be deterred. The LALAs are confident that we are, that even if Iran were to get the bomb, they would be no more dangerous than Pakistan (not much comfort there) and would never use it for fear of the kind of retaliation it would provoke. Distorted news reporting on both sides make a good assessment very difficult.
War with Iran is becoming more likely. The trumpets are sounding. I think it would be a big mistake – a worse proposition than Iraq or Afghanistan. But what is the correct response short of the LALA position? Netanyahu wants to draw a red line around the processing of final-stage enriched uranium. I guess what he means is that if Iran should proceed past that step, its facilities – which are big and visible – should be bombed or otherwise destroyed. Not a full-scale war, but a terrifying prospect nevertheless – where would it lead?
This is as far as my amateur ruminations take me.