Saturday, October 8, 2011

Will The Real Benjamin Netanyahu Please Stand Up?

Despite all avowals to the contrary, Bibi's never wanted peace with Palestine. And he may well have created an Israel that now agrees with him.
By Daniel Levy
Benjamin Netanyahu: he is in a box!
With the old peace process precariously poised between Palestinian flirtations with seeking international redress, U.S. congressional threats to funding, and Middle East Quartet incantations to resume negotiations, October promises to be just as rhetorically intense on the Israel-Palestine front as was the long-awaited September. Much depends on one's reading of Israel's man at the helm -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Returning home from a week of diplomatic meet-and-greets and speechifying at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Bibi (to use his nickname) may not have been feted by the parades awaiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but he could take comfort in a sight even more edifying to a politician -- a boost in his poll numbers. The Israeli media had few kind words for its prime minister, with headlines suggesting he gave a speech devoid of hope and with leading Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Sima Kadmon describing his address as "demagoguery. Netanyahu deserves an Oscar, not a peace agreement." The rival Maariv newspaper's chief columnist, Ben Caspit, suggested that the Netanyahu "ship continues to sail happily towards the iceberg, and this time instead of music, we are hearing fiery speeches from the upper deck." Enough of the Israeli public apparently thought otherwise.
After repeated warnings of a "September diplomatic tsunami" for Israel, the sun still appeared to be rising in the east, and the waters of the Mediterranean were still lapping at the beaches in Tel Aviv. Israelis still experienced no tangible consequences for the state's occupation of Palestinian territories. Netanyahu enjoyed a similar dichotomy of reaction after his speech to U.S. Congress and public dressing-down of President Barack Obama this May -- the mainstream media commentariat tutted at their leader, while a majority of his public was high-fiving Netanyahu's chutzpah.
Netanyahu's New York theatrics could perhaps be dismissed as another example of Bibi's opportunistic -- if skillful -- ability to navigate between the competing pressures of his own coalition and global opprobrium by effectively deploying both his U.S. political assets and rhetorical skills. This represents a long-standing view of the current Israeli prime minister, a view that emphasizes his capacity to adapt and manipulate the conversation over hardened ideological preferences. This is Bibi who flies by the seat of his pants, devoid of any real plan other than the necessity of political survival.
Yet it is a view of Netanyahu long in need of a major rethink.
Netanyahu, the son of Benzion Netanyahu, is now in his second term of office and approaching a total of six years at Israel's helm, making him one of the country's longest-serving premiers. And, like him or hate him, he might go down in history as one of its most defining and consequential leaders.
But if there is a discernible legacy, what is it all about?
In his first campaign for the premiership in 1996, Netanyahu pledged to continue with the Oslo peace process, albeit with his own adjustments, despite having savaged the peace effort and its promoters, notably Yitzhak Rabin, in the preceding years. As prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu concluded two agreements with the Palestinians as part of that Oslo framework -- the Hebron Protocol and the Wye River Memorandum, both expanding the reach of the Palestinian self-governing authority in parts of the occupied territories -- and famously shook then PLO leader Yasir Arafat's hand along the way. And only weeks into his second term in office in June 2009, Bibi allowed the magic words to publicly pass his lips for the first time in a dramatically staged speech at Bar-Ilan University: There could be a "Palestinian state," he said, a two-state solution.
Throughout his years as leader, Netanyahu has never tired of paying homage to the peace agreement with Egypt (for instance in a U.N. General Assembly speech in 1998 and again this year). Every keynote speech is littered with incantations of his desire for peace, the outstretched hand, and a willingness to negotiate anytime, anywhere. It is therefore tempting to cast Netanyahu in the role of Joshua, leading his people on the final leg of the journey to the promised land of peace; or perhaps more modernly (and somewhat less triumphantly), as Nixon going to China. If only the right formula and choreography can be found, so goes this narrative, then Netanyahu, having broken with his own previous taboos regarding a Palestinian state, is the man who can deliver. In the more than three decades since Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's deal , a favorite mantra of Israeli politics has been rak ha-likud yachol -- only Likud, the right wing, can (bring peace).
This is a reading of Netanyahu that is tempting, but wrong.         
Every substantive parameter of that peace deal with Egypt has been rejected by Bibi when it comes to the Palestinians. The Israeli-Egyptian peace deal centered on an evacuation to the last centimeter of the 1967 lines, the removal of every last settler and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, and an international -- as opposed to Israeli -- security force deployment. And the Egyptians, by the way, did not have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state to get their peace. His position on the Palestinian track is to oppose these same principles on every single issue. Netanyahu wasn't yet in politics to vote yes or no when the Camp David peace with Egypt was brought to the Knesset. He was, however, present when for a second time a Likud leader -- Ariel Sharon -- undertook a withdrawal from occupied territory and dismantled settlements. Netanyahu's position was to vote against and quit the government in protest at the 2005 Gaza disengagement plan. His much-touted November 2009 settlement moratorium excluded both East Jerusalem and units already under construction, thereby making no noticeable dent in settlement growth rates, even for its nine-month duration.
Don't go betting on Netanyahu to be Israel's fourth Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Bibi has certainly left his mark in the realm of market-oriented economic reform, attempting to downsize government, remove layers of the social safety net, and de-unionize the workforce, with a string of policies in the Reagan-Thatcher tradition that, in particular, characterized his first term as prime minister and his period as finance minister from 2003 to 2005. Those policies have had a significant impact and, at least for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who took to the streets in this summer's social protest movement, a destructive one. Yet Bibi has never met his own bar of neoliberal economic absolutism. Israel maintains a significant and political coalition-driven core of social welfare provision. The recommendations of the Trachtenberg committee, appointed by Netanyahu (and named after its chair, Manuel Trachtenberg, an economist and former head of Israel's National Economic Council) in response to the unprecedented social unrest that started in Tel Aviv and swept the country, may fall well short of the protesters' demands but still include ideas that should have Netanyahu's Republican friends in the United States crying sellout.
For an Israeli leader economics are one thing; but it is still in the arena of peace and war, soil and security, that reputations are made or mauled.
Writing in Maariv, Yehonatan Geffen, one of Israel's best-known cultural icons, had the following to say in response to his prime minister's speech to the United Nations this year:
I have two sensitive and smart grandchildren -- the six year old Lev and the three year old Dylan -- and I don't mind if they watch porn movies and extreme violence on television, but I completely refuse to let them hear speeches like that, after which they are only going to want to pack their bags and look for someplace happier to live. And I totally understand them. I just don't want them to leave grandpa all alone with the Holocaust and with his Bibi blues.
To understand the Netanyahu legacy spread across not only speeches at the United Nations, but throughout his terms in office and through his books, interviews, and most of all his policies, is to dig deeper into what those "Bibi blues" might mean for Israel and to understand a project that is reshaping the way the Israeli government relates to its own public, the global community, and especially the United States.
Reshaping the peace process
Israel's leadership decisions historically have combined a singular, sometimes ruthless insistence on securing a Jewish state with an ability to make pragmatic compromises -- the two sometimes being in synergy and sometimes being at odds. Israel's leaders accepted the 1947 U.N. partition plan but then secured a much greater portion of Palestine than the United Nations had granted and expelled much of the Palestinian population in the ensuing war. Israel's leaders captured the Egyptian Sinai in the late 1960s and spent a decade building civilian and military outposts there only to evacuate the area a little over a decade later. When the Arab world was out of bounds for Israel, its leaders pursued a regional strategy based on an alliance with the non-Arab states of the periphery -- Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia -- and ultimately offset its regional isolation by enmeshing Israel into the structures of U.S. Cold War alliances. As the region changed, however, Israel established links to fellow members of the Pax Americana among the authoritarian but so-called "moderate" Arab regimes, like Egypt and Jordan -- and more discreetly, parts of the Gulf.
Pragmatic Zionism in practice may have offered little comfort to the dispossessed Palestinians of 1948 and insufficient democracy to Israel's own Palestinian Arab citizens (about 20 percent of the country's population), but it did focus on thickening the thin sheet of ice upon which Israel's future in the region was predicated. The Oslo process, started in 1993, would not address core Palestinian grievances or offer real justice, but it would fit neatly within that pragmatic tradition of thickening the ice, holding out the promise of at least an end to the occupation of the lands beyond the 1967 lines (or the vast majority of those lands) and of something recognizably approximating sovereign Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu's project for Israel, over the course of his political leadership, can be best understood as taking a pickax to those layers of stability and bringing something new in their place. Netanyahu patiently went about the work of unraveling the core aspects of Oslo that were not to his liking. He created a new peace discourse, one ostensibly reasonable and certainly accessible to the Western ear -- but one also ultimately incompatible with the pragmatic compromise that Oslo might have set in motion.
The Netanyahu peace dictionary -- that peace required reciprocity, that Palestinians would have to give if they were to get, that only unmediated, direct negotiations were admissible in the court of peacemaking -- all created a false parallel between an occupying power and an occupied people and succeeded in draining the peace effort both substantively and procedurally of any vitality or chance of success. Having ostensibly bought into this bargain and made itself dependent on Israeli (and U.S.) goodwill, the PLO-Fatah leadership unsurprisingly lost credibility as the years of "peace-processing" dragged on -- with no seeming cost to Israel.
The major shift in Netanyahu's position between his first and second terms is highly instructive. Having rejected the idea of a Palestinian state previously, he now embraces the notion with a passion bordering on that of a convert. (In his U.N. speech in September, he noted that in peace Israel would be the first country to recognize a Palestinian state.) Yet his idea of what Palestinian statehood would entail is exactly the same as his previous vision for Palestinian autonomy, the only difference being his recognition that it makes more sense to say that if the Palestinians are willing to call this bantustanization statehood, then why on Earth should Israel oppose it?
In 1997, Netanyahu spoke of the Palestinians having the "most generous self-government." And later that year he talked of "a self-governing entity, offering them maximum self-government in the areas that will be under their control in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza." When addressing the United Nations during his first term in 1998, Netanyahu suggested that already "98 percent of the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria ... are now living under Palestinian rule ... their own flag, their own executive.... It can no longer be claimed that the Palestinians are occupied by Israel. We do not govern their lives." Eleven years later, at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, Netanyahu said, "Each [state] will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government." He only neglected to mention that only one would have anything resembling sovereignty. It is worth remembering that 60 percent of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem are strictly out of bounds for this Palestinian self-governing entity.
Other than allowing the Palestinians to apply the label "state" to their prospective West Bank archipelago of limited self-governing islands, Netanyahu has pivoted in one other area from a decade ago. He has now made Palestine's acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state a precondition for any movement. In so doing Netanyahu is castrating the old Oslo peace process of any last vestiges of potency. Intriguingly, he is also perhaps establishing a more honest Israeli-Palestinian playing field. Addressing the Knesset in this May just prior to his departure for Washington, Netanyahu asserted: "It is not a conflict over 1967, but over 1948."
Oslo was an attempt to subsume the weighty issues of Israel's creation, Israel's ethnocratic character, and Palestinian dispossession, and emphasize a resolution of issues arising from the 1967 occupation. Despite U.S., Quartet (EU-Russian-U.N.-U.S.), and other attempts to force the conflict back into that 1967 box, Netanyahu has probably drawn a line under a certain 1967-centric period in Israeli-Palestinian history. As Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian academic and occasional policy advisor to the PLO, explains in compelling detail in a recent Journal of Palestine Studies piece, acceptance of Zionism and the Jewish state is not "the Palestinian Arab narrative, nor can it be." It would require the Palestinians to not only embrace their own dispossession but also accept the other side's appropriation of "the rights of those who reside in the territory ... their very history and identity, their relationship to the land, and by extension their rights, future, and fate as well." Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh has similarly eviscerated Bibi's "Jewish state" recognition demand.
Netanyahu's father, Benzion, a renowned historian of the right, rejected partition in the middle of the last century. His son Benjamin is rejecting partition for this century and setting up a winner-take-all struggle. There is no Palestinian state or two-state solution along the lines proposed by Netanyahu -- in which Israel retains all of Greater Jerusalem, much of the West Bank, and an IDF presence in "Palestinian areas," and in which only one historical narrative guides future "coexistence." But the ironic favor that Netanyahu might be doing to peace and reconciliation efforts is that by relitigating history in that way he might have in fact forced all issues, including those of 1948, to be more fully addressed in any future genuine attempt at peace -- far more than was the case in the negotiations of the Barak-Olmert years.
But is Netanyahu the man who will lead Israel on that journey?
A base of his own creation
During his first term, Netanyahu displayed a near paranoia when it came to the old Israeli, so-called liberal, Ashkenazi elite. Much as he tried to forge a new coalition of the right and religious, he ultimately did not have the numbers to do so -- not in the public and not in parliament. And he was prematurely unseated by getting on the wrong side of both U.S. President Bill Clinton and the old establishment inside Israel. Israel has changed since then.
Israel is now in a period of right-wing hegemony with a new rightist elite drawn from different sectors of society: the media, the justice system, politics, and the security establishment. This is a reality that Netanyahu both feeds off and helped to shape. It also explains the extent to which he has shed his previous restraint in articulating his exceptionalist vision for Israel and in placing the country at the forefront of what appears to be a civilizational struggle of the Judeo-Christian tradition against Islam. In a wide-ranging Haaretz interview with journalist Ari Shavit back in 1996, Netanyahu described the then pervasive realities of Israel as he saw them:
Some people argue ... that there are no right-wing intellectuals in Israel. This claim seems strange to me ... in view of the fact that the intellectual dynamism of the past two decades throughout the West has come from the right-wing. I think that the Israeli situation reveals something completely different. We have academic institutions and media which are committed to the 'unthinking' uniformity of the dominant line, and they simply replicate these positions [the positions of the old Ashkenazi liberal elite].... I intend to change this situation. I intend to help ... set up a number of research centers which will not be controlled by the government, but will create genuine ideological competition in Israel.
Netanyahu has come a significant way in shaking up that culture in the intervening years. He helped found what has now become Israel's leading think tank, the Shalem Center, which provides both personnel and policies for right-wing Israeli governments and is funded by Bibi's key American supporters (Sheldon Adelson and Ron Lauder). Israel now has a free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, the widest circulation broadsheet in the country, also funded by Adelson and unswervingly committed to the prime minister's line. Netanyahu has named overtly political place holders to head up the news broadcasts on Israeli state TV and radio. The Israeli right now has an academic, think-tank, and campaigning infrastructure modeled on its U.S. neoconservative counterparts (with which there is close cooperation) and just as influential.
But it's not due solely to force of Bibi's charisma. This political and institutional change is built on solid demographic foundations. The ultra-Orthodox population continues to grow exponentially, tripling in less than two decades. When added to the traditional Orthodox, national-religious community and the trenchantly right-wing, Russian-speaking immigrant population, Israel's Jewish public now has a heavily pronounced, built-in, right-wing bias. The school system reflects this tendency, focusing increasingly on narrowly defined Jewish and Zionist heritage instruction over civics and democracy. IDF officer-training courses are now well overpopulated by members of the pro-settler community in comparison with their proportion in the population as a whole (about a third of officer-training attendees self-identify as "national-religious" as opposed to about 10 to 15 percent in society at large).
It is a Bibi-esque coalition over a decade in the making. In the very last days of his successful 1996 election campaign, Netanyahu teamed up with the ultra-Orthodox of the Lubavitch movement who poured into the streets for him, chanting "Netanyahu is good for the Jews!" and waiving posters and banners. (In this year's U.N. General Assembly speech, Netanyahu quoted the Lubavitch Rebbe as having called the United Nations a "house of many lies.")
Netanyahu's relationship with the religious right is now strongly cemented. Bibi was not afraid to stir controversy by dedicating an entire new governmental budget line to preserving Jewish heritage sites -- on both sides of the Green Line. Of course, not a shekel was allocated for Palestinian heritage, be it Muslim or Christian. In his Bar-Ilan University speech, Netanyahu described the settlers as "a principled, pioneering, and Zionist public." In his 1993 book, A Place Among the Nations, Netanyahu was already describing his emotional feelings as a young soldier after 1967, walking in the biblical footsteps of previous generations in the newly occupied Judean and Samarian areas of Shilo and Betar. Greater Israel and the practical assertion of the Jewish right to all of the land is not a new narrative for Netanyahu.
What is new is that Netanyahu now has a public with which he can be more open and transparent in asserting that cause. It is a narrative that is rapidly becoming the stuff of Israeli consensus. And unsurprisingly, in its wake there have been a slew of more racist and anti-democratic legislative initiatives giving full vent to the realization of the idea of an ethnocentric Jewish state.
Netanyahu inhabits a world divided between Jew and non-Jew, one in which the lessons of Jewish persecution endlessly cited in his speeches are particularist, not universalist. And that resonates not only with the Israeli public, but also with a set of Jewish leaders around the world who have lined up to support Bibi. The "with us or against us" divide is applied also to his fellow Jews. Netanyahu makes a point of speaking, as he did again this year at the United Nations, on behalf of "Israel and the Jewish people." He offers a vision that is deeply polarizing in the Jewish world. But it is a Jewish world and in particular an American Jewish community whose institutions have for some time leaned more to the right when it comes to Israel's defense. (Some years ago, J.J. Goldberg did a wonderful job describing how this came about in his book Jewish Power). Today, Netanyahu seems perfectly willing to lose not only the more established world of liberal Zionism but also the next generation of Jews, less attached to Israel and best described by Peter Beinart as those who refuse to "check their liberalism at Zionism's door."
The scorn in the prime minister's office for Thomas Friedman and other critics among the intellectual elite of liberal American Jewry has become the stuff of legend, and Bibi has consistently refused to meet with any more J Street delegations, even if they include members of U.S. Congress.
If this seems unsurprising, consider how far the tone has shifted. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin offered an entirely different vision for Israel in his first Knesset speech on reassuming the premiership:
No longer are we necessarily 'a people that dwells alone,' and no longer is it true that 'the whole world is against us.' We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century. We must join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation, and cooperation.
Netanyahu's Israel could not have distanced itself further from that vision. In his speech to the United Nations this September, Netanyahu referenced the "Jewish state" no less than 10 times -- unprecedented in the history of Israeli leaders addressing that forum. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in 1993, 1995, and 2002 did not utter the words "Jewish state" even once; nor did Shlomo Ben-Ami, Silvan Shalom, or Tzipi Livni when they were speaking at the same venue in their respective stints as Israeli diplomat in chief in 2000, 2004, and 2007, representing respectively the Labor, Likud, and Kadima parties. Netanyahu is a new brand of Israeli messenger.
The enemies of his enemies
Finally, it is fair to say that Netanyahu has also repositioned Israel globally. As with much else, there is a consistency to Netanyahu's positions in this respect, positions that he has become more strident and confident in asserting over time. Over two decades ago, Bibi played a lead role in beginning to forge what has now become a defining alliance between Israel and the right-wing, evangelical Christian community in the United States and beyond. Netanyahu was an early courter of the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Likewise, Netanyahu was a trendsetter in creating the close cooperation between the Israeli right and U.S. neoconservatives. In 1996, at the start of his first term, a collection of American neocons, some of whom were to later serve in George W. Bush's administration (Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser) produced a policy report for Netanyahu titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm."
Of course, during the Global War on Terror campaign following the 9/11 attacks, Israel had a certain special place in U.S. policy -- even more special than usual. But it was under Netanyahu and seemingly by design that Israel has so overtly become the stuff of partisan U.S. politics. Simply put, Netanyahu has aligned Israel as a global right-wing cause. He speaks the language and pursues the policies of the right. Although Democrats, including those in the Obama administration, demonstrate a great loyalty to Israel and go out to bat for Netanyahu's policies, they do so on a terrain largely defined by the Republican right, and in so doing, they embrace a discourse that is alien to them on almost any other issue. Indeed, Netanyahu embraces a host of dog-whistle causes very familiar to the American right and almost anathema to liberals, from U.N. bashing to hyping the threat of Islam. Republican presidential candidates accuse Obama of betraying Israel, while Netanyahu has been more than willing to have Israel become a Republican talking point against incumbent Democratic presidents (both now and in the 1990s).
But the way Netanyahu is aligning support for his vision of the Jewish state goes well beyond the United States. In Europe, the most natural allies of Netanyahu's policies have become the xenophobic and Islamophobic politicians of the populist right. When leading European politicians of the hard right -- Dutch, Austrian, Belgian, Italian, Scandinavian, and more -- visit Israel, they often do so as guests of the settler movement and as cheerleaders for Likud policies. In his recent visit to Israel, right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders said, "Jews need to settle Judea and Samaria." He added, "Our culture is based on Christianity, Judaism, and humanism, and [the Israelis] are fighting our fight.... If Jerusalem falls, Amsterdam and New York will be next."
To say that this is pregnant with potential for even greater ruptures between Israel and Jewish communities around the world would be an understatement. Such "allies" are sometimes descendants of fascist parties, always carrying the whiff of the Brownshirt, and seem attracted by the particular brand of the "more ethnocracy-than-democracy" Jewish state that the Netanyahu government is openly championing. As a possible defense for a white, Christian Europe, it is hardly an attractive alliance in the eyes of most Jewish communities.
But it is time to stop thinking of Netanyahu as a passing phenomenon or an ideological shape-shifter. It is time to appreciate -- if not applaud -- the transformative potential of his combined terms in office. The prospects for the kind of two-state outcome envisaged by President Clinton over a decade ago have receded far into the distance. Netanyahu may have permanently deep-sixed such an option. Palestinians' complicity in their own permanent disenfranchisement is an unlikely alternative, given the Palestinian government's willingness to plow ahead at the United Nations. Indeed, the status quo holds only for as long as the PLO leadership believes there is some hope to return to that old Oslo model. That era seems to be passing.
Netanyahu could go down as Israel's first "post-two-state" prime minister. That would make for an Israel whose future would be less Jewish, not only demographically (in controlling a majority of non-Jews), but more importantly, morally -- having strayed so far from a set of universal ethical values so central to much of contemporary Jewish identity.
If Netanyahu's brand of chauvinist nationalism finds its roots in Jewish sources, then so does its antithesis. In synagogues around the world this weekend, on the Day of Atonement, Jews will be reading from Isaiah in the Book of Prophets. In describing this fast day, Isaiah suggests that starving the body is not of interest to the Lord but rather a real reckoning with wickedness: "To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke." It may be too late for a secular-led overhaul of the Netanyahu path from within Israel. Instead, the options are becoming clearer: Either Israel will be pressured into ending its denial of Palestinian freedoms, or the Jewish world will find enough modern-day Isaiahs to chart a new course.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 07/10/2011
-Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is an editor of Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel

Robert Ford, Making A Difference In Syria

By David Ignatius

Robert Ford with President Assad
If you’re wondering what diplomats can do in an era of pulverizing military force and instantaneous communications, consider the case of Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria. He has been meeting with the Syrian opposition around the country, risking his neck — and in the process infuriating the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Ford is an example of the free-form diplomacy the United States will need as it pulls back its troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s projecting American power quietly — through counseling the protesters and networking — rather than trying to wrap the opposition in the American flag, which would be the kiss of death for them.
I spoke with Ford last week by telephone, which is, at the moment, unfortunately the only way that most U.S. journalists can talk to him. He outlined the basic advice he has offered in meetings with opposition leaders, which is to remain peaceful and resist the slide toward sectarian violence.
Ford summarizes his message this way: “Don’t be violent. That’s crucial. If you do that, you’re playing into the hands of the government.”
And yet, as Ford notes, sectarian killing “is certainly on the upswing” in Syria. It’s a frightening cycle of attack and retaliation, reminiscent of the Sunni-vs.-Shiite mayhem that enveloped Iraq in 2006. The blood feud here is between Syria’s Sunni majority and the Alawite minority that has ruled since Assad’s father took power in 1970.
The reports are gruesome, from both sides: Syrian security forces are rounding up dissidents and torturing some of them. Opposition forces have engaged in reprisal killings. Western and Syrian government sources both say that captured soldiers are sometimes decapitated, and even dismembered; a few Alawite captives had their eyes gouged out. Afraid of the spiraling violence, a Syrian “silent majority” — composed of Sunni business leaders, Christians and some Alawites — has stayed on the fence.
The protesters chant “peaceful, peaceful.” But Syrian and U.S. officials both confirm a recent report in the New York Times that Homs, a city in central Syria that has been a hotbed of protest, is veering toward civil war, with checkpoints demarcating the zones of conflict. (For a vivid on-scene description, look at the three-part series by American freelance journalist Nir Rosen on al-Jazeera’s Web site. He quotes a protester in Homs: “The West thinks we are Islamists because we come out of mosques, but it’s the only place people can gather.”)
Syrian militants have been claiming they are building a military wing, on the model of the Libyan revolution, and some even want a NATO no-fly zone. There’s Western speculation, too, that the Turkish army could create a Benghazi-like sanctuary along the northern border. But for now, such talk of armed struggle is mostly fantasy: Assad can still occupy any area in a day, if he needs to.
Ford’s mission has been to encourage the internal opposition to get its act together politically. The two strongest groups of street protesters are known as the “Local Coordination Committees,” headed by a human rights lawyer named Razan Zeitouneh, and the “General Organization of the Syrian Revolution,” led by Suhair al-Atassi, the daughter of a prominent political family. The significant role of these women should help lessen Western worries that this movement is simply a creature of the Muslim Brotherhood.
What the Syrian opposition needs is political space in which to mature — and to develop a unified, nonviolent resistance to Assad. A U.N. Security Council resolution that might have provided monitors inside the country unfortunately was vetoed last week by Russia and China.
To meet the protesters, Ford has taken considerable personal risks. When he defied the government and bravely traveled to the embattled city of Hama in July, his vehicle was showered with roses by grateful protesters. But he was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by a pro-government mob when he visited an opposition leader in Damascus last month. And the U.S. Embassy itself was attacked by pro-government thugs in July.
Wherever he goes, Ford asks practical questions — pressing the activists about incentives for Syrian business or about reforming the government budget. He counsels the embattled protesters against military action — which would only bring on a vicious civil war. He thinks time works against Assad, if protesters can avoid the trap of sectarian conflict.
It’s a narrow ledge that Ford is walking. But it’s good to see an American diplomat in the lead for a change, instead of the U.S. military.
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 08/10/2011

U.S. Next Step In The Middle East

The Arab Spring put severe limits on American influence in the Middle East—but Washington still has a unique opportunity to help convert failed states into peaceful nations
By Jeremi Suri
The Middle East is experiencing a revolution as citizens in country-after-country seize control of their societies. In Tunisia and Egypt, this has meant the forced resignation of a longstanding dictatorship. In Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, it has meant armed conflict, even civil war. As with all revolutions, the final outcome is hard to predict, but we can be sure that the region will not return to circumstances of the recent past. Moderate secular rulers will not be able to cow their citizens and live off the fat of oil exports and American aid. The new leaders of the Middle East will have to show that they can serve their citizens in ways their predecessors never did.
The United States has a vital role to play in this process. For the last half century, Americans have influenced the politics of the Middle East, often with damaging consequences. That is a history, above all, the United States must not replay. It is time we learned from our past errors. We should refrain from supporting strong-man dictators who promise to protect our interests. They rarely fulfill their commitments, and they always inspire resentment and resistance. We also should avoid quick fixes, from regime change to large investments in economic development. The complex mixture of cultures and peoples in the region is not susceptible to change on a rapid (American) timetable.
These historical warnings, however, should not become a justification for passivity. As bad as some of the previous American efforts in the region have turned out, things have only been worse when the United States stayed away. One of the biggest problems in places like Yemen, Lebanon, and Somalia is that Washington has allowed local thugs and extremists to hijack political authority. Without American support, it is very hard for well-intentioned reformers to challenge ruthless figures who control the guns, the roads, and the oil.
Savvy and select American intervention should accompany the restraint and humility that history teaches all visitors to the Middle East. We can group the appropriate United States policies into three areas: interpersonal, intergovernmental, and intergenerational. Each includes issues that directly benefit both Americans and Middle Eastern residents. Each offers low risk and high reward. American policies require courage, vision, and some creativity—qualities that have been absent from deliberations in Washington since the beginning of the Arab Spring a year ago.
First, Washington should move quickly to increase the density of personal contacts between prominent citizens in the Middle East and their counterparts in the United States. This involves a vast increase in America’s understaffed civilian diplomatic presence in the region. The Middle East should become the No. 1 priority region for new ambassadors, attachés, and other representatives of the United States. We should do everything we can to learn much more about the citizens who are taking control of these societies, and we should forge deep personal relationships with them, often through informal contacts outside “official” embassy settings. Historical research shows that the trust and familiarity that come from close diplomatic relationships are much more valuable, especially during a time of transition, than policy pronouncements. The United States must invest immediately in becoming more deeply connected to the Arab street.
Second, Washington must prioritize investments in transparent and accountable political institutions. Again, the historical track record shows that spending on good governance produces more dividends than efforts at foreign-sponsored economic growth. Governance is also less expensive. The United States should work with the European Union, the United Nations, the World Bank, and other international bodies to create a modest “Fund for Openness” that can provide assistance and aid for the key anchors of democratic politics: a free press, a fair judiciary, and basic safety for dissidents. International peacekeepers, including a small contingent of American soldiers, should support basic security for nurturing these processes.
Third, and perhaps most important, American investments in the Middle East must look to the long-term interests of the region and the United States. The president should reject all claims about immediate “success” and argue that the United States has a generational commitment to stability, prosperity, and democracy in the Arab world. It is hard to imagine America enjoying these benefits if they are denied, as they have been for decades, in the Middle East.
The promise of more participatory politics in the Middle East demands serious and sustained American actions—far beyond what we have seen so far.
The United States should push for a moratorium on most military weapons sales to the region and divert investments into secular public education. Observers have long argued that Islamic extremism has grown because madrassas and other forms of hateful indoctrination have filled the vacuum in available resources for impoverished families. The people of the region need inclusive and non-hateful alternatives. The United States and its Western allies have the educators, the experience, and the resources to help. The costs will be modest and the rewards will be transformative.
The Arab Spring places severe limits on American influence. History also cautions against many traditional American forms of intervention. The promise of more participatory politics in the Middle East, however, demands serious and sustained American actions—far beyond what we have seen so far. The United States has a unique opportunity to invest in the modest interpersonal, intergovernmental, and intergenerational changes that will help convert failed states into peaceful nations. More than anything else, that is the American dream.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Beast on 07/10/2011
-Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of five books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. His latest is Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama (Free Press)

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Background Of The Russian Veto Against The Syrian Resolution At The UNSC

By Raghida Dergham in New York

       The Security Council
It is time for the United States, Europe and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to use some kind of a “soft power” approach with Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon, to show their seriousness and determination in addressing the Syrian issue in its various aspects. Turkey has in effect taken such an initiative, through sanctions, maneuvers and support for the Syrian opposition, most probably in coordination with Qatar and with the support of Saudi Arabia.
The Arab League, which Russia is today using as a pretext to keep the United Nations away from involvement in Syria, is required to clarify its position and the outcome of its Syrian initiative. Specifically, the Arab League is required to convey this to Russia and China, after both countries cast a double veto this week, to preclude the Security Council from adopting a resolution demanding that the Syrian government put a stop to the repression and killing , and turn instead to dialogue, openness and reform. The resolution also gave Damascus 30 days before returning to the Security Council to look into specific measures or sanctions that could be adopted. But the alliance of “defiance”, which takes for itself the title of “Brick Wall” (BRICs) revived its unity to slap the Syrian people in the face and reduced the opposition to being mere “extremists” and “terrorists” when they elaborated on why they had voted against the resolution (Russia and China) or abstained from the vote (Brazil, India and South Africa). Those five countries are behaving as if they were confident that they are above accountability or reproach, some of them for motives of artificial superiority, like India and China, some under a shameful pretext, like Brazil, and others out of a chronic inferiority complex, like Russia. The time has come for all those concerned by the crisis in Syria, strategically, politically or morally, to carefully look into what the alliance of the BRICs wants, and how the siege on the regime in Damascus can be strengthened in effect through its neighboring countries and its two main lifelines, Turkey and Lebanon, in addition to its important relations with its other neighbor, Iraq, with the Iranian perspectives these entail.
There are important details in the negotiation process that took place over the European draft resolution. Russia had resolved early on not to allow it to see the light of day, no matter how much it is deprived of “teeth” and of any measures against Damascus, measures that would have included threats of sanctions within a specific timeframe, pointing to massive violations of human rights and international law, and the possibility of referring this to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Yet the bigger picture is perhaps more important at this juncture. And the first question should perhaps be: Why did the BRICs stand like a solid separation wall to protect the regime in Syria, while up to 3 thousand civilians have fallen victim to repression and killing?
“Enough insults and attempts to dwarf us” was the sentence that perhaps summed up the Russian mood ahead of the BRICs. One of those close to Russia’s decision-making circles said it and then added: “We will not accept to be insulted and neutralized. We will not accept for the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) to run the world in regions where we have interests and presence”.
What Russia and China have concluded is that the Syrian regime will not fall and that Bashar Al-Assad will regain control of the situation. They are thus both wagering on the survival of the regime, their old friend and Russia’s new ally with broader strategic dimensions than in the past. It is a wager that this regime will be the place where Russia can respond to NATO and its ambitions in the region.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin made this clear when he insisted that the “legitimacy” of the regime in Damascus was not in the hands of Washington, London and Paris, and that making use of the veto was not due to the text of the draft resolution per se, with a word here or there, but was rather a political decision taken on the basis of strategic calculations.
Russia is angry at Turkey, because it putting Turkish nationalism to use in order to ride the wave of what is referred to as “a faithful form of secularism”, a response to the ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its “Islamic revolution” – both Shiite and Sunni. They are both moving under the banner of Islam. The difference, for Russia, however, is that Turkey is a member of NATO which has radically contributed to regime change in Libya, and which considers today that the time has come for the regime in Syria to step down.
Indeed, Turkey’s role is pivotal in the new alliance between NATO and the GCC, which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. Those countries view Iran as a nest of instability with expansionist ambitions, while they see in Turkey a practical leadership that has comprehended the Arab Spring and decided to stand on the side of the peoples, abandoning its close ties with both Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar Al-Assad in the process.
In practice, Russia – and China to a lesser extent – is in the same trench as the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah, thanks to its alliance with Damascus. And in practice, India, Brazil and South Africa have chosen to be in this same trench for different reasons. Yet what brings together the reasons held by those three countries, also known as IBSA, is their ambition of obtaining a permanent seat at the Security Council. Perhaps this has made them believe that it would be advantageous for them to “lead” the group of countries which are “deprived” and angry at the “colonial policies” of the West, and which are hostile to the United States.
Russia’s anger essentially stems from it not having been consulted or its opinion having been taken into account as that of a partner that has the same international standing– be it with regard to Libya, the Ivory Coast or Syria.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told several ministers he spoke with on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, that he was outraged that the European countries would take the decision to impose European sanctions against Syria without keeping him in the loop, consulting with him or even notifying him or asking for his opinion.
He complained that NATO countries were assuming that he had backed down on criticizing and sharply opposing NATO’s military operations, only after it became clear to him and to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that the air strikes had succeeded at toppling the Gaddafi regime. Russia then ceased its opposition, began to reach out to the Libyan opposition and rushed to recognize it as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. And so did China.
Lavrov sought to turn the page on this chapter and open a new one, yet he sensed a lukewarm response from the Libyan opposition and found Russia not to be welcome by the Europeans and Americans in sharing the “pie” in Libya, which involves massive interests, contracts and investments. This is why he sought to send a message to Western countries entitled “enough”, and he did this through stances on Syria, pretexting what had happened in the “Libyan scenario”, and then deliberately reduced the Syrian opposition to “extremists” and “terrorist elements”, as the Russian ambassador said. This prompted the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice to say that those Russian pretexts were nothing but a “cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people”. She also warned that the Syrian people and the Arab peoples “can now see who on this council supports their yearning for liberty and universal human rights and who does not”.
Such talk is bound to be followed by measures, because it is a rare occurrence in the diplomatic history of both two countries. What is meant here is not a war or confrontation, but rather the necessity of closely examining bilateral options and the available collective means.
The US Administration can choose to reconsider what Russia, as well as China, views as disdain and insult directed at them both, and to speak to them in a language of equality, partnership and consultation, and shared influence and interests. This would be the choice of indulging the sensitivity of Russia and China, and perhaps India as well. The other choice is that of mobilizing the members of the new alliance between NATO and the GCC, so as to speak publicly and frankly of its overwhelming discontent with the double Russian-Chinese veto at the Security Council and with the alliance of defiance, i.e. the BRICs. This would be coupled with coherent strategies in order to have the latter understand that the issue of Syria is not a fleeting one, but is rather a main pillar for the future of the region. This would mean speaking frankly in a language of interests, from contracts to investments.
There is also a third option, one that would perhaps complement the second option, embodied in confronting the strategy of defiance being led by Russia at the Security Council on the ground, and in particular through Syria’s neighboring countries. Here the United States has numerous means, which it has frankly spoken of with high-ranking Lebanese delegations led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati in New York and Minister Mohammad Safadi in Washington. In other words, this involves taking measures against Lebanese banks that have branches, a presence or profound dealings in Syria. Indeed, US officials know how to cripple Syria’s economy through its Lebanese lung, and they are confident that Russia will not shower the regime in Damascus with funds in order to save and resuscitate it, and that the Iranian economy would not be able to carry such a burden for much longer.
As for Turkey, the other lung of the Syrian economy, it has made up its mind despite the double veto, and there will soon be a qualitative shift through the Turkish-Syrian gateway.
Some countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are working behind the scenes with Turkey, and are active in shaping the new regional order based on the alliance between the GCC and NATO. Those GCC countries also have options, as well as responsibilities. Indeed, they could choose to help Russia overcome its inferiority complex and its feelings of being excluded, by taking the initiative of including it as a partner in the discussions and in the work being done within the framework of the new alliance. Russia is disappointed that it has not been given contracts and investments in the Gulf. As for China, it does not complain, but is rather quite at ease, as it usually hides behind its enigmatic silence and abstention from voting.
If the Gulf countries decide that they want to help and contribute to meeting the desire of Russia and China to be partners in the new regional alliance, and thus global partners in world peace and security, the first step should be to speak of this frankly.
The Gulf countries must take the initiative of publicly expressing their displeasure with the double veto, in conjunction with engaging both Russia and China to have them understand the policy of the GCC frankly and realistically. And such a policy is based on putting a stop to the violence and the killing first, then engaging in dialogue for radical reform. With this comes the language of interests – with Russia by enticing it, and with China by warning it of the concomitance between interests and stances that are fateful for the region.
Indeed, the entire region is changing, and Russia and China, and with them India, Brazil and South Africa, are faced with a clear equation: Either join the new alliance which brings together Europe, the United States, Turkey and the GCC countries alongside the people’s will to change, and therefore opening up the perspectives of benefiting from it; or wagering on the regime in Damascus surviving, repressing its people, and taking risks that carry blood-spattered consequences in Syria, with strategic repercussions that will not be in the national interest of the countries of the brick wall of defiance at the end of the day.
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 07/10/2011

Palestine: A Cause Or A State?

By Amir Taheri
  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Within days, the United Nations’ Security Council is expected to start debating the Palestinian Authority’s demand for recognition as a state.
At first glance, this is a straightforward issue. Since its foundation after the Second World War, the UN has admitted as member over 150 countries. There is no reason why the Palestinian demand should pose problems.
But, it does. For over six decades, nothing related to Palestine has been simple. Ironically, the UN tried to create a Palestinian state in 1947. Arab members rejected the idea. The idea was revived 20 years later in the wake of the 1967 Arab debacle. It was buried by rejectionists and their allies.
Perhaps Israel, too, never wanted a Palestinian state. However, that was never put to the test.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may have revived the idea for personal reasons. Abbas’s term ended two years ago and there is no mechanism to choose a successor. At the same time, his efforts to form a coalition government including Hamas have hit a wall. Thus, talk of a Palestinian state could create some momentum or, at least, alter the headlines for a few weeks.
Does the creation of a Palestinian state depend on recognition by the UN?
It does not. For more than two decades, the world’s most populous nation, China, was shut out of the UN. No one denied that Switzerland was a nation, although for decades it refused to join the UN. On a smaller scale, Kosovo today is a sovereign state although Russian veto prevents it from joining the UN.
In the case of Palestine the problem is with fundamentals.
A recent creation, the modern state is the political expression of a nation’s existence. One must first have a nation and then look for a state to express its existence.
Is Palestine a nation, in the modern sense of the term as described by Herder at the end of the 18th century?
You might be surprised, even angered, by this question. However, none of the dozens of political parties that have claimed to represent the Palestinians in the past seven decades ever described itself as national.
Words such as “nation” and “national” do not feature in the designation of such movements as Al Fatah and Hamas. Instead, they, and many other smaller ones, use adjectives such as “Islamic” or “people’s”. The subtext is that the Palestinians are, at most, “a people” but not a nation. They are regarded as part either of a larger, and mythical, Arab “nation” or an even more problematic Islamic Ummah.
Wedded to leftist or Islamist ideologies, Palestinian political formations systematically rejected the concept of the nation, the backbone of modern statehood.
The contrast with modern national liberation movements throughout the world is telling. For all of them the word “nation” is the key to their identity. Thus, we have the African National Congress in South Africa, and the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria. Even Communist-dominated Vietcong described itself as a National Liberation Front.
Islamist or leftist, Palestinian political movements treat Palestine as a “cause” rather than a political project.
But what is that “cause”?
This was clearly put by Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in a speech in Tehran on 3 October. “Our aim,” he said, “is liberating all of Palestine from the River to the Sea.” In other words, the cause is not to give Palestinians a state but to destroy Israel.
Ramadan Abdallah Shallah, leader of the Islamic Jihad for Palestine was even more explicit. “When we come to power we shall not allow the Zionist regime to live a single moment,” he said in Tehran.
According to the daily Kayhan of 4 October, both men paid tribute to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei as the man who should have the final word on Palestine.
Mishal said: “The esteemed Commander of the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khamenei, is our Guide and Leader. His wishes will be the cause of the Palestinians. Our sovereign and master is Khamenei.”
This, of course, is not the first time that Palestinian leaders have auctioned “the cause”. There was a time when Abdel Nasser was bootlicked as “guide and master”. In 1991, Yasser Arafat sold “the cause” to Saddam Hussein. A few years later in Oslo, he re-sold it to Shimon Peres.
In his speech, Khamenei promised that, once Israel is destroyed, he would organize a referendum in which Palestinians from all over the world and some citizens of Israel would decide what to do with “liberated Palestine”. Mischievous tongues in Tehran say that one option could be to attach “liberated Palestine” to Khamenei’s “imamate” empire. This is not fanciful. After all, Nasser, too, had hoped to annex “liberated Palestine” for his Arab Republic. Saddam Hussein had dreams of turning Palestine into Iraq’s “counter on the Mediterranean”, a scheme that would have also required the destruction of Jordan as an independent country. Hafez al-Assad fancied Palestine as part of “Greater Syria”.
Mishal and Shallah’s flattery towards Khamenei implies that there is no Palestinian “nation”. A sovereign nation would not demand that the leader of a foreign country decide its future.
The quest for a Palestinian state starts with the Palestinians themselves. They must decide whether they are a modern nation or a fragment of larger entities beyond their control.
Once they have achieved self-consciousness as a nation, they could seek expression as a state in territories where they form a majority. This would not preclude territorial claims against neighbours. (A majority of UN members have such claims against one or more of their neighbours.) However, as a member of the United Nations, a state cannot adopt the destruction of another UN member as its “cause.”
Palestine must choose what it wants to be a “cause” or a state.
-This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 07/10/2011
-Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bismarck And The Arab Spring

In 1848, a wave popular revolutions rocked Europe's authoritarian regimes. How those upheavals played out holds lessons for the future of the Arab Spring.
By Jonathan Steinberg
 Otto von Bismarck
The similarities between the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt last spring and the ones in Europe in 1848 are striking. In the early months of 1848, the sclerotic and reactionary political systems that the European monarchs had developed after Napoleon Bonaparte's 1815 defeat collapsed. Prince Klemens Wenzel Metternich, who was the state chancellor of the Austrian empire and a symbol of the despised old order, slipped out of Vienna on March 15 as an angry mob marched in. Along with Metternich, the Austrian empire's 23-year-old repressive dictatorship vanished. In Italy, France, and the German states, the old order crumbled as well. The scene was not unlike that of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's own flight from Tunis 163 years later and the wave of revolutions across the Middle East that followed. In both cases, the crowds in the streets were glad to see the dictators go but unclear on the social and political orders that should replace them.
The revolutionaries of 1848 had a model on which to base their fight: the French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which the French National Assembly approved in 1789, had laid the groundwork for upheavals to come. It declared: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good." This doctrine was social dynamite. "The gradual development of the principle of equality is, therefore, a providential fact," the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote later, "and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress."
Napoleon spread the ideas of the enlightenment and revolution to the European continent at large, usually at bayonet point. Between 1800 and 1815, he consolidated control over an expanding empire by replacing traditional, often unwritten, legal codes with rational, written ones and   replacing old administrative districts with new. "Careers open to the talented" -- Napoleon's answer to that great French demand for equality of opportunity -- turned provincial lawyers into statesmen and drummer boys into marshals of the empire.
After Napoleon's defeat, the violent political and social upheavals of his era were not forgotten. When the revolutions of 1848 broke out three decades later, many expected them to follow the same template -- universal suffrage, followed by revolutionary upheavals, followed by Jacobin terror. There was some basis for this belief: In the midst of the upheavals, the "springtime of nations," as it came to be called, another Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, returned from exile. On the strength of his name, he was elected president of the French Republic in 1848 by an overwhelming margin. He won 5,434,226 votes. The second-most popular candidate, General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, the man who crushed the workers' rising of June 1848, won 1,448,107.
Yet Otto von Bismarck, then a representative in the newly created Prussian legislature, did not expect the terror and Napoleonic expansion to come again. In a letter to his brother in March 1848, he wrote, "As long as the present government in Paris can hold on, I do not believe there will be war, doubt that there's any urge to it," continuing that "the motives of 1792, the guillotine, and the republican fanaticism . . . are not present." From his remote outpost in Prussia, Bismarck saw that the forces of change were no longer those of the original uprisings in 1789. The leaders of Paris in 1848 were imitating what they had read in books. In Tocqueville's memorable phrase, "The whole thing seemed to me to be a bad tragedy played by actors from the provinces."
Even as the conservatives at the court of the irresolute King Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia gathered their forces to stop the uprising and prevent universal suffrage, Bismarck saw that the vote could be the king's greatest resource. In voting for Louis Napoleon, he believed, the people of France had selected the one candidate who stood for order. A decade later, he astounded his benefactor, General Leopold von Gerlach, by his bold acceptance of democracy. In 1848, he noted, "Louis Napoleon did not create the revolutionary conditions . . . he did not rebel against an established order, but instead fished it out of the whirlpool of anarchy as nobody's property. If he were now to lay it down, he would greatly embarrass Europe, which would more or less unanimously beg him to take it up again."
What Bismarck had in mind, however, was not true democracy but something capable of appeasing the crowds, some of democracy's institutional forms safely tempered by a monarchical constitution and an army loyal to the king. In 1848, the European emperors and kings, nervous as they were, could count on the loyalty of their soldiers. The generals and the officer corps all belonged to the high aristocracy or the gentry and owed their status to the monarchy. The armed forces and the crowned commanders in chief were thus mutually dependent. As the Prussian general Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg said to Prince Wilhelm, "If your Royal Highness deprives me and my children of my rights, what is the basis of yours?"
Meanwhile, most of the foot soldiers were peasants. Like the aristocracy, they had little love for the loud and enthusiastic middle classes whose revolution they had to quell. When they tried to bring order to narrow streets in town centers, the contents of chamber pots and boiling water rained down on them. Most European cities had no proper local police, and the armies of the old regimes had no experience fighting in the streets. For want of an alternative, the generals withdrew the troops from city centers to figure out what to do next.
Across Europe, revolutionaries filled the resulting power vacuum with speeches and draft constitutions. But reactionary forces had already started to gather. The upheavals had not reached as far as the Russian empire, and Czar Nicholas I moved his huge army westward. The Austrian emperor, backed by Nicholas and the Croatian general Count Josip Jelačić, began to crack down on the Hungarian revolution. Meanwhile, Austrian General Joseph Radetzky moved in to defeat the Italian revolutionaries, and the French general Louis-Eugène Cavaignac mobilized the Parisian middle classes to crush the social movement in the Parisian slums.
In Berlin, the handsome and charismatic field marshal Friedrich Graf von Wrangel had a different strategy. On October 9, 1848, the army paraded from Charlottenburg into the heart of Berlin and drew a huge, cheering crowd. The event showed that the revolutionaries had lost support and that the army had regained its prestige. The "springtime of nations" had ended, but the changes it brought were no less important -- even if they were not what the revolutionaries had sought. Back in control, the conservatives founded newspapers, strengthened local police forces, and reconciled themselves to elections and parliaments. They used their social connections to influence the monarchs. In Prussia, a group of deeply conservative, evangelical Christian noblemen formed the Camarilla, a secret cabinet, to make sure that the king resisted the liberals.
These anti-revolutionary forces also borrowed heavily from the revolutionary playbook. Aided by new technologies and railroads, they strengthened administration and modernized the bureaucracy. Pope Pius IX whipped up the fervor of the masses through the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pilgrimages, and popular festivals to show where the public's loyalty truly rested. The 1840s had been years of poverty and unrest, but 1850¬-73 saw the first modern economic boom, and a long wave of prosperity followed. Bismarck, a country squire and political genius, used Germany's new semi-democratic political structure to rise to power. By his close contact with General Leopold von Gerlach, the king's adjutant, he passed his ideas directly through the Camarilla to the king.
The lesson from the "springtime of nations" is that it is easier to overthrow the old regime than build a new one. Today, the crowds on the Arab street have no Bismarck to guide them to even limited democracy. New arrivals squabble with the ministers and generals of the old regime, the Islamic religious parties with the secularists, the urban activists with conservatives from villages and tribes. The revolutionaries call for "democracy" and "freedom," but nobody knows exactly what those terms might mean for societies imperfectly modernized and without the European experiences of rights, constitutions, and equality. Happy endings seem implausible.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Affairs on 28/09/2011
-JONATHAN STEINBERG is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of Bismarck: A Life.