Friday, August 30, 2013

Kerry: Sending A Message To Whom?

Secretary Kerry's trenchant, rallying speech laid out the case, but he and President Obama surely know that attacking Assad in ways constrained by their corresponding principles of action--"no boots on the ground," "limited in scope," or, as Ivo Daalder put it on the PBS Newshour, "a punitive send a message to the regime that this kind of behavior is unacceptable"--is something like trying to stabilize the picture on an old TV by smacking it.  What good it does bears no relationship to how good it feels.

Anticipating Kerry's speech, I checked in again last night with my friend Charles Glass in London, a reporter who knows Syria and Lebanon as intimately as any American. A graduate of American University of Beirut, he's covered the region for 40 years; he was once held hostage by Hezbollah, accompanied the invasion of Iraq, and reported from Aleppo last year. He was preparing to fly to Damascus as we spoke.

And I came away from our conversation believing what Kerry surely understands, that there are essentially two strategic choices for the US, the first diplomatic, the second, significant armed intervention. Neither presumes that a limited military action is a "message," unless, that is, the intended recipient is, not Assad, but Lindsay Graham.

Let's get things straight. Syria is now fractured into zones controlled by 1) Assad, armed by Russia and backed by Iran, 2) Hezbollah, backing Assad's Alawite Shi'a sect, 3) the Kurds, always looking for ways of unifying the Kurdish homeland on the Iraqi border, 4) an insurgent Sunni-Islamist group, Jadhat al-Nusra--admiring (if not loyal to) Iraqi Al-Quaeda--and, 5) a (more or less) secular and (more or less) puny Free Syrian Army, the heart of an opposition ("maybe 1200 free floating groups") backed by Qatar, and led ("this month, anyway") by Ahmad Jarba, with ties to Saudi Arabia.

The war has seen 100,000 deaths; it is not to the credit of journalists that we can write such words and keep our equanimity. The economy outside of Damascus is in a state of almost complete collapse. The war has moreover taken on an increasingly religious-sectarian caste, as it had in Iraq; the Shi'a extremists of Hezbollah have entered to preempt the Sunni extremists of Jadhat al-Nusraf; but in Iraq the Sunnis were in the minority and in Syria they are the overwhelming majority, though Assad's Shi'a have overwhelming firepower, especially around Assad's capital.

Which is another way of saying the parties are fighting for their lives and the war is stalemated. Assad can never win back country-wide legitimacy. But it is not clear the forces of his failed state can be defeated. Israelis will not panic if Assad holds out, and will certainly not engage in military action to defeat him, since his regime is the devil it has known for two generations. Israelis know that whoever attacks Assad for real will have to neutralize his air force, and that means attacking his anti-aircraft batteries, which also means attacking Russian advisors.

But Israelis do care if Iran, trying to defend is client, puts boots on the ground near its border; and it cares if Assad gets too comfortable using chemical weapons, which could ultimately fly into its own cities. Then again, Israel also fears that any insurgents who'd defeat Assad would be dominated by Jihadist terror groups linked to Iraqi extremists. It would be a nightmare if they gained access to Assad's chemical weapons, too.

Whatever happens, a clear-cut winner in Syria might well try to rally the divided country by confronting the Zionist enemy. Turkey, for its part, would like to see Assad gone, and the Kurdish areas quieted, since a separatist spirit there might spill over the Turkish border. About half a million refugees are now in Jordan, just under half million in Turkey, and well over half a million in Lebanon. Continuing war may ignite Jordanian insurgents, too. On all sides, ordinary civilians want an end to violence more than any victory; but they are also afraid of the other side's massacres.

SO IF AMERICA intends to make a difference, it can do either of two things.  It can try harder to contain the violence, hence, madness, by working with the Russians to pressure Assad, and with the Qatar and Saudi regimes to pressure the insurgents; the only plausible objective is a transitional agreement ("...just let Assad serve out his term, which ends next year, then have an election and take the consequences"). Alternatively, America could declare Assad and his regime war criminals, and use overwhelming air power to try to kill him, or, as in Libya, degrade his Air Force and heavy weapons, which he uses to advantage over the insurgency.

Anything else may "make Americans feel better," but will change nothing on the ground, Glass says.  Assad is fighting for his life, cares nothing about global standards, and does not fear more punishment. "And how much better will Americans feel if a cruise missile hits an apartment building?"

Diplomacy may not immediately resolve much on the ground, that's true. "As in Lebanon, this kind of fighting can go on for 15 years," Glass says. But some kind of provisional agreement might turn the fighting into a low grade conflict; and one can count on the widespread revulsion ordinary people have for war to keep a messy peace. "Kerry tried this last spring; Putin seemed able to deliver Assad's people to Geneva, but Kerry did not sufficiently pressure the Saudis and Qatar to deliver the heads of the FSA and other opposition groups." The latter is fragmented, but an agreement signed by even a small leadership, inside and outside of Syria, would carry moral weight. "You give them guns, you have leverage."

And what if America did here what was done to Gadaffi? "This will not end the bloodshed, in fact, it will ramp up the violence in the short run, for Assad will feel less confident about holding territory and many opposition groups will be emboldened." Again, the Lebanon experience seems the only relevant one. Besides, a large scale American attack will almost certainly activate a Hezbollah attack on Israel, to try to unify the forces of Allah against the most commonly hated enemy.

The saddest thing, Glass agreed, is that if we know all of this, Obama, Kerry, and Ambassador Ford do, too. (Actually, I was in a room last spring in which Ford framed things out pretty much in this way.) There really isn't much that can be done militarily unless we are prepared to change the regime and risk the consequences, including an Alawite insurgency--meaning a Lebanon style mess instead of a Syrian style one.

Intervening with force to reestablish international standards regarding war crimes may seem noble; but in some contexts, the use of a machete is war crime. And the idea that American power is degraded by a president who doesn't make good on one threat confuses power with momentary prestige.  The world is not high school.

Short of taking down Assad's regime, then, the only serious strategy is diplomacy and Putin is the only serious partner. Once the smoke clears from the "limited attack," this portion will be, at best, what Obama and Kerry are left with. They may assert, as Kerry gingerly implied in his speech, that an attack will hasten such diplomacy. Perhaps, though getting past Edward Snowden would have hastened this, too. Anyway, I wonder if Kerry is not now on a plane to Moscow because he fears being called indecisive by the kind of Kissingerian gamers who kept him in Vietnam. And I wonder what new messages Assad is preparing in return.

Published also in Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, when I have a regular column.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What Portnoy Would Really Think of Weiner

“Nearly half a century after the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint,” Jodi Kantor writes in Sunday’s New York Times, “politics is finally catching up with fiction, as libidinous, self-sabotaging politicians are causing grimaces among fellow Jews and retiring outdated cultural assumptions—that Jewish men make solid husbands and that sex scandals belong to others.”

When reporters write that public events are “finally catching up with fiction,” it is usually the “finally” that is suspect. Ms. Kantor concedes that if the subject is iconic Jewish men blowing themselves up in erotic fuel we could have started with King David. But scandals persist, as do Philistines. Her real subject is vague Jewish shame over sexual wildness, that is, over Jewish men not being the “solid” husbands they were assumed to be. Thus, she tells us, we are catching up to Portnoy’s Complaint.

Actually, Alex Portnoy wasn’t fascinating because he was bad. His “problem” was that he was good. All of that discipline and perfectly channeled ambition, all of those A’s in school and self-belittling comparisons to sacrificing parents, all of that determination to help the needy and advance human rights—all of that desire to be a man before coming to terms with manly desire—left Portnoy feeling, not libidinous, but empty, even thwarted.

Portnoy the younger had had no place to exercise sovereignty other than in guilty secrecy. The intense pleasure of masturbatory fantasy, triumph, carnality—of me—is the closest thing to the pursuit of happiness he can dare. Given his discipline, daring is happiness. “I am the Raskalnikov of jerking off,” he says. All of which set the stage for the older Portnoy, who, in his thirties, and very much a bachelor, is planking The Monkey (who gives a whole new meaning to the term consenting adult). But he gets no, as they say, satisfaction: he is lying on Dr. Spielvogel’s couch, screaming for Help, reporting both teenage memories and adult disturbances, self-mockingly, which is—but for fiction—nobody’s business.

Portnoy, in other words, is not some creepy husband. He refuses to get married because he wants to plank a wilderness of Monkeys. If he were not likely to have been utterly bored by his roommates, he might well have been another character on “Friends.” And readers—not just Jews, for God’s sake—breathed a sigh of relief overhearing Portnoy’s confessions. His not-so and yet oh-so civilized discontents seemed everywhere and in everyone.

Portnoy is certainly not roaming cyberspace, looking for partners to pleasure himself along with, his pregnant wife sleeping in the other room (another victimless crime if ever there was one, but pathetic in a way Kantor doesn’t see, and worth coming back to). Nor is he Bill Clinton, whose intern very likely read Erica Jong, an author now telling Kantor that she cannot forgive her father for going to massage parlors—words the reporter reports without apparent irony.

Why should Portnoy be raised in the context of Weiner (Spitzer, Filner, etc.)? For Kantor, the connection is obvious: what’s finally catching up with fiction is the presumption that Jewish men, after all, may not make exceptional husbands, hence, exceptional, let alone forgivable, leaders. She approaches this deduction with all the finesse of a synagogue sisterhood’s coffee-klatch. “Do the sages, or the voters, feel that the slate can ever truly be wiped clean?” (Cue: Jong.)

Kantor shows, but does not really grasp, that what ties current events to Portnoy’s Complaint—not to the book itself, but to its reception—is the cheap thrill of sexual censure. How delicious it is when when pulp-fiction, True Romance notions of “solid husband” come up against lived lives. How exciting to think that Jews of all people have sexual appetites, which they satisfy as clumsily as anybody else. How terrific for Jews to yell “shame” and participate in what Philip Roth called, in another context, America’s “persecuting spirit.”

Kantor wants to know if Jews are ashamed, and if not, why not. Younger, assimilated generations are more brazen about sex, she writes. Good Jews less so. “Rabbi Michael Berk of Congregation Beth Israel, San Diego’s largest synagogue,” she writes, “tore into [Filner] from the pulpit. ‘I’m sure I’m not the only Jew who is embarrassed,’ he said. In a later interview, he expressed relief that to his knowledge, Mr. Filner is not a member of a synagogue.” Imagine: a rabbi who is relieved that a sinner is not a member of his congregation. Has there ever been a better advertisement for Christianity?

Then again, the most obvious fiction to catch up with these days is not Portnoy’s Complaint but The Scarlet Letter, which Americans catch up with pretty much in every generation: an account of the flocking behavior displayed when it comes to condemning infidelities and sexual hunger. Americans just love to condemn threats to marriage, not so much because of any fear of sexual display—what happens in Vegas doesn’t really stay in Vegas, does it?—but because Americans are appalled by the loss of self-possession, the ultimate bourgeois possession.

So Kantor might have suggested that we read novels like Portnoy’s Complaint—or Lolita, or Madame Bovary—to get a better grasp of what goes on behind closed doors; CNN, reality TV, and Dr. Phil’s interviews are really not enough. Instead, she falls back on the idea—ostensibly outdated, but if she really believed it were, would debunking it yield an article?—that Jews are supposed to be the gold standard for self-control; that unlike Sharks and Jets, say, Jewish soda fountain owners see how people should “get along.”

Why? Because (as Portnoy himself laments) some combination of fear of persecution and kashrut makes Jews more careful; that all of those do’s and don’t’s train the senses, heighten shame—and, Kantor does not see, send you to the bathroom.

The irony, you see, is that a sadder-but-wiser Portnoy would have a take on Weiner, Spitzer, etc., which is that how you are about sex is how you are about more; that ambivalence about asserting yourself as a sexual being is ambivalence about asserting yourself as a man. Nobody can presume to lecture Weiner about his wife, whose sexual hungers and powers are impossible to gauge. But Portnoy might well perceive that when a grown man feels he has to pleasure himself so secretly and obsessively, perhaps he isn’t grown quite enough.

Kantor, considering Portnoy, might have elided the question of whether Jewish men make solid husbands yet subtly have asked whether insecure men make solid leaders; whether men so skittish that they must make conquests virtually aren’t also drawn to political power and bravado because they feel the need to quell some vague uncertainty about themselves.

She might have asked whether men talk big to cover up the fear of powerful others, women and men (viz: Weiner’s presumptuous criticism of Obama’s negotiating skills during the debt crisis); whether boys raised to be “good” aren’t, in crises, drawn to others who talk big, the way Kennedy was drawn to Allen Dulles during the Bay of Pigs, or Clinton to Dick Morris and his “triangulation.”

She might have asked these things because Weiner is, after all, running for Mayor of New York. If he never learned to stand-up for his pleasure can he be expected to stand-up to teacher’s unions or hedge-fund managers or senatorial mentors or AIPAC? As for whether his being Jewish should be a particular source of shame, Kantor can relax. As Roth scribbled in the margins of his lecture notes when he taught Portnoy’s Complaint at Bard in 1999, “Jews are members of the human race; worse than that I cannot say about them.”

Readers of this blog can now hear a lecture about Promiscuous at London’s Jewish Book Week here.  This post is also at Open Zion, a feature of the Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.