Friday, July 17, 2015

Charles Jacobs: The Last, Best Hope of Those Idiots the Jews

Charles Jacobs is the founder of "Americans for Peace and Tolerance" -- one those Orwell-inspired groups which exists to foster religious discord and sling mud at Islamic communal institutions. This is an endeavor in which, thankfully, he stands more or less alone in when placed vis-a-vis the broader Jewish community, and that abandonment confuses and angers him. Why don't Jews adopt the policy positions of Charles Jacobs? Why are they so gosh darn liberal?

The answer, Jacobs posits in a remarkable column posted earlier this month, is straightforward: it stems from "Jewish Cognitive Infirmity." Jacobs calls it "Jupus" (he links it to a related term apparently in use by some of our Christian "friends": "Jew flu"), and it provides the best explanation for "Jewish political idiocy."

Now let's be clear: this article has a clear satirical tone to it. I don't actually think that Jacobs believes that Jews possess "an auto-immune disease where the antibodies that are normally produced to fight off external infections, have their function somehow inverted, and begin to attack the host body itself." But it is clear that Jacobs absolutely believes that the Jewish community, writ large, is comprised of politically inept morons. His column is addressed to his "Christian friends" who are "baffled" at Jews' propensity to take stances on Israel or other issues which defy their expectations, and it is absolutely clear that he wholeheartedly endorses their befuddlement. Christians who encounter Jews with political opinions different from their own most certainly should not respect the possibility that Jews actually know what they're talking about and therefore give their perspective close and thoughtful consideration. No, they should proceed on the assumption that Jews are mentally diseased idiots and carry on saving them from themselves. Isn't that what friends do?

You know, some people might think that with anti-Semitism a real and growing concern, having someone explain to the world that Jews are morons and their political opinions should be ignored is less a response to the problem than it is an instantiation of it. But then again, I'm one of those idiot Jews; so I guess I should be thankful that I have a wise man like Charles Jacobs who will watch out for me and my tiny Jew-brain.

Great (Israel) Cases Make Bad (International) Law

Yesterday, the ICC pre-trial chamber by a 2-1 vote ordered the ICC prosecutor to reconsider its decision to close its investigation into the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. I heard about this decision via a column by Bar-Ilan and San Diego law professor Avi Bell, who lambasted it as a completely unprecedented decision that fails as a matter of law and whose legal determinations will by necessity only be applied against Israel. This struck me as intuitively plausible -- I've long thought that international legal determinations made in Israel-related cases tend to be tickets good for this ride only.

But I knew that Bell has somewhat of a conservative reputation on Israel-related issues, and since international law is not my area of speciality, I was curious to hear what more left-wing and Israel-critical voices had to say on the subject. The person I particularly had in mind was Kevin Jon Heller, a international law specialist at the University of London who has been a harsh critic of Israel's behavior from an international law perspective for sometime. That said, just as Bell's more conservative slant doesn't mean that I haven't found his analysis to be thoughtful, likewise I've always found Heller's writing illuminating despite his often adversarial stance towards Israel.

So I was happy to see that Kevin has written a lengthy analysis of pre-trial chamber's decision. And -- in substance though perhaps not in angle of approach -- he agrees with Bell entirely. Heller describes the decision as "deeply problematic and extremely dangerous decision — nothing less than a frontal assault on the OTP's prosecutorial discretion," attacks it as fundamentally misunderstanding the law regarding "gravity" of the alleged offense, and accuses it of applying the wrong standard of review in a bid to "maximi[ze] its own power". He also (in a comment) claims to be "shocked by the nasty tone of the decision", characterizing comments in the opinion as "exceptionally uncivil, unnecessary, and unprofessional."

Heller's post is more technical than Bell's is (which makes sense, since Heller is writing on a international law blog and Bell in a general news column), and so he focuses more on the damage this precedent would do to the ICC as an institution. The crux of his analysis (though you should read him, the expert, rather than me, the novice) focuses on how the decision misapplies the concept of "gravity". Obviously there are many human rights violations that occur around the world, and the ICC cannot investigate all of them. One main guideposts for the exercise of ICC prosecutorial discretion is whether the case is sufficiently "grave". In this litigation, the "case" gravity was an attack on a blockade-running ship that resulted in approximately 10 deaths. But, the prosecutor argued, "case" gravity is not all that matters: it also is relevant who the alleged perpetrators were (low-level grunts, or top military or political leaders) and the "situational" gravity (that is, the broader context in which the particular alleged wrong occurred). The latter, incidentally, is not as one might expect the "situation" in Israel or Turkey. It's the situation in The Comoros, of all places. Why? Because unlike Israel or Turkey, the Comoros is a party to the ICC convention, and the hook for ICC jurisdiction is that one of the flotilla ships was Comoros-flagged. The prosecutor basically reasoned that (a) there was no basis for concluding that any high-level Israeli officials could be found to have engaged in any rights violations and (b) that as part of the Comoros situation this event was an isolated one-off, hence, the allegations lacked sufficient gravity for the ICC to investigate. And this is what the-pre-trial chamber rejected. It basically collapsed the entire inquiry of gravity into "case" gravity -- is 10 deaths sufficiently grave? -- and answered "yes", regardless of the surrounding situation and regardless of whether any high-level officials are implicated. And this, as Heller observes, is completely unworkable as a legal rule -- it would compel the ICC to prosecute dozens if not hundreds of cases that previously would have been obviously of insufficient gravity.

Of course, the counterargument to that is precisely what Bell and I suspect -- that this precedent won't be one because it won't be applied anywhere else. The ICC prosecutor will not, in fact, prosecute every case where there are roughly ten deaths, and the pre-trial chamber will not disturb that decision once made. While he does not explicitly echo Bell's assertion that the putative rule of decision here will be applied to Israel and nowhere else, Heller seems to think that the decision having no practical significance outside the Israel-context is a more likely outcome than the complete overload of the ICC structure.

The legal rules announced in this case, and the broader willingness of the pre-trial chamber to micromanage the prosecutor's decision, will not have any broad resonance. They will not apply to other cases or controversies, they will not meaningfully alter the governing legal regime. They will simply be the latest datapoint for an undeniable pattern: Israel gets treated differently from any other country in the international legal arena. People worried about the effects on the international legal system as a whole can rest easy.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Tiger is Getting Hungry

Winston Churchill had a famous line about despots who ride about "on tigers from which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry." I've often thought the same about the relationship between the Jewish pro-Israel establishment and conservative "Christian Zionist" organizations like Christians United for Israel (CUFI). This article on the Forward, detailing CUFI's newfound willingness to flex its political muscle in defiance of traditional pro-Israel groups like AIPAC, is a case in point.

CUFI has no interest in the bipartisan political strategy of the traditional pro-Israel groups -- it is a conservative right-wing outlet and wants "pro-Israel" to be thought of and take the form of a conservative, right-wing movement. To this end, it has adopted policy positions long thought of as an anathema to the pro-Israel community. The most obvious representation of this is CUFI's position on a one-state solution, where they basically mimic the stance of Jewish Voice for Peace: technically neutral, but functionally all in favor. But unlike fringe groups like the JVP who can be easily dismissed as non-players, groups like CUFI have heft to them. And the mainstream pro-Israel community therefore has not given them the pariah treatment -- even though one-stateism is supposed to be a redline issue that demarcates the borderline of "pro-Israel."

In addition to the substantive objections to this approach, it carries with it a more practical problem as well: it functionally represents the sidelining of the Jewish community from their position as leaders of the pro-Israel community. Groups like CUFI want to assert conservative Christian control over the narrative, and that necessarily means that Jews -- mostly liberal, mostly Democratic, mostly pro-two-states -- will be shunted aside.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that the mainline Jewish organizations brought upon themselves. They were happy to accept "support" from right-wing groups that had no interests in listening to Jewish perspectives and no interest in preserving the status quo where Jews took the lead in constructing the narrative of pro-Israel. They rode the tiger, allowing to gain more and more power until it became too dangerous to dismount it. At that point, its the tiger which calls the shots. And the old guard forced to hang on is little more than a figurehead.

Not Your Everyday White Guy

If this doesn't encapsulate the "white-but-not-quite" racial status of American Jews, I don't know what does:
"Mr. Cardin [Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin] looks like a regular white guy, nice guy, whatever, but in actuality he’s a Jewish white guy," [C-SPAN caller] Eric said Wednesday. "If the public was informed of that by C-SPAN, I think they would take his comments differently."
The caller accused Senator Cardin of "a conflict of interest" regarding the Iran deal because he is Jewish and thus "concerned about Israel."

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Second Blush Thoughts on the Iran Deal

On Facebook, I noted that I was working hard to not have an opinion on the Iran deal, because I knew nothing about it and shouldn't come to a conclusion simply via rote mimicry of ideological cohorts. It was observed by a friend, though, that one of my God-given rights as an American is to "have an opinion based on nothing and then broadcast it publicly through as many channels as possible". And as a blogger, I try my best to live by that credo.

I should start by saying that I have not read the deal itself. This is because the technical characteristics of the deal probably wouldn't mean that much to me, and in particular they'd mean nothing out of context (specifically, the context of feasible alternatives). The sources I read to educate myself include Tom Friedman's interview with the President, Jeffrey Goldberg, AIPAC, Marc Goldberg, David Adesnik, Max Fisher's interview with arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis (highly recommended), Douglas Murray, and of course the metric ton of commentary folks have been blasting all across Facebook for the past few days. Here, then, is where I'm at now.

(1) Obviously, the deal can't be evaluated against an ideal world where America stands steely-eyed and strong and Iran capitulates to everything our heart's desire. One makes deals with autocratic regimes pursuing nuclear weapons under less-than-ideal circumstances -- that comes with the territory. Likewise, we can't evaluate the deal based on what we could have gotten 10 years ago. Assessing this deal is a comparative exercise -- how does reaching this accord compare to either no deal or another deal that could be realistically obtained now?

(2) This deal clearly has its eye on one thing and one thing only: slowing down Iran getting a nuclear weapon. It doesn't care about ending Iranian terrorism. It doesn't care about liberalizing the country. It doesn't care about rectifying the nation's many, many human rights abuses. All of these things are important, but they're not the subject of this deal (and were not, realistically, going to be improved by any deal). I have heard the argument that lifting the sanctions will nudge Iran in a more conciliatory direction, but I'm highly dubious. I'm also inclined to agree that the cash flow it is about to see stemming from the sanctions relief will redound to the benefit of the various terrorist groups Iran likes to fund.

(3) I am unconvinced that there was a "better deal to be made". As far as I've seen there were essentially two mechanisms America supposedly had for exerting more leverage over Tehran: continuing the current regime of exceptionally tight sanctions, or military strikes. The former doesn't work: The current sanctions regime was unsustainable -- the only way we got countries like Russia and China (and arguably even the EU) onboard with tighter sanctions was in service of getting a deal. If no deal was in sight, most of our international allies would have walked away from the sanctions and we'd be left with nothing. The military option is risky for a host of reasons; it might not work, it definitely will prompt retaliation, it definitely would be a diplomatic catastrophe for the United States in forums far afield from Iran, and it definitely will result in blowback that we really don't need. Robert Farley has long convinced me that the ability of pure airpower to bend other countries to our will is overstated, and the more resources we invest in ensuring that the military operation is successful, the more we risk being mired in yet another intractable Middle Eastern conflict.

(4) Indeed, one thing that Lewis said in his piece -- which, again, is the most informative of all the ones I read -- really stuck out for me. It's that "[e]very six months, the deal we could have gotten six months before looks better. Every time we tried to hold out for a better deal, and every time we got in the position of a worse deal." That dates back to the Bush administration, so this isn't a case of weak Obama being weak and not leading with leadership. The fact is the trendlines haven't been good for awhile now, and experientially speaking trying to get a "better deal" has only made things worse. To quote Lewis again:
I was talking to a colleague who is unhappy [with the deal], and it's kind of fascinating. He's unhappy because, he said, "We spent eight years, and the deal we got is not better than the deal we could have gotten eight years ago." And it's like, oh, no kidding. That's not an indictment of the deal, my friend, it's an indictment of eight years of fucking around. [...]

I would give [this deal] an A....[Now, c]ompared to the deal we could have gotten 10 years ago, if the Bush administration hadn't had their heads up their butts? Not an A! That would have been a great deal!

I remember when they had 164 centrifuges, in one cascade, and I said, "You know what, we should let them keep it in warm standby. No uranium, just gas." And people were like, "You're givin' away the store!"
In short, I think opponents of this deal bear a heavy burden of persuasion as to why this time things will be different. And for me at least, they haven't met that burden. I agree with Jeffrey Goldberg that "The dirty little secret of this whole story is that it is very difficult to stop a large nation that possesses both natural resources and human talent, and a deep desire for power, from getting the bomb."

(5) On the particular metric of "slowing down Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon" -- which again, is clearly the only thing the deal is concerned about -- it seems likely to be a net positive over other feasible alternatives. Lewis certainly seems to think so (including ranking it higher than the alternative of bombing Iran). A lot of the technical details of course mean nothing to me, both on the science side (what are the risks of the technology Iran is allowed to keep) and on the logistical side (is 24 days lead time for inspections a lot or a little?). That said, I don't think the deal's efficacy depends on Iran suddenly not being a power-hungry illiberal reactionary autocracy. The "snapback" provisions seem pretty robust and offer ample opportunities for western states to punish Iran for cheating (or suspected cheating). And notably, these provisions can kick in without assent by China or Russia, who are the players whose commitment is most dodgy.

(6) All of that said, I still have a serious concern, although it's an idiosyncratic one that maybe is only shared by me. One way of thinking about this deal is that it trades reduced Iranian nuclear capabilities (via inspections, etc.) for increased Iranian ability to sponsor terror (because of the cash infusion it will get when the sanctions are lifted). And my quite unique position is that I always thought that Iran getting a nuclear weapon was always exaggerated on the threat scale. Nuclear weapons are and have been easily deterrable via conventional modes of statecraft. Even countries which hate each other (like the US and the USSR) pulled it off for decades. And even if one thinks Iran is so entirely suffused with millennarian impulses with respect to Israel that it would risk itself being wiped off the map via an Israeli nuclear counterstrike, it's difficult to imagine that it would risk harming its own holy sites in Jerusalem. By contrast, Iran's sponsorship of terror organizations like Hezbollah has been a thicket that normal diplomatic statecraft has not been able to satisfactorily resolve. Hence, a trade that reduces the former risk while amplifying the latter strikes me as exactly backwards. This may explain why all major elements of the Israeli polity -- including the liberal opposition -- don't like the deal. It strengthens Iran on pretty much all axes save nuclear weaponry (of course it does -- that's what makes it a deal. Iran gives something -- ability to quickly get a nuclear weapon -- to get something -- increased resource access. Outside fantasies where America Green Lanterns Iran into a total capitulation, that was always going to be the result), and Israel quite reasonably doesn't want to see Iran strengthened. And of course, Israel will bear the brunt of an Iran more capable to fund its proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and around the Middle East.

(7) So if I was to argue against the deal, that would be my point of attack: it weakens Iran along a threat dimension whose danger was overstated at the expense of strengthening Iran along a threat dimension whose danger is understated. Yet ultimately, that argument seems more of a general criticism of misplaced global priorities than it is a specific criticism of this deal. Assuming I'm right that the sanctions would have been unsustainable absent a deal, the choice was never "weakened terror Iran/strengthened nuclear Ian versus strengthened terror Iran/weakened nuclear Iran". The alternative to weakening Iran's nuclear capacities while relieving it of international sanctions was to strengthen Iran's nuclear capacities while relieving it of international sanctions. The lifting of sanctions was baked into the cake -- they knew it, and we knew it, and the only question was whether we could use the leverage we temporarily possessed to get a deal that accomplished the one, solitary goal it set out to accomplish. Based on my read, and what I've seen, I think that it did. The result is, to be sure, an Iran that will in many ways be more powerful and more dangerous in 2020 than it is in 2015. That's a security risk that will need to be dealt with in its own way. But it wasn't an eventuality that this deal, in these circumstances, was capable of forestalling.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Eastward Bound

Almost ten years ago (wow!) I remarked on a comment by a Hamas leader who attributed some sinister motives to the blue stripes on the Israeli flag. He claimed that they represented Israel's desired borders, lying not from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean (as at least might have some superficial plausibility), but from the Nile River to the Euphrates. It was a delightful bit of conspiracy-mongering of which I had never heard of before. And never had again -- until now:
Dan Cohen also shared his experience with Jewish privilege in Israel as a visiting American Jew. He said, “When I go there, typically Israelis will ask me how long I’ve been there. And they’ll encourage me to join in the project.” “Project” is a term used by Zionist Jews that refers to the creation of a Greater Israel which would lie between the Tigris and Nile rivers and expand from where Israel lies today to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.
Oh it's the Tigris now? Does our thirst for land never cease?

The source of this lovely atrocity is "MintPress News", which seems to be appropriately fringe (though not so fringe so as to fail to snag a bunch of quotes from -- who else -- Jewish Voice for Peace). In mild defense of both JVP and Cohen (who appears to have no affiliation with JVP), it seems like that particular bit of truth-y insight might have come directly from the article's author. But don't worry, there's plenty of the usual JVP nonsense -- my favorite in this round being "[Zionism] is just a political movement built on stolen land and depriving others of human rights. I can’t let this be done in my name. I have a right to be here and not agree with Israel." This, naturally, comes from a non-Native American living in Minnesota. As I wrote the last time this particular bit of historical blinders emerged:
[I]n all seriousness: is there any metric -- any metric at all -- under which a Jew living in Colorado [or Minnesota --DS] is not further implicated in colonialism than a Jew living in Tel Aviv? Because I can tell you that Jews ... do not have a multi-millennium connection to Fort Collins.
One almost gets the sense that to be a Jew is simply to be born as a trespasser, and that no matter where one goes your existence will be seen as a form of oppression.