War is Too Serious to be Left to (These) Politicians


Everybody in Israel knows this story. When Levy Eshkol was Prime Minister, his assistants rushed up to him in panic: “Levy, there is a drought!”

“In Texas?” Eshkol asked anxiously.

“No, in Israel!” they said.

“Then it doesn’t matter,” Eshkol assured them. “We can always get all the wheat we need from the Americans.”

That was some 50 years ago. Since than, nothing much has changed. The elections in the US in 11 days are more important to us than our own elections in three months.

I had to stay awake till 3 am again to watch the final presidential debate live. I was afraid that I would doze off, but I did not. On the contrary.

When two chess players are engaged in a game, there is often a person – we call him a “kibitzer” – standing behind one of them, trying to give him unsolicited advice. During the debates, I do the same. In my imagination, I stand behind Barack Obama and think about the right answer to Romney, before Obama himself opens his mouth.

I must admit that on some occasions during this debate, his answers were much better than mine. For example, I did not think up a stinging reply to Romney’s contention that the US now has less warships then it had a hundred years ago. Obama’s dry reply – that the US army now has fewer horses, too – was sheer genius. The more so since he could not have prepared it. Who could have foreseen such a dumb remark?

Also, when Romney slammed Obama for skipping Israel on his first Middle East tour as president. How to counter such a factual challenge – especially with thousands of Jewish pensioners in Florida listening to every word?

Obama hit the right note. Remarking that Romney had visited with an entourage of donors and fund-raisers (without naming Sheldon Adelson and the other Jewish donors), he reminded us that as a candidate he went instead to Yad Vashem, to see for himself the evil done to the Jews. Touche.

On a few occasions, I thought I had a better answer. For example, when Romney tried to explain away his comment that Russia was the most important “geo-political foe” of the US, I would have reacted with “Excuse my ignorance, governor, but what does ‘geo-political’ mean?” In his context, it was a highfalutin but meaningless phrase.

(“Geo-politics” is not just a juxtaposition of geography and politics. It is a world-view propagated by the German professor Hans Haushofer and others and adopted by Adolf Hitler as a rationale for his plan to create Lebensraum for Germans by annihilating or driving out the population of Eastern Europe.)

I would have talked much more about the wars, Nixon’s Vietnam, the two Bushes’ Iraq, the second Bush’s Afghanistan. I noticed that Obama did not mention that he had been against the Iraq war right from the beginning. He must have been advised not to.

One did not have to be an expert to notice that Romney did not present original ideas of his own. He parroted Obama’s positions, changing a few words here and there.

Earlier in the campaign, during the primaries, it did not look like that. Clamoring for the votes of the right-wing base, he was about to bomb Iran, provoke China, battle Islamists of all shades, perhaps resurrect Osama Bin Laden in order to kill him again. Nothing of the sort this time. Only a meek “I agree with the President”.

Why? Because he was told that the American people had had enough of the Bush Wars. They don’t want any more. Not in Afghanistan, and certainly not in Iran. Wars cost a lot of money. And people even get killed.

Perhaps Romney decided in advance that it was enough for him to avoid looking like an ignoramus on foreign affairs, since the main battleground was in the economic sphere, where he can hope to look more convincing than Obama. So he played it safe. “I agree with the President…”

The whole concept of a presidential debate on foreign affairs is, of course, nonsensical.  World affairs are far too complicated, the nuances far too subtle, to be dealt with in this rough way. It would be like performing a kidney operation with an ax.

One could easily get the impression that the world is an American golf course, in which the US can knock the peoples around like balls, and the only question is which player has the more skill and selects the best club. The will of the peoples themselves is quite irrelevant. What are the feelings of the Chinese, the Pakistanis, the Egyptians? Who cares?!

I am not sure that most of the American viewers could find Tunis on the map. So it makes no sense to argue about the forces at work there, make distinctions between Salafists and Muslim Brothers, preferring these or those. All in four minutes.

For Romney, obviously, all Muslims are the same. Islamophobia is the order of the day, and Romney openly pandered to it. As I have pointed out before, Islamophobia is nothing but the fashionable modern cousin of good old anti-Semitism, seeping from the same sewers of the collective unconscious, exploiting the same old prejudices, transferring to the Muslims all the hatred once directed towards the Jews.

Many Jews, of course, especially the elderly in the nursing homes in warm Florida, are relieved to see the Goyim turn on other victims. And since the new victims happen also to be the foes of beloved Israel, all the better. Romney clearly believed that pouring his bile on “Islamists” was the easiest way to garner Jewish votes.

Trying hard to look tougher than Obama, Romney did, after all, come up with an original idea: provide the Syrian insurgents with “heavy arms”. What does that mean? Artillery? Drones? Missiles? And if so, to whom? To the Good Guys, of course. And take care that they do not fall into the hands of the Bad Guys.

What a brilliant idea. But please, who are the Good Guys and who the Baddies? Nobody else seems to know. Least of all the CIA or the Mossad. Dozens of Syrian factions are at work – regional, confessional, ideological. All want to kill Assad. So who will get the cannons?

All this made any serious discussion about the Middle East, now a region of infinite variations and nuances, quite impossible. Obama, who knows a lot more about our problems than his adversary, found it wise to play the simpleton and utter nothing but the most fatuous platitudes. Anything else – for example a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, God forbid, could have offended the dear inhabitants of the one old people’s home which may change the outcome in Florida.

Any serious Arab or Israeli should have been insulted by the way our region was treated in this debate by the two men, one of whom will soon be our lord and master.

Israel was mentioned in the debate 34 times – 33 times more than Europe, 30 times more than Latin America, five times more than Afghanistan, four times more than China. Only Iran was mentioned more often – 45 times – but in the context of the danger it poses to Israel.

Israel is our most important ally in the region (or in the world?) We shall defend it to the hilt. We shall provide it with all the arms it needs (plus those it doesn’t need).

Wonderful. Just wonderful. But which Israel, exactly? The Israel of the endless occupation? Of the unlimited expansion of settlements? Of the total denial of Palestinian rights? Of the rain of new anti-democratic laws?

Or a different, liberal and democratic Israel, an Israel of equality for all its citizens, an Israel that pursues peace and recognizes Palestinian statehood?

But not only what was parroted was interesting, but also what was left unsaid. No automatic backing of an Israeli attack on Iran. No war on Iran at all, until hell freezes over. No repetition of Romney’s earlier declaration that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. No pardon for the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

And, most importantly: no effort at all to use the immense potential power of the US and its European allies to bring about Israel-Palestine peace, by imposing the Two-State solution that everybody agrees is the only viable settlement. No mention of the Arab peace initiative still offered by 23 Arab countries, Islamists and all.

China, the new emerging world power, was treated with something close to disdain. They must be told how to behave. They must do this or that, stop manipulating their currency, send the jobs back to America.

But why should the Chinese take any notice when China controls the US national debt? No matter, they’ll have to do what America wants. Washington locuta, causa finita. (“Rome has spoken, the case is closed,” as Catholics used to say, way back before the sex scandals.)

Unserious as the debate was, it showed up a very serious problem.

The French used to say that war is too serious to leave to the generals. World politics are certainly too serious to leave to the politicians. Politicians are elected by the people – and the people have no idea.

It was obvious that both contenders avoided any specifics that would have demanded even the slightest knowledge from the listeners. 1.5 billion plus Muslims were considered to fall into just two categories – “moderates” and “Islamists”. Israel is one bloc, no differentiation. What do viewers know about 3000 years of Persian civilization? True, Romney knew – rather surprisingly – what or where Mali is. Most viewers surely didn’t.

Yet these very same viewers must now finally decide who will be the leader of the world’s greatest military power, with a huge impact on everyone else.

Winston Churchill memorably described democracy as “the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

This debate could serve as evidence.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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