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Spengler

Mosul’s Fall the Inevitable Consequence of the ‘Surge’

June 10th, 2014 - 11:39 pm

Four years ago I predicted that the result of America’s apparently successful effort to contain violence in Iraq through the so-called “surge” would be a devastating and uncontrollable civil war in Iraq. I titled the essay “Gen. Petraeus’ Thirty Years War,” arguing that

Petraeus created a balance of power between Sunnis and Shi’ites by reconstructing the former’s fighting capacity, while persuading pro-Iranian militants to bide their time. To achieve this balance of power, though, he built up Sunni military power to the point that – for the first time in Iraq’s history – Sunnis and Shi’ites are capable of fighting a full-dress civil war with professional armed forces.

Gen. David Petraeus, then the American commander in Iraq, quieted the Sunni opposition to the American-backed Shi’ite majority government by giving them money and weapons. By doing so the U.S. rebuilt the Sunni military capability that it had ruined in 2003 when it destroyed the government of Saddam Hussein. With the fighting capacity of the Sunni minority now on par with the Shi’ite-majority government army, as we saw in the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

I have nothing to add to what I wrote four years ago about the bungling of the Bush administration as compounded by Obama.  The present disaster in Iraq is not wholly of our making, but American policy was a key enabler. The “surge” made it inevitable. There will be no resolution now without the exhaustion of the contending forces, in a long war of attrition with dreadful consequences for civilians, starting with the 500,000 who fled Mosul this week.

In a broader sense, American bungling set the stage for Syria’s civil war as well. I had the Ghost of Cardinal Richelieu explain why in a 2012 essay:

Richelieu looked at me with what might have been contempt. “It is a simple exercise in logique. You had two Ba’athist states, one in Iraq and one in Syria. Both were ruled by minorities. The Assad family came from the Alawite minority Syria and oppressed the Sunnis, while Saddam Hussein came from the Sunni minority in Iraq and oppressed the Shi’ites.

It is a matter of calculation – what today you would call game theory. If you compose a state from antagonistic elements to begin with, the rulers must come from one of the minorities. All the minorities will then feel safe, and the majority knows that there is a limit to how badly a minority can oppress a majority. That is why the Ba’ath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria – tyrannies founded on the same principle – were mirror images of each other.”

“What happens if the majority rules?,” I asked.

“The moment you introduce majority rule in the tribal world,” the cardinal replied, “you destroy the natural equilibrium of oppression.

“The minorities have no recourse but to fight, perhaps to the death.”

We Republican warhawks wonder why the public abhors us and our own party has rejected us. Our bungling has made a bad situation much, much worse, and the consequences of our ideological rigidity and cultural illiteracy will haunt us for a generation.

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The London Center for Policy Research (www.londoncenter.org) has just released a short book on America’s allies in the Sunni Arab world, titled, The Sunni Vanguard: Can Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia survive the New Middle East? Former Hudson Institute President Herbert London and former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jed Babbin wrote the essays on Turkey and Saudi Arabia, respectively; I contributed a section on Egypt. The introduction to my section is below.

The United States faces a unique challenge in Egypt: state failure in Egypt would unleash problems orders of magnitude greater than the collapse of Libya. Yet avoiding state failure is especially difficult because Egypt’s economy is in utter ruin after sixty years of “Arab socialist” mismanagement. It is a banana republic without the bananas, a mainly rural country that imports half its food, the host to a vast jobless proletariat living off a state bread subsidy.

With the U.S. increasingly withdrawn from Egypt, we have seen three countries involved in Egypt. The first is Saudi Arabia, which is lending the country enough money to keep the bread subsidy intact, and preventing actual starvation. The second is Russia, which has stepped in to sell Egypt arms after the United States foolishly withdrew. The third is China. Chinese companies are constructing a north-south rail line and have undertaken to build a national broadband network.

U.S. policy should seek to minimize Russian influence, which can only grow at America’s expense. We should maintain our strong ties to Egypt’s military, the only source of stability in a situation bordering on state failure. Despite our vigorous (and well-founded) objections to Chinese foreign policy elsewhere, we should cooperate with China in investment in Egypt: here China’s influence is economic rather than strategic, and its investments represent no threat to American interests. We have a uniquely difficult challenge in salvaging Egypt’s economy, and China’s willingness to invest in the country is a net positive.

The first paragraphs of my esssay from the London Center book and its conclusion are on the next page.

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(cross-posted from Asia Times Online)
http://atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MID-02-290514.html
By Spengler

There are two kinds of people: those who think that everyone will (or should be) saved, and those who don’t. Among the former are many – communist, socialists, and most present-day liberals – who assert that human agency can right all the world’s wrongs. There also are religious millenarians who believe that God has a plan for universal salvation, but because things do not work out this way, they feel obliged to help God accomplish what he does not seem eager enough to do on his own.

That is a religious outlook rejected by the Catholic Church. [1] After Pope Francis I’s journey to the Holy Land this weekend, though, it is hard to suppress the perception that in his heart he yearns for universal salvation, although his public discourse, to be sure, is consistent with Church doctrine. The Holy Father really seems convinced that he can fix the world, starting with a part of the world that no-one has been able to fix, and in any case does not especially require fixing.

His intervention into Middle Eastern politics, I believe, arises from deep theological convictions that override perceptions of fact and practicality. He appears to believe that a miracle will move the recalcitrant hearts of the contending parties in the Middle East. I believe in miracles, but I don’t think they can be summoned at will.

Why focus on the Israel-Palestine issue to begin with? The Muslim world long since put it on the back burner, as Lee Smithobserved last year. In the pope’s mind, the problems of the Palestinians – benign as they are compared to those of Syrians, Iraqis or even Egyptians – stand as a symbol of the ills of the world that a just God would want to fix. Francis has mistaken windmills for giants.

The pope’s strangest gesture, but perhaps his most characteristic, was to invite Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestine Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican next month to pray for peace. Peres does not pray, as he hasacknowledged in public.

In the unlikely event that he were to pray, he could not do so in the Vatican, for Jews are forbidden to pray in buildings with Christian religious images. In any event he has no mandate to speak on Israel’s behalf, and will resign his largely ceremonial position in July. Outside of the world of miracles the exercise is triply pointless. According to most Islamic authorities, the same stricture applies to Abbas, who is not a religious man, either. A prayer session with Peres and Abbas is the stuff of the real maravilloso.

Everything a pope does should be viewed through the prism of theology. and a purely theological impulse led Pope Francis to wade into the minefields of Middle Eastern politics, as the champion of what he alone among the leaders of the West hails as the “State of Palestine”. For 20 years, the Israelis and the Palestine Authority along with the major powers have debated whether and on what conditions there might be a State of Palestine. Francis seems to believe that it will be so if he declares it to be so.

Kindness radiates from this pope, whose gestures to the Palestinians were balanced by unprecedented gestures to the Israelis – a wreath on the grave of Zionist founding father Theodor Herzl, and a declaration that the Holocaust was a uniquely evil act in world history. There is not a hint of ill will towards the Jews in Bergoglio’s public record. On the contrary, in his November 2013 encyclical he reaffirmed, “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable’.” The subject is neither the Jews nor the Arabs, but rather the new pope’s vision for the Catholic Church.

A controversy erupted in the Catholic world after Francis preached “universal redemption”, arguing that all people naturally seek the good because of the good ness of creation. The pope argued that atheists can do good just like Christians, and that “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation … The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us.”
But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.
“Yes, he can… The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!”
Father, the atheists?
“Even the atheists. Everyone! We must meet one another doing good.”
But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!
“But do good: we will meet one another there.”

By the pregnant word “there”, Francis did not necessarily mean Heaven. Catholic theologians hastened to point out that “redemption” means the potential for “salvation” after Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, which in Catholic doctrine redeems the whole world. Francis nonetheless blurs the distinction. The (mostly anti-religious) media hailed Pope Francis’ remarks as a declaration that one doesn’t have to adhere to Church doctrine to be saved. Those were not his words, to be sure, but that’s how the music sounded.

As the Church ministers to a shrinking number of individuals, it is tempted instead to try to save everyone. The Church is still growing in the United States mainly due to Hispanic immigration, but it is almost certain to shrink as Latinos leave the faith. In 2010, two-thirds of Americans in the United States of Hispanic origin identified as Catholics; by 2014 the figure had dropped to only 55%. Latin America is still majority Catholic, but not with strong conviction. A gauge of diminished faith is the decline of Latin American fertility from four children per female in 1985 to just two today.

How to respond to shrinking numbers of communicants is the subject of a quiet but impassioned debate. Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, advocated a small church strategy; he wrote in 1996 that the time may have come to “abandon traditionally Catholic culture” and consolidate the Church around “small seemingly insignificant groups” that nonetheless “bring the good into the world”. The alternative view is millenarian and messianic: despite the shrinkage of the Church itself, he believes, the Church in the person of its Supreme Pontiff will intervene in and transform the world.

Pope Francis’ sudden passion for a Palestinian state is not arbitrary. It is yet another expression of his millenarian hopes for the renewal of a Church that saves fewer individuals than ever but hopes instead to save everybody. We observe the same messianic universalism in his New Year’s message denouncing market-based capitalism, and in his willingness to soften doctrinal restrictions in order to broaden the Church’s tent. This troubles conservative Catholics, for example New York Times columnistRoss Douthat, who worries that small exceptions (permitting divorced Catholics to take Communion, for example) will lead to what he calls:

the late-Soviet scenario, in which Catholic doctrine is officially unaltered, but the impression grows that even the pope doesn’t really believe these things, and that when the church’s leaders affirm a controversial position they’re going through the ideological motions – like Brezhnev-era apparatchiks – and not actually trying to teach a living faith.

Francis has said nothing in public at variance with established doctrine, contrary to the impression given by media reports. It is all a matter of words and music. Putting the Church’s earlier emphasis on social issues such as abortion and traditional marriage in the background, Francis famously called the Church “a field hospital after battle”.

Leaving aside the niceties of dogma, that is a view quite different from most of his predecessors. It may portend a revolution in the Church unprecedented in its 2,000-year history. When the Church emerged in Europe in the Dark Ages, it was Europe: it assembled Europe out of the migrating riffraff of pagan tribes. European mainstream culture was Catholic culture, and by construction. The marginalization of the Church is an anomaly so at variance with its origins at character that it has elicited a truly novel response.

Traditionally, the Church taught that salvation comes through acceptance of its Sacraments and the forgiveness of sins by Jesus Christ by the proxy of a duly-ordained priest (although exception is made for righteous non-Catholics who have not explicitly repudiated Catholic doctrine). As the Church’s influence shrank in the aftermath of the two world wars, though, an alternative theology of universal salvation poked its head up through the rubble.

What Catholics believe, of course, is their affair; I am not a Catholic, and I do not share the Church’s views of sin, salvation and damnation. Nonetheless, the Church is the core institution of Western civilization and what it does affects the rest of us. Without presuming to instruct Catholics about their religion, I wish to call attention to some of these implications.

The great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar proposed to hope that hell itself was empty (in two books published in 1986 and 1987, translated by Ignatius Press under the English titleDare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?). He wrote: “I would like to request that one be permitted to hope that God’s redemptive work for his creation might succeed. Certainty cannot be attained, but hope can be justified.”

That, to be sure, was a speculation carefully advanced at the end of a long and distinguished career, but it elicited cries of heresy. Urs von Balthasar insisted that the Church must “contrast Christian universality of redemption to Jewish salvation-particularism”. For most of its long history, the Church taught that it was Israel and that Gentiles were saved by adoption into Israel; not until the 1980s did John Paul II declare that the living, breathing descendants of Abraham still were “Israel” in a theological sense. John Paul II’s declaration (restated by his successor, Benedict XVI, as well as Francis I) that the Old Covenant never was revoked was a revolution in the Church’s relationship with the Jews. Nonetheless, the new universalism

also raises the prospect a new form of anti-Judaism. It abhors the notion that God has a particular love for any section of mankind.

Pope Francis’ impatience with Jewish particularism roils below an amicable surface. When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu mentioned during his public meeting with Francis that Jesus spoke Hebrew, the pope corrected, “Aramaic!” Netanyahu patiently observed that Jesus spoke both languages. Israelis, for example the distinguished Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, read this (I believe correctly) as an effort to attenuate Jesus’ Jewish identity, that is, his association with the particularity of Israel. It is not that Francis does not want to love the Jews: he wants to love everyone in exactly the same way.

Not long ago, Catholic practice was nearly universal in the Catholic countries and admitted heretics were few; today, Catholic practice involves a small minority and the mainstream culture repudiates religion altogether and Catholicism in particular. Even most Catholics reject a great deal of Church doctrine, which explains the great popularity of Francis I; they believe the media stories that the new pope doesn’t much care about issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

From the viewpoint of traditional Catholic teaching, the vast majority of humankind, including the vast majority of citizens of once-Catholic countries, will suffer eternal damnation. Urs von Balthasar simply couldn’t stomach the notion: how could God be so cruel as to condemn the preponderance of his creatures? What would that say about the goodness of creation itself? [2] Inspired by his mystic soul-mate, the visionary Adrienne von Speyer, Urs von Balthasar formulated a novel and hugely influential mystical doctrine of universal salvation.

That is one drift inside the Church. Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, sought instead to consolidate the Church around a stronger core of faith. In his 1996 book Salt of the Earthhe put the matter as forcefully as possible:

Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live and intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world – that let God in.

This formulation made headlines when the book’s first, German edition appeared. The largest-circulation news publication in the country, Der Spiegel, featured Ratzinger’s willingness to abandon “traditionally Catholic cultures” (the German read rather die Volkskirche, the popular Church). The distinguished Catholic philosopher Alisdair McIntyre also proposed a small-church strategy. I do not know why Ratzinger resigned his office, but sentiment in the Church clearly has shifted away from this view of the role of the Church.

Among Catholic writers in the English language, Joseph Bottum has addressed the problem most directly. He argued in a 2013 essay that the Church should not make a stand on the issue of gay marriage where it was bound to lose, but rather concentrate on broadening its tent: “We should not accept without a fight an essentially un-Catholic retreat from the public square to a lifeboat theology and the small communities of the saved that Alasdair MacIntyre predicted at the end of After Virtue (1981).”

Conservative Catholics heaped opprobrium on the author without, however, addressing the core issue: how should the Church respond to its marginalization by mainstream culture?

Ratzinger, in my view the last great man of the West, anticipated this problem from the 1950s onward. Not so his peers in the Church. The fall of communism during the papacy of John Paul II persuaded many Catholics that a glorious new era of Church history was at hand, in which Catholic Poland would set the tone for the industrial world (see First Things Last, Asia Times Online, July 22, 2013). On the contrary, Poland, like most of Eastern Europe and a good deal of Western Europe, is on course for a demographic catastrophe later in this century.

Benedict XVI believed in God’s special love for Israel, for the same reason that he believed in the particularity of a Church whose institutional and doctrinal integrity he fought to preserve. When he visited the Holy Land in 2009, Israeli newspaper columnist Aviad Kleinberg noted that Ratzinger

… was the confidant of Pope John Paul II, and his immense theological authority was a critical aspect of the previous pope’s moves … . John Paul and Ratzinger buried once and for all not only the accusation of the Jews’ murdering the messiah, but the entire theological theory that the Christians replaced the Jews and are now the Chosen People and that the New Testament annuls the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still valid, declared the two, and the Jewish people is still God’s chosen and beloved people.

Benedict made no attempt to insert himself into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because he understood his role as spiritual; Francis, by contrast, has declared the plight of the Palestinians “unacceptable” and has inserted himself into a political process. It would be wrong to think of Benedict as “spiritual” and Francis as “political”.

On the contrary, different theologies are at work. The Palestinian problem is “unacceptable to Francis” not because the Palestinians are being butchered, as in Syria, or because they are starving, as in Egypt, or subject to constant terror attacks, as in Iraq. Except for the oil-rich Gulf states, Arabs in Judea and Samaria have the best living standards, health and educational levels in the whole of the Arab world. They suffer inconvenience and occasionally humiliation, but they are not at risk.

Other popes have taken political stands, notably John Paul II’s role in the Cold War. But St. John Paul did so under conditions when humanity was in real danger; Bergoglio staged a political theater when nothing more is stake than his own salvific ambitions. Benedict XVI offered a public critique of Islam’s propensity for unreason and violence; Francis offered a public embrace of his “dear brother” Sheikh Muhammed Hussein, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who has earned international condemnation for advocating the extermination of the Jews.

For Pope Francis, the Palestinian problem is “unacceptable” because it represents the failure of the world to elevate a people perceived to be downtrodden and oppressed: it is important for its symbolic value rather than its factual content. Never mind that the Palestinians have painted themselves into their own (rather comfortable) corner; their perceived plight is an offense to Pope Francis’ millenarian vision of universal salvation. Francis evidently feels he must intervene to right a perceived wrong, like an ecclesiastical Amadis de Gaula, because it is there.

I fear that the Church, the founding institution of the West, its pillar and mainstay, has lost its moorings. The State of Israel will do quite well without it; it was founded in 1947 against the opposition of the Church then immeasurably more influential, and does not require the blessing of the Church to flourish today. But Bergoglio’s behavior in the Holy Land bespeaks a dilution of the Church’s self-understanding and a deviation from its mission. In 2005 I wrote, “Something is stirring in the ashes of the West, and Benedict XVI yet might bring forth a flame.” I am less sanguine today.

Notes
1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 676, states: “The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgement. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the ‘intrinsically perverse’ political form of a secular messianism.
2. How, indeed, can a good Creation produce an overwhelming preponderance of damned souls? That paradox lies at the heart of the particularist-universalist divide. Judaism is not a salvific religion in the Christian sense: the World to Come figures only hazily in Jewish thinking, and the rabbis taught that righteous Gentiles have as much share in the World to Come as pious Jews. But rabbinic Judaism has quite a different view of the goodness of Creation: God left Creation in an unfinished, imperfect state, so that humanity would have the task of perfecting it. SeeWhy Intelligent Design subverts faith, Asia Times Online, October 23, 2012.

The New Sino-Russian Alliance

May 21st, 2014 - 6:39 am

China and Russia evidently have concluded a 30-year gas deal which shifts the balance of Russian hydrocarbon exports eastwards, but that’s not the thing to focus on. Pravda reports:

The central themes of the talks between the two leaders will be two projects in the field of aviation – the creation of a joint wide-body long-haul aircraft and the production of Mi-26 heavy helicopter in China, the Kommersant reports.

Russia, entering into such cooperation with China, indicates that it is ready to open access to Russian aircraft technologies, despite the fact that China previously resorted to building unlicensed copies of well-known Russian aircraft.

Energy is important, but military and aerospace technology may be even more important. As the Russian newspaper observes, Russia had restricted exports of its best equipment to China because of intellectual property violations. Two weeks ago Putin approved sale of Russia’s new S400 air defense system to China; this reportedly will give China air cover over the whole of Taiwan, among other things.

Russia always has had first-rate designers, but its production capacities never matched the ideas. Merge Russian designs with Chinese engineering, and the likelihood that the Sino-Russian combination might challenge US technological superiority is high. It’s not surprising that Russia responded to US sanctions by cutting off exports of the rocket engines on which the US depends to launch spy satellites. Bloomberg reports that it will take the US six years to build replacement capacity.

Meanwhile, reports the South China Morning Post,

China and Russia started a week-long naval exercise in the politically sensitive East China Sea yesterday.

Chinese and Russian units taking part in the Joint Sea-2014 drill will be combined rather than operating separately during the exercise, the first time the Chinese navy has worked so closely with a foreign maritime force, according to Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie. “The mixed confrontation and drill means the exercises will operate more like a real battle,” said Li. “It shows the two countries’ strategic partnership has entered a high level of cooperation and coordination, even though both Beijing and Moscow insist they are not military allies.”

I may have lost most of my remaining Republican friends for ridiculing the sanctions and saber-rattling at Russia over Ukraine. We spoke loudly and carried a small stick. What do you propose to do now, big talkers?

We have much, much bigger problems than Ukraine. Here’s what I think we should do after we finish wiping the egg off our face.

The Winner in Ukraine is China

May 16th, 2014 - 3:11 am

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I’ve been predicting that Russia would not send its army into eastern Ukraine, but stand back and let the country dissolve into chaos. The crisis erupted because the country is dead flat broke, after nearly $200 billion in aid over the past twenty years, most of it stolen. All the huffing and puffing about a new Hitler seizing a new Sudetenland in preparation for a Drang nach Westen is beside the point. The center ring of this bathetic circus has shifted to Beijing, where Vladimir Putin is negotiating the terms of a new Sino-Russian deal. This isn’t a fusion of the two countries by any means, but rather a cautious, self-interested alignment of interests. The Indian journalist M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former ambassador to Turkey and several Central Asian Republics, has a useful assessment on his blog today. Bhadrakumar is a sympathetic and canny observer of Russian policy.

The highlight of the two-day state visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to China on Tuesday is probably going to be the signing of the long-awaited 30-year mega gas deal. The Russian media have been speculating such a strong possibility.  The Chinese official remarks, however, remain cautiously optimistic and flag that the “main difference”, namely, over the price of gas, “still lingers.” To be sure, it is a political call now for the Kremlin.

Russia took a tough stance in the recent years insisting that the price of gas should be linked to the price of oil, which is the formula it maintains in dealings with Europe. With the passage of time, China’s negotiating stance (which rejected such a linkage), has strengthened.

Time worked in China’s favor. Beijing has been in no tearing hurry to conclude the deal while it kept lining up LNG supplies from other sources — Qatar and Australia — and kept up the momentum of overseas upstream investments, including in Canada, as well as boosting further supplies from Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries.

China is also estimated to have the world’s largest source of shale gas. On the contrary, Russia’s negotiating hand has weakened. A ‘Look East’ strategy for energy exports is increasingly a matter of compulsion rather than of choice, as the United States pushes for Europe’s diversification of energy imports to reduce high dependence on Russia.

At any rate, Europe’s energy needs have come down and is preparing for an influx of North American feedstock. Suffice to say, for a variety of factors, the gas deal will now have to be struck on China’s terms. The Russian negotiators are practically left with no option but to compromise, even as the Russian economy moves into recession and increased income from the gas sale to China is becoming vital for Moscow.

The Russia-China natural gas deal is in many ways symptomatic of the true character of the two countries’ so-called bilateral “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” Prima facie, the deal may create an impression of an emergent alliance between the two countries suggestive of a fundamental shift in global power balance.

But that will be a misperception. The painful birth pangs of the gas deal alone testify to a pragmatic partnership based on cool calculations of mutual benefit. The two countries “coordinate” selectively on international issues but have a long way to become alliance partners.

He concludes, “Essentially, an unbalanced relationship is moving progressively in China’s favor by the day. For Russia, it is going to be an entirely new experience, historically speaking, to settle for the role of a junior partner in relations with China.”

American policy–Administration as well as opposition–isn’t even wrong, as I have been warning for weeks. It is simply irrelevant. We aren’t looking at the whole chessboard. The German media signaled in March that sanctions against Russia will drive Moscow and Beijing closer together, and that is precisely what has happened. We indulged in a frenzy of impotent, self-consoling posturing against the nasty aggressive Russians, and succeeded only in toppling a pillar of Cold War diplomacy. We set out to propagate democracy in Eastern Europe, and helped to push Putin’s popularity rating at home above 80%. In the entire sorry history of US diplomacy, I can think of nothing that more resembles an own goal. Nice going, guys. Putin isn’t a genius. We are complete idiots.

We have urgent national security needs, but we don’t talk about them. Where is the sense of urgency, the Sputnik moment, over the fact that America depends on Russian rocket engines to launch its satellites? Where is the outcry over China’s ability to sink American aircraft carriers hundreds of miles from its shores? Where is the concern about Russia’s sale to China of its S400 air defense system (not the older S300 that Iran and Syria have tried to acquire)? The clock is ticking. It’s later than you think.

****

image illustration via shutterstock /  valdis torms

David Nirenberg’s “Anti-Judaism”

May 11th, 2014 - 7:59 am

Chicago University Professor David Nirenberg’s 2013 book Anti-Judaism received rapturous reviews from most Jewish media, including by Michael Walzer at New York Review of Books (via Mosaic) and Adam Kirsch at Tablet. My review at First Things was less enthusiastic: Nirenberg, in my view, got lost in the labyrinth of error that arises when secular Jews try to judge religious matters by their own standards. Below is a draft of my review, which is due to come out from behind the paywall at First Things momentarily.

 

 

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

by David Nirenberg

W.W.Norton, 624 pages, $35

 

David P. Goldman, a former senior editor of First Things, writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times

 

World history is the history of Israel, averred Franz Rosenzweig, meaning that the nations of the West so hearkened to the Jewish promise of eternal life that their subsequent history was a response to Israel, whether they emulated or abhorred it. By contrast, David Nirenberg contends that the West has defined itself for two thousand years by its rejection of Israel. Both cases can be argued. The difference is that Rosenzweig propounded a clear and mainly traditional concept of Judaism, whereas Nirenberg means by “Judaism” whatever he wants it to mean at different points in time. In its better moments Nirenberg’s account of Western anti-Judaism is conventional; in its worse moments it is arbitrary. His aversion to thinking of Judaism in traditional terms gets him into repeated trouble.

Until the nineteenth century, “Judaism” meant the normative tradition embodied in Hebrew Scripture, Talmud, rabbinic responsae, and observances that had remained consistent throughout the two millennia-long Jewish diaspora. The past two hundred years have produced any number of deviant interpretations, none of which has had much staying power. Nirenberg, a professor of history and social thought at the University of Chicago, tells us that he is searching for yet another non-traditional reading: Judaism is not only the religion of specific people with specific beliefs, but also a category, a set of ideas,” he declares. The trouble is that we never are told what this, except ad hoc as the opinion of particular Jews at particular times. Nor is anti-Judaism “simply an attitude toward Jews and their religion, but a way of critically engaging the world.” Neither the Jews nor the anti-Semites have a clear idea of what they are about in his account. Nirenberg’s recourse to the postmodern idea of self-definition via the “Other” does not help, for his protean depictions of Judaism and anti-Judaism chase each other into infinite regress. It recalls Heinrich Heine’s “fog-figures that rise up out of the ground/and dance a misty reel in weird chorus.”

That is a shame, because the tendentious of the book’s central thesis obscures some fine research ensconced in the inner chapters, including a highly readable summary of Nirenberg’s scholarly publications on the treatment of Judaism in the Koran and Hadith. Ther are many good things in the book, or rather, things that would have been good had they appeared in a different book.

Nirenberg’s aversion to the traditional understanding of Judaism gets him into trouble at the outset, as he tries to understand the stance of early Christianity towards the Jews. He recites the familiar catalogue of Jesus’ accusations against the Pharisees: they are hypocrites, wicked tenants, and so on, but he misses the decisive point: However much Christians abhorred the Jews, Christianity could not quite extirpate Judaism without destroying its own foundations.

Nierenberg notes the ambivalence of Christian attitudes towards the Jews, citing “Paul’s extraordinary formulation” in Romans 12:28: “As regards the gospel, they are enemies, but for your sake; but as regards those who are God’s choice, they are still well loved for the sake of their ancestors.”  But his attempt to explain why the early Church chose not to “other” the Jews out of existence is strained; if anti-Judaism really is the founding principle of the West, why didn’t Marcion succeed in suppressing the Hebrew Scriptures?

Christianity cannot survive severed from its Jewish roots, for the Christian promise of the Kingdom of Heaven stems from the Jewish promise of eternal life, as Benedict XVI argues in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth, which cites Rabbi Jacob Neusner. In Matthew 12:8, Jesus compares his disciples’ Sabbath violation to that of the priests who perform sacrifices on the Sabbath at the Temple. If the priests are exempt from Shabbat restrictions, Jesus tells the Pharisees, so can his disciples, for Jesus’ person is the new Temple, the wellspring of eternal life as it was understood by Judaism. Jesus’ break with Judaism is enacted within Jewish terms, and the radical Christology of Matthew 12 exposes its Jewish roots: Jesus’ promise of the Kingdom of Heaven is incomprehensible except in context of its Jewish foundation.

Nirenberg looks at Christianity nor Judaism as ideologies rather than religions. The redemptive promise of Judaism and the salvific claim of Christianity do not register in his view of the world. What, then explains Christianity’s ambivalence towards Judaism? If the West really founded on anti-Judaism and Christians need to define themselves against the Jewish “Other,” why did the Church repudiate Marcion? Nirenberg doesn’t have a convincing answer to this most basic question. He looks for an explanation in mere  ideological consistency: The Arians who rejected Jesus’ divine nature were too corporeal, the Monophysites who rejected Jesus’ human nature were too spiritual,   but Augustine was just right, in a sort of ecclesiological version of “The Three Bears.” Augustine “restored a literal and spiritual value to the Hebrew Bible and its people. His approach to reading scripture domesticated (though it could not entirely tame) the tendency of letter and meaning, flesh and spirit, Old Testament Jew and New Testament Christian, to fly toward opposite poles.”

But it was not just “letter and meaning” that threatened to fly apart, but the newly converted pagans and the Church itself. The Church could not lay claim to the promises of Hebrew Scripture while destroying the people to whom those promises were made. To the extent it persecuted the Jews, the Church made itself vulnerable to neo-paganism, which always sailed under the flag  of Jew-hatred.

Nirenberg’s account of anti-Judaism in modern Europe is one-sided. He cites at length the anti-Jewish invective in Baena’s 1430 Cancionero, whose “poets, nearly all Christian, are constantly defaming one another, and the accusation of Jewishness is prominent among the charges they hurl.”

But he makes no mention of the most influential Spanish work of the period, the converso Fernando de Rojas’ 1499 dialogue novel La Celestina. Translated into Hebrew seven years after its appearance (and soon into all major European languages), Celestina was read by Jewish contemporaries as a savage satire of the Christian Spain that expelled its Jews in 1492.

Jews were not only the victims of the new literature, but often its progenitors. His account of the Spanish persecution ends with the observation that “Spain had succeeded in converting and expelling all its Jews. But the result was the thorough ‘Judaization’ of Spain. Foreigners tended to put the point most bluntly. “Spain is not pleasing,” wrote Europe’s leading intellectual, Desiderius Erasmus in 1517, “because it is full of Jews.”

Of Martin Luther’s stance towards Judaism, Nirenberg writes, “Luther realized very early that if the literal meaning of scripture was to be amplified, its ‘Judaizing’ potential needed to be contained. . . . The energy necessary for Luther’s transformation of the figure of Judaism was generated by the friction between ‘letter’ and ‘law’ in his thought, not by his collision with living Jews in the ‘real’ world. . . . Luther’s words about Jews were weapons forged for service in conflicts with other Christians.”

That is misleading. “Judaizing” was not a linguistic exercise but a nascent social movement in Luther’s time, for example among Moravia’s Sabbatarians. Luther’s pamphlet On the Jews and Their Lies, which demands the destruction of every Jewish home as well as every synagogue, was addressed to the Moravians who had adopted Jewish practices such as Sabbath observance. A century later, “Judaizing” Protestants would transform the political world.

The English Reformation, Nirenberg observes, reflected Judeophilia as much as anti-Judaism. Israel played a “systematically central role . . . in the elaboration of constitutional claims and political philosophies during the English Civil Wars.” The Hebraist John Selden corresponded with rabbis “to buttress the parliamentary claim that God intended the powers of law and its institutions to extend even over church and Crown.”

Anti-Judaism reasserts itself in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Hobbes feared the political millenarians who could “bewitch” their others “into rebellion . . . and by this means destroying all laws, both divine and human, reduce all order, government, and society to the first chaos of violence and civil war.” His solution was to extirpate prophecy from politics.

“Prophecy became law . . . through a people’s founding contract with their sovereign,” Hobbes wrote. “It was as sovereign, not as prophet, that Moses imposed the Mosaic law on his people.” It follows that “since only Israel had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and covenanted with Moses to make God its civic sovereign, only in that bygone nation could scripture ‘be made law.’” And “For everyone else, God’s command was whatever the sovereign decided it was.”

To suppress the republicans, Hobbes found it necessary to marginalize Judaism. Like the Christian Fathers, Nirenberg contends, Hobbes “assigned to the Jews and their history a role that was simultaneously exemplary and exceptional, paradigmatic and peculiar,” in opposition to men like Seldon who proposed to universalize the Hebrew model.

This is Nirenberg’s most successful chapter, mainly because it treats the influence of normative rabbinic Judaism on seventeenth-century politics, rather than the “Othering” of an undefined “Judaism” removed from its traditional roots. But his depiction of anti-Judaism in German philosophy is less persuasive.

It is easy to point to anti-Semitism among German philosophers. Immanuel Kant deprecated Judaism, arguing, “Judaism as such, taken in its purity, entails absolutely no religious faith.” But the revival of Kant’s influence during the second half of the 19th century was the work of Hermann Cohen, Germany’s most influential academic philosopher during his lifetime  as well as a proud defender of Judaism.  The phenomenlogist Edmund Husserl took Hermann Cohen’s neo-Kantianism in a new direction. The principals in the great Germany philosophical debates of 1920s were students of Husserl and Cohen.

Nirenberg mentions none of this. Instead, he picks up the story when Husserl’s student Martin Heidegger debated Cohen’s protégé Ernst Cassirer at a the celebrated1929 debate at Davos. Heidegger’s critique of Cassirer, he claims,  resonated with “explicitly anti-Jewish critiques of modernity that were everywhere swirling in the political discourse of the day.” It is true that Heidegger subsequently joined the Nazi Party. But the notion that the Heidegger-Cassirer contested reflected the battle of Judaism and anti-Judaism is simply wrong. The German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig thought that Heidegger had bested Cassirer at Davos. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the leading thinker of 20th century Modern Orthodoxy, dismissed Cassirer’s scientific determinism. Cassirer, for that matter, had nothing say about Judaism, unlike his teacher Hermann Cohen.  Nirenberg holds up Cassirer as an exemplar of  modern Jewish thinking, without quite explaining what Cassirer thought.

A long chapter entitled “Jewish Enmity in Islam” is an aside to the central narrative about the West. Nirenberg translates and comments on Muslim sources largely inaccessible to the general reader. It shows how deeply Islam drew on Jewish scripture and rabbinic commentary while claiming that the Jews falsified the prophecies given to them. There is valuable scholarship here that would have fared better in an independent volume. Some readers may take issue, though, with Nirenberg’s conclusion. “The Muslim charge of Jewish alteration and falsification of scripture would come to fundamentally distinguish Islamic attitudes toward the Hebrew Bible from Christian ones,” Nirenberg writes, yet he emphasizes that “Both were doing similar political and theological work within the same overarching prophetic tradition.” It is hard to imagine a Jewish-Islamic dialogue comparable to the postwar reconciliation of the Jews with the main branches of Christianity.

In an afterward, Nirenberg sympathetically quotes Walter Benjamin: “Just as a man lying sick with fever transforms all the words that he hears into the extravagant images of delirium, so it is that the spirit of the present age seizes on the manifestations of past or distant spiritual worlds, in order to take possession of them and unfeelingly incorporate them into its own self-absorbed fantasizing.”

That is a fitting epigraph for this sometimes brilliant but often confused and tendentious repurposing of Western history. Nirenberg projects his own discomfort with normative Judaism onto “past and distant spiritual worlds,” and too often gets lost in them.

So touching to see the Obamas’ expression of sympathy for Nigerian girls kidnapped and enslaved by Jihadists — except that the Obama administration supported Jihadists who enforce female genital mutilation, namely Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. One would think that some feminist somewhere in the mainstream media would have the perspicacity to ask Jay Carney whether the Muslim Brotherhood’s aggressive defense of FGM is sufficient grounds to repudiate the organization. The hypocrisy of the Obamas vies for vileness with that of the MSM.

Dr. Dre and Putin

May 9th, 2014 - 4:12 pm

Unlike Pat Buchanan and some other conservatives, I don’t think that Vladimir Putin’s support of traditional values makes him a good guy. Freedom comes first. I also support traditional values but I don’t want the government to shove them down my throat. Banning obscenity from entertainment media, Putin’s latest ukase,  would keep Shakespeare, Goethe and Dante out of circulation in their original form, not to mention Rabelais or Villon.

What we do with our freedom is another thing. Apple has just bought Dr. Dre’s earphone company for $3.2 billion, making the rapper one of the country’s wealthiest men. One presumes that the selling point of his earphones is not their superior technical characteristics but their association with Dre’s rapping, which is too disgusting to illustrate on this site; readers may satisfy their prurient curiosity here.  Dre raps about drug use, rape, pimping and violence: he is a repulsive degenerate whom a healthy society would excrete and forget. Dre’s $3.2 billion score gauges the popularity of evocations of rape and murder.

There is no guarantee that freedom will prevail over dictatorship. I reviewed some of the history here.

Democracies do not necessarily field the most efficient or enthusiastic armies. The French under Napoleon and the Germans under Hitler were the best soldiers of their day. Democracies have one important advantage, namely the capacity to correct errors. Democracies do not necessarily make better decisions than dictatorships in each case, but they are less like to perpetuate errors. It is easy to replace an elected leader who goes mad; not so a charismatic tyrant. This makes the ultimate victory of democracies more probable, but hardly inevitable. It may be likely that a charismatic tyrant will make decisive errors, but it is far from assured that such error will be made soon enough to make it possible to defeat the tyrant at the right moment. I like to think that providence was at work during the Second World War, but that sort of question is above my pay grade.

A people can will itself out of existence democratically as well as by any other means: France did so during the 1930s, and survived the clutches of Nazi Germany thanks to the Allies.

Putin’s mission is to save Russia from dissolution. Ten years ago, with a fertility rate of just 1.2 children per female and fourth-world life expectancy for men, Russia seemed doomed. The fertility rate since has recovered to 1.7, for reasons we do not adequately understand. Part of the reason surely is renewed national self-confidence.

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Update: Bloomberg reports that Russia is seeking Chinese investment. What Bloomberg has a very superficial idea of what is at work: Russia and China now are collaborating on strategic technology. For example, Putin has approved the same of Russia’s new S400 air defense system to China, brushing aside past Russian rancor about Chinese reverse engineering of Russian systems. Russia has opened the door to Chinese tech investments in China which it previously prohibited.

“An historic investment-for-resources deal between Russia and China will neuter Europe’s punitive efforts over Ukraine and redraw the world’s energy map, but more importantly create a Eurasian dynamic that otherwise would take decades to evolve. In the 1970s, former US president Richard Nixon used the region’s complexities to divide Cold War enemies. Now his doctrine is being used against America,” write my Asia Times Online colleague Francesco Sisci today. I hope he’s wrong. Last month I noted in this space that Germany fears a Russian turn towards Asia more than any other outcome of the Ukrainian sitcom.

Sisci writes:

BEIJING — It has not happened yet, but expectations are already enormous. A massive strategic and economic shift is expected to result from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s to China in May.

After decades of fruitless talks, Moscow and Beijing are now likely ready to sign a sweeping deal which will see China invest billions of dollars in Russia, with vast resources being sold in the other direction. This correspondent first saw the agreement signed 20 years ago, when Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin were the presidents, and not much occurred since. However, this time things seem to be real.

In the past, the two parties failed to finalize the fine print of the deal. There were too many differences on the price of gas, the route of the pipeline, the ownership of resources in Russia and on the distribution network in China. Now all these problems are solved — or so it appears — because of a sudden change of heart in Russia linked to the ongoing Ukrainian crisis.

The threat for Russia resulting from the crisis is that Europe will not buy its gas and oil, or will decrease its purchases. Oil prices have remained pretty low, despite the fact that the supply from other oil-exporting countries has been low or dwindling…

Now, and for the foreseeable future, problems with the oil supply hurt the producers far more than the Western consumers, who now have access to the American hoard. This makes it an issue of life and death for Russia to find an alternative consumer to Europe. Europe may suffer somewhat without Russian oil, but Russian economy could easily crack without its sales.

Now, apparently, China could realize up to 30% of its energy needs from Russia, which would equal over a third of the latter’s production. This will partially unload the European gun of not buying Russian oil and create a new dimension to ties in the whole Eurasian continent. Russian can play Europe against China and vice versa. Beijing knows this, and it is interesting to think about why China is willing to be played and help Russia in this way.

This seems a bit premature; Russia might not let its economic relations with Europe collapse so easily. Germany not only buys hydrocarbons from Russia: as The Economist reported recently, “Russia is Germany’s 11th-biggest export market, worth €36 billion ($48 billion) last year. The Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, a lobby group representing big businesses, says that 300,000 German jobs depend on trade with Russia, 6,200 companies with German owners are active in Russia, and German companies have invested €20 billion there.” Russia does not relish the prospect of economic dependency on China. That is the logic of misguided Western policy, however. We may pull defeat out of the jaws of Cold War victory, two decades after the fact. The stupidity of Western policy is epic.

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Why Liberals Don’t Care About Consequences

April 29th, 2014 - 12:35 pm

No amount of evidence will convince liberals that they were wrong. Evidence abounds, to be sure: Appeasement invites aggression. Handouts increase dependency. Coddling terror-states like Iran elicits megalomania. Big government stifles the economy. They don’t care. Really.

John Kerry romanced Basher Assad and Vanity Fair published a fawning profile of the Assad family, while the Obama administration secretly courted Iran. As a result we have in Syria the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the Arab world in modern times. Algeria racked up more casualties during the independence war of 1954-1962 and the civil war of 1991-2002, to be sure, but the casualties are coming faster in Syria and the displacement of immiserated civilians is greater. Do you hear liberals wringing their hands and asking, “Where did we go wrong?” They don’t, and they won’t. Ditto the disaster in Libya, which is turning into a Petri dish for terrorists post-Qaddafi. It doesn’t matter. Being in love with yourself means never having to say you’re sorry.

In the one part of the Middle East where nothing bad is happening or likely to happen–namely Israel–liberals are in full-tilt panic, with John Kerry warning that Israel will turn into an apartheid state. It’s not just Kerry, who is a national embarrassment, but the whole liberal world that thinks this way. In reality, Israel’s booming economy is enriching Israeli as well as Palestinian Arabs, to the extent that the kleptocratic Palestinian Authority lets them do business. There is no urgency at all to Israel’s situation–not, at least, where the Palestinians are concerned. Iran is another story.

Why don’t liberals seem to notice the catastrophic consequences of their policies, and why to they imagine imminent horrors where none exist? If you corner a liberal and point to a disaster that followed upon his policy, at very most he will say–with a tear in the eye and a quivering upper lip–”We did the right thing.”

It’s all about having done the right thing according to the dogma of the ersatz liberal religion. Liberalism has nothing whatsoever to do with policy and its real-world consequences. Instead of finding one’s salvation on the path of traditional religions, liberals look for salvation in a set of right opinions–on race, the environment, income distribution, gender, or whatever. Last month I called attention to Joseph Bottum’s new book An Anxious Age, which I reviewed at the American Interest. Jody argues that modern liberalism is the old Mainline Protestantism, and especially the old Social Gospel, turned into a secular cult. I wrote:

Today’s American liberalism, it is often remarked, amounts to a secular religion: it has its own sacred texts and taboos, Crusades and Inquisitions. The political correctness that undergirds it, meanwhile, can be traced back to the past century’s liberal Protestantism. Conservatives, of course, routinely scoff that liberals’ ersatz religion is inferior to the genuine article.

Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.

It’s hard to make sense of liberalism without recourse to theology–not the superficial theology of doctrinal comparison, but Jody’s sensitive investigation of how the liberal religion looks from the inside, from the vantage point of its true believers (the “poster children,” as Jody calls them). It’s a rare book that helps us to peer more deeply into everyday phenomena, and Jody’s is one of them. It really must be read.

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