August 25, 2009

Why Stephen Walt doesn't support B.D.S.

Stephen Walt, who bravely co-authored a bad book about the Jewish Lobby, explains why he doesn't support B.D.S.
I might add that I don't support the "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement" myself. This is partly because I'm uncomfortable with even mild forms of collective punishment and partly because, like Gordon himself, I do worry about the double-standard issue (i.e., if you think it's ok to boycott Israel, why not China or Burma or any number of other countries?). And I'm especially leery of efforts to interfere with academic exchanges, because I don't like anything that interferes with free speech or obstructs the free flow of ideas. (Foreign Policy)
Let's begin with the first point, "collective punishment." Smearing a non-violent strategy of moral pressure coupled with relatively mild pressure on commerce with the terms reserved for high war crimes and crimes against humanity in international law is reprehensible and speaks to Walt's discredit. But let's put that aside. B.D.S. is not "punishment." Punishment is concerned with past behavior whereas BDS is a form of pressure to compel change. Is the avowed "realist" Walt really against the use of coercion in international affairs (which would be of necessity always collective)? Of course not. When pushed, he claims that his "realist" position is descriptive and amoral. It merely describes how states behave. That is patently not however how he writes. Every one of his paragraphs expresses an implicit or explicit prescription for a judicious and prudent statecraft that uses both carrots and sticks to secure "the national interest." Walt is not in principle opposed to war, invasion, occupation, international sanctions, covert operations, etc., all actions that impose a lot more collective harm than BDS, even though he tends to want more stringent criteria for when to use them than most. For example, while Walt has criticized sanctions against Iran on strategic grounds, he has never said he was against them on moral grounds, as "collective punishment." Note that sanctions against Iran are far from "mild forms of collective punishment." Even existing sanctions are causing significant harm, up to aviation disasters because of lack of spare parts, effectively killing Iranian civilians. B.D.S. does not even gets close to that level of harm. If it did, the deadliness of Israeli policies (e.g. in Gaza) combined with the more democratic political system (for Jews) would suggest a far more compelling case for harming Israelis than is the case for harming Iranians.

But then, that assumes that Walt is opposed to exerting pressure on Israel. That would be wrong. Walt conditionally supports pressure, even up to cutting off aid, which would mean a loss of $500 per Israeli citizen, a less mild form of "collective punishment" than anything currently possible within the B.D.S. framework in the U.S.

A few words about the other pathetic quibbles. Double standards? What double standards? Who said it is not O.K. to boycott Burma or China, or the U.S. for that matter? Boycott is a hostile but non-violent strategy, and its morality should be judged by general principles like every other hostile action of its sort. Is justice served or dis-served? How wrong and harmful is the behavior it seeks to change? Is the harm it causes less than harm it seeks to end? Are less harmful options available? Do the people who ask for it have legitimacy? What is the likelihood of success? etc. (All these questions and more are in fact answered explicitly by the campaign (see PACBI and BDS). the strategy of B.D.S. is not specific to Israel. In fact, the campaign against Israel was modeled after South Africa, and hopefully future campaigns in other places will model themselves after Palestine. Furthermore, remember we are cautioned here about "double standards" by a scholar who explicitly rejects imposing demands for moral consistency on international relations.

Academic freedom? Walt claims he is against anything that "obstructs the free flow of ideas"? I assume Walt is not opposed however to the copyright notice printed inside his latest book, which guarantees income to the book publisher (and sometimes even the author) at the price of restricting the free flow of ideas to those who can afford it. Nor does he, I assume, oppose tuition charges in universities. Does he oppose ethical rules on experiments with human subjects? You get the drift. The free flow of ideas is a good thing. But there are many good things, and sometimes they clash and some balance must be sought. A free Palestine, where Palestinian children can freely go to school and learn, is also a good thing. The free flow of people, even people without too many ideas, between Tulkarem and Jenin, is also a good thing. Furthermore, B.D.S. does not call for boycotting Israeli ideas or academics. It calls for breaking relations with Israeli institutions complicit in the oppression of Palestinians. That would include all Israeli universities. Such a boycott may make the flow of ideas marginally slower in some cases, but is it a major limitation? Is co-writing a grant application with an Israeli department or participating in a panel hosted in Israel that much more important than forcing Israel to respect human rights? I guess for some people it is.

Given the flippancy and inconsistency of his arguments, one has to ask: why does Walt really feel compelled to distance himself from the Palestinian B.D.S. on "moral grounds", when he supports in principle far more harmful strategies, including against Israel?

I can only guess. What distinguishes B.D.S. from U.S. sanctions against Iran or pressure on Israel is not the severity of the harm it seeks to inflict but the nature of the agent and the logic of action. B.D.S. is a Palestinian led liberation strategy that seeks solidarity from Americans on moral grounds. As a liberation strategy, B.D.S. seeks to serve the Palestinian cause of liberty, self-determination and rights. When U.S. citizens support B.D.S., they effectively participate in international relations (which Walt affectionately calls IR), independently from their state and as one non-state actor supporting another. By further acting based on moral concerns and solidarity with a grassroots liberation movement, they mess up the neat world of states, ruled by elites, pursuing their interests. One can put it flippantly by saying that B.D.S. undermines Walt's favorite model of IR. But this is far more than a model. It is an ideology of a foreign policy mandarinat. Statecraft, as Walt likes to repeat, not only is but should be an amoral and rough business conducted by calculating strategists in the service of state power. Injecting morality and grassroots concerns into it only messes things up.

Where does that leaves Palestinians? At the mercy of the U.S. policy establishment. As Walt sees it, it serves U.S. interests to make life somewhat better for Palestinians by pressuring Israel to accept a "two state solution" that is better than a Bantustan, although Walt doesn't clarify how much better (his support for the U.S. training of PA thugs suggests that his vision is of a U.S. sponsored autocratic police state like Jordan and Egypt). Of course, Walt's position is not yet consensus among the U.S. foreign policy mandarinat. It is still just one position on a spectrum regarding what the U.S. national interest in the Middle East is, so even getting as much as that is far from a done deal. Whatever the final deal is, however, the only track Walt supports is the one that goes through Washington and serves Washington's interests. When Palestinians chose an alternative track, seeking to mobilize international solidarity through appeal to the world's conscience rather than to the interest of the superpower, Walt suddenly remembers transparently fake "moral" concerns which he raises in order to undermine them. That is the same Walt that advocates a very permissive wide berth for morality in policy since "international politics can be a brutal business."

There is a consistency to Walt's position. First come the interests of the U.S. policy establishment (and the unacknowledged corporate/capitalist interests that this establishment defines as "the national interest"), then come the interests of the U.S. mandarinat, including its academics. Then come the interests of Jewish Israelis (namely, "a Jewish state"), and finally, if there is still room, the interests of Palestinians--even then, only that potential elite Palestinian formation willing to serve as a U.S. client.

Given the sick (and I mean that quite literally) environment he comes from, Walt's willingness to defy some conventional wisdom regarding Israel is refreshing. That does justify a measure of respect as long as we remember he is graded on a curve.

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