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Where are the heroes?

 


There aren’t any in the realms of politics or public policy, except in the books written for children, or childish adults. The world is too complex. We know too much to be heroic. There may be heroes on the field of battle, some of who survive their heroism, but that is a different story.

Wise people, and perhaps most of those elected to high office, do not aspire to solve the big problems. They’ve learned to cope. That is, managing the problems, doing little things that make the big things less threatening.

That leaves a lot of work for the unhappy, and the commentators seeking to serve them.

Politicians speak in heroic terms. They can’t admit limitations to an electorate that demands solutions. Who knows if they mean what they say? Successful politicians are actors. They must be to attract support from a range of constituencies having competing interests.

The common view is that politicians lie. That’s true or at least they seldom speak all of the truth.

On the cusp of an agreement with Iran, we’re seeing clips of Bill Clinton announcing an agreement with North Korea, and assuring that inspectors will hold Pyongyang to the terms agreed upon.

Is Barack Obama in la la land with Iran? As he was when he promoted equality and democracy in Cairo, and was applauded for the onset of Arab spring? We now know that was a small bridge to the barbarism now prominent in various parts of the Middle East.

We can bet that John Kerry will get an Obama-like Nobel Peace Prize for his hard work with the Iranians, especially if the Norwegians hurry into their tuxedos before the first indications of Iranian cheating.

Is this a heroic step by Obama and his administration? Or is it a recognition of the inevitable, and trying to soften it. It is not unwise for the Americans to downsize the heroic aspirations for the Middle East associated with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the destruction of Saddam Hussein and his regime, and Obama’s own Cairo speech?

We may attribute that speech to a freshman president who jumped too high and too fast from a lowly position to the highest office. It would be generous to call it part of his learning. Maybe too generous. He may still be learning. It’s not possible to know for sure what Presidents know, think, or intend. The context makes it difficult to judge him on Iran. He may be giving into the mullahs, yet he’s supporting a proxy war between a key American ally and Iran in Yemen, as well as by something between cooperation and combat between American and Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.

Commentators differ on their view of the pending agreement. It’s taken a while, and not yet done. There may be more in it than in Clinton’s agreement with North Korea. Politics is not far away. There’ll be a lot of noise from Congress, and maybe something for Obama to veto, if he has the votes. His negotiators have not stopped the Iranian crowds shouting Death to America, as well as Death to Israel.

Overall Obama’s efforts in the Middle East look more like muddling through (a synonym for coping) than heroism. On the other hand, he may be an exception to the generality that wise politician do not try to solve big problems. Or he may not deserve listing among wise politicians.

It’s no easier reading Bibi. Looking only at his activities with respect to Iran, it is not clear what, if anything, he accomplished by that 2012 speech in the UN with his drawing of a bomb and his focus on a red line which must not be crossed? Or his Washington speech of 2015. Both may have hardened US and European positions with respect to Iran out of concern for Israel or what Israel might do. Those who say that Bibi could have done more if he had cooperated with Obama rather than ally with Republicans must probe the nuances of the Bibi-Barack relationship, how it developed, and what options actually faced the Israeli Prime Minister in March, 2015.

If you admit that the devil is in the details, you are admitting that there isn’t much room for heroic action. The same point appears in Israel’s relations with Palestinians. Those wanting heroism demand a solution, with most preaching a two-state solution. With or without Israeli withdrawal from settlements over the 1967 lines? Or how much of an Israeli withdrawal? What about refugees, and the implementation of what was already agreed about an end to Palestinian incitement?

The candid expressions of both Israelis and Palestinians seek to avoid the big issue of a full agreement, and work on the small things. Those have occurred, more or less since the second Intifada petered out. They include a freer movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and permits for West Bank Palestinians to work in Israel. Israeli troops continue to enter Palestinian areas, but there is also cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security personnel. 

Is that enough? Or as much as the two sides can achieve?

There isn’t a convincing answer.

Gaza is even more difficult to describe, given the greater tensions among Palestinians there, occasional missiles, generally landing in Gaza or empty fields of Israel, and some degree of involvement of Gazans in fighting Egypt via Sinai, along with a considerable flow of supplies from Israel.

The greatest madness pretending to be heroism is the Palestinian sponsored BDS. Here we see Jews and others  marching to the tune of a Palestinian who has received the best of Israeli higher education and an Israeli residence, sometimes targeting all of Israel and sometimes only Israeli activities over the 1967 lines. Supporters take no account of the situation of Israeli Arabs, arguably better than minorities in western Europe and the US, the efforts of Israel to reach an accord with Palestinians, the violence of Palestinians, and the substantial indications of overt anti-Semitism among those participating in their movement.

Why is the energy is focused on Israel rather than actions of Iran, or the failure of US policies with respect to its own domestic miseries? 

That, too, is a political question associated with too many elements to allow a simple answer.

There isn’t any more heroism available to those seeking explanations than to those seeking solutions of the big problems.

It’s a complex world. The more democracy, the more complex, and the more frustrations for those who wish to make grand policy or to explain what is happening.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 

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