These thoughts don’t fit together

The following two snippets aren’t necessarily related, but they’ve been percolating in my mind for a few days now, so I thought I’d include a little of each.

1) Buy Andrew Bacevich’s book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. Bacevich is currently a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and was formerly a colonel in the U.S. Army. Washington Rules is a deeply insightful critique of what Dwight Eisenhower so presciently labeled the “military-industrial complex.”

“The Washington rules” of the title, Bacevich explains in his introduction, “were forged at a moment when American influence and power were approaching their acme. That moment has now passed.” What follows is a brilliant historical overview of the American drift from moderate isolationism to strident interventionism. Bacevich, like many on the disaffected left, fears perpetual war. Entrenched interests in both the public and private sectors never cease to make use of fear-mongering tactics to frighten a restive population into acquiescence. This is how the CIA and Strategic Air Command, two institutions whose central role in establishing American militarism is thoroughly dissected in Washington Rules, managed to upend decades upon decades of American reluctance to flex its muscles in the global arena.

It is also how the United States finds itself enmeshed in three simultaneous wars right now. The legacy of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden (and yes, their legacies are forever linked) is not simply the overreaction, the blind rage that led the United States into endless wars against unseen enemies with unclear objectives, all accompanied by the impossibility of victory. More enduring still is the zombie-like, unquestioning deference with which American citizens approach their warrior-leaders. Bush accomplished in eight years what the decades-long Cold War never could: permanent war, it seems, has become the new norm. Civil liberties are but a noble casualty along the way.

All one needs to do to confirm this sudden, collective disavowal of the pursuit of peace is to witness the nearly inaudible protest to President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene in the Libyan revolution. Where the war in Iraq invited some (albeit relatively muted, especially in light of the still-heightened emotions following September 11) immediate condemnation, our Libyan incursion barely raised eyebrows. Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the terror attacks he masterminded laid bare an uncomfortable truth: it takes very little to galvanize the American public in support of a perceived cause, however dubious the rationale and however vague the endgame.

Washington Rules was published in 2010, before the Jasmine Revolution and before today, when the key provisions of the Patriot Act that authorize controversial surveillance techniques were renewed for four years by Congress, despite the warnings of two U.S. senators that the bill is being interpreted in very dangerous ways. One can only imagine the blistering new foreword Bacevich could pen now.

2) Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress this week was chock-full of half-truths, prevarications, and outright lies. In fact, his entire visit to the States was an exercise in exaggeration and hyperbole, as the reaction he provoked following Obama’s speech on the Middle East was completely unwarranted. Obama stated that Israeli-Palestinian borders must be based on the 1967 lines, something every American and Israeli leader has known for years. (This includes Netanyahu himself as recently as six months ago.)

Ultimately, Netanyahu is a coward, and his intransigence will only harm Israel in the long run. What I found far more disturbing was the appalling sycophancy displayed by the United States Congress, which was roused to twenty-nine standing ovations, including once — inexplicably — that immediately followed Netanyahu’s statement that Israel was not occupying Palestinian land.

As Glenn Greenwald of Salon has demonstrated on many occasions, American politicians’ obsequiousness to the Israeli right-wing knows no bounds. This absurd rubber-stamping (not to mention heavy financing) of what is in many ways a racist regime owes in large part to the enormous influence of the Israel lobby (yes, the one so strongly debated following the eponymous book by Walt and Mearsheimer).

But a word of caution may be in order. As any sane person who follows Middle Eastern politics with even a passing interest knows, yes, the Israel lobby is indeed a powerful force, perhaps the most influential outside group (especially in proportion to its immediate constituency, American Jews) affecting American politics today. One of the hallmarks of this lobby is to stifle any critique of Israel, no matter how thoughtful or well-reasoned, by using the threat of being branded an anti-Semite as a deterrent.

Of course, anti-Semitism does exist, and whether it’s John Galliano or Lars von Trier spouting racist ideas in public, it’s wrong, always. But wielding the “anti-Semite” label as a baton in order to smother dissent is not just wrong, it’s undemocratic. The dilemma, then, lies in criticizing the lobby itself. Care must be taken to avoid being perceived as an adherent of the age-old, harebrained conspiracy theories that “Jews control the media,” “Jews control the government,” and so on. They do not. But they do, unlike many underrepresented minority groups in the U.S., exert enormous influence on American policy. To acknowledge this fact is not to exhibit anti-Semitism; it simply proves one has eyes and ears.

A crucial distinction is in order, then. The Israel lobby exists, and it is powerful. But it is not synonymous with Judaism, nor even American Judaism. AIPAC, while purporting to act on behalf of both American Jews and the state of Israel, in reality is little more than a well-connected conduit between the most radically right-wing voices in both camps and the United States government. So while many are understandably reluctant to give voice to their misgivings about the Israel lobby for fear of conflation with actual anti-Semites, it is vital to differentiate between criticism of Israeli policies and hatred of a race. It is also important to remember that AIPAC, in portraying itself as the public mouthpiece of Jews in both the U.S. and Israel, is actually doing both nations a huge disservice in its unquestioning support of continually failing policies. It is only when reasoned criticism becomes the norm that the United States and Israel will both be able to enact sensible policies with regard to the Holy Land.

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