Subscribe via RSS Feed

Category: Robert Farley

“Middle East Peace” vs. Middle East peace

[ 76 ] July 14, 2016 |
Ercole de Roberti Destruction of Jerusalem Fighting Fleeing Marching Slaying Burning Chemical reactions b.jpg

Roman Siege of Jerusalem. By David Roberts, Public Domain,


On Sunday I returned from my second trip to Israel-Palestine in the last decade.  Like the first, this trip involved conversations with a number of speakers (mostly Israeli, but some Palestinian) on the state of the peace process. The first trip was sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a decidedly neo-conservative leaning institution.  The latest trip was associated with the Rabin Center. When I visited in 2008, many of the speakers pushed back against the idea that the Occupation was the central problem in the Middle East.  If you recollect 2008, there was a growing belief in the United States that resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute was part of the key that would unlock the problem of the Middle East more generally.  This view was held not simply among Palestinian advocates or on college campuses, but widely within the US national security establishment; among others, David Petraeus occasionally voiced the argument that a just resolution to the Occupation could help resolve broader regional problems.

The popularity of this idea in the US national security establishment had several sources; on the one hand, Americans were searching for reasons for the enduring problems of the Middle East that didn’t focus on US policy (such as invading Iraq, supporting Saudi Arabia, etc.).  On the other, Americans were still willing to listen to diplomats and policymakers from Arab states, who at the time preferred to concentrate on Israel-Palestine rather than on Iran, or myriad other difficulties.  In any case, the view from the national security establishment was quite instrumental; it had very little to do with establishing a just resolution to the Occupation, and very much to do with allowing the US to extricate itself from the various situations it had embroiled itself in. It also involved the (condescending, when you think about it) claim that the Israelis didn’t really understand their long term interests, and that they would be better served by doing what the United States asked them to. On the European side, the Israelis were hit with the often implicit, sometimes explicit claim that the trouble that European states faced with their Islamic minorities would quickly disappear if only the Israelis could give the Palestinians a fair shake.

As you can imagine, this push met with very little support from the Israelis I heard from back in 2008. Even the leftish two-staters (and these did not predominate in the 2008 visit) were extremely reluctant to grant that the Occupation was the proximate, or even antecedent, cause of a panoply of problems in the Middle East.  Instead (and most of the speakers brought up these points without prompting), the real obstacles to Middle East peace (as opposed to “Middle East Peace”) resided in the imperial ambitions of Iran, the dysfunction and brutal authoritarianism of Arab states, and the direct action of the United States (primarily the Iraq War, which the Israelis had suddenly decided was a bad idea at some point between 2003 and 2008). Whatever the speakers may have thought about the settlement project from a policy or justice point of view, they nearly uniformly rejected the idea that one more or less settlement had much impact on the broader contours of Middle East politics. The Israelis were particularly (and unsurprisingly) incensed by the idea that the United States knew Israeli interest better than the Israelis themselves; this was the case even when the speakers displayed a strong aversion to the settlement project, and to the general conduct and maintenance of the occupation.

Obviously, these beliefs were deeply self-serving from the Israeli point of view.  They were not, however, entirely wrong.  The US did a lot of dumb stuff after 2001 (and before, obviously) that had nothing to do with Israel; it also did a lot of dumb stuff that involved Israel in some fashion. It grated on Israelis that Americans were blaming Israel for their own idiocy.  At the same time, the Israelis correctly pointed out the multiple sources of Arab social dysfunction, and probably had a better sense of the regional impact of the growth of Iranian power (less in terms of the specific threat to Israel than in the ways the Sunni states would freak out) than the Americans did. And the struggles that European states have faced in integrating Islamic communities obviously have to do with much more than Israel-Palestine.

Let’s fast forward to 2016. Although the slate of speakers this time around concentrated heavily in the center-left Labour elite, the message resonated with 2008; not all of this mess is our fault.  Even the left-leaning speakers made clear that the effort from 2008 (and thereabouts) to put Israel-Palestine at the center of Middle East dysfunction had utterly collapsed.  The reasons for this are obvious: Syria is in the middle of a civil war that has killed more people in five years than all the dead of all the Arab-Israeli wars combined;  ISIS has handily demonstrated the incapacity of the Arab state; Egypt has gone through two revolutions without noticeably changing, and the Sisi regime is arguably more responsible for suffering in Gaza today than Israel; Libya and Yemen have collapsed; the surviving Sunni regimes have made clear that they care a lot about Iran and not a whit about Palestinians; the Turks and the Iranians themselves have made clear that support for Hamas is little more than a elaborate public relations maneuver. If anything the Israelis were more contemptuous of the Europeans than the Americans, noting that Islamic communities in Europe appear considerably more prone to terrorism than Islamic communities within Israel itself.

Now obviously you can pull at a lot of those threads, and find some long-term Israeli culpability for how things have turned out in the Middle East, but it’s very, very difficult to say that the Israelis are flat wrong on these points. The implications that Israelis draw from this varies; for those who support the settlement project, this confirms the long-standing view that pro-Palestinian attitudes in the Arab states are anything more than authoritarian incitement, a sentiment that seems only mildly to conflict with the oft-implicit belief that Israel is most secure when surrounded by safely authoritarian regimes. Interpretations on the left are more cautious, combining a disdain for idea of Israel-Palestine centrality, with a degree of dismay that there are now fewer levers to push Israel into a long-term agreement with the Palestinians.

And so this is the backdrop to how Israelis (and to some degree, Palestinians) view the future of the peace process.  Regional dynamics can be safely ignored for now, or at least for as long as the Sauds, the Hashemites, the Assads, and General Sisi remain in power. From the point of view of the Israeli right, the primary threat to Israel now lays with the legal-normative activity of the trans-Atlantic community, especially the EU but also the United States under Obama (read this excellent column by Aluf Benn on what Bibi actually believes).  Most of the Israelis seemed to take BDS fairly seriously, perhaps even more seriously than the Palestinians.  The Israeli strategy for managing this problem is the subject of my latest column at the Diplomat (yes; this post is basically an 1100 word introduction to a 500 word column).

But apart from the specifics of the India-Israel relationship, India plays an important role in Israel’s broader diplomatic strategy. In short, building a bridge with India, a country that no longer seems to care very much about the Israel-Palestine dispute, helps to insulate Jerusalem from European and American criticism. As with the effort to build good relationships with China and Russia, the Israeli effort in India (beyond its specific benefits) hopes to take advantage of the fact that most Asian countries have no direct interest in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. India is particularly valuable in this regard because of its history of non-alignment and anti-colonial activism.

Key to the Israeli argument is that it has become clear that the Israel-Palestine dispute is peripheral to the key military and strategic development in the Middle East. Although Palestine remains an important talking point for many regional players, Iran, Saudi Arabia, ISIS, Turkey, Egypt, and the rump Syrian government all have more important things to worry about than the plight of the Palestinians. This is an argument that Israelis have made for some time, and of course it serves Israeli interests to make it. But at the moment it has the benefit of being largely inarguable, given events in Syria and Iraq.

The upshot is this: Everyone now appears deeply skeptical about anything other than a unilateral resolution to the Occupation in the short- to medium-term, in part because regional dynamics have completely undermined pressure on the Israelis. Moreover, Bibi has a strategy for insulating Israel from future pressure, especially on the part of the trans-Atlantic community.



[ 12 ] July 14, 2016 |

Movies on a Plane

[ 135 ] July 13, 2016 |
Khrushchev U2.gif

Khrushchev with U-2 Wreckage. By CIA –, Public Domain,


Took two long flights over the past week and a half, which meant movies. Some thoughts:

Batman vs. Superman

This movie is not good, but I liked it more than I expected.  Wonder Woman is in the film for some reason, and Jesse Eisenberg decides to play Lex Luthor as a somewhat less menacing, less dangerous version of Mark Zuckerberg. I’m going to credit that last as an actual decision and not an accident, and it’s… interesting. Maybe the point is that Luthor has never conceived of a scheme to dominate the lives of everyday people so grandiose, and so completely successful, as Facebook?  Would Batman or Superman have destroyed the algorithm on Zuckerberg’s dorm room window?

With respect to the two principles, I thought Affleck was just fine as Batman, and that Snyder mostly got Batman right. Cavil’s Superman remains a disaster, however.  It doesn’t make sense for Superman to dislike humans as much as Cavil seems to dislike people.  A grudging sense of responsibility isn’t enough; even Brandon Routh’s Superman was clearly sad and unhappy, but he didn’t seem to resent human beings.  Unless they manage to fix this core problem at the heart of the DC movie universe, there’s gonna be trouble ahead.

Bridge of Spies

I guess I’m just done with Spielberg?  This is a movie about spies and airplanes, and it had Alan Alda; I feel that I should really have enjoyed it.  But nothing was surprising; every emotional punch, and every plot point, was hopelessly telegraphed.  Maybe Spielberg should stop making historical films, so at least we could pretend to be surprised?  Hanks mails in yet another Stand Up White Guy Beset by Troubles, and Sebastian Koch is in the movie for some reason.

The sole upside was Mark Rylance, who turns in the classic “I don’t know why I’m in this movie, so I’ll act as if I’m in some other movie” kind of performance that Alan Rickman perfected. That, and the shootdown of the U-2 was pretty cool.


I quite liked this one.  I’ve thought for a long time that Apollo Creed is really the most interesting figure in the Rocky universe, the only one that makes the story interesting from a political and social point of view.  Creed draws upon Ali, but he’s not a “streets of Louisville” kind of guy; from the first, he’s more comfortable in the boardroom than in the ring, which is a fascinating message to send in 1977.  He has to back Rocky in III, because he has to die in IV; Clubber Lang would never care enough about the Soviet Union to bother fighting Ivan Drago. Creed brings Apollo’s story full circle (including the reference to the third Creed-Balboa fight), and manages to get a creditable performance out of Stallone. And until the final fight (and including even much of that), the fight scenes easily clear the rather low bar of “most realistic boxing scenes in a Rocky movie.”


[ 103 ] July 13, 2016 |
USNS Comfort (T-AH-20)

USNS Comfort. By Spc. Landon Stephenson – Navy News Service Hi-Res, Public Domain,

Well, this is interesting.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is vetting retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, a four-star officer who served as NATO’s 16th Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

Stavridis, who currently serves as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is being formally vetted, according to two sources familiar with the process.

In addition to his service to NATO from 2009 to 2013, Stavridis also served as the 15th commander of U.S. European Command from 2006 to 2009, and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1976.

Stavridis would certainly be an interesting choice.  I’m guessing that the logic runs that Trump himself sews up the major constituencies of the Democratic Party, and that Stavridis would serve to reassure folks who need a Vaguely Competent White Guy on the ticket.  Although Stavridis is fairly obscure to most people outside the national security community, he probably sufficiently fits that bill.  I have no idea of his broader political convictions, or of his ability to manage the campaign trail. Smart guy, but I’m not sure what else exactly he adds to the ticket.

In a strange sense, Stavridis would have made a better choice for Bernie Sanders.  Partnership for the Americas is a really good book about Stavridis’ time with Southern Command; the gist is that maritime power can make some positive, broadly uncontroversial contributions to global welfare.  It’s the kind of argument that would have contributed to, and been compatible with, Bernie’s foreign policy perspective.

War College on Grounded

[ 1 ] July 11, 2016 |

I recorded a podcast for War College (not affiliated with any of the service war colleges) on Grounded the other day. Check it out. I’ve also updated the Grounded and Battleship Book pages for all extant reviews (and yes, removed all of the spam that seems to periodically infect those pages).


[ 13 ] July 10, 2016 |
A black and white blueprint of a ship with a flat deck designed to launch and recover airplanes. Medium sized guns line the bridge area, while notes and a ruler outline points of interest and the estimated length of the designed ship.

A black and white blueprint of a ship with a flat deck designed to launch and recover airplanes. Medium sized guns line the bridge area. By U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph – Photo #: S-511-54, Public Domain,

Last week’s National Interest entry was on the various plans floated in the Navy to refurbish the Iowa class battleships during the Cold War:

But the Iowas were nevertheless magnificent ships, and various proposals emerged in and around the Navy to bring them back into service (indeed, even before the war was over some suggested converting the ships to aircraft carriers). These proposals would result in reactivations for the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the last stages of the Cold War. Indeed, some hopes for modernization persisted even into the 2000s.

This is also a subject I deal with at some length in the Battleship Book, although in more general terms.

Nesher Kfir Lavi!!!

[ 39 ] July 9, 2016 |

Ecuadoran Air Force Kfir. By Camera Operator: SSGT GUS GARCIA – Defense Visual Information Center, Public Domain,

Taking advantage of my time here in Israel-Palestine to write some about the confluence of Israeli airpower and technology policy:

The dominance of the IAF has come about through effective training, the weakness of its foes, and a flexible approach to design and procurement. Over the years, the Israelis have tried various strategies for filling their air force with fighters, including buying from France, buying from the United States and building the planes themselves. They seem to have settled on a combination of the last two, with great effect.



[ 256 ] July 8, 2016 |

Not good.

It goes without saying that no one, least of all the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, is helped by this.

More on Chilcot

[ 63 ] July 7, 2016 |
28 May 2002 Meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at the level of Heads of State and Government Left to right: President Jacques Chirac, France; President José Maris Aznar, Spain and Prime Minister Tony Blair, United Kingdom.

28 May 2002
Meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at the
level of Heads of State and Government
Left to right: President Jacques Chirac, France; President José Maris Aznar, Spain and Prime Minister Tony Blair, United Kingdom.

Worth looking at a couple of other treatments of the Chilcot report; Zack Beauchamp at Vox, and Tom Switzer at Lowy. And here’s the punchline; especially in the wake of Brexit, but really even before, the United States government has come to view France as a much more important security partner than the United Kingdom. France maintains power projection capabilities (and the will to use them) that the UK does not, and France’s diplomatic voice carries greater weight in a variety of different regional multilateral fora. The UK remains an important contributor to Five Eyes and a variety of other intelligence sharing programs, and is one of the most important partners in the F-35 program. In the long term, however, the US prefers an ally that is not actively falling apart, which means that Washington’s best European friend in military terms is Paris, not London.

And this means is that Tony failed even against the exceedingly low metric he set for himself: To remain the poodle of the United States.

Build All of the Ships

[ 13 ] June 30, 2016 |
2008년9월27일 해군 세종대왕함기동 (1) (7193823614).jpg

ROKS Sejong the Great. By 대한민국 국군 Republic of Korea Armed Forces – 2008년9월27일 해군 세종대왕함기동 (1), CC BY-SA 2.0,

My latest at the Diplomat takes a look at the South Korean shipbuilding industry:

The Korean shipbuilding industry has plunged into a deep crisis. The three biggest shipbuilding firms—Daewoo, Hyundai Heavy, and Samsung Heavy—posted record combined losses in 2015, and 2016 looks no better. Combined with a major accounting scandal and ongoing concerns about the viability of the market, South Korea could face a major shift in the viability of one of its most important industries.

Foreign Entanglements: #Brexit Breaks Bad

[ 26 ] June 28, 2016 |

On the latest episode of Foreign Entanglements, I spoke with Nick Clark about the consequences of Brexit.  There’s also a bit on Game of Thrones at the end.

Unfortunately, the video on both feeds froze.  The audio is fine, though.

The Party of Lincoln

[ 9 ] June 27, 2016 |
Middle aged clean shaven Lincoln from the hips up.

Attributed to Nicholas H. Shepherd, based on the recollections of Gibson W. Harris, a law student in Lincoln’s office from 1845 to 1847. – Library of Congress, Public Domain,

Don Doyle has a fine review of Louise Stevenson’s new book on Lincoln’s trans-Atlantic influences. It’s hard to read some of it without immediately thinking of the presumptive nominee of the Grand Old Party:

Lincoln’s “German Lessons” take us to the many immigrants from the German states who had settled in the Midwest, many of them fleeing repression after the failed revolution of 1848. The German 48ers were revolutionary, or “red,” republicans whose abhorrence of slavery and aristocracy drew them to the Republican Party. But the party made an alliance with the nativist Know Nothing movement, and this left German voters divided and therefore much sought after by both parties. Lincoln worked hard to win German votes in 1860. He funded Theodore Canisius to publish a German-language newspaper to spread Lincoln’s message to German voters in their own idiom. He took pains to distance himself from the nativist Know Nothing Party and linked their xenophobia and anti-Catholicism to prejudice against blacks, both rooted in bigotry against people based on their circumstances of birth. “When the Know-Nothings get control,” he wrote in 1855, the Declaration of Independence “will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners and Catholics. When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty” (p. 121). If some assert the principle of equality does not apply to blacks, what is to stop them from excluding others? Lincoln asked (p. 145). Historians debate whether Lincoln owed his victory to German voters, but there is no question that he felt indebted to them. Once elected president, he appointed numerous Germans, Canisius among them, to diplomatic posts and other government positions.

Trump’s addendum would surely run “the Declaration of Independence will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, foreigners, and CatholicsMuslims’, and this is a good thing. A great thing, in fact.”

Page 5 of 230« First...34567...102030...Last »