There are two possible conflicts on the table in Washington. One is with Iran and the other with Syria. The Iran conflict is the one that Washington doesn’t want. Its most likely trigger at this stage is an Israeli assault on Iran’s nuclear program. Like most of the wars centering around Israel, this one is existential and of no interest to the philosopher kings in D.C. who wage wars with the grand purpose of making the world a better place.
Washington does not particularly care whether Iran gets nukes or doesn’t get nukes. It cares about History. With a capital “H.” Libya got bombed because it was on the wrong side of history. Syria is about to get bombed because it’s on the wrong side of history. There are people in the administration like Samantha Power who would like to bomb Israel for being on the wrong side of history, but they don’t think that even J Street and Peter Beinart could spin that as a pro-Israel move.
Being on the right or wrong side of history is one of those topics that primarily interests Islamists and nation builders on the right and the left who subscribe to a progressive version of history. Things don’t just happen, they happen because a country and a people are riding the history escalator up or down, to the top floor of the mall of the world where the cultivated stores like Starbucks, Nordstrom and the now defunct Sharper Image are located, or the bottom where K-Mart, Payless and Gap take up space.
The Arab Spring was on the right side of history because of its transformative qualities. Supporters of it were on the right side of history. Opponents of it needed to be bombed if they were Arab dictators or disinvited from the right cocktail parties if they were merely columnists and analysts. And at the end of it all through the sublime majesty of democracy and people power, the Middle East would look exactly like Europe, but with a more exotic cuisine.
Israel has always been the hedgehog in the soup of Arab democracy, agitating them, empowering their rulers and causing them to distrust Western benevolence. Now Israeli jets threaten to spill the soup of the Arab Spring by bombing Iran, which may reinforce support for Syria, which will hold up the Arab Spring and halt the progressive escalator of history.
Washington needs the Syrian war to happen, and it needs to keep a conflict with Iran from happening. The great diplomatic problem of Israel has always been that its leader insist on viewing conflicts in practical terms. Israel does not fight wars to make the world safe for democracy, it fights wars because there’s someone shooting missiles as it. This is an unacceptable reason for a war in a postmodern world where wars are fought to preserve the international order, protect civilization, make the world safe for democracy and prove that human rights violations will be punished by the duly constituted body of international jurisprudence.
Self-interest is Israel’s original sin. It was the sin that countless titans of the left from H.G. Wells to Lenin berated the Zionists for. Instead of contributing to the welfare of mankind and participating in the international brotherhood of workers, they went off to rebuild a country that existed only in their holy books and stirred up all kinds of trouble doing it. And since they have kept on stirring up trouble, not in the name of some grand idea, but out of their tawdry interest in defending themselves.
With angry Muslims boiling in European cities, Koran touting terrorists blowing up the modern infrastructure of the world’s capitals and turmoil roiling the hundreds of millions of Muslims who still haven’t managed to get refugee status in the UK or the US, the progressive vision is in big trouble and the only solution is to somehow stabilize the situation. Democracy is the only panacea that the progressive prescription plan covers.
Israel’s insistence on a purely existential view is dismissed as selfish and narrow-minded when the Middle East is headed toward a brave new world where nukes no longer matter because no one is angry anymore because there are no more dictators and democracy is everywhere. While the Israelis see the Middle East as basically static, the progressives see the Middle East as constantly on the verge of a great leap forward to a new more enlightened age.
As a result any affinity between the neoconservatives and Israeli leaders was always going to be limited. The neoconservatives were impressed by Israel’s modernism, but they assumed that it could be copied over to their neighbors and came to resent Israel as an obstacle for not playing a more meaningful role in their grand theory of history. While outwardly the progressives see Israel as very modern, they reject it for not possessing the most vital element of modernism. Transnationalism.
While Israel has more than its share of leftists, its animating philosophy is an ethnic nationalism that is repugnant to the transnationalist. They can find no meaningful globally applicable philosophy that defines its success. Like Japan, Israel is a self-contained wonder. It is a nation, not a philosophy. Its identity is rooted in an infuriating recent and ancient history. It is modern in defiance of the progressive understanding of history– which is why its technology, its human rights and its basic decency are dismissed.
The Arab Spring seems to be everything that Israel is not, a transnational transformation, the soul of Europe invested in a Middle Eastern body. A great leap forward that will lift the region out of its backward fanaticism and move the world closer to the modern place it ought to be. Then with some selective sanctions in Asia, laptops for every child in Africa, and some really good books on human potential, the entire world will be just like the European Union. If Israel doesn’t louse it up this time.
The progressive philosopher-kings aren’t stupid, their knowledge of history is. They believe that their wonderful system was not the product of a civilization, but of political protesters demanding change. If the political protesters demanding change are similarly empowered in the Muslim world, then they will end up with the same results.
To the left a theory of history in which a humanitarian society is created through the overthrow of the status quo makes perfect sense. To the American liberal right, a similar theory favoring democracy as the key element has almost as much appeal. Both agree on the notion that if their native process is exported, then the results will be the same.
There’s a certain kind of technocratic sensibility to it, that if you build the same machines and use the same recipe, then anyone can make Coca Cola. Which is true, except that people in different parts of the world prefer versions of Coca Cola that taste differently. Exporting the process of democracy does not export the outcome of democracy. It only helps the local create the sort of government they really want. Egypt and Tunisia have already shown us what kind of government that is.
Washington is not interested in Israel’s selfish need to be nuked. It isn’t in this for existential reasons and it doesn’t see why Israel should be either. If the United States can sacrifice thousands of lives for the greater good to promote peace, tolerance and respect for international law, then why can’t Israel risk a few million lives, especially when there are foreign policy experts who will explain slowly and distinctly to the dunces in Jerusalem why it is very unlikely that Iran will actually detonate a nuclear bomb.
Israeli leaders have a diminishing interest in grand theories of history arising from DC or Brussels. Small nations can’t afford grand theories of history. They make do with keeping the rain from leaking through the roof. The Israelis aren’t interested in another war, which is exactly why they want to launch a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program. In response Iran’s terrorist proxies will do their part by shelling Israeli towns and villages, but that’s part of life. Not the good part, but the part about living in a region overrun by terrorist militias that anyone can sponsor for a dollar.
They are often stupid, but they are rarely stupid in the way that American and European leaders are stupid. Israel can’t afford its own version of Blair, Sarkozy or Obama. The closest thing to them, Shimon Peres, was quickly voted out despite wearing the cloak of martyrdom and has been relegated to a ceremonial office which allows him to explain his vision of the New Middle East dominated by nanotechnology and free trade zones to foreign visitors who are impressed by this visionary.
When Israel looks at Syria, it doesn’t see a potential gateway to regional progress, it sees a local civil war backed by its neighbors, which will result in instability and one side or the other gaining Syria as a pawn. It sees Assad’s weapons stockpiles ending up in the hands of terrorists, terrorists flocking to fight in the civil war, and it even sees Alawite refugees desperate enough to flee across the border. What it does not see is the glowing symbols of the Arab Spring.
And when it looks at Iran, it doesn’t see a rogue state, it just sees a bunch of fanatics about to get their hands on nuclear weapons. And time running out in which their efforts can be aborted or at least slowed down. It will do something about it not because it wants to change the region or advance human civilization, but because it knows the exact casualty count from a nuclear detonation over Tel Aviv.
Washington desperately doesn’t want anything interrupting its rush to war in Syria. Jerusalem has run out of patience and will go it alone in Iran. The consequences aren’t unpredictable and won’t be much fun. But that is also the difference between responsible and irresponsible leadership. Responsible leaders can take a hit now to avoid much worse consequences down the road. Irresponsible leaders take refuge in philosophy and chase after theories of history, rather than keeping the rain from leaking through the roof.
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