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Commentary: The ambiguous Mr. Obama

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM– More than any other national leader, Barack Obama has a global constituency. The world does not vote in American elections, but his capacity to fulfill his obligations depends on the cooperation of other national leaders, and the opinions of publics that have at least a minimum of influence on them.
Balancing those far flung publics is not easy. The task may have something to do with the 20 percent of Americans who are think that their president is a Muslim, and his forth and back postures with respect to the controversial idea to build a mosque near Ground Zero.
The tensions built into the world context of his presidency also help us to understand his repeated efforts to divorce the concepts of Islam and terror, while he is leading the greatest crusade against Islam since the 13th century.

Politicians lie. Of course. They have to. How else to juggle the multiple obligations they are expected to serve. They say one thing and do something else. The higher the office, the more likely the dissembling. And Obama’s is the highest.

His loyal supporters may already be furious at me. He did not begin the war against Iraq. He has proudly announced the withdrawal of combat troops, but commentators are not confident that he is leaving behind anything close to a victory, or a  regime that can keep things stable. He has adopted and expanded American military efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Barack Obama makes Richard the Lionheart look like a boy who got into a schoolyard brawl.

Guantanomo is still holding jihadists, despite the president’s campaign pledge to close it down. This may not be his desire, but who can be sure about the desires of a politician who has to serve so many interests, and is beholden to Congress, the courts, advisors who may convince him to abandon some commitments, and–in this case–the governments of other countries not enthusiastic about taking some of those prisoners off his hands?

Obama has had a mixed record on Israel, but mixed records are the nature of political leadership.

After his Cairo speech and demanding a freeze of building for Jews in neighborhoods of Jerusalem, only 4 percent of the Israeli Jewish population felt he was supportive. Since then, however, he has backed off from his sweeping demands against the country’s capital city, and his invitation to Israeli-Palestinian talks is close to the Israeli desire of no preconditions.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describes what has been seen for some time in Israeli media, that American military aid remains at a high level, with Israeli access to some of the most advanced weaponry, and joint exercises that may surpass what previous administrations have offered. One passage in the WSJ reinforces the image of a crusade against Islamic extremists.

“The intensified partnership is part of the Obama administration’s broader policy of boosting military support for American allies in the Mideast amid heightened tensions with Iran and its allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas . . .”

Judging presidents is a task best left to historians and others with a broad perspective, some years after an incumbent has left office. Archives, memoirs, and contemplation can take the place of partisan passions. Even distance leaves open a number of difficult issues. How much credit should be given to any president for the nature of a national economy that responds to international and non-governmental stimuli, as well as to what the president does on top of what former presidents did? A dispassionate assessment of what came out of Congress and the White House under the heading of health reform might conclude that it is a mess not likely to deal with the self-serving efforts of insurance companies and HMOs, but only a child would think that a president can dictate legislation in such a context, or even maintain control over the details in a bill that grows from 1,000 to more than 2,000 pages.

Obama stirs passions. Soon after his inauguration, there were reports that he was the most threatened president since the Secret Service began its protection after the assassination of William McKinley. More recent news is that the tempo has declined to what has been the norm. 

The President’s 2008 campaign stimulated great emotion, but a careful study of his nomination indicates that it had something to do with the formulas used by state Democratic parties to divide the delegates between him and HIllary Clinton (Mattan Sharkansky, “The Impact of the Electoral System on Delegate Allocations in the 2008 American Primaries,” Representation, 46/2, July 2010). Obama’s victory in November was more clear cut, but we can argue if that was on account of Obama, McCain, or Palin.

Currently the tea leaves do not look promising for his party’s success in the mid-term Congressional elections, and I have not seen any rosy predictions for his success in 2012. That, too, is part of the job. George Washington might have still been a national hero when he left office, but that is not the image of presidents that I have been observing since FDR.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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Commentary:Ground Zero mosque controversy confronts political correctness

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–The issue of the New York City mosque near ground zero has awakened discussion of that big gorilla in the American living room. Despite all the platitudes slung back and forth about religious freedom and the separation of church and state, and the assertion that the problem of terror is not Islam, the gorilla will not go away.

Americans who write to me are strongly disinclined to see the reality, but they are already in the forefront of the battle in behalf of western civilization. It may not be mentionable in polite society, but a religious survey will not turn up many Christians or Jews among the enemy fighters killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, or still kept prisoner in Guantanamo.

The Soviet Union spent great amounts of blood and treasure dealing with Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan, just over the border of its own Muslim republics. It encountered not the cooperation of the United States, but the active opposition of American arms and money. The result may have advanced the end of the Cold War and entered the books as an American victory, but what was left behind turned against the United States. The Russians are still hurting in the Caucasus and elsewhere. Like others, they are disinclined to say that the problem is Islam, per se.. The New York Times reports the latest chapter in this story.

Dissembling may be necessary when dealing with an issue as explosive as religion. Christians and Jews can become feisty when public figures attack values held dear like homosexuality, abortion, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, Chanukah, or ritual slaughter, but they are nothing like sword waving and suicide belt wearing Muslims.

Scholars can find hateful doctrines in all the monotheistic religions, but those of Judaism and Christianity are historic relics. There are rogue rabbis who write about the conditions when it is proper to overlook the suffering of goyim, and priests who insist that the Jews really were the killers of Christ, but they are far from typical. Aggressive elements of Islam may not be statistically dominant among the faithful, but they are loud, arguably ascendant, and in control of fighters, governments, and armies in enough places to be more than a nuisance.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, prominent among the promoters of Cordoba House, has compiled a thick file of endorsements and doubts. Ambiguous comments about Hamas and American responsibility for violent Islamic anti-Americanism leave some wondering about his moderation, and the kinds of lessons that will be taught in the mosque and classrooms that he wants to build.

Dealing with Islam, or any other aggressive religious group is not simple in a society that prides itself on openness, tolerance, and moderation.

Israel suffers the disadvantage of being in the midst of a Muslim region, and having attracted the enmity of jihadists and their friends. It also has the advantage of long experience, and a willingness to invest heavily in intelligence gathering and defense. Critics speak out in embarrassment and anger about what their government does, but supporters are more numerous than doubters.

Israeli authorities know what is said in the mosques after Friday prayers. They pressure clerics who go over the line of what is acceptable. The police assemble in their thousands when the word is that something might happen. They announce that young men will not be allowed to enter the Old City, and put an observation blimp overhead. One of the most excitable clerics has been questioned about his incitement, arrested, tried, banished from Jerusalem, and imprisoned. An even more excitable cleric, based in Gaza, was sent to his Paradise by the IDF.

It is easier for Americans and Western Europeans to deal with rogue religious movements far from home, while telling their citizens that the issue is not Islam. There may be no better way of dealing with this problem while denying that it exists.

Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the stork also serve noble purposes.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

Assessing U.S. Counterterrorism Strategies: An Interview with Michael Chertoff

August 10, 2010 Leave a comment

-Reprinted from Summer 2010 issue of inFocus Quarterly

On May 27, inFOCUS editor Matthew RJ Brodsky interviewed Michael Chertoff, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security from 2005-2009. As secretary he developed and implemented border security policy, homeland security regulations, and a national cyber security strategy. He also served periodically on the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council, and on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. Prior to his appointment to the Cabinet, Mr. Chertoff served as the assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he oversaw the investigation of the 9/11 attacks. Today, he is senior of counsel at the law firm of Covington & Burling in Washington, DC.

iF: The Obama administration decided to abandon the term “war on terror” in favor of “overseas contingency operation.” Is this a semantic shift, or does it have practical consequences?

MC: Actually, I don’t know if that’s accurate. I don’t know that they have abandoned it. Sometimes I hear them use it and sometimes I hear them not using it, so I don’t want to characterize what their position is.

I think that the problem with the war on terror is that it is treating terror as a tactic. Although I think we all know what we mean when we say it, but I mean if you want to be literal it’s not literally accurate because terror is a tactic. I think that we are at war. I do think that the enemy is radical Islamist ideologues and their network. Obviously, al-Qaeda is part of that network but there are other parts of that network as well. And, we are in different degrees of war. We are in a hot war with some and a cold war with others. So it’s a little more complicated than the sound-bite but I think it is more accurate.

iF: Just yesterday the president’s top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, described the violent extremists as victims of political and economic social forces. But he said that those plotting attacks in the U.S. should not be described in religious terms. So if America’s adversaries are very clear in how they define us as enemies, why is it so difficult for the U.S. to identify with whom we are at war? Is the administration currently missing the boat here?

MC: Well again, I spent a lot of time when I was secretary talking to people, including many Muslims, about what is the right way to refer to adherents to the ideology that we’re fighting. And, there is an Arabic term, takfirism, which means basically the view is that everybody who disagrees with me is an apostate and should be killed, which is probably the most accurate but unintelligible. I don’t think you can avoid the fact that the people in this ideology are arguing, incorrectly, but nevertheless arguing, that they are reflecting a religious mandate. And so what I like about the term “radical Islamism” or “extremist Islamism” is that it makes it clear that we’re talking about Islam not as a religion but as a political doctrine – and that we’re talking not about all political Islam but extremist political Islam.

That being said, if we are not willing to be candid about the fact that it is a self-described movement that claims religious roots, then we’re not being honest about what it is we’re facing. Similarly, when I was a prosecutor, we did organized crime. I’ll never forget Governor Cuomo criticized us for using the term “La Cosa Nostra mafia.” Then I was the U.S. attorney prosecuting a case called the “Commission Case,” and we had tapes where the guys on the tapes said: “we’re the mafia, we’re La Cosa Nostra.” And so when the tapes got played in court, Cuomo got embarrassed. And Rudy [Giuliani] was Italian. But nevertheless he acknowledged that the group itself, while not emblematic of Italians by any means, did select only Italians or people of Italian lineage to be made members, and that was a self-imposed rule. So you can’t ignore that; that was part of how the group set itself up. So, to me, radical Islamism or extreme Islamism is probably the right balance to have.

iF: Do you see a pattern in the recent spate of terrorist incidents at Fort Hood, the Christmas Day bomber and Times Square. What do these mean?

MC: Well, we’ve had homegrown terrorists before. If you go back to 2002-2003, the Lackawanna Six – the people that we convicted up in Oregon and Washington. It does seem like there’s an uptick. And I think it’s attributable to two reasons. First, there’s been a self-conscious effort on the part of the extremists to recruit Americans or lawful residents because its gotten much harder to bring foreigners into the country. And second, I think that there’s been a tendency for some populations that have been alienated in this country to become a little bit more active. I think we’ve got much less of that than the Europeans have, by a considerable measure. But we’re a large country and you’re going to find some people who are alienated, and this ideology is one attractive way for them to deal with their alienation.

iF: In January the Pentagon released its report on the Fort Hood massacre carried out by Major Nidal Hasan. Defense Department Secretary Gates said there were “shortcomings” in the Department’s ability to defend against internal influences. In his speech after the failed Christmas Day bombing, President Obama said there were “systematic failures.” Janet Napolitano said, “the system worked.” Which is it? What is the state of our counterterrorism capabilities?

MC: I think our counterterrorism capabilities are good and they’re very much better than they were prior to September 11. They are not perfect, and I think in some cases what you see is human error – people who just didn’t see something they should have seen or perhaps didn’t work as urgently as they should have worked. And that’s what my focus would be. You need to drive this as a matter of leadership; it’s got to be a front-burner issue. The second piece is that you need to continually adapt. The tactics and strategies that worked last year are not all going to work this year because the enemy has adapted. So there’s a need for continuous improvement and focus. And you also finally have to support your field operatives. You know, the people you’re sending out in the field – you’ve got to have their back.

iF: Are we doing that?

MC: Well, I think the decision to go back and revisit the issue of prosecuting CIA agents after that was previously declined was probably not a helpful message. Right now, according to the newspapers, we’re using armed force against people in Pakistan and Yemen. So assuming that to be true, I hope and I would expect that we have the backs of the people who are doing that and in a year or two somebody’s not going to come back and say: “Whoa, wait a second. This is murder and we’ve got to investigate that.” To me, it’s leadership, it’s adaptation, and it is supporting your troops. Those are the three pillars of staying ahead of this.

iF: Did the decision to quickly pivot to charging the Christmas Day bomber as a criminal interfere with investigators’ ability to obtain the maximum amount of information? Was it the right decision?

MC: I can’t answer that because I wasn’t in the room. I think what they did with the Times Square bomber shows a more deliberate and thoughtful approach. Now, sometimes the answer may be that you give a person his Miranda rights because you’ve exhausted everything you can get out of him and, you know, in some of the cases we had we had been investigating people for months. So we had wiretaps and stuff, so we knew everything. The point is that it’s got to be a thoughtful decision; it can’t be a reflex to automatically default to the criminal justice system.

iF: The attempted car bombing in New York on May 1 has been traced back to a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen who spent five months in Pakistan last year. The Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the attack. What do you make of the fact that nearly every attempted or successful terror attack on Western targets in recent years has been traced back to Pakistan in some capacity?

MC: Well, the Christmas Day would-be bomber was Nigerian who went to Yemen. And we’ve had cases of Somalians. I think that Pakistan is probably still the epicenter of where this extremism is planning and training. But I think we have to watch Somalia, we have to watch Yemen, and we even have to start watching North Africa. I was in North Africa about a week ago and there’s a growing concern there about al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, which is involved in drug trafficking and kidnapping. That group could become the next Yemen. So this is a spreading problem; this is not limited to one geographic area.

iF: The United States has been using unmanned aerial drones to target al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. Some have questioned the legality of these “targeted assassinations” while the Obama administration has insisted they are lawful acts of war done in conjunction with the Pakistani government. What is your take?

MC: Well, assuming this to be true, what’s reported, I’m not going to confirm anything, but assuming that to be true I don’t have a problem legally with using force when you’re at war. But some people on the left have not at least hitherto accepted that we are at war, so they’re going to have to figure out how they deal with this issue. I don’t have a problem with it.

iF: Attorney General Eric Holder has been widely criticized, first for deciding to try terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court in New York City, and then for reversing his decision earlier this year. What do you think is the appropriate venue for trying terrorism suspects – civilian court or military tribunal?

MC: I think for people who are captured oversees, I would put them in a military commission. Unless they’re American citizens who under the current law are not allowed to be in a military commission. But if you’re not an American and you’re captured oversees, I see no reason to import you to the United States. Now, people captured in the United States present a different set of issues…

iF: Even if they’re foreign-born?

MC: Even if they’re foreign-born presents a different set of issues. But, certainly if you’re captured oversees I think it’s the right course to put them in a military commission. And frankly I don’t think you need to bring them into the U.S. to do that. I think you can try them somewhere else.

iF: What do you make of the decision to close Guantanamo Bay?

MC: I think it’s going to turn out to be a lot harder than was originally projected. Part of the problem is this: In a way, the easiest way to deal with it is that if someone’s been convicted and they’ve gotten life imprisonment or execution, that’s the easiest thing. You could then put them in a U.S. facility; lock them up at a place like Florence and that would be that.

The people who have not been tried yet or who are being detained, that’s the hard problem because what do you do if at the end of the day you can’t make a criminal case under U.S. criminal law? Do you release them in the U.S.? Do you deport them? Well, look what just happened in Great Britain. A week ago an immigration court in Britain said we have two terrorists that were acquitted, or there was insufficient evidence to charge them with a terror plot. But the court said: these are terrorists. One is clearly a member of al-Qaeda and the other is clearly ready to carry out al-Qaeda’s orders. But, under European law, because there is a slight risk they can be mistreated back in Pakistan, we’re not going to send them back but they have to remain in Great Britain. Now what? Are they going to put them under these control orders? That’s controversial, too. Well, we don’t want to have that in the United States. I can guarantee you that would be a huge mistake. So, before you start bringing people from Guantanamo into the United States you better have all the legal ducks in a row as to what happens if people can’t be convicted. And I don’t think we’re there yet.

iF: What do you make of the report of the transfer of Scud missiles from Syria to Lebanon-based Hezbollah? Is this a “game-changer,” as the Israeli’s have insisted? How should the U.S. respond and does Hezbollah present a threat to the United States or American interests?

MC: Without commenting on the specific report, I think Hezbollah, as I think I’ve said publicly before, is in terms of sophistication the most powerful of the terrorist groups. I mean, they are much more sophisticated than al-Qaeda. They have not attacked Americans directly to my knowledge since the Khobar Tower in 1996. But they do have a growing presence in this hemisphere, which they’ve been in the process of gaining over a period of decades now. I think that the issue has always been: at what point would they engage in hostilities with the United States? I think a lot of that is frankly tied to where we are with Iran. So I think they’re a piece of a larger geo-political issue having to do with Iran and its relationship with the United States and its relationship with the other countries in the region.

iF: Some have argued that the creation of the Homeland Security department merely adds one more level of bureaucracy and red tape to the government. How essential is the department to keeping the U.S. safe? Does it help or hinder the flow of information between governmental agencies?

MC: Actually, it made it much easier. We used to have the various pockets of things that were involved with border and infrastructure security scattered in different departments. So you had a piece of the border stuff in the Department of Justice, another piece in Treasury, another piece in the Department of Transportation, and they never worked together. They had uncoordinated plans. By bringing this department together, we for the first time built a coordinated border plan, which is one of the reasons that – contrary to what you hear on the news – we’ve actually had significant decreases in flow across the border in the last couple of years. We now share platforms between the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection. They share intelligence, they have joint planning, and they have joint exercises. So I think like any other maturing organization there are some growing pains, but I think it is significantly far ahead in terms of coordinating on border and infrastructure security than was the case when they were in separate departments.

iF: Excellent. Thank you very much for your time.

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Preceding reprinted with permission from inFocus Quarterly published by the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Commentary: Welcome action by Congress reexamining aid to Lebanese Armed Forces

August 10, 2010 Leave a comment

By Shoshana Bryen

Shoshana Bryen

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday,  in the wake of the killing of an IDF officer inside Israel by Lebanese Armed Forces personnel, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) announced that Congress would block the disbursement of $100 million in U.S. military aid to Lebanon.  Lowey chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee that authorizes such funds.  Similarly, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) applied a hold with concerns about “reported Hezbollah influence on the Lebanese Armed Forces.”
 
According to The Jerusalem Post, “Berman entered his hold the day before the deadly incident, which he said only confirmed his reservations. His office also wants more information on Hezbollah’s role in the LAF, how diligently U.S. weapons are kept track of and how well the LAF cooperates with UNIFIL. ‘Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hezbollah influence on the LAF – and can assure that the LAF is a responsible actor – I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon,’ Berman said.”
 
The hold may, in the end, only be temporary. But credit where it is due.
 
For more than a year, JINSA has worried about the influence of Hezbollah on the Lebanese government, where it holds a “blocking third” in the Cabinet. While the U.S. government and UNIFIL have insisted that a bigger and more competent LAF would be expected to “secure the borders of Lebanon” and enforce UNSCR 1701 – which calls for all of the militias in the south to be disarmed – we have never believed that Lebanese soldiers could be induced to kill other Lebanese in the interest of keeping the Israeli residents of the North safe. 
 
It’s only too bad that 45-year old LTC (res.) Dov Harari of Netanya had to be killed before Congress stopped to consider the problem. Great follow-up for Congress would be to reconsider other American “train and equip” missions.  We wrote in May:  

“The current counterinsurgency model provides millions of dollars in American military aid to the PA, Lebanon and Yemen along with American trainers, and billions of dollars to Pakistan and Afghanistan with our troops on the ground or in the air. We are training locals to kill the people we want killed – Taliban, al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah. But each group we call terrorists may have a place in the framework of those countries and entities, in which case shooting them will just make them angry.”

We said, then, of Lebanon: Lebanon wants quiet at home and to remain part of the “rejection front” against Israel. Hezbollah in the government and in collusion with the Lebanese Armed Forces provides that.
 
It is unreasonable for the United States to assume that our enemies are someone else’s enemies and that they will dispose of them because we want them to – it is unreasonable for Israel to assume the same.  One of the deepest beliefs that JINSA has is that the United States and Israel are allies in fact if not by treaty because – whether in the Cold War or the war against terrorists and the states that harbor and support them –  the same ideologies, same trends, same enemies threaten us both at some level.
 
Neither country should assume others share our concerns.

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Bryen is senior director of security policy of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.  Her column is sponsored by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, longtime JINSA supporter and national board member.

Report: U.S. to sell 84 F-15s to Saudi Arabia in $30 billion deal

August 9, 2010 Leave a comment

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WJC) — The United States government is set to sell Saudi Arabia 84 Boeing F-15 fighter jets worth US$ 30 billion over a ten-year period, despite Israeli “reservations” to the deal, the ‘Wall Street Journal’ reports.

However, the package would not include on-board targeting systems as advanced as those used in US or Israeli fighter aircraft in part to garner Israeli approval, the newspaper says in its report published on Monday. Otherwise, Israel could exert pressure on Congress to block the agreement.

Though overseas weapon sales are packaged and approved by the Defense Department, Congress can still hold up any deal or demand assurances of its own. It would be one of the biggest single arms deals of its kind. The Obama administration is expected to formally notify Congress of its plans as early as next month.

According to the ‘Wall Street Journal’, it has been a source of behind-the-scenes tensions, with Israeli officials having repeatedly conveyed concerns in private that the US risked undermining its military advantage by equipping regional rivals with new technologies. US officials told the paper they had provided “clarifications” in recent weeks to allay Israel’s fears.

Large-scale weapons deals with Saudi Arabia were spearheaded by President George W. Bush as a way of checking the regional influence of Iran. However, Iran is far from the only security challenge facing Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, Saudi armed forces sustained heavy losses during extended skirmishes with Yemeni rebels on the southern border.

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Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress

McChrystal affair points up wisdom of punishing enemy but not occupying its territory

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–The dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan is not as seismic as some are contending, but it is significant. The comparison  with Truman and MacArthur is not appropriate. MacArthur acted against presidential policy, and helped create the military and political disaster of Chinese entry into the Korean War. McChrystal and his aides only criticized the president and his political advisors. They did it publicly, with the Rolling Stone format adding to the insult. His action was dismissable, but its significance goes beyond the details of how a general must respect his political superior. It indicates more about the folly of American war policy than the personalities who were commanding the most prominent part of it.  

We cannot know all the details, at least until biographies appear some years in the future. There seems little doubt, however, that it reflects a lack of clear and agreed policy about a conflict mired in something approaching chaos. 

Reports are that June was the heaviest casualty month for NATO forces in a 9 year war, as well as marking another lengthening of what already was the longest war in US history. Newspaper readers should be well aware of the corruption at the highest levels of what stands as the Afghan government, and its dealing with the Taliban behind the back of the Americans. One media personality said that the dismissal would be costly because McChrystal had good relations with Presient Karzai. But that  may be an acceptable cost insofar as Karzai does not rule much beyond his official residence, if even that. 

Also well known is how American forces must close their eyes to the “war on drugs” while fighting what they call the “war on terror.”

President Obama has recently said that his “goal is to break Taliban, and to empower Afghanistan.” Against that is a comment from a retired general, beyond the range of a dismissal, that “There is no way to win this war. It will end with an argument rather than a victory.” 

There is nothing close to obvious wisdom about what American and NATO forces should do in Afghanistan, or its cousin wars in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and perhaps elsewhere. Nine years have seen a lot of allied casualties and enough “collateral damage” to harden the goal of dealing with the terror that the politically correct refuse to describe as Islamic.

My own perspective sees a lesson in the experience of tiny Israel that the vastly more impressive United States could adopt as a way of preserving its own power over the long term. No one should try predicting the decline of this greatest of powers the world has seen, but it would be equally naive  to assume that dominance is permanent.

The lesson Israeli leaders have learned, which has evaded American leaders is that the longer an army stays in a hostile place, the  harder it is to leave. It happened in Vietnam, and is happening in Iraq despite the fig trees planted around the continued violence. The McChrystal dismissal suggests that whatever fig trees are in store for Afghanistan will have to be of the thickest variety. Transparency is not in the cards

The corollary is that local rulers should be left to do what they want in their country, provided they do no harm to more powerful others. This modest but cogent strategy is what Israel did in Lebanon II and Gaza, and what the United States should have done in response to the 9-11 event labeled “Made in Afghanistan.” The appropriate epigram is “Hit hard and leave,” without aspiring to remake, or even to play politics in a country so far beyond the ken of outsiders. 

Sadly the lesson is too simple for a country that prides itself on highly educated military personnel, who learn social science and languages as well as tactics and strategy, plus all the civilian talent in universities and think tanks. The warnings were clear, but expertise is no guarantee of success. Competing experts typically point in different directions. Moreover, the president is Commander in Chief. One Bush with a mission to democratize Iraq or an Obama certain about increasing force in Afghanistan are enough to outweigh a great deal of talent in the military and around its flanks. 

It may be time to pray for the United States. Others will be praying in their own way for Afghanistan. Each will claim the support of the One God. It’s a scenario that Leo Tolstoi described in War and Peace, dealing with a conflict that occurred two centuries ago..

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

Can Haredim be governed by Israel’s secular authorities?

June 19, 2010 Leave a comment

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–It is appropriate to ponder the significance of one hundred thousand ultra-Orthodox demanding independence from the Israeli judiciary. While the Sephardim suffer discrimination in the ultra-Orthodox communities, only a few of their leaders made that point. It was more common for prominent Sephardi rabbis and politicians to join hands with the Ashkenazim, overlook their plight, and insist on religious freedom from the hostile judges of the secular state.

Only about half of the parents ordered to jail actually arrived there. Most of the women disappeared on route.  The police ordered a search, but prosecutors considered a cancellation of their arrest orders. Appeals were being prepared to free all of the parents. Sabbath intervened. The police would not dare go after ultra-Orthodox mothers on the sacred day of rest.

What does this mean for the nature of Israel? Is there nothing the state can do to impose its orders on some 10 percent of the Jewish population? Due to their weight alongside the chronically balanced secular parties, must we continue to fund schools that discriminate ethnically, and do not teach what people need in order to support themselves in a modern society, all the while numbers creep upward as they cleave to “be fruitful and multiply,” and refuse to participate in the defense of a society beset by hostile others?

It is not easy to govern Israel. Alongside tensions and worse that come from Israeli Arabs, those of surrounding countries and their international supporters are issues more prominent domestically between the secular majority, the ultra-Orthodox minority, and floating “traditional” and “Orthodox” communities that can shift to support the ultra-Orthodox in behalf of Judaism.

The Zion conceived by Theodore Herzl was simpler. He came only gradually to recognize the weight of Eastern European Jewry, more religious than the assimilated Western European Jews with whom he identified. He was even less aware of Jews from North Africa, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran, who have come to be a majority in modern Israel, and have intermarried with Europeans to produce an amalgam as much “Israeli” as “Jewish.”

There is no sign that Herzl thought about Jews of Ethiopia, or that he contemplated the problem of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox who insist on keeping apart from Sephardi ultra-Orthodox at a time when the larger society has moved beyond the acceptance of ethnic segregation.

Israel adheres to the rules of democracy and the nuances of politics. The results are seldom applauded widely, and often invite criticisms for being “undemocratic.” However, democracy pertains more to rules of the game than the nature of results. We can expect a democratic treatment of this latest hiccup in our national history.

Institutions will recognize the power of communities that can produce 100,000 demonstrators, and keep them orderly on a hot day with nothing more untoward than a few cases of fainting and dehydration.

Cosmetic changes are more predictable than extensive reform in the management and finance of schools. Plans are underway for the government to spend more money to expand the colleges that serve the ultra-Orthodox. The purpose is to induce them into a mode of higher education that will prepare them for work rather than to force them out of the religious academies. The IDF has programs to expand its recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox into units that are useful to the military while also accommodating their special needs.

Demographic projections are notoriously problematic. The ultra-Orthodox may not be impervious to economic constraints. The support they receive from the state has never been more than what allows voluntary poverty. There is always a drift out of the community for personal reasons, as well as a drift into the community by individuals coming from secular Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds.

These fingers will never type in the distant future. We must leave some issues for later generations. The most we can do is to teach them Jewish lessons of coping with constraints, and not giving into the temptation of rushing the Messiah. He/She will come when appropriate. 

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University