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Turning Away from Militarism

The Editorial Board
April 1, 2012

An Editorial

From the Spring, 2012 issue of Jewish Currents

The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached... must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.... For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose... our moral compass.
—Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, December 10, 2009

LET US CONCEDE TO THE U.S. MILITARY ESTABLISHMENT that the “moral compass” guiding issues of war and peace has been spinning wildly since September 11, 2001, and that the “faith” required for peacemaking may, indeed, seem “silly and naïve” in today’s world. When opponents are willing to commit suicide in order to attack you, it is difficult to imagine negotiating with them. When dictators begin to murder their protesting people en masse, it is difficult not to throw up a protective wall of advanced weaponry. When a fundamentalist theocracy indulges in genocidal rhetoric while seeking to develop nuclear weapons, it is difficult not to launch a limited war now to preempt total war later.

There is no undertaking, however, that is as morally suspect and strategically unpredictable as war. The fact that there are complicated risks involved in peacemaking must not serve as an excuse, therefore, for maintaining America’s status quo of strident militarism, with all of its wasted lives, wasted resources, and chaotic outcomes. Yet this is precisely what the Obama administration has done:

• The President has wound down the criminal war in Iraq, but has continued to pretend that the war in Afghanistan is coherent, winnable, and relevant to America’s true national security. He has also failed to renounce in clear tones the Bush-Rumsfeld doctrine of “preventive war,” which green-lights violence simply to maintain U.S. military supremacy and implement U.S. policy.

• Obama has overseen a major expansion in the use of drones to prosecute the ill-defined “war on terrorism” through assassinations, without regard for national borders, and without pausing to consider how such attacks make our country into a terrorist state in the eyes of others.

• Obama has maintained the Bush administration policy of “extraordinary rendition” and has signed off on an unprecedented expansion of the federal government’s right to imprison or kill its own citizens, as well as foreigners, without trial.

• Obama’s proposed new budget maintains military expenditures greater than the next sixteen nations’ military budgets combined and proposes cuts of only $400 billion over the course of a decade, while social spending is to be cut by more than $750 billion. Even these military reductions, moreover, are aimed primarily at personnel, while the “masters of war” rake in obscene profits.

• Obama has been inexplicably provocative towards China by posting U.S. warships, warplanes, and marines to Australia, increasing military sales to China’s neighbors, and increasing the U.S. naval presence, including nuclear submarines, near China’s shores.

These and other belligerent postures are not unique to this administration, of course. Obama’s Republican opponents, with the marked exception of Ron Paul, have offered only macho and madness when they speak on the subject of national security. In fact, since the attacks of 9/11, there have been few national leaders of any stripe willing to buck the tide of militarism. Religious leaders are preoccupied with private morality and parochial concerns. Liberal politicians run from statements that might label them as “soft” and cost them votes. Military leaders themselves are treated by journalists with utmost respect, as though they were disinterested statesmen. Meanwhile, the media feed us a steady diet of bloody, paranoid entertainment, computer games that train young people to be tomorrow’s drone pilots, and kick-ass sporting events that are regularly interrupted to “thank our troops” and thereby reinforce the belief that armed might is the true guarantor of American well-being and moral righteousness.

Who is truly “the mightiest of the mighty?” asks Avot de Rabbi Natan, a commentary on Pirkei Avot that is one of the most aphoristic rabbinical works, answering: “He who turns his enemy into his friend.”

Shimon Peres, the 87-year-old president of Israel and another Nobel Peace Prize laureate, tried to give life to this teaching on February 9th when he called upon Iran and Israel not to “live as enemies” and urged the Iranian people — “a sensitive people that aspire for friendship and peace” — not to allow “the flags of hostility to cast a dark shadow” over their “historic heritage.”

Three days earlier, however, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a Cabinet speech broadcast on Israel radio, touted Israel’s military strength as “the only thing that ensures our existence, security and prosperity.” The majority of Jews no doubt consider this a “realistic” response to the “tough neighborhood” in which Israel lives. True realism, however, would confront Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weaponry by mandating Israel’s leaders at every level to follow Peres’s example and reach out to the Iranian government and the Iranian people.

Netanyahu should be making weekly speeches about the long history of conciliation between Muslims and Jews, and the millennia-long history of cooperation between the Jewish and Persian peoples. Israel’s Chief Rabbis, as well as Israeli Muslim clerics, should be entreating Iran’s religious leaders for dialogue. Israel’s military leaders should be proposing trust-building measures to Iran’s military establishment. Business and cultural leaders should be funding radio and Internet broadcasts from Israel to the people of Iran, Iranian film and cultural festivals in Israel’s major cities, and the growth of women’s organizations and other historical peace-builders. Israel’s peace movement should be organizing small population exchanges, apartment swaps between Jerusalem and Tehran!

And of course, the Israeli government should be withdrawing its forces from the West Bank and helping to facilitate the establishment of a viable Palestinian state as quickly as possible. Let this one piece of evidence against Zionism and Israel in the court of international opinion become inadmissable, at last!

Peace, said Albert Einstein said in 1931, “cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.” Understanding means recognizing the humanity of your enemy, and appealing to that humanity with the tools of outreach that are familiar to us all: empathy, words of respect, face-to-face encounter, shared food, offers of assistance, acknowledgment of shared aspirations, dignified debate, and so on. Such efforts may seem “silly or naïve” in the face of what most Israelis consider an existential threat hailing from Iran. Yet the idea that a preemptive Israeli attack will neutralize that threat involves no less naive thinking.

Such an attack would likely fetch massive missile fire from both Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which would then mandate Israeli retaliation. Dissolution of the international coalition that has embargoed Iran is a certainty. Oil prices would spike, extending the current economic hard times in Europe and America. International terrorist attacks against Jews and Americans would be a likelihood. An Israel- and American-directed “regime change” would then be the only way to assure that a bloodied, enraged Iran would not simply acquire nuclear weapons at a later date and risk national suicide to use them. We are talking about a war that would probably make the U.S. campaign in Iraq seem like a skirmish.

The most admirable policy put forward so far in matters of war and peace by the Obama administration has been its public resistance to calls for war against Iran, and its active pressuring of Iran’s government to back off from its nuclear ambitions. Such diplomacy, in combination with resistance to war by some of Israel’s own leading military and intelligence experts, is the only reason why this editorial may not be made moot by Israeli air strikes by the time it is published.

Perhaps there is irony in our quoting Einstein, who was key in convincing President Roosevelt during World War II to beat the Nazis to the punch in developing nuclear weapons. Perhaps, too, analogies between Nazism and the government of Iran are not entirely far-fetched when it comes to anti-Semitic rhetoric. It is the key difference between World War II and now, however, that should give pause to the hotheads and neo-cons within the American Jewish community who are calling upon Israel to strike. Then the world was at near-total war. Now we have the opportunity to avert that, through near-total peacemaking.