January 15, 2009

Thomas Friedman and his critics

Thomas Friedman in the New York Times justifies the crime de jour. It is Gaza, of course, and Friedman, of course, explains why massacres are logical and right. Greenwald and Walt took him to task. Friedman argument is very simple. Israel, now as in Lebanon in 2006, is targeting civilians and Israel is right in targeting civilians because this is the only way to have an impact on actors such as Hiazbullah or Hamas.
Israel’s counterstrategy was to use its Air Force to pummel Hezbollah and, while not directly targeting the Lebanese civilians with whom Hezbollah was intertwined, to inflict substantial property damage and collateral casualties on Lebanon at large. It was not pretty, but it was logical. Israel basically said that when dealing with a nonstate actor, Hezbollah, nested among civilians, the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians — the families and employers of the militants — to restrain Hezbollah in the future.
Now, for once, you can't accuse Friedman, at least in this passage, of lying. Mao Zedong explained that an insurgent force must move among the people like fish in the water. Nobody has ever won an insurgency disobeying this rule. Facing a successful popular insurgency, the state's choices are therefore a mixture of three basic ingredients:

a) compromise with the insurgency
b) undermine the unity between the people and the fighters enough to incapacitate the insurgency ("education")
c) drain the "water," i.e., kill everybody (genocide/ethnic cleansing)

Note that Friedman considers the first possibility unthinkable. He begins his piece by presenting a choice between the two other choices, "education" and genocide.
I have only one question about Israel’s military operation in Gaza: What is the goal? Is it the education of Hamas or the eradication of Hamas?
Insurgency is the model of a people fighting against colonial rule. Quite proper therefore that Friedman presents Israel's military choices on a scale between those two signature colonial poetic expression, Conrad's "exterminate the brutes" and Kippling's "savage wars for peace." But it is a false choice (what did you expect? It is Friedman). Every counter-insurgency starts with "educating" the natives. But given that "education," even if it begins more modestly, eventually means killing a lot of people, and that genocide means killing a lot more, the divide line is fuzzy and broad. The real alternative pole is compromise, recognition, self-determination, reparations, and all the other things that make people like Friedman break a cold sweat.
(allow me one digression. It is amazing how, other than ideological indoctrination, Friedman's columns have no informational content. The knowledgeable military analysts of Haaretz have clearly explained (here's Aluf Benn's explanation) that getting rid of Hamas was not Israel's goal. Indeed, two Israeli ministers abstained during the vote on launching the massacre because Olmert refused to make toppling Hamas the goal of the campaign. All the negotiations in Egypt are based on the assumption that Hamas will continue to rule Gaza. Friedman falsely presents the Israeli "choice" as if it all this public information does not exist, because it suits his pedagogical needs for schooling readers in the theory of colonial domination. Let's not be disturbed by facts. )
Israel indeed targets civilians. Glen Grenwald's criticism of Friedman halfheartedly seeks to avoid dwelling on this. It is enough for him to skewer what he calls "the sociopathic lust of a single war cheerleader." But Friedman is not a sociopath unless a very large number of people are. Why be so eager to make Freidman's (and a few other war cheerleaders') personality the issue rather the war itself? The evidence that Israel target's civilans is beyond reasonable dispute today (which of course does not mean it is beyond dispute.) Just regarding Lebanon, Human Rights Watch wrote a report after every one of the many large Israeli "incursions" and always found the same evidence of deliberate harm to civilians. For example, from the report following "Operation Accountability in 1993,
It is apparent from public statements that civilians were seen as a crucial strategic element of the operation. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared: "We want Lebanese villagers to flee and we want to damage all those who were parties to Hizballah's activities."
In preparation for the massacres in Gaza, Israel's herrenvolk army generals were generous enough to pre-anounce their intentions to cause massive civilian casualties:
Israel would use "disproportionate" force to destroy Lebanese villages from which Hezbollah guerrillas fired rockets at its cities in any future war, an Israeli general said in remarks published on Friday. "What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on," said Gadi Eisenkot, head of the army's northern division. "We will apply disproportionate force on it (village) and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases,"...This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved," Eisenkot added. ( Reuters )
The only mistake here is the Reuter's stringer's impression that this policy is new and not the continuation of the military doctrine of "collective punishment" that Moshe Dayan devised already in the early fifties. Of course, any statistics of civilian and children deaths from Lebanon, the Intifada or Gaza today confirms that this military doctrine is in fact carried out. In 2006, Israel managed "at least 1,109 Lebanese deaths, the vast majority of whom were civilians, 4,399 injured, and an estimated 1 million displaced." (HRW) The final statistics from Gaza will most likely be similar. Israeli airplanes bombs schools and hospitals. Israeli soldiers shoot medical personel and white flag waving civilians, and prevent medical care from getting to the wounded. Inflicting pain is not the only goal but unquestionably a major one. (see also the heathlander or a large collection of quotes )

Grenwald then notes that what Friedman describes as Israel's military doctrine (which is in fact Israel's military doctrine), is similar to the U.S. State Department definition of terrorism as
premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant (1) targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience...

other than the fact that Friedman is advocating these actions for an actual state rather than a "subnational group...
But the State Department's unambiguos limitation of terrorism to non-state actors is not so easily dismissible. The State Department's definition of terrorism is written as it is to avoid precisely the kind of logic that Grenwald applies. And for a reason. It is impossible to destroy a popular insurgency within the limitations imposed by humanitarian law. That is as it should be. The popularity of an insurgency is a measure of the illegitimacy of the power it is rebelling against. If you accept the principle that power should be legitimized by 'the consent of the governed,' than popular insurgencies are legitimate to the extent they are popular and humanitarian law is there to force compromise. But U.S. foreign policy, most of it, not just regarding Israel, is inherently unpopular and incompatible with the principle of 'the consent of the governed' (outside lip service, and if I can another digression, that is also true of the U.S. domestically). U.S. foreign policy is based on supporting leaders and cadres who serve U.S. elite interests rather than their people's interests. Popular insurgencies are the unavoidable side effect of the fact that the U.S. runs an empire of sorts, not of the British sort, but nevertheless an empire. Therefore counter-insurgency is an indispensable aspect of U.S. foreign policy. The State Department carefully defines terrorism to exclude the tactics that Friedman correctly sees as necessary to defeating a popular insurgency. He is not the freak that Greenwald wishes him to be.

Greenwald is at pains to emphaise that
It really ought to be too obvious to require pointing out: to oppose the Israeli war in Gaza and to be horrified by what they are doing to Palestinian civilians no more makes someone "anti-Israel" or "pro-Hamas" than opposing and condemning the Iraq War and being horrified by what we did to that country makes someone "anti-American" or "pro-Saddam."
But it isn't obvious at all. "Anti-israel" can means lots of things, but if one insists that people, all people, have a right to determine how they are governed, that one has to be opposed to the state of Israel, which is defined in its laws and practices as not the state of those it governs. The denial of self-determination and consent of the governed is not some freak idea of a right-wing fanatic. It is the principle of the state of Israel itself as a state for Jews built on the expropriation, expulsion and effacement of Palestinians. That Israel is constantly fighting insurgencies, and therefore commit war crimes as the necessary condition of maintaining its political and social structure, is evidence of its fundamental illegitimacy. To oppose Israel's cruelty but defend its illegitimate structure that depends on this cruelty is not a serious position. Its major effect is to make blood happy vampires like Friedman look honest in comparison. And conversely on the opposite side, to support freedom and self-determination and then disdain the people who give their lives demanding and defending these rights is not a serious position. "Pro-hamas" is an idiotic moniker. I am pro freedom and pro democracy and pro self-determination, and Hamas was democratically elected by the Palestinian people to lead their struggle for self-determination. It isn't therefore my business to support or to oppose Hamas. We need to support Palestinians, but that is not compatible with heaping insults on the people who lead an important pole of their struggle, with popular legitimacy and undeniable self-sacrifice. There are no chicken hawks in Gaza.

The case of the U.S. and the Iraq war is different, but not beyond comparison. The Iraq war was horrific, but so was the sanctions regime that preceded it, and so was the first Gulf War, and so was U.S. support for Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War. Since 1963 at the latest, the U.S. has been killing or helping the Iraqi government kill Iraqi civilians in defense of its global dominion. To be against that is indeed to be against the U.S. as it is, an empire, not against this or that political faction. We shouldn't call it anti-American, because the U.S. ruling class is only slightly more interested in the fate of the residents of New Orleans than it is in that of Iraqi civilians. But we shouldn't delude ourselves that this dominance can be undone by asking it politely to retreat and respect human rights. The U.S. will have to be defeated. And that is precisely because Friedman, and not Grenwald, is the one representing the authentic credo and outlook of its ruling class.

And perhaps to drive the point home, we can look at Stephen Walt's criticism of Friedman. Walt is half the duo of Mearsheimer and Walt, seen by many as the saviors of Palestine for daring to write the words 'the Israel Lobby' on Harvard's letterhead. While the couple unquestionably did good bringing that issue up into the open, their politics suck, and if their possible ascendancy to greater influence helps Palestinians (which I hope but seriously doubt), it would be purely accidental. Quite tellingly, Walt doesn't see it at all noteworthy that Friedman is advocating and justifying massive war-crimes as a strategy. Enough said!

But one last digression, the difference between realist strategists like Brzezinsky from realist theoreticians like Walt is that the latter don't seem to care about reality beyond its pedagogical value, and in ways quite similar to Friedman's. Walt writes:

Second, Friedman portrays Israeli society as divided between those who believe that ending the occupation is essential for Israel's long-term security and those who believe that continuing the occupation is the key to Israel's long-term security. He omits the hard-core settlers who believe that Israel has a god-given right to all of Mandate Palestine (a group that comprises some 20 percent of Israeli society) and claims -- incorrectly -- that it is the opponents of the occupation who have been driving Israeli policy in recent years. In fact, it is increasingly clear that it is the opponents of the two-state solution that have been in charge.

All the terms of this 'dialogue' are facades and misrepresentations. First, the distinction between those who believe God granted all of Palestine to Jews and those who seek to keep all of Palestine for security reasons is a distinction with very little difference. Ben Gurion was the leading promoter of using the Bible to buttress the so-called Jewish claim to the land. The religious settlers' movement was groomed by secular security hawks like Alon and Dayan. And the epochal "movement for the whole land of Israel" was dominated by secular voices such as Israel Eldad. The two justifications, security and divine right, go hand in hand and the same people cite them both. Second, there is no "end the occupation" camp in Israeli politics. Not only it isn't the dominant camp. it doesn't exist. The most dovish document published by Israeli Zionists was the Geneva Initiative. In that document, Yossi Beilin refused to recognize Palestinian water rights and insisted on the right of the Israeli air force to train in the supposedly Palestinian air space. Yossi Beilin is a radical peacenik next to supporters of the "two state solution" with any clout, such as Olmert and Livni. The Israeli debate is strictly over whether the benefits of creating small reservations for Palestinians in terms of lower costs of control and international legitimacy outweigh the risks. Describing this debate as between a pro-occupation camp and an anti-occupation camp is disingineous to the extreme. finally, the hard core settlers issue is overblown for rhetorical effect, as the settlers allow a false definition of the problem in terms of "there are extremists on both sides". There are slightly over half a million Israeli settlers in the OPT. That is less than 7% of the population of Israel (and not 20%!). In comparison, that is less than half the number of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Among these settlers, those 80,000 who live far out and away from the Green Line are the most "hard core" and ideological, and among those, 40% told polsters they would evacuate if the government paid them. There are at best a few thousand radical settler activists, and Israel could jail them all in half the space it uses for jailing Palestinian activists. Support for settlements increases with religious identification, which (as common) is linked with lower income and social status. If settlers were calling the shots as Walt implies, Israel would be the Utopian country that is ruled from the bottom of the social ladder rather than from the top. Blaming the occupation on the 20% of Israelis who identify as religious is like blaming the Iraq war on churchgoers. The "hard core" settlers are a force to be reckoned with, but their ugly power doesn't

come from their numbers. It comes from their position within Israel's political map, which is almost wall to wall solidly opposed to Palestinian self-determination in any meaningful form. This dominant consensus is well reflected in Israeli Jewish public opinion. While a thin majority is willing to remove a few settlements, less than one in four Jewish Israelis supports relinquishing the Jordan Valley to a future Palestinian state. "Extremism" is the least of our problems.


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