Archive for category Sandbox

If so, then why didn’t MLK condemn Israel?

Martin Luther KingYou’ll recall the piece by Michelle Alexander that ran in the New York Times this past Martin Luther King Day. Her money quote: “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions.” It set me to thinking: why did MLK not condemn Israel’s actions in the twenty years between 1948 and 1968? It’s not as though there weren’t opportunities: Israel stood repeatedly in the dock during his lifetime. And why didn’t he say anything about the Palestinian “plight”? Especially as he got a high-level tutorial on the subject during a visit to East Jerusalem in 1959? I try to answer these questions in a new piece for Mosaic Magazine.

Read it here.

, ,

Bernard Lewis, between memory and legacy

I made the following remarks at the unveiling of Bernard Lewis’s gravestone at Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv on February 6.

Bernard Lewis's graveTwenty years ago, I asked Bernard Lewis if he had ever written any obituary notices about friends. He wrote to me to say that he had found all of them, and sent me copies. There were exactly three (none of which appears in his bibliography). He ended his cover letter to me with these words: “I have no other such notices in the course of production, preparation, or even contemplation, and it seems likely that my next appearance in this context will be in the heading, not the signature.”

It’s remarkable that Bernard, in the course of so long a career, produced only a few appreciations of departed colleagues. (I’ve found one more, for a total of four.) He wrote no obituaries even of his close friends, such as Paul Kraus, Shlomo Dov Goitein, “Taki” Vatikiotis and Charles Issawi, just to name a few.

Why? What was it about the genre of the memorial eulogy or obit that didn’t appeal to him? I have no answer to this question, but I have a strong suspicion that he thought that writing these things wasn’t very useful. At the end of the day, it isn’t the eulogies that determine how a scholar is regarded going forward. It’s whether future generations deem the scholar’s own work to be of lasting relevance.

And so Bernard kept to his work. Bernard’s loved ones have erected a fine stone here in his memory. But in a way, Bernard erected his own monument, in his works of scholarship. That monument is a groaning shelf of books in our libraries.

It is important here to distinguish between memory and legacy. Those of us who stand here today have our memories of Bernard, which we cherish. We share them with one another, to console ourselves, and also because by sharing these memories, we hope not to lose them to time. But I think Bernard would be the first to warn us that memory is a fickle thing. I refer you back to his wonderful short book History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented. Memory doesn’t come out well in the comparison. He would be the first to point out that when we reassemble here in ten years, we’ll remember less, and less accurately, not more, and more accurately.

Preserving memory is a lost cause. But constructing legacy isn’t. In this case, its foundation is Bernard’s work. And the people who will elaborate Bernard’s legacy going forward will be, by necessity, people who never knew him and so don’t remember him. But they will have read him, and found that Bernard’s ideas still speak to some contemporary issue, some present or future need. If Bernard Lewis remains useful to them, his legacy will live.

For that to happen, people who have never heard of Bernard will have to discover him. For those of us who teach, write, speak, or administer, our mission is to put Bernard front and center. Since May, there have been at least five gatherings devoted to him—at Tel Aviv University, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, ASMEA (the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa), the American Historical Association, and Shalem College.

This is only the beginning. Much more remains to be done, if young people are to be persuaded to read Bernard. And on this score, I’m optimistic. Every other year, I teach a course on Bernard, and young students are fascinated by him. And why not? His prose style is timeless, his range covers everything, and he was involved in some exciting controversies.

The opportunities are endless. For example: it is now the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution this month. This is an opportunity to remind audiences of how Bernard explained the revolution, with a link to his 1985 piece “How Khomeini Made It” at the New York Review. Then there is his 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Israel’s Electoral System is No Good.” That piece is certainly evergreen. Let each of us who is positioned to do so mention Bernard whenever we see an opening, whether it’s in a scholarly article or a Facebook post or even a tweet. He’s always pertinent.

May Bernard’s memory be a blessing, for as long as we can still remember. But may his legacy be a guide, long after our memories of him have dimmed.

If Fouad Ajami had eulogized Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami: two allies, now gone. In November, I appeared on a panel devoted to “The Enduring Legacy of Bernard Lewis” at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). There I speculated on how Ajami might have eulogized Lewis, had he not predeceased him by four years. There’s plenty to go on: Ajami said much about Lewis, as a mentor, scholar, and friend. Why choose this topic for ASMEA? Lewis and Ajami co-founded the association: Lewis served as chair, Ajami as vice-chair.

For my address (18 minutes), click here or on the clip below. For the full panel, with additional contributions by fellow historians Jacob Lassner and Norman Stillman, go here.

, , ,

Trump’s Mideast strategy: disaster or opportunity?

Over at Mosaic Magazine, Michael Doran published a long essay on the preferred American strategy in the Middle East, a piece that’s been popular among supporters of Donald Trump’s plan for a smaller U.S. footprint in the Middle East. Elliott Abrams offered the first response, and I’ve offered the second, below. (Original title: “Is the American Withdrawal from Syria a Disaster, or an Opportunity, or Something Else?”) Be sure to return to Mosaic Magazine for additional responses, and for Doran’s “last-word” rejoinder.

I have immense respect for the judgment of Michael Doran. So it’s significant that he thoroughly opposes Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

Wait a moment, you say. Doran doesn’t write that in “The Strategy Washington Is Pursuing in the Middle East Is the Only Strategy Worth Pursuing.” If anything, in his latest essay for Mosaic, he acquiesces in Trump’s Syria decision, and indeed regards it as “inescapable.”

To which I’d answer yes—but, before Trump announced his decision, Doran was all against it. And since he was just as persuasive then as he is now, what’s a sworn Doran fan like me supposed to conclude?

Consider, for example, Doran’s earlier Mosaic essay on U.S. strategy (co-authored with Peter Rough), dated September 2017. There the authors argued that Syria should be turned into a theater of direct U.S. confrontation with Iran. They urged that Trump seek “an authorization [from Congress] for the use of military force in Syria against Iran and its proxies.” They also proposed that the president “consider building and maintaining a forward operating base” even deeper in Syria along the middle Euphrates River Valley. And they called for “increasing troop levels in that country” (my emphasis). These moves would show that the United States “is every bit as intent on making its influence felt in the region as are the Iranians and the Russians.”

Nine months ago, following an earlier Trump announcement that the United States would leave Syria “very soon,” Doran wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. There, once again, he insisted that this would play into the hands of Iran. The United States had to show Iran that “America is resolute in its determination to pare down the Iranian nuclear program. Retreating from Syria,” he asserted, “will foster the opposite impression.”

To this rationale, he then added a Turkish one: “The moment American troops leave Syria,” he predicted, the Kurds would “inevitably turn to Moscow,” and Vladimir Putin would use this leverage to pull Turkey away from the West. (Russia’s purpose, he later said, was “to turn Turkey into a Trojan horse inside NATO.”) Policy recommendation: Trump “should reconsider his intention to withdraw.”

In light of these writings, Doran’s current essay, hailing Trump’s strategy as “the only one worth pursuing,” is a bit baffling. In his previous Mosaic essay, not only had he favored an alternative strategy; he thought Israel should be a partner to it, calling on the United States and Israel to “develop a joint military plan designed to contain and degrade Iranian forces in Syria.” Reading that earlier essay, I thought that was bold of him, since I couldn’t remember the United States and Israel ever having had a “joint military plan” to accomplish anything.

Last July, to an audience at the Tikvah Fund where I was present, Doran complained that his proposal for a confrontational U.S. policy in Syria wasn’t making any headway:

Both the Israelis and the Americans now notionally have a policy of driving the Iranians out [of Syria], but I go back to the gap between ways and means, between aspirations and tools. I don’t see the two sides putting together the tools to do it. I think they could if they put their mind to it, and I keep writing things suggesting that they should, but unfortunately nobody is listening to what I say.

In fact, plenty of people were listening, and he wasn’t alone. But if by “nobody” he meant Trump, he was right. Today, says Trump, we are at a point where “now” is the “time to come home.” Although the conditions and time frame of this withdrawal seem to change from one day to the next, it’s certain that America won’t be adding troops, bases, or plans. It will only be subtracting them.

What does Doran think this means for Israel? “If the Israelis have any hope of preventing Syria from becoming a permanent Iranian military base, they must act alone.” But, he reassures us, fear not: in any confrontation to come, Trump will have Israel’s back. He’ll keep the region safe by supporting U.S. allies to the hilt against America’s adversaries. And if Israel gets into a big scrape along the way, “Trump and his foreign-policy advisers, led by [National Security Adviser John] Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will likely be eager to provide Israel with any weapons and intelligence it may lack to do the job.” Moreover, if Russia gets in Israel’s way, the United States will serve “as a deterrent to Russian military action.”

Indeed, there’s no doubt that in a pinch Trump would be more supportive of Israel than Barack Obama ever was. I’ll grant Doran that. Alas, however, there’s no guarantee that if and when the crisis comes, Trump will be in the White House, or Bolton and Pompeo won’t have become “distinguished fellows” in some Washington think tank. Someone other than Trump might be calling the shots in the Oval Office, and that someone won’t necessarily feel bound by Trump’s strategy, policy, or tweets (just as Trump hasn’t been bound by Obama’s). Indeed, the partisan packaging of this strategy, as presented by Pompeo in his recent speech in Cairo, may render it anathema to a successor administration.

So any assurances of what Trump is “likely” to do for Israel when push comes to shove are of no enduring value. The withdrawal from Syria is real and “now,” while any American “backing-to-the-hilt” is a vague promise with a current expiration date of January 20, 2021. This may be why a Who’s Who of Israel’s ill-wishers have had no problem welcoming Trump’s move. “Trump did the right thing,” wrote Harvard’s Stephen Walt. (He added: “In case any of you are wondering, I found it hard to type that sentence.”) Former CIA man Paul Pillar gave Trump a similar endorsement: “Even a broken clock is correct twice a day. And the decision about military withdrawal from Syria was the right one.” This has been echoed by the A-list of America’s most outspoken minimizers of the danger posed by Iran.

But let’s set aside the partisan posturing of Beltway pundits, and try to be objective. Is the Syria withdrawal a “disaster” for Israel? That was the word used by the Israeli columnist Caroline Glick in her own initial response. Trump, she tweeted, “is giving a huge victory to Iran, Russia, and Turkey and imperiling Israel, the Kurds, and Jordan.” (She later deleted the tweet.) Or is it an “opportunity”? A senior official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office was quoted as saying that his boss viewed it as just that.

In and of itself, it’s neither, and much depends on what follows it. In my view, Syria probably isn’t going to turn into an Iranian military base against Israel, or an Iranian-controlled “land bridge.” Iran is out on a limb in Syria, and Israel, for its part, hasn’t needed help to do what it’s been doing systematically and successfully for the past two years—that is, walloping Iran every time it raises its head. The contest is far from over, but Iran hasn’t found a way to counter Israel’s overwhelming superiority in the Syrian theater. So withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria doesn’t “imperil” Israel.

What about the risk to America’s reputation? Only 2,000 American troops presently dominate a third of Syria. Rarely have so few controlled so much at so little cost, a testament to the supremacy of the American military machine. In walking off the field in the fourth quarter, and leaving behind vulnerable allies (the Kurds) and vengeful enemies (the remnants of Islamic State), the United States gives up a huge lead. It’s quitting while ahead, but it’s still quitting. And even if you think Syria isn’t worth a candle, a reputation for staying-power is worth a great deal. Osama bin Laden used to recite a litany of U.S. retreats as incentives to attack it.

That said, the inconstancy of America’s role in the Middle East is really no secret, either to its allies or to its enemies. The United States isn’t part of the Middle East, and doesn’t border it. That’s probably why it’s never had a perfectly clear view of its interests there, producing manic-depressive bouts of intervention and withdrawal. In a 30-year cycle, the United States might dispatch a half-million troops to one Middle Eastern desert and agonize about keeping 2,000 in another.

And this volatility correlates with the rhythms of American domestic polarization, causing policy to swing like a weather vane in a gale. A U.S. president from the blue team comes to Cairo and proclaims that “fear and anger . . . led us to act contrary to our traditions and ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course.” Ten years later, a U.S. secretary of state, from the red team, comes to Cairo and declares in similar language, but to opposite effect, that “we’ve learned from our mistakes . . . [and] reversed our willful blindness.” All of these course changes and reversals are elements of pitched domestic battles. If you’re a savvy ally of the United States, you learn to ride out the cycles. But if you miss a cue, they can bring you down. (Think the shah of Iran and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.)

No one appreciates this more than Israel. It’s impossible to imagine a better ally of Israel than the United States, but one cannot be sure the United States will always do just the right thing at just the right time. Indeed, had Washington had its way, Israel might have missed its window for independence in 1948, its entry to the nuclear club in 1963, its chance for victory in 1967, and its blow to Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981. The list could be lengthened and brought up to the present.

The lesson is that there’s no substitute for Israel’s own ability to defend itself, and its independence to decide when and how to do so. Hence, as rival Washington “blobs” clash and leak over the U.S. posture in the Middle East, and the foreign-policy tribes shake their fists and point fingers, Israel is thinking hard about how best to fill the space left by a shrinking America. It is taking advantage of the consternation of America’s Arab allies in order to deepen regional ties. It is seeking understandings with Russia, over both Syria and Iran. And it’s working to identify every possible benefit of Trump’s own “back-our-friends” strategy, while he’s still in a position to make good.

This does not amount to kowtowing to all the wrong people, as some (liberal) critics of Israel would have it. It’s making the most of shifts in America’s posture, over which Israel has no say at all.

America may bounce back in the Middle East, or it may not. The weather vane may spin yet again. But even if it does, long experience also has taught the Jews not to presume the consistent and timely support of any other polity. That’s why there is a state of Israel, and why it can’t ever be too strong.

President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo

Image: President Trump swearing in Secretary of State Pompeo, May 2, 2018, Department of State via Wikimedia.

, , , ,

Empire versus nationalism

I summarize four additional sessions from my fall course on the introduction to the modern Middle East (the Arabs and Turkey) at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Below are entries for sessions nine through twelve. For earlier sessions, go here. As before, I round out each entry with an insight from the late Bernard Lewis.

Class Nine: How the Middle East Map Was Drawn. Up to the First World War, one could go from the European side of the Bosphorus to the shores of the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea without crossing a border. Upon the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, victorious Britain and France drew new borders through the vast expanse of Western Asia, cutting the great Ottoman carpet into pieces. Exactly how this new map came into being is the subject of the ninth session of my Shalem College intro to the modern Middle East.

There’s plenty of drama in the telling: the secret dealings of Sykes and Picot (1916), the parade of delegations at the Paris Peace Conference (1919), and the final Anglo-French carve-up of the region into mandates at San Remo (1920). Hovering over all this is a counter-factual: could the post-war have been handled in any other way? Were the “lines in the sand,” separating Iraq from Syria, and Syria from Palestine, inevitable? It’s a question my students often ask, to which I answer: how would you have done it? Would a unitary Arab state have been more durable, less arbitrary? Doubtful.

And as my students are Israeli, I emphasize the impeccable timing of the Zionists—first and foremost, Chaim Weizmann—who managed to do everything right. At a dozen points, the Zionist plan could have been derailed or just sidetracked. Yet time and again, Zionist leaders made perfectly timed moves. The Hashemites didn’t do badly—they came away with Iraq, Transjordan, and the Hijaz—but they’d dreamt of Syria and an Arab empire. The post-war left the Arabs with a burning sense of betrayal that persists to this day.

Bernard Lewis wasn’t a diplomatic historian, and I don’t think that he ever even mentioned Sykes-Picot. But he wrote a marvelous article entitled “The Map of the Middle East” where he explained the origins of the names of Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, and so on. Many simply reflected Europe’s deference to Greco-Roman geography. Palestine was a case in point: Greece and Rome named it so in antiquity, Britain and France drew its borders in our time. Today it’s arguable whether it’s the name of a place (only Israel appears on the map), but it’s certainly the name of a cause.

In the nuttier corners of the internet, one finds ominous rumors of a “Bernard Lewis plan,” an MI6 scheme to divide the Middle East once again. It’s a conspiracy theory pure and simple, but it proves one of Lewis’s points: past grievances lend themselves to endless recycling.

Image: the original Sykes-Picot map versus the final distribution of the mandates.

Class Ten: The Surge of Nationalism. The establishment of British and French mandates didn’t go down well with the inhabitants of Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. And once the First World War had ended, the Egyptians, already ruled by Britain for forty years, also demanded independence. Those disappointed by the new order soon rose against it. Egypt broke out in rebellion in 1919, and Iraq and Palestine erupted in 1920 and frequently thereafter. The French drove the Hashemites from Syria in 1920, only to face a large-scale revolt in 1925. I focus on post-war nationalist resentment in session ten of my Shalem College intro to the modern Middle East.

Britain and France took their gloves off. “Bomber” Arthur Harris of the RAF planned the suppression of tribal revolts in Iraq. Arab and Kurd “now know what real bombing means,” he wrote: “that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines.” As I emphasize to my students, what’s telling about this statement is that Harris didn’t think he was confessing to a war crime: they were different times. (Harris later led the RAF’s strategic bombing of Nazi Germany.) In 1928, Sir Henry Dobbs, British High Commissioner in Iraq, wrote that the Hashemite monarchy installed there by Britain enjoyed “no respect,” but rested only on “the fear inspired by British aeroplanes and armored cars.”

In Palestine, some Brits had second thoughts about their commitments under the Balfour Declaration. About 100,000 Jews came and and stayed in the 1920s: enough to alarm the Arabs, but far fewer than the Zionists had imagined. In the 1920s, Arab increase alone exceeded the total size of the Yishuv. Not surprisingly, the Arabs thought they could kill off the whole Zionist enterprise, and the British began to grow erratic in its defense, grumbling at the cost of it all.

Yet despite the turmoil, the 1920s fostered a kind of liberalism. Islamism hadn’t yet come on the scene (the Muslim Brotherhood was founded only in 1928). British (and French) administration inculcated the practices of good government in educated elites.

But it wasn’t nearly as profound as in India. It’s a point made by Bernard Lewis: “British and French rule in many of the Arab lands was indirect, mediated through such devices as the mandate and the protectorate. Nowhere in the Arab world was there anything remotely resembling British rule in India in its extent, depth, duration, and enduring effects.” So to my students, I raise a provocative question: would the Middle East be better off today had colonial rule lasted longer? I leave them to answer it.

Image: Arab nationalist demonstration near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, 1920. Matson Collection at the Library of Congress.

Class Eleven: Imperial Apogee. When I cover the 1930s in my modern Middle East class at Shalem College (session eleven), I begin by pointing over the hill to Government House (known in Hebrew as Armon Hantziv, the “Palace of the High Commissioner”). Planned in the late 1920s, completed in 1933, it served as the seat of British government in Palestine. (There was a “Government House” at just about every outpost of the British empire, from Barbados to Hong Kong, Calcutta to Singapore.)

The massive scale of the Jerusalem complex made a clear statement: the British were in Palestine to stay. No one imagined that only fifteen years after its completion, an exhausted Britain would shut down its empire and leave Palestine in chaos.

The 1930s, we now know, formed the apogee of Western imperialism in the Middle East. The kingmakers, such as T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, were gone. They had been replaced by bureaucratic administrators and “advisers,” whose job was to run the region, as far as possible, from behind a curtain. Egypt and Iraq, in particular, had to appear to be independent. British newsreels doted on the Egyptian and Iraqi royals, as though they were as venerable as the House of Windsor.

And treaties were signed between Britain and Iraq, and Britain and Egypt. They were vastly unequal: the British kept for themselves the Iraqi airbases and the Suez Canal. “The presence of [British] forces shall not constitute in any manner an occupation,” read both treaties, as if this solved the problem. But on that basis, Iraq joined the League of Nations in 1932, and Egypt did so in 1937. (France concluded a similar treaty with Syria in 1936, but the French parliament failed to ratify it.) Such symbolic devolution couldn’t happen in Palestine, claimed by Jews and Arabs alike. Beginning in 1936, the Arabs passed into open revolt, which the British crushed. The plan to partition the country was floated, then dropped as unworkable.

By 1938, the prospect of a European war began to affect all imperial calculations. I save the implications to a later class on the war. But one became clear quite early: illiberal Arabs began to look at Nazi Germany as a possible liberator.

Bernard Lewis first visited the Middle East in 1938, at the age of 22, to work on his thesis. Very different times: it was too dangerous to visit Jerusalem, but Syria posed no problem. In his memoirs, he recalled that in northern Syria, “the local French political officer heard of my visit, but did not believe that a dissertation on the medieval Isma‘ilis was the reason for my presence. He suspected that I was a British secret agent engaged in nefarious anti-French activities.” At least the French officer let himself be persuaded otherwise.

Image: Government House in Jerusalem as it appeared in 1943. For the last 70 years, it’s been the seat of UNTSO, the UN Truce Supervision Organization, and totally closed to the public. Some in Israel think the UN should be relocated, and I agree. The building should be made into a museum, open to the public.

Class Twelve: The Saudi Exception. There is only one true instance of independent state-building in the Arab Middle East: Saudi Arabia. A century ago, Ibn Saud and his followers barely registered on the meter. But through a combination of grit, ferocity, and savvy, Ibn Saud conquered a kingdom for himself, comprising a huge swath of Arabia. He struck an alliance with Britain at a crucial moment, and opened the door to American oil companies at just the right point in time. Result: Saudi Arabia kept its independence and developed its own traditions of statecraft. It’s the subject of session twelve of my modern Middle East course at Shalem College.

The founder of Saudi Arabia is a subject of passionate attachment or fervent loathing, and I try to give my students a flavor of both. “A man of splendid physique,” wrote the British Arabist Gertrude Bell of Ibn Saud. “He has the characteristics of the well-bred Arab…. with slender fingers, a trait almost universal among the tribes of pure Arab blood.” The British explorer (and convert to Islam) Eldon Rutter called him “the most humane of Arabs.” For the other view, we watch a bit the biopic King of the Sands, which paints Ibn Saud as a treacherous extremist, lecherous predator, and British agent. (It even absurdly accuses him of signing off on the creation of Israel.) The same polarized vision persists to this day, as demonstrated by reactions to poor Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

One of the most amusing exercises in the course is the students’ dramatic reading of a dialogue from Abdelrahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt (chapter 10 in Theroux’s English translation; this chapter has been translated into Hebrew). The inhabitants of a desert oasis go to a Saudi emir to complain that American oilmen have made themselves too much at home. “From the first day they came to our village,” complains one, “life has been camel piss.” The emir enjoins them to help the Americans, who will make them all rich: “You’ll have money up to your ears.” Not everyone is persuaded. It’s an excellent way to explore modernization and its discontents.

Bernard Lewis didn’t have a lot to say about Saudi Arabia, and he never set foot there. On principle, he’d never lie about his religion on a visa form. In his memoirs, he repeats the story that Saudi King Faisal once welcomed Henry Kissinger to Saudi Arabia “not as a Jew but as a human being,” to which Kissinger is said to have replied: “Your majesty, some of my best friends are human beings.”

Lewis had a habit of drawing an analogy between Wahhabis and the Ku Klux Klan, which can’t have endeared him to the Saudis. “Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas…. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.” I don’t think the analogy was particularly apt, but it still compares favorably to one used by Juan Cole: “Going to Saudi Arabia is kind of like going to Amish country.”

Image: Ibn Saud and the American oilman Floyd Ohliger on the king’s visit to an American oil installation in 1939.

, , ,