Saturday, March 26, 2016

A comment on Breaking the Silence

About 10 days ago Channel 2 TV, Israel's most popular channel, aired a longish report claiming Breaking the Silence (BtS) investigators are not limiting themselves to collecting stories from IDF veterans about ugly IDF behavior, but have branched out into what looks suspiciously like gathering general military intelligence. Following the ensuing uproar Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon tasked the relevant agencies to investigate. At some future date - easily weeks from now, perhaps many months - we'll hear either that the investigators found nothing worth criminal process, or that they did.

Lots of folks aren't waiting for either scenario to happen, and are using what we already know to bash their political foes, one way or the other. Much of this is predictable, and lacks any real value while convincing only the convinced.

One strand of the argument, however, has been a bit startling, and to my mind, noteworthy. This is the claim made by BtS defenders that the organization can't be doing anything wrong since all its publications go through the censor. (Here's an example of the genre). It's an odd line of defense, as the allegations were that BtS is collecting classified information, not publishing it; the mere collection, if proven, might be criminal - a matter I'll leave firmly for the experts.

The reason I'm blogging on this however, in spite of my obligation to stay firmly away from political matters, is that it shines a fascinating light on the IDF, on BtS, and on Israeli society.

In a better world, Israel wouldn't have a censor at all. In that world, Israel would be at peace. In the world we're in, Israel has never been at peace, and does have a censor. The censor's activities, however, are closely observed by the Supreme Court, and it's staff do their best to leave as light a footprint as possible, and to block as little information as possible.

Breaking the Silence, meanwhile, presents itself as a brave organization which stands up to Israel's establishment, especially it's military establishment, so as to tell its citizens (and the rest of the world) about the moral price its soldiers pay to maintain the occupation.

Or perhaps it's not so brave? For it turns out that everything it tells, it tells after it has gone to the censor (a military outfit), and the censor permits. One assumes (I haven't tried to check) that occasionally BtS goes to the censor with an item which for whatever reason can't be made public, and then BtS remains silent.

So where, pray tell, is the bravery? What silence exactly is being broken? Whatever BtS tells, it's not things the IDF wants kept secret, since the IDF could use the censor to keep it so; or conversely, even when BtS has an unpleasant story to tell, the IDF doesn't silence it. Rather than brave dissidents, perhaps we're seeing a military establishment which is open to public scrutiny to an admirable degree, and a society which supports the IDF, supplies occasional soldiers who dislike what they see, and enables them to publicly tell their tale and even take it on international roadshows?

That would mean it's not a tale of the moral damage occupation inflicts on Israeli society, but rather one of many methods Israeli society uses to try and preserve its moral standards.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

On Jeffrey Goldberg on Barack Obama

If Twitter is to be believed, there's been a bit of interest in Jeffrey Goldberg's 70-page article in The Atlantic on President Obama's foreign policy doctrine. Since I expect lots of better informed folks are having their say about it, I'd like to come at it from what I fear may be an unusual angle: the importance of story-telling.

On the simplest level, Goldberg's piece contains a story about his unusual access to this president. There can't be many others who repeatedly interview the president one-on-one, and then are given the chance to spend six hours over an extended period and in various places so as to write one article. Goldberg's not going to have that kind of access with President Trump or even President Clinton - tho for a while there he seemed to be laying the ground to create it with President Christie. Wasted effort, that.

 In a nutshell, the story Goldberg tells about Obama, and probably the story Obama wished Goldberg to tell, is that whatever he once was, nowadays Obama is a cerebral and calculating Realist, who will do what it takes to protect America but won't use military force for anything less - and whose definition of what threatens America is quite narrow; he also takes care not to be swayed by emotions or by public opinion trends, preferring to concentrate on rational interests - America's, and everyone else's.

This ends up highly unsatisfactory, to my mind. Start with the ideas Obama himself is influenced by, according to this article. He and Goldberg have both read Hobbes. They've probably both read Samantha Powers on genocide. They both allude to, and perhaps have both read, Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. Yet when they turn to formative stories from which to draw wisdom, their metaphors all seem to come from Hollywood. The Godfather. Batman! And of course, Star Trek, from which Goldberg draws the concept that Obama is Spokian, while too many voters may be Kirkian.

Surveying their philosophical reading list, there's no indication they've read Huntington's student, Francis Fukuyama. Which is regrettable, as Fukuyama could have explained to them that tribalism isn't a retreat from rationalism by frightened and benighted folks who can't clearly see their own best interests, which seems to be how Obama and Goldberg both understand it. Rather, tribalism is an ancient, venerable, and very powerful principle of organizing society, with a far more compelling attraction than modern enlightened humanism or democracy; in many societies it's the default, not some cheap populist escapism.

The Hollywood part is more troubling. It wasn't always so. The other day I spent some time watching Robert F Kennedy speeches, and was struck by the ease and naturalness with which he quoted Classical writers. Here, watch him doing it in an unscripted speech when announcing Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. Educated men throughout the West could do that for many centuries, up until just recently. Obama and Goldberg are of the first generation who can't, and their substitutes are pale, a thin gruel indeed.

Yet the deeper significance of the replacement of ancient story-tellers with ephemeral ones from Tinseltown is that no matter how rational we tell ourselves we are, how coolly analytical of interests and dismissive of emotions, it's ultimately stories we turn to, when called upon to understand the world around us.

And that, to my mind, is the profound flaw in the Obama Doctrine as Goldberg so ably describes it. That it overlooks the true power of stories to trump cool analysis (pardon the pun).

If you've been following the current chapter of violence in Israel, you'll be acutely aware of how it's all about a clash of stories, with Israelis and Palestinians seeing quite different stories when watching the exact same news reports. The 30-years-war currently engulfing the Arab world is about stories, not interests. The collapse of European smugness in the face of refugees with radically different stories is itself because of stories. The rise of Putinism is all about a story, not calculated interests at all. Does anyone think the Iranians are listening to the same stories the Americans are?

Anyone who has ever watched an advertisement on TV should be aware of this.