Wednesday, July 23, 2014

An Open Letter To Philip Weiss


Dear Phil,

I understand that, in Weissworld, it is considered a compliment to be singled out as a representative of the mainstream media, someone “finally” alienated from Israeli policy—and, as an additional commendation, to be credited with having termed Israeli attacks in Gaza as a “war crime.”  I think that anyone who bothers to read the whole article—to which you curiously provide a link—will immediately see how seriously you’ve flattened my views.  I write, among other things:

Familiar, finally, is the posturing and the doublespeak, Hamas’s Big Lie countered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s half-truths. A senior Hamas official told Haaretz, “When Israel started operating against our people, some decided it was time to act and show that we are one people and one nation that must defend our people in the West Bank.” As if Hamas defends its people by provoking luridly photogenic attacks on Gazans; as if launching Iranian-made missiles, acquired through its Sinai tunnels, does not appear to justify the Israeli siege that Hamas says it is trying to break; as if Hamas has not consolidated an occupation regime of its own, plunging Gaza into a parochial horror in which almost ninety per cent of adults live in poverty.

“The difference between us is simple,” Netanyahu says. “We develop defensive systems against missiles in order to protect our civilians, and they use their civilians to protect their missiles.” That’s a good line, and even a true one. But it’s also true that the Israeli government knew the kidnapped teens were almost certainly dead when, in an alleged desperate effort to save them, it began a crackdown that resulted in hundreds of Hamas supporters being thrown in prison. More plausibly, it took this opportunity to crush Hamas as a political force. Netanyahu and Israeli military tacticians openly consider all homes of known Hamas officials or fighters to be part of Hamas “infrastructure.” Bombing these homes every few years—“mowing the lawn,” as one commander put it before earlier Gaza operations—demonstrates that Israel will not shrink from inflicting hundreds of random civilian casualties, through which it hopes to discredit Hamas. If you don’t think this is a war crime, talk to your Palestinian friends.

Justice Goldstone established what war crimes are. I won’t compete with him here. Let us say neither Hamas nor the IAF are doing credit to the human species, whose record wasn’t great to begin with. I clearly meant that both sides are cynical about civilian casualties in Gaza, tolerating them, even using them, for alleged strategic gain. Where, in your blog, is a post about how missile attacks ought to distance us from Hamas? Anyway, even if Israeli strikes can be vaguely justified as a response to them, you need to be incapable of compassion, or devoid of Palestinian friends, to refrain from seeing the bombing as criminally cavalier.  This is what I argued, which is not really what you insinuate, is it?

I also consider that “finally” condescending. You write: "It is just a matter of time before some liberal Zionists (who are merely the most amenable voice inside a reactionary American support community) begin to jump off the Zionist tank.” Presumably, people like myself, otherwise reactionary liberal Zionists, are finally summoning the courage to come around to your principled alienation. This isn’t the place, either, to explain all the ways I find your views about historic Zionism misinformed, even crude, and your political analysis one-sided. But some of us, in and out of Israel, have been willing to take the unpleasant consequences of non-conformity, criticizing the occupation and its consequences—including arguably just wars that might nevertheless have been avoided—since the time of Golda Meir. However queasy we may feel about Weissworld’s tribute, we certainly weren’t waiting for its spine.

Best, Bernie

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Watching Gaza

We may think we have been here before, but we haven’t. The images of escalation are the same: exhaust tracing through Israeli skies; Gazans frantically picking through rubble; Israelis glued to their televisions, reduced to observers of spectacle, some poised to run for shelter but most affecting readiness, protected by rocket science and probability, fascinated by the deadpan proficiency of military officials whose mission may confuse them but to whom they suppose they owe their lives.

And the circular ultimatums are the same, as are the grim tallies that supposedly establish advantage: we stop bombing if you stop launching, we stop launching if you stop laying siege, we stop the siege if you give up your missiles, we can’t give them up as long as you occupy us and have the means to bomb us. As in 2008, the I.D.F. is prepared for a ground invasion. About fifteen hundred Hamas targets have been hit by Israel, more than five hundred largely homemade Qassam missiles have been launched by Hamas, and more than two hundred and twenty Palestinians have been killed. Just since yesterday morning, more than a hundred rockets and mortars have been fired into Israel, the vast majority intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome defense system. One Israeli man was killed at the border. The fresher grievances turn the older ones vague: three hitchhiking Israeli teens were kidnapped, two protesting Palestinian youths were shot dead two weeks before, there was a revenge murder by a rogue group of Israeli fanatics—you can unspool this vendetta back to the Balfour Declaration, in 1917.

Yesterday morning promised a break in the cycle, but this, too, seemed merely familiar. At Secretary of State John Kerry’s urging, the Israeli government announced that it had accepted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s terms for a ceasefire, which looked a great deal like the terms offered by President Mohamed Morsi in 2012, which the Israeli government accepted at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s urging. Both sides, according to the latest Egyptian terms, would stop their attacks; indirect talks, to be held in Cairo, would take up opening Gaza crossings to Egypt, though the agenda for such talks is vague; and Hamas would restrain underground groups like Islamic Jihad. Again, Hamas would seem to have achieved nothing for the Palestinian lives lost, which is why it rejected the deal and why Israeli planes resumed bombing.

Familiar, finally, is the posturing and the doublespeak, Hamas’s Big Lie countered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s half-truths. A senior Hamas official told Haaretz, “When Israel started operating against our people, some decided it was time to act and show that we are one people and one nation that must defend our people in the West Bank.” As if Hamas defends its people by provoking luridly photogenic attacks on Gazans; as if launching Iranian-made missiles, acquired through its Sinai tunnels, does not appear to justify the Israeli siege that Hamas says it is trying to break; as if Hamas has not consolidated an occupation regime of its own, plunging Gaza into a parochial horror in which almost ninety per cent of adults live in poverty.

“The difference between us is simple,” Netanyahu says. “We develop defensive systems against missiles in order to protect our civilians, and they use their civilians to protect their missiles.” That’s a good line, and even a true one. But it’s also true that the Israeli government knew the kidnapped teens were almost certainly dead when, in an alleged desperate effort to save them, it began a crackdown that resulted in hundreds of Hamas supporters being thrown in prison. More plausibly, it took this opportunity to crush Hamas as a political force. Netanyahu and Israeli military tacticians openly consider all homes of known Hamas officials or fighters to be part of Hamas “infrastructure.” Bombing these homes every few years—“mowing the lawn,” as one commander put it before earlier Gaza operations—demonstrates that Israel will not shrink from inflicting hundreds of random civilian casualties, through which it hopes to discredit Hamas. If you don’t think this is a war crime, talk to your Palestinian friends.

Read on at The New Yorker

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Slipping The Terror Trap

On Thursday, Israeli secret-service officials finally released the names of the Hamas militants from Hebron, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha, whom they’ve alleged are responsible for kidnapping three hitchhiking yeshiva students—Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah—on the night of June 12th. Their belief in Hamas’s involvement seems to have been reached by process of elimination—Qawasmeh and Aisha have gone missing—but, in a way, the Netanyahu government needn’t bother producing evidence that is more conclusive. Hamas’s leaders would be incompetent if they rejected responsibility, so well have events since the kidnapping played into their hands. (As if on cue, Hamas’s chief, Khaled Meshal, told Al Jazeera that he cannot confirm or deny the organization’s involvement, but, he added, “I congratulate the abductors, because our prisoners must be freed from the prisons of the occupation.”)

Continue reading at The New Yorker

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Republicans, Likud, And The Big Con

Just a coda to my post yesterday in The New Yorker regarding Abbas's unity deal--more specifically, about why the Netanyahu government is rallying opposition to it--claiming this is Abbas's capitulation to violent rejectionism--when it so clearly represents Abbas's provisional victory of over Hamas, and more generally for a non-violent, internationalized political process in Palestine.

The answer, I fear, is that the specter of Hamas's growing power always worked nicely for the Likud. And there is an analogy here to congressional Republicans:

If you are the party of laissez-faire and American plutocracy, you cannot say so. There is no majority for this. So you say, rather, that you are simply living with no illusions, being tough-minded, the party of government-is-the-problem. Then you resist or sabotage every government program or presidential initiative, people start saying “Washington is broken,” and you, of all people, seem vindicated—for American politicians, the Big Con, perfectly executed.

The same is true of the Likud, which benefits incrementally from the Occupation. Netanyahu’s government can’t just say it is committed to Greater Israel, theocracy-lite, and settlers—there is no majority for this. It merely claims to be tough-minded, not naive--as Avigdor Leiberman says, "bli ashlayot"--the government of we-have-no-partner. And this leaves in place a condition of spreading settlement, and army repression (to "keep the peace"), that is bound to produce periodic eruptions of violence and movements like Hamas (which. by the way, didn’t emerge before the first Intifada in 1987). The violence and the movement prove that we have no partner.

In either case, the strategy is not to spread ideology but sow cynicism. It works the same in every country.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Abbas: 'Winning On Points'

On Tuesday, the State Department announced that the Obama Administration intends to work with the new Palestinian unity government of President Mahmoud Abbas, which now includes Hamas, the militant organization that has ruled Gaza since 2007. To satisfy critics, the United States said that the new government would have to adhere to a set of international stipulations, agreed upon in 2006: it must recognize Israel, reject terror, and honor previously signed agreements. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Associated Press that he is “deeply troubled” by the Administration’s decision to maintain ties to the unity government, and added, “The United States must make it absolutely clear to the Palestinian President that his pact with Hamas, a terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s liquidation, is simply unacceptable.”

Hamas, for its part, has never recognized Israel’s existence or renounced violence. Intriguingly, two of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, reject the principle of Palestinian statehood and have never accepted restrictions on settlement contained in such past signed agreements as the 2003 Roadmap, but they supported Netanyahu, skeptically, through the recent negotiations mediated by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Netanyahu’s own party, the Likud, has routinely taken a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose attitude toward Abbas. When Gaza and the West Bank were split—Hamas expelled Abbas’s Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority officials in 2007—Likud leaders charged that Abbas’s rule was illegitimate, weak, and incapable of representing a divided Palestinian populace. When Abbas sought to reunite the Palestinian territories, he was accused of cavorting with terrorists. He was not a “partner” in the peace process.

Of course, Hamas has engaged in despicable acts of terror, from training and dispatching suicide bombers to launching missiles into Israeli civilian population centers. It has advanced a totalitarian Islamist vision and a Manichaean view of Jews. So Tuesday’s reunification agreement suggests one of two things. The first is that Abbas—who is seventy-nine and concerned about his legacy after Kerry’s unsuccessful nine-month initiative to broker peace—has decided to get out in front of the mounting anger in the Palestinian street about the failure of the talks and adopt something like Hamas’s harder line. The second is that Abbas simply has beaten Hamas at its own game, forcing it to recognize his authority and to accept his nonviolent, internationalist strategy. Both conclusions may be true to some degree, though most Israelis impulsively jump to the first. Which is truer?

“Abbas has not knocked out Hamas, but he is winning on points—he has the opportunity to extend the umbrella of nonviolence to Gaza,” Mohammad Mustafa, the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for the economy, told me in Ramallah. A central player in both the old and new Palestinian governments, Mustafa, a former World Bank official, is also the head of the billion-dollar Palestine Investment Fund. “This is an agreement for real,” he went on. “Hamas’s situation has changed. The biggest factor is regional—especially Egypt. Hamas lost their alliance with Syria some time ago. But they had alternatives. Morsi”—Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian President—“made them feel comfortable. Tunisia, Turkey was a big ally, Iran was coming their way. Now there aren’t really many friends for Hamas.” He added that the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had “convinced Hamas that they really lost.”

Continue reading at The New Yorker

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Words That Belonged In The West Point Speech

Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary -- component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. .....

And let me be even clearer. Military force is now not nearly as hard a form of power as what my critics imply; and global economic power, reinforced by institutions of personal liberty, is not nearly as soft. Because of unprecedented changes in the ways we create wealth in our age of burgeoning global networks, the power of economic sanctions by advanced democracies, acting in common, is a far greater force than the power of any military--though sanctions are not as photogenic as bombs when feeding the 24/7 cycle.

Consider this: When President Putin moved troops into the Crimea, Russian forces also massed along the Eastern Ukraine. Under my leadership, the US and its European allies responded, strong and united, with preliminary sanctions. The fate of the Ukraine is still uncertain, and the America and its allies are vigilant. But a month later, Russian the troops have been withdrawn and President Putin is making clear that he wants to settle matters diplomatically, which we welcome. Secretary Kerry, for his part, said at the time of Russia's action that Mr. Putin was employing 19th. century methods of power in a 21st. century world. Secretary Kerry was mocked for this by some.  But the sanctions are clearly working. What did Secretary Kerry mean? Why, in the 21st. century, do such things as economic sanctions act as such a powerful deterrent?

Let me put things simply.  The United States and Western democracies together are a zone of free enterprise with a combined GDP of approximately $32 trillion. Add Japan, our close ally, and we are $38 trillion. Add China, whose interests do not always accord with ours, but whose financial institutions and domestic corporations are fully integrated with ours, and we are at $46 trillion. This zone is not without inequalities and crises, which we will have to mitigate. But we know how to create unprecedented wealth. In 1975, a television cost the average worker about 60 hours of work. Today, about 6 hours of work--and the TV today can stream YouTube, and virtually everything ever thought said and done, for the cost of a wireless connection.

But that is not all.  The companies that produce our wealth are vastly changed from what they were just two generations ago.  In 1975, the tangible assets--the cash, buildings, raw materials, and so forth--of the Standard & Poors 500 largest corporations constituted about 80% of their market value, while the intangible assets--the collective know-how--were about 20% of value. Today, those proportions are reversed.  Intangible assets, the knowledge, are 82% of what produces wealth and tangible assets, the stuff, is 18%.


This knowledge knows no borders. Nor can knowledge know boundaries. That's because, unlike money and other assets, the person who gives you knowledge still has it. Our companies create wealth and advance continually because they are largely integrated in shared networks, which are more and more valuable for all--the more that skilled, ambitious entrepreneurs and scientists join them. Cut yourself off from these global networks, or fail to access them, or just make yourself distrusted in them, and you condemn your people to poverty.  It is just this world the people in the streets of Kiev have been determined to join.

Now let's look at Russia's economy. Out of its $2 trillion GDP about $1.2 trillion is oil and gas--mostly companies that are 80% stuff. Mr. Putin can dare to use the Russian military to expand and defend oil and gas deposits, as it did in the Crimea. That's what armies have been good for since ancient times, to secure the geographic boundaries around a tribe's or a nation's control of its stuff: so that their laborers can farm, and mine, and drill, and assemble in peace. That's why in the 19th. century, and even up to the middle of the 20th., kings and tyrants thought they could enrich their nation by making imperial war--after all, a huge, organized form of theft.

But war in the 21st. century is a little like one power station in a grid making war against another power station in the same grid: you resort to violence and threaten to bring down the whole network upon which your welfare depends. Mr. Putin may have thought that moving onto the Crimea secured him a better reserve of oil and gas and a better way of exporting it. Perhaps it did in the short term; perhaps the people who profit from oil and gas are satisfied with his action.

But what about the people not directly enjoying profit from drilled stuff. What about the much larger number of Russians who, like the protesters in Ukraine, want to join global wealth-creating networks and will now see foreign companies pull back and foreign investment drop off. During the crisis, the Russian stock exchange immediately dropped over 10%, a loss of more wealth than the cost of the Sochi Olympics. Curious, is it not? that what seems an expansion of Russian power caused even domestic investors to short the Russian economy.

In short, we have to redefine what we mean by international power. Getting expelled from the global system is hard power; military power is, in addition to being tragic, comparatively soft. It gets you nowhere. It is destructive. It leads you to places you cannot foresee. Writers about foreign affairs who have not digested the new realities can scare us with absurd scenarios, like this particularly hysterical writer in a recent issue of The New Republic:

"Could the United States survive if Syria remains under the control of Assad or, more likely, disintegrates into a chaos of territories, some of which will be controlled by jihadi terrorists? Could it survive if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, and if in turn Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt acquire nuclear weapons? Or if North Korea launches a war on the South? Could it survive in a world where China dominates much of East Asia, or where China and Japan resume their old conflict? Could it survive in a world where Russia dominates Eastern Europe, including not only Ukraine but the Baltic states and perhaps even Poland?"

The implication is that, somehow, American military power could have neatly toppled Assad, or that Iran is not itself looking to join the world, or that North Korea could act with impunity. But notice also the silliness of speaking in this context of Chinese "domination" of the Far East and the reversion to conflict with Japan, as if the Chinese are some kind of huge island, and not dependent on the global system. And the idea that a second-rate power like Russia could dominate Eastern Europe and Poland, members of NATO, and racing ahead of Russia in terms of development--well, this kind of talk is beyond silly.

Which brings me to a final point about military force--why I prefer to organize international diplomatic responses to common acts of aggression. Some, like this writer, will interpret my strategy of patient sanctions as opting for appeasement rather than timely preemption. Demagogues always say this kind of thing. In his History of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides noticed how certain people "altered words to suit their deeds." "A moderate attitude," he writes, "was deemed a mere shield for lack of virility, and a reasoned understanding with regard to all sides of an issue meant that one was indolent and of no use for anything."

My critics often mock my foreign policy in just this way. Given America's military superiority, they say, virtually any global problem is presumably the result of my failure to deter evil: the Syrian civil war, Iran's nuclear program, frictions in the South China Sea, Egypt's military coup, Russia's annexation of the Crimea.  If only, critics say, I were more credible in my willingness to use force. Which means actually using or threatening military force in virtually every case, if only to prove my willingness to use it.

Thucydides adds, "One who displayed violent anger was considered eternally faithful." Now as then, passion can be mistaken for courage and determination. Now as then, blaming leaders for not being intimidating enough is a nice career move.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Piketty, Intangibles, The Inequality Of Nations

The economist Thomas Piketty is on the defensive for some of the data imported into Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The rich—so The Financial Times asserts—cannot be shown to be getting richer on the slope Piketty’s graphs depict. Actually, that the top ten percent of Americans owns around seventy percent of national wealth is not disputed. So this challenge to his spreadsheets will prompt superfluous debate about whether he’s exaggerated inequality by presenting an arguable trend in how fast capital is amassed. What it will also do, unfortunately, is preempt another debate: whether he (like much of the economics profession) underestimates inequality by ignoring an inarguable trend in what capital is. I am speaking here of the growth in the proportion of corporate assets that are a kind of collective knowledge—assets accountants reckon as “intangible.” 

Piketty claims, without really justifying this, that the inequality within nations is more “worrisome” than inequality between nations. But the latter inequality is troubling enough.  Anyway, the most arresting way to see the importance of the growth in intangible assets in all economies is to consider whether investments by global corporations in poor countries contribute to, or help mitigate, their poverty. I take up the point in the following post in The New Yorker.

For years, development economists have suggested that, when companies from the developed world invest in poor countries, it helps to mitigate international inequality. Early in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the economist Thomas Piketty expresses skepticism about this idea. The owners of corporate assets tend to pocket most of the income generated by those assets, he points out, so a foreign company operating in a poor country levels the field about as much as a rich person opening a sweatshop in a slum. He writes:

None of the Asian countries that have moved closer to the developed countries of the West in recent years has benefited from large foreign investments, whether it be Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan and more recently China. In essence, all of these countries themselves financed the necessary investments in physical capital and, even more, in human capital, which the latest research holds to be the key to long-term growth.

It’s clear that Piketty admires governments that encourage domestic companies to produce products and provide services. Typically, these governments also educate an √©lite group of potential managers and scientists, acquire (or ignore) licenses and patents, and organize capital to fund domestic firms. And they insist that foreign companies looking to do business enter into joint ventures with domestic partners.

Those who advocate for this method as a better alternative to foreign investment seem to assume that a company’s assets are made up primarily of physical stuff; Piketty, for his part, defines corporate capital as “land, dwellings, commercial inventory, other buildings, machinery, infrastructure, patents, and other direct owned professional assets.” But there’s a problem with this assumption. Capitalism isn’t really about physical property—not anymore.

In fact, in the twenty-first century, intangible assets, such as the knowledge shared by employees, dwarf physical holdings. (Elsewhere in the book, Piketty acknowledges that a company’s value is also determined by the knowledge contained within the corporation, not just its patents but “its information systems and modes of organization.”) “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is studded with charts illustrating changes in commercial life over the past century. (On Friday, Chris Giles, in the Financial Times, questioned some of the data regarding how inequality has changed over time.) But Piketty doesn’t include any charts showing the growth of intangible assets in major global corporations over the past several decades. The trend can be seen, vividly, in this chart. It shows, over time, how much of the combined market cap of companies on the S.&P. 500 could be attributed to intangible assets rather than tangible ones:

Continue at The New Yorker