The Filter of War

Freddie writes:

While I continue to believe that our national conversation is far from an equitable or fair one, I have to admit that things have changed; there is more criticism and questioning of Israel and its actions than I would have felt possible before the conflict began.

I wonder if this is the case, actually.  Looking back at the 2006 assault on Lebanon, I recall a great deal of criticism of Israel’s moves, though to be sure, much of it fell within the realm of “is it good for Israel?” or “is it strategically wise?” rather than over the plight of the Lebonese, and Freddie is correct that much of the current criticism of Israel falls within this vein.

I think two things cause Americans to view the Israel/Palestine conflict through this lens.  First, American news media is extraordinarily reluctant to show images of war in too graphic a detail.  I recall the night we invaded Iraq, the Shock and Awe playing on my friend’s television, the green explosions and video-game quality of it all, the surreality of watching a war unfold and yet feeling as though the entire event was little more than another episode in a war game, or a television show.  Shock and Awe certainly sounds like a video game title, or a pay-per-view boxing match.

The fact is, night-vision airstrikes are sterile enough to show on American television.  The fallout from those strikes is not.  So when we are shown images of far-off explosions and told that Israel has moved troops into Gaza to stop Hamas from firing rockets into Israel, we have that same sterile, pc vision of what the war must be like.  Certainly there are the CNN clips of wounded Palestinians rushed off to ambulances, but even they seem at the most PG-13.  In essence, war seems very abstract, very clean, very distant.

Terrorism, on the other hand, feels very visceral, very real.  We can empathize with those Israeli citizens who have endured terror at the hands of groups like Hamas, who live in fear of attack.  I think 9/11 is largely responsible for this sense of affinity.  Then again, perhaps it is just the nature of terror that makes us so much more able to empathize.  Perhaps because terrorism inspires fear that it could happen to us too, whereas war has always been off-shored for Americans, that makes this our reality.

All of which is to say that perhaps it is the medium by which we get our news that makes us so much more receptive of an Israeli perspective, even when we are criticizing them.  Perhaps it is this and a sense that in some way, either through shared citizenship, shared ideals, or democratic principles, that we are more inclined to view things through a pro-Israel lens.

Of course, the very term “pro-Israel” is a misnomer.  As Freddie mentions, what Israel wants, and what they need may be two very different things.  He writes that:

only America ultimately can broker peace in Palestine. This is because the deep economic, military and diplomatic investment of the United States in Israel gives us the power to deeply influence Israeli policy moving forward. As much as countries like Egypt and Jordan can provide legitimacy in the Palestinian street, and as much as the European Union can act as a powerful third-party arbiter, the simple fact is that there is no other country on earth that has the power and legitimacy within Israel to generally effect change.

Indeed, in every significant move toward peace America has had at least a hand in the matter.  Carter, for all his flaws as President, at least played a part in brokering Israel’s peace with Egypt.  Massive aid packages to Egypt and Jordan from the United States have been instrumental in securing a lasting peace between Israel and those nations.  Always this balanced approach, with America naturally more amicable with Israel than with her neighbors or the Palestinians, but still acting as a broker, as a go-between for the various parties, has worked the best.  Which is why I think Scott is simply on the wrong track when he writes:

That America is in a unique position to help usher along peace negotiations due to its relationship with Israel is indeed essentially indisputable . But I would argue that in many ways, now is the perfect time for America to resist taking that front and centre role and exercise a more “behind the scenes” effect on this conflict.

Just as the Bush administrations refusal to ever deal with so-called enemies, or their stubborness in pushing for democratic elections in Palestine and then refusing to acknowledge the not-so-surprising results, has led to a one-sided and ultimately unhelpful handling of the conflict, I think a “behind the scenes” America would only lead to questions, suspicion, and ultimately illegitimacy in the process.

America needs to do everything out in the open air.  The Obama administration needs to sit down with all sides, even Hamas, and get the dialogue as public as possible.  True, Hamas states in their charter that they will acecpt nothing less than the destruction of Israel.  Very well, then when we sit down with Hamas and with Israel and try to dialogue we can hold that against them.  We can say, “How do you expect us to help you if you don’t renounce this?” and if we do so openly, in the most public matter possible, then the whole world can watch as they either reform, or refuse.

Similarly, America is in a position to ask Israel how they expect to achieve a two-state solution while Israeli settlements stripe the West Bank, and the Israelis will have to respond.  The more open these talks are, the more above-board these diplomatic efforts become, the better.

The media has a role in this as well, by giving us the news in whatever gory detail it may arrive, and letting us truly decide whether this is even a discussion that merits “sides” or not.  Perhaps the end-goal is not pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, but simply pro-peace and an end to the madenning cycle.  Without a newscore willing to show the ugly details, or a Government willing to speak openly with all sides of the debate, how can we hope to achieve anything at all?

UPDATE: This video with Jon Stewart and Al-Jazeera correspondent Abderrahim Foukara is worth watching, and touches on some of these themes.  Note when Foukara mentions that the only country Al-Jazeera has never been shut-down in is Israel.  Perhaps this is another reason we hold them in our esteem–they reflect some of our shared values.

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16 thoughts on “The Filter of War

  1. Islamists you can talk to – International Herald Tribune by Oliver Roy

    This would be the “essential distinction” that Roy is pushing:

    There is nothing to negotiate with the global jihadists, but the Islamo-nationalist movements simply cannot be ignored or suppressed.

    The “war on terror” during the Bush years has blurred this essential distinction by merging all the armed opponents to U.S.-supported governments under the label of terrorism. The concept of a “war on terror” has thwarted any political approach to the conflicts in favor of an elusive military victory.

    Roy wants us to believe that Bush is responsible for assuming that Islamists share the same goals, while correctly criticizing Bush for using the label, “war on terror.” Yes, we all know by now that “terror” is a tactic and that war cannot be waged against a tactic. But Roy uses this observation for an unusual bait-and-switch. Not all Islamists advocate the violent jihad—terror. Not all terrorists are Islamists. But how does he get from here to the idea that Hamas will negotiate in good faith? He says,

    Hamas is nothing else than the traditional Palestinian nationalism with an Islamic garb.

    There is no further support for this assertion in the rest of the article. We’re supposed to believe this is true just because Roy says it is. He continues to obfuscate the issue:

    Where a political approach has been tried, it has worked. The relative success of the surge in Iraq is based on the implicit rejection of the official doctrine of the “war on terror”: Local armed insurgents were recognized as political actors with more or less a legitimate agenda, thus separating them from the foreign-based global militants who did not give a damn about Iraqi national interests.

    Aside from the snide qualifier, “relative,” to describe the pacification of the world’s most violent region, Roy assumes that the Sunni tribe in Iraq are Islamists, who turned against al Qaida because they “did not give a damn about Iraqi national interests.” Where is the evidence that the Sunni tribes share the Islamist ideology? All the evidence shows that they do not—they are Muslims but not Islamists.

    So… the basic mistakes of mislabeling the war and of thinking that all Islamists are terrorists leads to the unwarranted labeling of Hamas as a nationalist movement. Roy’s audience will jump at this so as to legitimize Hamas. Nationalism is a foundation of Western values and it is integral to Western globalization, so it goes without saying that we should negotiate with nationalist movements. But Roy is pushing his own false “merging,” which is much more dangerous than Bush’s: he is “merging” Muslim nationalists with non violent Islamists. Of course we can and should negotiate with Muslim nationalists—we negotiate with the PA, don’t we? But Muslim nationalists—like the Sunni tribes—are not Islamists.

    But is it true that Islamists can be divided into globalized vs. nationalist movements?

    Here’s a scholar who says “no:”

    Islamists state “al-Islam huwa al-hall/Islam is the solution.” In this context the nominal nation-states in the world of Islam stand in conflict with the inherited dichotomous religion-base division of the world into the house/abode of Islam/dar al-Islam and the house of unbelievers/dar al-kuffar or house of war/dar al-harb. This dichotomy is based on a Weltanschaauung/worldview not supported by political structures. But now these states are also exposed to the demand of Islamists to be replaced by a divine order of an “Islamic state” consonant with the Islamic worldview. […] The call for global jihad is not simply terrorism. It is a call against the nation state in current world affairs. In Qutb’s book Islam and World Peace we read that the goal of political Islam is “to defeat any power on earth that prevents the mapping of the world under the ‘call to Islam/da’wa.'” This is the contemporary definition of Islamic global proselytization. Jihadism attaches this da’wa to military action heralding the context of religion and world politics in a bid for a remaking of the world.

    The succinct phrase by Qutb for determining the Islamic uprising reads:

    Islam needs a comprehensive revolution … being a jihad prescribed on Muslims to lead this revolution to success for establishing the ‘Hakimiyyat Allah/rule of God’ In short, jihad envisions a world revolution/thawra alamiyya… for the realization of (Islamic) peace … for the entire humanity … These are the outlines for world peace in Islam … This does not mean to avoid war/qital at any price … Islam is a permanent jihad which well not cease until Allah’s mission rules the world.

    In fact, this declaration of an Islamic world revolution is tantamount to a declaration of war on the present world order an is therefore, regardlss of what it claims, most definitely not a message of peace, eneither of global Islamic-Western relation nor for Europe’s relations with its Islamic diaspora.

    Therefore, not all Islamists are violent jihadists, i.e., are not terrorists. But all Islamists share the goal world revolution to establish the so-called rule of God.

    Even if Hamas wants control over Palestine, and so can be confused with a nationalist movement in the Western style and even if it does renounce violent jihad/terror, they will never renounce their most basic goal because this is part of their worldview. Nobody will ever negotiate their worldview—we won’t do it either. This is why there’s a war on: there are two globalizing worldviews and only one world. The Islamists must be defeated or we will be.

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  2. Roque–

    I have to wonder whether you are commenting on this piece or on the article you link to.

    I think Hamas must be dealt with diplomatically in part to expose them, let their views be heard and challenged in the global theatre. If they don’t moderate those views, approaches, etc. then world sympathy will not lie with them, and the Palestinians will have more of a reason to chuck them entirely.

    And yes, there is a major distinction between jihadists waging war for a global caliphate and nationalists like Hams, even if Hamas borrows extensively from the others’ rhetoric and recruiting tactics.

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  3. The piece I link to is by one of the most prominent proponents of dialogue with Hamas and of the thesis that we should negotiate with them. Roy is an established scholar of the world of Islam, and this article was published today, which is why I chose this article to link to.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of his books or are otherwise familiar with him. But it’s interesting that you’re repeating his thesis here: “there is a major distinction between jihadists waging war for a global caliphate and nationalists like Hamas.” The point of my critique is that this is a distinction without a difference. The call for the global caliphate is nothing but a propaganda ploy by al Qaida. I don’t know if any other Islamist groups adhere to this, or even if al Qaida does. What I do know—and supported by referring to Bassam Tibi (another established scholar of this problem) is that Islamists want to establish “the realization of (Islamic) peace … for the entire humanity.” This does not mean some kind of world government, i.e., the “global caliphate.” Roy is wrong. You are wrong. All Islamists are… well… Islamists. They cannot be negotiated with insofar as their Islamicism—just as we cannot be negotiated with insofar as our Western values. The point of Roy’s piece and your agreement with it is to legitimize Hamas. This cannot happen as long as they adhere to their Islamist world view.

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  4. Roque,

    Some of the Sunni groups in Anbar are Islamists, some I would say are not. So on that point Roy is mistaken imo. And by Islamists there I mean his Islamo-nationalists. The al-Qaeda in Iraq group represented an actual attempt–albeit one that will never have any chance of success–of a new caliphate. A real rejection of nation-state basis of world order. A man like Zarqawi hated Hamas. But Roy is I think correct that the surge issue was accepting the reality of a series of distinct actors, many of whom were armed and had committed acts we would generally label as terror. And yet somehow they had some nationalistic/local political fight and had local/national aims. Unlike again AQI.

    When you cite Tibi (describing the meaning of Islamist), I think that is their rhetoric, but in actual political practice (Roy’s point) they look more like nationalists. The rhetoric to be sure is still there. It is still there in Iran. But in practice, Iran has to emphasize Persian nationalism, anti-Western imperialism because large swaths of the populations have rejected the revolution and while they still use the language, they are cynical enough to realize it ain’t gonna happen. All these groups become conservative, once they get some hold on power. The hardcore revolutionaries will always be living in the caves in other words.

    As to how will we know Hamas will be sincere? I don’t know. How did they know with the Sunni groups in Iraq? Is there some element (even there) of groups playing both sides? Of course. This is politics. If they do play both sides then they are ferreted out, only proving it would seem to me your sense of their intentions.

    My own sense is that Hamas could be pressured by other Arab groups. When the other Arab countries signed on to the Saudi-led Road Map in Riyadh in 2007, Hamas interestingly did not comment. The first time it was done (2002), they publicly rejected the document. The first go round there was still a major split among many Arab countries. The second time it was far more unanimous and Hamas had to keep quiet. That to me signaled a huge amount.

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  5. They cannot be negotiated with insofar as their Islamicism—just as we cannot be negotiated with insofar as our Western values. The point of Roy’s piece and your agreement with it is to legitimize Hamas. This cannot happen as long as they adhere to their Islamist world view.

    So, essentially you’re saying that they will not negotiate their Islamist world view any more than we would our Western–and we cannot dialogue with them until they have given that up.

    So…you’re saying, in so many words, we can’t dialogue ever because they will never give up their world view, and that is a world view that we can never dialogue with. I disagree entirely. They live in their world, and we in ours. We can meet at the same table with two world views and find either common ground or not. How will we know until it’s actually attempted?

    And keep everything open and transparent. Demand accountability, unlike the debacle with Arafat and his cronies…Require more transparency then we do of our own financial system…

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  6. As much as countries like Egypt and Jordan can provide legitimacy in the Palestinian street

    Voices from the Palestinian street, courtesy of Reuter’s:

    The gains and losses of Hamas’s policy are a major point of discussion among Gazans, many of whom instinctively support Palestinian resistance against Israel, but question the cost in lives and destruction of the past three weeks.

    “Rockets must end. What did we gain from them?” said Lama, a secretary for a Gaza company, who would not give her full name.

    “Now Hamas is negotiating a truce. They were given an offer to renew it in December but they refused. Now after thousands of casualties, how does Hamas explain that?” she asked.

    Hamas has fired around 8,000 rockets and mortars into Israel since 2001, killing 21 people and causing widespread disruption in southern towns. Israel has said stopping rockets is the chief objective of its offensive.

    For Hamas, the ability to fire rockets up to 40 km (24 miles) into Israel was a progression in tactics from the suicide attacks that were a hallmark of the early part of the second intifada (uprising) against Israel that began in 2000.

    But given the amount of death and destruction Israel has wrought on Hamas and Gaza as a result of the rockets, even those who initially backed the tactic are now questioning it.

    “I have always been a supporter of rockets and all forms of resistance,” said Aziz, the taxi driver. “But maybe Hamas needs to renew martyrdom operations instead,” he said, referring to suicide attacks.

    Hassan, the father of five, said there was little point in firing rockets if they were not effective.

    “Rockets — I think this issue needs to be stopped for sometime and restudied,” he said. “Once we have a missile that can reach the heart of Tel Aviv and blow up a building, maybe they can resume fire.”

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  7. It’s been a full decade since I dealt with this material, but much of the debate over whether Hamas is a nationalist or internationalist organization seems strikingly similar to the debate over whether Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist or an international Communist – and more importantly, whether he should be dealt with as a nationalist or international Communist. IIRC, the correct answer to that question was “both,” and that the trick was to separate the two goals in determining how to deal with him best. I would do a follow-up post on this, but it’s been so long since I’ve dealt with the material that I wouldn’t be able to add much more than that.

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  8. So, essentially you’re saying that they will not negotiate their Islamist world view any more than we would our Western–and we cannot dialogue with them until they have given that up.


    They live in their world, and we in ours. We can meet at the same table with two world views and find either common ground or not.

    You can say this because this is part of your Western, liberal worldview. They don’t share this belief. According to Islamic law, any negotiation with the infidel is carried out by deceit and its goal is just to buy time for rearming and reorganizing. An example is the use of the word, “cease fire” to describe the situation in Gaza. Western sources translate the Arabic term, hudna, as cease fire because this benefits Hamas. They never talk about a cease fire, which is… ceasing to fire, a truce, etc. They only talk about a hudna, which is a “lull” in the fighting.

    But what would this “common ground” consist of? Something like freedom of trade? How about respect for individual rights? How about just simply “live and let live?” None of this can be acceptable to the Islamist worldview. In fact, it’s practically the same situation as what existed before they declared war on us by their suicide attacks and fatwahs. Before that, we were just buying and selling stuff over there in a peaceful way. The point is, they have a globalizing worldview and so do we. There’s only one world. Therefore someone’s got to lose. I want it to be them.

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  9. I disagree, Roque. At one point the Ottoman’s ruled the region, with their own brand of Islamism, and they were able to trade and dialogue with the West. In some respects, the very moderation of the Ottoman Islamism was what made them great and lasting. It also proves that such a society can exist, and could exist again.

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  10. The Ottomans did not have an Islamist ideology. In fact, they were attempting to liberalize for a century before WWI caught up with them. If the prevailing ideology in the Islamic world was similar to theirs, there would not be a problem today. Although their “moderation” should be put in ironic quotes, like I just did because they were one of the most warlike empires in history.

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  11. The point being, that the Ottomans represent the natural evolution of an initially far more radical ideology. With power, with responsibility, with hegemony, came a liberalization and moderation that has since dissipated in the Arab world–in part due to the collapse of the Ottoman rule and the subsequent rise in nationalism. Hence we can see nationalism inflaming a more radical Islamism and the two working in tandem, fanning each others’ flames.

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  12. It’s not an apples and oranges comparison. The goals of international Communism (and of true Marxists in general) were always to create a universal economic system that would permit the abolition of the very concept of the “state.” Views on how to deal with the spread of Communism were very much colored by this (justified) fear that Communism, by its very nature, would not rest until it had destroyed all non-Communist states – hence the “domino” theory and “containment” strategies.
    Importantly, these theories were correct in their assessment of ideological Communism, just as modern concerns about the goals of ideological Islamism are correct; where they failed was in treating all supporters of Communism as monolithic rather than recognizing that many such supporters were only riding the coat tails of a movement that promised them an opportunity to achieve nationalist aims. Applying this analysis to the Hamas question: while the hard-core elements of Hamas may or may not be devoted international Islamists opposed to any kind of compromise, this conclusion does not likely apply to all elements of Hamas, and certainly does not apply to all those who support Hamas.

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