Monday, December 24, 2012

Why Obama Should Nominate Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense

The White House's trial balloon of former Republican senator Chuck Hagel  as Secretary of Defense has not yet burst, despite rocks thrown at it by the pro-Israel lobby, the anti-Iran lobby, and some members of the gay community. But there is no question that to date there have been fewer defenders than detractors. And now there is Michael Hirsh saying that the White House is "considering others for the job." (Weren't they considering others beforehand? Isn't that what a "leading candidate" means?) So given the likelihood of tough confirmation hearings, wouldn't it make political sense for Obama to drop this ball now?

Perhaps. But the president should go forward with the nomination.  Here's why:

Let's analyze the opposition. The usual gang of vocal neocons and "Israel-firsters" like the Emergency Committee for Israel, can be ignored. These are the people who did their best to defeat Obama and to plunge the US into foreign wars, convincing themselves that there is no daylight between Israel's interests and those of America in order to absolve themselves of dual-loyalties. Do you really think Barack Obama gives a  fig about folks like William Kristol and his ilk? 

True,  the group is doing its best to whip up senators against the nomination. But we are not talking about AIPAC getting Congress to pass one of its pro-Israel resolutions. We are talking about defeating a president's nomination for secretary of defense. Such a defeat is rare; it occurred only  once in the last fifty years when George H. W. Bush's nominee John G. Tower was rejected because of allegations about his private conduct and possible conflict of interest. Some cabinet nominees withdrew their candidacy in recent years, but because of possible legal infractions (employing illegal immigrants, etc.) 

Then we have the Democrat liberal hawks, and while they are not openly supporting Hagel, they aren't saying no either. Chuck Schumer, whose base is very pro-Israel (and some of it quite rightwing) says that he will have to study Hagel's record. Significantly, Jeffrey Goldberg gives Hagel a clean bill of goods on the Israel question. Unfortunately, Goldberg has to strut his pro-Israel creds by taking a false and libelous shot against Stephen Walt, but the bottom line is that he supports Hagel's tough stand on the settlements. 

If the nomination goes through, then Hagel could be facing tough confirmation hearings. I don't think Obama would lose this one,  but even if he did, the confirmation hearings would bring to the center some of the major concerns of the Obama administration -- the criticism of the settlements while at the same backing a democratic Israel, the disinclination to act unilaterally in the Mideast, the desire to eliminate waste at the Pentagon. Win or lose, this would be a powerful teaching moment for the rest of the country. And it could help revitalize the grand tradition of Republican realism that was sidelined when the neocons took over the party and got us into mess after mess.

Still, if past performance is any indication of future results, the administration may pop its own balloon. I am not just referring to the Susan Rice affair. I heard Jim Jones speak at the first J Street Convention a few years ago, as as a representative from a cautious administration. The next year there was no representative.  True, the president doesn't have to get reelected now. But "no-drama-Obama" doesn't like this sort of fight. 

Which would be a pity. Chuck Hagel may be Israel's last chance for survival as a Jewish democracy. That's why liberal hawks like Goldberg are partial to him.  Given my positions, I should be supporting a secretary of state that assists Israel in going over the cliff (like Hillary). 

But this is one cliff I prefer avoiding.
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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Some Arguments for the Illegitimacy of Anti-Communism (c. 1950)

For Phil Weiss

1. Communism represents the will of the Soviet peoples, and ipso facto it must be respected.

2. The morality of communism could be debated before the October Revolution, but once the Soviet Union has been established, and the people have made their choice, the subject is closed.

3. The singling out of the communism of the Soviet regime for criticism, especially on the part of dissident Russians and those peoples most affected by the regime's actions, can only be explained as indicative of prejudice and bigotry towards the Soviet people.

4. Those who argue for regime change in the case of the Soviet Union, but not in more tyrannical regimes, are deeply anti-Soviet.

5. To question the legitimacy of the communist regime in the Soviet Union is tantamount to wishing the destruction of millions of Soviet citizens -- although the anti-communists may not say so explicitly.

And a P.S. from a reader

6.  The suffering of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War entitles them to have great concern about the anti-communist delegitimizers.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Boycott the Occupation, Not the Settlers

Readers, this post appeared today on Open Zion here.

Samuel Lebens cites some familiar arguments against boycotting Israel in general, and boycotting settlers in particular: Boycotts against Israel won’t bring about positive change, he says, but will only harden positions; constructive engagement has a better chance of winning hearts and minds; effective economic boycotts may actually constitute collective punishment; it is wrong to boycott settles who are two-staters, etc.

I would like to make five points about these arguments.

First, their empirical basis is thin. Do boycotts harden existing positions? Are they  counterproductive? Do they harm progressive elements in oppressive societies? One would expect Leben to adduce evidence from other cases of state sanctions. This he does not do, substituting for data his own take on the Israeli situation. He does not respond to familiar arguments in support of boycotting Israel, as,  for example, the argument that boycotts have a better chance of influencing policy in Israel than, say, in Iran, precisely because Israelis care deeply about their image as a Western style democracy, and the Israeli electorate can and occasionally does influence policy. In Israel even the most trivial artistic boycott is front page news and is used by progressive elements to make their case in the public sphere.

Second, his arguments seem to be directed against boycotts and sanctions in general. After all, it is hard to find a society that doesn’t have some decent people.  Would he have opposed sanctions against Germany in the 1930s on the grounds that such sanctions would be counterproductive -- that they would harden German attitudes, harm progressives, and constitute collective punishment of the German people? If he believes that boycotts are justifiable in some cases, he has to convince us why they are not justifiable in the specific case of Israel. And given his own position as a settler, his arguments cannot appear to be self-serving.

In fact, Lebens allows that some cases of collective punishment may be justified in order to avert a greater catastrophe (“World War III,” in the case of sanctions against Iran). He implies that the suffering of Palestinians under a long and often brutal occupation does not justify collective punishment of the Israelis, or of the settlers, despite the fact that most countries and legal authorities consider the settlements to be  illegal and recognize Palestinian suffering. One comes away with the impression that Lebens is more concerned with the potential suffering of the settlers than with the actual suffering of the Palestinian natives caused by the presence of the settlements That’s his right, but some arguments are needed.

Third, his arguments are what philosophers call “consequentialist,” i.e., they focus on evaluating the morality of acts in light of their consequences. But some acts may be required, or at least commendable, regardless of their results. Boycotts and sanctions can be merely symbolic, and in the case of Israel, they generally have been. The message underlying the call of the global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, endorsed by elements of Palestinian civil society, is that Israel cannot be considered a decent society as long as it discriminates against Palestinians and deny them civil rights. The boycotters wish to deny Israel a place in the company of decent nations until civil equality for the Palestinian people is achieved, and even if they fail in their endeavor, indeed, even if they make things worse in the short term for the Palestinians living on the West Bank and in Gaza, many see this as a required moral stance regardless of the consequences. None of Lebens’ consequentialist arguments pertain to non-consequentialist arguments in support of boycotts.

Fourth, Lebens’ claim that the boycotters are “underpinned by an almost unconscious anti-Semitism” because they rarely boycott any other country involves a leap of logic that I have examined elsewhere. The boycotters may have good reasons for singling out Israel for moral opprobrium – especially if they are Palestinian, who are directly affected by Israeli actions, or their supporters. There is no need for them to be concerned for all, or even more egregious, cases of injustice After all, isn’t Lebens principally concerned with what affects him as an Israeli settler?

And this brings me to my fifth point. Lebens seems to think that the settler boycott is wrong inter alia because it affects settlers like him who are decent two-staters and not “racist colonialists.” This is a familiar argument against boycotts and sanctions in general, and indeed, the argument was used by those who opposed sanctions in South Africa, which caused economic hardship not only to anti-apartheid whites but also to many blacks. Yet the reply to this is also well-known: The boycott is not directed against settlers as individuals, but against an oppressive Israeli occupation. Boycotts and sanctions, like workers’ strikes, make all sorts of people suffer. But that suffering may be justifiable in certain circumstances, and, in the long run, may actually benefit both Israelis and Palestinians, including settlers.

A final comment on boycott and engagement: the one need not exclude the other. People are complex, and winning people’s hearts and minds requires various strategies. I endorse the global BDS initiative as an act of solidarity with the Palestinian people, although I personally purchase items from Israel (when I live there, it’s hard not to) and generally oppose academic boycotts. How and when to implement a BDS strategy – where should there be boycotts, which companies should be divested from – are tactical issues that need to be discussed and weighed in light of competing principles. Unlike Israel, Palestinians have very few means by which they can advance their cause. If the goal is to win concessions from a hard-line Israeli government, boycotts may be a less effective tactic than firing rockets or waging an intifada. But it is a nonviolent one.