Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.
Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.
In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
Construction in a Jewish neighborhood in a disputed section of Jerusalem (Reuters )
More proof, if more proof were needed, that there is a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, and that the crisis goes deeper than simply the dysfunctional personal relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu's government and the Obama administration (or between their colorful staffs): A lead editorial in The New York Jewish Week, the flagship American Jewish newspaper, center to center-right in orientation, with many thousands of Orthodox Jews among its readers and an ardently pro-Israel editorial line, bluntly asks whether the Israeli government has become unmoored from reality.
The editorial, "Bibi Takes on the World," takes note of the recent snub by top American officials of the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon (a snub prompted by Ya'alon's earlier insults directed at Secretary of State John Kerry), and of the Netanyahu government's announcement that it would build more than 1,000 new housing units in parts of Jerusalem captured by Israel in 1967—"fully aware," the editorial reads, "of the negative response it would receive in America and in the international community."
The editorial continues:
(T)he State Department (called) the plans “incompatible with the pursuit of peace.” A European Union spokeswoman went further, asserting that the move “once again” calls into question Israel’s commitment “to a negotiated solution with the Palestinians.” She also warned that “the future development of relations between the EU and Israel will depend” on Jerusalem’s “engagement towards a lasting peace based on a two-state solution.”
Netanyahu responded by saying that Israel will “continue to build in our eternal capital,” adding: “I heard the claim that our building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem makes peace more distant, but it is the criticism itself that makes peace more distant.” He said the criticism feeds the Palestinians’ false hopes and is “detached from reality.”
And then The New York Jewish Week drops the hammer:
But it’s fair to ask just who is more detached from reality these days, the president of the U.S. and leader of the free world, or the leader of a small country almost totally dependent on American support? (It’s not so much the $3 billion a year in U.S. aid that counts as much as its support at the UN and in countless other ways that would be felt should the relationship continue to erode.)
When future historians write about this period in U.S.-Israel relations, this editorial will warrant serious mention. The unease felt by some American Jews about Israel's direction is moving into the mainstream. Over the past few months, I've spoken with lay leaders of many of the largest Jewish organizations (organizations that would very much prefer not to be affiliated with such left-wing outfits as J Street), and the question they ask is this: Just what is Bibi doing? If American Jews are forced to choose between their liberal values (and most American Jews are liberal) and support for a Jewish state that seems to be growing increasingly illiberal, these leaders say that Israel—and not the Democratic Party—will be the one to suffer.
The Israeli government doesn't seem to understand that the status quo is unsustainable. As I've written (over and over again), I am not arguing for an immediate pullout from the West Bank; the times are too dangerous, and the Palestinian Authority too weak and corrupt and cowardly, for such a move. But in the meantime, Israel could help create conditions so that a Palestinian state could one day be born. What this means is simple: Netanyahu should take no steps that further entangle Israel in the lives of Palestinians. It also means that Israel should try to negotiate in good faith with President Mahmoud Abbas, who is the best interlocutor Israel is going to have, despite his many obvious flaws. If nothing else, Netanyahu should call his bluff.
It also means understanding that while most settlement expansion that is now taking place in the West Bank is happening in areas that will most likely come under Israeli control in the event of a final peace deal, the Palestinians haven't agreed to this division yet. Unilateral moves do not help. They certainly don't help Israel's international standing, which is lower than it has ever been, and they certainly don't help maintain Israel as a cause that garners bipartisan support in the U.S.
I asked Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The New York Jewish Week, what he thought the fallout from this editorial might be. He emailed back the following: "Having been in Jewish journalism for more than four decades, I can tell you that there was a time when there would be hell to pay in the community for editorials in an American Jewish newspaper criticizing Israeli policy. That’s no longer the case. An optimist could say it’s because our community is more open and enlightened; a pessimist could say it’s because people don’t care as much and/or they don’t connect to Israel in their kishkas (guts) the way their parents or grandparents did. Or quite possibly because they do care about Israel but don't agree with the policy under fire."
The New York Jewish Week editorial closes with this thought:
Jeopardizing Israel’s relationship with its most important allies to prove a point — that Jerusalem is not up for grabs — at a time when his country is increasingly isolated on the diplomatic level, when violent unrest in the capital since the summer has prompted some to call it “the silent intifada,” and when the Palestinians may well seek statehood through the UN, makes sense if the prime minister is ready to go it alone. But that’s not what his citizens want, and it would be a terrible mistake.
The Obama administration's anger is "red-hot" over Israel's settlement policies, and the Netanyahu government openly expresses contempt for Obama's understanding of the Middle East. Profound changes in the relationship may be coming.
The other day I was talking to a senior Obama administration official about the foreign leader who seems to frustrate the White House and the State Department the most. “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” this official said, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname.
This comment is representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli officials now talk about each other behind closed doors, and is yet another sign that relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis. The relationship between these two administrations— dual guarantors of the putatively “unbreakable” bond between the U.S. and Israel—is now the worst it's ever been, and it stands to get significantly worse after the November midterm elections. By next year, the Obama administration may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations, but even before that, both sides are expecting a showdown over Iran, should an agreement be reached about the future of its nuclear program.
The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu, and in particular, to the behavior of his cabinet. Netanyahu has told several people I’ve spoken to in recent days that he has “written off” the Obama administration, and plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached. For their part, Obama administration officials express, in the words of one official, a “red-hot anger” at Netanyahu for pursuing settlement policies on the West Bank, and building policies in Jerusalem, that they believe have fatally undermined Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process.
Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.” (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.) But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickenshit.” I thought I appreciated the implication of this description, but it turns out I didn’t have a full understanding. From time to time, current and former administration officials have described Netanyahu as a national leader who acts as though he is mayor of Jerusalem, which is to say, a no-vision small-timer who worries mainly about pleasing the hardest core of his political constituency. (President Obama, in interviews with me, has alluded to Netanyahu’s lack of political courage.)
“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, expanding the definition of what a chickenshit Israeli prime minister looks like. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s not [Ariel] Sharon, he’s certainly no [Menachem] Begin. He’s got no guts.”
I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
This assessment represents a momentous shift in the way the Obama administration sees Netanyahu. In 2010, and again in 2012, administration officials were convinced that Netanyahu and his then-defense minister, the cowboyish ex-commando Ehud Barak, were readying a strike on Iran. To be sure, the Obama administration used the threat of an Israeli strike in a calculated way to convince its allies (and some of its adversaries) to line up behind what turned out to be an effective sanctions regime. But the fear inside the White House of a preemptive attack (or preventative attack, to put it more accurately) was real and palpable—as was the fear of dissenters inside Netanyahu’s Cabinet, and at Israel Defense Forces headquarters. At U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, analysts kept careful track of weather patterns and of the waxing and waning moon over Iran, trying to predict the exact night of the coming Israeli attack.
Today, there are few such fears. “The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing,” this second official said. “He’s not Begin at Osirak,” the official added, referring to the successful 1981 Israeli Air Force raid ordered by the ex-prime minister on Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
The belief that Netanyahu’s threat to strike is now an empty one has given U.S. officials room to breathe in their ongoing negotiations with Iran. You might think that this new understanding of Netanyahu as a hyper-cautious leader would make the administration somewhat grateful. Sober-minded Middle East leaders are not so easy to come by these days, after all. But on a number of other issues, Netanyahu does not seem sufficiently sober-minded.
Another manifestation of his chicken-shittedness, in the view of Obama administration officials, is his near-pathological desire for career-preservation. Netanyahu’s government has in recent days gone out of its way to a) let the world know that it will quicken the pace of apartment-building in disputed areas of East Jerusalem; and b) let everyone know of its contempt for the Obama administration and its understanding of the Middle East. Settlement expansion, and the insertion of right-wing Jewish settlers into Arab areas of East Jerusalem, are clear signals by Netanyahu to his political base, in advance of possible elections next year, that he is still with them, despite his rhetorical commitment to a two-state solution. The public criticism of Obama policies is simultaneously heartfelt, and also designed to mobilize the base.
Just yesterday, Netanyahu criticized those who condemn Israeli expansion plans in East Jerusalem as “disconnected from reality.” This statement was clearly directed at the State Department, whose spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, had earlier said that, “if Israel wants to live in a peaceful society, they need to take steps that will reduce tensions. Moving forward with this sort of action would be incompatible with the pursuit of peace.”
It is the Netanyahu government that appears to be disconnected from reality. Jerusalem is on the verge of exploding into a third Palestinian uprising. It is true that Jews have a moral right to live anywhere they want in Jerusalem, their holiest city. It is also true that a mature government understands that not all rights have to be exercised simultaneously. Palestinians believe, not without reason, that the goal of planting Jewish residents in all-Arab neighborhoods is not integration, but domination—to make it as difficult as possible for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem to ever emerge.
Unlike the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, I don’t have any hope for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state (it could be dangerous, at this chaotic moment in Middle East history, when the Arab-state system is in partial collapse, to create an Arab state on the West Bank that could easily succumb to extremism), but I would also like to see Israel foster conditions on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem that would allow for the eventual birth of such a state. This is what the Obama administration wants (and also what Europe wants, and also, by the way, what many Israelis and American Jews want), and this issue sits at the core of the disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem.
Israel and the U.S., like all close allies, have disagreed from time to time on important issues. But I don’t remember such a period of sustained and mutual contempt. Much of the anger felt by Obama administration officials is rooted in the Netanyahu government’s periodic explosions of anti-American condescension. The Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, in particular, has publicly castigated the Obama administration as naive, or worse, on matters related to U.S. policy in the Middle East. Last week, senior officials including Kerry (who was labeled as “obsessive” and “messianic” by Ya’alon) and Susan Rice, the national security advisor, refused to meet with Ya’alon on his trip to Washington, and it’s hard to blame them. (Kerry, the U.S. official most often targeted for criticism by right-wing Israeli politicians, is the only remaining figure of importance in the Obama administration who still believes that Netanyahu is capable of making bold compromises, which might explain why he’s been targeted.)
One of the more notable aspects of the current tension between Israel and the U.S. is the unease felt by mainstream American Jewish leaders about recent Israeli government behavior. “The Israelis do not show sufficient appreciation for America’s role in backing Israel, economically, militarily and politically,” Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, told me. (UPDATE: Foxman just e-mailed me this statement: "The quote is accurate, but the context is wrong. I was referring to what troubles this administration about Israel, not what troubles leaders in the American Jewish community.")
What does all this unhappiness mean for the near future? For one thing, it means that Netanyahu—who has preemptively “written off” the Obama administration—will almost certainly have a harder time than usual making his case against a potentially weak Iran nuclear deal, once he realizes that writing off the administration was an unwise thing to do.
This also means that the post-November White House will be much less interested in defending Israel from hostile resolutions at the United Nations, where Israel is regularly scapegoated. The Obama administration may be looking to make Israel pay direct costs for its settlement policies.
Next year, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, will quite possibly seek full UN recognition for Palestine. I imagine that the U.S. will still try to block such a move in the Security Council, but it might do so by helping to craft a stridently anti-settlement resolution in its place. Such a resolution would isolate Israel from the international community.
It would also be unsurprising, post-November, to see the Obama administration take a step Netanyahu is loath to see it take: a public, full lay-down of the administration’s vision for a two-state solution, including maps delineating Israel’s borders. These borders, to Netanyahu's horror, would be based on 1967 lines, with significant West Bank settlement blocs attached to Israel in exchange for swapped land elsewhere. Such a lay-down would make explicit to Israel what the U.S. expects of it.
Netanyahu, and the even more hawkish ministers around him, seem to have decided that their short-term political futures rest on a platform that can be boiled down to this formula: “The whole world is against us. Only we can protect Israel from what’s coming.” For an Israeli public traumatized by Hamas violence and anti-Semitism, and by fear that the chaos and brutality of the Arab world will one day sweep over them, this formula has its charms.
But for Israel’s future as an ally of the United States, this formula is a disaster.
Somewhat to my surprise, Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators, a group portrait of the men and women who invented computers and the Internet, is riveting, propulsive, and at times deeply moving. My surprise is not rooted in doubts about Isaacson’s skills; he is considered to be the leading biographer of the digital age for a reason. I was surprised because I find books about technology unreadable. I enjoy machines as much as the next Amish-by-disposition American, which is to say, among other things, that I don’t care very much about where they come from, and on those occasions when I do apply myself to the study of machines, I usually fail to understand how they work.
One of Isaacson’s jealousy-provoking gifts is his ability to translate complicated science into English—those who have read his biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs understand that Isaacson is a kind of walking Rosetta Stone of physics and computer programming. Thanks to my close read of The Innovators, I could probably explain, with a gun to my head, the principles of semi-conduction.
But it is the very human humans behind the digital revolution who are the main focus of The Innovators, and they are the reason I found this book to be not infrequently inspiring. I read The Innovators this past summer, a comprehensively unhappy summer, as Gaza was on fire and ISIS was erupting and Ebola was beginning its fatal run across West Africa. Here at home, the mood long before the summer had soured. We are living through a period of straitened dreams, of doubt about our country and its purpose, and of widespread cynicism about its most important institutions. What I’m saying is that right now I’m a sucker for optimism, and The Innovators is one of the most organically optimistic books I think I've ever read. It is a stirring reminder of what Americans are capable of doing when they think big, risk failure, and work together.
One of the surprising features of Isaacson’s latest book, coming, as it does, after his biography of Steve Jobs—who is generally, though not entirely correctly, understood to be the model of the radical (and congenitally irascible) American —is that it is a paean to cooperation, to the idea of force-multiplication through collective effort and, in particular, to the transformative power of the diamond triangle of industry, academia, and government. (In the interview published below, I ask Isaacson why America has traditionally been the seedbed of global innovation, and whether that will continue).
Isaacson sets out to accomplish several large things in The Innovators. Since he is fundamentally an optimist, he argues that human-computer symbiosis, rather than artificial intelligence, represents the main and best path forward, and he makes a compelling case that A.I., whether it manifests itself in benevolent or malevolent form, always seems to be 20 years away for good reason. (For a dystopian view of our future robot overlords, see this interview Isaacson just conducted with Elon Musk.) Building an "intimate connection between humans and machines” is what Isaacson says he believes in, and what he argues for.
The Innovators is also an extended argument for the U.S. to renew its commitment not only to the funding of basic scientific research, but to the rebuilding of an equitable and universally accessible public education system. Isaacson tells the story of Jean Jennings, an early computer programmer (one of six women who made themselves quietly indispensable in the development of the University of Pennsylvania’s ENIAC computer), who grew up practically penniless in Alanthus Grove, Missouri, but was able to pull together $76 in tuition each year to earn a mathematics degree from Northwest Missouri State Teachers College. The same education today, Isaacson notes, would cost $14,000, a 12-fold increase even after adjusting for inflation.
Another goal of the The Innovators is to restore to history the many women who were instrumental in the development of computing, first and foremost Lord Byron’s daughter, the visionary mathematician Ada Lovelace, whose work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine makes her, in essence, the world’s first computer programmer. Isaacson makes it a point to celebrate the achievements of other women in computing, including Admiral Grace Hopper, and the aforementioned Jean Jennings, who, with her female ENIAC colleagues, had been shamefully forgotten. (One maddening moment in The Innovators comes when Jennings and the other women were excluded from a January 1946 celebration at the University of Pennsylvania held to mark the first public demonstration of ENIAC. “That night there was a candlelit dinner at Penn’s venerable Houston Hall,” Isaacson writes. “It was filled with scientific luminaries, military brass and most of the men who had worked on ENIAC. But Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder were not there, nor were any other women programmers.” Isaacson quotes Jennings: “Betty and I were ignored and forgotten following the demonstration.”)
Mainly, though, The Innovators is a group biography of men who, building on each other’s achievements (and occasionally borrowing each other's achievements), accomplished extraordinary things. The heroes of this book include such figures as Vannevar (rhymes with "achiever") Bush, who is something of a hometown hero at The Atlantic, which in 1945 published his article, “As We May Think,” perhaps the most important single article about technology ever written. In it, Bush predicted the coming of personal computers, the Internet, and, in essence, Wikipedia.
Isaacson’s other heroes include J.C.R. Licklider, the father of interactive computing; Douglas Engelbart, the creator of the mouse (and much else); and Alan Kay, who is more-or-less the father of the personal computer. The lives of these men, who are known to almost no one today outside the world of technology (compare their fame to men such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who stand on their shoulders) are testaments to collaboration, entrepreneurship, curiosity, and risk-taking.
These first chapters, about figures largely unknown outside Silicon Valley, are fascinating. Later chapters deal with better-known figures. Steve Jobs, about whom Isaacson probably knows more than any other observer, makes an extended appearance, and Isaacson has drawn a vivid portrait of Bill Gates. I imagine that most readers will find these later chapters more interesting than the front-half profiles, but it is the men and women who did their work before the rise of the celebrity innovator that I found so exceptionally interesting.
Below are portions of an interview I conducted with Isaacson about this book. Read it; his answers are illuminating.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You had already set out on this book when you were diverted by an offer you couldn’t refuse, to write the biography of Steve Jobs. Did the act of spending so much time with Jobs, and immersing yourself in his thinking, change the focus or idea behind The Innovators?
Walter Isaacson: The main thing I learned from Jobs was the importance of the connection between the humanities to technology. And that became a theme in this history of the digital age. Ada Lovelace represented this, all the great innovators—Alan Kay at Xerox Parc—all of them realized that beauty mattered and that our technology should have a streak of humanity in it.
Goldberg: Literally a streak of humanity, by which I mean, you are quite skeptical about the future of artificial intelligence, and everyone has worries about this dystopian artificial intelligence future when machines run away from us.
Isaacson: The intimate connection between humans and machines is something that Steve Jobs really believed in, and it was a great counter to the notion that the machines would take over. The other thing that was important from Steve, something that I had to wrestle with when understanding him, was that he had this quality of loner individualism that made him a difficult person to work with and yet he was also a builder of really strong teams, and it helped me appreciate the importance of collaboration and teamwork but also the importance of having a strong visionary as part of the team. Steve seemed on the purpose to be a prickly, difficult teammate but in fact he brought together the strongest and most loyal team of any company in the digital age. So I had to get beyond looking at him as a kind of headstrong loner.
Goldberg: So he wasn’t a radical individualist in the classic American model?
Isaacson: The American mythology is of the person with the radical individual streak, but what Tocqueville missed is that individualism is not antithetical to forming associations. Americans have been great at barn raisings and quilting bees and all sorts of common endeavors that were undertaken by very individualistic and pioneering people.
Goldberg: Stay on this idea of pioneering for a moment. The West Coast, East Coast, divide. As a Penn guy, this nags at me. By rights, the University of Pennsylvania should be to digital innovation what Stanford actually is today, because of the work done there on ENIAC, just as Bell Labs should be Xerox Park. But they aren’t. What causes incubators to go stale?
Isaacson: The early East Coast pioneers were the University of Pennsylvania and Bell Labs, but they were hierarchical and they didn’t allow for entrepreneurial growth. For example, (John) Mauchly and (J. Presper) Eckert, the two who create ENIAC, wanted to commercialize it at Penn but couldn’t. Neither was there an entrepreneurial culture at Bell Labs, where there was not this sort of anti-authoritarian, entrepreneurial culture that you saw develop in the Bay Area in the 1970s. You have a cultural mix in the Bay Area that includes Stanford being a very entrepreneurial place, where people are encouraged to do startups, where you have a counterculture that emanates from the hippie movement and the anti-war movement, plus you have the individualist Whole Earth Catalogue mentality that involves wanting to have access to tools.
Intel is founded by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore who rankled under the authoritarian, hierarchical system at Fairchild Corporation. They ran a division of Fairchild but they having to report back to headquarters on the East Coast. So they start their own company, which becomes Intel, with almost no hierarchy, just an open work space where Noyce and Moore just sit in the middle of the room.
Goldberg: East Coast culture would have swamped them?
Isaacson: Even Xerox, when it decides that it wants an entrepreneurial research center, decides to put it across the country from its headquarters.
Goldberg: Go to something that I worry about: the status of the U.S. as a whole as the best incubator of technology and risk-taking invention. Most of the action in The Innovators takes place in America, but I don’t think that’s because the author is American, it’s just that such a disproportionate percentage of the most important innovations were created here. Why is the U.S. the seedbed of digital innovation, and will it remain in the dominant position for a long time to come?
Isaacson: The U.S. indulges and even encourages risk-taking and failure. The pioneering spirit translates into an entrepreneurial spirit. You have a mix of anti-authoritarian startup junkies and venture capitalists willing to roll the dice. This also brings us to the education question. America had a great education system, the kind in which a young girl from Atlantis Grove, Missouri, Jean Jennings, could go to a state college for $78 a month and become a mathematician and become a programmer of ENIAC. Today, that same college costs $14,000 a year. Our education system used to serve everybody. Now there’s a divide between the education wealthy people get versus what poorer people get.
Goldberg: Has the pace of innovation slowed because of this?
Isaacson: I don't think so. I do think that America’s education system does promote creativity. It allows people to question and challenge. Einstein ran away from his school in Germany because he hated the fact that it was considered improper to challenge the teacher. I suspect that in a lot of Asian countries, the notion of challenging the teacher is less accepted than it is in the United States. I also think that societies that are comfortable with the free flow of information and the clash of opinions tend to be more creative in the information age because that’s the DNA that defines the information age.
Goldberg: Another huge task you’ve set out to achieve with this book is to remind people of the contributions women have made in advancing technology, starting, of course, with the pioneer Ada Lovelace.
Isaacson: I think I’m careful to show that a lot of women played these important roles but how they were not as much a part of the system. On Ada Lovelace, sometimes you hear criticism that she wasn’t a great mathematician, at which I ask them to explain Bernouli numbers, and how you would write a program to generate them, something I wrestled with for several days. And wrestling with it caused me to admire her even more, to admire her ability to write such a program.
Goldberg: Which figure in this group biography do you admire the most? It’s pretty clear that William Shockley is the one you least admire.
Isaacson: J.C.R. Licklider is certainly among the most noble. I think there’s a little-known succession of people who, instead of pursuing artificial intelligence, pursue an intimate connection between humans and machines, and that procession starts with Vannevar Bush, then Licklider, then Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, and Steve Jobs. Someone like Licklider is a true hero of mine because he knew how to form teams; he envisioned interactive computing with easy-to-read screens—because he was developing an air-defense system where the console jockeys had no room for error if they misread the screen; then there’s the Intergalactic Computer Network, which showed that he had a great sense of humor, it showed that he had a good “aw shucks, let’s do this together” sense about him. He wasn’t the sort of person who was trying to take credit for the big idea. Then he becomes the first director of the Pentagon office that creates Arpanet, which becomes the backbone of the Internet. His fingerprints are on everything, but he doesn’t claim credit for everything, which proves the maxim that there’s an unlimited amount you can get done if you don’t seek credit.
Goldberg: Is this one of the reasons you wrote this book, to give credit where credit is due?
Isaacson: As a kid, I was a real electronics geek. I loved soldering circuit boards. When I started doing digital media at Time, Inc., I couldn’t figure out who invented computers, or who invented the Internet. I became fascinated by these little-known people, but I also realized—and remember, I’m at Time, where we were always putting an individual on the cover, and I'm also a biographer—I realized that these contributions were collaborative in nature, and that many of the people who invented computers and invented the Internet worked in teams. We don’t always celebrate people who do things in teams very well. We celebrate the big, high-profile individual. But this was something I did with Evan Thomas when we wrote “The Wise Men,” which was about six not-very-well-known people who shaped foreign policy. I wanted to write a story about people who work in groups.
Goldberg: Another of your obvious heroes is Vannevar Bush, who wrote the 1945 Atlantic article, "As We May Think," which might be the most important article about technology ever published. What was Bush’s genius?
Isaacson: Vannevar Bush built a big analog computer at M.I.T. He was a great, great academic. He helps found Raytheon, so he understood the corporate world. And finally, he manages America’s military research efforts during World War II, overseeing computers and the Manhattan Project. He’s able to get people to collaborate—government, private industry, and universities. This becomes the core of America’s creative strength. And then he writes the article in which he says that machines are going to be extensions of our minds. They’re going to amplify our minds, they are going to help us think. This was a counter-thought to the idea that machines were going to replace us, machines that were going to think instead of us. If you read Vannevar Bush’s other great article of 1945, “Science, the Endless Frontier,” which unfortunately wasn’t published in The Atlantic, he argued that government has to fund basic scientific research because that becomes the seed-corn for future inventions. Especially in the Eisenhower years, government spent a lot of money encouraging basic scientific research that led to things like transistors and microchips and rockets to the moon and the Internet. Government has cut back radically on basic research funding today. There are two things that make me have some worry about America’s future in innovation. One is the cutback in basic research funding for universities by the government. The other is the decline of America’s K-12 education system, and the fact that it is a two-tiered system for rich and poor.
Goldberg: Is it possible that the U.S. could cease being the world leader in digital innovation?
Isaacson: I’m more optimistic than that. I didn’t write this book as a warning. I’m optimistic because I can just look at the data points. We still have people creating Google and Amazon and Facebook and Snapchat. My worries are pretty specific—the cutbacks in basic research funding, the problems in our K-12 education system. But venture capital is doing fine. People who are well-educated are doing fine. We still have a tolerance for risk—just talk to Travis Kalanick at Uber. Ask him what he did before Uber and he’ll tell you about all the companies that flamed out. And you still don’t see companies and ideas like Uber springing up from Europe and Asia. So I’m an optimist.
Goldberg: Is there a lesson for Washington in the way the tech sector has worked?
Isaacson: It’s an interesting question. Government has trouble being as entrepreneurial as the private sector. As you know, people in the private sector have a tolerance for risk and failure that doesn’t really exist in government. You know what happens in government—you get devastated even if you make a gaffe, much less have an actual failure. So there is something there.
A few days ago, I posted a piece about my rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, the senior rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., the largest Conservative movement-affiliated synagogue in the nation's capital. The post concerned an excellent Rosh Hashanah sermon he had delivered about Israel and Hamas.
It turns out that there was a lot more on Rabbi Steinlauf's mind during the High Holidays than just the Middle East. This afternoon, he e-mailed his thousands of congregants to announce that he and his wife, Batya, a respected rabbi in her own right, were getting divorced, because he has come to the realization that he is gay.
There is sadness here, of course, because Gil and Batya have had, in many ways, a good, even model, marriage (their three children are testament to this), but there is also relief, and anxiety, and most of all a leap into the unknown. I am posting his letter in full below (with his permission) because it is beautiful and thoughtful and heartbreaking and deeply religious:
I am writing to share with you that after twenty years of marriage, my wife Batya and I have decided to divorce. We have arrived at this heartbreaking decision because I have come to understand that I am gay. These are great upheavals in my personal life, as in Batya’s and that of our children. But it is plain to all of us that because of my position as Rabbi of Adas Israel, this private matter may also have a public aspect. We recognize that you may well need a period of reflection to absorb this sudden news. I am most grateful for the support Adas’ lay leaders and clergy have provided my family and me in the short time since I brought this matter to their attention. That support makes it possible for us to prepare for this new chapter in our lives, and for me in my ongoing service as Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation.
While I struggled in my childhood and adolescence with a difference I recognized in myself, that feeling of difference did not then define my identity, much less the spouse I would seek. I sought to marry a woman because of a belief that this was the right thing for me. This conviction was reinforced by having grown up in a different era, when the attitudes and counsel of adult professionals and peers encouraged me to deny this uncertain aspect of myself. I met and fell in love with Batya, a wonderful woman who loved and accepted me exactly as I am. Together, we have shared a love so deep and real, and together we have built a loving home with our children—founded principally on the values and joys of Jewish life and tradition. But my inner struggle never did go away. Indeed, Batya herself has supported me through this very personal inner struggle that she knew to be the source of great pain and confusion in my life over decades.
A text I’ve sat with for years is from the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 72b) and states, “Rabbah said, any scholar whose inside does not match his outside is no scholar. Abaye, and some say Ravah bar Ulah, said [one whose inside does not match his outside] is called an abomination.” Ultimately, the dissonance between my inside and my outside became undeniable, then unwise, and finally intolerable. With much pain and tears, together with my beloved wife, I have come to understand that I could walk my path with the greatest strength, with the greatest peace in my heart, with the greatest healing and wholeness, when I finally acknowledged that I am a gay man. Sadly, for us this means that Batya and I can no longer remain married, despite our fidelity throughout our marriage and our abiding friendship and love. As our divorce is not born of rancor, we pray that together with our children we will remain bound by a brit mishpachah, a covenant of family.
I hope and pray, too, that I will be the best father, family member, rabbi, friend, and human being I can be, now that I have resolved a decades-long struggle. The truth is that like anyone else, I have no choice but to live with the reality, or personal Torah, of my life. I ask for your continued trust in me to guide you as your spiritual leader as I truly am. I also ask for your love and kindness toward Batya and our children as they seek to live their lives with dignity, as they journey the challenging road ahead.
I feel immensely proud that for many generations our congregation has set standards of vision and leadership in the American Jewish community and am sincerely grateful for the privilege of serving Adas Israel. Now, with deepened humility, I look forward to continuing the delicate task of marking and celebrating our shared human journeys in joy and in holiness.
Rabbi Steinlauf fell into an odd liminal moment in history. If he were a 25-year-old rabbi, there would be no drama here, no nothing, in fact, because he would simply be a rabbi who happens to be gay. The Conservative movement of Judaism has changed over the past decade or two in unimaginable ways. I have trouble picturing a synagogue that wouldn't hire a gay rabbi. On the other hand, if he were 60 years old now, with the same identity, he most likely would have been able to glide toward retirement, his secret intact.
There is no need for this sort of secret anymore. There is no reason for the rabbi of a progressive synagogue to hide from his congregants who he, in fact, is. These are difficult times for the Steinlaufs (it should go without saying that Batya Steinlauf is a woman of valor), and they should have our prayers. I am also proud of them, as are the other congregants I've spoken to so far today (one of my fellow congregants, Frank Foer, the editor of the New Republic, noted that Rabbi Steinlauf has just discovered the most dramatic possible way to break the Yom Kippur fast).
These are uncharted waters, but I have faith in our synagogue, and in the broader Conservative movement. It also seems to me that a clergyman who knows himself and doesn't engage in concealment will be of great service to his flock.
A cradle left behind by Syrian Kurdish refugees at the Turkish-Syrian border in late September (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
The theme of the week in the Syria conflict—that airstrikes are of only limited use in the struggle to degrade and destroy the Islamic State terror group—is about to be underscored in terrible fashion in the besieged border town of Kobani, which is under sustained, and mainly unanswered, assault by as many as 9,000 ISIS terrorists armed with tanks and rocket launchers.
I just got off the phone with a desperate-sounding Kurdish intelligence official, Rooz Bahjat, who said he fears that Kobani could fall to ISIS within the next 24 hours. If it does, he predicts that ISIS will murder thousands in the city, which is crammed with refugees—Kurdish, Turkmen, Christian, and Arab—from other parts of the Syrian charnel house. As many as 50,000 civilians remain in the town, Bahjat said.
"A terrible slaughter is coming. If they take the city, we should expect to have 5,000 dead within 24 or 36 hours," he told me. "It will be worse than Sinjar," the site of a recent ISIS massacre that helped prompt President Obama to fight ISIS. There have been reports of airstrikes on ISIS vehicles, but so far, Bahjat said that these strikes have been modest in scope and notably ineffective.
Kobani is located on the Turkish border, but Bahjat said he is receiving reports that Turkey is pulling its troops back, rather than risk armed confrontation with ISIS. "It's unbelievable—Turkey is in NATO, so you literally have NATO watching what is happening in this town. Everyone can see it—the TV cameras are there, watching. It's terrible."
He went on, "This just can't be allowed to happen. I'm upset personally as a Kurd, seeing my brethren killed. I'm upset as a secularist seeing the hope of freedom being murdered and I'm upset as a human being, watching these monsters commit genocide."
Kurdish fighters are outnumbered by ISIS, and they have no heavy weaponry. There are reports coming out of Kobani that at least one female Kurdish suicide bomber has struck at ISIS terrorists already. The situation is grim, growing grimmer, and one in which hesitation by the international community may not be easily forgiven.
A couple of weeks ago, Laurie Goodstein, in the Times, wrote of American pulpit rabbis who are sometimes too skittish to express their true feelings about Israel and, in particular, its current government:
Debate among Jews about Israel is nothing new, but some say the friction is now fire. Rabbis said in interviews that it may be too hot to touch, and many are anguishing over what to say about Israel in their sermons during the High Holy Days ...
I expressed the thought on Twitter (a famous vehicle for complicated thoughts) that it is pathetic for rabbis to avoid discussing certain subjects for fear of offending members of their congregations. What's the point of being in the clergy if you can't speak your heart? Many rabbis, particularly in the Conservative and Reform movements, have sometimes found themselves to the left of their congregations—or at least to the left of their most influential congregants—on matters related to Israel, but speaking truth to (synagogue board) power is a risk they are required to take.
Later that day, I also endorsed a seemingly contradictory position, one advanced by Peter Beinart, that pulpit rabbis would serve their congregations better by talking about Judaism, rather than about geopolitics (where, he suggests, they have no huge comparative advantage over such paid scribblers as Beinart and Goldberg). Here's Peter:
The greatest threat to Jewish life in the United States is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s religious illiteracy. The American Jewish community represents an unprecedented experiment in what happens when you combine mass ignorance of Jewish law and tradition with radical acceptance by the gentile world. The result is tragic. It’s not tragic because more than seventy percent of non-Orthodox American Jews now intermarry. People should grab love where they can. It’s tragic because so many of the young American Jews who choose not to raise Jewish families don’t even know what they’re discarding.
That evening, Goldblog Chief Rabbi Gil Steinlauf (who in his spare time also serves as senior rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation, the largest Conservative synagogue in Washington), emailed me with a question, which went, essentially, "What do you want from me?" But nicely, of course.
I acknowledged the seeming contradiction in my tweeting by telling him that I'd rather hear rabbis teach their congregants Judaism, but if you're going to talk about Israel, then you might as well say what you think. He assured me that that was his plan for Rosh Hashanah.
And he executed the plan very well. I've been collecting sermons from around the country on the subject of Israel, in order to understand where mainstream Jewish thought is today. (Hint: It's not where Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson think it is, but nor is it where the left might think it is—many rabbis, like many rank-and-file Jews, were shocked this summer by the ferocious return of anti-Semitism, and by the deep desire on the part of Hamas and its sympathizers to annihilate the Jewish state. So far, the sermons I've read seem less naive about the nature of the conflict than they have in the recent past.) I've read some eloquent writing, but so far I'm partial to Rabbi Steinlauf's, because he managed to be crystal-clear in his condemnation of Hamas and of global anti-Semitism, but also resolutely clear about the responsibility of Jews to keep hate from hardening their hearts.
Through much of the summer, I was trying to explain the actual nature of Hamas, which is a hard thing to do when the prevailing narrative has the group playing the role of the aggrieved resistance. Steinlauf solved this conundrum by doing something deceptively simple. He read from Israel's Declaration of Independence, and then from the Hamas Charter, as a way of illustrating the radical moral difference between two competing understandings of the world:
At a moment like this, we need to go back to basics. We need to remember who we are as Jews, and why we are here, and what the vision and dream of the State of Israel is in the first place. On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion spoke these words.
“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Thank God, the modern state of Israel is indeed all of these things. Within these words we hear of Israel’s commitment to be based on prophetic values of justice. In the haftarah of Yom Kippur, we will recite the words of Isaiah who tells us that God wants us to “... unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke ... to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”
Contrast the Israeli Declaration with the foundational “Covenant of Hamas,” where article 7 quotes the Koran and reads, “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: “O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”
He then went on to caution against the temptations of hatred:
Yes, these terrorists are motivated by an anti-Semitism as pure as that of Hitler. But on this New Year, as we face the unshakable truth of anti-Semitism in Gaza and the world, and reel from the deaths of children—we must, above all else, resist the urge to sink to Hamas’ level. Instead, we must stand strong and hold fast to the foundational principles of Israel and Judaism. If we are to play our part in overcoming the darkness of our time, the narrative of Israel must no longer be about Jews vs. Arabs, or Israelis vs. Palestinians. ... It is not about the powerful vs. the powerless. The struggle in the Land of Israel is a struggle between those who yearn for peace and those who do not yearn for peace.
And he continued:
We must ... realize that no one people or ideology owns the claim to the worst victimhood in this world. There is, in truth, only one story of victimhood in the entire human saga, and that is the loss of innocent life at the hands of any and all people who do not value peace and justice and the dignity of life itself. The Mishnah itself, in Sanhedrin (4:5), explains: God created the world from one single person, from Adam, "... for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, 'My parent was greater than your parent.' ... There is a parallel teaching to this in the Koran itself! The evil that we struggle against is not in Islam. Yes, Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has its problematic texts—but as a religion it is not evil. [The evil] is in the twisted, distorted ideas of Hamas and other fanatics.
I remain partial to the view that American Jewry is threatened more by its own ignorance than by anything that may happen in the Middle East. But if rabbis are going to speak about Israel, then they should speak with clarity, as Steinlauf did at Rosh Hashanah.
Obama at the UN General Assembly (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
President Obama, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, just delivered a speech that reminded me of Hillary Clinton at her most pugnacious, and of John McCain at his most tranquil. He reminded me of the second-term George W. Bush as well.
Obama labeled ISIS "evil" (remember the trouble Bush created for himself when he used such terms?) and promised the destruction of its "network of death"; he excoriated Russia explicitly and at length for bullying its way into Ukraine; he made a direct demand on the Muslim world to disassociate itself from the extreme Islam of ISIS; and, most striking for us here at Goldblog headquarters, he dashed the hopes of the linkage-meisters, the foreign-policy analysts who continue to believe that Israel and its problems represent the core crisis of the Middle East. "Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure ... the illusion that Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main source of problems in the region,"he said. Five years ago, in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world, Obama labeled the Israeli-Palestinian dispute one of the three major sources of tension between the U.S. and the Muslim world. This bit of analysis has been overcome by events. (He did, though, talk about the unsustainable status quo in the West Bank, something he has talked about before.)
Obama's critics will say that he has shed his public diffidence on matters related to the conflicts of the Middle East because pollsters have been telling him that Americans want a less professorial president. But my impression from watching him in recent weeks, and from talking to people who know him well, is that two sets of recent events in particular have actually shifted his thinking about the relative importance of "soft power"; about the nature of America's adversaries; and consequently about the role the U.S. must play in the world, in order to keep these adversaries at bay.
He understands now that Russia's new czar worships power, and is immune to appeals based on notions of rational self-interest. Obama's forthright promise to stand with America's NATO allies in Eastern Europe, made recently in Estonia, can now be understood as prologue to today's speech.
And he has been truly shaken—as have many people—by the depths of ISIS depravity. And more than that, he realized that no other country apart from the United States had the will or capability to stop ISIS's advance. In other words, Obama understands today that the U.S. is the world's indispensable nation. (Two areas in which Obama was notably discreet: He did not criticize Iran, with which he is trying to negotiate a nuclear deal; and he was distressingly silent on the subject of Bashar al-Assad, who is in many ways the father of ISIS, and is certainly the cause of Syria's collapse. Unlike John McCain, Obama is not interested in confronting Assad at the moment.)
Obama's advisors say that this speech can be placed on a continuum of previous statements. The deputy national security advisor, Benjamin Rhodes, in an e-mail sent after the speech, wrote, "President Obama has always had three themes that appeared prominently today: Calling on nations to meet their responsibilities to uphold international norms; no safe haven for terrorists; (and noting that) ordinary people can bridge divisions of race and religion, and deserve governments who do the same. Remember the August 1, 2007 speech when he said he'd go after Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Or the Nobel address. I think this is in a direct line with those."
Rhodes may be right, but this speech did feel, temperamentally at least, like a break with the past.
Possibly not a good night for the putative caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Reuters TV)
So, our reluctant, hesitant, wan, diffident loner egghead of a president somehow managed to pull together a potent Arab coalition and launch an air war against extremists of the Islamic State terror group on their home turf. Very surprising, given his reputation.
Defying expectations is one thing; winning a war in which victory has not yet been adequately defined is another. And yet, President Obama has taken the first, significant steps to at least slow, and possibly reverse, ISIS's expansion.
Four quick, early morning observations (to be followed by more, I hope):
1. The Arabs of the Gulf (Arabian Gulf, Persian Gulf, take your pick) have overcome their fear of Obama's irresolution and joined him publicly in this campaign. This has happened for two reasons: One, Obama made a convincing case to U.S. allies that he's in the ISIS fight for the long-term. The Gulf Arabs are exposed, almost existentially so, to the ISIS threat, so they obviously feel that the U.S. is not pivoting away from them (to borrow a term). The second reason is embedded in the first reason: the president was pushing on an open door. Precisely because the Arab states fear ISIS so much, they needed to take a bit of a leap of faith with a man they haven't trusted since the "red line" crisis of last year. That said, Obama's critics will attempt to downplay his achievement in building this coalition. They shouldn't. Getting this set of countries to act in their own defense has never been an easy task.
2. It is true that there exists no strategy for victory, and no definition of victory. The advantage of launching strikes against ISIS positions early in this fight is that its commanders now have to spend extraordinary amounts of time, energy, and resources merely digging in, and protecting their human and materiel assets, rather than pushing on toward Baghdad, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. A terrorist preoccupied with his own survival has less bandwidth to threaten yours. But these strikes will not bring about the end of ISIS. Like other terror groups, it can "win" this current round of fighting by surviving, and maximizing civilian casualties on its own side.
3. This struggle is now owned by the United States. President Obama has spread around the risk, but make no mistake, this is an American fight. If President Obama wasn't convinced that the U.S. is—and should be—the world's sole remaining superpower, he is now. Our reluctant president came to the conclusion that it would be insane for the civilized world to allow the barbarians of ISIS to overspread the Middle East. He looked around, and realized that the only country that could lead the anti-ISIS campaign was his. He's right, alas, and this leadership has a cost. ISIS was mainly interested, for the moment, at least, in securing its own borders, and building the infrastructure of a state. I have a feeling its long-term planners woke up this morning newly interested in finding ways to hurt Americans.
4. This American-led campaign isn't unalloyed good news for Bashar al-Assad. ISIS has been, in practical terms, his best friend this past year. The threat of ISIS caused numerous anti-Assad parties to think twice about calling for his removal. And ISIS did a great job on Assad's behalf of eliminating the more moderate Syrian opposition. Nevertheless, American bombs are falling in Syria, and they're not falling on Assad. Very few people a year ago could have predicted this.
Police in Sarcelles, just outside Paris, block rioters from attacking a synagogue in July. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
A few days ago, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, tweeted the following statement: “Germans rally against anti-Semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war. Merkel joins.” Roth provided a link to a New York Times article about the rally, which took place in Berlin.
Roth’s framing of this issue is very odd and obtuse. Anti-Semitism in Europe did not flare “in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza,” or anywhere else. Anti-Semitic violence and invective are not responses to events in the Middle East, just as anti-Semitism does not erupt “in response” to the policies of banks owned by Jews, or in response to editorial positions taken by The New York Times. This is for the simple reason that Jews do not cause anti-Semitism.
It is a universal and immutable rule that the targets of prejudice are not the cause of prejudice. Just as Jews (or Jewish organizations, or the Jewish state) do not cause anti-Semitism to flare, or intensify, or even to exist, neither do black people cause racism, nor gay people homophobia, nor Muslims Islamophobia. Like all prejudices, anti-Semitism is not a rational response to observable events; it is a manifestation of irrational hatred. Its proponents justify their anti-Semitism by pointing to the (putatively offensive or repulsive) behavior of their targets, but this does not mean that major figures in the world of human-rights advocacy should accept these pathetic excuses as legitimate.
A question: If a mosque in Europe or in the U.S. were to be attacked (God forbid) by Islamophobic arsonists, would Ken Roth describe such an attack as a manifestation of “anti-Muslim hatred that flared in response to the conduct of Muslim groups in the Middle East?”
The demonstration in Berlin, at which the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, denounced anti-Semitism in un-Rothian fashion—which is to say, she denounced it without excusing it—was meant to protest the rough treatment of Jews, and Jewish institutions, across Europe, mainly at the hands of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. These events included the sacking of synagogues; the desecration of Jewish cemeteries; arson attacks on Jewish-owned stores; and physical attacks on people who dress in an identifiably Jewish manner. The demonstration in Berlin was also meant to protest much of the discourse at anti-Israel rallies over the summer: “Death to Jews,” and “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” were two of the slogans heard at rallies in Germany and elsewhere.
The people who perpetrated these violent acts, and who made these genocidal statements, were not protesting Israeli army policy. They were giving vent to sharp and negative feelings about Jews, feelings that obviously predated this summer's war (Jews were victims of hate crimes in Europe before the latest round of fighting in the Middle East; the massacre of Jewish children at a school in Toulouse, and the fatal attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, are two examples.)
There are, of course, non-anti-Semitic ways to protest Israeli policy and decision-making, and many in Europe walked this path: Demonstrations denouncing Israeli behavior were staged outside Israeli embassies; other anti-Israel activists called for arms embargoes, and so on. Many hundreds of opinion pieces critical of Israel were published in Europe over the summer, and I’ve only seen a handful that resorted to anti-Semitic tropes in order to make their case.
(There are separate questions about proportionality of coverage, and Israel-centered obsessiveness among elites, that are important to consider when discussing the reaction to any events involving Israel, and Matti Friedman addresses some of these questions in his famous essay on the topic. This is not my subject for the moment, nor is a related question concerning the nature and meaning of the term “anti-Zionist.” Suffice it to say that a demonstration of “anti-Zionists” demanding “Death to Israel,” a call that was heard frequently in Europe during the summer protest months, is not philo-Semitic. But even “Death to Israel,” with its promise of violence, and its contempt for the rights of the Jewish people to have a state, does not compare to “Jews to the gas.”)
I don’t know what motivated Ken Roth to blame the Jewish state for the violent acts of anti-Semites. I do hope that he reconsiders his position on the root cause of anti-Jewish prejudice.
U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2008, using their boots (Reuters )
A president is axiomatically having a bad week when his understanding of warfare is criticized, in public, by the most revered living Marine general. This is what happened yesterday when retired Gen. James Mattis, the legendary former chief of U.S. Central Command, told the House Intelligence Committee that, “You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do.”
Mattis is referring to President Obama’s promise to avoid deploying ground troops, no matter what, in the fight against the Islamic State terror group. (There are, of course, already U.S. troops wearing boots that touch the ground in Iraq, but they are not meant to join the frontline fight against ISIS, though they could obviously get hurt anyway, this being Iraq.)
Mattis's argument is simple: Never tell your enemy what you’re not going to do. “If this threat to our nation is determined to be as significant as I believe it is, we may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground,” Mattis said. “If a brigade of our paratroopers or a battalion landing team of our Marines would strengthen our allies at a key juncture and create havoc/humiliation for our adversaries, then we should do what is necessary with our forces that exist for that very purpose.”
Even Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, who is not a lean-in sort of commander in the Mattis style, has acknowledged the possibility of an eventual need for ground troops.
President Obama’s caution in the matter of ISIS is not the disaster many people make it out to be—his sobriety and thoughtfulness may one day be remembered more fondly than they are understood now—for a couple of reasons: The first is that ISIS doesn’t pose an immediate threat to the United States, because, unlike al-Qaeda, it is mainly interested in building up its own state, not in attacking the far enemy. Unlike many of his fellow countrymen, Obama hasn’t let anger over the beheadings of two Americans blind him to the current nature of the threat. The second is that he has a proper appreciation for the limitations of American allies in the Middle East, and he knows that true victory against ISIS will only come when our allies are capable of taking the lead in this struggle. It doesn’t matter, in other words, if Obama puts 20,000 troops, or 200,000, into this fight. Without capable partners to secure the victory these troops would obtain, there’s no point in making such a commitment.
But: Obama has committed himself to the eventual destruction of ISIS, and so it is counterproductive strategically to signal to ISIS his plans and intentions.
There is a way for Obama to reframe the American role in the fight against ISIS, without committing to any specific course of action. I didn’t come up with this new rhetorical and policy path; Obama did, in interviews with me, and others, and in public statements over the past several years. The subject of these interviews and public statements was not the threat posed by Sunni radicalism, but the threat posed by the Shiite revolutionary state, Iran. When asked what he would do to stop Iran from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon, Obama always answered the same way: “All options are on the table.”
“All options on the table” has an ominous ring to it. It is concise, ambiguous, and threatening, and I believe that its regular public deployment was one factor that motivated Iran to negotiate the future of its nuclear program with the U.S., rather than continue its rush to the bomb.
Using this slogan—as opposed to “no boots on the ground”—in the case of ISIS would also have the advantage of being accurate, because of course there are situations in which President Obama may have to use ground troops in the struggle against ISIS, particularly if U.S. assets, or allies, are directly threatened. Does anyone really believe that if ISIS were to make a move on Baghdad, which is home to the largest U.S. embassy in the world, or on Jordan, that the president wouldn’t use whatever force necessary prevent a debacle?
A move from “no boots on the ground” to “all options on the table” would cause the Consistency Police (i.e. my profession) to go berserk, and would frighten the left, and also the non-interventionist right. But the decision to degrade and destroy ISIS has been made, so the most important goal has to be to frighten ISIS. I don’t want U.S. combat troops in the fight against ISIS—this is the responsibility of Arabs and Kurds. But I do want the leaders of ISIS to believe that Obama is capable of waging all-out war against them.
ISIS terrorists celebrate a victory over Assad forces near Raqaa, Syria. (Reuters )
My friend and colleague David Frum makes a compelling case against America’s ramped-up war on the terrorist group ISIS. The thrust of David’s argument is that the U.S. will be waging this war on behalf of the Iranian regime, which, of course, is our prime adversary in the Middle East, one that is more wily, more consequential, and (of course) much closer to crossing the nuclear threshold than ISIS is:
The trouble with the policy of aid-Iran-but-don’t-admit-it is that the United States receives nothing in return—and specifically, no abatement of the Iranian nuclear program. The Obama administration may hope that by acting as Iran’s air force today, the United States may somehow gain Iranian goodwill tomorrow. Instead, the bizarre real-world effect of the administration's deny-the-obvious messaging is to empower the Iranians to act as if they were doing the United States a favor by allowing the United States to whomp their enemies for them.
David ends his post (you should read the whole thing, as they say) by asking, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?”
Let me attempt an answer, even though I am myself ambivalent about this campaign, because I think the risk of escalation is great; because bombing Bashar al-Assad’s enemies is a morally unsatisfying thing to do (I’m going for understatement here); because the chance of meaningful (as opposed to stopgap) success is slight; and because I am tired of the U.S. waging war in the Middle East against terrible people on behalf of other terrible people. But here are a couple of arguments for why Obama is justified in intensifying his existing campaign against ISIS.
The first is that not all of ISIS’s enemies are terrible: The defense of the Kurds and of Jordan are causes worth pursuing. (Even the defense of Saudi Arabia is in American national security and economic interests.) An unimpeded ISIS threatens the Kurds, who are our allies and who have built for themselves something decent in their corner of Iraq, and it poses an existential threat to Jordan. If Jordan were to be overrun, this would spark both a humanitarian catastrophe of unimaginable proportions as well as a regional war between Israel (which would rush to Jordan’s defense) and the global jihadist movement, a war Iran would exploit to further its own anti-Israel and anti-Sunni objectives. ISIS infiltration of Saudi Arabia would be similarly disastrous. Even an ISIS move on Baghdad would be disastrous for the U.S.—imagine the mechanics of evacuating thousands of Americans from a city under ISIS siege. If you liked the fall of Saigon, you’ll love the pictures from besieged Baghdad.
It would, of course, be lovely if the non-Iran-sponsored ground forces arrayed against ISIS were formidable. (Obama, as I’ve noted, has spent three years disparaging the fighting skills of the secularish Free Syrian Army, which has now become a linchpin of the American-led effort against ISIS.) But they are not. The only possible way to slow ISIS’s progress, and to possibly reverse it in some more-than-negligible way, is to provide air cover and intelligence and logistics support to our hapless allies on the ground.
A second reason: President Obama was careful not to speak of an imminent or specific ISIS threat to Americans, because none currently exists. But it is not implausible to argue that a Qaeda-inspired group of limitless cruelty and formidable financial resources, one that has an omnibus loathing for “infidels,” and one that has thousands of members who hold passports from countries that participate in the U.S. visa-waiver program, poses a non-trivial threat to American civilians. Disrupting ISIS by attacking its leaders in their Syrian safe havens, rather than simply attacking their underlings inside Iraq, seems justifiable.
David is right to argue that the U.S. is functionally aligning itself with Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, and this is a terrible thing. Other critics of the president’s plan are right to point out its flaws and limitations, and to ask whether our anger at the beheadings of two American journalists is blurring our vision. (It’s not the worst thing, at times like these, to have a president who leans in the direction of reluctance.) But the question for David is, what are the consequences for American national security of continued ISIS success?
President Obama—who will tell the country tonight that the U.S. is taking its air war against the psychotic, end-of-days Islamist terrorists of ISIS directly to their safe havens in Syria—has now comprehensively learned, six years into his presidency, that Michael Corleone’s fatalistic insight about the mafia also holds true for presidents in the Middle East: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” A president desperate to make at least a semi-graceful exit from a very large swamp has learned that there is no way out.
This will not be the Cairo speech of 2009, in which a buoyant, overly optimistic Obama forecast a future of productive and respectful (and, implicitly, low-maintenance) relations with the pre-Arab Spring, pre-Syria catastrophe, pre-ISIS Muslim world. Instead, this will be a particularly sober speech in which Obama outlines why his ramped-up campaign against ISIS is a national-security imperative for the U.S. The short-term, and even medium-term, goal of the Obama administration is not to reshape the Middle East; the goal is simply to avert further catastrophe, by degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS. (In the speech, Obama will cite his campaigns against Islamist terrorists in Yemen and Somalia as models for the anti-ISIS campaign—no state-building here, just killing terrorists.)
What sort of catastrophe is he trying to avert? An ISIS march on Baghdad is one fear; so too is an ISIS infiltration of Jordan and, over time, of Saudi Arabia as well. (There is palpable worry among Middle East experts in the administration that Jordan, a resolute ally of the United States and an island of stability in a mainly unhinged region, could become vulnerable to an ISIS juggernaut). Another goal is to deliver public defeat to a group that appears to many young, disaffected Muslim men to be the strongest horse (to borrow from Osama bin Laden) in the Middle East, and to disrupt the movement of young Muslim men from Europe (and elsewhere) who seek to affiliate with ISIS, and who could bring ISIS terror back to their own countries. (It is worth noting that many of these thousands of young men hold citizenship in countries that participate in the U.S. visa-waiver program.)
The president has promised the eventual neutralization of ISIS, but this task will be exceedingly hard, and he obviously knows that this is the case. He does have a couple of things working in his favor. The first is that the American public is with him. The videotaped beheadings of two American journalists have galvanized allegedly war-weary Americans for a fight in a way that we haven’t seen in years. The second is that leaders of moderate Sunni states are so frightened by ISIS that they seem ready to join the coalition Obama is building to fight the group.
But there are a daunting number of impediments to success. The first is that American public opinion is fickle. American pilots will be flying risky missions, and there are already American boots on the ground—special-forces boots, intelligence boots, trainer boots. American opinion could change if soldiers start getting hurt or killed, especially months from now, when the horrific images of those beheadings fade from memory. In any case, Americans are notably uninterested in sustaining long campaigns against even atrocious enemies.
The second obstacle is that the U.S. has no effective allies on the ground. An air campaign can achieve a great deal, but the campaign Obama is envisioning—slow and steady, rather than shock and awe—has the disadvantage of giving ISIS time to dig in. The U.S. will be counting on a dysfunctional Iraqi army; intermittently effective Kurdish guerrillas; Sunni tribes of dubious loyalty; and, of course, the Free Syrian Army—the force that Obama has spent three years disparaging as a collection of farmers and carpenters and engineers—to do the hard work of rooting ISIS out of presumably fortified towns and cities. Much of what Obama is promising in this ramped-up campaign is help for these outfits, but the U.S. has spent a dozen years training the Iraqi army, with negligible results.
Obama faces many other difficulties in this campaign. One of them is the quality of (so-called) U.S. allies such as Qatar, which plays every side of this conflict; and Turkey, which won’t even seal the border crossings across which would-be European jihadists travel on their way to ISIS recruitment stations. (This is not even to mention some of America’s European allies, who have provided millions of dollars in ransom to the ISIS treasury in exchange for their kidnapped citizens.) Another problem: End games are nearly impossible to envision at the moment, either in politically combustible Iraq, or in a collapsed Syria. Put another way, it is easier see the slippery slope than the exit door. Then there is a problem that recurs time and again in the Middle East: Will U.S. escalation against ISIS serve as a recruiting tool for the group? What will the U.S. do if ISIS terrorists launch successful attacks against American targets, either in the Middle East, Europe, or even at home? Further escalation will surely follow, but to what end? Without effective allies on the ground, fighting this fight on behalf of the U.S. and the civilized world, wouldn’t the U.S. have to eventually insert its own troops?
These questions are not meant to suggest that the underlying moral and national security case for an anti-ISIS campaign is unsound. It would not be tenable for the U.S. and its allies to allow a group rejected by al-Qaeda as too extreme to control large swaths of territory in the heart of the Middle East. Our reluctant (or clear-eyed—take your pick) president understands this. What Americans will see on Wednesday night is a president who has convinced himself that this is a fight worth waging, despite his bone-deep desire to escape the morass of the Middle East.
The president is a superior terrorist hunter. He has also neutralized a profound existential threat to U.S. allies in the Middle East, and denied ISIS access to vast storehouses of deadly chemical weapons. So why does he get no credit?
The last time the President gave a major speech on Syria, one year ago (Reuters )
Here are five observations about President Obama’s frustrating and largely hapless encounter with the Middle East:
1) Inaction has its consequences, just as action has its consequences;
2) Just because you’re not interested in the Middle East doesn’t mean the Middle East isn’t interested in you;
3) Chaos and collapse in the Middle East cannot be solely, or even (perhaps) mainly, attributed to the mistaken or ill-conceived ideas, goals, speeches, and strategies of American presidents;
4) Obama, more than other presidents, gets no credit for his concrete accomplishments in the Middle East;
5) Obama’s presidency will be judged a failure in the realm of national security if al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups are still able to maintain significant safe havens across the greater Middle East when he leaves the White House in January of 2017, and if Iran remains on a path to the nuclear threshold.
I’m sure you’re fascinated by Observation Number Five in particular, but I also know that you are asking yourselves, “Just what are the concrete accomplishments of which you speak?” Washington has reached a consensus view that Obama has been hesitant, contradictory, and flinching on a range of issues related to the Middle East. It is true that his rhetoric has not often matched his strategy (see Peter Baker’s story on the disconnect between some of Obama's reassuring statements on the Middle East and the dispiriting reality of the place, and Richard Haass’s comments on Administration promises); it is true that early reports suggest that the strategy he is unveiling to counter ISIS seems limited and evolutionary; and it also true, as Ron Fournier, and others, note, that Obama has a tendency to tell America’s enemies what he won’t do to them, rather than what he will do.
Here are two things that are also true: Obama has become the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the presidency; and his successful push to disarm the Assad regime of the bulk of its chemical-weapons stockpiles has removed from the Middle East, and beyond, the possibility of an unparalleled cataclysm.
Why does he get no credit for these achievements? He gets no acclaim as a terrorist hunter for two reasons. First, Republicans will not credit him with any achievements in this endeavor because they won’t credit him with any achievement ever, for anything. He could concoct a cure for Ebola in Sam Kass’s kitchen and conservatives would criticize him for wasting time on a disease that doesn’t affect Americans. Second, the left-leaning Democratic Party base is hesitant to tout his record in the terrorist-killing department because it is uncomfortable with the idea of their president as a drone-deploying killer. No love from the right or left means that attacks such as the one that eliminated the head of Somalia’s terrifying al-Shabab militant group received relatively little notice. But I think the record will show that Obama has focused U.S. efforts on combating al-Qaeda and al Qaeda-like groups in at least half a dozen countries in a way that his predecessor did not. (And as for his predecessor’s predecessor, well, he did virtually nothing to stop al-Qaeda from metastasizing into what it became by September 11, 2001.)
On the second issue—the safe removal, and subsequent destruction aboard a U.S. Navy ship, of 1,300 tons of chemical agents from the most dangerous country in the most dangerous region in the world—Obama gets no credit in part because of the awkward and stutter-step manner in which the removal was originally negotiated, and also because it is not in the nature of humans to credit a leader for averting a theoretical catastrophe.
But the catastrophe averted here was plausible, even predictable. Just answer the following question: As the U.S. moves closer to open confrontation with ISIS inside Syria, is it a good thing that ISIS, and like-minded groups, and the regime itself, have no access to vast storehouses of chemical agents?
I did not think it was possible to remove the bulk of Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile in conditions of war, and I did not think Assad would agree to part with any significant portion of his stockpile, which, of course, represented his ultimate regime-preservation weapon.
On the one hand, it would have been emotionally satisfying—ephemerally, at least—to see Obama enforce his self-drawn red line by bombing Assad’s palace. But bombing Assad’s palace, or other regime facilities, would not have led to the removal of his stockpile. There are consequences to Obama’s last-minute about-face on the subject of airstrikes, though I find implausible the idea that Vladimir Putin would not be doing what he is doing if Obama had appeared tougher on Syria.
The truth is that Assad gave up his chemical weapons in good measure because he saw Obama’s threat of airstrikes as credible. The U.S. still has the ability to deter.
And what does the world get out of the removal of these chemical agents? Here is Laura Holgate, the senior director for nonproliferation at the National Security Council: “By having these 1,300 tons out of there, we’ve massively simplified the remaining challenges of the ongoing conflict. We’ve just removed an ‘x’ factor.”
The regime continues to use chlorine gas intermittently against civilians, and it is widely believed to have held back at least a small portion of its stockpile of other agents and precursors. But the bulk of the stockpile is gone, and with it, the threat it posed to such neighbors as Israel and Jordan, and the fear that sophisticated jihadist groups could lay their hands on these chemicals.
Holgate told me that “the existential threat these Syrian chemical weapons posed to Israel is gone. Period. It’s out of the country.” She went on to say, “That doesn’t mean that there are not discrepancies that remain, and we’re in constant conversation with Israel about that. We both believe that there are things that are undeclared, but nothing to the point of being an existential threat. Israel has stopped distributing gas masks to the population. What does it mean not to distribute gas masks? That’s a signal to the population.”
Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, called the dismantling of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles a “big deal,” and then went on to say that it is “even bigger if you consider the most probable counter-factual: Had we bombed a limited number of sites, as planned and advocated for by all the ‘authorities,’ what are the odds that additional chemical-weapons attacks would have happened? Ninety-nine-plus percent.”
He went on to make the sobering point that “an international order that excludes killing with chemical weapons is not nirvana, but it is a much better world than one in which Assad and the folks fighting him are also using chemical weapons.”
I’ve been critical of Obama’s hesitation to take a more active role in shaping the Syrian opposition (in the debate between Hillary Clinton and the president on this subject—some of which appeared in this space a month ago—I lean toward Hillary’s view that the U.S. could have done more to help Syrian rebels early on, before the revolution was hijacked by jihadists), but it only seems fair to acknowledge that Obama achieved something important and tangible in his effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
As I mentioned above, Obama will ultimately be judged on whether he combats jihadism successfully (without, it should be said, forming an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, or even the Assad regime itself, in the process). He was first voted into power in part by promising to refocus America’s attention on Sunni jihadism. But by removing a deadly ‘x’ factor from the equation, he has done the world a service that ought to be acknowledged.
Hillary Clinton and friends, digging a hole (Reuters )
Shortly after I posted my interview with Hillary Clinton last month, I began hearing from liberal Democrats who were worried that her hawkish comments—on Syria, but especially on the Gaza war—would somehow provoke a primary challenge from her left (these conversations proceeded from the assumption that Clinton is running for president, which is a reasonable assumption). The Democratic Party base, the theory went, would be so offended by Clinton’s vociferous pro-Netanyahu positioning that it would agitate on behalf of a primary challenge. Elizabeth Warren, the populist Massachusetts senator, was the most likely candidate for the role.
As a reminder, here is some of what Clinton said about Israel and Gaza:
Israel was attacked by rockets from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult. Of course Israel, just like the United States, or any other democratic country, should do everything they can possibly do to limit civilian casualties.
If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank], because even if I’m dealing with Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.
Tough stuff, and not the sort of thing you would have heard from her publicly when she was yelling at Benjamin Netanyahu on behalf of President Obama for the past several years. After the interview, I came to a few conclusions about these statements:
They were made on purpose, as was every statement she made in the interview, including the line that got the most attention: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
They were made with the knowledge that she faces no serious foreign policy-focused challenge from her left. She does face a more serious and sustained critique from the left on domestic issues, but she felt that going hawkish on foreign policy would be low-risk.
They were made with knowledge that there are segments of the pro-Israel community that still mistrust her for kissing Mrs. Arafat a million years ago.
She believes what she said. She is just naturally more hawkish than the president she served as secretary of state.
I’m now glad to report—only because I’d rather be right than wrong, all things being equal—that Elizabeth Warren has confirmed for us that, on questions related to Israel, Clinton has nothing to fear from her, at least.
At a town-hall meeting on Cape Cod last month, Warren answered critics of her vote in favor of a Senate measure to send an additional $225 million in military funding to Israel during the war. Here is a report on the town-hall meeting from the Cape Cod Times:
“I think the vote was right, and I'll tell you why I think the vote was right," [Warren] said. "America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren't many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”
Warren said Hamas has attacked Israel ‘indiscriminately,’ but with the Iron Dome defense system, the missiles have "not had the terrorist effect Hamas hoped for." When pressed by another member of the crowd about civilian casualties from Israel's attacks, Warren said she believes those casualties are the "last thing Israel wants.”
“But when Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they're using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself," Warren said, drawing applause.
Even if Elizabeth Warren chooses to run (unlikely), she won’t run as a tough-on-Israel liberal. There's just no percentage in it. Hillary knew what she was doing.