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Monday, July 31, 2006

Suez deux?

It’s been two weeks now since I returned to the U.S., and as you may have noticed, I haven’t yet said anything substantive on this blog about the crisis in the Middle East.  My initial impression—which I mentioned briefly on my return—was that Israel’s response to these latest provocations was disproportionate, profoundly counterproductive, and morally illegitimate.  But “disproportionate,” as you may know, is a dirty word on some wings of the way-further-left, where you can find people who are willing to deny that Israel has any right of response—or, perhaps, any right to exist—at all.  This circumspect, progressive-left blog doesn’t go there, and like Eric Kirk, will not join the British ultraleft in their little chants of “we are all Hezbollah now” and George Galloway in shouting “I am here to glorify the resistance, Hezbollah.  I am here to glorify the leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.” I actually believe Israel has a right to respond to provocations, and I actually condemn the hurling of rockets into Israeli towns and cities (especially by organizations that were supposed to disarm years ago! —but now we know why they didn’t: “[Sheikh Naim] Qassem, a founding member of Hezbollah . . . admitted Hezbollah had been preparing for conflict since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000”).  But I will join thousands of critics to my left and even a couple hundred liberals a bit to my right in remarking on the fact that there is almost no place in American public life for principled criticism of Israel—not even among the most progressive elected Democrats, not even under circumstances as extreme as these.  Think about it: people talk about Social Security as the “third rail” of American politics.  Hah.  If you’re an elected official or a think-tank fellow, you can talk about dismantling Social Security in this country, and people might oppose you or criticize you, but you won’t provoke a national scandal, and you certainly won’t lose your job.  About Israel, however, there is no leeway whatsoever—and, accordingly, there is no opposition party.  The first Democrat who stands up and says that Israel is behaving like a rogue nation, escalating a long-simmering, low-level conflict into a possible cataclysm, will be linked to Mel Gibson.  Or—almost as bad—George Galloway.  In the meantime, Congressional Democrats will either line up behind Bush—or just slightly to his right.

It is for moments like these, dear friends, that we have blogs.  Over the past two weeks, Billmon has outdone himself, and if you haven’t checked him out lately, go right ahead and do so now.  (I’ve been reading him daily and thinking, but no one needs me to chime in when we already have Billmon.  Mr. Billmon!  We need you!  Don’t ever leave us again!  Please!  We promise to patronize the Whiskey Bar every day, or until our livers finally give out!) Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber kicked off an instructive discussion of war crimes. Digby has been pondering the consequences of the dangerous combination of disastrous U.S.-Israeli political isolation combined with disastrous U.S.-Israeli military stalemates, and tristero has looked searchingly into John Podhoretz’s heart of darkness.  And as for the liberal blogs that have a bit of crossover with liberal magazines, that young Mr. Yglesias turned in a fine essay the other day:

It’s usually best in the American context to keep one’s criticisms of Israel polite and measured, but there are times when it’s better to be blunt in the hopes of achieving clarity. Israel’s current war in Lebanon is strategically blinkered and morally obtuse. . . .

In the years between Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the current crisis, Hezbollah was known, now and again, to fire off a rocket or two in Israel’s direction. Primarily, however, the organization directed its energies at Lebanese domestic politics. Indeed, even the occasional rocket attack is best understood as having been undertaken for domestic consumption. The nominal rationale for Hezbollah being allowed to maintain a militia while other Lebanese factions were not was the struggle against Israel. Therefore, it was necessary to launch a notional attack or two to prove that the group was still in the fight. These attacks were, morally speaking, despicable—the targeting of civilians with no possibility of achieving any legitimate war aims. They were not, however, a large problem in practice for the state of Israel. Efforts to root out Hezbollah rocketeers by force have made Israelis civilians much less safe than they were before.

The cross-border raid to capture Israeli soldiers was, of course, another matter. But here Israel had options. If they wanted their soldiers back, they could have traded some Hezbollah captives for them. If they wanted to act tough in the face of threats, they could have refused to negotiate and mounted a smallish, well-targeted retaliatory strike that would have garnered significant international support. Instead, Israel chose to escalate a low-intensity border conflict that posed no serious threat to its security into a much larger-scale battle it can’t possibly win—one that will only harden anti-Israeli sentiments in its neighbor to the north. . . .

Israel and its friends abroad need to face reality—the problem that needs solving is the Palestinian problem. Were Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians resolved, other challenges like Hezbollah would soon melt away. The idea of firing rockets into Israeli towns would appear absurd. Iran and Syria would have nothing to gain from supporting groups that behaved in that manner. Arab public opinion would no longer applaud the firing of rockets at random into Israeli cities. . . .

This, rather than hearty bromides of encouragement and solidarity, is what Israel needs to hear from its American friends right now.

Not bad for a “liberal” publication.  Though, again, don’t expect this kind of thing to filter up to elected Democrats, who can’t manage even the “polite and measured” version of criticism.

So in this context, “disproportionate” is not necessarily a bad word.  And I’ll stand by “profoundly counterproductive,” too—at least if you take into consideration the support of every single Arab state, together with 87 percent of the Lebanese population, for Hezbollah’s campaign against Israel.

According to a poll released by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, 87 percent of Lebanese support Hizbullah’s fight with Israel, a rise of 29 percent on a similar poll conducted in February. More striking, however, is the level of support for Hizbullah’s resistance from non-Shiite communities. Eighty percent of Christians polled supported Hizbullah along with 80 percent of Druze and 89 percent of Sunnis.

Well, so much for that Washington Post headline of July 14, “Attacks Could Erode Faction’s Support.” If indeed Israel was trying to get Lebanon to abjure Hezbollah, then its campaign seems to have been as successful a PR strategy as was Dick Cheney’s tragedy-or-farce “2002 diplomacy tour,” which tried to drum up support in the Arab world for the invasion of Iraq, and which promptly produced a statement of Arab solidarity against the invasion of Iraq.  And “morally illegitimate?” Opinions differ on what constitutes moral legitimacy under these circumstances, of course, but this weekend’s bombing of sleeping refugees, many of them children, is about as indefensible as indefensible gets.  (Update:  via LGM, a searing post from Jonathan Edelstein.) And then there’s bombing a UN observation post, not to mention forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes, and killing a fair number of them in the process.  So I’m going to stick with my original description, at least for now.

But there are two things I’d like to add.  The first is that I did not expect Hezbollah’s resistance to be quite so . . . resilient.  I thought this would be a political disaster for the region and a humanitarian disaster for Lebanon, but I did not imagine that it would also be a strategic disaster for Israel. 

The second is that I was probably wrong to say that there is no braking system in place.  In one sense that’s true, because the U.S. has clearly green-lighted the “kill them all” option, and the wingnuts have begun to debate whether we made a mistake in not killing enough Sunni men between 15 and 35 in the course of our noble quest to liberate Iraq.  A bunch of dead children, bombed in their sleep, and our government can’t even demand a cease-fire.  (But let’s not overlook Condi Rice’s very first diplomatic triumph:  getting Israel to announce a 48-hour suspension of air strikes.  Oops, wait a sec . . . It turns out that “despite Israel’s announcement of 48-hour suspension of aerial strikes, bombs continued to fall across Lebanon, albeit at a slower pace and at more limited targets than earlier in the offensive.” Well, Secretary Rice, congratulations on that much.)

But in another sense, there is a braking system out there.  It’s a dangerous one: it basically involves pulling the emergency cord and possibly derailing the train.  Though it does not involve the Rapture.

Last Thursday, Digby wrote:

This is a very dangerous moment for the world. The US is showing over and over again that it is immmoral and incompetent. That is the kind of thing that leads ambitious, crazy or stupid people to miscalculate and set disasterous events in motion. The neocons have destroyed America’s carefully nurtured mystique by seeking to flex its muscles for the sake of flexing them. What a mistake. This country is much, much weaker today because of it and the world is paying the price. At some point I have to imagine that we are going to be paying it too. Big Time.

And I thought, paying the price . . . paying the price . . . hmmm, I seem to remember something along these lines. . . .

Ah, yes.  Four years ago, in the pages of the Nation, William Greider wrote about paying the price, and he meant it literally:

The imperial ambitions of the Bush Administration, post-9/11, are founded on quicksand and are eventually sure to founder, but for fundamental reasons not currently under discussion. . . .  The US financial position is rapidly deteriorating, due mainly to America’s persistent and growing trade deficit. US ambitions to run the world, in other words, are heavily mortgaged. Like any debtor who borrows more year after year with no plausible way to reverse the trend’ a nation sinking deeper into debt enters into an adverse power relationship with its creditors-greater and greater dependency.

These creditors are both private investors and governments from Europe and Asia; now none of them have any incentive to disrupt their lopsided relationship with the super-powerful leader of the world. After all, it works for them: Their exports have unfettered access to the largest consumer market in the world, producing trade surpluses and gaining greater market share. Their capital, meanwhile, reaps good returns on the loans and investments in the American economy. But history suggests that with sufficient provocation, the creditor nations will eventually assert their leverage over the United States, however reluctantly. That critical juncture is likely to arrive either because the American debt burden has become so great that additional lending would be too risky or because the creditor nations want to jerk Washington’s chain, perhaps to head off reckless new adventures. Either way, it will be a humbling moment for American triumphalism. . . .

The threatening implications are seldom discussed with any clarity or candor, but the numbers are not secret. The US economy’s net foreign indebtedness-the accumulation of two decades of running larger and larger trade deficits-will reach nearly 25 percent of US GDP this year, or roughly $2.5 trillion. Fifteen years ago, it was zero. Before America’s net balance of foreign assets turned negative, in 1988, the United States was a creditor nation itself, investing and lending vast capital to others, always more than it borrowed. Now the trend line looks most alarming. If the deficits persist around the current level of $400 billion a year or grow larger, the total US indebtedness should reach $3.5 trillion in three years or so. Within a decade, it would total 50 percent of GDP. Instead of facing this darkening prospect, Bush and team regularly dismiss the worldviews of these creditor nations and lecture them condescendingly on our superior qualities. Any profligate debtor who insults his banker is unwise, to put it mildly. . . .

Instead of reformulating global governance to share power and burdens more broadly, a multipolar system that matches the economic reality, America still acts as if it runs things—alone. And America pays dearly for the privilege, both through its bloated military spending and by accepting the lopsided trade deficits. Both are implicitly regarded in Washington as the burdens of leadership—defending the world against terrorism on any frontier, upholding the global trading system by serving as “buyer of last resort” for other nations’ exports. . . .

British power was fundamentally eclipsed in 1914, but the United States provided the financial nurture to keep it upright, as a kind of dummy leader in world affairs, until after World War II. Washington decisively pulled the plug in 1956, when Britain (along with France and Israel) invaded Egypt to capture the nationalized Suez Canal. It was the last gasp of British colonialism, and Washington disapproved. By withholding an IMF loan to London, the United States crashed the pound, forced Britain to withdraw from war and its prime minister to resign in disgrace. The Brits were finally relieved of their delusions. . . .

The Bush warriors’ reckless American unilateralism can only hasten the day when the creditors conclude that they must assert their leverage over us, perhaps in order to defend peace and stability in the world. How will Americans react when they discover that “U-S-A” is a lot less muscular than they were led to believe? Assuming Americans do not really yearn to become latter-day Roman legions, many people may be relieved to learn the truth. Stripped of imperial illusions, this country could concentrate on building a different, more promising society at home. But while we can hope that the transition ahead will be gradual and without national humiliation, it’s more plausible that America’s brave new imperialists will plunge ahead blindly, until one day they encounter their own intense reckoning with the bookkeepers.

It’s a shame Greider ends on such a bizarrely upbeat note: Americans are stripped of their illusions and become better people for it.  Not bloody likely, my friend!  To gauge just by this past month’s histrionics on the right, some Americans will be stripped of their illusions of omnipotence and they will respond by insisting that the people who brought you Abu Ghraib failed only in that they were too nice.

Anyway, the parallel isn’t exact.  Our creditors do not stand in relation to us as we stood in relation to the British in 1956, and any attempt to pull the plug on us will have severe ramifications for every other financial market around the globe.  It would be a terrible mess.  One of these days, though, someone is going to decide it will be less of a mess than the alternative of letting a bunch of crazed neocons drive the world right over the cliff.

In the meantime, if you have a moment, please consider donating to the UN relief effort in Lebanon.

Posted by Michael on 07/31 at 01:33 PM
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