Category Archives: The Middle East

an argument against intervening in Syria

The Syrian government appears to have violated the Geneva Protocol to the Hague Convention (1925). The Protocol, which Syria signed in 1968, begins: “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world.” And so it should be.

Citing this rule as a justification for a bombing campaign would be a classic example of legalistic reasoning. I do not mean “legalistic” in a pejorative sense. The best argument for intervening in Syria is to enforce the Geneva Protocol, and it is an example of legalistic reasoning for three reasons:

1. It draws a bright line in one particular place. Conventional bombs or even machetes could kill more innocent people than poison gas did in this case. Likewise, you may hurt someone worse by insulting him than by robbing his store. But a law establishes very general prohibitions in order to control evils, to prevent wrongs from escalating, to allow people the freedom to do things not expressly forbidden, and to create a structure of predictable norms and consequences. Robbery is forbidden; so is the use of chemical weapons. Neither rule guarantees justice or peace, but they do create a worthwhile structure.

2. Deciding whether the rule was violated is different from evaluating how much damage was done or how much good would be achieved by punishing the violator. Legal reasoning puts consequences and persons largely aside. The rule of law is honored when no one violates the law or when all violations are predictably punished.

3. The expressive aspect is important. Law is not just about making things better; it is about expressing norms. A jury exists in part to represent the community and express the community’s view in the form of a verdict stated in open court. Likewise, the Geneva Convention speaks of “the general opinion of the civilised world.”

I think the agreement to ban chemical weapons was an achievement, even though it did not prevent many other (or even worse) evils. Violating that agreement should bring condemnation and punishment. If Bashar Assad can use chemical weapons with impunity, that is a sad day. I don’t think a meaningful punishment would have to end Assad’s regime, any more than a punishment for robbery must so bad that no one ever robs again.

Nevertheless, a legalistic framework does not support the US and allies bombing Syrian military installations. That is because:

1. The punishment would not fall on the perpetrators. We talk about “bombing Syria” or even “bombing Assad.” We would actually kill individual human beings who were present in Syria when the bombs dropped. Bashar Assad is very unlikely to be one of those individuals, and “Syria” is not something that can suffer. Using these proper names is a disingenuous form of synecdoche. The more accurate sentence would be: “Assad ordered chemical weapons to be used, so we must kill some other people.” Put that way, it is a clear injustice.

2. The punishers would not have standing to judge. It is deeply unfortunate that the UN won’t decide to punish Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons. But it won’t, and unilateral action by the US would not restore the principle of rule of law. It is as if A robbed B’s store, the police did nothing, and so C beat up A. That is not an advance for justice. C’s beating up A could have positive consequences. For instance, it might cause A to cease robbing people. But once we are in the realm of weighing consequences, the calculus probably does not favor a US bombing campaign in Syria.

3. The expressive aspect of the case would be ambiguous. What norms would a US-led bombing campaign express? Never use poison gas? (Maybe.) Go ahead and use poison gas because the cost is not very high? (Perhaps.) The US and European countries that previously ruled the Middle East can bomb anyone they like? (Maybe.) The expressive function of the law requires very carefully designed expressive institutions, such as public jury trials in courts of law. Otherwise, the act of A punishing B just looks like violence.

In short, the best argument for a bombing campaign in Syria is legalistic, but it fails.

the Nehemiah story: on the pros and cons of walls

In writing yesterday about the Palestinian city, Rawabi, that is rising not far from Jerusalem, I thought of the Book of Nehemiah in the Bible. It tells a good and relevant story–but also a problematic one. It is a step-by-step primer in how to build a community, but also an illustration of how communities shut people out. It is about a wall–and walls can be both good and bad.

At the beginning of the chapter, the Jews are subjects of Persia; their own former capital lies in ruins. “The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” (1:1).

Nehemiah interprets this situation as a just punishment for the Jews’ sins. He is a Jew himself, but he has found a role as a cup-bearer or eunuch to the Persian King Artaxerxes. He recalls:

I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence.

Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid,

And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? (2:1-3)

Moved by Nehemiah’s plea, the king and queen allow and assist him to rebuild Jerusalem. Nehemiah organizes each of the clans and guilds to work on a section of the wall. The people labor for 52 days until the whole ring is complete. Much of the Book of Nehemiah records and honors the names of the builders and the sections of the wall they worked on.

While the work proceeds, divisions arise among the Jews, some of whom get rich at the expense of others. This makes Nehemiah “very angry,” and he institutes social reforms, including a ban on usury. Importantly, he personally eschews special treatment, “not eat[ing] the bread of the governor” (5:14), but working with his bare hands.

A wall benefits everyone inside it once it is whole and complete. The Jews sanctify this common good and the space it encloses. The sanctified and complete wall then becomes a framework within which individuals can construct private property. “Now the city was large and great: but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded.” (7:4).  The people come with their servants and personal property (horses, mules, camels, asses), and some give gold and silver to the city for common purposes.

The community needs not only a framework and a mix of common and collective goods, but also rules to guide the interactions of its members. So the people gather and listen to the Law as narrated by Ezra. “The ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law” (8:3). Finally, they celebrate a common ritual that consists of each household’s building its own small booth of “live branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches” (8:15) until the whole city is a place of “mirth” (8:12) and “solemn assembly” (8:18).

All of this is exemplary of civic work:

  1. Nehemiah’s interactions with Persia and the local peoples are “political,” in the narrow sense of that word. He negotiates an arrangement favorable to his people. The deal may also benefit Artaxerxes by creating a loyal subject city near the frontier with Egypt. (Nehemiah’s enemies accuse him of plotting to rebel against Babylon, but he insists they are lying: “There are no such things done as thou sayest, but thou feignest them out of thine own heart.” [6:8])
  2. Next, Nehemiah concentrates on building an essential common resource, in this case, a wall.
  3. He is attentive to questions of justice within the group.
  4. He applies all restraints and restrictions to himself as well as others.
  5. He creates a space for individual initiative and freedom; but at the same time …
  6. He leads the people in shared rituals that reinforce their commonality.

But a wall also has another aspect. It shuts some people out even as it protects those within. The desire to distinguish between the Jews and their “heathen” enemies is a consistent theme throughout the book of Nehemiah. From the first time that the neighbors “Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard [about the plan to rebuild Jerusalem], they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king? / Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem” (2:19-20).

Note that Geshem is an Arab/Arabian, which makes the story particularly problematic for the case of Rawabi. Later, the same people mentioned as scoffing at Nehemiah’s project become serious about it. They “conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it. /Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them. (3:9)” Indeed, the Jews must work with spears at the ready and on 24-hour guard. They are successful, nevertheless, in finishing the wall. “And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God” (6:16).

Then, once the wall is complete and the “heathen” are shut out, Nehemiah institutes legal reforms that separate Jews from gentiles. “And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.” (9:2) The people also tell a story of their own past that emphasizes their conquests. They recall that they “subduedst … the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites” and took “their hands, with their kings, and the people of the land, that they might do with them as they would. And they took strong cities, and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all goods, wells digged, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit trees in abundance: so they did eat, and were filled, and became fat, and delighted themselves in thy great goodness”(9:24).

Here we see the two aspects of citizenship neatly combined. It is about building a safe and supportive common framework for a whole people–and about shutting other people out. It is about celebrating common bonds–and memorializing the enemies’ defeat.

But I would resist the idea that citizenship must always have losers as well as winners. Citizens can build bridges as well as walls, and even when they concentrate on walls, they can benefit the people who live on both sides. Although some read the poem differently, I take Robert Frost and his neighbor to be constructing a common good when they silently stack New Hampshire granite along their shared dividing line:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each. …

And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Rawabi, the planned Palestinian city

In yesterday’s New York Times, Isabel Kirshner reports from Rawabi, the planned city that’s rising on a hill between Jerusalem and Nablus. She describes Rawabi’s struggles with the Israelis over permits and water, limited support from the Palestinian Authority, and criticism from the “Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, which opposes any normal ties with Israel. The committee has accused Mr. [Bashar] Masri [Rawabi’s developer] of promoting his private interests at the expense of Palestinian rights and of whitewashing the Israeli occupation.”
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I am not sure what to conclude about the politics. But I have been to Rawabi, where I received the official promotional tour, designed mainly for prospective investors and residents. One of my colleagues took this snapshot as we approached.

Rawabi is an impressive place from the perspective of planning and development. It is environmentally friendly, aligned with the new urbanism, and yet–at least to my naive eyes–also consistent with the traditions of the region. Terraces of stone houses will line the hill, creating streets and squares for pedestrian traffic and shopping. Many residents are likely to commute, and their cars will be accommodated in underground garages. Ample attention is being paid to common or public amenities, including the central mosque and a church.

The politics are complicated because this is a Palestinian project that does not challenge the Israeli occupation. Indeed, I think Rawabi is good for Israel, creating a nice new Palestinian town on land that Israel does not officially contest, and thus potentially relieving pressure on the Jerusalem area. The kind of state that it invokes–orderly, prosperous, high-tech–would be easy for Israelis to live next to. Rawabi also brings business to Israel, which provides the town’s only port and airport and supplies many of its materials.

The fact that Rawabi is good for Israel does not make it bad for Palestinian aspirations. I am confident that the motivations for building it are nationalistic. It is about creating autonomy and prosperity within the Palestinian territory. Bashar Masri is an international businessperson who could make more money in other countries, including the US, where he lived for 25 years. He sees himself as investing in the Palestinian nation.

But this a classic situation in which choosing a win/win strategy could possibly undermine your side’s bargaining position in the inevitable zero-sum struggle for finite resources (land and water). That is essentially what the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee seems to be saying–and I am not surprised by their view.

Meanwhile, the Israelis show only grudging tolerance for Rawabi. When we were there, the developers were struggling to get permits for an access road. Apparently, not all Israelis see this development as good for their side. I do not know whether that is because they hold a purely zero-sum view of the geopolitical conflict (anything good for the Palestinians must be bad for Israel), because some influential Israelis actually want the land on which Rawabi is built, or because red tape is just pervasive. In any event, the obstacles seem foolish to me.

Again, I do not know enough to make an overall judgment of Rawabi from a Palestinian perspective. But I have a bias in its favor, based on the general premise that building things confers power. I am fully aware of the radical disparities in the situation. The Israelis possess the main cities, all the ports, the contiguous population centers, access to water–and jets, tanks, and the bomb. The Palestinians do not. I would favor substantial changes in that balance. But the question is how to get a just outcome while also developing Palestinian nationhood.

On the same day that we visited Rawabi, we had met with representatives of the Palestinian Authority, who emphasized the many ways in which they were being victimized by Israel and misunderstood by Americans. I did not disagree with their position, but it was hard to be impressed or to see a path to success. It was very easy to be impressed by Bashar Masri in Rawabi. Maybe he is impressive because he is an international businessperson, hence a representative of the ascendent “neoliberal” order, whereas the Palestinian Authority is a Third World bureaucracy running on borrowed cash. In that case, ideologically, I should be more sympathetic to the PA than to Masri. But another interpretation is that Masri is creating a reality while the PA is asking for something akin to pity. Also, Masri has a strategy (offering a win/win opportunity for his side and the side that has the tanks), whereas I couldn’t detect a strategy in the PA office in Ramallah. Rawabi represents productive, constructive power that can only help the Palestinian cause.

the limits of putting yourself in their shoes and looking with their eyes

Yesterday in Jerusalem, the president told the story of Israel, much as mainstream Israelis understand it, and then asked his audience to see the Palestinians’ side of the story. Those passages in his speech drew applause. I used to think that the ability to see the other side was an unambiguous moral gain that would increase the chance of peace–because, as Obama said yesterday, “peace begins, not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in some carefully designed process, but in the daily connections, that sense of empathy that takes place among those who live together.”

But this is what I experienced last summer in Israel and the West Bank that complicated that assumption for me. Senior members of the Israeli establishment–diplomats, politicians, and officers in the IDF (up to Lieutenant General rank)–are all excellent at explaining “the Palestinian narrative.” They are quick to tell you that Israelis and Palestinians are two wounded peoples, with the Holocaust on one side and Al-Nakba (the Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948) on the other. They express views much like Obama’s on Thursday:

It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own — (cheers, applause) — living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day.

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Me and others being shown the “Security Barrier” by the IDF Colonel who chose the locations.

 

They will say this kind of thing in plain sight of the security fence (a.k.a. West Bank barrier) that they have built to separate themselves from Palestinian neighborhoods–choosing where it lies and who can cross it, and governing both sides.

I am convinced that they do not merely repeat but actually believe in their hearts the kinds of sentiments to which the President called them in this part of his speech:

But I — I’m going off script here for a second, but before I — before I came here, I — I met with a — a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons.

I honestly believe that if — if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed. (Applause.) I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. (Applause.) I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. (Cheers, applause.) I believe that. (Cheers, applause.)

They cheered Obama in Jerusalem, and last summer I observed a moving encounter between an Israeli intelligence officer and a Palestinian businesswoman–mother to mother, wishing each other the best. I think this kind of recognition has grown over time. Mrs. Netanyahu summarized the old popular view when she claimed, “When the Jews came to this area, there were no Arabs here. They came to find work when we built cities. There was nothing here before that.” That is not PC any more; now the kinds of people I talked to know all about the Palestinians under Turkish and British rule and what they lost in ’48.

But … that doesn’t lead to action. You can be sincerely empathetic but not willing to do anything to remedy a situation in which you are complicit. Americans are like that every day. To name a timely example, we were involved in killing between 150,000 and 1 million Iraqis over the past ten years, and not many of us did anything to stop that. Detroit now encompasses a contiguous abandoned urban area larger than Manhattan, and not many Americans lift a finger. I am not equating Iraq, the West Bank, and Detroit–merely noting that empathy doesn’t often cause action.

But I worry about something worse. Being able to express empathy, even if it is perfectly sincere, makes one feel better and also wins the trust of third parties. I was disarmed hearing Israeli leaders tell me the “Palestinian narrative.” When an Israeli settler leader failed to acknowledge the Palestinian perspective, he lost me completely. When the Fatah representatives whom we met in Ramallah refused to acknowledge that Israelis believe they have a historic link to the land, I marked them down a notch in my own mental estimation, thinking they were narrow-minded.

This means that empathy not only fails to produce justice; it can be an asset in an unjust conflict. In the Israeli case, empathy is the kind of asset that comes from being fairly secure day to day and from having a wealthy, highly educated, cosmopolitan population. Israelis recently voted on the basis of the kinds of consumer-oriented, domestic issues that usually move US voters; peace was a side issue, just as it was in the US in 2o12. The Tel Aviv real estate market is booming. Its citizens can afford to hope that Palestinian kids succeed. But will they let them?

bloggers remember what they wrote when the Iraq war started

Blogging was still pretty new in March 2003, but I was already at it. This week, on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, veteran bloggers have been reviewing their own opinions when it started. (See, e.g., contrasting posts by Jonathan Chait and James Fallows). Reflection is a valuable activity because we ought to learn from mistakes. I don’t find a strong statement for or against the invasion on my blog, probably because I was a bit conflicted–and also, I rarely opine on anything unless I think my professional work gives me a comparative advantage that I ought to share. But I did post this on March 31, 2003, and it brings back vivid memories:

We’re back from a week in Greece. This is a civic/political blog, not a personal diary, so I will refrain from describing our many adventures. I can, however, file a report on how the current war looks from Greece. A few vignettes:

  • We’re staying in the medieval walled village of Kastro, on the island of Siphnos—at the opposite side of the island from the port. It would seem to be a remote and isolated spot (especially during the off-season, with all ferries cancelled because of gale-force winds), far from the world and its troubles. But when we go upstairs to answer the phone in our landlords’ apartment one morning, the whole family is weeping (quite literally) at al-Jazeera’s coverage of the first marketplace bombing in Baghdad. The father clutches his chest and says, “My heart is black, black. Bush—this all for money.”
  • A repeated scene, replayed in every taverna, coffee shop, ferryboat lounge, and hotel lobby we enter. A TV is on in the corner showing the al-Jazeera feed from Baghdad with Greek commentary that we can’t read, while Greeks, wreathed in cigarette smoke, sit watching and forming their opinions. These TV’s are often our only source of news, so we peer at the Greek text for clues about what is happening one time zone to the east, conscious all the time that everyone knows we are Americans.
  • Eating ice cream at the elegant cafe atop Lykavittos Hill, overlooking the Parthenon and hundreds of thousands of Greeks who are marching from Parliament toward the U.S. Embassy. We’ve picked this spot, in part, because we’re responsible for two kids whom we want to keep away from any rioting, and we don’t think that the marchers will possibly try to ascend Lykavittos. Chants, unintelligible to us, float up from the Athens streets.

And now we’re back. Time always seems to slow while you travel, or expand like a fan with all the details of each day still clear in your mind. It seems forever since you left your usual life. And then you return to your routine, and the fan snaps closed. You feel that you were gone for just a dimly remembered day or two.