Truly Inconvenient Truths

Photo: Adnan Hajj/Reuters

Al Gore’s movie about global warming has a brilliant title: It flatters us—those of us who believe the scientific consensus about climate change—that we are clear-eyed and honest and brave enough to admit this “inconvenient truth” that the Bush administration and its reckless, craven, venal corporate allies refuse to admit. Yet the truth about greenhouse gases, although plenty scary, is really not so inconvenient: The blame for inaction is easy to lay on others, a solution seems possible, and that solution doesn’t look that onerous.

Whereas concerning the Middle East, there is for most of us no obvious overriding analysis, let alone fix. Concerning Israel and the Palestinian territories, all the truths tend to be truly, deeply, tragically inconvenient.

And the big one is this: Israel is a good and miraculous nation that deserves the support of civilized people, but the great unfortunate fact about its creation—being carved by the U.N. out of Arab land in 1947—cannot be ignored or wished away. We have no choice but to support Israel, even though the Israeli Defense Forces are killing civilians, dozens a day, in Lebanon. All of those deaths, one wants to believe, are unintentional, unavoidable mistakes. Yet as Richard Cohen wrote in his Washington Post column last week, “Israel itself is a mistake … an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable [but which] has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now.” Sixty years on, there can be no revising or reversing that mistake—and when the choice is Israel versus unaccommodating Islamist fanatics, we must be for Israel. Is there any more inconvenient truth?

So it was no surprise that as Israel waged its retaliatory war against Hezbollah and Hamas (zealots, Fascists, nihilists, pawns of Iran and Syria, all of the above), the blogospheric liberals, usually promiscuous with opinions, were averting their eyes, changing the subject, punting—like Republicans are inclined to do about global warming. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the Democratic power broker known as Kos, was quite open about his willful disengagement: In a post titled “Why I won’t write about Israel/Lebanon/Palestine fighting,” he said that he “sure as heck ha[s] no desire to get sucked into that no-win situation.” “I wish I had had something brilliant to say about Israel and Lebanon, et al.,” Eric Alterman blogged, then went on to use the crisis as a pretext for his 10,000th easy shot at Bush and the war in Iraq.

But who can entirely blame him? Last year, a writer in the Boston Globe called Alterman a self-hating Jew after he had written that the Palestinians “lost their homeland” as a result of the Holocaust and the 1947 partition, and that he and other supporters of Israel—us—are partly responsible for the Palestinians’ present suffering.

Thus another of the inconvenient truths: It’s essentially impossible to conduct a frank, good-faith public debate in the U.S. about U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians—just as it’s probably impossible to have frank, good-faith public debates in Muslim countries about policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. In the four months since two eminent American political scientists (Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago) published an article called “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” they have been both strenuously ignored and unjustly besmirched as anti-Semites. I don’t buy Walt and Mearsheimer’s argument that the U.S. invaded Iraq primarily to indulge the Israel lobby. However, the attempt to thrash out our specific U.S. interests in the Middle East as distinct from the interests of our great Middle Eastern ally is important and difficult—an inconvenient truth that our politics and even our discourse are practically incapable of considering.

And so we consume the latest news with only a deepening hopelessness and edge-of-Armageddon dread and a sense, looking at the pictures of fresh rubble, of how quickly the nightmare can descend. Wallpaper last month ran a column saying that Beirut was “healing beautifully,” with new buildings by Steven Holl and Philippe Starck. “Boom time is now.” A few weeks ago, two New York friends of mine were in Beirut trying to decide whether to accept positions at the American University. Potential danger didn’t figure much in their considerations. Another family friend just moved to Israel, where her boyfriend is an army officer who (according to her mother’s e-mail) “thinks that Israel is acting out of proportion, but it must defend itself. The insane ongoing duality of this complicated situation.”

INSANE ONGOING DUALITY: If only there were just two confusing, contradictory ideas and impulses at play as we Americans try to figure out what to think or do about the Middle East. The complications and flux of the new Great Game are harrowing—ironic, isn’t it, that someone as unsubtle and one-track-minded as George Bush helped usher in this complex new era? His instincts about the present crisis may be correct—get the U.N. to “get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit”—but imagine him just trying to keep the sectarian vectors straight: Iran is Shiite, as is Hezbollah (which in Lebanon tends to make allies of the Sunnis and Christians); Syria and Hamas (and most of the Palestinians) are Sunni, as are the Saudis and Jordanians; and although we liberated the Shiite majority in Iraq, the Sunnis there now suddenly want us to stick around to protect them from revenge by the Shiites whom they, the Sunnis, tyrannized under Saddam and have been massacring since the U.S. invasion.

And complicating the geopolitics even more are profoundly new circumstances, a very few good (Libya neutered, the Saudis seriously scolding Hezbollah) but mostly not—the U.S. decides to trade stability for democracy in the Middle East, yet instead of taming the ascendant Islamists in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, the new democratic contagion emboldens them to become more impossible than ever; Israel, having tried walking away from its enemies and some of its victims in Lebanon and Gaza, is victimized by rockets and kidnappings. What are the Hebrew and Arabic for “No good deed goes unpunished”?

So at this time of staggering new complexity comes a two-front Israeli war—which temporarily serves, like all wars, to make a complex situation seem simple. Some on the right are pleased because (like Islamist radicals) they are bloody-mindedly eager for a wider war. The Weekly Standard suggested last week that the U.S. should use “this act of Iranian aggression”—that is, Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel—as a pretext for “a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?” “It’s World War III,” Newt Gingrich declared, a wishing-for-1914 mantra that half the Fox News stars masturbatorily repeated. And Gingrich, shrewd and frank, was clear about his rhetorical intentions in painting a stark, black-and-white, Manichaean picture. “The minute you use the language,” he explained, the discussion becomes, “Okay, if we’re in the Third World War, which side do you think should win?” To insist wishfully that World War III has started—to try to recast a trope as a fact—is hideous. However, that such a proposition can be bandied about on network TV by a national politician (and former historian) gives even sober people the willies. Might the Israeli soldiers’ capture turn out to be our century’s assassination of an Austrian archduke…?

And in New York, even liberals, when it comes to an Israeli war, default to the kind of hoo-ah rhetoric that obliterates careful thought and evenhandedness. Addressing a pro-Israel rally outside the U.N. last week, Anthony Weiner, the Democratic congressman from Brooklyn, slagged people who regard the Middle East and the fighting in Lebanon as “a complicated issue, a nuanced issue,” because “this is not a time for ambiguity.” To the same crowd, Hillary Clinton offered a Gingrichian analogy: “If extremist terrorists were launching rocket attacks across the Mexican or Canadian border, would we stand by or would we defend America against these attacks?” Sure, we’d send the F-18s to blast Toronto and Nuevo Laredo, and rightly so; maybe the most salient analogy, however, is not fantasy attacks on America in 2006 but our Indian Wars of 1876—and is there any Hillaryesque Democrat who would cheer retroactively about our Christian nation and its Army of the West defending white settlers by exterminating Native Americans? Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t support Israel; it’s simply another inconvenient truth we’re obliged to acknowledge.

Like the question of proportionate response in the campaign going on now. If Israel manages to weaken Hezbollah significantly (its full-time guerrillas number only in the hundreds) and to reestablish meaningful deterrence against attacks by Hamas as well, so much the better. But the Lebanese people are being punished wholesale, which the Geneva Conventions do not permit. The kill ratio in Lebanon and Israel last week was running ten-to-one in Israel’s favor—and much higher than that if you count only civilians.

The Israelis, far better than us, are able to admit and discuss such ugly realities. Indeed, it was Ariel Sharon’s clear-sightedness about the existentially inconvenient truth facing his country that led him to forge a new party and security strategy: Israel could either continue to occupy Gaza and the West Bank (with or without removing the Palestinians) and thus cease to be a democracy, or it could withdraw to its established borders. Would that the Palestinians (and the Lebanese, and us) had a head of state prepared to make and enforce the equivalent tough national choices.

How long and how ferocious should the incursion by our ally into Lebanon and Gaza be? The deaths of how many innocents and the destruction of how many Lebanese homes and businesses and bridges and roads should we condone? “It’s the Middle East,” the Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni said last week. “It’s always choosing between bad options. And that’s true for the international community, too, and not just for us.” Exactly right: Such is the nature of inconvenient truths.

More on the Israel-Lebanon Conflict:
100-Person Poll: A Random Survey of New Yorkers of Different Faiths on the Conflict

Life in Beirut Before Wartime


Truly Inconvenient Truths