January 02, 2009

So What Should Israel Do?

To read the discussions of Israel's retaliation against Hamas in Gaza is to experience something akin to the feeling one has on arriving late at a movie and trying to understand the sequence of events unfolding on screen.  The film's been running for awhile, let's say, and a guy who needs a shave walks into a seedy bar, pulls a gun and shoots another guy sitting on a stool apparently minding his own business, who turns in the last instant to face his assailant and registers surprise at seeing him.

That's all you know.  The modern Leftist sentiment, which is anti-Israel, would focus on these factors: the killer had a gun and the victim didn't.  It was unexpected.  The victim died and the killer walked away.  Everything must be done to stop this senseless bloodshed, preferably by way of UN Resolution.

Most Leftist criticism of Israel operates at about that level.  The questions that are not answered, or even addressed, are these: In the absence of Palestinian provocation (firing rockets indiscriminately into towns such as Sderot), would there be any Israeli military action at all?  Second question: if the Israeli response is "disproportionate," what level of response would be effective so that Hamas stops shelling civilian populations in Israeli towns near the Gaza border?

If Leftist critics deign to deal with such questions at all, the responses usually run along these lines: Israel's attacks are a "massacre" of innocents and a form of "collective punishment" for the attacks directed by Hamas, the civilian government in Gaza. As to the second question, certainly some form of retaliation is justified under international law, but whatever it is that Israel is doing, it's too much.  

If one then points out that firing rockets into towns such as Sderot is also a form of "collective punishment," since the town folk there are not the same thing as the Knesset in Tel Aviv, the movie is rewound a little bit to introduce a new element.  It turns out that the Hamas rocket attacks are actually justified by the blockade (land, sea & air) of Gaza by the Israelis.  Naturally, pro-Israeli advocates will point out that this blockade was the very sort of "non-military" sanction or "retaliation" which Leftist American sentiment is now demanding in place of the military attacks, to which Israel resorted because the blockade failed to stop the rocket attacks, and the blockade was the sort of "non-occupying" tactic employed by the Israelis after they pulled all military from Gaza (as the American Left demanded).  Hamas then used the power vacuum to stage rocket attacks from Gaza free from Israeli interference, in order to provoke Israel into a retaliation which can be condemned by the American Left, who like condemning Israel.  And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say.

The movie, it turns out, has been running much, much longer than you dreamed possible when you first took your seat.  While it's true that the Israeli blockade was a measured response to a violent program of indiscriminate rocket attacks and Hamas anti-Israel agitation generally, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and its expansion of borders generally since the Six Day War of 1967, are the actual proximate and justifying causes of the Hamas rocket attacks.  In turn, the Israeli partisans (who never lack for historical scholarship on such matters) point out that the Six Day War, and the retention of "strategic depth" since 1967, were themselves reactions to Arab attacks on the integrity (and survival) of Israel.

Which brings us back to 1948, when the movie actually started running.  This is why I find it's always easier just to start there and find out from the person who directs such criticisms at Israel whether he/she simply disputes Israel's right to exist.  That's actually the fulcrum point.  If someone supports Israel's right to exist, then of course it doesn't take long to reach agreement that Israel has the right to retaliate against military attacks against its own people.  One might argue about specific tactics, or the extent of appropriate retaliation, or whether some pacifistic party in control in Tel Aviv might produce a better result with less bloodshed -- these are all legitimate points of discussion.  But the kneejerk condemnation of Israel for doing anything at all would not be the main focus of the argument.

Yet that's precisely the focus of the discussion which emanates from the American Left.  Sometimes I think this irrationality can best be explained by a form of high-flown anti-Semitism: a persistent anti-Jew feeling dressed up in the rarefied dialectic of international relations.  Another possibility, more Freudian and perhaps complementary to the first point, is that the fairly recent emergence of Israel as a country in world history allows the liberal intellectual an opportunity to discharge a gnawing point of discomfort and cognitive dissonance.  Israel was "imposed" on a native Arab population.  Sure, maybe for altruistic and compassionate reasons at the time, but still an act of European colonial imperialism.  And the Left hates Euro-American colonial imperialism.  The only problem is that the USA itself was founded through just such an "imposition;" indeed, an imposition a great deal worse, since there were no pre-Columbian Europeans living for thousands of years among the Native Americans at the time of the Western usurpation.

Well, we aren't going to do anything about the Apache or Navajo or Seminole or Algonquin or Cherokee Indians.  But by golly, we'll stand up for the Palestinians because, hell, that's so easy! It's not like deeding my own extensive real estate back to Ishi and the Coastal Miwok, or giving People's Park back to the Costanoans, as the old Berkeley radicals wanted to do (see? they were principled and walked the walk, not like modern American leftist dilettantes.)  We'll be in solidarity with them because they're the low-tech side of the military confrontation, and anyway, the Bush Administration supports Israel, so they can't be right.

One thing I'm pretty sure of: one will never understand the hail of criticism directed Israel's way by rules of logic applicable everywhere else.  Israel's people are attacked; they respond in kind.  Seems simple enough, but only because you left to get some popcorn at a critical moment.

December 31, 2008

Bush Administration's Greatest Hits

It is that time of year when columnists, pundits, movie critics and even bloggers tend to write "Best" lists for the preceding 12 months.  This particular New Year's Eve we stand at the juncture of a truly great event, the End of the Bush Era in American Life.  Perhaps then it is fitting to reflect on some of the singular accomplishments of the Bushian National Nightmare not only of this past year, but of the preceding seven as well.

1.  The Complete Absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq:  We all have our personal favorites, I'm sure, but for me this event, this occurrence, this unbelievable fact, represents Bush's Sistine Chapel Ceiling.  I consider it the single greatest error ever made by any President of the United States in the history of the Republic.  It is difficult to get one's mind around it because you blow your own mind in the process.  Regardless of latter-day historical revisionism, the fact remains that the main, the chief, the only rationale for invading Iraq was that it constituted an act of preemptive self-defense (surely very controversial even at that) against a "clear, present and gathering danger" to the security of the USA.  Not a single cannister of nerve gas, nor a single vial of anthrax, nor a gram of weapons-grade uranium has ever been found within the borders of Iraq despite our virtual ownership of the country for the past six years.  This colossal blunder, this incomparable error in judgment, constituted the basis on which we committed the military forces of the United States with consequences which have been detailed on this blog and everywhere else for numerous years.

2.  Hurricane Katrina:  The range of Bush's incompetence is perhaps his defining characteristic.  While the American public watched the city of New Orleans drown on national television, Bush, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security remained unaware that there was any sort of problem there. Bush breathed a sigh of relief and remarked that we "had dodged a bullet."  

3.  The Reintroduction of Torture by a Modern Twenty-First Century Democracy:  This is another of Bush's signature accomplishments.  As with Iraq & Katrina, I think it will take years, perhaps a decade, before the enormity of what Bush has done in this field can be truly evaluated and placed in context. Bush specifically approved the use of waterboarding, a form of torture devised during the Spanish Inquisition and prosecuted by the United States against the Japanese as a war crime following World War II.

4.  The Establishment of a Concentration Camp in Guantanamo: As the stories leak out, it becomes increasingly apparent that Bush, with the aiding & abetting of his consigliere Alberto Gonzales, created a legal black hole in Cuba where hundreds of innocent men who had nothing to do with a "war on terror" were incarcerated in cages and denied, for years on end, any form of challenge to the legality of their detention.

5.  The Obstruction of International Efforts to Deal with Global Warming and Ocean Acidification:  Perhaps in no other arena have Bush's innate anti-social tendencies wreaked greater havoc, and with such ominous long-term consequences, than in his obdurate, non-scientific, malicious interference with the international consensus that drastic and immediate responses are needed to deal with climate change.  He has sided with the yahoo, know-nothing idiots who have watched passively as the accelerating effects of climate change (which have tended, in nearly every instance, to be worse than the long-range predictions of the IPCC) have engulfed the world.

These are highlights, but of course any summary of Bush must be truncated to avoid rewriting something approaching the combined length of War & Peace and Moby Dick.  Historians will have to figure Bush out in the fullness of time.  One question that always perplexed me: what was Bush for?  It doesn't suffice to say he was for a "strong America," because he ignored the clear warning signals preceding the attacks of 9-11.  He wrecked the military by overusing it in unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He destroyed the nation's economy through a reckless and stupid regime of "deregulation."  He leaves behind a trillion dollar annual budget deficit for the US government, reeling safety net and health programs, and the essential bankruptcy of all 50 states.  Had he actually designed administration policy with the specific intent of damaging the safety and common welfare of the American citizenry, it is difficult to see how he could have surpassed his actual record of destruction.  75% of the American population disapprove of his presidency and are "anxious" for him to leave office.  The other 25%, of course, are clinically insane.  

So one must look out upon this vast landscape of destruction and conclude, as perplexing as the conclusion might seem, that this is actually what Bush wanted.  He wanted to wreck the country and found the best (which is to say: worst) people he could hire to help him do it.  As Sherlock Holmes instructed, in deducing the truth one must eliminate all possibilities until one is left with a single explanation that fits the facts.  And that explanation, however unlikely it might have seemed at the outset, must be the truth.

December 30, 2008

Twenty Days of Bush

As I begin writing this, Bush has 20 days and 9 hours left.  While he has been preoccupied over the last month or so with environmental destruction of a truly deranged character (opening wilderness up to mining, for example, and Endangering Species already listed as Endangered Species under the Endangered Species Act), I suspect that the last 3 weeks or so are going to be devoted to business of a more personal nature.  To wit, undertaking necessary measures to ensure his own freedom from incarceration over the balance of his life.

One thing we know about Bush is that the outrageous does not faze him.  The commutation of sentence of Scooter Libby, for example, was so clearly a repudiation of his own pledge to deal harshly with classified information leakers within his administration that one might have been forgiven for thinking that even Bush, that most hypocritical and morally indifferent of men, would second-guess himself on that one.  No, he went right ahead with it.  He didn't even pretend that the putative reason given (the sentence was "too severe," although it was actually less than federal sentencing guidelines) had any plausibility.  He would have been content, I'm sure, to give no reason whatsoever.  I am virtually certain that one of the things he'll do during these last 20 days is to grant Libby a full pardon.

I suspect, however, that Bush is reluctant to grant himself a pardon, either through an unprecedented auto-pardon or by the Cheney Two-Step, where Bush resigns close to the end of his term so that Cheney can preside over the Bush Absolution.  There may, in fact, be legal ramifications to resignation of a President, even for so brief a period as one day, of which I'm unaware.  But mainly I think that Bush, who is in a curious way obsessed with his "legacy" (a narcissistic fussiness about his historical image), does not like the ignominy which attaches to so craven a legal dodge.

Which must mean that his Administration is actively engaged in conversations with the Obama transition team. The historical precedent is the Nixon-Ford "understanding" reached at the time Nixon resigned.  Ford, for the good of the country, would put it "all behind us."  Certainly, in the smoking ruin that Bush has bequeathed us there are plenty of rationales for getting things behind us so we can focus on pressing concerns such as our economic survival. 

In a larger sense, however, a Bush Auto-Pardon would contradict the reigning ethos of the Bush Administration.  Bush& Cheney are devoted to the principles of illegality without accountability; it is their credo, their calling, in a way.  The Unitary Executive was an exercise in lawlessness.  They were most at home with themselves when blatantly breaking the law and defying a prostrate Congress to do anything about it, which Congress never did.  Never even a successful censure motion.  Think about that.  With all we know about what has gone on, from the fraud used to sell an unnecessary war, to the lack of preparation and seriousness re: the attacks of 9/11, to the torture regime, to the warrantless wiretapping, to the felonious disclosure of a CIA agent's identity, not a single peep out of Congress.  That, more than anything, will be the the Bush/Cheney Legacy: a completely broken system of checks and balances.  And any act of contrition, such as that implied in a pardon, even if prophylactic, demeans this proud legacy of doing whatever they felt like doing. It would almost amount to some sort of tacit admission of doing something wrong.

It's a chancy play, an obeisance to vanity, but I think Bush will risk it.  He will sneer at Congress one more time by going "bare," leaving office with no pardon in his pocket.  It's probably not that great a risk.  Since the attitude of indifference is now so firmly established, since Congress, no matter who's in charge, seems institutionally incapable of taking remedial action, I suspect that Bush may safely forgo that final safety measure of complete executive exoneration.  He will strut out of the Oval Office one last time on January 20, having hastily signed a final batch of Executive Orders authorizing nuclear testing in ANWR, and oil drilling in Lake Tahoe, and head off toward the sunset in the West, to his strange retirement in Texas.  If he does things that way, I doubt that Cheney will get a pardon either.  It's not like Bush to be selfless.  He'll withhold Cheney's clemency out of spite, just to razz him.

Obama & Co will look into things, form a commission, let the statute of limitations expire, and that will be that.  We'll all move ahead as if nothing happened.  We don't want to criminalize, you know -- policy differences.  Or much of anything else, as long as it happened in the Beltway.  The true Bush Legacy is that the nation's capital has become an accountability-free zone.

December 28, 2008

Back in the USSA, Reprised

Been away so long I hardly knew the place,
Gee, it's good to be back home.
Leave it to tomorrow to unpack my case,
Honey, disconnect the phone,
I'm back in the U.S.S....

A."   "Back in the USSR" (almost), John Lennon & Paul McCartney

With "change" in the air, the Magical Thinkers are enjoying a Renaissance.  The Resident Hysteric at the New York Times, the noted Friedman Unit, recently called for a "reboot" of America as Obama takes charge.  Conflating his two most recent columns, I get the idea that unless we enact Friedman's cherished idea of a gasoline tax immediately, we're toast, and we'll never have high speed rail or battery technology or a green economy, because without that tariff, Americans will just go back to buying used SUVs and Hummers.  The Unit said so.  Also, that the "next few months" will be among the most important in U.S. history.

I appeal to the good judgment of the American people: does anyone seriously believe that major changes in the basic way this country does business, lives, works and gets around the landscape, will be in place by, for example, June, 2009? Friedman, who travels a lot, keeps seeing the high speed rail of China and Europe, with their vastly superior Internet infrastructure, and the roll-out of the Chinese electric car and the Israeli nationwide system of electric vehicles with renewable electric power, and The Unit asks: why not us?

I would add to his list a fascinating piece in the Times recently which detailed the development of the "passive thermal" house in Darmstadt and elsewhere in Germany (a phenomenon spreading throughout the Northern tier of Europe), wherein hermetically-sealed houses are built without furnaces and maintain their comfortable temperatures with energy usage equivalent to a single hair dryer.  About 1/20th of a conventional furnace-heated house.  The houses are super-insulated, use an ingenious heat-exchanger to bring fresh air in from the outside, and cost only slightly more to build (in Germany) than conventional houses, because in Germany, you see, they have the technology, materials and inclination to use them.  It is the way out of dependence on natural gas supplies from Russia - simple, brilliant, vibrantly Green.

Our foreign energy dependence is certainly no less dire - about 70% of our petroleum is imported.  Yet the Unit concedes that unless Americans are in effect blackmailed (through a gasoline tax), they will more or less immediately revert to their old patterns of buying gas hogs.  Indeed, with the average price per gallon now again below two bucks, this is beginning to happen. In December trucks and SUVs outsold cars, and hybrid car sales took a beating.

The Unit was born in 1953, which makes him old enough to be susceptible to a fallibility which a psychiatrist I know calls the "trance of everyday living," a useful heuristic tool for analyzing things you hear people say which seem at odds with what you perceive with your own senses.  In essence, our Gestalt of perception is formed in childhood and shapes our interaction with the real world.  We imagine that The Others in our lives think and behave in line with a certain number of notional prototypes, based on our childhood experiences.  So The Unit is more or less mentally trapped in the go-go spirit of the American Colossus, the superpower, the inventive, infinitely adaptable U.S.A. of his youth.  Thus, he imagines that this huge juggernaut, which has been headed in the wrong direction economically, environmentally, culturally, militarily, for over 30 years can be "rebooted" through the incantation of Hi-TechSpeak, as easily as hitting the Restart button on Windows.  And taking shape on the screen as it boots up: A Brand New America.

Not so fast, Friedman.  Believe me, you will get the economic privation which you believe is essential to readjustment of attitudes, but it will come about as the result of natural processes and not government policy.  The United States is fundamentally changing now, but it has nothing to do with a capitalist fantasy of regeneration.  We are turning into the United Socialist States of America because the old system we were running has crashed and burned.  It has all happened so fast that we haven't taken in just how deep and basic these changes are.  The changes we will see in those "next few months" include the death of the U.S. auto industry, for example, which will result in the subtraction of a large percentage from the small residual manufacturing base of this country.  The financial system has already been poleaxed. The housing market is in ruins.  The crap job economy is now even incapable of producing enough crap jobs.  Roads, bridges, schools, national health - all moving toward Third World status.

To get to the Eden of The Unit's pipe dream, we first have to continue along our devolutionary path, and for quite a while longer than a "few months."  The huge "recovery plan" which has been forced on the Obama Administration is not the result of some minor glitch in the way things work here, but reflects a fundamental failure of the system.  Obama/Biden, and the economists advising them, are undertaking this crash program not as a "tweak," not as a "reboot," but as a desperate measure to avoid catastrophe.  Even at that, it seems unlikely that we're going to be allowed to remain in a trance too much longer.