Category Archives: The Middle East

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.

keeping a democracy from overreacting to terrorism

(Chicago) In her book What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, Louise Richardson warns against generalizing but still ventures a cautious generalization about terrorists. What they want, she writes, are “the three r’s” of revenge, renown, and reaction. They are  strikingly vague about what kind of reaction they expect or what it will lead to (pp. 80-84). Bin Laden may have thought, for example, that the US would withdraw from the Middle East if he attacked us at home, or that we would invade the Arab world–but most likely he did not weigh that alternative or care which of the two outcomes occurred. What he wanted was a reaction of a large magnitude, something that would make him a significant player.

And that is precisely what he got in the form of the Afghanistan and Iraqi invasions. That does not (by itself) prove that those two interventions were bad for the world or for the US. They could have been good even if bin Laden had wanted them–for example, if our Afghan intervention had produced a stable, human-rights-protecting regime there. But it now looks as if both wars were bad, the costs too high for us and for the populations of both countries, the gains in human rights too evanescent. So then it appears that we gave bin Laden just what he wanted and did net harm as a result.

Richardson writes, “It was not quite true, therefore, that, in the words of President Bush, ‘September 11 changed our world.’ Rather, it was our reaction to September 11 that changed our world” (p. 167). That was true in big ways (two wars) and in subtler ways as well. For instance, enough Americans decided–wrongly–that it was unsafe to fly after September 11 that an additional 1,200 road fatalities occurred (p. 168).

The essential question is how a democratic government can avoid such an overreaction. In part, that’s easy. Very few US administrations would have invaded Iraq after 9/11–overturning a secularist Ba’ath regime in reaction to an attack by a fundamentalist movement based in an entirely different country. That was so stupid or venal that the probability of repetition is relatively low. But most administrations would have invaded Afghanistan, most Congresses would have passed the Patriot Act, and most free peoples would have curtailed flying and altered their behavior in many other irrational ways. I, for one, was not very happy flying in 2001-2002.

In a dictatorship, rulers can decide to shrug off a terrorist attack if that serves their interests. In a competitive democracy with a free press, the public typically demands a strong reaction. Imagine, for instance, that Al Gore had been president in 2000 and had chosen not to invade Afghanistan. We would be better off today, but no one would know that. Instead, Gore would be remembered as the weak president who was defeated in 2004 by the candidate who finally took us into Afghanistan.

Terrorism is a criminal offense that can be dealt with as such; it is not an existential threat to a country of our size and wealth. Terrorists are weak, and the biggest gift we can give them is to treat them as more powerful than they are. I don’t really expect these conclusions to prevail, especially in the face of another terrorist attack. But in the meantime, the best we can do is remind ourselves and others of these facts.

patenting smart water?

In a New York Times op-ed today, Charles Fishman argues that we should use the current severe drought to improve how we manage and distribute water, potentially achieving vast efficiencies. When I was in Israel recently, my group visited a startup company called TaKaDu that analyzes data already collected by water utilities and allows them to identify leaks, leading to impressive savings. We were taken to TaKaDu to investigate the problematic thesis that Israel is “Startup Nation.”* But my topic today is not Israeli entrepreneurship and Middle Eastern geopolitics–it’s the use of data to save water. TaKaDu made a strong case that immense amounts of water are wasted due to the failure to analyze available information. (Energy is also wasted in moving water that subsequently leaks.) We should do something about that. But to me as a political theorist, two aspects of their presentation seemed a bit troubling:

1. TaKaDu has a patent for their general approach of analyzing data on water and providing the information to their clients via a “user interface.” In other words, the US government has given them a monopoly on this whole approach. Their founder and CEO, Amer Peleg, was disarmingly candid in his response to my question about their patent, basically saying that it may be too broad for the public interest, but he got what US law allows him. Peleg said that no one else may use mathematical algorithms to analyze water utility data. A competitor would have to try something totally different, such as applying quantum mechanics to water. I don’t know if Peleg’s interpretation of the patent is correct, but if so, this seems like bad US public policy. TaKaDu will save money and water, but not as much as a field of competing firms would save.

2. Peleg said that big water authorities were the best clients of TaKaDu, whereas the myriad small water boards typical of the US were poorly positioned to take advantage of data. They have too little data and not enough money to invest in efficiencies. This is interesting because my hero, the late Elinor Ostrom, achieved her original insights about the value of decentralization and amateur leadership by studying water boards. She showed that a vast number of hyper-local, amateur-led, partially overlapping water authorities in Southern California did a better job of protecting a fragile aquifer than any corporation or bureaucracy could. Her model of an adaptive ecosystem of volunteers looks very different from Peleg’s ideal of big data applied to big problems. It’s possible that the two models could be combined, but that would require careful thought and due respect for the decentralized or “polycentric” traditions of local government.

*Mitt Romney invoked “Startup Nation” as an explanation of Israel’s economic lead over the Arab countries. But when we visited an extremely impressive Palestinian firm inside the West Bank–one that bends over backwards not to seem “political”–we learned that their whole future depends on a long-delayed decision by Israel to allow an access road to their site. Obviously, inequalities in power and resources are relevant here.

Israel/West Bank trip, day 5

(Tel Aviv) After talking last night with the editor of the very liberal Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz (Aluf Benn), I’m thinking that the most interesting question is which of these two views most accurately represents the Israeli government:

  1. We (the state of Israel) offered to remove almost all the Jewish settlements as part of a reasonable peace deal that Yasser Arafat rejected. We would do the same again. We have continued to build settlements, but we are willing to remove them for peace. We have been building them because the domestic politics of stopping them is too difficult in the absence of a peace offer, and also because we have a right to a Plan B. Plan A is peace through a treaty, but Plan B is putting settlements on the high ground so that we can strengthen our defense against rockets.
  2. Previous Israeli Prime Ministers offered to remove most of the settlements, but (thank God) the Palestinians didn’t take that deal. Right now, we are deliberately trying to build as many as we can so that we can change the facts on the ground in Israel’s favor. If we ever agree to exchange land for peace, we will cede much less land than we would have offered in 2000. At most, for every two new settlements, we’ll renounce one, and that will be a better deal.

I’m not saying that 1 is OK, but 2 is decidedly worse. Now, states do not actually have opinions, plans, or goals; people do. It is most likely that the individual decision-makers in Israel–who range from voters to the Prime Minister–hold a mix of these two opinions, along with others. In that sense, there is no real truth about the Israeli position–unless the government decides to sign a deal.

I’ve written political commentary all week. Heading home on Sunday (and before taking a week off from blogging), I’ll sign off with a few random observations about the West Bank and Israel as I have experienced them.

  • The Israeli Defense Forces conscript all Jewish 18-year-olds except the ultra-Orthodox. So there are units of very young adults in uniform all over the place, especially in Jerusalem. The Israeli army is famously informal, not exactly spit-and-polish. You see teenage female soldiers with pony tails and earrings, and skinny guys who look about 16 lounging around on duty. I have never seen such un-threatening military units in my life. On the other hand, several people have told me that the border police and regular police are aggressive and disliked.
  • Israelis are genuinely afraid about a whole range of what they call “existential threats” (from an Iranian bomb to social disintegration), but Tel Aviv is a real estate boom town, and lots of Jews who hold US passports and advanced degrees are choosing to live here instead of LA or Boston. In that sense, the market’s prognosis is optimistic and secure.
  • I don’t want to sound like Tom Friedman, but clearly there is another profound division in this region, beside the Arab/Jewish divide: the 21st century versus anti-modernists. Rawabi, the planned Palestinian city in the West Bank, has more in common with Tel Aviv, which is Miami-Beach-on-the-Mediterranean, than either city has with Muslim or Orthodox Jewish religious communities around Jerusalem. We’ve met Palestinian and Israeli entrepreneurs who are, to my eyes and ears, indistinguishable. I’m sure that if you forced them to discuss who’s been responsible for the conflict between Israel and the Arab world since 1900, they would disagree. But what they share is a relative lack of interest in such matters, along with a common fascination with high tech. That doesn’t mean that Shimon Peres’ vision of a “New Middle East” (Saudi tourists on the Tel Aviv beaches) is realistic, but both communities have their modernists.
  • Notwithstanding the millions of times you have been told that Israel is small, crossing back and forth across the security wall and the Palestinian zone of control drives home how tiny the distances are and how complex is the political landscape. Major Palestinian and Israeli populations are not just nearby on the map; they are in plain sight and hailing distance of each other.
  • Little children here, whether Arab or Jewish, Israeli or Palestinian, religious or secular, are notably cute, and I really hope they can all live safely together some day.

Israel/West Bank trip, day 4

(Tel Aviv) Since I last blogged, we have met with Vice Prime Minister (and Lieutenant General) Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon,* Ethiopian Israeli politician Shlomo Molla (who’s very talented, by the way), human rights attorney Hanny Ben Israel (who painted a fairly horrifying picture of Israeli treatment of African refugees), an entrepreneur named Amir Peleg, at his startup’s office, and two vintners, at their vineyard.

The number of people we have interviewed is now approaching 20. One way in which they vary is their ability to articulate the perspective of opponents or enemies. Some Israelis like to talk about the Israeli and Palestinian “narratives,” and they preface their remarks with empathetic summaries of both sides’ stories. On the other hand, some people just speak for their side and may take pains to dismiss the other perspective. Dr. Abdallah Abdallah of the Palestinian Authority, for example, said that Israelis’ security concerns were “imaginary.” Settler leader Israel Harel said that Palestinians are just Jordanians.

Normally, I would argue that being able to articulate the other side’s views is both a moral and intellectual achievement. It broadens your mind and can constrain your own interests. Once you have explained the beliefs and hopes of your historical enemy with reasonable accuracy and justice, it becomes harder to dismiss their interests. Even if you don’t sincerely care about their “narrative,” expressing it constrains you in the way that la Rouchefoucauld meant when he said that “hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue.”

But let me complicate that a bit. Being able to articulate your opponent’s deepest beliefs and values is also a source of power and influence. In bilateral discussions, it makes you more effective, because you know what to offer and what buttons you can push. In dealing with third parties (such as my colleagues and me, on this trip), it makes you far more persuasive. Compared to a person who dismisses his opponents completely, one who begins with a thoughtful and respectful version of their “narrative” comes across as much more reliable and decent. An example would be Colonel Danny Tirzah, the man who designed and built Israel’s security barrier with the West Bank. He expressed great sensitivity for Palestinian concerns and identity, and he ended with a devout wish that the wall may be torn down so that both peoples can live in peace. By the way, he is good-looking, funny, confident, and completely fluent in English. But what if the wall has been placed–as the Palestinians claim–in locations designed to maximize the amount of territory the Israelis can settle before they cede portions of the West Bank in negotiations? Then all Tirzah’s sensitivity and breadth of understanding is irrelevant, and we should be critics of the wall. In advocating for his side, he is far more effective than a Palestinian or an Israeli who comes across as a hard-liner lacking empathy. But that doesn’t mean that he is right. I see variation in sophistication on both sides, but my limited sample suggests that Israel’s official representatives and negotiators are generally more effective communicators than their Palestinian counterparts. Whether that reflects greater moral maturity or sheer PR superiority would be a matter for debate.

By the way, is that thing that Danny Tirzah built a wall, a fence, or a security barrier? Almost every descriptive word in this place is controversial, starting with what to call the place itself. Is the region to my east right now Erez Israel, Judea and Samaria, Zone C of the Palestinian National Authority, a part of Palestine, the Holy Land, the West Bank, or the Occupied Territories? Examples like this are legion. To name one more, are the people moving into Israeli territory from Eritrea migrants, refugees, or infiltrators?

These words combine facts and values in way that Bernard Williams (developing an idea from J. L. Austin) called “thick.” A classic example would be murder. In order for that word to apply, someone has to be killed and the killing must be unjustifiable and deliberate. So moral and empirical considerations combine. We often try to separate the two, but I have long been convinced that they interpenetrate–or, to put it another way, reality is best described by thick terms; propositions that include thick terms most closely approximate the truth. What is true is both accurate/valid and good/just.

To a large extent, the rhetorical contest in this region is about incompatible “thick” concepts. But there are also disagreements about basic facts. I am keeping a list of purely factual claims that are disputed among respectable groups, e.g., between centrist Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. Example: Was the wall/security fence the main or sole reason for the decline in suicide bombings? Answering that question would hardly resolve the larger issues, but I would like to know.

*Actually canceled. I composed this before I that last meeting occurred.