Peres, Nuclear Weapons, and Avoiding Responsibility

One of the arguments put forward by those criticizing Shimon Peres’ legacy as well as excusing Arab leaders’ decision not to attend his funeral focuses on Peres’ critical role in developing Israel’s nuclear arsenal. This includes the leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, who gave as one of his reasons for not paying his respects to Peres as, among other things, “strong opposition in Arab society to the architect of the occupation who introduced nukes to the Middle East.”

The argument is at best tendentious, and dismisses the context in which Peres operated at the time.

Along with David Ben-Gurion and Ernst Bergmann, Peres was the primary architect of Israel’s nuclear program. He was also the main driver of the French-Israeli alliance in the 1950s and 1960s. He also launched the creation of the country’s defense industry, promoted the development of Israeli technology, and laid the foundation for the shift from a socialist to a free market economy, which contributed to further developments in defense and high tech.

All of this makes Peres one of the giants in Israeli history; he developed and strengthened the country, making it the secure and prosperous state it is today. But I don’t see how it makes him unfit to be remembered and grieved.

For Israeli leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, the Holocaust was a real event. By the 1967 war Israel had engaged in 2 major wars with its neighbors (1948 and 1956), and was under constant attack from Palestinian guerillas and terrorists. Israeli reprisal raids and efforts to undermine the capacity of its enemies to attack broadened the scope of the violence. In addition, Arab leaders were consistently threatening Israel not only with attack but with destruction.

To claim that Israeli leaders at the time should have dismissed these attacks and threats as un-implementable or easily fended off is to apply today’s conditions to that period. It also assumes Israeli leaders had perfect information, could accurately assess the outcomes of their actions all the time, and could predict whether nuclear weapons would or would not come to the region without Israel’s own nuclear program. In fact, Israeli leaders and others did debate amongst themselves many of these issues; but the decision to move forward with a nuclear program was ultimately made as the safest course of action.

In addition, the claim that Peres’ introduction of nuclear weapons to the Middle East means he should be remembered poorly also assumes, without evidence, that the decision to do so was made with malicious intent.

One can certainly criticize the decision, and consider what did in fact occur in the wake of the nuclear program. But to contend that it was, without qualification, the wrong decision is ahistorical and decontextualized and therefore any conclusions drawn from that decision are skewed and misleading.

Finally, to also claim that Peres’ efforts to protect his people, which did not involve attacking or repressing other people, mean he is undeserving of last respects is just an excuse to avoid making hard choices about coexistence. That, of course, says much more about those making the excuse than it does about Peres.

Saideman, ISA, BDS

A quick thought on one small argument embedded in Prof. Steve Saideman’s post, “BDS and the ISA.” (The ISA is the International Studies Association, a grouping of many political scientists and other scholars.  Steve and I have both been members.)

I have plenty of issues with BDS, the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement that targets Israel, but I wanted to comment on one line in Saideman’s post: “While I am not a fan of slippery slope arguments, it is not clear why Israel is targeted and not heaps of other places where there is significant repression: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Trump’s America, etc.”

I hear variants of that argument a lot. But I do not actually think it is that puzzling, even leaving aside that once the BDS ball gets rolling, BDS probably has a certain appeal or cache on some campuses. If you look at the list, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China are all authoritarian countries. They are not democracies.

In other words, I think the interesting comparison regarding Israel and BDS is not just repression (We’re better than Saudi Arabia!) but repression + democracy. If, as Israel or its supporters often note, you claim to be a democracy (the region’s only democracy) and claim to have the most moral army in the world, maybe you make yourself more vulnerable to this kind of campaign. You self-impose different standards by which to be judged. Not to mention that democracies tend to be more porous with information, whether from opposition politicians, civil society, or other elements that counter the power establishment. Maybe Turkey is a fair comparison (though I’d trust someone who knows something about Turkey unlike me).

Trump’s America? Well, we’re not there yet…

Israeli Intelligence in favor of Iran Agreement

For several weeks, we’ve been hearing that former Israeli security leaders and generals are more supportive of the Iran agreement than Israel’s current political leaders. (I wrote about it here) Now, Shimon Shiffer has written in Yediot Aharonot (Eng), a major Israeli newspaper, that current Israeli intelligence told Israel’s political leaders the deal was okay:

But alongside the outrage at Obama’s style – his speech was intended primarily to show who wears the pants in the world of international relations – there is also a need to listen better to the Israeli intelligence community. The research division of Aman [Military Intelligence] and the Mossad provided senior decision makers an assessment based on an analysis of the nuclear agreement between the five powers & the EU and Iran, according to which it is a reasonable and even good agreement that includes the means of preventing Iran [from attaining] nuclear weapons in the coming decade. 

The Mossad, the Israeli Secret Intelligence Service*, and Military (IDF) Intelligence, known as Aman, are two of the three major pillars of the Israeli state’s intelligence community, with the third being the Shin Bet or Israeli Security Agency (which focuses on internal and Palestinian issues, not Iran). So while Israel’s government and much of the Israeli Jewish public oppose the agreement, Israel’s intelligence community sees it as a reasonable, if not good, agreement. 

Meanwhile in the US debate, you would hardly know that anyone in Israel, let alone the official intelligence community, is okay with the agreement. Go figure.

(Unfortunately, I have not seen the article posted on-line. A picture is below.)

Shiffer2

*This is the wording the Mossad uses on its English website. One could translate its longer Hebrew name as the agency for intelligence and special operations.

Don’t count out the influence of Education on Policymakers

I was surprised by a claim in Byman and Kroenig (Security Studies, 2016) that we should be wary of assuming education has much impact on policymakers later on: “Policymakers may not fully recognize how their educations shape their worldviews, but with an absence of supporting evidence academics should also not overstate how classroom teachings might affect real-world results.” (pp. 26-27) Yet the evidence in Avey and Desch (2014), the article cited by Byman and Kroenig, is more revealing than that. There is supporting evidence.

Avey and Desch surveyed high-level national security policymakers in the Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations; they received 234 completed responses. How one interprets two pieces of evidence bears directly on whether education affects policymakers.

In their survey, Avey and Desch asked how scholars should contribute to policymaking. 54% of former officials agreed that one role was as “trainers of policy-makers.” That 54% was lower than both “informal advisors” and “creators of new information/knowledge.” For Avey and Desch, the 54% is a glass half-empty moment: “we were surprised that support for this role was so limited.”

But stepping back from Avey and Desch’s expectations going into the survey, how should we assess that 54%? Does it square with the idea that scholars have little influence on policymakers? Or, does it suggest that more often than not, policymakers view scholars as trainers? I think the latter; if in reality professors played that training role just over half the time, that would be a significant impact, through education, on policymaking.

The second relevant question Avey and Desch asked policymakers was where they acquired their most relevant skills. The answers:

  • field or work experience (49.5%)
  • formal education (27.1%)
  • professional education / job training (11.4%)
  • independent research / reading (5.7%)
  • mentoring (3.3%)
  • other (2.9%)

Again here, to Avey and Desch, the 27.1% is a low number, a glass half empty. While I see their point, I think that 27.1% is more significant. It means formal education programs led to the most relevant skills for just over one-quarter of US policymakers. That is significant and does not fit with the claim that academia, here translated through teaching and coursework, is irrelevant to policymaking.

I was especially intrigued by their survey evidence that one sub-group, policymakers who had PhDs, chose formal education as the most relevant by a wide margin.

One could also imagine more revealing ways to ask this question in a survey more deeply focused on assessing the impact of education on policymaking. It might be, for example, that many of the policymakers who listed field or work experience as #1, would have listed formal education as the the second most important place where they acquired relevant skills. The way the question was asked does not reveal how 72.9% of the respondents view formal education beyond that it was not number one in relevance.

Based on Avey and Desch’s evidence I have noted here, Avey and Desch conclude, “these findings raise important questions about the curriculum and content of much graduate professional education in international affairs.” It is a big leap from that finding to Byman and Kroenig asserting that there is an absence of supporting evidence. We have two pieces of evidence from Avey and Desch that education has a significant impact on some policymakers. Secretaries Albright, Clinton, and Rice, all supportive of that notion from their personal experience and cited by Byman and Kroenig, appear to be onto something.

Michael Oren’s Misuse of Psychology

By now Michael Oren’s holding Barack Obama personally responsible for ruining the American-Israeli relationship is well known. No reasonable person argues that Obama doesn’t share blame for complicating the relationship. But as a number of very good assessments of Oren’s arguments have noted (see, for example, here, here, and here), there is a much larger context that Oren thinks is irrelevant, but can’t be.

A number of common points run through these critiques.

  1. The idea that American presidents before Obama maintained “no daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem has no basis in fact.
  2. The stipulation that Washington would never surprise Israel has no basis in fact.
  3. Oren was not present for all discussions pertaining to either the Iran deal or American-Israeli relations, and so is speculating as much as describing events.
  4. Oren completely ignores Israel’s, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s, own agency, which is morally problematic and strategically bad for Israel.
  5. The arm-chair psychoanalysis of Obama’s issues of male abandonment is made without any evidence.

It is this last point where I think Oren makes his biggest mistake. It hasn’t been a major point in his public writings and interviews, but it’s a telling one.

All politicians—all individuals—are influenced by their life experiences. But a major problem with Freudian psychoanalysis like this is that the same cognitive and emotional state can be used to explain opposite outcomes.

That is, there is plenty of evidence of individuals who have suffered from the same childhood experience—say, being beaten by a parent—yet who have taken very different paths later in life. Some have turned to a life of violence, others have not. Some become aggressive, some become meek. Clinical experiments in psychology demonstrate behavioral tendencies, but these are generalizations rather than explanations for every individual action. Plenty of other factors intervene, including levels of education, social circles, and so on. So the assumption (or rather the supposition, as Oren couched the accusation) was unnecessarily inflammatory without more development.

Oren’s comments on the topic would have been more effective if he had just argued—as he started to—that Obama’s interactions with Muslim activists and leaders early on helped shape his worldview, by teaching him certain ideas about Islam and about America’s policies toward the Islamic world. That is, that he developed impressions and came to believe they were important enough to translate into policy. (In fact, this is the argument Peter Beinart makes about Obama’s interactions with Jewish leaders in Chicago.)

It’s possible Oren sees himself as so embedded in history that he’s convinced this really is a crossroads moment for Israel, and so ringing the warning bells as loudly as possible is necessary; the end justifies the means. But as defenders of Oren’s claims have pointed out, he is a very smart man. Surely he should have known better than to rely on such a characterization devoid of proof and that touches on some of the worst accusations Republicans and conservatives made against Obama during his first run for presidency—about his identity, about his presumed negative feelings toward America, that he’s anti-Israel, and so on. Indeed, as a public figure, an intellectual, and an Israeli politician who wants to maintain a strong US-Israel connection, he must.

Oren’s Op-ed Lacks Historical Context

This is a guest post from Prof. Boaz Atzili of American University:

Let me offer a few observations on Michael B. Oren’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “How Obama Abandoned Israel”:

  1. Oren’s article is full of historical misrepresentations. For example, Oren’s statement that Israel has offered the Palestinians statehood in “Gaza, almost the entire West Bank, and half of Jerusalem” is a gross exaggeration. And Obama’s insistence on the total freeze was a result of Israel taking advantage of loopholes in similar previous arrangement that were less explicit.
  2. Oren’s argument that Barack Obama is the first US President to abandon the principle that there should be “no daylight” (no public disagreement) between Israel and the US is simply wrong. The United States, for example, has always publicly opposed Israeli settlements (though less so under President George W. Bush), and never accepted Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
  3. Moreover, Oren seems to think that this principle runs only one-way: When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly and vehemently calls US policy on a nuclear agreement with Iran dangerous, that’s okay. When Obama disagrees with Israel’s expansion of settlements that’s breaching the trust. How so?
  4. 
Israel makes sure never to deliberately surprise the United States, Oren claims. Really? I cannot believe that the Suez War, the bombing of Osirak, and announcing settlement expansion whenever a high ranking US official is visiting, were all unintended mishaps. Even in the Israeli land of improvisation that is unlikely.
  5. After trying for too long to pressure Israel privately to change its policy (which is basically talk the talk but make sure nobody can walk the walk), the Obama administration did decide to go public with the disagreements. But so long as this is not accompanied by a willingness to actually press Israel by threatening financial or military aid (as, for example, President George H. W. Bush did) or by refusing to veto UNSC resolutions that Israel is opposed to (basically anything that has the words “Palestine” and “Peace” in it), Netanyahu can easily keep on his obstructionist policy. And keep on complaining about Obama through his ambassador-turned-Knesset Member.

The Student is not a Consumer: Further Thoughts

Dan Drezner’s smart post had me speculating thinking about two other related points. Drezner noted that 1) a university is not a corporation and students are not consumers and 2) the real university crisis is in the growing number of college instructors without tenure who are thus vulnerable to poor student evaluations and general student whinging.

First, this might also help us understand grade inflation. If the students-as-consumers expect high grades, and will threaten job security when they don’t get those grades, why not give out high grades like candy? (Though to be transparent, more like the cheap, corn-syrup based candies than good chocolate.) People who have actually researched this possibility seem to agree.

Second, evaluations are so appealing because they boil everything down to a number. A number can be discussed and weighed quickly as well as easily compared to other instructors at the university, as in, “Oh, look, this professor’s average is above the mean for the university as a whole.” This ease and speed could be appealing to administrators or committees that have to supervise and evaluate many instructors. Moreover, in a field like political science where many faculty are pushing quantitative research, the primacy of numbers in evaluation should come as no surprise. It avoids some squishy, qualitative judgment based on, say, actual classroom observation by a professional.

Now please grade this blog post on a scale of 1 to 10. Anonymously.