Thursday, October 19, 2023

A Purely Federated U.S. "State" of Territoria?

This is one of those thoughts I had in the shower that might not go anywhere, but I wanted to run with it a bit.

As many of you know, one of my pet issues is statehood for all American territorial possessions. Not just DC statehood, but statehood for Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa -- the whole shebang. I'm actually a bit of a hardliner on this in that I don't think the territories should have the option of remaining territories -- either statehood or independence. There's no justification, in a modern democracy, for there to be territorial possessions permanently under the domain of a sovereign but lacking full democratic rights and representation in that sovereign.

One problem with my vision is that many of the territories in question are quite small -- much smaller than any current state. Leaving aside Puerto Rico, which is somewhat of a special case, the largest American territory by population is Guam, with a little over 150,000 residents. By comparison, the smallest U.S. state is Wyoming, with a population of approximately 578,000.

Now, in theory I have no problem with a little state-packing of territories with trivial populations (that's in part how we got two Dakotas). But it's also the case that if you add all the non-Puerto Rico U.S. territories together, the population totals close to 340,000 -- still considerably smaller than Wyoming, but not absurdly so. If the only objection to territorial statehood is population, I don't think that objection holds to the combined state of "Territoria".

Of course, it might seem absurd to combine into one state the U.S. Virgin Islands (in the Caribbean) with Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and American Samoa (half a world away in the Pacific Ocean). Hell, even Guam and American Samoa, despite both being "Pacific Island Territories", are more than 3,600 miles apart. How would "state" government even work in that context?

But that made me wonder -- is there any problem with a "state" deciding to organize itself on a completely federated level -- total autonomy for each traditional "territory", with no or virtually no power in the "state" legislature? Could there be a "state" of Territoria which exists only to have a Representative and two Senators, but which otherwise is an empty shell comprising the actually active and empowered "local" governments of the constituent territories?

I don't claim this is a miracle drug solution. For starters, it would end the distinctive (albeit non-voting delegate) representation of each individual territory. Especially given that Guam would comprise almost 45% of the population of "Territoria" on its own, I can certainly imagine the other territories crying foul at that. And as I said, I don't actually have a problem with the "pure" state-packing play of giving the U.S. Virgin Islands and its 87,000 denizens full statehood on its own.

But it's an interesting thought, no -- the concept of a "state" that exists only as a vector for national representation, but otherwise makes no claims to be the governing body for its constituent territories? I at least find it a bit intriguing, if only as a thought experiment that might open other doors.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

What Will the Moral of the Story Be?

Daniel Drezner has a good piece up on the futility of external "calls for a ceasefire" between Israel and Hamas, that helped crystallize some of my feelings on the subject. Many people, as Drezner observes, have written eloquently and persuasively about the disaster that would be sustained Israeli ground campaign in Gaza -- an operation that will endanger countless Israeli and Palestinian lives while simultaneously being unlikely to meaningfully alter Israel's long-term security posture and severely escalating the risk of regional conflagration. Drezner links to articles by Marc Lynch and Daniel Levy and Zaha Hassan as good examples. And like Drezner, I agree with this assessment. The prospect of more war and more killing and more devastation is sickening to me. It won't bring back the dead. It probably won't even permanently degrade Hamas' combat capacities. It just feels like meeting death with more death.

And yet, Drezner observes, few of these commentators have much in the way of practical suggestions for what Israel should be doing instead to respond to Hamas' attack. other than intoning the word "cease-fire". He continues:

Understand that Israel is going to respond because they see no other option after the loss of their deterrent power against Hamas. This is precisely what any other state in the international system would do if it possessed similar capabilities. The intentional attacks on Israeli civilians was heinous. No government could not retaliate, could not demonstrate the severe consequences of such an assault, and still remain a government. This is Politics of National Security 101.


For example, I do not disagree with anything Lynch writes in his Foreign Affairs essay. What is less clear to me is what Marc is proposing as a suitable alternative. And this is what keeps nagging at me whenever I am asked if there is anything that can be done to reduce the loss of life. A ground invasion will be grueling in and of itself. It might widen the conflict to include the West Bank, Lebanon, and Iran. But I cannot necessarily think of another policy option that produces a superior outcome for Israel.

Many people have made arguments of the form "no government could not retaliate" over the past few days, but I think Drezner is getting at an important clarification here. Arguments of this sort sometimes are made in emotional terms -- a country which faced such a terrible wound cannot be expected to turn the other cheek towards it. And against that position, those promoting a cease-fire often reply -- correctly -- that no amount of retaliation or bombing is going to bring back the Israeli dead. If the only argument for a military campaign was one of vengeance, of the inchoate sense that Israel has to do ... something to avenge those Hamas murdered, then I would agree that the calls for a cease-fire have purchase. As understandable as that boil for vengeance might be, it's not a good enough reason for the death and devastation that will inevitably follow a ground invasion of Gaza.

But there's more than a mere emotive desire to do "something" at work here. As a matter of pure, cold strategic logic, Israel cannot allow the moral of the story of Hamas' attack to be "this is a winning move." The attack itself was catastrophic on its own terms. If it is seen by Palestinian militant groups as winning strategy, that's more than catastrophic, that's an actual existential threat. The phrase "reestablish deterrence" may be overused (this post by Cheryl Rofer was a helpful corrective), but if it ever had resonance it does here. When faced with a situation like what Israel just went through, a state must demonstrate that the massacre of its civilians is a capital-letter Bad Idea for the massacrers. And so Israel's response, whatever it is, must in some way effectively communicate that message.

And the fact of the matter is, we're not there yet. Imagine that Israel tomorrow announced a suite of policy alterations towards the Gaza Strip that are the dream of all those signing cease-fire petitions: an end to the siege, a release of prisoners, a commitment to reconstruction, the works. What would be the result? It would be to suggest that, as terrible as Hamas' actions were, they were ultimately what shocked the Israeli government out of its torpor and forced it to the negotiating table. Anyone reading this blog probably can name a half-dozen people in their orbit who already have their "Power Cedes Nothing Without a Demand!" Instagram posts ready to roll. And while the prospect of celebratory postings by really annoying people also is not a good enough reason to blow things up (somewhere I had a post about how any Israeli/Palestinian peace agreement worth its salt is going to involve some people you can't stand being happy, and that can't be a reason to torpedo the agreement), the problem is they'd have a point, and a point that if internalized would be incredibly dangerous in any circumstance where the Israeli/Palestinian conflict doesn't end tomorrow. I'm not sure I agree with Ilya Somin that the Gilad Shalit deal laid the groundwork for Hamas' attack twelve years later, but the risk he's flagging isn't invented. Israel at some level needs to devastate Hamas because the alternative is that Hamas learns that operations like these are winning strategies that should be repeated as frequently as possible.

The fact is that, as much suffering as the people of Gaza have already endured, if an actual cease-fire was imposed today Hamas would almost certainly view its operation as a net win, and Israel cannot allow it to come to that conclusion. So the question for those promoting a cease-fire, as Drezner alludes to, is what pathway other than an overwhelming military response changes the moral of the story? What realistic and enforceable proposal would avoid the death and destruction of a military campaign while nonetheless making clear that operations such as the one Hamas just launched are a Bad Idea?

It's not clear what that alternative could be, and that's the problem that makes the military assault feel so inevitable. Maybe Hamas' leadership turning itself in to be prosecuted for war crimes at the Hague could qualify, but that's obviously not on offer (though I've seen some people suggest it be added to the various petitions floating around anyway -- after all, if they're not limiting themselves to things that might realistically come to pass ....). Some form of reparation (what would that look like?)? A long-sought after diplomatic boon (Saudi recognition)? I don't know. None of these seem plausible, let alone sufficient.

To be sure, this doesn't mean there isn't any space for any public or diplomatic discourse urging restraint on the part of Israel. The need to change the moral doesn't license any and all measures; not every possible Israeli action can be justified based on the need to prevent Hamas from claiming a win. The example I gave last week of saying no to starvation policies is one obvious example, as is opposing the flatly sadistic "bounce the rubble" position of militaristic zealots like Tom Cotton. Ensuring an actual, not just pro forma, opportunity for civilians to evacuate is another (that the initially reported "24 hour" deadline has long since come and gone without the ground campaign beginning suggests that something got through regarding the insufficiency of that timeline). And on the point of evacuation, it also is imperative that the United States extract ironclad assurances that evacuated civilians will be able to return to their homes at the conclusion of hostilities -- a requirement that is demanded by the provisions of international law that permit temporary evacuations of civilians from combat zones, but one can forgive Gaza civilians if they are more than a bit mistrustful of Israel's commitment to that principle). All of these are viable and salutary interventions, and Israel has no justification for opposing them, even if they do make its military endeavors more difficult. 

(It's also worth noting that Hamas must allow, and cannot obstruct, civilian evacuations. Hamas has openly urged Palestinians civilians not to leave the northern Gaza Strip, and there are reports it is actively impeding evacuation efforts).

But the terrible truth is that what's needed now probably isn't public calls for a cease-fire. What's needed now is an off-ramp, something that can plausibly induce Israel to not go down a seemingly inexorable path without it being seen as giving Hamas a win. How do we, to alter the sardonic advice given to the U.S. as it found itself stuck in Vietnam, convince Israel to declare victory and then stay home? Keep in mind that, with respect to everything I just said about the strategic necessity of shifting the moral of the story, none of it at all alters the initial set of observations that an Israeli ground campaign in Gaza would be disastrous for Israel, to say nothing of Palestinians. The whole problem is that this terrible option still seems to be "better" than all the alternatives, and if that is to change it will only be if an alternative that successfully convinces Israel that Hamas didn't win and won't perceive itself as having won. Simply intoning "ceasefire" is not, on its own, such an alternative. If you don't care about any of that and just want to express a message that war is bad, then go ahead and intone. But if you're actually serious about trying to effectuate a change of course, then these are the questions you need to consider.

It is a commentary on the twisted state of the world that the closest thought I have to something optimistic is also somehow among the grimmest. In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a historic peace treaty. History is not monocausal, but one common narrative about the treaty notes how it came in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel's bloodiest conflict since independence. The key was that both parties viewed themselves as negotiating from a position of strength -- as having "won" something. Israel had successfully repulsed the invasion and had shown that it would not be dislodged from the region. Egypt, though, had -- in contrast to the humiliation of the Six Day War -- fought well and significantly bloodied the nose of their Israeli counterparts, showing they were a military force to be reckoned with. The most cynical way of putting it is that the Egyptians killed enough Israelis, and the Israelis killed enough Egyptians, that both sides could view the peace deal as something they had "won", something they'd extracted through strength, not ceded through capitulation.

So the grimmest silver lining would be to imagine that maybe, after Israel's sure-to-be cataclysmic operation in the Gaza Strip, maybe both sides will see themselves as having killed enough of the other so they can call it a victory. Israel can say it's lopped off Hamas' head and so now a true reconstruction can begin. Whatever Hamas-substitute inevitably rises to take its place can say that the Palestinian resistance forced the Zionists to come to heel. Both sides claim a terrible victory, and so can say that the ensuing peace is something they won rather than capitulated to.

It is, again, a twisted and grim "silver lining". The only thing worse would be for all that's happened to happen, and then for nothing to change at all.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Passing Solidarity's Acid Test

I am honored to have co-authored a piece in the Forward with Alan Solow, former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, on how the Biden administration's national strategy for combatting antisemitism -- in particular, its focus on building solidarity among diverse groups in the fight against antisemitism -- is facing an early acid test in the aftermath of Hamas' horrific terrorist attack on southern Israel.

And my honest assessment is that the focus on solidarity is bearing fruit. Yes, there have been some high-profile incidents from certain segments of the left that have excused or even valorized antisemitism. We've all seen them, and I (along with many others) haven't hesitated to call them out. But these cases -- as large as they loom -- have objectively been drowned out by a much larger and unified chorus of condemnation. The grotesque behavior of a few is important to identify, but it should not obscure the larger pattern: 

Though vocal, the cadre of extremists who publicly cheer antisemitic terror finds itself increasingly isolated. Though shaken, the community of Jews and non-Jews who have committed to standing together in solidarity against terror have risen to the moment, forging a stronger and more vibrant bond with each passing day.

This doesn't mean that maintaining these bonds will be easy or can be left to autopilot. The events of the last week tested us in terrible ways, and the events of the coming weeks will no doubt continue to do so. But that is exactly why plans must be put in place before the moment of reckoning, and why a politics of isolation, ostracism, exclusion, and division constitutes a luxury we cannot afford. 

We're facing an acid test for solidarity, in circumstances more horrible than almost anyone could imagine. But we can, and we will, pass it.