Our Promised Land

How the beautiful, painful, and problematic birth of Israel mirrors modern America's moral ambiguity.

I have been reading My Promised Land, Ari Shavit's extraordinary account of the founding and growth of Israel. It is a book one reads not simply for historical instruction but for moral guidance. Shavit is an ardent Zionist who is nevertheless imbued with a sense of Israel's tragic condition. "Tragedy," as Shavit uses it, does not refer to the suffering of the Jewish people but rather to the suffering -- the unavoidable suffering -- of the Palestinian people as a result of the Zionist project. In his narrative of the brutal conquest of the Arab city of Lydda by Israeli forces in May 1948, Shavit returns again and again to the idealistic, even utopian young men who killed Arab civilians and forced the entire population into a death march in the desert. Their anguish, shame, confusion is Shavit's own; and so is their acknowledgment that it could not have been otherwise. Both conquest and expulsion "were an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution that laid the foundation for the Zionist state." No Lydda, no Israel.

What would it mean for an American to apply this tragic understanding to his own circumstances? In regard to the national founding, the analogy to Israel is glaringly obvious. If the American pioneers had accepted that the indigenous people they found on the continent were not simply features of the landscape but people like themselves, and thus had agreed to occupy only those spaces not already claimed by the Indians, then today's America would be confined to a narrow band along the Eastern seaboard. No Indian wars, no America. And yet, like slavery, the wars and the forced resettlement constitute a terrible reproach to the founders' belief that America was a uniquely just and noble experiment.

But when I say that I am reading Shavit for moral guidance, I'm thinking of the American present, not just the past. The tragic sense is largely alien to Americans, and to American policymakers. Americans have an almost unique faith in the malleability of the world, and of the intrinsic appeal of their own principles (a faith which Shavit writes that Israel's settlers shared until the Palestinians first rose up against them in 1936). In Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger argued that all American presidents from the time of Woodrow Wilson (possibly excepting his own pupil, Richard Nixon) have been idealists, because the American people refuse to elect someone who speaks the tragic language of 19th century European statecraft.

But Shavit is not asserting, as classic realists do, that no one set of animating principles is better than another, and thus one should be agnostic among them. Nor is he simply warning, as realists do, that great projects inevitably miscarry. Shavit argues that we must act, and do so in the name of a moral vision; but that our action must be governed by a recognition of the harm we cause to others, and perhaps also to ourselves. The bad outcome does not prove bad motives, but neither do the good motives excuse the bad outcome.

This distinctive combination of resolution and ruefulness sheds light in several directions. The gross failure to distinguish between motive and outcome echoes through almost every word George W. Bush spoke in the aftermath of 9/11, including some of the first: "Like most Americans, I just can't believe" that "people would hate us.... Because I know how good we are." And so Bush set out to export American goodness in the form of his "freedom agenda" -- and remained bewildered that the world refused to understand America as it understood itself. If some recognition of human frailty, or even some basic humility, had survived in someone around the president, perhaps the White House would have understood, to take one very consequential example, that Iraqis would not welcome their conquerors with hearts and flowers, and would have prepared accordingly.

At the same time, as Leon Wieseltier noted in his New York Times review of My Promised Land, "The appeal to 'tragedy' can be easily abused." Realism, with its moral skepticism and deep awareness of unintended consequences, typically counsels inaction in the face of horror. The cautionary sensibility of President Barack Obama has been a welcome change from his predecessor's faith in magic, but the president's tragic awareness has at times served as a pretext for immobility. When pressed earlier this year on his decision not to forcefully aid the rebels in Syria, Obama rhetorically asked, "how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?"

How, that is, can I choose to do something when I am unable to do everything? That is a facile line of reasoning which Obama himself would have scorned a few years earlier. Shavit's twin lessons are "one must act" and "one must know."

For generations, Americans distinguished themselves by blithe action, always underwritten by the national certainty of virtue. Now that Americans have been eating the bitter fruit of that harvest, above all in the Middle East, we have quite suddenly become persuaded of the wisdom of not acting at all, or as little as possible. It's as if the national fall from innocence, which in Shavit's telling only increased the grim commitment of Israel's settler generation, has induced in Americans a kind of national paralysis. Perhaps the negative capability required to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time is just too alien to the national psyche. Instead of George Bush's "if they hate us, we have to explain ourselves better," the national mood has become "if they hate us, we're leaving." Where is the national groundswell of support for Obama's potentially ground-breaking diplomacy with Iran? Nowhere. He's on his own.

For Shavit, the twin poles of the Israeli condition are "intimidation" and "occupation" -- Israel as victim of its neighbors, and as victimizer of the Palestinians. For the United States, the poles are "power" and "justice." For the left -- and if you doubt there is still a respectable left, see Andrew Cockburn's self-righteous dismissal of American foreign policy in the current issue of Harper's -- the United States is a mighty blunderbuss with a dollar sign slapped on the side. For the neoconservative right, America is the world's salvation, even if the world is too blind to see it. In the real world, there is no escaping either America's hegemonic power or its commitment to founding principle. Both Israel and the United States view themselves not merely as a sovereign entity but as a cause -- and for that very reason give themselves license to visit terrible harm on those who are seen to obstruct the cause.

In January 2009, I would have said that Obama, a visionary with a chastening sense of history, was the ideal figure to craft a post-9/11 foreign policy. No American president I can think of, save perhaps John F. Kennedy, shares Shavit's twice-born wisdom. Obama really was prepared both to act and to know. If he has not succeeded, I think the problem lies at least as much in the stars as in himself. The stars will, eventually, realign. One hopes that whoever succeeds him will be able to make good use of his or her good fortune.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Bear Hug

Vladimir Putin is cheering Ukraine's stiff-arm to Europe. But can Kiev also keep Russia at arm's length?

Kiev is burning! Okay, that's not quite true; I'm just trying to get you to pay attention to something other than Iran. But tens of thousands of demonstrators are, in fact, facing riot police in Ukraine's capital in the first truly mass protests since the Orange Revolution of 2004. What they are demanding is Europe. And what they're getting instead is Russia. It may not be as big a deal as Iran, but it's a very big deal.

The demonstrations were provoked by a last-minute decision by the government of President Viktor Yanukovych to suspend preparations for a trade agreement with the European Union five years in the making. On Thursday night, Yanukovych awkwardly attended what was to be a signing ceremony in Lithuania for the so-called Association Agreement, which would have established virtually free trade with Europe while bringing vast amounts of technical assistance from European governmental bodies. But Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, threatened Yanukovych with economic ruin if he did so; and Yanukovych blinked.

The Ukrainian drama is only one episode in the larger geopolitical and cultural drama playing out along the border between Eastern Europe and Russia. Putin cannot, or in any case will not, accept the westward gravitation of former Soviet states. In 2008, he went to war in order to punish a refractory, devoutly pro-Western Georgia. Last summer, Russia carried out a trade war with Belarus, a rather abject Russia ally, and it has pressured Armenia and Moldova, as well. Over the summer, as Ukraine prepared to conclude the trade deal with Europe, Russia temporarily sealed the border to imports; in October, Gazprom, the oil and gas colossus, threatened to cut off the supply of natural gas if Ukraine didn't pay past bills. By such brutal rules do the neo-tsarists in the Kremlin play the game of statecraft.

For the university students and professionals and civil society activists who have filled Kiev, the EU agreement is a proxy for a "civilizational choice," as Olexiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv Mohyla University, puts it. For them, it is Europe vs. Russia. But the demonstrators in the squares of Kiev are no more "Ukraine" than those in Tahrir Square in 2011 were "Egypt." Ukraine is a huge country whose western border abuts Hungary and Slovakia and whose eastern edge juts hundreds of miles into Russia. It lives in both worlds. When I suggested to Lincoln Mitchell, an expert in the region at Columbia University, that Ukraine was being pulled westward by soft power and threatened to the east by hard power, he corrected me: "Russia has soft power in Ukraine," he pointed out. "If you're in the east, you're living with Russian media and culture and language."

So while the stakes are civilizational for the middle class in Kiev -- and perhaps for Putin -- ordinary Ukrainians probably just want to start living more like Poles and Slovaks. The reason they're not doing so is that over the last decade Ukraine has suffered from dreadful leadership, first from Viktor Yuschenko, who led -- and is then is seen to have betrayed -- the Orange Revolution, and now from Yanukovych, an incompetent and corrupt figure who has done severe damage to the economy while allegedly hugely enriching a small circle of businessmen from his hometown of Donetsk. In between came Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Yanukovych defeated and then imprisoned on corruption charges after a Soviet-style trial.

So the beneath the mighty geopolitical battle is a tale of fecklessness. Yanukovych has claimed that he is helpless before Russian blackmail, but the truth is that his own bumbling leadership has made him an easy target for Putin. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stopped disbursing $15 billion when the Yanukovych failed to come through on promised reforms. And the president and his prime minister made wild demands of the EU, perhaps imagining that their leverage was vastly greater than it was. They seem to have belatedly woken up to the fact that Europe wasn't just going to turn Kiev into Paris overnight. In recent weeks, both have made desperate dashes to Russia, where they appear to have secured a promise to ease trade restrictions and keep natural gas flowing.

The problem, at the root, may be that Ukraine's leadership class, while yearning for European-style prosperity, defaults to Russian-style authoritarianism. The EU thinks of itself as a community of values, and demanded as pre-conditions to the trade agreement that Ukraine embark on a path of democratic reform. Among other things, the government had to create the conditions for an independent judiciary and transparent elections, and release Tymoshenko, who needed surgery for an acute back problem. Yanukovych, and his captive parliament, stalled, and then refused. Yanukovych is not about to release his chief rival with elections coming up in early 2015, even at the cost of losing a precious agreement with Europe. Indeed, Haran argues that the real reason the president can't afford to alienate Putin is that he needs the Kremlin's support for the election. On the other hand, he adds, "it's very dangerous to rely on Putin."

The collapse of the trade deal leaves Ukraine in an in-between space which may prove very hard to sustain. The reason is that while Europe is quite content with the light embrace of mere association, Russia wants to wrap its allies in a smothering bear hug. For Putin, as for George W. Bush, you're either with us or against us. "With us" is a very small category. Putin has invented a counter-EU he calls the "Customs Union," which is so exclusive that it now has but three members -- Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Putin aspires to expand his little club into a Eurasian Economic Union by 2015, and he wants lots of new members, including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and, of course, Ukraine. There is reason to fear that this body may look less like a union than an imperial court, to which lesser sovereigns come to pay tribute.

There is little enthusiasm for Putin's club either in Ukraine or in the government in Kiev. But now Yanukovych, having bowed before Russian pressure, has to avoid the full Russian embrace. He might soon find that Ukrainian exports to Russia are once again being mysteriously held up at the border. Meanwhile, with economic output falling, Ukraine could soon face a financial crisis. And, absent real economic or political reform, he won't be able to turn to the EU or the IMF. It could get pretty lonely in Kiev. 

But what about all those hopeful folks filling the streets of Ukraine's cities and towns, wrapping themselves in the EU colors of blue and yellow? They're going to be disappointed, as they've been disappointed since 2004. The "color revolutions" of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, have not realized the hopes born with them, as the revolutions of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states have. But neither have those hopes been snuffed out. Psychologically, says Olexiy Haran, the demonstrations mean that "it won't be so easy to turn the country to Russia or to falsify the elections of 2015." By that time, Yanukovych's Party of Regions may have worn out its welcome. The opposition's leading candidate is Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight boxer (and current WBC champion). And Klitschko, like the rest of the opposition, is committed to deeper integration with Europe.

As Lincoln Mitchell points out, no party in Ukraine since 2004 has built a consensus that unites east and west. The country can't move forward so long as it consists of two mutually exclusive camps. And so what looks at first glance like a titanic battle between Europe and Russia -- a civilizational battle -- is in the end a struggle among Ukrainians to recuperate the euphoric vision of 2004.