Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fascism, "Islamic Fascism," and the appeal of utopian antisemitism

The suggestion that Italy will anchor the UN force to be placed between Israel and Hezbollah, in addition to provoking no small sympathy for the Italian peacekeepers, provides an interesting opportunity to reflect on Islamic extremism in its historical context. President Bush recently referred to Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and their allies as "Islamic fascists," a term which was criticized for its dubious historicity and inflammatory character, but which is not without resonance for many observers. Yet the characterization also suggests the difficulty of the war America faces: for fascism has proved a remarkably strong and durable ideology, and by no means is its defeat at the hands of liberal democracy a foregone conclusion.

The roots of European-style fascism, like that of the Islamic extremist movements, lay in the search for a "third way" between liberal democracy and Soviet-style marxist revolution. According to this analysis, democracy was hopelessly corrupt and marxism--if stronger and more disciplined than its Western adversary--erred by sacrificing the emotional or religious side of human nature on the altar of economic rationalism. The winning formula, in the fascist view, would combine the revolutionary zeal of marxism with a nationalistic (and more often than not, militaristic) approach: in Western terms, a combination of left-wing economic and right-wing social policies, although this is a vast simplification and tends to undertstate the both the originality and appeal of the fascist approach. Fascism was defeated and discredited in the Second World War, and the very term has become an insult for most Western authors. But the concept never really died, and it has manifested itself with increasing frequency in the post-communist era.

The appeal of third way thinking is most visibile in Islamic Iran, which likes to style its revolution as the third "big" event after 1789 and 1917. The politics of revolutionary Iran and its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, often seem bizarre to Americans, but they are presumably less so to Iranians, combining nationalism and (by Western standards) extreme conservatism on social issues with an appeal for a global revolution of "have not" against "have" countries. Recent postings on Ahmadi-Nejad's personal blog , which talk of his poor childhood as well as the more conventional anti-American and anti-Israel themes, provide unusually vivid examples of this synthesis.

What is especially fascinating in Ahmadi-Nejad's thinking is the role of Jews and antisemitism. Recent scholarship on Nazi Germany, including work by Saul Friedlander and others, emphasizes the role of utopian or redemptive antisemitism in German thought: a fusion of religious and racial thinking in which the Jews were seen as the ultimate source of evil for Germany (mankind) and their removal as the necessary precondition for achieving salvation. Ahmadi-Nejad's thinking has likewise moved beyond strategic opposition to Jews and Israel to a sense of the Jews, and their American patrons, as the source of cosmic evil. A recent conference calling for "A World Without Zionism," provides evidence of this transformation; assertions that a Shi'a messianic age is at hand lend further religious ballast. Crucial to this synthesis is the positive and not merely negative nature of the antisemitic claim: not only the Middle East but the entire world will be improved once the Jews have been dealt with and the yoke 0f Jewish and American dominance is lifted from an unsuspecting planet.

The problem with the Western response to Iran, I think, is the assumption that merely pointing out the parallels to Nazi or Fascist ideology will be enough to counter the threat. This is a misplaced hope for two reasons. First, European history has little if any resonance within the Islamic world. At best, nonwestern countries are likely to see Hitler and Mussolini as losers in a European civil war; at worst they may admire them for perceived toughness and willingness to challenge Anglo-American, and (in their eyes) Jewish, supremacy. By trying to "engage" Iran, the European nations are attempting to repeat the experience of Europe since 1945, but in a situation that perhaps more closely resembles the Europe of the 1930s--arguably a less than propitious endeavor.

The second, more painful, reason is that fascism--and especially its antisemitic variant--are more attractive than people like to admit. Much as Hitler's antisemitism provided him with a physical symbol of evil and enabled him to tie together the elements of an otherwise diverse and unwieldy coalition, Ahmadi-Nejad's anti-Israel crusade permits him to link various factions (left and right, Sunni and Shi'a) and stake a claim for regional or even world leadership that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to make. In laying all the evils of the planet including economic exploitation, religious humiliation, and even sexual immorality at the American-Israeli doorstep, he has provided an at least superficially appealing anlaysis of the world's problems and an all-purpose excuse for any failures he may meet in combatting them. To quote a scholar of Nazi Germany, his analysis may or may not be logical, but is is internally highly coherent, and not easily countered by appeals to external modes of thinking. His successes to date are likely to bolster his missionary zeal.

Recognizing historic parallels does not necessarily tell you much about how to deal with them. While Nazi Germany was militarily defeated, Fascist Italy was at least partially overthrown from within the country, and Franco's Spain made a peaceful transition to democracy. The role of the clergy in Iran, together with the broader differences between Christianity and Islam, make the comparison a necessarily imperfect one. What I am questioning is a peculiarly Western way of assuming the inevitability of our preferred contemporary mode of thinking: of believing that the mere exposure to our own more advanced ideas will necessarily make things turn out right. Iran may be "engaged" successfully by the West and make a peaceful return to more moderate, less menacing ways of thinking. But then again, it may not.

israeli workers to contribute to northern relief fund

Israeli workers south of Haifa will contribute one day's salary to a fund for relief of the northern third of the country, according to a recent agreement. Workers in the north will be paid for time missed during the recent war although they will be required to sacrifice a portion of vacation days. The larger effect of the war on the country's budget and tax policy has yet to be determined, although it seems safe to say that further reductions in defense spending will be off the table for the foreseeable future.

Monday, August 14, 2006

israel and hezbollah: peace or only a time-out?

The latest Mideast war has finished or at least slowed down, with both sides claiming victory, although how convincingly is another story. (Israel wins points for honesty: "we didn't win," proclaimed a headline in its most popular newspaper, which is unlikely to be heard on Al Manar.) For over one hundred Israelis and 1,000 or more Lebanese, the war was over before it ended: the death of Uri Grossman, who died just days after his father, the Israeli author David Grossman, called for a peaceful resolution, provides an especially bitter postcript to an already bitter war.

One will hear a lot of clever pronouncements about the war and its meaning, and not all of them will make sense. Two of the less convincing pronouncements concern (i) Israel's supposed loss of deterrent capability and (ii) the alleged anger of world (and especially Arab) opinion at Israel as a result of IAF bombing attacks. Aside from the fact that these analyses effectively contradict each other--it's hard to retaliate too much and too little at the same time--neither seems convincing on its own terms, and they have the flavor of programmed responses rather than serious thought. The Arab claim of "victory," on the basis of still standing, is particulary odd: by that criteria, the Japanese won World War II, since they too had hundreds of soldiers in the field when the leadership called it quits. The reflexive references to the Israeli or Arab street, mostly by people who don't speak Hebrew or Arabic, are similarly uninspiring.

What then are the war's real lessons? It may be useful to divide the question geographically, beginning with lessons for Israel and proceeding to broader issues. In both cases the implications are plentiful, but more complicated than originally appears.

There is no question that Israel has suffered a shock unmatched by any since the Yom Kippur
War of 1973. As I have previously suggested, this relates less to the military performance, which I think was better than appreciated given the unrealistic expectations and (until the end) indecisive political leadership, than to the increasingly dysfunctional character of the country's political and social institutions. Certainly Olmert must go, but the purge can hardly end there. Numerous items, from the demise of the reserve system to rampant social inequality (apparent most obviously in the neglect of the home front) to the increasingly apparent fantasy of unilateral disengagement can and should be on the table. This is a healty and necessary process, and it is better that it should come now than when it is too late.

For the Arab world--and U.S. policy toward it--the implications are likewise contradictory. At first glance the war, together with developments in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., appears to strengthen the hand of the rejectionists (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah) and weaken such moderates as remain in the region. Yet the irony is that the strength of Hezbollah--the reason it was able to fight more effectively than (say) the Egyptian or Iraqi armies--relates largely to its democratic roots and attention to its popular base, virtues until recently largely unknown in the area. (Nasrallah, Haniyeh, and Ahmadinejad have all had to compete in serious elections, although they are hardly democratic in their internal procedures.) One can argue, with some force, that this amounts to electoral fascism rather than to genuine democracy, and that Bush's "new Middle East" is likely to finish in a similar manner to Wilson's Fourteen points, i.e., with popular passions unchecked by either traditional restraints or a new, as yet undeveloped tolerance. But it is worth remembering that Wilson was ultimately right, just a generation ahead of his time; and that isolationist policies only exacerbated, rather than restricting, the dangers inherent in his policies.

I mentioned above the parallels to 1973. Then as now a war ended with an inconclusive result, and both sides (but especially Israel) felt cheated out of a more convincing victory. It was the genius of Henry Kissinger to realize that this very ambiguity, if properly channeled, could form the basis for a peace agreement. Thirty-three years is a long time, and Iran is not Egypt; indeed the very democratization of the region makes compromise all the more difficult. But is it unrealistic that something positive might come of the current mess? Recent actions by Hamas, forming a coalition government and calling for a cessation of kassem rocket attacks, together with the at least theoretical willingness of Iran to discuss its nuclear policy, are small but not insignificant positive signs. Israel, once it has weathered its inevitable political crisis, is likely to be open to new approaches, although more unilateral retreats are off the table for the foreseeable future. Bush is leaving office in two years and likely to seek a positive legacy. Condoleeza Rice already has a (modified) Italian name. Could she learn a German accent, too?

lieberman, lamont, and the blogs

Ned Lamont's victory over Joseph Lieberman in the Connecticut Senate primary has many people crowing over the strength of the antiwar movement and the liberal blogs that promote it. There's been enough said about this issue already and I don't want to spend very much time talking about it. But permit me three very quick observations:

1. The last hero of the liberal blogs was Howard Dean, who was supposedly riding a irrresisitible wave of outrage all the way to the White House. Enough said.

2. The numbers are much less impressive than they sound. Connecticut is one of the 5 or 10 most liberal states in the country, and the Democratic primary emphasizes the leftmost 20/30 percent of the electorate (the state has a large number of Independents and a fair number if Republicans if only in name). So an election is limited to the most liberal voters in one of the most liberal states, and 50 percent of them still vote for the most hawkish Democrat in the last 25 years? Some revolution. Lieberman still runs ahead of Lamont in general election polls, although that could change as other Democrats run to distance themselves from him.

3. Putting Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (!) on the election night podium was as good a way to alienate moderate voters as is humanly possible.

Item #3 takes me back to an earlier blog post about Jewish voters. There is a legitimate issue whether the war in Iraq has helped or hurt Israel, and certainly a legitimate question about its effect on the United States, which I assume is most voters' main concern anyway. But it is hard to deny that Bush supported Israel in the war with Hezbollah more than any other Republican, let alone Democrat, would have done. The opposing party has now dumped by far its leading Jewish figure, in a campaign where blogs attacked him for supposedly divided loyalties--a classic antisemitic accusation--and where the winning candidate put two figures known for their hostility to Jews front and center in his victory celebration. And this is the party that most Jewish voters support? I once read an article that theorized about Jews' superior intelligence, a supposed result of our selective breeding habits, with rabbis in particular encouraged to have large families and thereby increase the intellectual level of the overall population (that rabbis are smarter than other people is an interesting assumption, but let's let that one pass). I don't recall if the author lived in Connecticut.

Note: Rick Santorum, previously 15-20 points down to Democrat Bob Casey Jr. in the Pennsylvania Senate race, is running close to even in recent polls, casting further doubt on an automatic liberal asendancy.

tax evasion and new taxes: italy, israel, and the u.s.

Italian tax receipts have soared unexpectedly in recent months, either a happy coincidence (as some suggest) or the result of a new, get-tough attitude toward tax evasion on the part of the recently elected left-center Government (as the Government predictably claims). Since the actual reforms enacted by the Government were rather tame, relating primarily to limits on cash transactions and more assertive policing of the business-personal boundary, the issue would appear to be less one of specific legislation than a change in psychology. In particular the Government's promise to avoid further tax amnesties--which frequently permitted taxpayers to escape by paying only a small percentage of their accumulated tax liabilities--is arguably having an effect. Left-leaning deputies have called for a suspension of proposed spending cuts in light of the new-found revenues; moderates have been predictably more skeptical.

Taxes are also in the news in Israel, where the Labor Defense Secretary, Amir Peretz, floated the idea of a regional tax to compensate for costs of the hopefully concluded war with Hezbollah. Pursuant to the nascent proposal, taxes would be raised in the south and center (read Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) but not in the north, with funds used to defray the cost of the war including (presumably) the cost of reconstruction for communities damaged in rocket attacks. Since people with resources largely fled the north, or at least the border communities, early in the fighting, the issue is as much class-based as regional in nature, which will create an interesting political situation, since the figure most likely to benefit from the Government's perceived weakness (Bibi Netanyahu) also has the country's worst record on vertical equity issues. (The overall situation at war's end, or cease-fire's beginning, is discussed in a subsequent post.)

Here in the U.S., biggest news has been the Senate's rejection of so-called "trifecta" legislation, which would have substantially reduced the estate tax in return for an increase in the national minimum wage (further tax goodies formed the third part of the trifecta). Whether an inspired trade-off or a cynical election-year ploy, the proposal was apparently too clever by half, and estate tax reform is for the moment as dead as, well, the people who complain about paying it. Trying to perceive a pattern in such maneuverings is difficult and perhaps futile. But there is a sense in all three countries that the automatic appeal of tax cuts has spent itself, and that consumers (i.e., legislators and voters) are exercising an ever-increasing degree of scrutiny over the costs and benefits of specific tax reduction proposals.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

israel and hezbollah: toward a cease-fire

There comes a time in any war where it ceases to be abstract and becomes real . . . and also ugly. For me the time came today with news of twelve or more dead at Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz in the northeast corner of Israel where I worked as a volunteer in 1978 and which I visited most recently with my family three years ago. The kibbutzim on the border have tended to view themselves as a sort of eye in the storm, watching planes and missiles fly by to more densely populated places, a bravado which may in part account for the extraordinary casualties (there was an apparently an air raid siren that was ignored before the rockets hit). No more.

Depending upon who you listen to, the war is either headed for a cease-fire or is going to expand shortly; or perhaps both, if the cease-fire proves an interim before a still larger conflict. I am personally skeptical of the cease-fire, since at least one side (the Lebanese) doesn't really accept its terms, and both sides seem to feel they have something to gain from continuing the fight. On the other hand, it is encouraging to see the U.S. and Europe (read France) agree on something, and if they stick to this newfound unity one expects they will have their way soooner or later.

As I noted in my last post, the war has caused an outpouring of criticism regarding Israel's military and political performance, not to mention attacks from those who were not notably sympathetic to Israel in the first place. I continue to think the military criticism is overstated, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. But the political damage may be worse than imagined, and requires serious and immediate attention.

The military criticism is based on the assumption that Israel could have or should have dealt with Hezbollah more rapidly than it did, and that failure to do so indicates a deterioriation in Israel's "deterrent" capability. The problem with this criticism is that--like the Israeli Government itself--it understates the strength of Hezbollah and the difficulties Israel faces in fighting it. Hezbollah presents a unique combination of highly motivated forces, fighting in a defensive posture on familiar terrain, but armed with reasonably up-to-date weapons including rockets, missiles, and antitank weapons. It was never going to be easy to dislodge such a force, any more than it was easy to displace the Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah or (for that matter) the Japanese on Iwo Jima, where the Americans enjoyed an equivalent advantage in firepower and didn't have to worry much about civilian casualties. That the U.S. effectively imposed both (i) a time limitation and (ii) a limitation on civilian casualties made it that much harder. Nor are these problems unprecedented: there is always a learning curve in dealing with new weapons and strategies, and Israel will eventually figure out the katyusha and antitank problems much as it figured out the problem of Soviet surface-to-air missiles in the 1970s. No doubt the I.D.F. should have considered some of these problems earlier: but generals always fight the last war, and the learning curve here appears to have been faster than in many previous cases.

I have not mentioned the moral aspect of Israel's air campaign, which presents a serious issue, although I will note that the governing assumption--that Hezbollah uses civilian homes, trucks, etc. to hide and transport military equipmemnt--is unquestionably true; take a look at any of the pro-Hezbollah websites if you don't believe it.

While the military criticisms strike me as overstated, the political damage should not be underestimated. In part this is a short-term matter, the inexperience and insecurity of the Olmert Government having manifested itself repeatedly through the crisis. My instinct is that the Government, and the Kadimah party, will not survive the crisis, and one or both of the traditionally dominant parties will return to power before very long.

But there are also longer-term dangers. For want of better terminology, I will call them the internal problem, the external problem, and the Americn problem. None of the three are necessarily fatal; but all are dangerous, and need to be dealt with soon.

The internal problem relates to Israeli society and its preparation for war. Put bluntly, Israel has gotten just a little bit too complacent in the past one or two decades. One sees this most directly in the deterioration of the miluim (reserves) system, which many Israelis ignore, and (perhaps) in the failure to prepare shelters and safe rooms more effectively. But there are deeper internal divisions, reflecting a society that no longer believes in its socialist past but has yet to find another convincing ideology to replace it. The open contempt that many secular Israelis feel for their religious countrymen is one part of this; the failure to include Israeli Arabs, and poor Jews, is another. These problems do not directly impact military performance, but they have a long-term corrosive effect, and their existence tends to embolden enemies who see them as a sign of decline (Nasrallah has cited Israeli newspaper reports even from his underground hideout). Anyone who doubts the effect of internal divisions on Jewish security should take a look at the Bible.

Related to this internal problem is a matter of external policy. Israelis have become enamored in recent years of the notion of a "divorce" from the Middle East, that the country can put up a wall--physical and psychological--and pretend to be living in Western Europe while the rest of the region sinks around them. A veritable dictionary of reflexive verbs are used to describe this process: hitnatkut (disengagement), hitkansut (contraction), and others yet to be named. As a short-term tactic, these may well make sense, but as a long-term strategy they border on the delusional: the rockets, which can fly over or around such barriers, make the point about as dramatically as possible. The Israeli right has been forced of late to abandon its fantasy, of a "Greater Israel" ruling over docile Arabs in a recreation of ancient glory. The Israeli left may now have to do the same.

Finally there is the question of America and (more specifically) of the Israeli role in the American war on Islamic extremists. The Israeli-American relationship is usually perceived as an American problem, with Israel creating a supposed drag on American policy in the Arab and Islamic worlds. But there are costs on the other side, too. Israel is a country of seven million people with a standing army of less than 200,000 soldiers. In a war with its Arab neighbors it can more than hold its own. In a war with the Islamic world--Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, increasingly vocal Islamic minorities in Europe and the United States--it must sooner or later be overwhelmed. The transformation of the Israeli-Arab into a Jewish-Islamic conflict, of which this war represents a small first step, is thus a development to be regarded with caution. Those who see Israel as the vanguard of an anti-Islam crusade need to take a deep breath, and think of the consequences for Israel when and if the Americans lose interest.

I don't mean to end on a negative note. There are many encouraging signs in this conflict, including the strength of American and even some European support (who ever thought a British, let alone a German, prime minister would defend Israel in a key moment); the amazing diversity of Israeli society (the casualties have come from every imaginable Jewish community and many Arab ones; one was born in Pennsylvania); the steadfastness of the home front; and numerous other factors. The casualties, although terrible for the stricken families, have in the aggregate been fewer than one day of the 1973 or even 1967 wars. The point is not to panic, but to heed the lessons while there is still time. In the Bible the prophets warn the people repeatedly to change their ways: to heal social divisions; to live a spiritual rather than a merely material life; to put faith in God rather than foreign alliances. When they listen things eventually work out. When they don't it's not pretty.