This quarter began with terror attacks in Paris at the offices of the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo," in which 11 editorial staff were shot to death, and at a kosher grocery, where four shoppers were gunned down. The perpetrators were locally grown, but their crimes produced an understandable overreaction: a Western government once again declared war, and the French air force flew some sorties over Syria. Al-Qaeda took responsibility for the Paris murders, as they had after 9/11, citing past grievances as justification. The shooter inside the store was recorded on an open phone line saying to a radio station: "I was born in France. If they didn't attack other countries, I wouldn't be here. They need to stop attacking ISIS. They need to stop asking our women to remove the hijab."
It is easy today to recruit sociopathic or deluded young toughs; they are steeped in Western outrages against Islam and Muslims at home and abroad (President Obama mentioned some at the annual "national prayer breakfast" February 5). There have been so many, from the Crusades to the colonial period to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, that the desire for revenge is all too simple to awaken. A dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — not to mention nearly a half century of military occupation in Palestine financed by U.S. tax dollars — have secured a place for Americans and Europeans in the crosshairs.
The jihadis are indeed coming, whether as lone wolves or in packs (ISIS). They want to fight the best, the dream team, the U.S.A. It boosts recruitment and reinforces solidarity, so they try to goad us into reacting. Beheadings are grotesque enough, but the recent burning alive of a Jordanian pilot in a cage was even more horrifying, reminiscent of lynching in the American South (see Bill Moyers on Waco, 1915, if you have the stomach). ISIS may be overplaying its hand. It is impossible to know what effect its barbarism will have on those in the region who could actually muster forces for combat, though Jordan has redoubled its efforts. The UAE air force had cut back for a time on its bombing raids against ISIS, believing, despite CENTCOM denials, that the United States is only willing to go all out to rescue its own pilots. Such a major effort would require American boots on the ground. This reality has for years militated against a no-fly zone on the Syrian border, but the United States has just moved helicopters into Erbil to be able to extract pilots fast.
Though ISIS does not pose an existential threat, American leaders have insisted since 9/11 on elevating every attack to a military assault in a religious war that has almost become a perpetual-motion machine. This "clash of civilizations" has been the aim of neoconservatives since the end of the standoff with the Soviets (see "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," written in 1999 for Benjamin Netanyahu by Richard Perle and his cohorts at the Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000). It had looked for a moment as if the United States might be content to cash its peace dividend and let the world turn, absent a peer competitor to present a credible threat. But, no. That would have left Israel unprotected.
If it had not been clear up to now that Israel and its supporters want to control the foreign-policy decisions of the United States, Prime Minister Netanyahu has removed all doubt. Avoiding customary diplomatic niceties, he finagled an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress in early March, just before the Israeli elections, on the looming threat from Iran. The move backfired, drawing criticism from almost all quarters though not from Republican members of Congress. Even Vice President Biden said he would be out of town; his office was not sure exactly where. At this time, it is unknown whether the negative PR will spur a re-think by the Israelis.
Even general officers in the U.S. military, most of whom are not fans of President Obama, rallied around their commander-in-chief. According to veteran reporter Mark Perry (Al Jazeera, February 2), retired Air Force Colonel Richard Klass asserted on his website that Netanyahu's action had raised the question of whether "Israel is becoming a strategic liability for America." A currently serving officer pointed out to Perry that there is a law on the books, the Logan Act (1799), "that says it is a violation of U.S. law for an American citizen to work with a foreign official to purposely undermine U.S. policy."
One must face a hard fact, however, as Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center has put it: "The Middle East is melting down at a rate nobody could ever have predicted." This makes it necessary, in his view, to rely on stable regimes: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt — and even Assad's Syria. Miller predicts that "the nature of this U.S.-Israeli relationship will not change fundamentally until the image of Israel in the mind of America changes for the worse. That could happen." Yes. An indicator of the problem is described in this issue by Ronald Stockton in "The Presbyterians Divest" (p. 41). Other mainline Christian churches are on the same page, as are many American Jews. The money interests that keep Congress in check are a different story, but the trend in public opinion is obvious.
Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, and now vice president and director of the foreign-policy program at the Brookings Institution, can have the last word (see mondoweiss.net for the whole thing). At Manhattan's 92nd Street Y on January 21, in dialogue with journalist Roger Cohen, this insider's insider said the following about the Netanyahu maneuver:
It's an approach which is bound to create a good deal of anger in the White House. So why would you do that? I mean the president is going to be there for two more years. He's just taken on the Cuba lobby. And he's basically saying that I'll veto any effort to impose new sanctions [on Iran]. So there's a potential here for him to take on the Jewish lobby, because I assume that AIPAC and the pro-Israel community will get behind the Prime Minister. And so we're going to move from a kind of ... Democrat versus Republican argument ...to the President versus Israel and its supporters.... Anybody who cares about the Israel-U.S. relationship should not want to be there.