Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 April 2011

What If We Are Wrong?

[I hate to upstage my most recent post on oil, which you can find here. But this one is even more important, and not unrelated. For comment on Egypt’s recent diplomatic initiatives, click here.]

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today, May 1, 2011, begins Holocaust Memorial Day, or Yom Hashoah (“Day of the Holocaust”) in Hebrew. The full day is May 2, but in accordance with Jewish tradition, it begins at sunset tonight. In the United States, it starts an official eight-day period of remembrance known as Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust.

Normally in this period we recall the fates of the six million Jews―and the Roma (“Gypsies”), Russians and others―whom the Nazis murdered solely because of who they were, not what they did. But these victims are long dead and beyond recall.

This year, I propose we recall also the living. While we once again mourn those who died so long ago, may we also remember the millions of victims of brutal tyranny around the world today, in our own time. May we think of North Korea and Zimbabwe. But may we also spare a thought for other victims of tyranny, who are Arabs and Muslims living in places like Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and, yes, Saudi Arabia.

I do not mean to claim an equivalence between their suffering and the Holocaust. But I do mean to revive the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, which means “repair the world.”

How can we repair the world that we see today without the Arab and Muslim liberation that is just now beginning to bud like trees in the springtime? And how can Jews whose credo is tikkun olam fail to support it?

It is hard to acknowledge the suffering of others when suffering of your own, past or present, weighs so heavily on your mind. But are we not all human? And are not some things worth doing precisely because they are hard?

About seven decades ago, Jews and others were persecuted and slaughtered in great numbers for their beliefs, their speech, and their unusual dress and customs. Even if it is not so severe, can we not recall today the present plight of Arabs and Muslims, persecuted and murdered (although in much smaller numbers) for their speech, their sect, their political views, and the strength of their faith, and in their own lands? And can we consider the possibility that self-determination and self-government lead not to yet more war but to peace?

As we recall the horrors of the past, can we look forward to a brighter future? Can we anticipate the day when Arabs and Muslims are as free to speak out and practice their religion everywhere as Jews and Muslims, for example, in Israel and the United States? Can we recall the height of Islamic culture in the Middle Ages, when religious tolerance reigned supreme, and Jews, Christians and Muslims practiced their faiths side by side?

And as for women, can we not imagine that the liberation of Arabs and Muslims from tyranny will lead eventually to their liberation, as noon follows dawn? In the age of Al Jazeera and the Internet, surely it must, and surely it will.

Are Arabs and Muslims inherently incapable of governing themselves competently? Will popular rule in their ranks always create unacceptable risks to the West, to the flow of oil, and to others generally?

Do we just have to depend on clever but ruthless tyrants like the Saudis to keep things under control? Is the Egyptian Army all that holds back the storm waters of chaos? Are Bashar Al-Assad and his bloody torturers necessary evils because they corral a greater evil that lies in the hearts of ordinary Syrians?

That’s what conventional wisdom thinks, at least in the West, and especially in Israel. That’s what it has thought for decades. It would answer all these questions “yes.”

But what if it is wrong? What if Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey―all real Islamic countries, all with varying degrees of real, democratic self-rule by Muslims―are neither fictions nor aberrations? What if Pakistan, where lawyers marched in the streets, with overwhelming popular support, to remove the strongman Musharraf, and did so both successfully and peacefully, is a sign of things to come?

What if Al Jazeera, the Internet and other means of instantaneous electronic communication can motivate Muslims worldwide to follow the best examples of their peers, not the worst? What if they’re doing just that right now?

Is Islam an inherently dangerous and inexorably violent religion? That’s what conventional wisdom thinks, especially among the much-propagandized American people. (Here Israelis, who live side by side with Muslims every day, are a bit more sensible.)

But what if we Americans are wrong? What if Muslims can re-create their medieval greatness, when Islamic culture was the global center of religious tolerance and learning, where Islamic scholars perfected astronomy and invented algebra and algorithms (both perversions of Arabic words) while Europeans were collecting themselves in mud huts around their feudal lords’ castles?

What if Muslims worldwide, who appear to be rejecting the false prophet bin Laden and his credo of perpetual, senseless and counterproductive violence, are just waiting for an Islamic Martin Luther to help them establish personal relationships with God and set them free? What if Muslims are just coming out of the same sort of millennial cultural slump from which China so recently emerged?

Are the Arab people, their intellectuals and future leaders inherently incapable of dealing rationally with oil as a valuable resource? Are they more likely to hoard or destroy it, out of ignorance of sheer spite, than to sell it on the global market for resources to improve themselves and their societies? Are leaders clever and subtle enough to wrest power from tyrants peacefully, as in Tunis and Cairo, so stupid as not to see the power of oil, in a global capitalist economy, to better their own lives?

That’s what conventional wisdom thinks. It would answer all these questions “yes.” But what if it’s just wrong?

What if the rational structure of global capitalism that the West has created so assiduously over the last century appeals to peaceful Arab “revolutionaries” as a useful and convenient tool for picking themselves up by their bootstraps? What if the intellectuals and patient organizers who are leading the “movement” for Arab liberation are smart enough to see that oil, properly respected and handled, provides the best means to jump-start their experiments in self-government?

Are Arab tyrannies what keep terrorism as bay, or are they the cause of it? Does the Saudis’ support for extremist Wahhabi madrassas throughout the Islamic world advance the cause of peace and prosperity or the twisted progress of terrorism? Are Arabs and Muslims inherently so evil and stupid as to make blowing themselves up to destroy others a way of life and a foundation of their culture? Or have they been driven to desperation by hardy, vile tyrannies that have crushed their lives and ruined their futures for decades or centuries?

And, if the latter, what will they do when the pressure of those tyrannies is released, not by universal carnage as in the French and Russian Revolutions, but by peaceful popular protest and pressure, as in Tahrir Square? Will they turn against each other like rabid dogs―Sunni against Shiite, Arab against Persian, everyone against Kurds―immediately destroying what they have so carefully and painfully built? Or will they continue to organize constructively and peacefully, as they learned to do in throwing off their yoke of tyranny?

And what of their leaders? Which is better? tyrants who rule absolutely by force of arms and regular torture of innocents? revolutionary figures who overturn tyrannies violently by arms and guile, and whose chief skills are subversion and war? or leaders clever and patient enough to overturn a hardy tyranny peacefully, by sheer popular will, with a minimum of bloodshed?

And what of our leaders? What if Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, John Cornyn and John Kyl are not the greatest minds and wisest souls in American history? What if Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy are? What would they think?

Conventional wisdom would answer every one of these questions in the darkest possible way. But what if conventional wisdom is wrong?

What if Donald Trump’s playing at being a presidential candidate and the real President’s revealing his long-firm birth certificate are not the most important events in current global history? What if what’s going on in Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, Tripoli, Riyadh and, yes, Tehran is?

Then isn’t this spring of Arab and Muslim liberation something that every sound mind and generous heart should support to the utmost, especially in the West?

Egypt’s Talks with Hamas and Iran

Having written the foregoing post, I can’t refrain from commenting on today’s developments in Egypt. As reported by the New York Times, Eqypt’s new, less tyrannical government has opened discussions with Hamas and restored diplomatic relations with Iran. At the same time, it has reaffirmed its commitment to the peace treaty with Israel.

In on-line comments, hysterical reactions flew from ostensible supporters of Israel. Many inferred that the Muslim Brotherhood would soon take control of Egypt. Some concluded that a sea of Islamic extremism would engulf Greater Arabia, producing a new war, most probably nuclear, with Israel.

That outcome is possible. I have written about it myself. But Arab liberation makes it less likely, not more so.

Four and a half years ago, when I wrote my essay about the risk of war with Iran, I did so to warn of two self-reinforcing trends. First, by imposing preconditions to peace talks, Israel increasingly gave the appearance of a stalling and refusing to negotiate seriously. Second, the apparent stalling was raising the level of general enmity in an increasingly aware, competent and modern Greater Arabia.

These two trends reinforced each other. A rising Greater Arabia demanded greater respect from others, including Israel. Israel’s consistent refusal to recognize changing circumstances, bargain more seriously, and make necessary concessions for peace not only precluded peace. They also pushed it further away by increasing Arab enmity.

But my analysis then assumed implicitly that Arabs in the region would remain focused on Israel and Palestine because―as had been the case for decades―they had no real power to affect the circumstances of their own lives in the countries where they lived. I didn’t even consider the possibility that some day they might have that power, for there was then not a glimmer of Arab liberation (let alone Persian liberation) on the horizon.

Today there is more than a glimmer. Now, for the first time since the Pharaohs, ordinary Egyptians have claimed a measure of self-government.

So what are they going to do with it? Are they going to devote all their political energies to destroying Israel, as paranoid Israeli and American fanstasies insist? Or are they going to try to improve their own society and their own lives? I feel fairly confident in predicting the latter approach.

To me, the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood is about to stage an Islamist coup d’etat is equally fantastic. Before the Tahrir Square movement, it was a small movement of intellectuals, scholars, and Islamist revolutionaries. Mubarak and his military tyranny (and their predecessors) persecuted it, executed many of its members, jailed many others, and drove some leaders out of Egypt. (Among them was Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second in command.)

So the Tahrir Square movement owed nothing to the Muslim Brotherhood and indeed caught it by surprise. The Army, which now rules Egypt, is secular, professional, largely Western trained, and deeply suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood.

These facts lead to two conclusions. First, the Muslim Brotherhood has little political power in Egypt now. It can gain power only to the extent that it can become a viable political party with broad appeal.

Islamic fundamentalism is weak in Cairo and Egypt’s big cities, although stronger in the countryside. So in order to become a viable, let alone winning, political party, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to give up its extremism and much of its Islamism. The intellectuals and scholars who lead it now are the ones who stayed behind when the extremists fled Egypt to begin their terrorist jihad. So if they are not already aware of these realities, they will become so after election campaigns begin.

Second, the Army is still jealous of its power and largely secular. It is not about to allow an extremist Islamist coup, and more than is the military in Turkey. (There is in fact a possibility that army strategists are approaching Iran just to scare the West into giving it more power and allowing it to suppress Egyptians’ legitimate desire for self-government.)

But whatever the Egyptian army’s motives, talking with Hamas and even Iran is a good thing. As I have written before, one of Israel’s dumbest strategies was to refuse to talk to various parties (including Hamas and Hezbollah) without preconditions.

The main preconditions were renunciations of violence and of the goal of destroying Israel. Those preconditions certainly seem reasonable on their faces. But when you think of the circumstances, they’re more reasonable as an outcome of talks than as preconditions.

The intifada and Palestinian terrorism had and has the power to kill schoolchildren and make life miserable for Israelis (less so after the Wall). But what other power did the Palestinians have? Israel outmatched them in every military category, from training through locally produced small arms (the Uzi) to nuclear weapons. Israel is by far the dominant naval and economic power in the region.

So here were powerless people, with legitimate grievances, expected to negotiate those grievances by abandoning their only source of leverage and their chief recruiting tool before they ever walked into the room?

That might seem reasonable to an Israeli mom whose daughter had been maimed in a rocket attack. But to a neutral observer interested in peace, it seems like a good way to kill talks before they begin. After all, we Americans negotiated with our deadly adversaries, the Soviets, without preconditions for twenty-seven years, from 1962 until the end of the Cold War.

And so, rightly or wrongly, observers like me came to the conclusion that Israel has not been serious about negotiating for peace since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed by a Jewish extremist. Veiled and coded statements by Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, referring to a “Greater Israel” and to the West Bank by biblical names, only added to that impression.

What American wants to pay taxes, let alone die, for a quixotic quest to restore ancient Israel’s biblical boundaries? Isn’t giving the Holocaust victims and their descendants a secure home enough?

And if I, an American Jew, see recent and current Israeli leaders as less than serious about negotiating for peace, you can imagine what the Palestinians think.

That’s why what Egypt is doing is liberating, and not just for Arabs. What I have called “stiff-necked diplomacy,” half hearted-talks that lead nowhere, have gone on long enough.

One of the reasons why those talks failed is that Palestinians feel abandoned. Israelis have the world’s only remaining superpower (albeit one in decline) decisively in their corner. Up to now, the Palestinians have had no one. It will be good for them and good for peace to have a powerful sympathetic force that can say, “This will be good for you. Do it. Agree.”

The rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas that Egypt arranged shows just how quickly and effectively such a force can work. And you can bet that the Egyptian army, secular and professionally trained, did not arrange the rapprochement to start another war with Israel, but to provide a unified Palestinian entity with which Israel can make peace.

As for Iran, what do the people who fear Egypt talking want? Besides Israel and Turkey, Egypt has the most secular, professional, and sensible military in the region, more so than the Saudi tyrants. If that army talks to Iran’s mullahs, it may talk sense into them. There’s certainly no harm in trying. The notion that the secular, professional, nominally Sunni Egyptian army will be subverted by mere discussions with Shiite, extremist Iran is simply laughable. More likely, the Egyptian army may help prevent a regional war.

We Americans have to face facts. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has dragged on for 63 years. Despite enormous effort and even bribery (though arms subsidies), we have not been able to resolve it. Every president since Jimmy Carter has tried and failed. Part of the reason is that we have never gained the Palestinians’ trust.

Now, after we have failed repeatedly and when we have serious, intractable problems at home, is a good time to let others try. Whether the Egyptians can do better remains to be seen. But we owe them a fair trial period, at least a fraction of the 63 years during which we have repeatedly tried and failed. After all, Israel and its supporters here and there will know that we are watching from the sidelines.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to the assassinated Israeli prime minister as Menachem Begin, rather than (correctly) as Yitzhak Rabin. Begin’s role in peacemaking was far more ambivalent. He negotiated the peace treaty with Egypt and for doing so (among other things) received the Nobel Peace Prize, as did Rabin. But later he appeared to endorse the notion of Greater Israel and expanded settlements in the West Bank. I apologize for the error.

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