Category Archives: The Middle East

the 2020 election in the shadow of the Iraq War

Polls usually show that foreign policy is a low-priority issue in US political campaigns. This year is no exception: asked to choose one priority, just 13 percent of prospective voters recently selected foreign policy.

But I think the Iraq and Afghan wars influence Americans in deeper ways. These are not “foreign policy issues,” like how we should address Brexit or North Korea. They represent a wound that hasn’t been treated. The question on people’s minds is not, “What should we do about Iraq?” or even “What should have been done in 2001?” The question underneath people’s explicit thinking is: “What kind of people are in charge of our country?”

After all, the decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan caused about 60,000 US casualties. (That includes those killed or wounded but not suicides or PTSD cases.)

It is very hard to know how many Iraqis and Afghans have died, because the data are not available and because it’s debatable how much causal responsibility the US holds for the deaths of various combatants and civilians. However, by 2007, 53% of Iraqis were saying that “a close friend or relative” had “been hurt or killed in the current violence.”

The running tab for the two wars is about $6 trillion, which is about 30% of the goods and services that all Americans produce in a year.

And for all this sacrifice and damage, we have lost–failing to attain any of the original objectives of the Bush Administration. Iran has the most power in Iraq; we are negotiating a ceasefire with the Taliban, whom we supposedly defeated in 2002.

For some Americans, none of this may be very salient. But for others, it reflects a deep betrayal by the global elites who sent our men and women into danger overseas. For still others, it is a classic case of American imperialism running amok. Considering the magnitude of the disaster, the debate has been relatively marginal or even submerged. But I think it’s always just below the surface.

Consider the record of these presidential candidates since 2008:

  • Hillary Clinton: votes for the war, apparently in large part because she, her husband, and other senior members of her own party favored it (not just because of the Bush Administration). She later calls her vote her mistake but still feels qualified to run for president in 2008 and 2016 and to serve as a hawkish Secretary of State in between. Thus she is partly responsible for managing the war after having helped to start it. When she comes before the voters, she loses both times.
  • Barack Obama: against the war from the outset, not in Washington when it starts, seems to want to wind it down; wins the presidency twice.
  • Jeb Bush: the presumed front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2016, but his brother launched the wars. Wins 4 delegates in the 2016 primary.
  • Donald Trump: actually fairly positive about the war when it started, but claims to have been against it, which is consistent with his general attitude that foreign interventions waste American lives and treasure. Beats all the establishment Republican primary candidates and Clinton. In office, battles the national security establishment and generally refrains from deploying US military assets overseas. His record conveys a willingness to spend money on the troops, a reluctance to put them in danger, and a contempt for the top brass. Now he’s in a good position for reelection.
  • Joe Biden: as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he votes to authorize the war. Although he is the former vice president in a popular Democratic administration, he looks likely to lose the current primary.
  • Pete Buttigieg: he opposes the Iraq War yet serves in Afghanistan–sort of the opposite of the bipartisan elites who started the war without putting themselves in danger. Considering that he’s the 38-year-old mayor of the 4th-largest city in Indiana, he’s done pretty well in a presidential primary campaign.
  • Bernie Sanders: the only Democratic primary candidate who can provide clear evidence that he was opposed to the war and tried to stop it. This is credible not only because his House vote was recorded but because he has opposed almost all US interventions since the 1970s.

If you believe (as I tend to) that dominant US institutions deserved to be sustained and protected even after the debacle of these wars, then there should have been a much deeper house-cleaning. It’s true that Members of Congress who voted for the war faced a hard choice with limited knowledge and no foreknowledge of the 19 years ahead. Nevertheless, they chose wrong and should have been banished from public life unless they took full responsibility for their own decisions and used their power to prevent anything similar from happening again. You don’t shake off hundreds of thousands of deaths, a $6 trillion bill, and a catastrophic defeat and move on to other topics. National leadership is a privilege, not a right, and if you help cause a disaster, you lose the privilege.

Some Americans never had strong reasons to sustain dominant US institutions. They have now been joined by people for whom the past 19 years provide reasons for distrust–whether they believe that globalist elites have betrayed real Americans or that America is the global bully of the neoliberal era. Although I make no equivalence between Trump and Sanders–they are opposites in character, policy proposals, and commitment to democracy and rule of law–a national campaign between those two is surely a consequence of decisions made by 2003.

a range of federalism options for Israel-Palestine

In the Washington Post today, Daniel Hollander notes that there is another possible option for Israel/Palestine beyond one state or two states: “a federalist, multistate solution.” I think this direction should be considered, if for no reason than “inventing options” is generally a good idea when parties are at loggerheads. Expanding the menu of choices is sometimes a way to “get to yes.”

In that spirit, I would note that a federal entity is not one idea but can take many forms. Americans may immediately think of our federal republic, which has certain basic similarities to those of Germany, India, and Brazil, among other examples. But those familiar characteristics can be altered to fit the circumstances.

In our federal system:

  1. The polity that really matters to people is the national one. Yes, some people may care more about Texas than the USA (or more about Bavaria than Germany) but theirs is a marginal view. Most people experience their political citizenship fundamentally in the federal republic, with other social identities (such as race) coming into play in various ways. Membership in a state-level entity is secondary.
  2. All the states are very similar. Nebraska has a unicameral legislature. Bavaria has the Christian Social Union party instead of the Christian Democrats, much as Minnesota has the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party instead of the Democrats. Mississippi has made different social policy choices from Hawaii’s. But the states’ constitutional designs and even policies are much more similar than different. That is not only because of top-down directives from the national capital. It is also a result of having one national debate and one set of national interest groups and movements that produce congruence (or isomorphism) across the states.
  3. Fundamental questions of a constitutional nature are mostly settled at the national level. That includes most of the basic civil and political rights and matters like the relationship between religion and politics.
  4. The states are territorial. Individuals are legally permitted to move across state borders, and many actually do. Citizenship at the state level results automatically from residency, as long as you have national citizenship. Thus a citizen of New York is simply an American who resides in the State of New York.
  5. Goods and investments also move rapidly and frequently across state lines. There is one market.

None of these features is definitive of a “multistate federal system.” I can envision a multi-state arrangement in the Israel/Palestine area with features like these:

  1. Membership in the smaller state is much more important to most people than their relationship with the federal umbrella entity. In fact, many people on all sides may demonstrate–at most–a grudging acceptance of the umbrella entity, while still identifying strongly as Israelis, Palestinians, or in other ways.
  2. The various states may be quite dissimilar. One state might, for example, “establish” Judaism while another might establish Sunni Islam or favor Islam and Christianity. One state might be governed by the Knesset with its current system of proportional voting while another state adopts a presidential system. I write “might” because I don’t know which specific choices would emerge, but the states would be permitted to form different kinds of regimes, within broad limits.
  3. State citizenship might not be territorial. Perhaps anyone who identifies as Jewish remains a citizen of Israel, and whether that person is allowed to live in certain zones within Israel/Palestine is a matter of negotiated policy. You don’t become Israeli by moving to Tel Aviv, or Palestinian by moving to Ramallah, but you retain your state citizenship wherever you live. There is a precedent in the Ottoman millet system, but this version can be more democratic.
  4. The federal umbrella guarantees certain rights, but they are much more limited than the rights enumerated by the US Constitution or even the EU. The separate states retain a lot of flexibility about freedom of religion, economic rights, etc.

Certainly, these options leave extremely difficult issues to be resolved. How many states? With what jurisdictions? How are conflicts among the states, between the states and the federal entity, or among citizens of different states resolved? Can some of the states be non-democratic? What does the federal entity do, and how is it governed? What rights are guaranteed to all, and can they be changed? Who can live where? Is there any redistribution among the states? What is the umbrella entity even called (in Arabic, in Hebrew, in English)?

I could offer my own opinions on these matters, but that’s irrelevant. The question is whether any reasonably decent compromise could attract sufficient breadth of support to fly. The odds are no doubt against that, but then the status quo seems not only unjust but also unsustainable. (I wrote most of this before today’s vote in the Knesset, which just underlines the previous sentence.)

why calling Israel democratic increases criticism of Israel

If you tell Dutch people that Israel is a democracy like the Netherlands, Israel’s favorability rises among the conservative respondents but falls among those on the left. That’s according to an experiment by Lelkes, Malka, and Sheets (2015). They asked everyone the same questions about Israel but randomized which news stories the respondents read before they answered. The control group read about Israel’s agricultural and industrial sectors and how they resemble those of the Netherlands. The “cultural” group read about some cultural similarities between the two countries. And the “political” group read about how both nations are democracies. The x-axis shows respondents’ political ideology, from left to right. Note the steeper slope in the “Political” graph.


I visited Israel (and briefly the Occupied Territories) on a trip that was designed to increase our appreciation of Israel by exposing us to the freewheeling democracy of Israel. That meant that visits were arranged for us with Arab legislators and a jurist, the Palestinian Authority, and very liberal journalists, as well as right-wing settlers and others across the spectrum.

I am permanently grateful for this learning opportunity. My views became somewhat more complex, but I think that my overall appraisal of Israel’s policies declined during the trip–compared to a fairly low baseline. So I am like the Dutch left-of-center respondents: less favorable to Israel than my conservative compatriots to start with and prone to become even more critical when someone tried to show me that Israel is a democracy. Why?

First, because using the word “democracy” highlights the gap between rhetoric and reality. The 4.17 million people under Israeli occupation don’t have Israeli political rights. One could reply that all democracies fail to deliver on their principles–the United States, badly so. Indeed, I am angry about a lot of US policies, but that doesn’t make me feel better about Israel. Also, I doubt that we are currently doing anything as undemocratic as Israel is.

Second, democracies should be expected to achieve more justice than other systems do. A dictator will prevent the people from obtaining relevant information and diverse perspectives on issues, let alone acting to improve the world. He (or possibly she) will have very strong incentives and temptations to act unjustly, both towards subjects and outsiders. If benign despots are possible, they are rare. (H.G. Wells: “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star.”) In democracies, on the other hand, information and deliberative opportunities are available, and the people have mechanisms to make wise and just decisions of they so choose. Israel denies those mechanisms to the people under occupation, but Israelis who are fully enfranchised should be able to act reasonably well. That is both a moral expectation and an actual prediction: it is more likely that a country that is as democratic as Israel is will act justly. So then being told that it is a democracy lowers one’s appreciation of its actual performance.

medieval iconoclasm and modern prejudices

More than 1,000 years ago, the Christian world was consumed with a violent conflict over religious images: whether they should be venerated or destroyed as idols. That conflict, which brought down emperors, has resonances today. But even before the days of ISIS, modern historians were mining the obscure quarrels of medieval Christian iconoclasm for evidence of their own prejudices.

For instance, in this passage, John Julius Norwich (1929-) explains why iconoclasm declined during the 9th century:

The times, too, were changing. The mystical, metaphysical attitude to religion that had originally given birth to iconoclasm was becoming less fashionable every day. Of the eastern lands in which it had first taken root, some had already been lost to the Saracens; and the populations of those that remained, beleaguered and nervous, had developed an instinctive distrust of a doctrine that bore such obvious affinities with those of Islam. There was a new humanism in the air, a revised awareness of the old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity, and had no truck with the tortuous, introspective spiritualizings of the Oriental mind. At the same time a naturally artistic people, so long starved of beauty, were beginning to crave the old, familiar images that spoke to them of safer and more confident days. And when, on 20 January 842, the Emperor Theophilus died of dysentery at thirty-eight, the age of iconoclasm died with him.

I don’t like to speak evil of the living, but this is pretty bad. I can pass over the undocumented and surely exaggerated claims (“less fashionable every day”; “so long starved of beauty”). I can forgive the emphasis on royal biography and chronology as explanations for larger trends, because the medieval sources focus on affairs of court. It’s much harder to ignore Viscount Norwich’s view of “the Oriental mind” as irrational and mystical.

Edward Gibbon, although just as judgmental as Norwich, organized his prejudices differently. In the Decline and Fall, he associates the veneration of images with the “long night of superstition,” when Christians forgot the “simplicity of the Gospel” for the “worship of holy images.” The “holy ground was involved in a cloud of miracles and visions; and the nerves of the mind, curiosity and skepticism, were benumbed by habits of obedience and belief.”

He is talking about the centuries when Norwich’s “old, familiar images” were still venerated. But then Leo III began the iconoclastic era. Although the emperor was less learned than a classical Roman, “his education, his reason, and perhaps his intercourse with the Jews and Arabs” made him criticize images. Leo came from the East and may have been influenced by the still-further-eastern Muslims. Yet Gibbon has no hesitation in claiming that Leo’s movement showed “many symptoms of reason and piety.”

Ultimately, it was a female ruler who restored the “idols,” which were always “secretly cherished by the order and the sex most prone to devotion; and the fond alliance of the monks and the females obtained a final victory over the reason and the authority of man.” A final victory, that is, until the “reformation of the sixteenth century, [when] freedom and knowledge had expanded all faculties of man: the thirst of innovation superseded the reverence of antiquity; and the vigor of Europe could disdain those phantoms which terrified the servile weakness of the Greeks.”

If you’re going to use medieval theological controversies to reinforce modern stereotypes, Gibbon’s version at least seems to make more sense that Norwich’s. Norwich tries to establish a spectrum from the iconoclastic East to the reasonable West. But consider the Pilgrim Fathers who founded New England. Surely they favored “tortuous, introspective spiritualizings”; and their churches were stripped of all images, even crosses. Their brethren in Cromwell’s England and Protestant Holland also smashed religious pictures, as did the later secular republicans of revolutionary France and civil war Spain. “According to Georg Kretschmar, ‘Calvin built up the most precise and radical position opposed to the icon theology of the 787 Council of Nicea.'” As a consequence [of Calvin’s iconoclastic writing] Protestant places of worship have a stark austerity in comparison to Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches.” Yet, according to Norwich, a starkly austere church is “oriental,” whereas one bedecked with sparkling icons recalls the “old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity.”

The moral of this post is not that historians are biased or that orientalism prevails. I have cited just two writers, one of them dead since 1794. Real professional historians work hard not to let such prejudices determine their views. But Gibbon and Norwich are influential authors–the first redeemed by his superb style and enlightened spirit; the second, a poor substitute.

Jesus was a person of color

As everyone knows by now, Fox News host Megyn Kelly said last week, “Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure. That’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want kids to know that.”

In one sense, to say that a given historical figure was white cannot be a verifiable fact, because whiteness is not biological or otherwise scientific matter–it is a social construct that people have invented, have frequently adjusted, and can change again. On the other hand, constructs have real enough presence in the world. Race, for example, is a powerful scheme that we impose on reality. Average white American subjects classify a picture of a face as black or white within 30 milliseconds of viewing it.

So we can ask how the historical Jesus would be viewed if he walked into the room today. That is different from two other questions: how people of his day would have seen him and how people today choose to depict him:

  1. Although the status of race in antiquity is debated, at least some distinguished scholars argue that the ancients did not classify people by skin color or hair, as we are powerfully conditioned to do today. Thus the historical Jesus has a race today but he did not have one while he was alive. He was then neither white nor anything else.
  2. Today, Jesus is often shown as a blond man in America, but usually as a black man in Ethiopia. For a believer, Jesus transcends race and is naturally depicted as a familiar figure, a member of one’s own community.

A third question is how the historical Jesus would be perceived racially if people saw him today. I think Kelly believes that the answer is: White. Our only source, the New Testament, tells us that he was a Jew. That names a political/religious community that had a foundation story tracing all of its members to one ancestor: Abraham. But even according to the story, Abraham had many descendents who were not Jews, and Jews of Jesus’ time had many ancestors. Luke says that Jesus’ paternal ancestor 23 generations back had been Solomon, a Jew, who “loved many strange [foreign] women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites. … And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” (I Kings 11).  So, according to Luke, Jesus had a lot of diversity in his family tree–as we all do.

Members of Jesus’ religious/political community lived close by and mixed with members of other communities, such as, for example, the Ammonites, Samaritans, and Nabateans. Many of these communities also spoke Jesus’ daily language, Aramaic, which is an Afroasiatic tongue related to Hausa (spoken in Nigeria), ancient Egyptian, Arabic, and Hebrew. I presume that these neighbors would have been phenotypically as well as linguistically very similar to the ancient Jews. In other words, they would have looked and sounded like ancient Jews even though they believed in different things and fell under different laws. We see a little glimpse of the multicultural milieu in the tomb inscription of the poet Meleager of Gadara (near modern Umm Qais in Jordan): “If you are Syrian, Salam [which is Aramaic]; if you are Phoenician, Naidios; if you are Greek, Xaire; and say the same yourself.”

Once the Jewish religious/political community was smashed by the Romans, many Jews went into exile in the empire, where they retained their traditions and tried to marry endogamously (i.e., within the faith). But conversion was allowed, and intermarriage would have been inevitable. One recent estimate suggests that Ashkenazi Jews have 80% non-Jewish European maternal ancestors. That means that Jesus would look less European than today’s Jews whose ancestors resided in Europe, including many (not all) modern Israelis. Furthermore, most modern Jews outside of Israel cannot speak any Afroasiatic language.

But a lot of people who lived in Jesus’ vicinity and looked and talked like him stayed there after the Roman victories in 70 and 132 CE. I assume those who remained included some Jews; it certainly included groups like the Nabateans and the Philistines. Those groups would become largely Christian by the time that Caliph Umar captured the area from the Byzantine Christian empire around 637 CE. Some still remained Christian after the conquest, while most converted to Islam, but all gradually adopted an ethno-political-linguistic identity as Arabs as a result of being incorporated into the Caliphate and its flourishing culture.

Thus someone who looked at talked like Jesus might well be seen as an Arab today, albeit one who spoke a related language (Aramaic) instead of classical or modern Arabic. That raises another question directly related to Megyn Kelly’s claim: is an Arab white?

Again, this is a meaningless question in scientific terms, but perceptions and subjective classifications are important. So the question really means: Would most people perceive any ancient person who looked and talked somewhat like a modern Arab as white? In “Not Quite White: Race Classification and the Arab American Experience,” the author traces the many different ways in which Arab immigrants to the United States have been classified. For example, under a 1978 directive from the Office of Management and the Budget, Arabs were explicitly defined as white (“persons originating in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa”), but one advocacy group now urges Arab Americans to “Check it right — you ain’t white.” In short, the question is contested, and perceptions vary.

Meanwhile, the phrase “people of color” has become much more common in the last 30 years than it was before, and one reason is its breadth. It acknowledges the advantages that come from being perceived as white in the US. By implication, everyone who is not perceived as white has some commonality of experience, despite their vast diversity. By that definition, I think Jesus would pretty clearly be a person of color.

Note …

I am not saying that Jesus was an Arab, because that word developed its current sense centuries after his death.

I am not denying he was a Jew. He was: but that places him in a religious and juridical category, not an ethnic group. The religious community of world Jewry is ethnically diverse and has changed a great deal over two thousand years.

I am not saying that you are wrong to visualize him as white–or as black. You can visualize and depict him any way you want.

I am saying that if he walked into a US airport today, he would be subject to racial profiling on the basis of his color and features, not to mention clothes and language. That is perhaps theologically apt, but it should make a Fox News anchor uncomfortable.