Thursday, July 01, 2010

When sentimentality substitutes for political judgment

Protest supporting Gilad Shalit at Tel Aviv University, 2009

Gideon Levy has an opinion piece in the Israeli paper Haaretz of the kind we see all too seldomly, if at all, in our mainstream press: Life as a soap opera 07/01/2010.

His topic is a march recently held by the family of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier that has been held captive by Hamas since 2006, calling for his release. Levy argues that the march's sentimental framing is actually a negative thing for the Israeli approach to understanding its political problems and finding practical solutions for them:

The time has come to move up a grade. The time has come to grow up and understand that everything is political - that the real solution to our problems is political, and thus the battle can only be political. Perhaps, borne on the waves of the pseudo-protest over Shalit, with blue and white shirts and yellow ribbons, we will finally wake up enough to raise other questions, less emotional but far more serious.
I'm sure there will be many who will be outraged, or at least claim to be, over Levy's criticism of the Shalit solidarity march. And I didn't follow the story closely enough to have a distinct opinion on how well the march itself was handled.

It just struck me in reading it that it would be healthy if we had more challenges in American political debate over the ways in which sentimental theater can actually be destructive when applied to political affairs.

The awe, for instance, in which a military figure like Gen. David Petraeus is held by members of Congress of both parties is anything but helpful to a critical approach to foreign affairs. Petraeus sailed through his confirmation hearings as commander of US forces in the Afghanistan War without any serious probing by Congress of the state of the war and how Petraeus plans to address it, and without any new airing of what really occurred during "The Surge", the 2007 round of troop reinforcements in Iraq that has become part of triumphalist military legend.

Here is how Levy states his problem with the current Israeli discussion of public affairs, which he sees as "frighteningly sentimental":

The struggle to secure the release of the captive soldier has turned into a soap opera. There is his brother falling in love with a young woman in the protest tent, there is Tami Arad in a sweet photograph with her daughter on the cover of the newspaper, there are the noble parents and the impressive grandfather marching together, and there is the question posed to the prime minister: What would have happened had it been your son? With such opening credits, it is easy to mobilize support - as though if Shalit had had grumbling parents and a screeching grandfather, from Mitzpeh Ramon rather than Mitzpeh Hila, their fate would be less cruel.

Participants in the protest are careful to claim that it is "not political," as though a "political struggle" were a dirty word for forbidden and degrading activity, of the kind that would mar and stain the picture. That is an extremely childish kind of discourse. Shalit's fate arouses understandable emotions: Every parent thinks of his own son. But when the discourse is confined to the emotional realm, the real questions are blurred and swept under the rug beneath which we love to hide everything.

It is not only a question of the price we are being asked to pay for Shalit's release - and permit us to guess that some of the marchers will protest against it when the time comes. It is also a question of the next Gilad Shalits. If very few people are speaking honestly about the prisoner exchange, nobody at all is speaking about the more important question, of what Israel is doing to prevent more unnecessary victims like Gilad. That is political. But the answer can only be found in the political arena. There is no other option. [my emphasis]
War is obviously a very sentimental thing. And the treatment by the enemy of one's own prisoners is an enduring cause of resentment and hatred in any conflict.

President Nixon made the prisoners of war held by the North Vietnamese into his main justification for continuing the war up until the Paris Peace Agreement of 1973. John McCain, who was one of those prisoners, still uses his experience as a POW as a selling point for himself as a candidate. Wesley Clark fell into bad favor with the Obama campaign in 2008 when he said on television that McCain's experience as a pilot didn't necessarily give him particular qualifications for military command. Our sad excuse for a national press, who adore McCain in the most sentimental kind of way, treated Clark's comments as a scandal. And Obama foolishly caved to the criticism from the press and the Republicans and disowned Clark's remarks, as well as dropping him as a spokesperson for the campaign.

Even leaving aside that as a general, Clark presumably has some actual experience in making such determinations on a professional basis, what he said was plainly true. Having served in the military will always be seen as a positive element of public service in a candidate's biography. But McCain doesn't talk about war like a strategist or a practical commander. He talks about it like a high school football coach who repeats "never quit" over and over. It certainly seems to me that however much of his views on war came from his own dramatic and grim experience in Vietnam, that he views war as having only one acceptable outcome, the complete surrender of the Other Side to Americans. Anything less is inadequate. Any question of what are acceptable costs in light of expected gains seem to become entirely secondary, if not completely irrelevant, to him.

One could even speculate that McCain's experiences as a pilot and a POW, which required him to focus singlemindedly on accomplishing a particular mission (hitting the assigned targets, surviving), led him to draw conclusions that would make him a poor commander, one willing to take foolish risks without a realistic assessment of consequences.

But the press reaction to Clark's statement seemed to have been driven by a sense of emotional outrage that Clark had somehow besmirched McCain's military service. In fact, he had made a perfectly valid and practical point.

And so does Gideon Levy: letting sentimental outrage substitute for real understanding and sensible judgments makes for bad policy decisions.

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