It could be worse
The news reminds me of a Kingston Trio ballad that begins with
They’re rioting in Africa,
They’re starving in Spain.
There’s hurricanes in Florida,
And Texas needs rain
The whole world is festering
With unhappy souls.
Take your pick for what is most festering this week:
The North Korean threat to bombard the United States, and maybe South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons. Pundits are doubting the reality, but worrying about a repeat of what Barbara Tuchman described in The Guns of August, i.e., a move toward catastrophe that none of the participants wanted or expected.
Continued carnage in Syria, and the increasing likelihood that the result will be another extremist and chaotic Islamic regime resembling the worst of the Afghan model.
Palestinian leaderships divided and competing for local and international support, encouraging the restive youth to a moderate level of violence against Israelis, hoping they won’t get so much out of hand as to produce another response from Israel that will destroy what has been built since the last time.
Continued frustrations about Iranian nuclear intentions, the likely timetable of moving toward weapons, along with a lack of response to outside demands, against the background of the inability of the US and others to limit North Korea’s ambitions.
At a much lower level of threat, but the nonetheless discomforting, is Europeans’ efforts to hold the Euro zone together against the resistance to reforms heard now from Cyprus, and now from Greece, with Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and France at varying levels of worry and the rich Germans tired of the whole process.
Of even less profundity than continued Euro crises--except for those who support the complaints--is another effort of non-Orthodox religious extremists to decide where along the Western Wall women will pray in the style that Orthodox Jews reserve for men.
On top of the more serious of these is the United States, bothered by some of its own problems (guns, violence, unemployment, illegal immigration, government debt, and political stalemate at the summit), as well as some nastiness from competing sources of power (Russia, China, Iran), and unable to control or perhaps understand all of the overseas issues that demand its involvement.
No doubt the people in all of these unhappy places deserve our greatest expression of sympathy. However, political scientists, activists, and observers may be forgiven if they also sympathize with office holders who are dealing with these problems. No doubt some of them deserve the labels of charlatan, egoist, ignorant, thief, and/or clown. But at least some of them seem to be concerned with their constituents and their own place in history.
If the portions of our sympathy increase proportionately with the extent of responsibilities, then the policymakers of the United States are first in line. Their efforts and failures are more prominent than their successes, perhaps only because their efforts and failures get more attention from the media. If the most to be expected from a regime currently at the top of the heap is to keep things from getting worse, then the US has not done too badly. Sure, North Korea, Pakistan and India, and perhaps Iran demonstrate that the nuclear genie has escaped from the bottle that the US and others have sought to keep closed. At least partly to the US credit, however, is that none of those weapons has yet been used, and Israel has avoided (or been kept) from taking dramatic action that could trigger who knows what.
Syria is perhaps the worst case as measured by the current rate of deaths, and Washington has not moved to control things. Curse the White House if you will, but its present occupant deserves some praise for keeping his distance from another venture like Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which show more clearly America’s folly than its wisdom.
Israel demonstrates the situation of a small country, with limited but serious power, whose leaders’ tasks are to show primary concern for their own people, but also to accept U.S. and western European leadership, but not to such an extent as to risk their local concerns. This requires sensitive, difficult, and contentious balancing, made more difficult by the history of enmity from its Middle Eastern neighbors and the present campaign of Palestinians and leftists (Israeli, overseas Jewish, European, and American) to portray the Israel-Palestine issue as equivalent to Goliath vs David, along with contentious claims about international law.
Many words have already been written about who and what is at fault for our little conflict, and how much it is responsible or marginal to other problems in the region. Among the elements of the impasse that most impress me are:
Palestinian refusal to recognize changing realities
Israeli settlements that may have rendered impractical a “two state” solution, especially in the context of Israeli distrust of Palestinians and the limited prospect of withdrawing any but the tiniest of settlements that are beyond the security barriers
It is difficult to avoid ridiculing continued American efforts to “jump start” a peace process between Israel and Palestinian leaders who have demonstrated time and again their weakness and their lack of legitimacy among Palestinians. Yet those American efforts may best be compared to continued American efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program while saying that “all options on the table,” against its lack of success with North Korea.
Cautioning against the temptation to ridicule is the continued quiet in our little corner of the region. Palestinians’ low level of violence produces occasional tragedies, but less than the incidence of traffic accidents here or the gun deaths often in the headlines of the American media. It’s far from perfect, not even ideal, but it could be worse, and it owes something to U.S. efforts as well as Israeli pressure, restraint, and coping skills.
It’s all too complex for a Kingston Trio ballad, but it is the life we have. So far so good may be the best attainable amidst insoluble problems.
Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.