Thursday, September 13, 2007

Obama, Brzezinski, and the Israel/Palestine question

I see from the Politico that various elements within the Israel lobby are concerned about Barack Obama's endorsement by Zbigniew Brzezenski, who has come under fire for his support for Mearsheimer and Walt. However, Brzezenski's influence with respect to the Israel/Palestine issue on an Obama presidency, should it actually happen, is quite negligible. An Obama campaign statement has said that “The idea that supporters of Israel have somehow distorted U.S. foreign policy, or that they are responsible for the debacle in Iraq, is just wrong. And Obama’s positions on Middle East affairs are, like his main rivals’, within the American political mainstream and firmly in favor of Israeli’s aggressive security policy." Wonderful. Our "liberal" Democrats in action. Furthermore: "Barack Obama has been a consistent supporter of Israel and this is an unfortunate case of a fabricated controversy for political reasons. I speak with him often on Israel policy, and I can tell you firsthand that Barack Obama is opposed to the arguments presented in this book [Mearsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby]."

Brzezinski is fresh on my mind, as I've recently read his Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower (2007). Like Mearsheimer and Walt, two relatively conservative foreign policy realists, Brzezinski is a refreshing example of those in our foreign policy establishment who actually, you know, question our ridiculously strong ties to Israel. Here is his description of Bush II's policy towards Israeli/Palestinian relations:

"It soon became clear to the region that the Bush-Sharon duet jointly defining U.S. policy was playing for time. With Bush having proclaimed Sharon 'a man of peace,' the next several years were dominated by halfhearted U.S. peace initiatives, periodic terrorist killings by frustrated Palestinians, lethal retaliation by outraged Israelis, continuing radicalization of the Palestinians, and expansion of the Israeli settlements. A year after the war in Iraq was launched, the plan to create a Palestinian state by 2005 had been scaled down to U.S. endorsement of Prime Minister Sharon's April 2004 proposal for unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza. President Bush enthusiastically endorsed it as offering 'the Palestinians a chance to create a reformed, just and free government,' no longer mentioning any deadline for a Palestinian state." (Second Chance, p. 162)

Needless to say, the appearance and strategic use of "halfhearted," "frustrated," "lethal retaliation," and "scaled down" in this text automatically disqualify Brzezinski from being considered an "impartial" voice in the eyes of the Israel lobby. Surely a man such as this can only represent a "tremendous mistake" for Obama's campaign, in the words of Alan Dershowitz, since he "has chosen to support such a bigoted book [again, Mearsheimer and Walt]."

Brzezinski is a slippery character, and there's no reason to think that the grand geopolitical strategy he has constantly outlined since his earliest writings is anything other than the most "realistic" means to achieving a "benign" American empire on a worldwide scale. Brzezinski talks a lot about international norms and "impartial" interventionism, but his ultimate goal is American global domination (with the upshot of his aguments being that American hegemony could plausibly be "accepted" under a patina of legitimacy if it's pursued the right way). However, he is at least sane when it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Still, even if (and this is a big if) Obama secures the Presidential nomination and wins the election, and subsequently keeps Brzezinski on board as a foreign policy advisor, and if Brzezinski possesses the will to carry out an Israel/Palestine peace negotiation, is there a way? Current events suggest otherwise. The seizure of Gaza by Hamas (brought on, let's not deny it, by the actions of the U.S., Israel, and Europe against the Palestinian Authority following the election of Hamas), and the corresponding impossibility of a united Palestinian front against the occupation, present Israel with an unprecedented historic oppurtunity to act aggressively towards Gaza and stall on the peace process, on the basis of a "threat" from Hamas in Gaza and the inability of the PA to control the territories. Even the election of a Labor government could not guarantee a reversal in this tendency. The well documented sheepishness of Abbas only confirms the likelihood of this. The result could be a series of assaults on Gaza, mass exodus (albeit factoring in the relative strength or weakness of Hamas in preventing Palestinians from leaving the territory), the expansion of settlements, and a gesture on the part of Israel towards a "sad but true" fait accompli of the liquidation of Gaza. The "road map," always a joke under the Bush administration, would effectively be out the window.

The primary uncertain factors in this equation are the outcome of the conflict in Iraq, Bush's decision about military involvement vis-a-vis Iran, and Israel's actions towards Syria and vice versa in light of the recent altercation between the two. Any and all of these could dramatically shift focus away from the "Palestinian question" for the forseeable future.

For realists like Mearsheimer, Walt, and Brzezinski, America's blatant favoritism towards Israel hurts both American interests and Israeli security in the long-term. Stalling and provocation on the part of right-wing American and Israeli governments have obscured the benefits that could come from a settled peace. However, how true is this? My guess is that, to the contrary, American and Israeli governments see the downsides as negligible and the benefits as greatly outweighing the costs. Despite popular opposition to Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, governments like those of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have proven that they will toe the line and march in step with America and Israel. (The greater European community of the EU has never acted otherwise.) The main oppositional forces, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, are precisely those which are increasingly looking like targets in the near future. If they can be subdued, Israel will have its "greater Israel" and the United States will have established true hegemony in the region. Isn't this something worth fighting for? So the real question is both whether the United States can sustain its presence in Iraq and expand the theater of war to other fronts, and whether it thinks it can do so. If it can accomplish the first, then the scenario outlined above is fulfilled. If it can't, but thinks it can, who knows what will result? If it doesn't actually think it can "win" in Iraq, we are back to square one, with a Democrat likely taking over the Middle East peace process.

(Also, as in any assessment of current events, we shouldn't disregard the effects of a possible U.S. or worldwide economic recession resulting from the subprime crisis.)

Anyway, as I said earlier, it's a big "if" whether Brzezinski will actually exhibit any influence on an Obama presidency. In any case, Dershowitz endorses Clinton, the likely winner, so we can all guess where that will go.

The prospect of justice and statehood for the Palestinian people looks very, very bleak.

UPDATE: As I write, Reuters reports that Hamas is on alert for a "vast" Israeli offensive into the Gaza Strip. Others are saying that the Syria confrontation and the Rosh Hashanah holiday will delay major retaliation for a Gaza-based missile attack against Israeli troops. Let's see where this goes.


Blogger Robot said...

I agree with much of what you say, but let me raise one point where I think your argument strays. You write,
"If they can be subdued, Israel will have its 'greater Israel' and the United States will have established true hegemony in the region. Isn't this something worth fighting for?"
The answer is and must be an emphatic NO. It is a no because the 'greater Israel' vision is as much "Israeli" policy as Iraq is "American" policy. While you're no doubt right that to be a Democrat or a Labor Party member doesn't necessarily put you in opposition to these right-wing hawkish parties, let's at least admit that there is an opposition in these countries, that this opposition has meant something in the past, and that the will of a dangerous minority doesn't have to forever be stamping its boot in their own and other countries' faces.

Ultimately, I think you're right to stress that the window of opportunity for peace is as close to being shut as ever before. This Syria incident, while not a really big deal (didn't Russia just do the same thing to Georgia like two weeks ago?), is definitely evidence that the people running Israel have absolutely no clue. In my mind, the Saudi Plan remains the best shot. I would certainly be inclined to say the Obama-Brzezenski brigade would not be opposed to pursuing it.

10:17 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

It would seem that one cannot support and "aggresive" Israeli security policy and "peace" simultaneously, at risk of a rather elementary contradiction.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I am sad to say that I must be much more pessimistic than you in my reading of the situation, Robot. Because even if an opposition exists in these countries, the US and Israel, and even if it means something, that something might not amount to much. In the case of Israel, what Labor Prime Minister or MK has clamored for withdrawal from the occupied territories (a breach of UN Resolution that has been outstanding for 40 years), dismantling settlements, deconstructing the "security" wall, or lowering the number of security checkpoints? These developments have positively *bloomed* over the past several years and don't look to be stopping. And even if "greater Israel" per se is not the goal of all Israeli governments or parties, the perpetual "Bantustan"-ization of the occupied territories just might be. Why should I be optimistic? What peace plan of the last twenty years has offered a fair opportunity for sovereign nationhood to the Palestinians? Which American Presidency has not grossly favored Israel? (Howard Dean was mauled in 2004 for suggesting that the US be "even-handed" in the dispute. As for H Clinton and Obama, I think their opinions are on the record.)

Speaking of the United States, it would be nice if the Iraq War could be considered an aberration or an anomalie. Many people think that it, like Vietnam, is a case of America straying from its best ideals. But when you look at the history of US military intervention and political subversion since WWII--Korea, Guatemala, Iran, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Lebanon, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Gulf War I, Somalia, Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan, and just recently Somalia again--these "abberations" in Vietnam and Iraq start to look par for the course.

Now, these interventions lie along multiple axes, such as scale, unilateralism, UN mandate, military strike vs. occupation, etc. I don't know if any of these qualifications really make Iraq and Vietnam sui generis, though. Also, in many of the other conflicts the US only needed to support an already established opposition -- the Shah, the Contras, Guatemalan paramilitaries, etc -- while in Iraq and Afghanistan effective opposition had to be invented out of whole cloth. Iraq might have been incredibly mismanaged as well; there may be increased political pressure in the post-Cold War world to work to establish liberal governments rather than mere dictatorships. Whatever makes Iraq special or not so special, I would argue that it's as American as apple pie.

Also, a 77-23 vote in favor of authorizing military force against Iraq doesn't look like the work of a dangerous minority.

7:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, deceitful, imperialistic interventionism is as American as applie pie and union busting. Scantron, I just wish you were Catholic. But I love you all the same.

2:59 AM  

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