Ignatieff’s Empire

Michael Ignatieff has a meandering piece in today’s New York Times Magazine on American empire. In it, he tells us that “leaving the Palestinians to face Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships is a virtual guarantee of unending Islamic wrath against the United States.” The exit from the present situation is a “United Nations transitional administration [for the Palestinians], with U.N.-mandated peacekeepers to provide security for Israelis and Palestinians.” Without this, victory in Iraq won’t staunch the hemorrhaging of U.S. prestige in the Middle East. These ideas have been bouncing around for some time. Now they get the endorsement of a noted journalist and Harvard professor, in the most prominent spot in the print media.

I admit I have a hard time taking Ignatieff seriously on the Middle East, in part because of an article he published back in April in the London Guardian entitled “Why Bush Must Send in His Troops.” Before you decide that Ignatieff is a sure guide to things Middle Eastern, read it.

You’ll find that it includes, in one form or another, every trendy calumny against Israel. There is the infamous South African analogy: Palestinian self-rule was really “a Bantustan, one of those pseudo-states created in the dying years of apartheid to keep the African population under control.” The Palestinian Authority had “failed because Israel never allowed it to become a state.” Reading through this piece, you would never know that there were Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David because they’re never mentioned. Perhaps Ignatieff didn’t want to get into the debate over what happened or didn’t happen in those talks, in which an Israeli leader proposed the creation of a Palestinian state on virtually all the lands occupied in 1967. But that would only have complicated things for Ignatieff’s inevitably Solomonic verdict: “Both sides have an equal share of blame.”

As for the Palestinian half of the blame, Ignatieff quickly shifts some of that to Israel’s shoulders, too. Israel kept the Palestinian Authority too weak. “Had Israel realized that its own security depended on assisting in the establishment of a viable and, if necessary, ruthless Palestinian Authority it might now be secure.” In particular, Israel did not allow the PA “enough military and police capability.”

Not enough? Did Ignatieff have a clue about what was going on in the PA? The PA (even according to David Hirst in the Guardian) had forty to fifty thousand persons in its security services—ten to twenty thousand more than the number agreed upon in Oslo II. As one observer put it, “the PA has become the most heavily policed territory in the world, with an officer-to-resident ratio of 1:50; the U.S. ratio for police officers and sheriff’s deputies, in contrast, is 1:400.” So what, in Ignatieff’s view, would have been “enough military and police capability”? (And why military?)

In fact, the problem was never one of capability. It was one of will. The PA decided to wage war with the weapons it had been given to keep peace. Some think that had there been fewer “security services” and guns, there might not have been an intifada at all.

But the absolute low point of this article is Ignatieff’s invocation of the “sacrifice of the young people on both sides in a mutually reinforcing death cult.” It’s an insufferable case of false symmetry, especially coming as it did in the midst of the worst suicide bombings. Even if you believe Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a “cycle of violence,” you’re showing yourself ignorant if you compare the suicidal “death cult” rampant among Palestinians to the stoic resolve of Israelis.

“The Americans now face a historic choice,” pronounced Ignatieff back in April. “For 50 years, they have played the double game of both guaranteeing Israel’s security and serving as honest broker in the region. This game can’t go on.” This is the greatest of all the calumnies—not just against Israel, but against generations of U.S. policymakers. A “double game”? It’s been an immensely successful strategy, which won the Cold War in the Middle East and produced the Israeli-Egyptian peace. This “double game” has prevented a general conflagration for thirty years. And it must go on, because the moment America’s commitment to Israel seems diminished in Arab eyes, the region is destined to spiral into war, just as it did in 1967 and 1973.

None of the nonsense Ignatieff published in the Guardian would have gotten past an editor at the Times, but all of it is implicit in today’s new piece. 9/11 has turned everyone into a Middle East expert for fifteen minutes. That’s about as long as it will take you to get through the lead article of today’s Magazine. Time’s up.