Category Archives: Middle East

The Gruntled Contrarian: Susan Rice Is Not Ready For Prime Time

The late Nebraska senator Roman Hruska will be remembered forever for his underwhelming defense of Richard’s Nixon’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Harrold Carswell.  Democrats opposed Judge Carswell as “mediocre.”  “Even if he were mediocre,” Mr. Hruska proclaimed, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

A photograph of Senator Hruska's proud moment.  Ain't the Internet grand?

Which, as you might guess, brings us to the mostly-manufactured kerfuffle, brouhaha, and ballyhoo about Susan Rice.

Having lost this bellowing point in the presidential elections, the Republicans are now opposing Dr. Rice for Secretary of State by trying to gin up a case that she lied to the American people about the attack in Benghazi.  President Obama is sticking to his guns, broad-brushing the Benghazi issue, maintaining that Rice is an “extraordinary” diplomat and puffing that her critics should “go after me.”

My take?  Susan Rice is not extraordinary.  Neither did she lie to the American people.  What she is, based on her handling of the Benghazi matter, is not ready to be Secretary of State.  She is President Obama’s Harrold Carswell.

Dr. Rice is certainly well-credentialed.  After her Rhodes scholarship and Oxford Ph.D., she joined up with the Clinton White House as an expert on African diplomacy.  She waited out the Bush years at the Brookings Institution before joining the Obama campaign as foreign-policy advisor and then being nominated as United Nations Ambassador by the new President.

Yet, she never came across as a buttoned-down type of diplomat.  She brought her infant son, whom she was still breast-feeding, to her confirmation hearing.  She notoriously punctuated a disagreement with the late and masterful diplomat Richard Holbrooke by giving him the finger.  Classy.  She is know for insulting and shouting at colleagues.  She was removed for a time as the foreign-policy spokesperson for the Obama campaign after “getting out ahead of her skis” criticizing the Bush policy of not negotiating with Iran until it suspended its nuclear program – though this policy had in fact been developed by our European allies.  And, although tough-negotiating women have always been judged more harshly than tough-negotiating men, it is significant that Russia is opposing her confirmation because they see her as too “ambitious and aggressive” to deal with successfully.

And so, to Benghazi.

Republican critics are foaming at the mouth that Dr. Rice intentionally concealed the truth about the Benghazi attacks, concealing Al Qaeda’s involvement in the attack so as not to undermine the President’s campaign-season claim that Al Qaeda has been largely neutralized.  The more strategically-minded cynics among us suspect that the true Republican motive is to scuttle Rice’s nomination so that the second choice, John Kerry, will be nominated and his Senate seat will be taken by the newly-unemployed calendar boy Scott Brown.

OK, this nudity is not strictly necessary, but why miss the opportunity?  Indeed, why miss THIS:

Like Republicans’ surrealistic theories about global warming or Alaskan oil drilling, it would be pretty to think so.  But, we now know it ain’t true.  It turns out that references to Al Qaeda or organized terrorism were deleted from the talking points by some shadowy hand in the Executive branch. (David Petreaus, who we now know had a few other things on his mind at the time of the attack, testified that the CIA did not make the changes; the White House says it was someone in the Executive, but they won’t say who).

So, why is it that, after the November 27 meeting that was supposed to lead to perestroika, Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte reported that they had more reservations than before the meeting, and were considering blocking the confirmation?  Here, I think, is why.

Susan Rice knew, before her appearances on the September 16 talk shows, that the Benghazi attacks were premeditated acts of terrorism.  The FBI had interviewed most of the survivors of the attack by then.  Libya had arrested more than 50 Al Qaeda sympathizers or affiliates in connection with the murders.  Rice testified recently that she had received memoranda on all of these facts before she went on television.  And yet, she stated in those interviews that the the attack was part of a spontaneous protest by “a small number of people” that came about “a direct result of a heinous and offensive video” (the silly and inept Innocence of Muslims trailer), despite “a substantial security presence there with our personnel.”

The basic “spontaneous protest” story, we now know, was direct from the White House talking points memo.  Dr. Rice was told to mouth those talking points.  But, she knew they were untrue.  Knowing this, she should have firmly pushed back against being asked to parrot them.  In this instance, she was a good soldier, but not a good potential General…or potential Secretary of State.

Other of her statements, including the “small number of people” and the “substantial security presence,” which were also untrue (the “security presence” apparently was a reference to the two ex-SEALS who were on assignment about a mile away, and had no responsibility for protecting the Ambassador), apparently were not part of the talking points.  These misstatements were apparently Rice’s own creations.  In that regard, she is at best sloppy with facts, which does not augur well for a diplomat.

Imagine Susan Rice as the Secretary of State going head-t0-head with Hamas, Pakistan, or I’m-A-Dinner-Jacket at the next Missile Crisis, or holding the hand of David Cameron or Bibi Netanyahu.  Heck, imagine how difficult it is just to juggle the alliances, sensitivities, and internal politics of scores of nations worldwide.  This is a job for a remarkable statesperson, like Hillary Clinton, Dean Acheson, or Henry Kissinger.  It is not a job for a political friend of the President.  Susan Rice is not a liar, but she is not extraordinary; and she is not ready for prime time.

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The Israeli Spring

The former chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov explained this week why he won’t run for president in Russia.  “In chess you have fixed rules and unpredictable results,” he said. “In Russian politics it’s the opposite.”  The Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which may now be the whirling toward a full-on regional war, is the opposite as well.  The rules are changing daily, but the outcome seems drearily predictable.  And, I think I might know why.

There’s nothing new to say about the latest crisis or what led up to it.  Since the failure of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and the disaster of the 2006 Lebanese war, and with the growing risk that Iran will build a nuclear bomb, Israel has become governed more and more by its right-wing and religious groups, and has become more heedlessly aggressive toward its neighbors.  Since the election of Hamas in 2006 and the rise of Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere, the Palestinians have been emboldened.  War may have not been inevitable, but it sure isn’t a surprise.

Neither is there anything convincing to say about who is at fault in the latest kerfuffle.  Israel might reasonably argue that it is shelling Gaza only to destroy the mechanisms by which Gazans are lofting rockets over the border; but that argument doesn’t explain the hundreds of  bombs being dropped on Gaza, wiping out entire families to eliminate one Hamas commander.  Hamas may claim that bombs are its only currency in fighting Israeli oppression; but that’s a difficult rationale, and ignores the extent to which bombs are a cause of that oppression rather than the solution to it.

I do have my own perspective, though, on the nature of this conflict.

My perspective comes from my being a secular American Jew.  “Secular Jew” is the sort of oxymoron that should mean nothing at all.  After all, what is a “non-religious Christian”?  Oddly, however, it means something very specific:  It means a person who was born Jewish, who does not go to synagogue or practice the faith, but who feels a kinship and loyalty to the Jewish community worldwide.  We love Sholem Aleichem stories.  We cry at Fiddler On the Roof.  We eat deli.  We feel a guilty pleasure when crackpots talk about Jews being in charge of international finance and world media.  In other words, when religion is removed from Judaism, what remains is a familiar sort of ethnic tribe.  (Heck, we are THE “Tribe”).  And, it is this same tribalism that is at play in Gaza today.

As with many secular American Jews (and Christians for that matter), virtually all of my religious training took place when I was in grade school.  Jewish history, as taught to young Jews, is painted in broad caricature:   We Children of Abraham are a big-hearted, downtrodden people.  God promised us the land between Egypt and the Euphrates.  We were forced out of that Promised Land, and since that time we have been inexplicably persecuted by monstrously evil bad guys.  Our lessons were a roundelay of Hellenization,  Blood Libels,  Crusades, and of course The Holocaust.

So, when it came to contemporary Middle Eastern politics, my Hebrew School lessons were very simple.  We are entitled to the Land of Israel, and we have defended it valiantly against our rabidly Jew-hating neighbors (at that time, mostly Egypt, Jordan and Syria).  We are the good guys, and we always win, no matter the odds, because God is on our side.  Pass the challah.

My feelings about Israel remained chiaroscuro for decades.  As with many  American Jews, although I identified with the sufferings of the oppressed, this did not extend to the Palestinians, whom I considered to be vacant-eyed mobs of violent fanatics, ganged up against the good-hearted Israelis.  In my mind, the Middle East was like a Phillip Roth novel.

Then, in 2005, I visited Israel.

It was August 15, 2005; the day that 250,000 Israelis stormed the streets of Jerusalem to protest Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

I watched the protest from a street cafe in the Old City.

It was in Israel that I realized two critical things.  First, the Arabs were not vacant-eyed mobs of violent fanatics, nor were they good-hearted victims.  Second, neither were the Israelis.

As I wandered through Israel in 2005, I was astounded at the way Arabs are treated there.  Unlike the wide boulevards and charming shops in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Arab communities like East Jerusalem and Bethlehem are dirty, crowded, and poor.  Although a large percentage of Arabs are Israeli citizens, they are treated as second-class citizens at best.   In the few places where Jews and Arabs coexist, for example in the Old City of Jerusalem, the anger and hostility between Jews and Arabs is palpable.   Like blacks in the Jim Crow south, Arabs are pushed into the poor quarters of the country, harassed by always-present police, and held in constant suspicion.

I was also surprised at the Israelis I met.  They were nothing like American Jews.  They were hard-edged and aggressive to one another, though very protective and gentle toward their own families.  It seemed to be a “me-first” culture.  The shopkeepers were ruthless bargainers.  Jews made no secret of hating and fearing Arabs.

In other words, and despite my Hebrew School notions, what I saw in Israel were two Semitic tribes, playing out a tribal battle of class and territory.  The Israelis and Palestinians were so alike in their fierce tribal identities, in their hard bargaining, in their sly way of arguing, that they could just as easily have been cousins.   Their conflict was not the good-hearted Jews against the fanatic Muslims, nor vice versa.  It was a blood-sport turf war between haves and have-nots, not much different from similar wars in Northern Ireland or Sudan or Kosovo.  Like those conflicts, the Israeli/Palestinian turf war is clothed as religious strife.  It isn’t.  It is yet another Stone-age tribal feud, made even more so because Israelis and Palestinians are almost identically hot-blooded, vengeful, and wily tribes.

When I look at the Middle East this way, I can’t be optimistic about peace.  Like Saddam Hussein, who brought about his own demise rather than admit to his neighbors that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction (or, even more characteristically, like the Iraqi Information Minister who denied that Americans had entered Baghdad), the Israelis and Palestinians do not seem likely to negotiate honestly, put aside old hatreds, or consider their own futures in the way that we Americans expect.  The moves in this chess game may change, but the outcome – stalemate – seems fixed.

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