Who is Coming to the Table?

July 16, 2006

Who is Coming to the Table?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, June 18, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: Here are two different views of what’s going on in the Middle East. One view, perhaps best represented by Pat Buchanan and Eleanor Clift on “The McLaughlin Group,” is that the crisis will de-escalate because Syria doesn’t want war and is not going to drive the situation to war, and as Eleanor Clift says, Iran is “teasing” the United States but doesn’t want war. In other words, in their view, the situation isn’t on an unstoppable course towards a broader regional conflict. That’s one view. Another view, represented this morning by Newt Gingrich, is ‘This is World War III. We’re in World War III. It’s already begun.’ The premise here, in a kind of classic historical modality, is a world war beginning with a smaller, more regionally based conflict that widens out as larger powers become involved. Though they come from different points of view on the political spectrum, Clift and Buchanan believe that Israel has overreacted in the face of these circumstances. Gingrich says, ‘No, Israel is simply doing what it has to do in order to defend itself.’ Could you share your thoughts about these two views? Do you think either is valid, neither is valid, both are valid? How do you react to these two different descriptions?

Newman: I don’t know that you can come up with a definitive characterization of all the things that are happening, since there are multiple things happening. They are occurring in the same region, but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to have one description that applies to all of them. You say Gingrich is being historical. I think he’s being hysterical. He’s hysterical in the way a man who’s not in power is hysterical. I don’t think the relevant parties want a regional war at this time. On the other hand, you could make the claim that there’s always a regional war going on over there. And you’d probably be right. So, it’s a bad situation. People are being killed. Bombs are exploding again. Not to minimize that, but it’s always happening in that region.

Salit: Some of the pundits were suggesting that the whole thing is going to be resolved by a prisoner exchange.

Newman: Could it turn out to be mainly about a prisoner exchange? It wouldn’t shock me if it did. If tomorrow’s headlines say they worked out a prisoner exchange and they put the rockets away, for the moment, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. On the other hand, if it keeps going further, I think the evidence is on Buchanan and Clift’s side, which is that Syria doesn’t particularly want a war right now. But, who the hell knows what’s going on inside the Syrian government? Still there’s evidence to indicate that Syria would not particularly benefit from a war right now. And, Iran is, arguably, doing too well in asserting its influence to risk a war right now.

Salit: So, is there a message behind all of this?

Newman: I think the message is that if you don’t deal with Hamas and Hezbollah and these other non-sovereign entities at the table, you’re going to have to deal with their rockets. These groups are forces in that region, whether you like what they stand for or not. It’s all well and good to take the position that says, “they’re not real forces” and consequently “we don’t have to deal with them.” Frankly, it’s analogous to, and as ridiculous as those who take the position that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist. These are the forces that exist, and more forces like this will come to exist, and they have to find a way to get to the table and negotiate, either privately, bilaterally, multilaterally, it doesn’t make a difference. But there’s got to be a greater acceptance of the forces that do exist. Maybe that’s the message of this whole crisis. Is that going to happen? I hope it does in a positive way at some point.

Salit: Is this situation a test of the U.S. ability to play some kind of positive role?

Newman: Does that mean set some kind of a peaceful compromise? Is that what “positive role” means?

Salit: Yes, that’s what I would call some kind of a positive role.

Newman: I don’t know about it being a test. The U.S. is obviously the major superpower in the world. Can the U.S. use its influence? Yes. What if that influence is expressed in ways that are the international analogue to the partisan mode of domestic politics? They’re going to be less effective, if that’s the case. It’s a very complex and difficult situation. So, the question is how they play that role. But is the country powerful enough to play that role? Of course it is.

Salit: I guess one question is whether it will under the current leadership.

Newman: I don’t know. Chris Matthews did an interesting piece on George Bush, the father. Essentially, the piece said Bush 41 did a great deal by way of building up relationships around the world. And then when he had to invoke those relationships to settle the Iraq/Kuwait situation, he was able to do it in a minute. Now, the first Gulf War is probably what cost Bush 41 the election, which Matthews didn’t mention. Still, I’m sympathetic to what Matthews was saying. Now, can this Bush and the people who are currently in the White House accomplish that? Well, the U.S. is a big superpower, but you know, if you’re a big superpower, you have a lot of people who want to see you do badly. And, there’s a lot of people in the world who want to see us do badly.

So, if you want my opinion on the Middle East situation, I don’t think it’s going to turn overnight into World War III. I think that Gingrich is talking crazy, frankly. And, I think that Joe Biden just couldn’t directly accuse him of being crazy. But, he was trying to show that that’s not sensible thinking.

Salit: Right.

Newman: He’s a smart man, Gingrich. He’s just trying to establish his own political position, but I don’t know that this is World War III. As I said earlier, I wouldn’t be shocked if it ultimately got reduced to their finding a way to affect a prisoner exchange. It might seem crazy, but this is the way they do prisoner exchanges in the Middle East.

Salit: Eleanor Clift commented, as did Chrystia Freeland from the Financial Times, that this is the first time in Israel’s history that it has an entirely civilian government, so there’s a kind of cultural and psychological pressure to establish its military bonafides. Some of the correspondents reporting from the scene, for example, said that essentially Israel has been looking for an opportunity to make some kind of military move against Hezbollah for some time. They argue that the Lebanese government hasn’t sufficiently subdued or integrated Hezbollah or found a way to control them. But, Clift’s point was that Israel was overreacting because of the psychological and political need of the new government to prove itself.

Newman: I don’t buy that thesis. Of course, it’s a factor. But you can’t understand Israel’s moves independent of what’s going on in the totality of that region.

Salit: The Israelis are in a difficult position.

Newman: They are. And I don’t know that it makes sense to talk about Israel “overreacting.” They’re making plays. Now are they playing the way that they’re playing because of a variety of factors? Yes. Is that to be called overreacting? That’s a term I don’t think has very much meaning. And one of the factors is that in different parts of that region, where elections have taken place, the people are identifying who their leaders are. And that means certain forces have to be at the table when you sit down and talk. If the United States wants to play a real role, it’s going to have to figure out how to talk with all of those different forces.

Salit: You referenced the Biden-Gingrich conversation on “Meet the Press” and you said Biden was trying to find ways to go up against Gingrich’s nihilistic, third world war vision.

Newman: Yes, Gingrich’s apocalyptic, crazy “blow up the world right now” philosophy. Except when Russert pushed to try to find out if that’s what Gingrich was saying, he backed down from that and he said ‘Well there’s a lot of things you could do short of blowing up the world.’

Salit: Right.

Newman: This is the world that has to be dealt with.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And you have to recognize, to use a philosophical term, the “becoming” of new forces that are there. The Middle East is dominating the big headlines right now. But some things are happening domestically, including, for example, relative to independent politics. Not to make a comparison that doesn’t seem appropriate. But I think there’s a way in which the people who lead this country, the Republicans, the Democrats and well, everybody, are having something of an identity crisis about who you can and who you can’t talk to in th
e current situation. This is true internationally as well as domestically. And that refusal to relate to emergent forces gets you in trouble if you’re trying to lead. If you’re trying to lead, but you’re constrained from talking to all the relevant forces because you don’t want to give any credibility to the people who’ve become players through new sets of circumstances, that puts you in a bad position to actually accomplish anything.

Salit: On this note, I wonder what you thought of David Brooks’ comments on “The Chris Matthews Show.” He said the Democratic Left is experiencing an upsurge and is acting in the most orthodox or traditional Left modality. He says “Witness Connecticut”…

Newman: What tradition is he referring to in Connecticut?

Salit: He’s referring to the tradition of the Left taking a hard-line anti-war position, and then essentially trying to topple Lieberman because he’s pro-war.

Newman: I don’t think the Left’s taking a hard-line. I think it’s taking a relatively soft-line anti-war position.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: They had a pro-war candidate for President of the United States in the last election.

Salit: Well, let me spin out the rest of this paradigm. The Left is doing what it typically does. But, the Right is more flexible. The Right is more open-minded about what its options are. In a sense, to flesh Brooks’ thesis out, the Left has a kind of tunnel vision – the war is the issue, if you’re not against the war, we’re going to try and take you down, that’s the bottom line. That’s his characterization of the Democratic Party Left. His characterization of the Republican Party Right is ‘We’re more flexible, we’re open-minded. We might end up going with a Rudolph Giuliani or a John McCain.’

Newman: The difference between the Left and the Right right now, for the most part, is that the Right’s in power.

Salit: True.

Newman: So, if you’re in power, you have to be more flexible. You want to hold on to power. You’ll be as flexible as you need to be to stay in power if that’s how you see it, until you’re out of power. The Left is not in power.

Salit: Right.

Newman: So, I don’t buy the set-up in the analysis. There’s a difference between how you function in power and how you function out of power – that’s the critical difference.

Salit: I think this analysis on Brooks’ part was a stage setter for promoting the viability of Rudy Giuliani as a presidential candidate. He’s trying to answer the question, will the Far Right ever permit a Giuliani to win the Republican nomination?

Newman: Hey, we also have to come back to basics. The Far Right controls only about 5% of the vote in the Republican primary. There’s another 95%. The main concern of the Republicans is identical to the main concern of the Democrats: who can win? That’s their concern. And if Giuliani emerges as someone who people think can win, they’ll vote for him.

Salit: Thank you.