In the Turbulent Middle East, Anything is Possible

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been saying for over a decade now, Israel considers its most important enemy to be Iran. That is good news: it means that enemies who are less than a thousand or so kilometers away no longer exist. The impressive Arab coalition which used to face Israel during its early years has long since collapsed. With some of its members, i.e. Egypt and Jordan, Israel is now officially at peace. Other enemies have been demolished either by external defeat, as happened in Iraq, or by civil war, as in Syria. Occasionally they have suffered both. Various terrorist organizations apart, this leaves Iran as the one enemy Israel has any real reason to fear.

Saudi Arabia is also worried about Iran. In part, this is because of the age-old and often bloody rivalry between the Sunni and Shi’ite sects of Islam of which Riad and Tehran are the chief representatives, respectively. In part, it is because of Iranian support for the Houthi rebellion in Yemen which threatens to put the Saudis between Scylla in the north and Charybdis in the south. And in part it is because of Teheran’s nuclear ambitions which, should they bear fruit, threaten to spark off a nuclear arms race and destabilize the entire region.

My enemy’s enemy is my friend. No wonder Israel and Saudi Arabia have got closer together than at any time since the former was established seventy years ago. Top Israeli officials have repeatedly hinted at the existence of intelligence links between the two countries. There have also been rumors about Israeli sales to the Saudis (by way of South Africa) of anti-missile technology; it may be no accident that, each time the Saudis intercept a Houthi missile fired at them, the news is prominently displayed in Israel. Other rumors point to the possibility that, should Israel decide to strike at Iran’s nuclear program, its aircraft will be allowed to make use of Saudi air space.

A letter sent by the Israeli foreign ministry to its representatives abroad, written in Hebrew and leaked to the media, instructs them to do what they can to help the Saudis in Yemen. All that explains, among other things, why Israel did not raise any difficulties when Germany sold 200 tanks to the Saudis back in 2011. Also, why it did not oppose the transfer of some small islands in the Straits of Sharm al Sheik from Egyptian to Saudi Arabian sovereignty in 2017. In trying to prevent Iran from establishing itself in Syria, Israel and Saudi Arabia have found themselves fighting on the same side.

Partly because they are afraid of Iran, partly because they think they can see the age of oil coming to an end, and partly because of internal tensions between the country’s old elite and its growing young population, the Saudis have engaged on a thoroughgoing series of reforms. Including, if all goes well, the privatization of the economy; the construction of a huge new scientific-industrial complex on the Red Sea; a relaxation of religious discipline and the opening of the country to tourism; and, not least, changes in the status of women designed to create the impression that the country is indeed trying to join the modern world.

At first sight, improved relations with Israel, aided and abetted by the United States, would fit well into the new Saudi Arabia that the latter’s de facto ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman, is trying to build. Certainly they mark a great improvement on the time when Jews, even such as were citizens of allied countries, were not admitted into the Kingdom. And when US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, though allowed to enter, had a copy of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion presented to him by King Faisal. However, there are complications. First there is the question of Jerusalem, Islam’s second most holy city which the Saudis cannot simply put aside. Second is that of the Palestinians who have now been living under Israeli occupation for fifty-one years, no less.

Recent Saudi pronouncements on the matter, such as the one by Bin Salman that Israel has the right to exist and by his father that the two countries have some common interests, appear to be seriously meant, at least at the moment. Assuming this is so, they are welcome in Jerusalem, Washington DC, and many other capitals as well. However, be warned. A change of government in Riad, or else a Saudi attempt to acquire nuclear weapons, may still lead to a change of heart on either side.

In the turbulent Middle East, anything is possible.

The Israeli Army

A few weeks ago I gave an interview to a French periodical concerning the state of Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Today, 19 April 2018, being Israel’s 70th Independence Day, I thought this topic would be of interest to the readers of this blog.

 

Any comments welcome

 

Can you give us an overview of the actual situation of the Israeli armed forces?

One could argue that, taking a grand strategic perspective and starting with the establishment of the State of Israel seventy years ago, some things have not changed very much. First, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) remain the armed organization of a democratic country, one in which it is the politicians who decide and the military which obeys. Second, the objective of the IDF was and remains to defend the country, a outrance if necessary, against any military threats that may confront it. Third, Israel remains in a state of war with several other Middle countries; nor is there any way in the world it can bring the conflict to an end by defeating them and compelling them to make peace against their will. Fourth, the occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights notwithstanding, Israel remains a small country with very little strategic depth. Fifth, the lack of strategic depth implies a heavy reliance on intelligence to detect threats before they materialize. Sixth, and for the same reason, Israeli military doctrine remains basically offensive, with a strong emphasis on destroying the opposing armed forces.

How is composed the Israeli military apparatus?

The Israeli military still retains the basic structure it assumed in 1949-50. It is made up of 1. A standing army, consisting of officers, NCO’s, and conscripts, numbering about 176,000 men and women altogether; and 2. A considerably larger number of reservists, who bring the total to about 620,000. As these numbers show, the IDF places heavier reliance on reservists than most modern armed forces do. Many reservists, moreover, serve in their own units and are expected to go into battle almost immediately and not after a period of organization as is the case in most other countries.

In charge of the IDF is the chief of staff, a lieutenant general. Under him is the general staff, including the divisions of manpower, operations, intelligence, computers (C4I). technology/logistics, and planning. Like most modern armed forces, the IDF has ground forces, an air force and a navy. Each of these three has its own general staff. There are three territorial commands: north, south, and central. There is a home defense command as well as a long-range command intended for “deep” operations in the enemy’s rear. Just recently the establishment of yet another command, armed with surface to surface missiles and apparently meant to supplement the air force, on missions up to 300-500 kilometers deep into enemy territory, has been announced.

Can you explain in detail which are the weapons currently owned by Israel?

The IDF is one of the most modern forces in the world. The ground forces rely on heavy Israeli-designed and produced tanks (the Merkava), of which there have now been four successive generations). It also has modern, heavy, armored personnel carriers (produced, in Israel, on a Merkava hull and undercarriage) as well as various kinds of surfaces-to surface missiles, multiple-launch rockets, and artillery The infantry, including a paratroop brigade and special operations units, has modern personal arms (the Tavor assault rifle) as well as machine guns and various anti-tank missiles.

The air force is in charge of a number of earth-circling intelligence satellites. It also has a number of medium and intermediate range (1,500-5,000 kilometer) ballistic missiles capable of reaching well beyond the Middle East. Combat power in the air consists mainly of US-built F-15. F-16 and F-35 fighter-bombers. Other important weapon systems are attack helicopters, AWACS aircraft, and tankers. A very important element are anti-missile defenses, a field in which Israel is a world leader.

Traditionally the Navy has been the least important among the three services. However, the need for a second-strike nuclear force as well as the discovery of enormous reserves of gas under the Mediterranean, which need to be defended, has caused this situation to change. Currently the Navy has a number of corvettes armed with various surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles. These ships are sufficiently large to carry helicopters for over-the horizon work. Four more corvettes are on order in German shipyards. The Navy also has five submarines (with a sixth on the way) which, according to foreign sources, can launch sea-to-land cruise missiles over a range of up to a thousand miles or so. That, incidentally, should be enough to reach a target as far away as Tehran from positions opposite the Syrian coast.

About the nuclear: can you give us an overview of their allocations and actual potential?

These matters are secret. After all Israel has never openly admitted to having nuclear weapons in the first place. All one can say, on the basis of foreign sources which have long been discussing the issue at length, is as follows.

First, the number of warheads in Israel’s nuclear arsenal is probably in the low hundreds. Yields may vary between 20 kilotons, the equivalent of the device dropped on Nagasaki back in 1945, and a megaton. There have also been rumors about tactical nukes, but they have never been confirmed. Whether the larger warheads are fusion-based or simply boosted fission-ones is unknown.

Second, the delivery vehicles that can carry these weapons include fighter-bombers, various kinds of surface-to-surface missiles, and submarines. Between them, these weapons and these delivery vehicles should enable Israel to wipe any enemy in the Middle East and beyond off the map.

Third, absolutely nothing is known about the doctrine that governs the use of the weapons in question. In other words, about their strategic mission, the circumstances in which they may be used, the way in which they may be used, the targets against which they may be used, and so on.

About new generation weapons (drones, long range missiles), what is the situation? Are the Israeli armed forces still greater than its neighbors?

Israel technology in all these fields is as good as any available in the world. The more so because it is assisted by joint programs not just with the US, the largest weapon-manufacturer of all, but with and several other advanced countries. Israeli computers, satellites, optical- and communications equipment, radars, and drones are excellent. However, there is no room for complacency. Israel’s enemies, including both state- and non-state ones, are doing their best to challenge its superiority. As they do so, some of them are supported by Russia. Which is why constant vigilance and innovation are required.

In its short history, the State of Israel often fought and won wars in which it was outnumbered and trapped: is this because of its only technological superiority or is there also a strategic and tactical factor? 

Starting in 1948 and ending with the 1973 war inclusive, the most important factor behind Israel’s victories has always been the quality of its troops. Both in terms of education—Israel, unlike its enemies, is not a third-world country but a first-world one with educational, technological and scientific facilities to match. And—which is more critical still—in terms of motivation and fighting morale.

After 1973, and especially the 1982 First Lebanon War, things began to change. Education, technical skills and scientific development continued to improve, turning this a nation of less than eight million people into a world center of military (and not just military) innovation. There are, however, some signs that, as some of its former enemies concluded peace with it and its own military superiority came to be taken for granted, motivation suffered. To this was added the need to combat terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank—the kind of operations that contribute nothing to overall fighting effectiveness and any even detract from it.

Can the logistic organization represent a decisive factor – militarily -?

Logistics, it has been said, is “that which, if you do not have enough of, the war will not be won as soon as.” As recently as the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah in 2006, so heavy was expenditure of air-to-surface missiles and other precision-guided munitions that the IDF had to apply for US aid even as hostilities were going on. This situation which has its origins in budget constraints, may well recur.

Furthermore, in all its wars from 1948 on the IDF has enjoyed near-absolute command of the air. As a result, it was able to attack enemy lines of supply whereas the enemy was unable to do the same. The buildup of reliable and accurate surface-to-surface missiles in the hands of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran may very well change this situation, causing supply bases and ammunition dumps, as well as communications-junctions and even convoys on the move to come under attack. This scenario, which is not at all imaginary, is currently giving the General Staff a lot of headaches.  

We know that the intelligence is the decisive element to ensure strength to Israeli Armed Forces: can you explain what is this strength?

Israeli technological, tactical and operational intelligence has always been very good. Two factors help account for this fact. First, there exists in Israel a large community of first-class experts (known as Mizrahanim, “Easterners” who know the countries of the Middle East, their language, culture, traditions, history, and so forth as well as anyone does. Many members of this community spend their periods of reserve duty with the IDF intelligence apparatus.

Second, modern intelligence rests on electronics, especially various kinds of sensors and computers. As the famous Unit 8200 shows, these are fields where nobody excels the IDF. Nobody.

That said, it is important to add that Israeli top-level strategic and political intelligence is nowhere as good as it is on the lower levels. Starting at least as early as 1955, and reaching all the way to the present, IDF intelligence has often failed to predict some of the most important events. That included the 1967 war, the 1973 War, the 1987 Palestinian Uprising, the 1991 Gulf War, the “Arab Spring,” and the outbreak of the 2011 Syrian Civil War.

Compared to its actual friends, which are its strengths and weaknesses from a military point of view?

As I said, strengths include a well-educated and highly skilled society, excellent technology, and vast experience in fighting various enemies (though some of that experience is now dated). The chief weaknesses remain the country’s relatively small size and lack of strategic depth—Iran, for example, is eighty times as large as Israel. Perhaps most important of all, there is reason to think that motivation, though much higher than in the NATO countries, is no longer what it used to be.

If the situation between Israel and Iran (or Hezbollah in Lebanon) comes to a showdown, which could be the reactions of some States as Turkey, Syria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or USA?

Hard to say. Iran will use Syria as a forward base for fighting Israel. Assuming the regime stays, Saudi Arabia will probably retain its ties with Israel, at least unofficially. Ditto Egypt. Turkey will probably not engage in a shooting war with Israel, but it will support an anti-Israeli coalition in other ways while at the same time fighting the Syrians (and the Kurds). Russia will try to support Hezbollah and Syria, but without becoming deeply involved. The US on its part will support Israel and Hezbollah, but without directly taking on the Russians.

There seems to be a fear about a large scale conflict; militarily, what do you think that Israel could put in place?

With its vital infrastructure—power plants, fuel depots, factories, and the like—exposed to precision-guided missiles launched by Hezbolla Syria and possibly Iran, Israel will find itself in a difficult situation. As well as doing its best to protect these assets by means of its highly-developed surface-to air missile system, it will mount air- and missile attacks on enemy air defenses, missile launching sites, and infrastructure targets (one Israeli officer has recently warned that, should Hezbollah get involve in a war with Israel, the latter would bomb Lebanon back into the Stone Age). One can also expect Israeli commando raids against military targets which, for one reason or another, cannot be tackled by airpower on its own.

All in all, not a pleasant prospect.

A Thirty Years’ War?

With Syria in the news, as it always its, I thought I’d repost the piece I published two and a half years ago. Word for word.

For those of you who have forgotten, here is a short reminder. The Thirty Years’ War started in May 1618 when the Protestant Estates of Bohemia revolted against the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. They threw his envoys out of the windows of the palace at Prague. Fortunately for them, the moat into which they fell was filled with rubbish and nobody was killed.

Had the revolt remained local, it would have been suppressed fairly quickly. As, in fact, it was in 1620 when the Habsburgs and their allies won the Battle of the White Mountain. Instead it expanded and expanded. First the Hungarians and then the Ottomans were drawn in (though they did not stay in for long). Then came the Spaniards, then the Danes, then the Swedes, and finally the French. Some did less, others more. Many petty European states, cities, and more or less independent robber barons also set up militias and joined what developed into a wild free for all. For three decades armies and militias chased each other all over central Europe. Robbing, burning, raping, killing. By the time the Treaty of Westphalia ended the hostilities in 1648 the population of Germany had been reduced by an estimated one third.

The similarities with the current war in Syria are obvious and chilling. This war, too, started with a revolt against an oppressive ruler and his regime. One who, however nasty he might be, at any rate had kept things more or less under control. At first it was a question of various “liberal” Syrian factions—supposing such things exist—trying to overthrow Bashir Assad. Next it turned out that some of those factions were not liberal but Islamic, part of a much larger movement originating in Iraq and known, for short, as IS or Daesh. Next Hezbollah, which in some ways acts as an extension of Assad, and Iran, which had long supported Hezbollah against Israel, were drawn in. The former sent in fighters, the latter advisers and arms.

Even that was only the beginning. Smelling blood, the Kurds, whose territory straddles both Syria and Iraq, tried to use the opportunity to gain their independence. This necessarily drew in the Turks. To prevent its native Kurds from joining their brethren. Ankara started bombing them. To satisfy Obama, it also dropped a few bombs on IS. The US on its part started training some of the “liberal” militias, to no avail. US instructors did no better in Syria than their predecessors had done in Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq; what is surprising is that they, and their bosses in the White House, never learn.

Next the US itself entered the fray. Fearing casualties, though, it only did so to the extent of launching drone-strikes, which are more or less useless. The Russians, determined to avoid the loss of their only remaining base outside their own country and to keep Assad in place, launched airstrikes on some, but not all, the militias. The French, hoping to achieve God knows what, did the same. Fueling the conflict are the Saudis who will oppose anything the Iranians support. Too cowardly to send in their own useless army, they are trying to get rid of Assad by heavily subsidizing his enemies.

With so many interests, native and foreign, involved, a way out does not seem in sight. Nor can the outcome be foreseen any more than that of the Thirty Years’ War could be four years after the beginning of the conflict, i.e. 1622. In fact there is good reason to believe that the hostilities have just begun. Additional players such as Lebanon and Jordan may well be drawn in. That in turn will almost certainly bring in Israel as well. Some right-wing Israelis, including several ministers, actually dream of such a scenario. They hope that the fall of the Hashemite Dynasty and the disintegration of Jordan will provide them with an opportunity to repeat the events of 1948 by throwing the Palestinians out of the West Bank and into Jordan.

That, however, is Zukunftmusik, future music as the Germans say. As of the present, the greatest losers are going to be Syria and Iraq. Neither really exists any longer as organized entities, and neither seems to have a future as such an entity. The greatest winner is going to be Iran. Playing the role once reserved for Richelieu, the great 17th century French statesman, the Mullahs are watching the entire vast area from the Persian Gulf to Latakia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean turn into a maelstrom of conflicting interests they can play with. Nor are they at all sorry to see Turks and Kurds kill each other to their hearts’ contents.

Finally, as happened in 1618-48, the main victim is the civilian population. Just as in 1618-48, people are being robbed, despoiled, and killed. Just as in 1618-48 the slave trade, especially in nubile females who can be raped and young boys who can be conscripted, is undergoing a revival. Not only in Syria, but in Iraq, where IS is fighting both the local Kurds and whatever ragtag units the Iraqi “Army” can field. Ere it is over the number of refugees desperately seeking to escape will rise into the millions. Many, not having anything to lose, are going to risk life and limb trying to reach Europe. Joining others from Libya and the rest of Africa, at least some will link with the Salafists, an extreme Muslim sect that is already very active in the continent’s cities. Of those who do, some will turn to terrorism. Terrorism, unless it can be contained, will increasingly be answered not just by extremism, the loss of civil rights and the breakdown of democracy—that is beginning to happen already—but by terrorism.

And whom will everyone blame? Israel, of course. But that is something we Israelis, and Jews, are used to.

I Am Ashamed to Be an Israeli

I am ashamed to be an Israeli.

And not because the IDF killed some fifteen residents of Gaza during the demonstrations that took place on the 30th of April. I was not there, and neither was any of my acquaintances. So I cannot say whether the killing was “justified”—whether, in other words, the soldiers who opened fire really were in danger of their lives. Although I must say that, since the demonstrators did not carry weapons and since a great many of them were women and children, the number seems quite high. The more so because not a single Israeli was killed or injured.

Most of my readers not being Israelis, I cannot blame them for never having heard the name of Kobi Meidan. I myself hardly open my radio except to listen to classical music; hence I cannot say I am terribly familiar with the name either. I think I once talked to him over the phone, but that is all.

Mr. Meidan is a journalist. He works for Galei Zahal, the military broadcasting station that is one of the most popular in Israel. Referring to the demonstrations, he wrote that he was ashamed to be an Israeli. Please note that he did not say so while on the air. He did so on Facebook, in his capacity as a private individual in a free country.

No sooner had he done so than all hell broke loose. All over the country people demanded that he be fired. His direct superior, the station’s commander, held out for a time. However, pressed by his superior, minister of defense Avigdor Lieberman, he ended up by surrendering and threatening Meidan with dismissal.

Meidan in turn surrendered and apologized. His apology was accepted, so everything is fine now. Everything, except that, from now on, Mr. Meidan will surely be careful to look over his shoulder every time he puts a line on Facebook. As will a great many others. Everything, except that freedom of speech, the most precious thing on earth, has received a powerful blow. One that is by no means the first of its kind, and one that is very unlikely to be the last.

Here is a story I heard some time ago.

How many views do fifty Frenchmen have? Fifty. How many views do fifty Israelis have? A hundred and fifty. And how many views do fifty Germans have? One.

Further comment, superfluous.

That is why, for the benefit of Mr. Lieberman and others, Israeli and non-Israeli, of his ilk, I want to repeat, loud and clear:

I am ashamed to be an Israeli

I am ashamed to be an Israeli

I am ashamed to be an Israeli

I am ashamed to be an Israeli

I am ashamed to be an Israeli

I am ashamed to be an Israeli

I am ashamed to be an Israeli

I am ashamed to be an Israeli

I am ashamed to be an Israeli

I am ashamed to be an Israeli

And also for Mr. Meidan.

Do We Have a Deal?

The famed author of Parkinson’s Law once wrote that there are two kinds of books: those with naked women on the cover, and those without. As a rule, he added, the former sell better. Over the years my blog has carried quite a few pictures of women. However, not one of them shows a pair of naked breasts. Much as I love women, specifically including their bodies, it is a policy I intend to follow in the future, too.

Seriously, the blog is now four years old. During that period it has been clicked-on more than a quarter of a million times. Not nearly enough to compete with, say, Stormy Daniels and her alleged presidential lover. But perhaps sufficient to merit pausing for a bit of reflection. Before I get started, though, I’d like to thank my stepson Jonathan Lewy, who has been running it on my behalf; Mr. Larry Kummer, editor of the Fabius Maximus website, who more than anyone else has taken an interest in my work and encouraged me to continue posting; my friend Bill Lind whose blog, The View from Olympus is always an inspiration; various people who, either after being contacted by me or spontaneously, agreed to write their own essays; and a somewhat larger number who took the trouble to contact me and correspond with me.

Just why I started blogging and kept doing so I am no longer sure. Originally I wanted a forum on which I could write what I wanted at any time and in any form I wanted. Without, what is more, being subject to the whims of editors many of whom have their own agenda and quite a few of whom have always remained more or less unknown to me. That remains true to the present day. Another motive, which was added later, was a growing sense of obligation towards my readers. It is like being married; how could I let them down? Not that I have any illusions that they could not exist without me. However, it is as people say: the one thing worse than a Dutch Calvinist is a Jewish Dutch Calvinist.

Normally I spend about two hours on each post. Often these are times when, for one reason or another, I do not feel like doing more “serious” work. I draw my ideas from various sources. Including, above all, the daily news; any book or books I happened to be reading or working on; and friends’ suggestions. Topics I found particularly interesting included Israeli affairs—I am, after all, a citizen and a resident of that country and have long shared both its triumphs and its failures. Also military affairs in general; women’s affairs (both in- and out of the military); the shape the future might take; political correctness, which is my personal bête noire; why American kids so often take up guns and kill everyone in sight; and others.

Some of these topics have proved much more popular than others. I have, however, never succeeded in guessing in advance which ones would draw many readers and which ones would turn into flops. Truth to say, I have not even seriously tried. Perhaps it is better so; writing to please should only be allowed to go so far and no farther. Some posts, especially those that touch upon the position of women in society as well as the relationship between them and men, have drawn considerable critical fire. Good! May they continue to do so in the future, too.

One part of the work I particularly like is searching Google.com for images. Given enough patience, you will almost certainly find what you are looking for. I know there are a lot of criticisms of Google and I suppose some of them are justified. Any organization as large and successful as they are is bound to make enemies. As, in the past, Western Union, Standard Oil, General Motors, ATT, and Microsoft all did. To me, however, the company has provided a certain kind of freedom people before 2000 or so could not even imagine. Thank you, Google, for your help. It is appreciated.

Finally, I am not getting any younger or healthier. Driving up and down the hills around Jerusalem, which as a young man with twenty kilograms less around the waist I used to run over as if my life depended on it, I often wonder how long before some illness strikes and brings me to a halt. Que sera sera. This, however I promise my readers:

Never, ever, will I deliberately set out to offend people or use swearwords and other uncouth forms of expression to do so;

Never, ever, will I knowingly allow my judgments to be affected by inducements—and there have been a few attempts to offer them—or threats. The kind of threats, incidentally, that are even now being issued by some elements in Israeli academia against any faculty member who dares address any kind of political issue in class.

Never, ever, will I allow anyone or anything to interfere with my right to think, say and write as I saw fit.

Always, always, will I try to keep an open ear to my readers’ suggestions and criticism.

In return, I ask my readers to go on telling me what they think. Preferably by email at mvc.dvc@gmail.com

Do we have a deal?

Guest Article: More Pussycats

By: Anonymous

Returning from Vienna, where I have been giving some talks and interviews about my recent book, Pussycats, I found the following in my inbox. The author has granted my request and permitted the piece to be posted here. While legal reasons prevent the university in question from being identified by name, the facts have been verified from other sources.

Any other comment is superfluous.

The university is currently going through its second occupation of the year. The first (which as far as I know is continuing) was by a group of students eager to discover “true freedom”. They took over a classroom and began camping there. They covered all windows so no one could see what they were doing inside (although it smelled strongly of pot). The president and her vice-presidents kept meeting with their leaders and kept negotiating agreements that were then repudiated by the occupiers. Then she got a lot of resolutions voted by various instances at the university, all of which were ignored. Then she held a lot of meetings but did absolutely nothing else – even after both she and the chief administrative officer of the university had been slightly injured by the students.

The second occupation started at the end of January when about thirty undocumented immigrants took over two floors of building A, the arts building. They brought in cooking gear and portable beds and began meeting with the press (although the press didn’t show much interest in them). Once again, the president and her vice-presidents negotiated, once again they reached agreements and once again the accords were immediately repudiated. She asked the immigrants to move into the university’s largest auditorium. After initially agreeing, they issued a statement refusing this compromise. Why? Because the auditorium reminded them of the Libyan prisons where they had been held!! Now, I’m the first to complain about our working conditions but that our biggest auditorium, where we hand out honorary degrees, looks like a Libyan prison seems somewhat exaggerated. Or maybe I’m being unfair to Libyan prisons. They also stated that they did not want to move to another building because they wanted residency permits and affordable housing. Do they think the university can supply these? Or that the French government cares enough about this Parisian university being occupied to grant them?

With extension cords all over the place and cooking going on in the hallways, not surprisingly, they blew all the fuses in building A. Then, they graciously agreed to use the auditorium during the day because it had better kitchen facilities. So, not only did the presidential team fail to gain back our classrooms but they also lost us the use of our largest auditorium! Added to that, they offered the gym to the immigrants so they could use the showers. So, what did our leadership then do? They called a lot of meetings and got a lot of resolutions passed – all of which were ignored. And then the heavy snowfall caused all the heating to fail so the president closed the university for two days.

In response the immigrants organized a banquet in front of the library to announce their refusal to leave. The president then sent in the commission for hygiene and security to meet with them. However, their leaders claimed that a member of the commission was actually a police officer in disguise. The whole thing descended into violence with pushing, shoving and some punching. But the immigrants remained and continued occupying the building. They installed beds in some classrooms,  which have become dorms while another room is a canteen. They even brought in a sofa so they could have an area to relax. By this time the immigrants had grown to about 80 and their supporters were talking of establishing a permanent refuge at the university.

The presidential team contacted a number of charities. One came in and gave the immigrants medical check-ups while the refugees refused to meet with another, a charity for the homeless, People from one charity I talked to said they would not get involved because in many ways things resembled a hostage situation: the university is of course being held hostage but so, in a way, are the refugees: most of them don’t speak French and blindly follow their leaders who work with people at the university who have a political agenda. Other charities have come to the same conclusion.

So the president and her V-Ps decided to get tough and sent a somewhat threatening letter to the immigrants. The latter responded by going from classroom to classroom at the university asking for money. The president and her V-Ps did nothing.

Meanwhile, the immigrants brought in huge wooden crates, filled with used clothes, that they stock in the stairwells, (blocking the exits, of course). They also blast music during class times (which are still going on on the first floor). The occupiers also broke the locks on one of the side entrances of the university and installed their own (which is clearly illegal). So now they are the only ones able to use that entrance. They also forced the locks on doors to other classrooms. In response the president sent pictures of the broken doors to all members of the university. Then grafitti appeared in the area with anti-Semitic slogans and comments like “Death to all whites”. The presidential team took pictures of these and sent them to all members of the university.

In the current political climate no one wants to deal with the issue of immigration and no one cares about universities. Even the press doesn’t consider the situation worth a news article. This says a lot about the state of French universities and partly explains why, in spite of internationally respected staff, they are so low in the league tables. The government could care less about universities and they are being allowed to fall to pieces.

If You Want to Know the Future…

“If you want to know the future, study the past,” is one of the clichés of our age. Among those who are said to have said so are the Spanish philosopher George Santayana and President Theodore Roosevelt. Rarely, though, have people gone very far in explaining just how it should be done. So here are a few thoughts about the question.

Until 1750. The idea that history is an arrow-like, ever-changing, non-repeating, process that leads in a straight line from far in the past to far into the future is a surprisingly recent one. In this form it only made its appearance around the middle of the eighteenth century. Before that date history was considered to be the province of again and again. Either the most important things did not change at all but always followed the same patterns, as Thucydides and Machiavelli thought. This, too, was what Sun Tzu was referring to, albeit in a negative way, when he said the historical analogies were no way for finding out what the enemy would do. Or else history moved in cycles as many philosophers and historians from Plato to Arnold Toynbee did. Either way it was possible to use the past for looking into the future, at any rate in principle.

From 1750 on. Starting with the late Enlightenment, patterns and cycles have been joined, and to some extent replaced, by the view of history as a linear process. A process, in other words, that was moving in a certain direction from the Creation (later replaced by the Big Bang) towards an objective or goal. This in turn gave birth to two other ideas, both of which are often used for predicting the future. The first, which has since become one the most common of all, was “trends.” The term is derived from the Middle English trenden, meaning to roll about, turn, revolve. In other words, the very opposite of what it means today. During the sixteenth century it began to stand for a move in a specific direction; but it was only about 1880 that its use became at all common.

Trends gave rise to extrapolation, another modern term. Starting its rise around 1920, today extrapolation is everywhere. The number of fields which have been analyzed with its aid, sometimes with success and sometimes without, is vast. Among them are births, deaths, populations (both human and non-human), migration, incomes, demand, sales, traffic (including accidents), energy consumption, hothouse gases in the atmosphere, the number of working scientists, technological development, the speed at which we move from one point to another, and so many other things as to boggle the mind.

Following hard on the discovery of trends and extrapolation came the other post-1750 historical method, i.e dialectics. The first to point to dialectics as the key to historical change, and therefore to any attempt to look into the future, was the early nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel’s starting point that it was the spirit that moved the world. Any idea (thesis) would quickly give rise to its opposite (antithesis). As the two met, the outcome would be a synthesis made up of elements taken from both the thesis and the antithesis—for nothing is ever completely lost—and forming a new thesis. And so on in a process that could be observed at work in all human affairs, from the highest to the lowest.

Where Hegel really left his predecessors behind was by insisting that the process was not stationary, like scales moving now one way and now in another while in search of equilibrium, but dynamic. Unfolding in time, never repeating itself but always taking on new forms, it led history away from the past through the present and from there into the future. History, in other words, was a process of becoming.

It was in this form that dialectics were taken over by Karl Marx. Marx’s starting point was that, while Hegel had been right in pointing to dialectics as the moving principle of history, he should have applied it to economic life first of all. Here the various systems of production were forever jostling each other, pushing development along. Thus emergent slavery replaced “primitive communism.” Feudalism took the place of slavery; capitalism drove out feudalism; and communism, returning in a much more highly-developed form with every kind of modern technology at its disposal, would end up by doing away with capitalism. Each of these four systems contained traces of the previous one. And each also contained the germ of its own opposite within itself. When the time was ripe it would be negated by that opposite. As the old passed away, the new would emerge out of it like a butterfly out of its chrysalis. To this process Hegel had given the name Aufhebung. Inadequately translated as sublation, it can mean both “abolition” and “taking to a new, and higher, level.”

Hegel and Marx are long dead. However, arguably dialectics, applied to both spiritual and material factors and recognizing the interaction between them, still remains the best way to describe the way history unfolds over time. If so, then seen as a method for understanding the present and forecasting the future it is by no means passé. Modern examples of the way dialectics work are all around us. One such is the shift from craftsmanship to conveyor belts producing endless numbers of identical items and from there to computerized factories which manufacture an almost equally endless variety of them. Another is the growth in motor traffic which has now reached the point where, instead of increasing mobility, it threatens to choke it and bring it to a halt.

Still others are the rise of globalization which, having emerged after the end of the Cold War with its sharp division between West and East, is now being confronted by its opposite, decentralization, regionalization, and social fragmentation; and the rise of political correctness (itself, in many ways, a reaction to the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s), the reaction to which became manifest when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Thanks to dialectics all these, and many others, were predictable. And some far-sighted people actually did predict every one of them.

To retrace our steps, history (A) and (B) together provides us with four different ways of looking into the future. Two of those, the one based on the idea that there is no change and the one that change is cyclical, go back at least as far as the fifth century BCE when the very idea of history, meaning a record of things past, was conceived of for the first time. Between them they dominated the field until the effects of the industrial revolution started making themselves felt during the second half of the eighteenth century. Both remain in use even today. The other two, which assume that history does not repeat itself and that change is the very stuff of which it is made, are of more recent vintage.

What all four methods have in common is that they are based, or are supposed to be based, on the sober and systematic study of recorded facts and processes. Such as anyone, provided he or she applies himself, can access and interpret. The difficulty, of course, is to decide which method should be applied to what development at what time; also, which one to use in dealing with each problem and how to combine all four.

To this question, no answer had yet been found.

With Just One Important Exception

Quite by accident, I finished reading this book on 7 March, the eve of the International Women’s Day. The author, Prof. Steven Pinker, is nothing if not an optimist. Perhaps one reason for this is because, as a 63-year old psychologist who teaches at Harvard and has several best-sellers to his name, he has good reason to be satisfied with life so far. Parts I and II of his latest book, Enlightenment Now, are basically a list of all the ways in which the world has been improving over the last two centuries or so. By contrast, some of part III looks—to me, at any rate—like a “philosophical” tract so confused as to be hardly worth commenting on.

Even skipping that part, though, no short review can hope to do justice to the tons of evidence Pinker produces to support his claim. Follow some highlights:

  • Starting at the end of the eighteenth century, and taking the human race as a whole, real per capita product has gone up thirtyfold. During the same period the global population has increased tenfold fro 800 million to almost 8 billion; meaning that, in little more than two centuries, total production has increased three hundred times, no less. Contrary to the fears of Malthus and others, humanity has not run out of food and other resources. To the point where many formerly hungry countries have turned to exporting food and where in quite some developed ones obesity is a greater menace than malnutrition is.
  • Taking into account qualitative advances—vastly improved nutrition and living conditions, faster and more comfortable travel, more efficient communications, incomparably cheaper data-processing, to mention but a few—the improvement in our material situation has been much greater still. Just consider that King Louis XIV at Versailles had neither electricity, nor running water, nor flush toilets. Not for nothing did visitors keep complaining about the awful way everything smelled—and this in the palace for whose owner nothing could be too good.
  • The increase in the size of human population could never have taken place without radical advances in the related fields of medicine and health. Including a vast decline in perinatal mortality (the percentage of women who die in childbirth or shortly thereafter); a vast increase in the number of children who live to adulthood; the introduction, during the second half of the nineteenth century, of sterilization and anesthetics; the complete or near-complete eradication of some of the deadliest diseases, such as smallpox and polio; and the mitigation of crises such as AIDS, SARS and the rest which, had they broken out more than a few decades ago, could well have decimated the human race in the same way as Spanish Influenza did in 1919-20. Taken together, these and other advances explain why, world-wide, life expectancy is now around seventy years. That is twice as much as at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
  • Hand in hand with the general “betterment”—a term much beloved by Pinker’s heroes, i.e. the scientists, technicians and philosophers who made the Enlightenment—went improvements in education. To cut a long story short, in all countries with hardly any exception the percentage of illiterates has gone down, whereas that of those who enjoyed a secondary or tertiary education went up. To extrapolate—and extrapolation is the method Pinker himself uses whenever he wants to look into the future—the day may indeed come when illiteracy, like the abovementioned diseases, is all but eliminated. And when, as part of the fight against discrimination, everyone over the age of twenty will be awarded the title of professor free of charge.
  • While wealth and health and education have improved, war has shrunk. Much the most radical changes took place during the decades since 1945. World War II, which was the deadliest in history, probably killed between two and three percent of humanity as it then was (consisting of somewhat more than two billion people). Since then the figures, calculated on an annual basis, have gone down to the point where they can hardly even be expressed in terms of percentages. To put it in a different way, world-wide the average person’s chances of being killed in war are lower now than they have ever been. Which is not, of course, to say that life in some countries is not much more dangerous than in others.
  • Not just war, but other forms of legal violence have greatly diminished. In many countries torture, which used to be a regular and indeed almost ubiquitous part of the justice system, has been outlawed. The same applies to the death sentence as well as other forms of what the U.S Constitution calls “cruel and unusual” punishment. Especially in the US, cases are on record when the authorities wanted to carry out death sentences but could not—because the companies that made the necessary deadly poisons were no longer prepared to supply them.
  • Another sign of the growing concern with human life is the improvement in safety. In many developed countries working accidents are way down from what they used to be only a few decades ago. Calculating on the basis of person/miles travelled per year, the same applies to traffic accidents. I myself am old enough to remember the fight over safety belts—and how, overcoming all obstacles, those who advocated them won.

Enough, and more than enough, to make many of us happy? Pinker thinks so. True, the evidence, depending as it does on the recent invention known as polls, is not as plentiful as in other fields where progress has been made. But what little of it is available suggests that more people today enjoy more happiness than was the case a few decades ago. With just one important exception: several studies, some that are listed by Pinker and others that are not, have suggested that women, at any rate women in developed counties, are less satisfied with their lot than they used to be.

Time to reconsider whether feminism is such a marvelous thing after all?

Fast Forward to the Past

What does a Superpower that has been defeated in war do? Proclaim that it had been fighting the wrong enemy, that’s what. An example par excellence comes from the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1973, after a decade of war, the last US troops fled from Vietnam without having accomplished their mission. Two years later the same scenario repeated itself in Cambodia. In both cases the victors were little brown men (“Coons,” as President Johnson once called them) fighting in what President Trump has so delicately called s——e countries. Men who, by right, should never have been able to challenge, let alone vanquish, the mightiest and most beneficent power on earth. However, that power refused to confront the problem head on. Instead, having made up its mind that over a decade of continuous warfare had been of no importance, it was happy to go back to “real soldiering” on what was then known as the Central Front.

In the event, there was no war on the Central Front. Forty or so years later, events seem to be repeating themselves. First, in September 2001, came the Islamic terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers in New York, bringing them down and killing about 3,000 people on US soil. This marked the beginning of a decade and a half during which the US was busy waging counterinsurgency; first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, and finally in Syria. True, none of these wars ended as disastrously as Vietnam and Cambodia did. Looking back, though, neither did the US forces involved have much to show for their efforts and the losses they suffered.

Next, President Trump and his national security team decided that enough is enough. Having spent perhaps a trillion dollars fighting terrorists in various countries, it turned out that America’s main enemies are not terrorists at all. They are Russia and China, acting either together or, which is perhaps more likely, separately. And let’s not forget North Korea and the Little Rocket Man, of course. The former two have long had nuclear weapons capable of reaching the US. The third will have them soon enough. All three also have formidable conventional armed forces that are improving (“modernizing,” is what this is called) all the time. They are preparing for hybrid war, space war, robot war, cyber war, war without limits, and God knows what other kinds of war their nefarious leaders can dream up. And they must be outgunned, or else.

Already long-forgotten ideas are beginning to make a comeback. The Cold War, this time waged not on one front but on two. Brinkmanship, the only way to describe the games played by Washington DC and Pyongyang. Arms races, expensive but necessary and very good in providing employment. The strategic balance, which may be stable (or not). Deterrence, which may work (or not). Escalation (which, if nuclear weapons are used, will almost certainly follow). High-speed “precision strikes” against the other side’s missiles, launched in the hope of destroying them before they can be used.

Coming along with the old phrases are old/new weapons. A new generation of low-yield, “usable,” tactical nuclear weapons supposedly small enough as to masquerade as conventional ones. A new bomber, the B-21, which is going to be assembled in the same factory hall where (the largely useless) B-2 was built. A new fighter, the PCA (Penetrating Counter Air), supposed to help the B-21 reach its target. Anti-missile defenses (remember Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars?). A new class of aircraft carriers, as useful or, given the submarine menace, as useless as their predecessors. And so on and so on.

Without exception, all these developments are déjà vu. All rest on the (correct or not) assumption that future wars will be fought primarily by states and armies, not guerrillas or insurgents or terrorists. Also that America’s opponents are going to be without a credible second-strike capability; or else it is hard to see how nuclear escalation can be ruled out and how the wars in question can be fought. Also that they are going to be relatively small and weak; or else it is hard to see why they should not build an offensive nuclear capability and become untouchable, as all previous nuclear countries also did.

Suppose they are small and weak, however, why fight them in the first place? Unless we are back to salami tactics, of course.

Age of the Muzzle

Welcome to the age of the muzzle.

In Russia you cannot say that Putin is a dangerous scoundrel. The same, of course, applies to the rulers of many other non-countries.

In Canada, I am told, you cannot say that homosexuality is unnatural.

In Austria you cannot say that there was no Holocaust. Ditto in Germany.

In America, you cannot say that certain countries are s——-s.

In many American schools and universities, you cannot wear a cross pendant for fear someone will be offended.

In the Netherlands any reference to Zwarte Piet (Black Peter, a legendary comic character who has accompanied Santa Claus for ages) is bound to get you in trouble.

In almost all Western countries, you cannot say that many refugees and migrants are uncouth louts.

Ditto, that Islam is a religion that puts great emphasis on violence and the sword (which, incidentally, is its symbol).

Ditto, that trans-gender people are poor confused creatures who do not know what sex they belong, or want to belong, to.

Ditto, that there are some things men can do and women cannot. Or that people of different races have different qualities.

So why get excited when, in Poland, you are no longer allowed to say that quite some Polish people cooperated with the Germans in hunting and killing Jews?

And here is what Supreme Court member Louis Brandeis, back in 1927, in Whitney v. California, concerning a decision to convict a woman who had been sued for setting up a communist cell, had to say about the matter:

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.”

Did he make himself clear enough?