Thursday, May 28, 2015

Doing Anything for Iran

There is an old joke amongst academics, one that I guess is probably falling out of favor but which I still find funny, that goes as follows:

An attractive female student walks into her professor's office, closes the door, and walks suggestively toward him. "I'd do anything to get an A on the final exam," she says.

"Anything?" the professor asks, eyebrows raised.

"Anything." She replies.

"Would you even," the professor leans in, "study?"

I'm reminded of this joke when I think about Israel, Iran, and all those (Netanyahu being the most prominent) who insist that the Palestinian question is trivial and unimportant compared to the existential threat of a nuclear Iran. They keep saying how we need to do anything to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. "Anything?" I want to ask. "Anything!" they thunder. "Would you even ... withdraw from settlements?" Of course not. That's a bridge too far.

The partisans in the crowd will no doubt insist the two issues should have nothing to do with one another. The President has, for his part, argued that Israel's continued settlement expansion is a major impediment in building global support for policies protective of Israel (such as, say, containing Iran). And he's made it quite clear that he could do a lot more for Israel vis-a-vis Iran if Israel did more for the Palestinians. Maybe he's being unfair. But if Iran really is the serious, eliminationist, existential threat that Netanyahu claims that it is (and I think there is ample reason to support that assessment), then it is more than a little unbecoming for him to put Israel at greater risk of utter annihilation to preserve a few outposts in a desert that everybody agrees should never have been built in the first place. It makes one think that maybe it's Israel that doesn't take the Iran threat as seriously as it should.

The other half of my frustration with conservative criticism of America's policy towards Iran is that I continue to have no sense about what alternative the conservatives think we should be pursuing (two years ago I mentioned how, just as the far-left has strained to figure out which side in the Syria conflict is "Zionist" so they know who to oppose, conservatives are straining to get a bead on what Obama's policy on Syria is so they can advocate the opposite). The Hudson Institute's Michael Doran penned a letter to my liberal Jewish friends that embodies the sin. Doran describes himself as a non-Jew who is an expert on middle east policy. His letter opens with a farcical claim that Obama suggests that his Jewish critics are exhibiting "dual loyalty"* and ends with an are-you-still-beating-your-wife question about whether Iran should "be the dominant power in the Middle East, and should we be helping it to become that power." In the middle is a lot of ventilation about how terrible America's policy has been towards Israel, Iran, and Syria, but not a hint about what we should be doing instead. Consider this passage:
The plain fact is that the United States is doing nothing to arrest the projection and expansion of Iranian power in the region; quite the contrary. In Lebanon, for example, Washington has cut funding for Shiite figures who remain independent of Iran’s proxy Hizballah. In Iraq, the United States, through the Iraqi armed forces, is actually coordinating with Iranian-backed militias and serving as their air force. Indeed, wherever one looks in the Middle East, one can observe an American bias in favor of, to say the least, non-confrontation with Iran and its allies.

The pattern is most glaring in Syria, where the president has repeatedly avoided conflict with Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s closest ally. The tendency surfaced again a few weeks ago in connection with mounting evidence that Assad has routinely attacked his own people with gas. If true, this fact should trigger a sharp American response in keeping with the president’s famous “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. But when questioned on this matter at a press conference, he contrived to find a loophole. Assad’s forces, he said, have been deploying chlorine gas, which “historically” has not been considered a chemical weapon.
We are "doing nothing to arrest" Iran's power projections. We have "avoided conflict" with Syria. We have a "bias" in favor of "non-confrontation." Well, how should we "confront" these countries? Missile strikes? Ground troops? A tactical nuclear strike? Something non-violent? Doran doesn't say. I leave Doran's article without even a smidgen of an idea of what alternative foreign policy he'd prefer, unless he really is just advocating an all-out regional war (I have to add here that complaining about Obama's ambivalent Syria policy without mentioning the complication that ISIS brings to the table is nothing short of shocking).

Ultimately, one suspects that the major factor determining whether the Iran deal is a success or a failure will be whether the international community is willing to put some teeth into enforcing it going forward. That, in turn, depends a lot about how willing the West is to go to the mat for Israel when the chips are down, and that no doubt depends on Israel's standing in the world. Which, to circle back, suggests that maybe Israel should trade what it claims to be the trivial, unimportant conflict to shore up its standing in the major, existential one. That's what one does if one really thinks all options should be on the table. One of those options is saying "in a world where we're on the cusp of having a hostile, nuclear armed regional power on our doorstep, we simply can't afford the diplomatic and security costs of occupying the West Bank anymore."

To be sure, I've read enough complaints about the Iran deal from enough parties I respect for me to believe that it is decidedly worse than ideal. If I could wave a magic wand, I'd no doubt craft a different deal. Of course, if I could wave a magic wand I'd convert Iran into a liberal pluralist democracy which respects all of its neighbors and is friends to all of the woodland creatures. One makes deals with autocratic regimes pursuing nuclear weapons under less-than-ideal circumstances -- that comes with the territory. What I haven't seen is any plan or proposal that would lead to a better deal (or any alternative to signing a deal that would lead to better results than not having one). The conservative refrain that we need to do "anything" to stop Iran from getting a bomb seems to boil down to either one thing (war) or nothing (if they reject war).

* The claim is farcical because Obama is quite adamant that he believes his policies are in Israel's interest and are reflective of Jewish values --as Doran concedes. We might disagree with Obama descriptively on both those points, but by framing the debate in that term he's obviously saying it is permissible and salutary for Jews to think in terms of their own values and sense of what is good for Israel, and that this is a permissible (indeed, valuable) form of deliberation. If anything, this is sterling refutation of the scurrilous dual loyalty charge.


Roy said...

My critique is only about your first frustration.

Although I myself adamantly oppose the continuation of the settlements project, and in favor of dismantling many of them, your critique of the Israeli government (whoever it is or will be in the future) is far too casual.

The settlements are a home to about half a million Israeli citizens, which is roughly 7% of Israel total population. so referring to it as "few outposts in a desert" is the understatement of the century and quite misleading. We are talking, among others, about cities here, not only outposts. Even for a clear left wing PM it would be a tremendous challenge to do what needs to be done (and this is also an understatement).

Also, there are settlements and there are settlements. which means there are settlements that even the left in Israel regard as inseparable part of Israel. but of course those settlements are illegitimate for many of those who claim that if only Israel would withdraw from the settlements they would be more inclined regarding Iran (including Iran itself). So, again, claiming that "everybody agrees [those settlements] should never have been built in the first place" is plainly wrong and again misleading.

In any case, "ending" the settlements and withdrawing would be one of the more serious and reality changing move Israel have done in her history, not to mention it would be hugely divisive policy internally which would probably hurt the societal fabric of Israel itself. So to refer to it as a casual quid pro quo to convince people to act on Iran, or to convince Iran itself, when it might or might not work, is.... superficial and unhelpful.

Of course, I still haven't touched the fact that the problem of Iran is not an Israel problem but a regional problem, maybe even international problem, which effects many countries and religious groups. those who claim that if only Israel withdraws, it will make things far easier on Iran are either acting from naivety or malice.

Either way, Israel should withdraw because it decides that this is what best for her, and do so in a way that guarantees its well being, and not because some people have decided they would hitch a ride on the Iran issue and connect 2 separate issues.

David Schraub said...

You'll note my call was for Israel to "withdraw from settlements", not "withdraw from every settlement" (cf. UN Resolution 242, calling for Israel to withdraw from "territories", not "the territories" capturing in 1967). If Israel took steps so the number of settlers started decreasing, rather than increasing -- say, by withdrawing from the not-insignificant-number of settlements which really are "outposts in the desert" and which nobody thinks will be part of Israel following a final agreement -- that would be a major step in the right direction both diplomatically and in terms of Israel starting to get that 7% figure down to a more manageable level.

Of course, haters will continue to hate. But amongst the folks that matter, I think this would yield a significant amount of diplomatic fruit. And it starts to weaken the power the settler movement. And it's the right thing to do.