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Friday, December 20, 2013

Review of "The Tragic Situation"

David Brooks in the New York Times today contends:

"Sometimes life presents clear choices, but often it presents tragic situations. A tragic situation is one in which you are caught in a vise between two competing goods, so it is necessary to compromise one or the other, or maybe a bit of both. Or it’s one in which you are pursuing something good, but you must fight brutal enemies along the way, so it is impossible to be virtuous while being innocent."[]

But that is a false choice, especially in the case where David Brooks tries to apply it. A tragic situation is where one is forced to choose between horrible outcomes. A choice between "competing goods" is not tragic by definition. The second choice is also a false choice. It is only a tragic choice if the warrior loses his soul along the way, or the enemy wins.

The real tragedy of Tragic situations is that virtue doesn't guarantee success but abandoning virtue guarantees failure.

One can fight brutal enemies and remain virtuous. And while it may be impossible to remain "innocent" while doing so. The goal of a wise person is not innocence but wisdom. One cannot remain innocent while growing up. A grownup is not innocent. One may be righteous, but that is rare, more often one must be "Repentant". Brooks writes:

"A tragic situation means you are trying to pursue some large good project, but you are caught in a circumstance that imposes awful necessities."

No a tragic situation is one where the outcome is death and dismemberment. What Israel faces is perilous but not yet tragic.

David claims:

"Israel is caught in a tragic situation. It’s surrounded by an Arab world that is largely hostile to its existence. No Arab leader has enough legitimacy to make peace. It is in a region marked by failed states, decentered radical Islam and rampant turmoil. "

Israel's situation is worse than he describes but still not tragic. It is surrounded by an entire world that is becoming increasingly hostile to it's very existence. Europeans, Christians, Anglo-Brits, all are starting to question whether Israel even has the right to be in the Palestinian corner of the Fertile crescent. And a lot of this is the result of Israel's own behavior. Before 1967 most people accepted that Israel was a righteous place, but the behavior of West Bank settlers, improved propaganda efforts by the Palestinian diasporah, and the behavior of Netanyahu, and his predecessor Ariel Sharon, has undermined Israel's claim to righteous virtue. It's not just the Arab leaders who lack legitimacy. Netanyahu has refused to challenge his own far right influences or bargain with his neighbors. Israel's situation is difficult. It only will become tragic if it refuses to handle that situation with diplomacy and wisdom. Nobody is actively ready to blow Israel up, for all their rhetoric. But it could happen if everyone involved behaves foolishly

David next claims:

"Today this brutal situation boils down to one torturous choice, which Ari Shavit captures in his superb book, “My Promised Land”: “If Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed, but if it does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security. The need to end occupation is greater than ever, but so are the risks.” "

It might face an Iranian backed and Islamic brotherhood inspired west bank regime, or it might face a Saudi Backed and Al Qaeda inspired West Bank Regime. Israel sabotaged the moderates over the past 10 years of fear and loathing. It could go on occupying the West Bank forever, in which case it will eventually face economic collapse, after which it won't be able to afford a military. It is easy to take a 99% solution and eliminate all the risks. That is not virtuous behavior. Israel doesn't have the option of a genuine holocaust against Palestinians. It has no choice but to withdraw from occupied territories and work for a "West Bank" that tolerates Jews living there in return.

David next gives an analysis of the Settlers:

"But there will always be those whose minds recoil from the ambiguity of a tragic situation. Some of these people turn into amoral realists and decide in the brutal situation that anything that advances survival is permitted. Under their leadership, security becomes insecurity because security measures are taken to the extreme. These are the people who want to permanently colonize the West Bank."

These people are the ones whose immoral behavior, hiding behind highly parsed interpretations of the bible and their own greed and ambition, whose vicious behavior is undermining Israel's ability to survive in the Mideast. David doesn't seem to see that the difference between them and those he claims are on "the other side" is nil. He claims

"On the other side, there are people whose minds seem to flee, almost by instinct, from ambiguity to absolutism."

That describes the Settlers, that describes the Left wing which eschews the whole idea of a homeland for religious people or a particular tribe, and it describes the moral viciousness of folks who claim to be "good people, with high ideals" but who are actually bad people with pernicious ideals. And the description also describes many of Israel's individual enemies.

And one has to realize that justice is a matter of balancing legal abstractions such as justice, rule of law, equity, with compassion and with the recognition that one makes deals after a war to settle the war because there is no restoring all the things that were broken by the warriors. There is nothing virtuous about war. For all the efforts to wage war virtuously, it is a vicious, killing, destructive FUBAR reality. And settling wars requires compassion, requires everyone who has been hurt (victim and victimizers) to tell their stories and recognizing that contending people's are both victim and victimizer -- none can behave completely virtuous in war. Though they have to try - and usually fail.

And David is right about so many people who refuse to look at Israel from all angles, or see the middle east clearly, including many of the combattants on both sides who:

"want to judge [] according to black and white legal abstractions. They find a crime or an error and call for blanket condemnation (these people tend not to apply this standard to themselves)."

The same argument can be made about most partisans; left, right and "peace-nik", but justice requires finding all the facts and overcoming tunnel vision. If Arabs in the Gaza strip are suffering from Israeli attacks, Israel suffers from their constant bombing. Both actions are illegal in a condition of peace, but symptomatic that there is a continuing war between Palestinian Muslems and Palestinian Jews (Arabs and Israelis). As David notes:

"you rarely see them taking the perspective of people they dislike. They don’t acknowledge that even the most humane projects often involve error, fear and sin along the way."

Strategy is the key to settling this war. The great generals understand their enemies better than their enemies do. That is why Great Generals are also great peace-makers. Iran is not an implacable enemy. The Islamic Brotherhood is no more dangerous than Al Qaeda, and no more dangerous than the Irgun was, or it's modern equivalents. Virtue in war involves understanding the enemy. It doesn't mean not killing that enemy, but it does mean being accurate, strategic, and remembering that one day one has to make peace. A Good Hunter understands his game whether he's shooting it or just learning it's movements.

Israel should consider that it's not big enough so that removing parts of the West Bank from it's boundaries would be the end of the world, and that it has to win the argument for world opinion, not just the ground battles. It was at it's best when the world saw it as David against Goliath. Being a Goliath doesn't work well for Israel. Samson destroyed himself because he couldn't connect power and virtue. Israel needs to make these settlements with the Arabs regardless of what the Arabs do next.

There is a strategy to peace and war. One should never go to war until the war is already won in the planning. One guarantees peace when one is prepared for peace.

Frank Herbert said it best in his Dune series:

"Fear is the Mindkiller, fear is the little death that destroys all..."

Come to think of it, after rereading David's article and rereading my own critique I'm realizing that his description isn't of a tragic situation but a farce! It is time that Israel develop some leadership and stop waiting on the Arabs to develop any. Where is their Abraham Lincoln or Mandela?

Further reading: David Broder's article

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