The following blog article can be found in http://www.boomantribune.com – by “booman” – an erudite writer of national political affairs. I’ve “placed” it here for a very good read on the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma and as a way to understand its proper context and the accompanying way to resolve it.
It’s a little over 15 paragraphs long, but well worth the read. Concisely written.
Wed Nov 26th, 2008 at 10:33:50 AM EST
Chris Bowers rightly criticizes the tendency of the punditocracy to contrast progressives with pragmatists, as if progressives are all wild-eyed idealists. A better contrast would be progressives vs. centrists or progressives vs. conservatives. There is nothing inherent in progressivism that makes it naively unrealistic. However, there is a strain of progressivism that can be fairly compared with neo-conservatism. It’s hard to define, but the commonality comes from holding an ideology that is based both in strong principles and faulty or unrealistic assumptions.
For example, neo-conservatives believe that democratic forms of government are preferable to all other forms of government (an admirable assumption) and that the rise of anti-American terrorism is highly correlated with the highly repressive governments in the Middle East (an important insight). The problem comes from their proposed solution: coercive Democracy imposed by Westerners that causes more instability than flowering freedoms. There is a strain of progressivism that agrees in broad terms that the cause of terrorism is the lack of democracy and human rights in the Middle East, and which places much of the blame for that situation on U.S. foreign policies (the 1953 coup in Iran, our historic relationship with the Saudi and Egyptian regimes, and our overly one-sided relationship with Israel that denies the Palestinians self-determination). The problem with this is not the diagnosis so much as the proposed cures. Solutions that call for abandoning the region and removing all our military bases are indeed naively unrealistic. There are pragmatic solutions, but they require a slow, steady transformation.
I think we can all agree that our current relationship and posture in the Middle East is neither sustainable nor productive for either our people or the people of the region. One proposed solution is too pull everything out because the region is too complicated. Another proposed solution (the neo-conservative gambit) has failed. The pragmatic policy is somewhere in between. And there is a rather broad agreement about the parameters of such a policy that are shared by conservative realists like Brent Scowcroft and pragmatic progressives like Russ Feingold. That’s the sweet spot, where we have foreign policy overlap between the two parties, and that is where Obama appears to be going in assembling his foreign policy team. To understand this, we have to unlearn some of the lessons of the past few years.
You may remember that President Bush’s then chief of staff famously said that they rolled out their regime-change in Iraq campaign in September 2002 because ‘you don’t roll out a new product in August’. What you might not remember is that Brent Scowcroft wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on August 15, 2002 entitled Don’t Attack Saddam: It would undermine our antiterror efforts. If you are honest, you’ll admit that Scowcroft provided the exact kind of advice in that column that you want a president to hear.
Scowcroft had a lot of allies on the center-right and center-left, but their voices were muted or silent in the face of the neo-conservatives relentless campaign of fear (remember the color-coded terror charts?). The Scowcroft group can be broadly defined as the Realist School of foreign policy, and they are known for putting pragmatism over ideology and national self-interest over high-minded principles. That’s obviously good and bad. The criticism of the Realist School is that they place too little priority on the value of democracy and human rights. Historically, they’d rather deal with a right-leaning dictator than a socialist democracy. They put stability first, provided that stability involves open markets for American corporations and military interests.
This indifference and, often, hypocrisy, of the Realist School has led to many of the problems we see in the Middle East today. It’s a critique that is shared by both progressives and conservatives. Yet, there should be little doubt that there is much wisdom in the Realist School. The value of stability for human rights is often underestimated, and the stability provided by strong-armed dictators often masks the internal incohesiveness of the societies over which they preside. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein has brought all of this to light in rather stark terms, but we can also see similar problems in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Elections do not, in themselves, guarantee an improvement in the human condition, especially if they are accompanied by a massive decrease in societal stability.
On the progressive side there is more realism about the limitations of democracy than on the neo-conservative side. Progressives are more convinced that it is foreign interference that causes resentment and a national security problem than any lack of human rights. Insofar as we are seen as assisting repressive regimes in their repression, we are the target of resentment and blowback. In the progressive critique, the best way to make ourselves safer is to cease meddling in the affairs of foreign countries and, in particular, to stop propping up regimes that deny their people basic human rights. For most progressives, this critique extends to the Israeli government in their policy towards the occupied Palestinian territories.
I would place myself in this latter school of thought, but with some caveats. If there is a glaring fault in progressive thinking about foreign policy, it is in its undervaluing of stability. It shares this fault with the neo-conservative school. Progressive cures tend towards the same kind of creative destruction seen in neo-conservative cures. Policies are proffered that are every bit as reckless as anything dreamed up by Paul Wolfowitz. It’s a let-the-cards-fall-where-they-may mentality which is willing to upend all our foreign policy arrangements without much thought to what kinds of instability might ensue in the vacuum of power created as a result. This tendency is born more of frustration and disempowerment than any ideology, but it is problematic just the same.
You may have noticed the recent spike in high-seas piracy off the coast of Somalia. That is the kind of thing that can happen when the United States is either distracted or retreats from its role as the preeminent naval power in the world. It may be ultimately desirable for the United States to draw back and take less of a role in ‘policing’ the world, but the world still will require some policing. Responsible solutions involve more power and resource sharing, not creating a vacuum of power. This is especially true in the Middle East because of the global community’s dependency and addiction to energy.
Which gets me back to Barack Obama. Obama has not called for an American retreat from the world stage or a radical upending of our foreign relations. He recognizes that our involvement in the Middle East creates problems and blowback, but his solution is cautious and designed to work over a period of time. After stabilizing the financial markets, his number one domestic policy is going to be a green-economy initiative to take some of the pressure off our dependency on Middle Eastern energy. That will give us a freer hand to take risks that might involve a period of regional instability. In the future we might feel secure enough to allow the Saudi regime, for example, to be swept away in a popular uprising. Right now, we’d be too concerned about disruptions in the oil supply to let that happen.
When it comes to Israel, listen to the advice that Scowcroft gave in his August 2002 opinion piece:
Possibly the most dire consequences would be the effect in the region. The shared view in the region is that Iraq is principally an obsession of the U.S. The obsession of the region, however, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we were seen to be turning our backs on that bitter conflict–which the region, rightly or wrongly, perceives to be clearly within our power to resolve–in order to go after Iraq, there would be an explosion of outrage against us. We would be seen as ignoring a key interest of the Muslim world in order to satisfy what is seen to be a narrow American interest.
That might sound like a progressive critique but it was anything but. The Realist School has long held, correctly, that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the number one priority of American Middle Eastern policy. It’s one reason why George Herbert Walker Bush’s administration was so distrusted by many Israeli hard-liners.
So, what is Obama doing? By taking advice from Scowcroft, leaving Robert Gates (for now) in charge of the Pentagon, and by bringing in other Realists on to his team, he is co-opting the centrist Republicans. The Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Richard Lugar, and likeminded thinkers like Chuck Hagel, are now de facto members of the Obama coalition. They are inside the tent, pissing out.
This dulls McCarthyite criticisms from the neo-conservatives and from the Israeli hard-liners as it gives the appearance (and much of the reality) of a bipartisan foreign policy consensus. But Obama did not stop there. He has disarmed the Israeli hard-liners by giving them a seat at the table, as well. Nowhere is this clearer than in his selection of vice-president and chief of staff. If he goes through with the selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, he will further disarm the hard-liners.
Now, there is a legitimate progressive critique that Obama is staffing up with a toxic combination of people that were either wrong about the invasion of Iraq or that were right, but for the wrong reasons. After all, the Realist School might have been clear-eyed on the ill-advisability of invading Iraq, but they are myopic about their own culpability in creating the problems we face in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. What is needed is much more far-reaching change. That’s true. But that change must be managed carefully, and it will come much easier if it is done with a broad coalition of support.
Barack Obama would be well-advised to find some idealistic progressives for his foreign policy team. He needs to hear their voices even if he doesn’t take their advice. His strategy so far is finely honed to getting things done in the Washington/Establishment framework, but he needs allies as well as advice that runs counter to Establishment thinking. We need radical change, but we need to do it in a pragmatic way.
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