Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Who Is Portnoy Satirizing?

The book section of the Daily Beast just put this up. It is probably the best synopsis of Promiscuous that I can come up with--and a reminder to be the first on your block to own the book! Makes a great gift, too!

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Preposterous 'Umbrella' Argument

The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column

 The most subtle argument defending an Israeli aerial attack on Natanz and other Iranian nuclear installations is that an Iranian bomb would create an “umbrella” under which client regimes and terrorist organizations (Syria, or what will emerge after Assad, Hezbollah in south Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza) will grow in strength and consolidate Iran’s hegemony in the region. A nuclear bomb is a thousand times more powerful than any conventional weapon, right? Put it in the hands of fanatic Ayatollahs and will they not have the means to threaten Israel, and other American allies in the Gulf, for that matter, a thousand times more powerfully?
If Iran gets the bomb, so the argument goes, then Hezbollah could fire a rocket into an Israeli city, and Israel might then have to refrain from retaliating for fear of provoking retaliation in turn from Hezbollah’s nuclearized patron. Little by little, Iranian clients will “eat away” at Israel’s quality of life—and ability to deter conventional attack. Ditto the deterrent power of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Yes, a preemptive Israeli attack may well provoke a regional war. But is it not better to suffer the consequences of war now (30 days, 500 dead, Ehud Barak says) than face, in effect, a regional war by proxy, and by a thousand cuts, once Iran has the bomb—that is, once it has this terrible new advantage?
This argument has become so common, especially in Israel, that even political hacks like the Likud’s former foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, will repeat it glibly to Israeli radio correspondents without fear of contradiction. (None came—at least not when I was listening.) American conversations are no better. The only question that seems to come up now, even among our most reasonable observers, is whether an attack should be American at five minutes to midnight or Israeli at eleven thirty.
But the argument is preposterous on its face. And the claim that Israel—a country of six and a half million Jews and a million and a half restive Arabs—can provoke war with Iran—a country of 75 million, a regime desperate to redeem itself with a war economy, and stand for “Islam” against “the West”—and then manage the consequences requires a hubris only Thucydides, or Stanley Kubrick, could fully portray.
It is natural to assume that military people fully understand the contingencies. To make the argument preposterous, many expert people have worked behind the scenes for years to prepare Israel’s own nuclear capabilities. But although executing on nuclear strategy is rocket science, formulating nuclear strategy is not. Ordinary citizens can easily understand, if not easily fathom, the heart of “deterrence”: if you are a nuclear power and you want another one to refrain from attack, you have to prove that you have the means, and will, to retaliate in kind.
For Israeli leaders, the calculation is especially straightforward and the threat of retaliation utterly credible. It is an open secret (being open is part of the strategy) that the Israeli military has in excess of a hundred nuclear warheads. It also has the missiles and submarines necessary to absorb a first strike by Iran, hypothetically reducing Tel Aviv to rubble and ashes, and retaliate in kind, reducing Tehran, Qom, and the rest of Iran’s principal cities to rubble and ashes.
Yes, a bomb in Tel Aviv would arguably be the end of Israel, while retaliation would destroy “only” 20 million Iranians, every important mosque and manuscript, and every cultural remnant of Persian civilization.  But then, the very apocalyptic nature of the attack on Tel Aviv is what makes the threat of retaliation credible.  What would surviving IDF commanders have to lose—or Iranians gain?
Ah, but what if Iranian leaders are not “rational,” something like the folkloric Hitler in his bunker, in his last day, telling his (appalled) inner circle that German civilization should die because it proved unworthy of him? It troubles me to say how many of my otherwise intelligent Israeli friends justify a war with Iran in large part because they are anxious to prove themselves “not na├»ve” about hatred. Anything counts as proof of “irrationality,” including every pronouncement that Zionism was immoral and Israel should disappear, something you can hear even on the streets of Nazareth, and even in Hebrew, everyday. (By this logic, Eisenhower should have attacked the Soviet Union the moment Khrushchev said: “We will bury you.”)
They really seem to believe, or, given the death-camps, seem embarrassed to refute, that the Ayatollah-in-chief would wake up one fine morning and decide that the sheer pleasure of destroying Israel is more compelling than the survival of everything he knows. And why? Because of what Israel did to the Palestinians and what this represents—Palestinians who, by the way, might not be incinerated by a strike of Tel Aviv, but would assuredly be irradiated by it. My God, if they hate us this much, why not attack with conventional weapons, enlist Iraqi Shia, roll over Jordan, and lose “only” a million or so? (That’s how many casualties Iran suffered in the eight year war with Saddam.)

The thing is, once you understand the holes in the argument for an Iranian first strike, the idea of a “nuclear umbrella” for clients falls to the ground: strategic advantage is not a function of total blasting power; and a nuclear bomb is not a “weapon” in the ordinary sense. It is, at best, a doomsday hedge against invasion or other existential threat to a regime, which is precisely why Israel acquired one, North Korea acquired one, and Iran wants one.
So if hostilities started-up again between Israel and Hezbollah, say, Iran would refrain from using a nuclear bomb because Israel (and its ally, America) has one, too. Indeed, why didn’t Hezbollah fear Israel’s “nuclear umbrella” when it attacked in 2006? America attacked Vietnam, though its patron had a thousand bombs. Where was the Soviet umbrella?
President Obama is trying to stop the most feverish talk, appealing for diplomacy and patience, dispatching Defense Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey to reassure Israelis that they will not stand alone. But he has also been cornering himself, buying into the preemptive war logic—if only temporarily, and for the sake of Dade County—insisting that America will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability and, by implication, forcibly opposing any Iranian military activity in the Gulf.
This, I fear, is tantamount to putting American policy in the hands of Netanyahu and Barak, who would feel more brazen about starting the war of they were sure Obama, facing reelection, would have no alternative but to commit to finishing it. Obama, in these circumstances, cannot temporize. He or Secretary Clinton has to make clear, publicly, that it is America’s policy to oppose any unilateral Israeli attack, and, if this should come, Israel will have compromised America’s interests in the region. Obama has his peace prize. This is the moment to earn it.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Romney's Kibbutz Thing

The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

Mitt Romney's knowledge of Israel is so impressionistic that contradicting his claims about the kibbutz movement hardly seems worth anyone’s time. I would like to think that a physicist would not feel impelled to post every time a public figure said something stupid about the uncertainty principle. The thing is, what he says about the kibbutz gives us yet more insight into what he thinks about, and how he would run, America.

First, of all the kibbutz was a “collective” to be sure, and its founding was influenced by the same Eastern European currents that brought many Jews to socialism; but it was first and foremost a model to create a cultural revolution in Palestine that could not otherwise be brought off: the revival of the Hebrew language in contiguous settlements that did not hire (cheap) Arab labor and thus turn Jewish colonists into Arabic-speaking overseers.

The kibbutz was also a way pioneering Zionists created an economy with virtually no class conflicts like those in the Rothschild settlements established in the 1880s; the British had stipulated that Jewish immigration after 1917 would be limited by the absorptive capacity of the land. The kibbutz made absorption virtually unlimited. And it created a way for people to endure dark and difficult days with a sense of togetherness. The movement as a whole supported the larger Zionist project by appropriating each kibbutz’s surplus. Remind you of anything?

Well, Mitt, the kibbutz may not be American but it is awfully reminiscent of the pioneering Mormon settlements of Utah, where even if you ignore husbands taking many wives (on the kibbutz, you just bedded other men’s wives), communitarian ideals were deeply inculcated, hierarchy and missionary zeal were taken for granted, and every family tithed to a corporate whole run by elders who, in turn, invested in stabilizing and proselytizing the larger Mormon project.

Of course, Romney doesn't care about the kibbutz at all. He is trying to make a larger point. America, he says, is about “individuals pursuing their dreams and building successful enterprises which employ others and they become inspired as they see what has happened in the place they work and go off and start their own enterprises.” And here he just moves from ignorance to callousness. You don't have to be Rosa Luxemburg to know something about the exploitation and impoverishment and insecurity of ordinary working people in the old industrial capitalism, a problem the kibbutz was in its way trying to solve.

Everyone from Charles Dickens to Peter Drucker understood that inspiration alone does not buy a worker land or provide him the means to buy industrial machinery. You do have to be born to a rich father to think, `gee, running a business is neat: I’m going to do that.' Some people without means hit the jackpot or had some great luck. Most were condemned to working for others. The question for them was how to work, at least in part, for themselves—to have a say in how the conditions of work are set, to enjoy that dignity.

Now, capitalism and the technologies of industry have changed a great deal since the kibbutz was founded. Virtually every kibbutz in Israel has been privatized. Romney said he liked the start-up culture in Israel. Much of it started up in the 1970s and 1980s, at various kibbutzim, where agricultural production simply wasn’t profitable enough to support the educational aspirations of new generations. In fact, kibbutzim are now mainly corporations run by stock-holders who were once kibbutz members. In microcosm they are a model quite like the system Drucker prophesied, when he wrote about worker pension funds owning much of the stock of major corporations. If that isn’t America, where does Bain Capital think it lives?

Perhaps the most cautionary signal is that Romney thought to pick on the kibbutz when he could have picked on a hundred other Fox-News targets. I mean, it is just so obvious that he has Likud apologists writing his stuff for him. The only people who opposed the kibbutz movement from the start were revisionist Zionists, their descendants now in the Likud, who liked to depict kibbutz members a little like the way Ayn Rand liked to depict union leaders. Can we really expect a Romney presidency to view the Middle East this much through lenses ground for him by fellow-travelers?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Dan Senor's 'Start-Up' Hustle

The following just went up on Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column. 

Dan Senor, profiled in today’s Times, has become a foreign policy celebrity, at least in circles where celebrity trumps foreign policy. Senor found himself (almost by default) the spokesman for the American plenipotentiary in Iraq, Paul Bremer, whose inept decisions, including disbanding the regular army, were vividly exposed in various books and in Charles Ferguson’s film, “No End In Sight.” The rest is history. And as Hitchens used to say, America is the only country in the world where when someone says, “You’re history,” they’re insulting you.

Senor’s intellectual bona fides were established by his having “co-authored” a book with Saul Singer. In a nutshell, what drives most Israeli entrepreneurs crazy when they hear people like Senor rhapsodize about Israel's economy is the use of its (provisional) success to manage Israel's brand abroad, implicitly defending Bibi Netanyahu's status quo. Presumably, Israel’s military and entrepreneurial culture leads to technology, technology to a pulling away from neighbors—both economically and in terms of "freedom"—a pulling away that should be respected, emulated, and defended by Israel's friends (you know, Americans).

There is, of course, some truth to the connection between Israel's technology and the experience of serving in the IDF. It’s not just the celebrated 8200 information technology/intelligence unit. If a tank crew can keep a tank up and running 24/7, they can keep almost any capital equipment wrapped in envelopes of software up and running 24/7. I wrote about Israel’s high tech prospects at length in HBR back in 1991.

But, on the whole, Senor and the neocons who lap him up get things essentially backwards. What advanced Israel's technology and management in the 1990s was the process of globalization that came in the wake of Oslo. For high tech actually depends on intimate relationships with global customers, whose problems you solve by adapting technologies you would otherwise not be able to develop. Lose the global relationships and the technologies wither. Moreover, Israel's army was good training for some things, but Israelis have had much more to learn from the business culture of global corporations than teach.

Political isolation, then, will mean economic implosion: already, friends in venture capital firms report that activity is about a third of what it was when Start-up Nation was written. Peace is a precondition for continued growth, as are massive investments in Israel's foundering educational system, which the defense budget suffocates. And growth must come fast, since Israel's inequalities and levels of participation in the workforce are truly disquieting. Netanyahu’s new taxes, which take effect this month, are meant to preempt a debt crisis that could look as bad as Greece if real estate implodes and some of our oligarch families take their banks down with them. But I digress.

If Start-up Nation has a hero, it is Dov Frohman, the founder of Intel-Israel. When I was writing The Hebrew Republic, I asked Dov, who is a friend, if we cannot depend on the world coming to us for our technology? His answer was not polite:

"This is bullshit. Bullshit. Investors will not come to us in a big way unless there is political stability. Personal and economic stability, or the hope of stability—a process. In the global economy, you don’t only need Jewish investors, you need global investors. Investment is not colored with sentiment, and looks at the overall situation. What Bibi says is demagoguery. He’s done some of the right things which in a healthy environment would have been pretty good. But before these policies can have an impact, we’ll have more violence. In this environment, big companies do OK, and little independents do very badly.”

But what about all the investment we have seen, even the uptick in the stock-market?

“There is a lot of financial type of investment but little production type of investment—there are investments which can be taken out at will. And in the meantime, we are losing our reputation as a place for global companies to pioneer. It’s hard to restart the engine; five years of no investment, means ten years of paying the price for no investment. And then what will make our entrepreneurs want to stay in Israel—if they don’t have quality of life? There is continuous movement of people, they will want to stay elsewhere. More and more, companies can consult locally and can consult abroad; having more foreign companies here is still important, though in the long-run we are going to have start-ups with problems here like everywhere else. But the really critical thing is keeping our people here. I don’t need to do a poll to know that 50 percent of the young people would go.”