Thursday, November 03, 2022

Lucianne Goldberg’s Place in Internet History: Six Lessons for Today

Lucianne Goldberg, who died on October 27 at age 87, lived a great life.  Although she had a long career as a writer, ghostwriter, and literary agent, she will be best remembered for her advisory role in the Monica Lewinsky saga. Here’s one admiring obituary.

Yet there’s still another aspect of her life that’s worth recalling, because it echoes to this day: Her role as a digital activist, followed by her time as a startup entrepreneur.  

For Goldberg as a digital figure, the hinge period was the year 2000, when the internet was still young.  Indeed, if we look back to that formative period, we can see that many of the issues that she, and we, confronted then—toxicity, censorship, cancelling, scaling up, political activism—are still issues now.   As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

So at a time when the internet is changing yet again—as Elon Musk has taken over Twitter while Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, now Meta, has fallen on its face—it’s worth both recalling this moment in Goldberg’s life and pondering the parallels, then and now. 

In the beginning of the widespread internet, three decades ago, nobody knew what this new thing would be.  In 1993, Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community, which put forth a sort of liberal Whole Foods-y utopian vision.  In the meantime, others thought that the net would be a series of “walled gardens,” proprietarily managed by corporations such as America Online and Compuserve.  Or perhaps it would be controlled by even larger corporations, such as AT&T and Time-Warner.  And of course, everyone wondered what the dreaded Microsoft would do.  

In 1996, the poet and rancher John Perry Barlow made an early stab at a libertarian vision for the net.  His “Declaration of Independence of Independence of Cyberspace,” includes this ringing preamble

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.  On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.  You are not welcome among us.  You have no sovereignty where we gather.

That don’t-tread-on-me spirit seemed especially fitting for one early site, Free Republic.  Launched in 1996 by Jim Robinson in Fresno, CA, it was an unmoderated bulletin board for conservatives—free speech, away from liberal bias, was the goal.  For a while, Free Republic flourished; it had the eager participation of its users, known as Freepers, who felt unconstrained by the rules, taboos, and technological limitations of older media.  Freepers could post articles they had culled from other news sources and then comment on them endlessly, in a new phenomenon called “threads.” 

Then in 1998, the Monica Lewinsky story broke, and Free Republic, feasting on this and other Clinton scandals, took off.  It attracted an avid poster in “Trixie,” the user name of Lucianne Goldberg.  

Yet Free Republic had problems.  It was heavy on “flames,” another new phenomenon, and had some outright hate speech and invitations to violence.  Much of this was curated by an opponent, who published it in in 1999.  

To be sure, flaming, hating, and threatening were hardly unique to Free Republic’s corner of the internet.  As far back as 1990, the American attorney and author Mike Godwin outlined what came to be known as Godwin’s Law, which holds, somewhat jokily, that online chats eventually degenerate into accusations about Hitler and Nazis.  Strictly speaking, that’s not fair or true.  And yet it does seem that online discussions, especially when cloaked in anonymity, have a way of ending up in hostility, nastiness, and yes, what’s been called the Reductio ad Hitlerum.  Like it or not, noxious speech is still—at least most of it—protected free speech.  And yet too much venom makes for an unattractive brew.  It’s especially repellent to advertisers, who are the mother’s milk of non-paywalled websites.  

Moreover, in 1998, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post sued Free Republic for copyright infringement—all those articles being lifted and posted.  The newspapers won.  

Sill, Free Republic had energy.  Indeed, founder Jim Robinson saw the site as a platform for more than just online gathering.  As that same Salon article noted, Robinson and his colleagues had a “desire to turn Free Republic from a mere Web site into a political organization.” 

That idea certainly made sense—if people could gather online, they could gather in person—and yet for Free Republic, the execution proved problematic.  

For instance, in December 2000, during the extended Bush-vs.-Gore recount drama, Freepers staged a protest in front of the New Haven, CT home of Gore’s vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman.  And that turned nasty.  The headline in The Hartford Courant on December, 13, 2000 read, “Anti-Semitism Reeks Outside Lieberman Home.” The article noted the presence of Nazi and Confederate flags and a sign that read “Judas Joe.”  The participants denied that they were anti-Semitic, saying that the most offensive material was placed by provocateurs.  

There’s no point, 22 years later, in trying to hash through these claims and counter-claims.  But we can say that the public face of Free Republic now appeared toxic, at least to many.  In fact, the Courant quoted Goldberg as saying that Free Republic had “let all the Y2K, gun-nut, Jew-baiting crazies take over and flame the plain old conservatives.”  The word wasn’t used then, but one might say that Free Republic was cancelled, at least in the minds of many. 

Whereupon Goldberg started her own site,, with many of the same features as her old haunt, including posts, threads, and flames.  For awhile, Goldberg’s site was happening.  But then others began to see that this new thing could be the Next Big Thing.  And so came a rush of new sites, including Silicon Valley-backed newbies such as Friendster and MySpace.  These sites could see that attention was something that could be monetized—and they were infinitely more effective at doing it.  

So “social media” was born, and it was big.  Hardcore techies—-which Robinson and Goldberg were not—realized that the future of the medium would belong more sophisticated sites that allowed for posting pictures and video, as well as peer-to-peer messaging and e-commerce, all arranged by algorithms, supported by advertising, and frictionlessly transferred, as the tech became available to mobile.  So while both Free Republic and Lucianne still exist today, they are just small niche players.  

Needless to say, this sophistication of the new giants—now known as platforms—brought problems, most notably, the loss of privacy, and then, of course, the issue of censorship, or “de-platforming.”  But in their knowingness, even intrusiveness, the new sites—soon to be dominated by Facebook, followed by the smaller Twitter—offered a new kind of political tool, thus realizing at least part of Robinson’s activist vision. 

To a large extent, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump based their presidential campaigns on Facebook.  Why?  Because Facebook knew so much about its users, it could offer the most “granular” of targeted advertising; it was vastly “smarter” than cable TV or dead-tree paper.  To candidates, Facebook offers the features of an old-style political machine in new digital garb: Like the ward-heeler of yore, it knows all about you.   And so, like the machine of old, it could monitor your progress to ballot-casting. 

So what lessons can we draw as we compare the tech transitions of 2000 to the tech transitions of 2022?  Here are six: 

First, if content is king, content-moderation is queen.  How to allow free speech on a site without it becoming a sewer?   First Amendment absolutism doesn’t last long in the face of online cruelty, even depravity and criminality.  This is a problem that bedevils all sites today, from Facebook and Twitter to the newer social sites of the right, such as Caucus Room, Gab, Gettr, Parler, and Truth Social.  For sure, Elon Musk struck a blow for free speech when he fired the wokesters who had de-platformed, say, The Babylon Bee, but on that same day, October 27, he tweeted a statement entitled “Dear Twitter Advertisers,” in which he wrote, 

Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!  In addition to adhering to our laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences.

Translation: Musk Twitter will be less censorious than Woke Twitter, but it will have plenty of rules.   Indeed, Musk is notably going slowly, consulting widely, as he ponders what changes he might—or might not—be making in Twitter’s content-moderation policies. 

Second, the stubborn vision of the founder can make an organization great, but the same stubbornness can later bring it down.  That was the story of Free Republic’s ill-starred foray into political activism two decades ago in Connecticut, and it’s the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s foray into the metaverse today. Earth to Mark: Nobody wants to wear virtual reality goggles all the time.  Today, Facebook’s—now Meta’s—stock is down by more than 70 percent since the beginning of 2022.

Third, users will always crave interactivity.  And that interactivity can be defined as everything from community to combat.  Does that seem complicated?  Even contradictory?  Welcome to human nature.  

Fourth, the world is still looking for a media that is both participatory and online.  The old model of simply grabbing content online has been suppressed by lawsuits, and yet people, working within the guidelines of “fair use,” will always want to work over the news: upvoting it, forwarding it, commenting on it, and mashing it up with music or special effects.  So any site benefits from what might be called “dimensionality”—that is, it’s not just flat on the screen, but instead reaches out to the viewer, who can then take action, or be called to action.  That’s the problem, for example, with cable news, relying as it does, on pre-internet technology: You can watch cable TV, but you can’t do anything with it.  To do something, you have to go to a different, interactive, screen.  It’s the inertness of cable that will doom it, thus bringing more hope to online news.  

Fifth, the dream of a hybrid political organization, both online and real-world, is still to be realized.  Free Republic and Lucianne never scaled, and Zuckerberg’s Facebook, which more than scaled, is no longer trusted.  For his part, Musk has said that he wants Twitter to be an “everything app,” that will let you do everything, including, one might presume, political things.  We’ll see. 

Sixth, it’s possible that the big sites are, well, too big. This is a diverse country, and an even more diverse world, and it might just be the case that a single site can’t encompass all the different points of view in a harmonious whole.  Just as everything-for-everybody department stores have faded, we might see that the big socials find themselves nibbled away by nimble sites that can better reflect the values and interests of their chunk of users. 

So could that spell a revival for niche legacies such as Free Republic or Lucianne?  Perhaps, but more likely, at least in the U.S, the division will be a duality, red vs. blue.  As we know, red vs. blue isn’t just about politics, it’s also about life and lifestyle.  There’s a Red America now, and a Blue America.  And so the internet successes of today and tomorrow will scaled to one or another half—and that’s hundreds of millions of people.  

Still, the smart players will know their history.  And Lucianne Goldberg provides an instructive case study.  Entertaining, too. 


Friday, August 19, 2022

A Grand Bargain For Taiwan: Literally

We all know that the stakes are high—maybe mushroom-cloudily high—in regard to Taiwan. “A Fight Over Taiwan Could Go Nuclear,” headlines Foreign Affairs, not a publication known for sensationalism.  And that header ran on May 22, weeks before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2 trip to Taiwan.  Since Pelosi’s visit, concern about a possible Sino-U.S. conflict over the island has ratcheted even higher.  

Hence an ominous second headline from Foreign Affairs, post-Pelosi trip: “America Must Prepare for a War Over Taiwan.”  Meanwhile, headlines from around the world veer from pensive to panicky.  From Germany: “Pelosi in Taiwan—important signal or historic mistake?”; from the United Kingdom: “Horrifying escalation of tensions.”  And the fear is that the war may spread to neighbors in Asia.  Japan: “China’s planned military exercises near Taiwan may have another target: Japan.”  Smaller countries, too, are worried; Malaysia: “Crossing Red Lines to Nuclear War.”  

Just on August 15, a second U.S. Congressional delegation visited Taiwan.  To which the People’s Liberation Army responded by staging more menacing “drills.”   Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., on August 16, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang, delivered a 90-minute tirade, which Politico characterized as “doubling down.”  Qin accused Pelosi of “political provocation” and of “changing the status quo”—and implying that China would be within its rights to change it some more.  To which U.S. Air Force secretary Frank Kendall responded, in effect, on August 19: “The military activities that China engaged in during the time of the speaker's visit increased the level of risk and they violated a number of norms, crossing the line was one, firing into the exclusive economic zone of Japan was another, and firing over Taiwan itself was another.” Kendall added, “These are not actions that are designed to promote peace and stability in the region, they are very provocative and they increase the level of risk.”

Stepping back and adding perspective on this ominous tit-for-tat, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger told The Wall Street Journal, “We are at the edge of war with Russia and China on issues which we partly created, without any concept of how this is going to end or what it’s supposed to lead to.”  

So maybe, as we seek to sort things out, we should pause to remember wisdom from Winston Churchill: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”  As we know, Churchill never shrank from an unavoidable fight, and yet at the same time, he believed that war should always be the last resort.  

With such prudence in mind, we should consider all possible ideas for staving off a conflict, including those from outside the box.  One such outside-the-nine-dots thinker is Greg Piccionelli, a Los Angeles-based polymath who has combined law, biology, physics, inventing, music, and bird-care. He has an interesting suggestion: The People’s Republic of China should buy Taiwan.  Not conquer it. Not nuke it.  Not blockade it.  Buy it.  That’s truly a Grand Bargain.  

“The U.S. bought Louisiana in 1803,” Piccionelli says. “Perhaps we could have taken it by force from the French, but we’ll never know, because we bought it.  Same with Alaska in 1867.  The Russians were a strategic threat to us, and we were a strategic threat to them.  So instead of risking a conflict in the Pacific Northwest, we just bought the territory.  A win-win.”  So yes, with apologies to Churchill, at least in some cases, buy-buy is better than war-war.  

We can add that in 1821, the U.S. acquired Florida from Spain.  As part of the deal, the U.S. assumed some $5 million in liabilities, and yet the cession was a bit more complicated than just a purchase, in part because Florida was filling up with American settlers and also because Spain was at the time fighting revolutions all across South America.  Still, it was a peaceful addition to the U.S.  Interestingly, the Florida deal was negotiated by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.  Today, he is remembered as an apostle of foreign-policy restraint; as he said of America in his famous oration of July 4, 1821, “She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”  All true, and yet at the same time, Adams was a realist champion of American interests. He knew that it was better for the U.S. to have Florida than for Spain to have it—and if he could get it for a mere payment, all the better.  

In addition, in 1854, the U.S. made the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico, gaining parts of today’s states of Arizona and New Mexico.  Just in the previous  decade, the U.S. had fought a war with Mexico, seizing substantial amounts of territory, and yet this time, the U.S. chose a peaceful approach.  In fact, Wikipedia lists some two dozens instances in history in which territory traded hands via purchase, not conquest.  In other words, there’s ample precedent for buy-buy as a way to gain land-land.  

So now to Taiwan. “If China offered $1 million to every man, woman, and child in Taiwan if they agree to vote to voluntary reunify with the mainland, the cost would be $24 trillion—24 million people times one million dollars,” Piccionelli suggests. “That $24 trillion price tag would accomplish peaceful reunification without an incredibly more costly cold war with the U.S. or an even more costly and catastrophic hot war with the U.S. and its allies.”  So there’s the deal.  

To be sure, $24 trillion is a lot of money.  And perhaps the price of $1 million per Taiwanese is too high—or maybe it’s too low.  That’s what would need to be negotiated between the parties.  However, as Piccionelli says, almost whatever the per capita valuation, war is more costly.  On August 8, Yahoo News cited a RAND Corporation study suggesting that a war with Taiwan would cut China’s $17 trillion GDP by as much 25 percent.  That’s more than $4 trillion, just in a single year.  Which is to say, stretched out over many years, the cost of a war with Taiwan would vastly exceed the possible purchase price of Taiwan.  And in the meantime, a Taiwan war would clip off about five percent of U.S. GDP, which is currently $23 trillion.  So that would be another trillion or so lost.  And there’d be sizable impact on the rest of the world, too.

Of course, we haven’t mentioned yet the price in lives, buildings, cultural artifacts, and so on—all the treasures that are being destroyed tragically, on a daily basis, in Ukraine.

We can add that the RAND numbers assume that the war would be contained—and who can make any such assumption?  Perhaps it’s fitting that I am writing this in the month of August.  It was in another August, 108 years ago, that The Guns of August roared, and World War One commenced.  Few of the war’s protagonists had any idea how destructive it would be: in lives, in money, in cultural and political capital.  

One who did foresee the true cost of a great war was Norman Angell, the British journalist and essayist.  His 1910 book, The Great Illusion, argued that war had become so destructive that it was no longer “profitable” to think of conquest.  In particular, Angell cited the importance of intangibles, such as credit—which would evaporate in a conflict.  As he wrote, these intangibles would evaporate in the event of a war: “Because of this delicate interdependence of our credit-built finance, the confiscation by an invader of private property, whether stocks, shares, ships, mines, or anything more valuable than jewellery or furniture—anything, in short, which is bound up with the economic life of the people—would so react upon the finance of the invader's country as to make the damage to the invader resulting from the confiscation exceed in value the property confiscated.” 

Angell was pro-peace, but he was tough-minded. He conceded that in countries without industry, there was gain to be found in pillage.  As he wrote, “Where Nature does not respond readily to industrial effort, where it is, at least apparently, more profitable to plunder than to work, the military tradition survives. The Beduin has been a bandit since the time of Abraham, for the simple reason that the desert does not support industrial life nor respond to industrial effort. The only career offering a fair apparent return for effort is plunder.”  But for countries and civilizations that had evolved beyond smash-and-grab, Angell insisted, war was a costly mistake.  

Angell is often mocked, because just four years after the publication of his book, World War One erupted.  But in fact, what was then known as the Great War proved his point: All the countries of Europe, even the “victors,” were, in fact, losers.  The Europeans recognized Angell’s enduring wisdom, and so in 1933, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

If Angell was correct a century ago, he’s even more correct today. To be sure, plenty of advanced countries go to war—and yet when they do, they are economic losers, not winners.  The recent military misadventures of the U.S. in the Middle East are a case in point.  

Updating Angell, we can observe: In the past, if a country conquered a territory, it would get the land, and maybe, too, future subjects or slaves.  But these days, when a territory is conquered, the conqueror gets craters and ruins.  (Yes, theoretically a lightning strike could decapitate the regime and leave the nation intact—that’s what Putin was aiming for in Ukraine, and it didn’t happen.)

Yet even if the kinetic damage is somehow held to a minimum, the damage is still severe.  Not only does the credit evaporate, but so does the human capital and the intellectual property.  And if economic sanctions and capital flight are piled on to those costs, then all the more, even the winners become losers.  So the Russians will not wring profit from the parts of Ukraine that they have conquered and devastated. 

Admittedly, a few countries and regions might be so abundant with natural wealth—gold, oil, perhaps rare earth elements—that they might, in some cruel calculus, be deemed “worth” conquering.  Yet Taiwan is not one of those countries.  It’s prosperous, for sure, boasting a per capita GDP of more than $33,000, and yet that wealth is found in the brains of its people, not underground.  Moreover, Taiwan’s prosperity is built on gossamer webs of globalism, linking its crucial exports to the rest of the world.  For instance, China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, and Taiwan is China’s tenth-largest trading partner

Specifically, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which Pelosi visited, makes 56 percent of all the computer chips in the world, (other Taiwanese companies make another 10 percent), and accounts for 92 percent of the most advanced chip-manufacturing capacity.  So yes, these trade links are quite real, in the sense that the world economy relies on Taiwanese chips, and yet at the same time, the links are fragile.  On August 1, the president of TSMC, Mark Liu, spoke out about  the perilous situation, as it might affect his company—and the world.  He said that a military attack from the PRC would render TSMC factories “non-operable,” because “suddenly their most advanced components” would disappear.  Liu explained that TSMC depends on real-time exchange with partners and suppliers around the world, for everything from “raw materials and chemicals to spare parts and software.”  And so, Liu continued, “nobody can control TSMC by force.”  The result of a war, he concluded, would be “great economic turmoil on [both] sides.” 

So even if the PRC were to subdue Taiwan by non-lethal means—say, an economic blockade, or turning the electricity off—plants such as TSMC, having lost their supply chains, and also many of their tech workers, would soon be reduced to worthless hulks.  

Okay, so now to possible objections to the Grand Bargain.  Here are five:  

First, would either the Taiwanese government, or the Taiwanese people, be at all interested in this proposal?  The immediate answer is that this sovereign power should be up to the Taiwanese and their democracy. Unlike the PRC, Taiwan is a democracy, where human rights are respected—and so the nation can have a full and free debate on its destiny.  Without a doubt, it’s nice to be an independent country. (Officially, Taiwan is the Republic of China, ROC, so it’s legally arguable that it’s just a different government for China, even if, course, in reality, it’s its own nation.)  Yet at the same time, it's also nice not to have to worry about being invaded, bombed, or maybe even nuked.  So perhaps the Taiwanese will deliberate on this matter, decide to take the deal—and then take the money and run. That is, skedaddle to California or Canada with the million bucks in hand.  (This assumes, of course, that those countries would take these economic migrants in such huge  quantity; in fact, given their wealth, as well as their presumed skills, it's quite possible that a new kind of international competition for Taiwanese human capital would emerge, with shrewd host countries gaining much.) 

This author will volunteer that there’s no reason to think that the PRC would treat an owned Taiwan, and its population, any better than it has treated an owned Hong Kong.  Yet still, more than 98 percent of Hong Kongers have remained.  Evidently, in the minds of most residents of that former British colony, rule by the PRC isn’t so bad.  But once again, the choice should be made by the Taiwanese, whether to take the deal, or not—and whether to stay in Taiwan, or not.  

Second, would the Beijing government have any interest in this idea?  After all, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping might think to himself, Taiwan is already ours, so why should we pay for it?  To which we can point out: Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and the PRC does not actually possess Taiwan.  So maybe Xi will see the value in a war-free, blood-free way to tidy up that geopolitical discrepancy.  Indeed, a purchase might be a face-saving way for the PRC to gain sovereignty over Taiwan, without the risk of Putin-Russian type Ukraine debacle.  Better to gain Taiwan by moving in on little weiqi cat feet. 

Third, there’s that $24 trillion price tag.  Rich as China might be, that’s a lot of money.  So here’s perhaps where international finance could help.   And why might the Rest of the World (ROW) be helpful?  Because the ROW realizes that a war over Taiwan would be an economy-tanker across the planet, and that would be bad for ROW asset values.  And if the war went worldwide, well, that would be even worse—much worse. To stave off potential planetary peril, the ROW might see the value in creating some sort of financial instrument to help the purchase along, perhaps by providing the money upfront to the Taiwanese, with Beijing operating on a longer-term installment plan.  Indeed, it’s quite possible that fear of a war over Taiwan is already “priced in” to the value of stocks and currencies—that is, depressing their value—around the world.   So if the threat of war were to go away, those valuations would rise, worldwide.  And there’re quants on Wall Street—and in London,  Tokyo, and Shanghai—who can figure out how to securitize, and monetize, that potential good news.  In other words, properly thought through, a permanent peace between China and Taiwan would be remunerative good news.  Plotting peace and getting richer as a result surely counts as a virtuous kind of market manipulation. 

Fourth, some will say that any suggestion that there’s an impermanence to Taiwan as an independent state undermines the freedom and autonomy of the Taiwanese people.  That is, the mere thought that Taiwan might be “for sale” could undercut its sovereignty and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This is a valid concern.  However, the idea that world could go to war over Taiwan—and maybe it would even be a nuclear war—is also a valid concern.  And the idea that the world, including the United States, might, in fact, “blink” on the defense of Taiwan is yet another valid concern.  For half a century, the U.S. has had a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan; that is, we won’t say what we will or won’t do, militarily.  President Joe Biden has said three times that the U.S. would, in fact, defend Taiwan, the administration has unsaid it three times.   So there are many valid concerns, there is much ambiguity—and very high stakes.   So maybe it’s not so bad to consider different solutions—even outside-the-box bargains.  

Fifth, many on the right, as well as the left, will be concerned that paying money for territory and nationality would represent a further commodification of mankind.   Perhaps the most revered of all conservatives, Edmund Burke, sighed that the age of noble chivalry was being yielded up to “sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators.”   And Karl Marx’s declared that the bourgeoisie was reducing all human interactions to the “egotistical calculation” of the cold cash nexus.  Myriad thinkers and philosophers, before and since, on the left and the right, have further scorned the idea that human affairs can be reduced to a price point.   So how would Taiwan Grand Bargainers plead to these charges?  That they are crassly auctioning the organic, the intrinsic, the historic, and the heroic?   In their defense, the financializers might argue that over the last two or three centuries, innovation, including financial innovation, has increased the standard of living some 20-fold.  Still, it’s hard to address non-monetary concerns with money, because one side is talking taboo, while the other side is talking tradeoff.  But it’s worth trying to make these minds meet; that’s what diplomats are for.  With apologies to Churchill, jaw-jaw is good.  Indeed, the beginning of bargaining could be a path to the resolution of other international disputes.  Around the world, there’s plenty of territory that’s probably better paying for than killing for.  

In fact, the lethality of warfare is ever increasing.  That’s not just because of nuclear weapons, but also due to artificial intelligence, which makes possible new agents of mass destruction, from drones to robots to gain-of-functioned viruses.  To put it bluntly, dark technological innovation is making the planet more dangerous, and that’s not even including environmental concerns such as climate change.  Stepping back on all the dangers confronting Spaceship Earth, Piccionelli espies all the dangerous techno-trends and labels them the “doomsday curve,” which is not curving in a good direction for humanity.  So perhaps, as a possible partial solution, we need nuanced political and financial innovation that offers new hope for not only peace, but survival.  

Let’s let Piccionelli have the last word: “A purchase of Taiwan is, first, good for the world order; second, gets the U.S. off the hook for Taiwan’s defense; third, makes China look like a responsible superpower.  A win-win-win.”  

An intriguing argument.  Now we’ll have to see what Taiwan, China, —and the rest of the world—make of it.  

Addendum: I am reminded that I wrote in praise of a report that Donald Trump wanted to buy Greenland.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

America’s Dilemma: Power Abroad, Weakness at Home—and What to Do About It

First of Five Parts

Part One: The Power of the Anglosphere

It’s paradoxical that American soft power—that is, our political and cultural influence around the world—seems never to have been greater, and yet at the same time, America itself seems to be fissured.  That is, our politics riven and our population polarized.  Over time, this fissuring is assuredly problematic, not only for the sake of our beloved republic, but also for the sake of the free world coalition, which is under dire threat in Ukraine, and, also, to a lesser extent, in Taiwan. 

“Soft power,” of course, is a concept coined by Harvard’s Kennedy School academic, Joseph Nye.  He first used the term in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, and then elaborated on it in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  As he wrote

Everyone is familiar with hard power.  We know that military and economic might often get others to change their position.  Hard power can rest on inducements (“carrots”) or threats (“sticks”).  But sometimes you can get the outcomes you want without tangible threats or payoffs. 

Applying the same carrot/stick concept to nations, Nye continued, 

A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries—admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness—want to follow it.  In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power—getting others to want the outcomes that you want—co-opts people rather than coerces them.  Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.

Shaping the preferences of others, for better or worse, is exactly what the U.S. does best.  We might consider: Just in the past decade, such distinctly American concepts as Occupy Wall Street, #MeToo, the Green New Deal, and Black Lives Matter have resonated around the world.  In 2020, for instance, Keir Starmer, the leader of the British Labour Party, took a knee.  Starmer might well be a future prime minister of the United Kingdom; and yet he’s been imitating the gestures of an American football player.  We can add that the Dobbs case, reversing Roe v. Wade, was the subject of worldwide commentary, including from heads of state.  

Indeed, American memes are so strong that they even regularly infect adversaries; in March 2022, Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin railed against "cancel culture."  (Strange to think that Moscow was once a master of meme-generation, streaming out to the Communist International, but that was then; now, the Russians grope for our memes.) 

Part of American meme-mastery, of course, is American social media.  We can ask: Is there any important country in the world that does not have a Twitter account?   Is there anyone in the world who does not know about Donald Trump?  The yellow hair?  The red tie? MAGA?  

This is all part of the Anglosphere, the quasi-geopolitical notion that the world’s English-speaking peoples are destined for some sort of political unity, as well as cultural unity.  In fact, some 1.5 billion people around the world speak English—that’s about a fifth of the world’s population.  However, among the elite, the chattering classes, the percentage of English speakers is surely far higher.  So it was that the American journalist Ben Smith could declare that his forthcoming publication, Semafor, will target these English speakers, wherever they are on the planet.  “There are 200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience, but who talk to each other and talk to us,” he said. “That’s who we see as our audience.”

Yet the soft power of the Anglosphere is more than just the hegemony of the English language.  It’s also the appeal of the Anglo-Saxon idea—or, if one prefers, the liberal idea— of freedom of speech.  One needn’t argue that Francis Fukuyama was right about the worldwide “End of History” to nonetheless concede that he was right about the preference of many people.    

For many—and by many, I mean billions—this endless give and take that comes with freedom is what makes American debates, cultural as well as political, so exciting.  In the most literal sense, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, because there’s no controller and no censor.  Whatever comes spewing out of American media, including social media, is whatever people are thinking.  And if much if it is unappetizing, there’s always some of it that is appetizing, and there’s always much of it that is compelling.  

So we might be reminded of what Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris in the 1780s: If he was faced with a choice of “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” This endless contention of media not only makes for interesting news consumption (even if it takes some effort to smelt away the dross) it also makes for better governance, as a free press checks and balances the state.  This point made by Jefferson, our first secretary of state, was well articulated by the 71st secretary of state, Antony Blinken.  On March  18, 2021, in an impromptu debate with the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, Blinken declared

. . .  there’s one more hallmark of our leadership here at home and that’s a constant quest to as we say, form a more perfect union.  And that quest, by definition, acknowledges our imperfections, acknowledges that we’re not perfect.  We make mistakes.  We have reversals, we take steps back.  But what we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges, openly, publicly, transparently. Not trying to ignore them.  Not trying to pretend they don’t exist.  Not trying to sweep them under the rug.  And sometimes it’s painful.  Sometimes it’s ugly.  But each and every time we’ve come out stronger, better, more united, as a country.

Fact check: True.  At least for most of U.S. history.  Yet today, many argue that “disinformation” is such a threat that something must be done, such as Sovietly named—and mercifully short-lived—Disinformation Governance Board.  Yet whatever the U.S. government does, or doesn’t do, about “disinformation,” there are easily a hundred, if not a thousand, non-profits, all monitoring, analyzing, and warning against “disinformation.”  Of course, as a reminder of the power of the Anglosphere, one can go to the internet and google (two more agents of the Anglosphere) and read all about it.  

Of course, a Google search for “civil war” and associated concepts will yield up a gazillion hits.  And it’s hard not to agree with at least some of the concerns about the future of our union.  As I wrote in March for The American Conservative, “The United States has all the preconditions for a civil war today except one: the willingness to actually fight for the sake of disunity.”  I still think that’s true, even if I’m a little less sure about the unwillingness to actually fight. 

So this is the dilemma of American power: Around the world, the Anglosphere is robust, and yet here at home, America is deeply divided.   So can this divided house still stand?

This question is likely to be sharpened if America continues to show success in Ukraine.   As of mid-August, it seems that Western military aid is so enhancing the courage of the Ukrainian armed forces that it’s possible, maybe probable, that Ukraine will fight Russia to some kind of draw.  A Korean-style stalemate seems likely—and given the early expectations of a swift Russian victory, that’s a comparatively positive outcome.  To be sure, it’s tragic to think that Russia will hold on to a single acre of Ukrainian territory, and yet the good news is that Ukraine is now firmly anchored in the West.  At this rate, it will soon be obsolete to speak of Russia’s implied dominion over Ukraine, just as it is anachronistic to speak of Japan’s dominion over Manchuria, or of Britain’s dominion over Palestine. 

So that’s the good news: The perimeter of the Free World has been expanded, with Ukraine firmly within the perimeter.  As has long been the case, the perimeter of freedom is mostly safeguarded by the hard power the American military, bolstered and amplified by American soft power.   

Yet the bad news is the aforementioned weakness at home.  The fierce debate over the legal issues surrounding Donald Trump are likely enough to resolve themselves soon enough—the American legal system may move slowly, but it grinds hard—and yet the deeper conflicts of geography and demography are likely to remain, and that could undercut our hard power, and maybe even our soft power.  As I argued in that March piece, red vs. blue could be the new Austria and Hungary. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  My only point now, in part one of this four-part series, is to emphasize the strangeness of our situation: Our soft power abroad is manifest, and yet our soft underbelly at home is obvious.  So it’s useful to explore how past realms managed their soft power.  

Next in Part Two: How the Romans wielded soft power.   

(Picture credit: Wikipedia) 

Thursday, May 05, 2022

A Vindication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—From an Unexpected Source

At a time when everything Russian is being canceled—from the Bolshoi to vodka to the music of Tchaikovsky, who died in 1893—the May 12 issue of The New York Review of Books provides a welcome respite to indiscriminate and anachronistic Russophobia.  Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Slavic literature at Northwestern University, reviews two new translations from among Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s many published works: March 1917: The Red Wheel, and Between Two Millstones: Exile in America, 1978-1994, both bravely published by the University of Notre Dame.

Morson’s ultimate point is that Solzhenitsyn was simultaneously political and anti-political.  The Russian author (1918-2008), was honored with the Nobel Prize in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”  And yet his most famous volume is non-fiction, The Gulag Archipelago, published in English in 1974.  That was the title that rocked the world of this American Baby Boomer, who had previously been schooled mostly in liberal-left dogma about the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union—except, of course, when “Amerika” was said to be worse. 

So sure, when necessary, Solzhenitsyn, himself a survivor of the Gulag—as a decorated Red Army officer fighting the Nazis, he was arrested in 1945 and imprisoned for eight years for the offense of cryptically critical comments about Stalin—could be political.  If, that is, by “political” we mean standing up for human dignity.  

At the same time, Morson emphasizes that Solzhenitsyn was firstly a spiritual man who wrote, “Political activity is by no means the principal mode of human life . . . The more energetic the political activity in a country, the greater is the loss to spiritual life.  Politics must not swallow up all of a people’s spiritual and creative energies.  Beyond upholding its rights, mankind must defend its soul.” 

Yet in recent decades Solzhenitsyn’s reputation has been besmirched by accusations of anti-Semitism and also, in strange posthumous way, by his identity as a Russian Orthodox Christian, which has put him, in the minds of some, in the same pot with the odious (and hypocritically sacrilegious) Vladimir Putin.  Both accusations, according to Morson, are unfair.  He writes of the first, “The charge of anti-Semitism particularly offended Solzhenitsyn, who, as some critics conceded, defended Jewish dissidents and the right of Jews to emigrate in order to avoid religious and other persecution in the USSR.” 

Solzhenitsyn was also political insofar as he was an ardent anti-Communist.  Notably, he lamented the failure of meliorative monarchism to stave off the red tide.  In Solzhenitsyn’s telling, the event that canted Russia to perdition came in 1911, when Pytor Stolypin, the reformist prime minister of Tsar Nicholas II, was assassinated.  And the assassin happened to be Jewish.  As Solzhenitsyn argued, in the absence of reform from above, the Bolsheviks—led by the gentile Lenin—could plot revolution from below.  In Solzhenitsyn’s words, “Russia and Communism had the same relationship as a sick man and his disease.”

And Morson makes clear that the other charge—that Solzhenitsyn shares psychic space with the murderous nationalism of Putin and his bearded Russian Orthodox “Rasputin,” Aleksandr Dugin—is equally absurd.  In fact, Solzhenitsyn was the opposite of a nationalist: “Nationalism, as we usually envisage it, appalled him.”  

Morson adds that three decades ago, Solzhenitsyn urged Russians not to object to the breakup of the Soviet Union.  In particular, he was happy to see the non-Slavic parts of the fallen evil empire go their own way.   And while he might have wished that the Slavic lands of Belarus and Ukraine would have remained with Russia, he thought it was their right to declare independence. Writes Morson: “Foreseeing the conflicts likely to arise eventually if Ukraine, with its large Russian-speaking population and its close cultural ties to Russia, chose to secede, Solzhenitsyn, who considered himself both Russian and Ukrainian, hoped to preclude the devastating conflict we see today.” 

Morson dwells upon the self-descriptively apt title of one of Solzhenitsyn’s books, Between Two Millstones; the two millstones being communism and liberalism.  So Solzhenitsyn, being more mystical than political, resembles another Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).  In his time, Tolstoy—best known for his novel War and Peace, with he himself being a pacifist—was equally hard to peg into familiar categories. 

Today, it’s heartening to see such nuance—Solzhenitsyn being shown as an exemplar of a distinct strain of Russian thinking and creating, far apart from Russo-Bolshevik barbarism—in the pages of The New York Review of Books.  The tome-y publication, founded in 1963, is certainly on the left, and yet it’s not in the least woke: the same May 12 issue includes admiring reviews of books on the sculptor Bernini, the painter David, and art audiences in 19th century France.  

So by that reckoning, perhaps @nybooks is finding itself sliding to the right.  After all, by regarding the canon as something worth remembering, it is defending the canon—and thus the defender is on the other side of the barricade from the attacking zero-year iconoclasts.  So make room, cultural conservatives; some new recruits are heading our way, however reluctantly. 

Interestingly, in his historical novel March 1917, Solzhenitsyn is unsparing in his critique of proto-woke public officials, namely the liberal Russians who took office after Tsar Nicholas II abdicated.  These weak men could not bring themselves to defend their office, their country, or their civilization against marauders—first, common criminals, and soon, the Bolsheviks.  Hence the historical figure Prince Lvov, who served for a few months as the first prime minister of post-tsarist Russia, says to his colleagues, “Why does a free state need police at all?”  Such naiveté has a short life expectancy. 

Morson doesn’t mention it, but such mush-headed liberalism echoes that of the Hungarian Mihály Károlyi, who misruled Hungary at around the same time.  Like Lvov, Károlyi drew the wrong lesson from World War One, namely that nothing was worth defending.  And so Károlyi abolished the army, leaving his country to be overrun by foreigners; moreover, Károlyi’s weakness made it possible for the communist Béla Kun to seize power in Budapest for a brief but bloody epoch of red terror.  

So we can see: In both instances, Russia and Hungary, easy-on-evil libertarianism allowed the absolute worst forces to triumph.  And that’s certainly a warning message that Americans need to hear. 

Solzhenitsyn’s faith gave him a keen apprehension of wickedness.  “Evil refuses to know the truth,” says one of his characters. “Evil people usually know better than anybody else just what they are doing.  And go on doing it.”  No society-is-to-blame relativism here.  

Still, Solzhenitsyn sought more than just outward good behavior, important as that was.  He wanted a deeper inward search for the good.    Morson closes by quoting Solzhenitsyn’s warning against the siren call of secular utopianism: “How could you remake the world if you couldn’t figure out your own soul?” 

Such wisdom is timeless.  And so we can hope, and maybe pray, that Solzhenitsyn’s voice will be heard in Russia, long after Putinism is consigned to the ash heap of history.  And come to think of it, there are a few world-girdling systems in the West that could benefit from the same graced humility.  

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Problem with Joe Biden’s Middle East Cease-fire: Lessons from Clausewitz

Israel and the Biden Administration’s “New Ideas”

The Main Stream Media has been admiring of the Biden administration’s decision to broker—some would say impose—a cease-fire on the state of Israel and the terror group Hamas.  

For instance, on May 21, shortly after the cease-fire, the Associated Press ran a story headlined, “Hour-by-hour: Biden’s behind-the-scenes push for cease-fire.”  The reporter, Aamer Madhani, was obviously well briefed by Biden aides, and so in addition to describing phone calls between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the AP story added such nuggets as, “The president and senior aides had over 80 engagements, by phone or in person, in search of an endgame to the fighting.”

That same upbeat assessment—Biden and his team, hard at work—was manifest in a May 21 opinion piece by The Washington Post’s well-connected columnist, David Ignatius.  He, too, was amply backgrounded by Biden aides, and so he could faithfully describe how the president operated “slowly, quietly, in personal conversations.”  Ignatius’ admiring take was that Biden’s approach “probably saved lives.”  

Venturing further, from play-by-play to prescription, the Post man added that Gaza now needed “humanitarian assistance” in the short term, as well as, in the longer term, some sort of new political configuration: “Perhaps the trickiest part will be strengthening the Palestinian Authority, ideally through a unity government with a Hamas that agrees to accept Israel and renounce violence.”  

Some would say that it will be, er, tricky to persuade Hamas to accept Israel’s right to exist—as the rejection of that right is the essence of the Hamas worldview.  And as for unity with the Palestinian Authority, it’s worth recalling that Hamas split off, violently, from that same PA in 2007; that’s how Hamas ended up ruling the Gaza Strip.  

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in MSM breasts; ah, for the fond dream of fresh  diplomacy.  Thus on May 21, The New York Times editorial page pronounced itself pleased with the cease-fire, adding that it “didn’t come a second too soon.”  Then the editorial added that “new ideas” for the region were needed.  

And what might those “new ideas” be?  From the editorial: “The Biden administration should appoint an envoy to the Palestinian people, tasked with restoring relations with Palestinian officials and building ties with civil society groups and the new generation of leaders who have been shut out of power with the lack of elections.  The portfolio should include Palestinian people, broadly speaking, including their vital ties to brethren in Israel and throughout the diaspora.”

There’s plenty to unpack there, but we can see, at minimum, the Times envisions an ambitious role for the U.S., bidding it to become much more deeply involved on the Palestinian side.  That’s a change, of course, from the policy of the Trump administration, which was strongly pro-Israel and mostly ignored Palestinian demands.  

Indeed, we might speculate that one reason the Times is so in love with the idea of a new direction in the Middle East is precisely because of the contrast it makes with the ideas of the Dreaded Trump.   And of course, the major media, joined by the Biden administration and many Democrats, are not at all fond of Netanyahu.  

So any new American activism, as advocated by Ignatius, the Times, and many other leading voices, would amount to a mandate to the Biden administration to play a more activist role in the region, bringing new energy, and new empathy, to the Palestinian cause.  Not surprisingly, the Palestinians would welcome such a démarche, while unsurprisingly, most Israelis would not. 

In fact, the Biden administration is already bringing its different perspective to the Middle East.  One vivid indicator of the change came on May 20, when Biden spent eight minutes talking with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the radical Democrat from Michigan.  The conversation was held outdoors, on an airport tarmac, in full view of reporters and their cameras.  Such extended “photo ops” with presidents do not happen by chance.  In other words, Biden was sending a strong signal: He is listening to pro-Palestinian voices.  

Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser under Barack Obama, has also noted the change.  Singling out the pro-Palestinian efforts of another Democrat in the House, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rhodes said, “The Overton window [is] shifting before your eyes.”  That is, the window of possible policy options.  

Continuing, Rhodes said, “It’s just simply a fact that there was never this kind of pressure vocally from the left on issues related to Israel during the Obama years.”  And he concluded, “It’s going to be harder to just stick to the old line of essentially unquestioning support for the policies of the Israeli government.” 

Yet if the predominantly center-left American foreign policy establishment is pleased with Biden’s shift, many Israelis are not.   

That displeasure was made clear in another Times story, datelined, Ashkelon, Israel, and headlined, “‘The Mission Wasn’t Completed.’ Cease-Fire Prompts Israelis’ Disappointment.”  As the two reporters, Isabel Kershner and Adam Rasgon, explained, “Here, and across Israel, there were other common sentiments: a nagging sense of disappointment that nothing had been resolved by the fighting, and concern that the truce was fragile and premature.  Instead, many Israelis said that the military should have carried on pounding Hamas for another week or two.”  

Moroever, the reporters noted that “shared dissatisfaction throughout the country signaled Israelis’ growing impatience with what they see as hastily arranged, unconditional cease-fires.  Each successive, inconclusive round of conflict has only added to the sense of futility, with no decisive victory or conclusion in sight.”  And the article pointed to a May 20 poll, showing that 72 percent of Israelis thought the air campaign in Gaza should continue, whereas 24 percent said Israel should agree to a cease-fire.  In other words, by a 3:1 margin, Israelis opposed the cease-fire. 

So we can see: The gulf between the D.C. establishment and the Israeli public is wide.  And it seems reasonable to assume that any Israeli government is going to reflect the nation’s public opinion.  

What Would Clausewitz Say?

As we wait to see what happens next on the ground, we might, in the meantime, consult a classic work.

And that work is On War, written by the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831).  Clausewitz never opined on Israel and the Middle East, but he did have a lot to say about how nations and groups fight one another, and how they might expect to prevail.  And despite all the changes in war tactics and technology over the last two centuries, Clausewitz endures, because his ultimate wisdom is psychological and political, as opposed to tactical and technological.

Clausewitz’s most famous dictum is, “War is only a continuation of State policy by other means.” 

To put that another way, War exists within politics.  Wars are started by political figures, and they are fought so long as political figures wish to keep fighting.  

To put that another way, victories on the battlefield, while certainly important, are not decisive in winning a war.  What is decisive is the moment, if it comes, when one side loses the will to fight.   

And as of now, it doesn’t appear that Hamas has lost its will to fight.  Hence this headline in Al Jazeera: “Hamas claims victory as Gaza celebrates cease-fire.”  The point here is not to suggest that Hamas won the 11-day battle in any military sense; clearly, it did not.  Instead, we see that Hamas does not feel defeated.  

In the defiant words of Hamas spokesperson Abdel-Latif al-Qanou, “Israel has withdrawn in the face of the armed resistance, and did not obtain any of its objectives it said it would when it launched its offensive.”  By these words, in the Clausewitzian sense, Hamas definitely has not been defeated.   

To be sure, if Hamas had been totally annihilated, a continued fighting spirit might be seen as delusional, or even, in a grim way, mirthful, as in the bloody confrontation with the Black Knight in the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  And yet Hamas was not annihilated—the May 21 cease-fire made sure of that.  

Yes, Hamas has been bloodied, maybe even devastated, but it is still a force.  As The Washington Post reported, “For Hamas, Israel may have once again inflicted heavy losses—both on the movement and on civilians in Gaza—but the group remains in control of the territory of some 2 million people and little has fundamentally changed.”

By this reckoning, those citizens of Israel who told the Times reporters that their military needed more time to finish the job were making a good point.  Hamas is still in charge in Gaza, and still has the will to fight.  We can note that such is often the case with guerrilla wars and asymmetric combats: One sides wins big, but not big enough, and so the fighting continues.  [Update: a May 23 poll asked Israelis, Who won the cross-border fighting?  And the answer: 28 percent said Israel, 16 percent said Hamas, and 52 percent said neither side.  Not a result sure to dishearten Hamas.] 

So perhaps this is the lens—the Clausewitizian lens—through which we should see the May 21 cease-fire. 

That is, Hamas has plenty of fighting spirit, and still rules Gaza.  And now, we might presume, humanitarian aid will come flowing into that territory, much of it, no doubt, to be skimmed off by Hamas.  And quite likely, too, more armaments will flow in, most of them, apparently, from Iran.

So in such a context, we can ask: How long until the next violent eruption?  How long till the next Hamas rocket attack? 

In the meantime, Israel is in a difficult position.  Having been flailed by much of the Western media during the recent fighting, and criticized by the Biden administration, the Israelis will likely find themselves having to abide, strictly, to the terms of the cease-fire.  Which is to say, it will likely take a significant provocation by Hamas to embolden Israel to even think about suspending the cease-fire and launching a pre-emptive strike—assuming, of course, that the IDF can detect the danger.  

Yet Hamas, operating under few, if any, of those political constraints, can pick and choose its next time to strike. 

Thus we something that’s familiar to Middle East observers: a double standard.  That is, if Israel breaks the cease-fire, it is in trouble with the Biden administration, as well as the United Nations, noisy NGOs, and all the other usual critics.  And yet if Hamas breaks the cease-fire, the Biden administration, joined by the others, will likely rush in to seek a new cease-fire, and then, after that, come rushing in with humanitarian aid—and that aid is, of course, fungible.  

So we are now seeing a new kind of asymmetry: Hamas plots and ponders the timing of its next attack, while the Israelis must live with the constant threat of that next attack. 

To be sure, Israel has its Iron Dome defense system, and it worked well these past few weeks—and yet not quite well enough, as twelve Israelis died in the bombardment, and considerable property damage was done.  It’s hard to enjoy the fruits of high-tech prosperity while staying mindful of the location of the nearest bomb shelter.

No doubt, Israel is further refining Iron Dome and perhaps considering other kinds of defensive shields.  And no doubt, too, Hamas and its backers are refining their offensive capabilities.  (And we can be sure that to Israel's north, in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which has its own rocket arsenal, is paying close attention to Israeli capabilities.)  So who will have the upper hand?  We’ll likely find out in the next round of fighting.  

Strategic Depth

Another problem for Israel is that Hamas has strategic depth.  That is, Hamas has a big ally, Iran, that offers it a source of support and supply, if not quite actual refuge.  (To a lesser extent, Hamas can also count on support from Qatar, which does provide a physical refuge to Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.)

And so long as Hamas has the Islamic Republic for strategic depth, then Israel has a problem.  That is, Israel can “mow the lawn,” as some say, of Hamas in Gaza, and yet it must be resigned to the reality that the “grass”—more like a deadly weed—keeps growing back. 

This challenging situation is contingent, of course, upon the Iranians’ willingness to keep supplying Hamas, and if no effective way can be found to quarantine Gaza from new weapons shipments.  

And at this point, some might find parallels between the Israeli confrontation with Hamas and the U.S. confrontation with Vietnam, from 1965-1975.  That war, of course, ended in disappointment for the side that won all the battles during the actual fighting—and in victory for the side that lost all the battles.  

Yes, without a doubt, during the Vietnam fighting, the U.S. was routinely victorious on the battlefield, albeit not without cost to itself.  And yet the North Vietnamese could receive supplies from, and gain diplomatic support from, the adjacent People’s Republic of China (in addition, another patron, the Soviet Union, was adjacent to China).  And that help was enough to sustain North Vietnam to ultimate victory, battlefield defeats notwithstanding.  

To be sure, there are enormous differences between the U.S. then and Israel today: Most obviously, a) Israel is much more committed to its border security than the U.S. ever was to combating the “domino theory” a half-century ago; b) Israeli public opinion is solidly supportive of the Gaza effort, seeing it an an existential issue for the nation; that’s something no American ever thought about Vietnam; and c) Gaza and Iran, and Qatar, are not adjacent. 

Yet nevertheless, some similarities present themselves: Iran is an ally of Hamas, and it does provide it with strategic depth.  

So now, what can Israel do?  If it can’t find a way to shut down the direct threat from Hamas—and the Biden administration seems to be the chief obstacle now to further attempts to shut it down—then Israel will have to consider what it can do to take away Hamas’s strategic depth, mostly, as we have seen, Iran. 

We might recall that such strategic-depth neutralization was the tack taken by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972, as he sought to secure “peace with honor” in Vietnam.  Realizing that the North Vietnamese were never going to give up—and thus, never going to lose, no matter how painful their losses—so long as they had the depth of China and Russia, Nixon traveled to the capitals of both of those countries and made a deal: The U.S. would have free rein to cut off, finally, North Vietnam’s northward supply chain, and, while it did so, the Chinese and Russians would do nothing, militarily or diplomatically, to get in Uncle Sam’s way. 

As a result, Nixon was able to launch the Christmas bombing of 1972, and that onslaught against the suddenly isolated North Vietnamese finally persuaded the country to agree to end the war on terms acceptable to the U.S.—at least for a “decent interval.”  

Of course, at this moment today, it’s impossible to imagine the Israelis and Iranians reaching any sort of bargain that would isolate Hamas, in the way that Nixon isolated North Vietnam.  

And so, barring some miraculous change of heart in Tehran—or some crafty calculation that we can’t now foresee—that leaves another option, which is some strong Israeli action (kinetic, cyber, whatever) that would be so devastating as to force the Iranians to reconsider their patronage of Hamas.  (Or, perhaps, on Haniyeh in Qatar.)  Admittedly, it’s hard—although not impossible—to imagine such strikes.  

So perhaps what’s needed is to look to Iran’s strategic depth, which consists, of course, of the countries of Russia and China. Yes, it’s the looming presence of those two powers that has made Israel—and, in the past, the U.S.—shy away from overt military action against Iran. 

Yes, these are mega grand-strategic questions: Could the cord between Russia/China and Iran be broken?  Or could the connection between Hamas and Iran/Qatar be broken?  If so, by sticks?  Or even, somehow, by carrots?  

In the meantime, this much is easy to see: The Israels are in a quandary.  As Clausewitz would say if he were following Mideast news, unless and until Hamas’ psychological and political thinking changes, mere military defeat will not change the terror group’s current course.  

And of course, the Biden administration isn’t helping—at least, it’s not helping Israel.  Instead, this administration seems more attuned to the bad optics of internationally televised violence, and how to switch it off.  And if, along the way, Netanyahu gets switched off, all the better.  

Thus we can see: Biden administration policies will likely have no affect on Hamas’ thinking.  Indeed, post-cease-fire, Hamas now stands to be rewarded by the “international community” with billions in new aid pouring into Gaza, as well as, perhaps, by new diplomatic initiatives that would likely raise Hamas' stature.  

We might add that renewed diplomatic efforts might include some new effort at international mediation, including, perhaps, the presence of U.N. peacekeepers.  But the U.N. has been attempting to keep the peace in the area since 1948, and the results speak for themselves.  History shows that at best, the peacekeepers are spectators, and at worst, they end up collaborating with the anti-Israel side; that is, the side with the most member-countries in the U.N.

No wonder, in Clausewitzian terms, Hamas feels that it’s doing just fine.  

Israel has proven it can win the fighting, and yet, given the current correlation of international forces, it can’t win the long struggle.   

Victory in that long struggle—to find a secure place among the nations—will require some Clausewitzian mojo, applied sternly to foes, and gently to friends.