Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Shooting Pool and the Illuminati


The Trump administration's approach to foreign policy seems rooted in two different versions of what the world is “really” like. Each has a different image of the world and a different prescription for reversing the progress of the last 70 years.

Shooting Pool.

To the extent that President Trump has an image of international politics, it is something like a pool game. Rock hard balls roll across the table until they carom off another ball. The point of the game is to win by manipulating those caroms to your advantage. Once the initial triangle is broken by the first shot, there is no permanent pattern or continuing relationship among the balls.

Nation-states have a hard shell of “sovereignty” and pursue their immediate self interest until they intersect another state pursuing its interest. Then they either negotiate a deal which inevitably favors one side over the other or they go to war. A state can avoid war only by having military superiority over its adversary. (The seven ball can't be counted on to help the five on its way toward the corner pocket; one state cannot be relied on to help another unless it is in its own narrow self interest.) To paraphrase an early 19th Century English Prime Minister, there are no permanent friends or enemies; only permanent interests.

The pool table model also fits nicely with President Trump's experience in the real estate business. The world is made up of other real estate firms that interact only to compete to buy specific property and subordinate business, like contractors or resort operators, with whom one makes deals to maximize return on investment.

The Illuminati

Steve Bannon, President Trump's closest adviser, is a staunch proponent of this view. The original Illuminati were a 16th Century Spanish sect that claimed secret knowledge and a God-given right to rule the world but it has become a comon term for a presumed secret organization of global elites who run the world. (Maybe not so secret: https://www.illuminatiofficial.org/the-official-website-for-the-illuminati/, follow them, on Twitter #illuminatti, and check out their annual meting … The World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland.)

In Bannon's world, a cabal of wealthy elites, top government officials, and sycophantic entertainers like Bono, has created economic globalization, undermined national sovereignty with the United Nations, the European Union, and other international bodies, tried to destroy national identities and cultures in favor of a bastardized, globalized, multi-cultural regime that actively opposes the values and traditions of Western culture. The leaders of nations in the pool game of international politics are playing on a table deigned by elites so that no matter who makes the best pool shots or wins an individual game, the manufacturer of the pool table comes out ahead.

What Is To Be Done?

The pool analogy leads to a simple strategy: make sure you get the best of every encounter. The Illuminati view also leads to a simple strategy: destroy the current “world order,” smash the pool table, and start all over.

What's Missing?

  • Any understanding that international politics is not a one night stand, but a web of continuous relationships;
  • Any role for America as a global leader;
  • Any concern for traditional American values, such as democracy and human rights.

What's Missing: A Web of Relationships

Early 1942 was the darkest period in World War II. Nazi Germany controlled Europe and North Africa and was driving deep into Russia. Japan was rapidly expanding in Asia and across the Pacific. It was also the start of a cooperative effort by the United States and the United Kingdom to plan for rebuilding the international system at the end of the war. Beginning with the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference of some 44 nations and continuing through the creation of the Untied Nations and the adoption of the Marshall Plan, the United States led a concerted effort to create a new world order.

This grand plan for a post-war world reflected a very broad and variegated answer to the question “what caused the Great Depression and this terrible war?” The multiple causes were roughly grouped into two over-arching categories: the failure of the global economic system and the political failure to manage conflict and promote cooperation. The response was a two-pronged approach that created the institution that have shaped the international system for the past 70 years.

I'm presenting a very simplified discussion of the international economic and political system. For the sake of keeping this focused and manageable, I will discuss broad generalizations like “The IMF sucks, let's go back to the gold standard.” rather than the multitude of specific criticisms, such as “The IMF gives too little consideration to environmental impacts in its policies.”

The Economic Dimension


Show Me the Money

Rebuilding Europe would take billions of dollars: not something you could put on a credit card (which didn't exist in 1944), or find in a dusty corner of the national treasury. And borrowing large sums from another country came with a lot of political strings attached. The solution was the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which became a source for state borrowing for repairing infrastructure, reinvigorating industry, and pumping up consumer demand. The IBRD was so successful in Europe that it was revised and extended to become the World Bank, providing development assistance around the world.

How Much is That In Real Money?

International trade demands some way of making sure that individuals and companies from different countries know what each others' money is worth. What's the exchange rate? If I am going to agree to sell you 200,000 widgets that cost 25¢ apiece in my country there are some things I have to know. How much of your money is equal to 25¢ today, so we can sign the deal. And I need to know that your money will still be worth that much in six months or a year when I deliver the widgets and you pay me. A third consideration is that since I can't spend your funny money in my country, I need to know that I can go to a bank or some place and turn your play money widget payment into real money.

Prior to World War II, exchange rates between countries were established by using the British pound as the common denominator. But at the end of the war, given the great damage to the British economy from the global Depression of the 1930's and the even larger damage of the war itself, the pound wasn't so sterling. And since the British economy had actually shrunk, there were not enough pounds in the world to support the system of exchanging foreign money into real money.

The International Monetary Fund was established to take care of these problems. The initial IMF strategy was to use the dollar as the basis for global rates. Back in the day, the dollar was literally “as good as gold” because the value of the dollar was set by the U.S. Government as $35 for an ounce of gold. So the IMF could work out a series of exchange rates for a global economy in which every currency could be related to the dollar, which did not ever change its value. And, given the size and wealth of the U.S. economy, there were lots of dollars to take care of the needs of international trade.

The IMF has survived President Richard Nixon's decision to drop the $35/ounce link between the dollar and gold by creating a system of floating exchange rates that keep the various global currencies within narrow limits. And it has lent money to poorer countries to allow them to pay their global bills. This has given the IMF the ability to foster reforms that promote market economies and openness to foreign trade and investment.

Terrible Tariffs

There are three major reasons why governments have levied taxes on imports. The first is to raise money. In U.S. history, for example, taxes (called “customs duties”) were the single most important source of revenue for the Federal government until the income tax. The second reason is to give your own producers an advantage in the market. Simple example: if folks in country A can make and ship shoes to country B and sell them for less than the shoemakers of B, the government of B can try to compensate by taxing shoes from A so they now cost more than “Made in B” shoes. The third reason to tax stuff foreigners are shipping into a country is to level the playing field when a foreign producer has an unfair advantage over domestic businesses. For example, if the shoemakers of A pay extraordinarily low wages to their workers, or get government subsides to build factories, then B's government can tax A's shoes to make up for the fact that B's shoemakers pay decent wages or don't get government subsidies.

The second reason for imposing tariffs struck the delegates to the Bretton Woods Conference as both ideologically objectionable (since they were strongly committed to the idea of a global market free of government “meddling” and taxes) and practically counter productive. The Great Depression was a world-wide economic collapse that was made much worse by the “beggar thy neighbor” policies many counties, including the United States, pursued. In a misguided attempt to bolster their own economy by reducing imports from abroad, Country A would impose high tariffs on imports from Countries B, C and D but those countries would retaliate with their own taxes on imports from A and everyone ended up worse off.

The third reason for tariffs, leveling the playing field, seemed legitimate and in keeping with a free and fair market system.

The World Trade Organization has emerged as the most important way to deal with tariffs. In addition to several major international conferences to negotiate tariff reductions around the world, the WTO has developed means to settle disputes between nations over when a tariff is OK because it levels the playing field and when it is an illegitimate attempt to rig the game in one nation's favor.

The Political Dimension


The United Nations System

The United Nations was meant as the central institution for managing conflict's so they did not escalate to war and for promoting cooperation on problems that crossed national borders. The League of Nations was designed to prevent World War I; the events leading up to World War II exposed some glaring problems with the League and branded it as an utter failure.

The drafters of the United Nations Charter, adopted on June 26, 1945 at the San Francisco Opera House,* did not have to start from scratch. In many ways the UN is an expanded, re-branded and much improved version of the League. Instead of a League of Nations we have the United Nations, instead of a Council we have a Security Council, a General Assembly in place of an Assembly, and a Secretary-General in place of a Permanence Secretariat. The Permanent Court of International Justice (which proved to be not so permanent) became the International Court of Justice, aka World Court. These are the organs meant to deal with preventing or managing armed conflict.

*Contrary to popular belief, the document does NOT say, “This Charter will go into effect when the fat lady sings.”

There are also over 20 organizations within the United Nations system designed to promote international cooperation. But cooperation is usually pretty boring … who cares that the ICAO makes international air travel safe by mandating that every pilot of an international flight speaks English to every local air traffic controller, every international airport has identical runway striping and lighting, and every plane follows the same rules of the air … who cares that the World Health Organization has wiped out smallpox and came within an rich of eradicating polio. Although cooperation is actually much more prevalent in international politics, and the United Nations system has a pretty impressive record of achievements, it's not news and has little effect on most evaluations of international institutions.

Regional Organizations

Alongside the global UN organization, three types of regional international organizations have emerged.

Some, such as the Organization of American States and the Organization of African Unity are meant to both manage local conflicts and support local cooperation. Others, notably NATO, are meant to provide for the common defense of counties in a specific geographic area. The third type, the most successful of which is the European Union, are meant to promote economic and social development.

And there are even smaller organizations meant to deal with a very specific issue, such as the International Pacific Halibut Commission (super trivia? Yes, until you realize that without IPHC there would be no halibut for your halibut and chips.)

Trump and His Adviser's Take On International Institutions

The fundamental idea that modern nation-states exist in a web of relationships in which their well being is necessarily intertwined with other nations' well being does not fit with the pool shooter image of the world. Instead of thinking of international relations as like a friendship or alliance that aims for mutual benefit over time, the Trump view sees each interaction as a separate event in which one side must win and the other lose.

The Illuminati view of world politics sees the web of institutions as a central reality … and wants to blow it up.

What's Missing: American Leadership

The United States has played a crucial role in creating the current global system from the very beginning. The United States was the chief sponsor and intellectual guiding force behind the planning effort that culminated in Bretton Woods and the United Nations. The Marshall Plan, promoted by President Truman's Secretary of State, ex-General George Marshall, and supported by a bipartisan coalition in the Senate, offered several billion dollars to European countries to help them rebuild IF they worked through the UN and a European international organization that became the forerunner to the European Union.

The United States, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, has consistently recognized that our long term interests are best served by a peaceful and prosperous world and that requires international organizations and institutions. Even when the U.S. has objected strenuously to specific actions or failures of international bodies or felt that our interests were being thwarted by a particular action or policy, American leaders have not (until now) resurrected the 1930's isolationist slogan of “America First.” (See http://time.com/4273812/america-first-donald-trump-history/)

The Trump Administration's Take on American Leadership

For the President, every time America has tried to provide leadership in finding ways to manage conflict or promote cooperation we have simply proven P.T. Barnum right: there's a sucker born every minute; and two to take his money. Even though he never served in the military, President Trump seems partial to the army slang KMAG YOYO (Kiss my ass, guys. You're on your own.)

The Illuminati faction in the White House would like America to lead a global insurrection against the current elite leadership.

What's Missing: American Values

While we have all too often fallen far short of being “the shining city on a hill” we continue to claim that is our aspiration and we are critical of ourselves when we fail to promote our core values like democracy and respect for human dignity. The belief in American exceptionalism goes back to the earliest days of the Republic. It can lead to chauvinism and hypocrisy, but it has also meant that U.S. foreign policy has in fact included an emphasis on democracy and human rights. The emphasis has sometimes been stronger and other times more mutated, but overall it has always been there.

The Administration Take on American Exceptionalism

Both as candidate and now as President, Trump has explicitly disavowed the notion that America represents anything other than narrow self-interest. His open admiration for people like Putin (who notoriously assassinates political opponents when he is not invading neighbors) and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines who has ordered the police to kill all suspected drug dealers and has presided over the death,without trial, of several thousand people), makes it clear that how little traditional American values matter to his world view. Confronted by a question about Putin's reputation for killing political opponents, Trump replied "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?"

From the Illuminati perspective, it is the rights and values of the beleaguered white working class that ought to be protected from the depredations of cosmopolitan elites.

So What?

The possible negative consequences of either shooting pool in the international system or blowing it up are difficult to specify. As Joni Michell sang, “Don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?” Much will depend on how much damage the Trump administration can do to the international system.

The Economic Dimension

If we try to assess the consequences for global economic cooperation, we can get a general idea of what is at stake by taking a look at what institutions can do that makes cooperation between states easier.

Provide Information. Information in the international system is typically scarce and biased. Scarce because states are limited in what they can measure and evaluate, and no single state can identify or measure any problem that transcends national boundaries. Information is biased when states collect it to serve the policy needs of governments. An international institute can help overcome both issues. For example, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has enabled the compilation of data from around the world and issued annual reports based on that data that have convinced most of the world's governments that now is the time to act to avoid making the crisis worse.

De-politicize Issues. International institutions can offer technical solutions to concrete problems in areas where traditional diplomacy sees intangibles like “The National Interest” The International Civil Aeronautical Organization was able to establish English as the language of communication between pilots and control towers, not as a triumph of the language of the U.S. and UK over French, German, Arabic, Chinese, etc. but as a pragmatic solution to a real problem. The International Pacific Halibut Commission was created in a context of recurrent diplomatic clashes between the U.S. and Canada over fishermen from one country stealing fish in the ocean waters of the other. There were also a few occasions when fishermen took pot shots at their foreign rivals. In place of national borders and pride, the halibut commission put the stark fact that both sides were catching far too many fish and threatening them with extinction.

Introduce the Shadow of the Future. Governments, like you and me and everyone else, have a short term perspective. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, the pleasure that donut will give me now looms a lot bigger than the bad news from the scales tomorrow. We're all a little nicer to friends that we expect to see in the future than to anonymous strangers. Institutions, by providing information and practical solutions, can get us to pay more attention to the long run consequences of our immediate behaviors. And institutions, which give us regular and predictable opportunities to deal with the same people (or countries) time after time, make future consequences loom larger. The shadow of the future can also reassure me that if I give a little more now, I can expect to get a little more later.

Control Free Riders. A free rider is someone who benefits from an infraction or situation without contributing anything. There are several organizations who are doing wonderful things for causes I care deeply about. The cool thing is that they'll keep it up even if I ignore the latest fund raising appeal. I can get all the benefits of their hard work without paying for it. Free riding is fun … and quite rational. “Yeah, but ...” you're already thinking. If everyone decides to free ride, there won't be anyone to fight the good fight.

Institutions can prevent free riding by compelling support. The United States government does not send out an annual appeal letter with cute puppies on the cover promising me return address labels or a tote bag if I send money. I have to pay my taxes to enjoy the benefits the government provides. Clubs and professional associations and a host of private groups charge dues or membership fees instead of relying silly on the good hearts of their members to keep the lights on and the organization going. When an institution requires contributions it does not eliminate, but certainly reduces free riding.

Save Time and Money. International institutions can reduce what economists call transaction costs because they can create routine ways of doing routine tasks. Simple example: To mail a letter to a foreign before the creation of the Universe Postal Union, you had to know how that letter was going to get to its destination and buy a stamp for each country it passed through. Now you can buy one stamp at the Post office without worrying how the letter is going to make it to its destination. If you've traveled outside North America, you've seen the opposite example. Electrical voltages and plug styles vary by country and region. An equipment manufacturer has to either make two or more models of the same product, or limit sales to a specific area. And the traveler has to pack an array of adapters and transformers to keep those indispensable devices humming

International cooperation is not impossible without the web of international intuitions but it world become far more difficult, cumbersome and inefficient.

The political dimension

If we shift attention to the consequence for the International political system of an American withdrawal from leadership, one of the many major effects will be on the rise of China. I want to deal with China in another entry but the very brief version is that ever since China moved to rejoin the international system after the Mao years, the United States has tried to integrate China into the existing order even while countering China's military expansion. The belief has been that making China a full participant in the globalized economy via the World Trade Organization and persuading China to “act responsibly” as a Permanent Member of the Security Council and trying to enmesh China in the web of international organizations, China will over time become a supporter of the global status quo instead of a revisionist power intent on disrupting a system it views as a conspiracy by imperialists to keep it down. One way to view the major global conflicts of the past several centuries, from the Napoleonic wars through World War II to the Cold War, is to see them as struggles between the dominant powers and emerging states who challenge the status quo.

An American retreat from leadership over time will, at best, cede a dominant position in the UN and other institutions to China; at worst it will promote a more aggressive and expansionist policy by Beijing (and Moscow.)

Disrupting the current international order and reverting to some version of the 19th Century “spheres of influence” runs a serious risk of ending the way that system did … in global war.

A Large Dollop of Doom and Gloom

If by some terrible quirk of fate the nihilistic Illuminati view were to actually take a wrecking ball to the world as we know it, the results would be hard to contemplate.  Europe would return to the hyper nationalism that led to so much bloodshed in the past three centuries.  In the absence of global economic institutions China and India could not sustain their economies and literally billions of people would slide back into poverty.  The United States would suffer economic decline and we wold find ourselves increasingly alone in a world of desperate people.
 
Fortunately, as far as I can see, this is extremely unlikely to happen.

A Little Less Doom and Gloom

Intentional institutions in the last 70 years have proven to be pretty resilient. The United Nations was created in a world where there were only 55 states and much of the world was subsumed in a colonial empire. The framers labored under the mistaken assumption that the Soviet Union had to cooperate with the new regime for it to succeed. Everybody knew that the Germans and French hated each other, had always hated each other, and would always hate each other.

The abdication of American leadership and commitment to human rights and democracy matters, but America is too entangled with the rest of the world, both economically and politically, to completely withdraw into an “economic nationalist” shell. Global economic institutions do, on the whole, improve the lives of everyday people around the world.

The pool shooters and Illuminati can weaken institutions, they can retard progress and screw up the U.S. economy, but I do not think they can succeed in the long run in wrecking everything.
 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

End of the Road For "Two-State Solution"

Donald Trump repeatedly promised a new relationship between the United Sates and Israel and is taking crucial steps to keep that promise. To understand why the U.S.-Israeli relationship matters and what the change means for the future, it seems useful to review the central issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We could start, as some Israelis do, with God's promise of the land to Abraham or with the emergence of the 19th Century Zionist slogan “A land without people for a people without land.” Or with the 1948 war and what the Palestinians term the nakba (catastrophe) that created hundreds of thousands of refugees. But it may help shorten what is already becoming a very long essay by beginning with June 6, 1967.

Land For Peace

On June 5, 1967 Israel was a small Jewish, democratic state surrounded by well-armed neighbors. On June 11, Israel was the dominant military force in the Middle East: Syria, Egypt and Jordan had lost their air forces and seen their ground forces chewed up and spit out. Israel now occupied all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, expanding the land they controller by about 25% and finding themselves in control of a large number of Arabs who were technically either citizens of Jordan or refugees from the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The psychological reality was that most of these people had come to think of themselves as “Palestinians” rather than Jordanians (whom they saw as a rather uncultured bunch of Bedouins who lived East of the Jordan and were ruled by a monarchy the British had imposed.)

Israel, Egypt and Jordan accepted a Security Council resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory, respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all the states in the region, and negotiations leading to a permanent peace. This established the “Land For Peace” idea, that Israel would withdraw its armed forces from the West Bank as peace treaties were negotiated with its neighbors. Israel at that point had no intention of permanently occupying mot of the West Bank.

What’s in a word? The UN works with two official languages: English and French. The English text of Resolution 242 calls for Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” but the French text calls for “Retrait des forces armées israéliennes des territoires occupés lors du récent conflit.” The difference is the specific article that makes it “the territories” … the English version is ambiguous enough to allow for some readjustment of Israel's pre-war borders; the French version isn’t. 

Really? So What? At one point in the middle of the country, Israel is slightly more than 10 miles wide. There has always been a real danger that the country cold be cut in half in a war. The English text would legitimize a peace deal that moved the border east to a defensible position; the French version would not.

Settlements

The image of the settler, a plow in one hand, a book of poetry in the other, with a gun on his back is deeply embedded in Israeli culture. Beginning in the 1920s, idealistic young Jews from around the world moved to what was then British-controlled Palestine and set up Utopian communities … the kubbitz. Even though most Jews who came to Israel did not live on a kibbutz or share the Utopian values of the people who did, the image of the settler, like the American cowboy, is a powerful icon.

The pattern of settlement changed after the Six-day War. There was a concerted effort to build Jewish suburbs around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to provide security and to prevent those areas from being included in a land for peace deal. Very soon the settlement program took on an additional dimension. In order to create what Prime Minister Menachem Begin referred to as “facts on the ground,” the government began to actively encourage settlement deeper and deeper into the West Bank. This was part of a larger shift in positions, as the new government represented a much more conservative and nationalistic perspective. The West Bank went from “occupied territory” to “administered territory” to “Judea and Samaria” … that is, an integral part of Biblical Israel. Settlements went from suburbs protecting especially vulnerable parts of Israel and potential bargaining chips in peace talks to an integral part of Israel and important political constituency.

This transformation was fueled initially by religiously motivated Jews from North America and western Europe who felt it was their duty to migrate to Israel and build new communities. It gained momentum and reached a critical mass with the demise of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews, many of them direct victims of anti-semitism, were now free to leave Russia and move to Israel. Expanding existing settlements, creating new ones, or turning a blind eye to unauthorized, ostensibly illegal, settlements became a major response to the challenges of accommodating a sudden influx of new Israeli citizens.

The physical result has been a proliferation of settlements across the West Bank, linked by roads whose use is restricted to Israelis, whose citizens are heavily armed and feel themselves under constant threat from local Palestinians. The political effect has been the emergence of a highly nationalistic, socially conservative, religiously influenced movement that adamantly rejects any notion of trading land for peace, and does not necessarily share the democratic and more secular values of the majority of Israelis.

Like the United States, Israel is a deeply divided society. Unlike the United States, the Israeli political map features a large number of parties, none of which has enough seats in parliament (the Knesset) to form a majority. Benjamin Netanyahu has become the second longest serving Israeli Prime Minister by skillfully combining a large conservative party with several smaller, more right wing parties, to maintain a majority.

Jerusalem

Like many ancient cities, Jerusalem has historically had various “quarters” where people of different ethnic, national or religious persuasion tended to live together. At the end of the 1948 war Israeli forces controlled most of Jerusalem but Jordanian forces held the eastern section, known as the Arab Quarter, which included the area known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

It is impossible to overstate the religious significance of this hill. For Jews, this is the spot where Solomon erected the Temple that served as the centerpiece of Jewish worship and culture until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The foundation of that Temple, the Wailing Wall, remains at the foot of the hill, the most sacred site in contemporary Judaism. On top of the hill are the Dome of the Rock (whence, Muslims believe, Mohamed was transported to heaven), and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a center of Islamic worship for the last 1200 years.

When Israeli troops captured all the of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, it was far more than occupying land. One immediate consequence was that Israel had to undertake the thankless and delicate task of accommodating competing religious interests in the holy sites and maintaining order among sometime fractious pilgrims. The other was the opportunity to treat Jerusalem as a single city, not divided between Israel and Jordan.

Jerusalem quickly became defined in Israeli law as “the eternal and undivided capital” of Israel. Because Israel acquired east Jerusalem as the spoils of war, the rest of world has not recognized the city as the lawful capital of Israel. Tel Aviv remains the recognized capital and home to the embassy of every country with whom Israel has diplomatic relations.

Over the past century the principle that states cannot acquire territory by conquest has become deeply entrenched in international law and politics. For example, the United States was able to build a broad coalition of states to enforce the principle when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and The United Nations General Assembly condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea and legitimized the sanctions imposed by the United States and Western Europe.

While the Palestinian Authority has its administrative headquarters in Ramallah, the widespread expectation is that some day East Jerusalem will be the capital of a Palestinian state.

Refugees and the right of return

The 1948 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors created over 700,000 refugees. The United Nations assumed responsibility for their well-being and has maintained camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. There are somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people still living from the initial 70,000. By definition, if your father or grandfather was a refugee, then you have that status as well. Thus there are approximately 5,000,000 people in the Middle East, many of them still living in camps, who can claim a right to return to ancestral homes and land in Israel. While everyone recognizes that none of the refugees is going to return to Israel, Palestinian negotiators have consistently proposed that they be given some form of compensation for lost property.

The Two-State Solution: a Possible Dream

Most dispassionate observers have seen logical resolutions to the major issues of land and settlements, Jerusalem, and the rights of refugees. After years of diplomatic efforts, the Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached a breakthrough in the Oslo Accords of 1992. 1) The Palestinians would recognize Israel as a sovereign state with a right to exist in secure borders. The two sides would negotiate the return of almost all of the West Bank and Gaza strip to the Palestinians, with some border adjustment to allow Israeli settlements as a defensive buffer around Tel Aviv. To further address Israeli concerns about national defense and security, any Palestinian State would not have a standing military; 2) The final status of Jerusalem would be negotiable, making East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital possible; 3) Israel would negotiate some form of compensation for refugees who would give up their right to return and all other claims.

The expected result would be two states, Israel and Palestine, with secure borders, mutually beneficial strong economic ties, with Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem the Palestinian capital.

Twenty-five years later, the Israelis, the Palestinians, and students of the Middle East have a variety of explanations (and point a variety of accusatory fingers) for why the promises of the Oslo Accords were never met. A lack of political will at crucial moments, the emergence of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and shifting internal political priorities have all played a part. Most of the explanations from sources other than staunch Israeli partisans, include the dramatic expansion of settlements as an important factor.

The Two-State Solution: An Impossible Dream

Despite all the obstacles and frustrations, successive American Presidents have continued to try to promote negotiations for a two-state solution. Because America provides several billion dollars a year in military assistance to Israel and American citizens provide additional billions in aid to various Israeli organizations and projects, the United States has to be taken seriously and has been able to use carrots and sticks to initiate negotiations about negotiations, if not always discussions of the core issues. No one else can influence Israel. The United States has never been an “honest broker,” even-handedly seeking the middle ground. It has always leaned toward the Israeli perspective. But because of the close ties to Israel and ability to exert some influence, the Palestinians have understood that America is the only game in town and the only hope of movement toward a settlement.

There are a number of aspects of the current environment that make a two-state solution more mirage than attainable dream: The weakness of the Palestinian Authority; a pessimistic Israeli public; an Israeli government whose key members are at best indifferent to an independent Palestinian state and at worst are actively opposed; and the fact of the settlements.

Even if Netanyahu's governing coalition, which relies on small parties whose base is the activist settlers, were to be replaced by a more centrist regime, the prospect of reaching an agreement that would require evacuation of some current settlements is a potential nightmare for any Israeli government. There have already been public clashes between settlers and the army when courts have ordered the removal of unpermitted and illegal settlements and noisy confrontations when police have tried to stop demolition of Palestinian homes or confiscation property within existing settlements. The spectacle of Elisa soldiers forcibly removing tens of thousands enraged settlers so Palestinians can take over their territory has to be a nightmare for any Israeli politician.

President Trump's campaign rhetoric, his hyperbolic reaction to the United States' abstention on the UN Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements, and his promised appointment of an outspoken supporter of settlements as ambassador make it clear that the United States will not actively pursue a two-state solution. Indeed if the administration goes ahead and moves the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem it will be an unequivocal signal to the Palestinians and the rest of world that not only will the United States forgo any initiatives toward peace, but has actively allied itself with the factions in Israel least responsive to the Palestinians. “Leaning” has now given way to whole hearted embrace.

If Not Two-States, Then What?

I don't know. In the short run – the next four or five years – the status quo may be sustainable. There may well be another intifida, an uprising in the West Bank, but, as Israel has demonstrated in the past in both West Bank and Gaza, it will exert overwhelming force when it feels it has to. The Palestinian Authority is dependent on Israel for its finances and security; it will not provide any leadership to a protest.

In the longer run, Israel's basic existential dilemma remains: Israel cannot be a democratic state if it treats the Palestinians as colonized non-citizens; but it cannot be a Jewish state if it includes the Palestinians as citizens.

The population of Israel is approximately 8,000,000 people, of whom 75% (6,000,000) are Jews and 2,000,000 Arabs. There are roughly 2,800,000 Palestinians. So today there are 6,000,000 Jews and just under 5,000,000 Muslim or Christian Arabs in Israel and West Bank. The birth rate in Israel is 18.3/1000; in the West Bank it is 26.7/1000 …. in a few years Jews will be a minority in a combined Israel and West Bank. Those who insist on a narrow cultural and religious definition Jewishness already are a minority.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Failed Turkish Coup Casts a Long Shadow


While most of us have been amused, bemused or scared stiff by the antics of the U.S. Presidential campaign, or relaxing in full summer mode and letting the world take care of itself for a while, the recent failed coup in Turkey continues to have major consequences for that country and for Turkey’s relationship with the U.S.

I want to address four major questions about the failed coup.

What was behind it?

Why did it fail?

What are the implications for Turkey?

What are the implications for the United States?


Origins. It may be helpful to begin with a sketch the creation of modern Turkey and the broad political trends of the last twenty years.

The Role of the Military Modern Turkey was born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in the waning days of World War I. A group of young army officers, led by Mustafa Kemal*, seized power, declared that Turkey a republic, and instituted a sweeping program of reform.

*Mustafa was given the nickname “Ataturk”, meaning “Father of the Turks.” Some of the students in my Middle East classes would be confused early in the semester and try to report on the two important historical figures, Mustafa Kemal and this other guy, Ataturk.

For Kemal and the other Young Turks, the old Ottoman Empire was seen as a backward and stagnant Oriental system. The new Turkey would be a modern European society. A central feature of the founding ideology of modern Turkey (known as “Kemalism”) was secularism. The model was France: religion was strictly a private affair and all public displays of religious practise or symbols were prohibited. For example, both the veil and the headscarf (hijab) were outlawed, Turks were to adopt Turkish instead of Muslim/Arab names, mosques became state property and imams were state employees.

The military played a central role in establishing the new state and reforming society. When Ataturk’s highly authoritarian rule ended with his death and Turkey took the first tentative steps toward a functioning parliamentary democracy, the military retained its unique position in Turkish life. It is the most clearly national institution and continues thinking of itself as the protector of Kemalism and the Turkish national identity.

The military has intervened in Turkish politics at least four times since 1960, twice by forcibly seizing power from civilian governments and twice by making it clear that it would seize power unless the civilian government made drastic changes. In each case power was eventually returned to civilians. None of these episode is remembered fondly. At best, military intervention is regarded as something that may have been an unfortunate necessity at an earlier period in Turkey’s development.

Secularism and Political Islam. A relatively small part of Turkey is in Europe; the majority is across the Bosprous Straits in Asia. A relatively small portion of the Turkish population adheres to the most stringent definition of “secularism” that would completely banish religion form almost all areas of public life. As Turkey has developed socially and economically to become a middle income nation, attitudes toward the role of Islam in society have changed, for both those who could see no role at all and those who hoped for the return of Islam to the center of Turkish life. In the last twenty years, the Justice and Development Party (usually identified by its Turkish abbreviation, AKP) has emerged as the largest party and has provided national leadership since 2003.

The AKP draws on Islam as the inspiration for its emphasis on improving the lives of ordinary Turks and promoting socially conservative values. It has been supportive of a greater role for Islam, including direct support for religious schools and other institutions. At the same time, the AKP has been strongly supportive of Turkey’s free market, liberal capitalist economy and Turkey’s aspirations for membership in the European Union.

The Immediate Context. The government of Recep Erdoğan has lost a great deal of popular support in the past couple of years. Erdoğan has become increasingly autocratic and repressive. There have been 14 major terrorist attacks in Turkey in the past year; the June 28 ISIS assault on Istanbul airport that left 43 people dead was the latest. The government’s attempts to tighten control of the Kurdish areas in the east have been met by a resurgence of militant groups and violence. It has become clear that Turkey will not be admitted to the EU, primarily (many Turks believe) because of anti-Muslim prejudice) but also because the government has become less democratic and respectful of human rights and the rule of law.


Most observers believe that a significant sector of the Turkish officer corps came to believe that a combination of government support for forces undermining secular values, an increasingly autocratic rule, and the government’s inability to defend against terrorist attacks were creating a grave crisis that required the military to act to defend the legacy of Ataturk. A final precipitating factor may have been the imminent military reorganization that threatened the careers of some officers.


An Alternative Narrative. The Erdoğan government has a radically different explanation for the coup attempt. The coup was the result of a plot by Fethullah Gülen, the head of a terrorist organization with tentacles throughout Turkish society. For some officials and government-friendly media sources, the CIA or some other elements of the U.S. government were involved. American officials either knew the coup was coming and did not inform the Erdoğan government or the U.S. was actively involved in supporting the plotters.


Fethullah Gülen is a prominent preacher, cleric and political activist who has headed a political movement in Turkey since the 1970s.  He has espoused a version of Islam that embraces science, dialog with Jews and Christians, and liberal democracy. His movement has created extensive network of private schools to educate the next generation of Turkish leaders who, he hopes, will lead Turkey into a post-secular, Islamic democracy.
Gülen and his movement were allies of Erdoğan and the AKP until 2013 when Erdoğan accused Gülen of instigating an investigation of corruption in the Erdoğan regime. Gülen left Turkey for the U.S. where he has remained the spiritual and political leader of his movement.  Most observers are unpersuaded that he organized or ordered the coup attempt.

Why Did the Coup Fail? There are three critical factors that led to the failure. First, the plotters did not have the support of the majority of military officers, especially those in command of most of the operational units. Secondly, the police and internal security forces did not join, and actively fought, against the coup. And third, when Erdoğan called for citizens to take to the streets to protest and block the coup, large numbers of people in Turkey’s major cities responded. Whatever citizens may have felt about Erdoğan’s government (which is very unpopular) and the state of Turkish society, they felt a military coup that overthrew a freely elected government was worse.

What Are the Implications for Turkey? The government is using its version of the origins of the coup to launch a wave of repression. Several thousand officers and enlisted men have been dishonorably discharged form the military. Several thousand government employees, including judges, have been summarily dismissed. Media critical of the government have been under pressure for some time; that pressure has intensified with hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations and other media outlets closed and many individual journalists have been imprisoned. As of this writing, the crackdown shows little sign of easing.

Both the coup plotters and the government seem all too wiling to suspend or destroy democracy in order to save it.

Equating any criticism of the government with criminal activity and jailing intellectuals, journalists, writers, and religious figures will not destroy Turkey’s lively, diverse, and sophisticated social and intellectual life. But it will force some to emigrate and become even more critical of the regime from Western Europe or the United States, while others will take their dissent to social media or other informal sources where their voices will mingle with advocates of the destruction of modern Turkey. Paradoxically, the very things the regime is doing to stifle dissent are likely to increase criticism and discontent in ways the government will find it more difficult to monitor and control.

What Are the Implications of the U.S. and the Rest of World?

Turkey has been an outstanding example of how a combination of parliamentary democracy with moderate Islam can create a prosperous, middle income country with a vibrant and sophisticated cultural life. Turkey is a major trading partner of many European countries and there is a significant Turkish community in many EU members, particularly Germany. With a hefty subsidy from the EU, Turkey is housing 2 million Syrian refugees and has dramatically reduced the flow of refugees into Europe.

For a long time Turkey has been a key, if unseen, player in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other regional disputes. Ankara has been trusted by the West, by Arab states, Iran, and Israel to serve as a quiet go between and honest broker.

Turkey is an important member of NATO and a focal point in the fight against ISIS. The Incirlik air base is the primary staging area for U.S. and NATO air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and Turkey is an important logistical center for supporting operations in Iraq and Syria.

While overall relations have been cooperative and friendly, there have been some continuing strains in Turkey’s relationship with Europe and the U.S. despite the strong economic, political and military ties. A low level, constant irritation has been the EU’s inaction on Turkey’s application for membership even as smaller and less developed states in southeastern Europe were admitted. Turkey is extremely sensitive about references to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Turkey between 1915 and 1919 as genocide. And the Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria are seen very differently in Ankara than Washington. The Kurds have established a de facto state in Norther Iraq and the pesh merga are the most effective fighting force against ISIS. But Turkey sees the Iraqi Kurds as natural allies of the Kurdish population in Eastern Turkey, some of whom have waged a long guerrilla war against the government.


In the immediate aftermath of the coup, the Erdoğan government demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gülen from the United States after formally charging him with treason and terrorism. That demand has been repeated several times and Erdoğan has equated American inaction with complicity in the coup. This is part of his larger complaint that Europe and America are not supporting Turkey the way they have rallied to support other governments who have experienced terrorist attacks.
There is, I think, a real danger that the persistent attempts to blame the coup on Gülen and his followers with U.S. complicity will create a public demand in Turkey for some kind of retaliatory action., such as denial of the use of Incirlik. Erdoğan’s very public resentment of the response of European governments could escalate to disruption of economic ties. At the very least, the demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen poses a Hobson’s choice for the Obama administration: risk serous deterioration in the U.S.-Turkey alliance or send a widely admired intellectual and spiritual leader to a certain death sentence.

In the longer run, deeper instability bred by an increasingly unpopular authoritarian regime could have serious consequences for the U.S. and grave consequences for Western Europe.