Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
They Said It:
The death of the spirit is the price of progress. Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and that He had been murdered. This Gnostic murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrifice God to civilization. The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline.
Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, 1951.
ANTI-SEMITISM? NOT QUITE.
Is John Kerry an anti-Semite? Is his boss? If they are not, then how does one possibly explain Kerry’s claim before the Trilateral Commission that Israel is on the verge of becoming an “Apartheid state?” How else does one account for the fact that the American government’s “top” diplomat, a man supposedly studied in the art of diplomacy, could employ a longstanding and ugly epithet used previously only by Israel’s enemies in an effort to delegitimize the Jewish state?
Kerry, of course, responded to the furor caused by his statement to declare that he will “not allow” his “commitment to Israel to be questioned.” But what does that even mean, given his comments? And how does all of this play into the larger – and growing – global crisis of confidence in the United States and its leaders?
We have thought a great deal about these questions over the past few days. Last week, you may recall, we tried to explain what Kerry had done and what that meant in terms of American-Israeli relations. We also promised to revisit his motivation for doing so. And given both the nature and tenor of Kerry’s accusation, we figured that the question of his biases – and those of his boss and his party – would be the logical place to start.
After all, we would hardly be the first to declare Kerry and his comments anti-Semitic. Countless others, including a great many very smart political and geopolitical analysts, did so almost immediately. And a great many more who granted the Secretary of State some personal absolution, nonetheless labeled his comments and the policy that prompted them anti-Semitic, because of the way in which they both fed off traditional Arabist anti-Semitism and will encourage more of the same going forward. Additionally, the Obama administration’s policies over the course of the presidency have been at least marginally hostile to Israel, differing very little in practice from the policies one would expect from overt anti-Semites. If it walks like an anti-Semite, quacks like an anti-Semite, and employs anti-Semitic language to disparage the Jewish state, then it must be an anti-Semite, right?
Well . . . maybe. After all, it would hardly be surprising to find some anti-Semitic sentiment floating around this administration, given that the postmodern, post-colonial attitudes that animate the Western Left today are often indistinguishable from blatant anti-Semitism. And we would hardly find it odd to discover that some of Team Obama’s best and brightest are intolerant of “Zionists” even as they are indefatigably tolerant of just about everyone and everything else.
At the same time, though, we just aren’t convinced that Kerry is an anti-Semite. In fact, we’d be more inclined to think that he’s not. This is proof of nothing, of course, but his brother Cameron is a practicing Jewish convert. Kerry himself has Jewish roots. More to the point, outside of this one statement, there does not seem to be any proof that he harbors anti-Jewish sentiment. He didn’t run around the campaign trail in 2004 railing against Bush and his “neocon” advisers. He won the Jewish vote in 2004 by the usual Democratic margin. While all of this is, again, proof of nothing, Kerry doesn’t exactly have to prove himself not to be an anti-Semite in order for there to be a more rational explanation for his comments. And, as it turns out, in this case, there is one.
In order to get a sense of this better explanation, we have to go beyond the “apartheid” comment and focus on Kerry’s longer history of absurd and still threatening comments about the possible repercussions of the failure of his much ballyhooed peace talks. You will note that when he expresses his displeasure and warns of devastating consequences to come, all such warnings are directed at one party, that being the one that is already the victim of a 65-year-long war against it simply for existing. Additionally, you will note the urgency of his warnings, and the conviction that this peace process, which has been underway in some form or another for at least the last eight presidencies, must be consummated now . . . or else!
Most observers have likely forgotten it already, especially in light of the more recent and more antagonistic apartheid bit, but this is hardly the first time that Kerry has stoked anger and charges of anti-Semitism for issuing one-sided warnings with respect to the failure of the peace initiative. Back in February, for example, the last time that the Kerry-brokered talks were floundering, he issued what many took to be a thinly – very thinly – veiled threat against Israel while meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who just happens to be one of Israel’s most deadly enemies. “The risks are very high for Israel,” Kerry intoned. “People are talking about boycott. That will intensify in the case of failure. Do they want a failure that then begs whatever may come in the form of a response from disappointed Palestinians and the Arab community?”
Worse still, it has been reported – though not widely – that the apartheid jab was hardly the worst of the comments made by American officials in the wake of the recent breakdown of talks. Last Friday, the renowned Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea, who writes for Yedioth Aharonoth, the country’s best-selling daily paper, reported on an interview with “Senior American officials involved in Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace push.” The officials insisted on anonymity, but according to Barnea, their words constitute the “closest thing to an official American version of what happened” to undermine the current round of peace talks.
The entire interview is fascinating, but what struck us most were two specific details about the American negotiating team. First, despite the fact that the Palestinians have routinely over the years denied the possibility of ever accepting Israel as a “Jewish state” and despite the decades of terrorism and violence directed at the Israeli people, the Americans repeatedly admitted that they were “surprised” by the facts on the ground. They were surprised at the Palestinians’ recalcitrance. They were surprised at the Israelis’ insistence on their West Bank security apparatus. They were surprised by this, by that, and by the other things. Or as one official told Barnea: “Yes, we were surprised. It surprised us all along the way.”
Second, Kerry’s apartheid comments were not made in a vacuum. He was angry, bitter with the Israelis for letting him down. And he was hardly alone. The bitterness among the American officials who spoke to Barnea was palpable – and nauseating. When asked about the differences now and when the Israelis agreed to disengage with Syria and Egypt after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, one American official seemed to long for terrorist violence as a means to bring the Israelis to their senses. And while that suggestion was walked back a bit, the message to the Israelis was clear: this is your fault; you’ve done this to yourselves; now reap the whirlwind. To wit [Barnea’s questions in italics]:
“At the end of a war there is a sense of urgency,” they said. And then one of them added bitterly: “I guess we need another intifada to create the circumstances that would allow progress.
“20 years after the Oslo Accords, new game rules and facts on the ground were created that are deeply entrenched. This reality is very difficult for the Palestinians and very convenient for Israel.”
What, you didn’t know this in advance?
“We knew. But we willingly pushed our lack of faith aside.”
“Because Kerry believed and we believed that if not now, then when? It was a desperate effort. Kerry thought of the future – he believed, and still does, that if the two sides can’t reach an accord, Israel is going to be in a lot worse shape than it is today.” . . .
It almost sounds like you wish for an intifada.
“Quite the opposite, it would be a tragedy. The Jewish people are supposed to be smart; it is true that they’re also considered a stubborn nation. You’re supposed to know how to read the map: In the 21st century, the world will not keep tolerating the Israeli occupation. The occupation threatens Israel’s status in the world and threatens Israel as a Jewish state.”. . .
“Israel is not China. It was founded by a UN resolution. Its prosperity depends on the way it is viewed by the international community.”
Now, one can say any number of things about all of this. It is cheap. It is petty. It is nasty, insulting, and tasteless. Additionally, it’s undiplomatic, which is ironic, we suppose, since it comes from members of the American diplomatic corps. It is petulant, whiny, and childish. And with respect to these last few, it is, most of all, telling.
If you take this childishness and couple it with the aforementioned surprise, a rather dark and disturbing picture about this nation’s diplomatic corps – and, by extension, its ruling class – emerges. These are men and women who are used to getting their own way and who react badly when they don’t. Worse yet, they are used to getting their own way even though they have absolutely no idea what is going on in the world. And when they fail to get their own way, they stomp their feet. They get angry. They lash out, looking for someone – anyone! – to blame.
As we noted above, every American president since at least Nixon has tried – to a greater or lesser extent – to facilitate peace between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors. And every single one has failed. Carter, of course, managed to push an agreement between Israel and Egypt – an agreement that ended up costing Anwar Sadat his life – but that had nothing to do with the Palestinians. On the Israeli-Palestinian question, even the indulgent and insistent Bill Clinton failed miserably. Everyone fails on this front, largely because the Palestinian leadership still wants to slaughter Israelis and the stubborn Israelis still want not to be slaughtered by Palestinian terrorists. Tomato, to-mah-to. Potato, po-tah-to. Let’s call the whole thing off.
And yet, when Kerry and his team jetted into Jerusalem, they figured that they could get a deal done and be home in time for dinner. There’s a word for that kind of thinking: “delusional.” There was no reason whatsoever for anyone associated with the American State Department to believe that a deal could or would be done now. There was nothing in the behavior of either side in the negotiations to suggest that a breakthrough was imminent. There was, in short, no chance that any of this would work out the way the Americans expected it to work out. Yet they still expected it. Now that those expectations have proved hopeless, the Americans are truly unhappy, and as a result, they are beside themselves, flailing wildly, trying desperately not to look like hacks.
But here’s the thing. They are NOT hacks. They are the best and the brightest of the American foreign service community. They are the cream of the proverbial crop. They only look like hacks.
Let’s go back, just for a minute to Kerry’s statement. Kerry suggested that Israel can or will become an apartheid state. Apartheid is, of course, a specific accusation, one meant to invoke the racial segregation of South Africa under the Afrikaner Nationalist Party. For roughly forty years now, the Arab nations and their allies at the U.N. have labeled the Jewish state, i.e. “Zionism,” a form of racism, hence, the “apartheid” slur. But outside of the fantasies of the victimologists and the post-modernists who have advanced Arab nationalism since the 1960s, is there anyone who actually believes the slur? Is there any reason at all to believe that is has any substance in reality?
The short answer is “no.”
As we said last week, of all the nations in the Middle East, only Israel is a full-fledged functional democracy that both respects the human rights of its residents and treats them all as equals before the law. Only Israel treats its minority population – in this case the very same Palestinian Arabs whom John Kerry worries will be oppressed – as full members of its civil society. Arabs in Israel have the right to vote. Indeed, 12 of the Knesset’s 120 seats are occupied by Arab representatives. Arabs can serve and have served in the Israeli government. The only legal distinction between Israelis Jews and Israeli Arabs is the fact that the latter are excused from military service.
By way of comparison, the total number of Jews remaining in all Arab countries is less than 10,000, less than one-half of one-percent of the roughly 1.7 million Arab citizens of Israel. And the six-plus-decade exodus from those lands, of course, continues apace. More to the point, any peace settlement that would return the occupied territories to the Arabs would also compel the Jews living in those territories to leave. As the inimitable Caroline Glick recently put it:
The Palestinians demand that the territory that would comprise their state must be ethnically cleansed of all Jewish presence before they will agree to accept sovereign responsibility for it.
In other words, the future leaders of that state . . . insist that all 650,000 Jews living in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria must be forcibly ejected from their homes.
In both instances, then, what the American Secretary of State has done with his declaration of frustration with Israel is to flip reality on its head. Good is evil. Right is wrong. True is false. And inclusive and diverse is “apartheid.” The politicians and diplomats expect that reality will conform to their wishes, and when it doesn’t, they are mystified and feel the need to lash out, often at reality itself.
Regular readers will, of course, recognize where we are going with this. Specifically, we are going to Baton Rouge, circa 1951. More generally, we are headed into Eric Voegelin’s depiction of the Gnostic dream world from his classic The New Science of Politics.
In almost every detail, the Kerry State Department has approached the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from a Gnostic/dream world perspective. The denial of reality; the substitution of Gnostic fantasy for reality; the expectation that reality would conform to the Gnostic formulation; the proposal of actions that would, in the real world, be considered morally insane; the abuse and inversion of vocabulary; and the angry reaction to the impositions of reality by lashing out scapegoats: all are a part of the Kerry-apartheid story. And all are a part of the Voegelian description of the Gnostic dream world:
With radical immanentization the dream world has blended into the real world terminologically; the obsession of replacing the world of reality by the transfigured dream world has become the obsession of the one world in which the dreamers adopt the vocabulary of reality, while changing its meaning, as if the dream were reality . . . .
In the Gnostic dream world, on the other hand, nonrecognition of reality is the first principle. As a consequence, types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane because of the real effects which they have will be considered moral in the dream world because they intended an entirely different effect. The gap between intended and real effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should behave according to the dream conception of cause and effect. The interpretation of moral insanity as morality, and of the virtues of sophia and prudentia as immorality, is a confusion difficult to unravel. And the task is not facilitated by the readiness of the dreamers to stigmatize the attempt at critical clarification as an immoral enterprise . . . .
The identification of dream and reality as a matter of principle has practical results which may appear strange but can hardly be considered surprising. The critical exploration of cause and effect in history is prohibited; and consequently the rational co-ordination of means and ends in politics is impossible. Gnostic societies and their leaders will recognize dangers to their existence when they develop, but such dangers will not be met by appropriate actions in the world of reality. They will rather be met by magic operations in the dream world, such as disapproval, moral condemnation, declarations of intention, resolutions, appeals to the opinion of mankind, branding of enemies as aggressors, outlawing of war, propaganda for world peace and world government, etc. The intellectual and moral corruption which expresses itself in the aggregate of such magic operations may pervade a society with the weird, ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum, as we experience it in our time in the Western crisis.
There are, as far as we can tell, two significant problems revealed by the dream world operations of the Kerry State Department and, more broadly, the administration that employs him. The first relates specifically to the Middle East and to the Israeli-Palestinian question. Because of the moral transposal employed by the Obama-Kerry team in attempting to negotiate peace, there is a rather significant likelihood that the result will actually be war: more terrorist violence from the Palestinians, greater and more significant reprisal from the Israelis, and less effective intervention on the part of the purportedly peace-seeking Western powers. As Voegelin continues:
Gnostic politics, thus, is self-defeating in so far as its disregard for the structure of reality leads to continuous warfare. This system of chain wars can end only in one of two ways. Either it will result in horrible physical destructions and concomitant revolutionary changes of social order beyond reasonable guesses; or, with the natural change of generations, it will lead to the abandoning of Gnostic dreaming before the worst has happened.
The second problem, we think, will be the ongoing disintegration of the broader global situation as more and more people around the world come to understand that the American administration is unconcerned about dealing with reality and is actually more interested in punishing those who call into question the validity of their dream world. Already, the Obama administration has earned a reputation for punishing its friends and rewarding its enemies. The further deterioration of the American-Israeli relationship will only fuel concern about the value of America’s friendship and foreign policy leadership in the Obama and post-Obama world.
Roughly three weeks ago, the New York Times ran a front-page story about the Obama administration and its new plans for dealing with Putin and his aggressive behavior in Ukraine. According to the Times, the administration’s brilliant new gambit centers on ignoring Putin, which is to say carrying on with its foreign policy as if Putin is not a major player. The paper put it this way:
Even as the crisis in Ukraine continues to defy easy resolution, President Obama and his national security team are looking beyond the immediate conflict to forge a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.
Just as the United States resolved in the aftermath of World War II to counter the Soviet Union and its global ambitions, Mr. Obama is focused on isolating President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state.
Mr. Obama has concluded that even if there is a resolution to the current standoff over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin, aides said. As a result, Mr. Obama will spend his final two and a half years in office trying to minimize the disruption Mr. Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin in favor of other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible. . . .
In effect, Mr. Obama is retrofitting for a new age the approach to Moscow that was first set out by the diplomat George F. Kennan in 1947 and that dominated American strategy through the fall of the Soviet Union. The administration’s priority is to hold together an international consensus against Russia, including even China, its longtime supporter on the United Nations Security Council.
As best we can tell, there are only a couple of serious issues with this strategy. First, the notion that Obama can somehow maintain peace while simultaneously mimicking the Kennan-fashioned strategy of containment is, at best, a willful misrepresentation of history. For starters, the Truman administration didn’t exactly do a terribly effective job in the short term of containing the Soviets. Additionally, and more to the point, those efforts at containment that were successful were only so because of the application of American military might. Obama may not know this – or more likely, he may choose to believe otherwise – but Truman spent nearly the entirety of his presidency preparing for or involved in various wars. And it wasn’t just Truman. The five men who followed him in the position of commander-in-chief – Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford – all presided, to some extent or another, over a war of containment in Southeast Asia. We wonder if, perhaps, the President might want to speak with his Secretary of State about the consequences of containment. As best we can recall Secretary Kerry enjoys talking about his days in Vietnam and would have a great many stories to tell the President about his time there.
The second issue with the strategy is that any effort to focus on what the Times calls “other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible” will, in practice, surely result, in doing nothing whatsoever. If you look at the slate of global issues facing the United States and which the Obama administration has made its priorities, virtually all of them involve Russia. And more critically, they all involve a reliance on Russia to act as an ally and to be an honest broker. From the ongoing slaughter known as the Syrian revolution to the Iranian nuclear weapons program; from the collapse of the government and social institutions in Venezuela to the mounting human rights and humanitarian disaster in post-Mubarak Egypt; in all cases, Russia is a key player, if not the key player in achieving any sort of acceptable outcome. The presumption that Barack Obama will be able to ignore Russia and still address the key issues facing the world is delusional.
But then, that’s hardly a surprise.
You may recall that Obama entered the White House confident that he would restore the American reputation ruined by his predecessor. He would, he promised, “reset” relations with Russia, encourage trust and mutual affection between the West and Islam, and conduct “smart diplomacy” intended to advance American interests while also respecting indigenous sentiment. In short, he intended to make reality conform to his vision of how things should be.
Five years later, he still is not aware that the problem with all of this is that it is based on a fiction, a badly and naively formed understanding of the world. And because of this, the world is falling further and further into chaos. Again, though, this is no surprise, as Voegelin noted: “The eschatological interpretation of history results in a false picture of reality; and errors with regard to the structure of reality have practical consequences when the false conception is made the basis of political action.”
In the specific case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the practical consequences are the failure of the peace talks, an almost certain return to violence on the part of the “frustrated” Palestinians, and, perhaps most notably, further deterioration of the relationship between Israel and the Obama administration. John Kerry is upset today because he is personally embarrassed that he was unable to make the fantasy of Middle East peace a reality. And he is openly and undiplomatically – but entirely predictably – blaming Israel for his embarrassment and thus encouraging more violence against the Jewish state, albeit unwittingly. Our guess is that he will be even more upset, more embarrassed, more unfriendly to the Netanyahu government, and thus, more likely to encourage the escalation of violence, once that violence begins.
In the broader case of the general Obama foreign policy, it is hard to conceive of any action that the President or his Secretary of State could take at this moment that would not foster a greater and swifter collapse of the erstwhile post-Cold-War status quo. Virtually the entire world now understands that Barack Obama is not just out of his depth in foreign policy, but is quite possibly out of his mind as well. His entire foreign policy was and is based on the construction of a false reality. And anything that conflicts with that false reality simply serves, in the President’s mind, to confirm the fantasy and to encourage paranoia. Somebody, somewhere is always out to get him – be it Putin, or Netanyahu, or even Darrell Issa. There is always someone sabotaging his efforts, and the dream world thus remains intact.
This will, we’re afraid, not end well. As Voegelin notes, the inevitable end result of the dream world campaign is violence, lots and lots of violence.
To answer just a couple of the questions posed at the top of this piece: Is John Kerry an anti-Semite? Is Barack Obama? On both accounts, we tend to doubt it. And that’s too bad really. Prejudice, at least, is something for which the prejudged can account and with which they can deal. Delusion, by contrast, or Gnostic fanaticism, if you prefer, is a far more nebulous and far less addressable condition. As the Israelis, the Ukrainians, the Syrians, and countless others are learning, when the American political class is dominated by Gnostics, the rest of the world suffers.
And so suffer they will.