March 29, 2011

Welcome to MST - Mideast Saving Time

Recent incidents in and around Israel have been driven primarily by local factors, but the sweeping drama elsewhere in the region has eclipsed what might otherwise have been sharp reactions in the West.

The barbaric attack on a Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar prompted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to announce hundreds of new housing units over the pre-1967 Green Line. The attack could have been an effort to remind Israelis and the world that Palestinians are dangerous, even when Muammar Qaddafi seems to be hogging the title of Mideast menace, but more likely this was just the one successful terrorist mission of the many that Israeli forces thwart almost on a daily basis. The same set of factors can explain the latest Jerusalem bombing attack.

The fact that Washington and even the United Nations were distracted with the momentous jockeying over international Libyan intervention – and that U.S. President Barack Obama has accepted for now that Netanyahu is unwilling or incapable of acting more constructively than his Palestinian counterparts – meant that little notice was taken of the massacre or the Israeli response.

Rocket strikes from Hamas-ruled Gaza against civilian targets deep inside Israel may have been meant to test the new security regime between Israel and a still rudderless Egyptian regime, as well as showing that Gaza can be at least as dangerous as the West Bank – a headline grabber. If Netanyahu’s response to the Itamar attack was knee-jerk and politically calculated, the mobilization against Gaza was obvious and unavoidable. The State of Israel must be able to protect its citizens.

When my friends complain that the murder in Itamar of both parents and three of their young children got next to no coverage in the American press, they are mistaken. However, it was understandably overshadowed by Qaddafi’s campaign against thousands of Libyans, continuing protests and mass killings elsewhere in the Arab world… oh, and the Japanese earthquake-tsunami-nuclear trifecta (!!). Downplaying the deliberate butchering of a Jewish family is unseemly, and so is overstating its significance relative to other immediate crises near and far.

Had the Itamar murders taken place a few months earlier, they would have received far more press, and Netanyahu’s decision to build more West Bank housing would have attracted far more condemnation. When Israel launched Operation Cast Lead two years ago in Gaza, President Bush was preparing to conclude his White House tenure and Americans and the rest of the world were out on Christmas break. That timing definitely worked to Israel’s advantage, reducing the unavoidable negative publicity. It cuts both ways.

March 27, 2011

Libya can save U.S. in Mideast

Rather than compounding the military campaigns to which President Bush originally committed us a decade ago, the intervention in Libya can become part of a broader transformation that ultimately stabilizes the region, restoring and even breaking new ground in the credibility and legitimacy of U.S. influence and power in the Middle East.

Libya seems to be a perfect fit for U.S. intervention. Despite the Bush administration's rapprochement with Libya, unlike Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Qaddafi is hardly seen as Washington's ally, so there's little of that imperialist baggage or angst. The United States is acting under a genuine coalition, including participation of Arab forces. The Arab League, and China and Russia, have stepped back from their original assent to the Libya intervention, but they were fully aware that the UN Security Council resolution was authorizing more than a simple "no fly zone".

The United States was too involved in Mubarak's fortunes to intervene in Egypt, and Bahrain is home to our Fifth Fleet and it's Arabia's new Achilles' Heel. Qaddafi has established himself as the quintessential isolated fanatic dictator, and not without merit. Also, enabling the rebel tribes to remove him may open opportunities for further mayhem, but in reality Al Qaeda has failed to manifest itself in any of the Mideast turmoil, including in Libya where Qaddafi and other critics of international intervention have revived Osam bin Laden as the poster child for status quo tyranny.

March 23, 2011

About those Iraq comparisons...

Who can forget that famous line from Newt Gingrich, who told Fox News that “the more difficult it gets, the more the President golfs and the more the President hides.” Relax, Gingrich wasn't dissing former President George W. Bush -- notorious for playing golf and vacationing -- he was actually criticizing President Barack Obama, just two days ago.

It was genuinely entertaining to watch members of the Republican foreign policy elite warn of Libyan mission creep last Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press". Of course, NBC identified Richard Haass as President of the Council on Foreign Relations rather than as a former policy advisor for both Presidents Bush. To their credit, both Haass and the elder Bush understood the limitations of U.S. unilateral force. As for the younger President Bush, well…

The coordinated international military effort in Libya bears no resemblance to the junior Bush adventure in Iraq, especially since it was authorized under an expansive resolution by the United Nations Security Council. What's more, France -- which Bush 43 left behind -- is not only on board, it took the diplomatic lead. And even the Arab League found a rare moment of courage, just long enough to sign off on the Security Council resolution. (For all those complaining that Obama isn't taking the lead on Libya, see under: Bush 43.) 

There may be good reasons to not act or to do even more in Libya, or to do it differently, but this is not comparable to Iraq, for the reasons above and for so many more reasons that should be as obvious as they are tedious to list. Also, George W. Bush was the President of the United States who reopened diplomatic and trade relations with Muammar Qaddafi's Libya, with some fanfare. Yup, that would be another difference. 

March 21, 2011

Does U.S. Senate really value international religious freedom?

Next week, for the second time in less than 12 months, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Reverend Suzan Cook Johnson, popularly known as Sujay. President Obama has renominated for the post of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom ("IRF"), after her first nomination last year expired at the end of the 111th Congress. Nominations do not just "expire", like a loaf of bread -- her nomination was torpedoed through the arcane rules of the Senate, also known as inside politics.

Numerous friends of mine have served as U.S. ambassadors, including a few with no international experience but compelling professional backgrounds and -- often -- a personal connection to a sitting President of the United States, either Democrat or Republican. They have mostly served with distinction, because successful diplomacy is not limited to career diplomats. I do not believe Sujay is a personal friend of Barack Obama, so how did she get the nomination? 

Sujay has lived and worked overseas, she has organized international summits of religious leaders, and she has led an organization of 12,000 ministers. She is a gifted communicator, author, pastor, and humanitarian. On 9/11, she ministered to first-responders, victims and families at Ground Zero. 

Most importantly, Sujay "gets" religious freedom. She understands that religious freedom is not an excuse for Christian triumphalism, but an affirmation that the majority of the world's population who hold religious views also have rights including the freedom of belief, and freedom from discrimination. She understands that these are human rights, and that religious freedom can be the catalyst for millions of American Christians to get behind specific policies promoting human rights and U.S. global leadership. There is an untapped constituency for religious freedom here in America, and globally there is a swath of persecuted humanity in desperate need of diplomatic attention. 

March 15, 2011

Israel's military occupation that is, and isn't

My previous post has generated some discussion about the status of Israel's presence in the West Bank. During the past decade, various Israeli Supreme Court decisions have reaffirmed that the West Bank is under "belligerent occupation" for purposes of imposing Israeli military restrictions on individual Palestinians. Yet when the term "Israeli occupation" is tossed around in the United Nations General Assembly or on university campuses across the United States, Jewish activists and pro-Israel advocates turn apoplectic.

Israel is on record as an occupying power. It occupied the West Bank, along with Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights in 1967. It has annexed Jerusalem and the Golan, which means those zones do not qualify as military occupation under Israeli law (though other nations do not recognize those annexations). Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, which leaves the legal status unclear. This leaves the West Bank.

March 14, 2011

With policies like these, who needs terrorists?

"Aw, Johnny, 40 years old and she's still runnin' your life!" -- Moonstruck.

Too often, politicians claim they're leading when they're really just reacting, and they subordinate their priorities to outside influence rather than really taking charge and asserting national interest. Worst of all, most people seems to go along without noting what should be obvious. Over the past several days, this has been the case in the United States and in Israel.


In the United States, last week's first Congressional hearing on the presumed threat from the radicalization of American Muslims got underway. No hard evidence was presented that American Muslims are inherently a threat or that this discrete topic is useful for Members of the House of Representatives to devote their attention. However, it is only the latest in a long series of public actions since September 11, 2001, where we have allowed our enemies to determine our national agenda.

Al Qaeda has declared their goal of radicalizing American Muslims, so naturally some Members of Congress have now made a big fuss about the radicalization of American Muslims. If this has any real effect, it will be... the radicalization of American Muslims. We have handed a victory to Al Qaeda without the need for any further attacks on U.S. soil. Our real emphasis, and that of the House Homeland Security Committee, should be on preventing the actual terrorists, whoever they may be, based on the best available intelligence forensic analysis. And yet, the hearings are advertised as safeguarding America. Is Rep. Peter King really a better American than those who oppose his hearings?


In Israel, the government has responded to the monstrous massacre of a young family in the West Bank by 
announcing hundreds of new housing units in the West Bank. Evidently, the timing is meant to show that the Netanyahu government will not allow Palestinian terrorism to force Israel into risking its national security. For the past few decades, however, very few settlements have served a security purpose, rather they have compelled a massive military presence to protect each additional residential neighborhood that gets built over the Green Line. If those settlements are a fundamental statement of Zionist fulfillment, then why package them as a response to Palestinian attacks on Israeli settlements?

March 10, 2011

What's wrong with hearings on American Muslims

It is hard to imagine how the public hearings on Islamic terror in the United States, which opened today in the U.S. House of Representatives, could be any more counter-productive. I will attempt to list some of the most apparent problems, without resorting to labels or innuendo.

NO CREDIBILITY: The Chairman of the committee holding the hearings is an unrepetentant and longtime supporter of the ruthless Irish Republican Army.

UNJUSTIFIED: The claim that such hearings will help crack down on terror cells in the United States has been debunked by the bulk of local and federal law enforcement officials -- most of those commenting have emphasized that the hearings will actually undermine the generally excellent cooperation they receive from Muslim-Americans and community leaders.

ALIENATING: The hearings, and the publicity they have generated, further stigmatize and alienate Muslim-Americans, and send an adversarial message to one billion Muslims around the world, just as the Islamic world is getting over the perception that post-9/11 America is at war with Islam -- and just as millions of Muslims are looking to America for leadership in their own risky leap toward democracy.

March 9, 2011

Iran's latest plea for relevance, ignored.

Last week's mini-crisis in the Suez-Mediterranean involved two Iranian warships that took advantage of the Suez Canal's treaty-protected neutral access to pass through to the Mediterranean for a few days.

It was an opportunity to show the world they can do it, and also to test their crews and equipment beyond their normal coastal patrol duties. Why now, for the first time since the Islamic Revolution over 30 years ago? For one thing, if Hosni Mubarak were still in charge, he probably would have made the Iranians 'an offer they couldn't refuse,' in order to preserve his reputation for advancing strategic stability in the region. With Egyptians distracted for now, and because most of the world is distracted, the Iranians took the opportunity to rain a little on the parade of Mideast regime change that seems to have left Tehran in the dust of irrelevance. It may have also distracted Iran's own population from the agitation for regime change at home. Ironically, the real message here is that getting two vintage boats through what may be the world's most routinely used waterway was such a big deal for Iran to pull off -- ouch.

The 1956 Suez Crisis was premised upon keeping the Canal open to all shipping, as established by the Treaty of Constantinople over a century ago, so it's a bit late to start restricting access. I have little doubt that the Iranian ships were well-shadowed during their entire training run, and that they could have been boarded or sunk on a moment's notice. The only question is how many different navies were standing by for the order. And there should also be no doubt that those navies got some new insights of their own regarding Iran's long-range capacity, shipboard communication capabilities and protocols, limitations, tactics, and methods. Double ouch.

The future prospects of an Iranian naval presence in the Mediterranean have real implications for strategic planners. The transfer of weapons, offshore positioning for strikes on Israel or delivery of terror commandos, intelligence-gathering, eventual launch of crude nuclear devices at closer range -- none of this should be discounted. But the best response was probably the one we have seen: None. Triple Ouch.

March 8, 2011

Downplaying violence of Libya's rebels helps no one

The Libyan rebellion could end today, if Muammar Qaddafi decides to take some deal from the international community and the forces opposing him, or it could continue for some time. What distinguishes Libya from the other countries being overtaken by popular frustration and protests is that Qaddafi's opposition is armed, organized, and dangerous.

Non-violent protest is a noble undertaking, and where it inspires or succeeds, all the better. In Libya's case, tribal allegiances have been suppressed for 40-plus years, the regime has been especially brutal, and Qaddafi unleashed his wrath and fury early in the peaceful phase of demonstrations. The American Revolution was certainly violent, and it had to be, though the British oppression that provoked it was mostly economic and political rather than physical. Non-violence is not a prerequisite for legitimacy.

The outcome is far from certain, even if the rebels succeed. Will there be anything resembling a democracy that respects minority rights? There seems to be no military guarantor of security and stability, as has so far emerged in Egypt. Although many nations, including recently the United States, have traded with Qaddafi's Libya and supplied weapons, the West cannot be considered his sponsor in any substantive sense. His downfall need not be a rebuke against Washington, and NATO, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council seem to be mostly on the same page.

Aside from possibly establishing a limited "no fly zone", we need to give the rebels some space to wage their own battle for Tripoli. Whatever Libyan government results will likely be no more lethal than Qaddafi has been over the years, and there will probably be more opportunity for collective leadership and transparency.

Overall, the press coverage and commentary have downplayed the two-way violence in Libya, exception for concerns that weaponry might find its way into the hands of terrorists (imagine that!). Discounting the rebels' use of force does a disservice to the Tunisian and Egyptian transformations still underway, and to the murmurings of change elsewhere in the region.

There is no shame in a violent uprising, especially if it is justified and moreso if it is objective reality. The price of liberty is not just martyrdom, it can also be violent combat and ruthless aggression against a tyrant. It would be valuable for a Western audience to be reminded of this once in a while.

March 7, 2011

Post-Soviet aliyah a game-changer in Israel-Palestinian peace

Israel gained considerably from the past 20 years of post-Soviet Russian immigration, economically and demographically. It has weathered the bursting of the hi-tech bubble, and its population has increased by one million non-Palestinians, which becomes especially important if a viable peace is to be pushed further off the horizon.

Most of these Russians came in long after the Zionist dichotomy of 1967 and 1973; after Begin and Sadat signed the Camp David Treaty; after the sobering 1982-84 Lebanon War; after the Intifadah and the Oslo Accords. They did bring with them tremendous hatred for Arabs and Muslims, along with a Soviet-enforced Russian definition of Islam as a separatist ideology rather than a multi-faceted religion.

Two generations of balanced and counter-balanced Israeli politics, including the shift in Sephardic voting that brought Menachem Begin's Likud to power in the late-1970s, were rapidly overturned when so many hard-wired right-wingers flooded Israel within a few short years. The subsequent downturn in progress toward peace has helped to push other Israelis closer to the Russian attitude, along with some justified pessimism. All this gives the average Israeli less opportunity and less appetite for active peacemaking with the Palestinians, who have also exhausted their own reserve of peace.

In the 1970s, the USSR made clear to the Arab states that Soviet Jews were a lever. If the Arabs complied with Moscow's directives, the Jews would remain behind the Iron Curtain; if the Arabs strayed, the flood gates would open and they would face ever greater numbers of new Israelis. Ironically, the post-Soviet aliyah may indeed turn out to be the Palestinians' worst nightmare and a godsend to rejectionists within Israeli politics and across the Arab world.

March 6, 2011

Frankfurt attack raises many flags

Last Wednesday's attack on U.S. personnel at Frankfurt Airport is cause for concern. Obviously, the loss of two American airmen is painful in itself, along with the two injured. But there are other reasons to worry, or at least to wonder.

Germany is the lynchpin of U.S. force projection in Europe, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. Most of those attacked were members of a "security team" and the suspected shooter is a Kosovar Muslim. Although he may have acted on his own impulses, there are just enough coincidences to be not so coincidental.

This evokes several potential interests, including Balkan-Russian nationalist tensions and Iranian backing for Balkan Islamists. The victims were connected to the U.S. intelligence and security network, so this was not just some random transfer of "boots on the ground". Did the Kosovar just get lucky, or was he pointed in the right direction by someone looking to test U.S. readiness or just exact some specific revenge?

Dramatic change is sweeping the Middle East, and it's not clear who stands to benefit -- United States, Russia, Iran... Muammar Qaddafi himself was behind a few attacks on U.S. personnel in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but that was a quarter-century ago. Very little in Europe or the Middle East happens by chance, which may be why so many of their citizens employ conspiratorial motives to explain American behavior.

Timing, location, targeting, method -- these are important clues, and it's likely many of the intended audience have already received and understood the message. The rest of us will have to just... move along.

March 4, 2011

What the Huckabee? Why he's viable

What if Mike Huckabee knew what he was saying a few days ago, when he repeatedly referred to President Obama as having grown up in Kenya? He had stressed that Kenyan boys are raised to hate the British, while Huckabee appeals to white, Anglo-Saxon America. Had Huckabee simply referred -- accurately -- to Obama's childhood stays in Indonesia, no one would have noticed. By getting it wrong with Kenya, he invited additional attention and debate around the issue of where exactly Obama did grow up.

Here's Huckabee's line of attack: Obama grew up in Kenya, so he hates white Anglo-Saxons. Oh, my mistake, I was wrong about which Third World Country he's from -- he grew up in Indonesia, where they have madrassas rather than Boy Scouts (and Boy Scouts are for white kids who are also straight, y'all). Of course, I accept that he was born in the United States -- in Hawaii?? -- but he really doesn't share our values. Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii -- and by Hawaii, Huckabee doesn't mean Steve McGarrett, he means the "un-American" guys paddling their outrigger canoe through the surf.

Mike Huckabee has just shown Republican insiders that he can appeal to their base and to the basest of the Tea Party's xenophobic wing. And he didn't have to question President Obama's American birth, nor did he explicitly denounce African Americans or Muslims, which means he could win in the GOP primaries without alienating every independent in the general election.

March 3, 2011

Fear is no recipe for Jewish continuity

Hypothetical: A philanthropist commits $100 million for Jewish summer camps to promote Jewish identity. She commissions a consultant to propose a curriculum, and the result offers four pillars; the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, Iran, and Palestinian terrorism.
The good news is, for several generations already, Jewish summer camps have been infusing their immersive environment with with positive, and mostly intrinsic, Jewish energy. For those who haven't been there and done that, a new study reports that adults who attended Jewish camp as children are 45% more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month, 55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel, 30% more likely to donate to the local Jewish Federation, etc. 
If Jewish camps can pull this off each summer without resorting to guilt, fear and paranoia, our community as a whole should reconsider our year-round messaging to young Jews across the board. Do we really expect that Jews who did not have the advantage of Jewish camp or other holistic identity-building will want to affiliate Jewishly if we love-bomb them with a legacy of persecution and imminent threats to Jewish existence? 
Any Jews who are moved to affiliate in response to such negative appeals -- and we all receive the letters each autumn and December warning us of imminent Jewish destruction if we don't send cash ASAP -- end up skewing our communal consensus of priorities and challenges once they're inside the tent. Honestly, the same goes for people who accept God's existence after realizing that every 50th letter of the Torah spells out some convenient formula uncovered by algorithms. 
If we're serious about Jewish continuity, we need to take some lessons from what works in the long run, not just what pulls in a few quick bucks or boosts attendance at a singles mixer. And if we're serious about a Jewish future, we need to think more seriously about how to make all this continuity worth the effort. Forcing our communal leaders to spend a summer in Jewish camp might be a good way to start. 

March 2, 2011

Obama shows lessons learned on Israel, American Jews

President Obama held a plenary meeting yesterday with representatives of American Jewish organizations, implicitly marking the end to his first effort at peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians. He reportedly encouraged attendees to ask their Israeli friends to search their souls and decide if they're really ready to move ahead. A couple of years ago, community leaders used a slightly more candid conversation at the White House to press the President not to allow disagreements with the Netanyahu government to enter the public domain.

Yesterday was the first Israel-related meeting since, and it was telling in itself. First, participants were seated theater-style rather than around a table with the President, so it was more about theatrics than deliberation. Paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson's famous line, if Jewish leaders want the privilege of genuine conversation with the President of the United States, at his table, they should not abuse the privilege by throwing complaints and demands onto that table. Now the President can show he meets with American Jewry, and Jewish organizations can promote themselves as having access to the corridors of power.

Long before yesterday's sit-down, and even before "people power" started taking over the Middle East late last year, the President had made clear that his risk-taking for Mideast peace had run its course. No U.S. President can want peace more than the parties themselves, especially if those parties happen to be Israelis and Palestinians.

March 1, 2011

Qaddafi's Quran

When I commenced my Arabic studies, over 20 years ago, our Jordanian Christian professor supplied us each with a thick green Quran. On the title page was a dedication from the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. We didn't use it so often, but it was interesting just to have it, considering that our classroom was a ten-minute walk from the White House.

I had fantasized of someday thanking Col. Qaddafi for the gift of "his" Quran. Years later, when I had the opportunity, our subject turned out to be issues of Jewish identity and Zionist theory, with which he was surprisingly well-versed. I had forgotten all about his Quran, until just now, after two weeks of following the hot struggle for Libya's future.

Muammar Qaddafi has not been the normative face of Islam, especially since he now claims Islamic extremists are behind the Libyan rebellion. But in his stylized defiance, there has been a certain Arab pride. Ironically, though, it is regular Arabs and Muslims who now rise up out of their own sense of intrinsic pride. Printing Qurans does not make one a prince of the Arab nation or the Islamic umma. Not for very long, at least.