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The Obama Doctrine

Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

American influence has long been pervasive in the Middle East and when problems emerged, Washington saw itself as the region’s fireman. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in the early 1990s, the U.S. led a coalition to drive him out in the First Gulf War. When Lebanon fell into chaos, U.S. marines landed and after Sept. 11, with an upsurge of Islamic Fundamentalism and fears that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.

But now the U.S. is distancing itself from the seemingly intractable problems in the Middle East as part of a major foreign policy realignment. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, historian and Middle East specialist Max Boot called this sea change “The Obama Doctrine.”

There a striking parallel between what is transpiring today and what happened after World War II, when an exhausted and bankrupt Great Britain and France shifted their assets and pulled out of most of the Middle East. Great Britain literally pulled out of the Mandate of Palestine overnight and the new Jewish State of Israel was left to fend for itself.

With the Cold War heating up and the implementation of the Truman Doctrine, the United States moved into the region, filling the vacuum left by the exit of Great Britain and France. It inherited all the problems, including the protection of the nascent State of Israel. In the early 1950s, Washington found itself immersed in the region, not only out fear of Soviet expansion but also as the protector of oil rights held by Anglo-American corporations.

To be sure, the United States is hardly bankrupt but the Middle East has exhausted its well of patience. Washington has grown tired of the intractable problems, the sectarian violence, the internecine violence, and the revival of the Sunni-Sh’ia rift. After so many small and large wars in the region, the American public has grown weary of our involvement in the Middle East. The lives and treasure we have poured into the Middle East have yielded as little fruit as the Arab Spring.

In essence, this foreign policy realignment started the moment Mr. Obama took office. He was dismayed by Israel’s intransigence on the Palestine statehood question. Complicating matters was the abject failure of the Arab Spring (perhaps with the exception of Tunisia), the rise of Islamic radical fundamentalism, the civil war in Syria, the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the problems with Hamas in Gaza. The emergence of ISIS, with its stated desire to rebuild the Sunni Muslim Caliphate, has only complicated an extraordinary complex situation. At the advent of Mr. Obama’s presidency, there were more than 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; today, less than 3,000 special forces. In 2010, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan tripled but today there are less than 10,000 and the president has stated that all will be withdrawn by the end of his presidency.

Sensing all this, the Saudis, Jordanians, and Egyptians formed the Joint Arab Force, a military alliance to balance Iran’s growing regional influence. At its core is Egypt and it is no coincidence that Mr. Obama lifted an embargo on sending arms to Egypt.

A gradual withdraw by Washington does not mean it will abrogate its treaty obligations with the Sunni states and Israel. They will be honored and the U.S. Fleet will be used to implement its power if needed to ensure stability. But if the past is prologue—and it may not be in the unpredictable Middle East—Egypt and Iran will emerge as the major geopolitical players, a revival of the ancient balance of power between the Kingdom of Egypt and Persia.

Understanding Benjamin Netanyahu

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

Since the Jewish State of Israel was founded just three years after the end of World War II and the near total extermination of European Jewry, it has enjoyed a special relationship with the United States. While there have been disagreements in the past, mainly over the creation of a Palestinian State on the West Bank of the Jordan River, nothing in recent memory comes close to the acrimony between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Bibi” to friends and foes alike. They do not like each other for reasons that are the subject of gossip and speculation in the corridors of power in Washington, foreign capitals, and the cafes that dot the coastline of the small Jewish State. What appears to have begun as a political rift has become a chasm marked by an acidic relationship.

Mr. Obama is not the first president who has had his share of problems with Israeli leaders but somehow the others managed to overcome their differences and work together in an effort to bring peace to this benighted region of the world. Such was the case with Prime Minister Begin and President Carter, as well as President Clinton and Bibi. This is not the case now. While the differences can be attributed to demeanor, style and very different personalities, at the core of the open hostility are antipodal views in a very high stakes game of geopolitics and the inextricable issues of Tel-Aviv continuing to build Jewish settlements on the West Bank where the Palestinians hope to build their homeland. And, as the entire world now knows after Bibi delivered a 45-minute speech before a joint session of Congress, differences on how to deal with Tehran’s atomic and hegemonic ambitions.

From the moment Mr. Obama threw his hat in the ring and announced that he intended to run for president, every aspect of his personality, background, style, views, and demeanor have been the subject of endless analysis. Outside of Israel, this has not been the case with Bibi, who has led Israel through difficult times: the failed Arab Spring, the emergence of ISIS, the war with Gaza last summer, the failed talks with the Palestinians, and looming in the background, Iran with its atomic ambitions. He is up for re-election and odds are he will win, helped along by his reception in Washington, not by the State Department or the White House, but by the Republicans.

At home he is loved by many (they call him King Bibi) and disliked by others, but both sides agree that his only priority is the safety of his nation in what he calls “the world’s toughest neighborhood.” He is a man obsessed with national security and despite assurances from the Obama Administration, Bibi is unconvinced. At the end of his speech to Congress, he reminded the world that if need be, Israel would handle Iran on its own. Small wonder Mr. Obama did not watch the speech on TV and 50 Democrats boycotted the speech.

However affable in public, as the world witnessed when he entered the Congressional Chamber, he is a very tough military man and a seasoned politician, a man with a purpose. He is also a master politician, leading a nation of 6.2 million Jews or as the Israelis are fond of saying, 6.2 million prime ministers.  He loves to schmooze, or chat, but as it is said in Yiddish, the very big man is sometimes a shtarker, a man with a strong-arm persona. He is a hard-nosed realist and a practitioner of Realpolitik, who has argued over and over again that Israel faces “an existential threat” from Iran, whose Mullahs have promised to remove what they call “the Jewish entity” from the face of the earth.

The speech before Congress was Bibi’s third; the only person to be so honored was his hero, Winston Churchill. House Speaker John Boehner, who invited Bibi to speak, gave him a bust of the United Kingdom’s wartime prime minister.  In the 1930s, from the back bench of Parliament, the out-of-power Churchill warned against dealing with Hitler and believed that only timely action would stop his monomaniacal ambitions.  Few listened for fear of another world war. At the Munich Conference in September 1938, Britain, Italy and France handed over the Sudentenland to Hitler. In March 1939, Hitler took the rest of the Czech state. To this day, the word appeasement has entered the lexicon of the greatest foreign policy mistakes. For Bibi, the current discussions with Iran are an updated version of appeasement with the naive hope that Iran will change its behavior.  For him, the Mullahs are no different than the Nazis and have the same agenda, the destruction of the Jews. He sees Mr. Obama as a misguided idealist who believes that he can work with Tehran, not only on the nuclear issue but giving the green light for its elite troops to rout ISIS.

The fact that his English is flawless is no accident.  He is the son of Ben-Zion Netanyahu (1910 – 2013), a historian who had several professorships in Philadelphia. The family lived in the Cheltenham Township near Philly from 1956 to 1958 and again from 1963 to 1967. To understand the father—Ben Zion literally means “Son of Zion”—is to understand the son. Ben-Zion was an ardent Zionist whose historical works dealt with the history of the Jewish people, anti-Semitism, and his magnum opus on the Spanish Inquisition, which evicted the Jews from Spain after 1492. His central thesis maintains it was not a matter of religion but race that set into motion the exodus of the Jews from Spain and for him was the start of racial anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. Bibi drew many lessons from his father’s work and uncompromising Zionism.

He is the first Israeli prime minister to be born (1949) after the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. No different than many prime ministers before him, he cut his teeth in the military—first the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) in the Six Day War in 1967 and later in the Special Forces, or Sayeret Natkal. During the raid on Entebbe, he lost his brother, which marked him for life.

After he made his rounds in Washington and gave his well-publicized address to Congress, the 66-year-old Israeli prime minister boarded his El-Al flight for Tel-Aviv. He immediately was back on the campaign trail, using the address and the invitation as evidence of his standing in the world.  But his problems with President Obama aside, it would be a gross error in judgment to conclude there is a major rupture in American-Israeli relations. While he is up for his fourth term, the President is a lame duck with just a year-and-a-half until the end of his eight-year presidency.  Bibi will just wait him out and if a deal is cut with Tehran, clearly the Republicans will work to undermine it. As is written in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “this too will pass;” this dust-up between Washington and the small Jewish State.

Meanwhile, no different than Bill Clinton before him when Bibi was in office, Mr. Obama has to ask: “How is it possible for such a small state to appear so large in world affairs?”

Just ask Bibi, master politician and a real master at political theater.

 

France is on the Edge

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

About a week after the deadly attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish Kosher grocery/deli in Paris, many world leaders arrived in France to show their support for a grief-stricken nation. Among them was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Bibi” told members of the city’s Jewish community that the doors of Israel are open for them and it was time “to come home.” Said one commentator: “A France without Jews would be unthinkable.”

It almost happened during the Nazi Occupation of France during World War II. Had the Allies not liberated France in the summer of 1944 and the war dragged on, there is no question that France may have been Judenfrei, like Poland. However, after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, several hundred thousand Jews from Arab countries arrived in France, following in the footsteps of the Jews who first arrived in Marseilles (Massilia in the ancient world) around 500 B.C.

Despite their success in nearly every field of human endeavor, France’s Jewish population is frightened. Anti-Semitism has been rising in France faster than any other European country.  Two years ago, a rabbi and his children were gunned down in the south of France. The desecration of Jewish cemeteries and the walls of Jewish institutions is an everyday occurrence, and swastikas are routinely painted on temples, despite the presence of police guards. The Jews of France are living in a permanent state of angst.

Anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli sentiment runs deep in France’s Muslim community and it appears that the younger generation, often living in what we in the States call “projects,” are the most infected. Most are native-born, French citizens, as was the case with the three terrorists in the January attacks. Raised on an endless diet of anti-Zionism in the Arab media and on the web, Jew-hatred is part of their worldview. Their sympathies lie with the Palestinians and more broadly with anti-Western views. Yesterday, they supported Arafat; today, Isis and al-Qaeda, whose views on the Jews (“dogs”) are well known. Attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions are a way to express their radicalism, what specialists on this topic call “soft targets.”

Some of these views are shared by the hard right, the National Front, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and today led by 46-year-old Marine Le Pen. She has distanced herself from the older Le Pen, who denies the Holocaust, dismissing it as a myth created by the Zionists whose aim is to control world events. After the attacks in Paris, Jean-Marie Le Pen offered his read on the attack on the magazine and the Jewish deli: the terrorists were hired by Washington and Tel-Aviv, an allegation heard after 9/11.

While the Jews feel unsafe, the Muslims are just as fearful and have more to fear as a backlash of Islamophobia is sweeping France, Belgium, and Germany. This, in turn, will most certainly cause the coalescence of Muslim communities, which in turn may push back with cries of racism which is extant in France, despite the denials. Street protests will be common, calling for more protection.  After all, if the government is protecting the Jews, why not the Muslims? But for others, the solution to their problems is more domestic terrorism, and both the government and the Jews rightfully fear they will be the targets.

It is unlikely that many Jews will heed “Bibi’s” call, and while the rising tide of Islamophobia may cause some Muslims to pack up and leave, it will barely make a dent in the number of Muslims who live in France, about 10 percent of the population.

But there’s no question that France is on the edge, and as much as France without Jews is unthinkable, France without Muslims in the contemporary world is equally unthinkable.

Terrorist Attacks Put “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” to the Test

By Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

It was Paris where the Revolution of 1789 unfolded, giving the world the phrase “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” The recent sad events in Paris—when radical Muslim terrorists slaughtered 12 people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine, and a lone gunman shot four customers to death in a Jewish grocery—are putting this to the test.

Many people in European Union (EU) countries have concluded that Islam is an inherently violent religion and are pointing their fingers not only at the Middle East but also to the growing Muslim populations in their midst. France’s Muslim population is close to 6 million and growing.  In Germany, it is 4 million out of a total of 82 million, and 5 percent of the population in the Netherlands is Muslim.

Anti-Islamic sentiment, or Islamophobia, is on the rise along with anti-immigration sentiment. In France the leading anti-immigration party is the National Front, led by 46-year-old Marine Le Pen, whose followers stir the pot of Islamophobia. In Holland it is led by Geert Wilders, a member of Parliament since 1998 and whose documentary Fitna highlighted the spread of Islam in Holland. And in Germany, a new movement yet to become a political party, Pediga (an acronym for (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), is led by Lutz Bachmann. It is located in Dresden, and given Germany’s history, images of flag-waving Germans chanting “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the People”) is troublesome for many Germans and those outside the Federal Republic.

All religions have their extremists. The average Muslim in Europe goes about his business quietly each day— vendors, store owners, and members of the high civil service. In fact, the policeman who was shot in Paris was a Muslim. On the other hand, it appears that the alienated Muslim youth are increasingly becoming radicalized and eschew Western values. Some become Jihadists. Their aims are well known: wreak havoc on civil society by any means. Terrorism is war on the cheap.

Restrictive immigration, with set caps on nation of origin, are already in place in some countries and will spread to others. Security services will spend billions tracking terrorists working hand-in-glove with the USA and the UK and there will be NSA-style monitoring of all Muslims, especially the Imams in the mosques that dot the landscape.

And then there are the fears of the Jewish communities in France, Belgium and Holland. Anti-Jewish hostility and attacks on Jews were born out of the seemingly endless rift between the Israelis and Palestinians. Today, it is rooted in old-fashioned Jew hatred. The mere trickle of Jews leaving France for the Jewish state—7,000 last year—will grow. French Jews are so fearful they are not wearing the symbol of the faith, the skullcap, in public and keeping their children out of school. When Israel’s prime minister spoke in the Great Synagogue in Paris, he invited all Jews to “come home.” However, Germany’s 265,000-strong Jewish community does not appear to be moving anytime soon. And in the post-Holocaust world, no one should expect the huge Muslim populations to be put on trains and sent home. Millions are nationals in their own lands, born inside the EU.

Greater efforts have to be made to meld Muslims into the broader community, what Germany’s Chancellor Merkel calls “The Middle Road.” It may take many generations to accomplish this.  At the end of the day, the French will not permit Muslim extremists to shatter the land that gave the world “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” When a million or more people chanted “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) it spoke volumes. It had a better ring to it than the xenophobic “Wir sind das Volk” across the border

If the situation in the traditional homelands of Muslims starts to stabilize, some will leave. But millions will stay and hopefully, with time, diversity will win out over xenophobia.

ISIS Blitzkrieg Mirrors Path, Tactics of Past Conquerors


By Dr. Sander Diamond, professor of history

The first seedlings of civilization started to take root along the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers—the Fertile Crescent— roughly 5,000 years ago in what is today called the Middle East.

People did not venture too far into the arid wastelands just a few miles from the rivers for reasons other than trade, carried on by long lines of caravans along established routes where tribes carefully guarded the waterholes, a story best told in the epic film Lawrence of Arabia.  For the locals, water was, and is, more precious than the oil below the ground as the leaders of ISIS well know. It is no coincidence that the ISIS blitzkrieg has been along the fabled Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. ISIS tried to capture a reservoir in northern Iraq and one suspects if it tries to take control of Baghdad, it may cut-off the water supply as the Barbarians did when they finally took old Rome in the 5th century.

The two rivers have their origins in the mountains of Turkey and flow to the Persian Gulf. In the ancient cosmology of the region, there was a family feud among the Gods, and from the tears of the Mother Goddess the two rivers flowed. Sadly, the tears of the Mother Goddess continue to flow as a result of the savagery of ISIS, which aspires to create a Sunni caliphate not only in the Fertile Crescent but farther south as well.

ISIS is the latest conqueror to covet this region, which for thousands of years has been geopolitically important, the conduit between the East and the West, which today includes Eastern Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and smaller states connected to Saudi Arabia. To understand this region, one must be mindful of its long history, each civilization establishing itself as a layer on top of another: the Sumerians, Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Parthians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Muslim conquest after 636 CE, the Babylonians again, Byzantines, and the Ottoman Turks, who controlled most of the region until it was dismembered after World War I, creating the states of the Middle East today. Prior to the Great War of 1914-1918, the Germans hoped to control the Middle East and connect Berlin to Baghdad by rail. In the 1920s the French and the British arrived and in the Cold War, the Russians and the Americans jockeyed for control.

It would be difficult, but hardly impossible, to list the number of armies that have moved through this region. Until the 20th century they came on camels, horses, and donkeys followed by foot soldiers. For thousands of years they followed the same path, hugging the waterways, looting, slaughtering, and raping along the way, often driving the inhabitants to seek refuge in the arid wastelands just as hundreds of thousands have to avoid the wrath of ISIS. Today, ISIS moves in vehicles stolen from the Syrians and what they seized from the Iraqis: American-made equipment, tanks, and heavy vehicles. The foot soldiers no longer walk but ride in Japanese-made small trucks with heavy machine guns mounted behind the cabs, black flags flying, the latest incarnation of a terrorist movement on the move.

The United States and its partners hope to stop the ISIS blitzkrieg using airpower in conjunction with local militias on the ground and a reformed Iraqi army. Many ISIS military commanders are well-trained officers who once served Saddam Hussein. They know the terrain and when threatened from the air, simply melt into the local populations or fade into the arid wastelands.  They present a formidable foe, highly disciplined, willing to die and dedicated to the recreation of the Sunni caliphate. The ISIS assault on Iraq can be temporarily stopped but not arrested. In the annals of modern warfare, no highly organized army has been defeated using airpower alone as the staggering amount of explosives dropped on Germany in the last world war, on Vietnam, and more recently on Saddam reveals.

ISIS will only be defeated when confronted by an army on the ground working in tandem with airpower. For the moment, neither the United States nor the major regional powers in the Middle East have any intention of fielding land armies, the proverbial “boots on the ground.”  But in time they will and one suspects the colors the soldiers will be wearing will not be that of the United States, the NATO powers, or Washington’s current allies in the region. Once ISIS consolidates its hold on Iraq, Iran will move to destroy it. Sh’ia controlled Iran will never permit the rise of a Sunni caliphate next door and the expected mass slaughter of Iraq’s Sh’ia population.  One also suspects that behind the scenes, talks between Washington and Tehran are already under way.