Honey, Vinegar, and Apartheid

Why apocalyptic warnings from America's diplomat-in-chief will do nothing to advance the peace process.

Ah, the frustrations of an American peacemaker. Having experienced them during my time in government, working with Arabs and Israelis during Republican and Democratic administrations through most of the 1980s and 1990s, I can relate to Secretary of State John Kerry's growing impatience, annoyance, and perhaps even anger about how these two parties are behaving in the current peace process -- Palestinians threatening to go the U.N. and cozying up to Hamas, while Israelis are creating more settlements. 

During a closed session with the Trilateral Commission last Friday, Kerry said that Israel could be in danger of becoming an apartheid state. But his recent comments -- which exploded into the press early this week, and for which he issued a statement of apology on Monday night -- are likely to only make his job even harder.

Kerry's comments reflect not only his momentary frustrations but a broader pattern evident for some time now. Reading these in a broader context, these recent comments about apartheid fit into the warnings Kerry has given to both sides -- usually the Israelis -- of the dire consequences should they fail to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the past year or so, Kerry has prophesied about the dangers of violence, demography, and boycott. Nobody doubts the grim future awaiting the Middle East if no resolution is found, though precisely when and under which circumstances it may arrive is totally unclear and uncertain. But acting like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol really isn't necessary; in fact it's counterproductive. And here's why.

First, Israelis and Palestinians can't be scared into submission -- certainly not by an American secretary of state's warning of the future. Indeed, they probably sensed that this was just Kerry talking -- if U.S. President Barack Obama starts using words like "apartheid," that would be a different story. But even then I'm not sure it would make much of as difference. They are still only words. Come 2016, both Obama and Kerry will have different jobs, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will still be around. They've both seen worse and aren't going to be "Charles Dickensed" into doing anything. 

Second, honey and vinegar, as the late U.S. ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis used to say, are critical ingredients to making this peace process work. Getting miffed at the Israelis now frankly makes no sense. It will only anger both sides and make them more resistant, not more compliant. The trick to using a strong-arm approach successfully is almost always timing. There are productive fights to pick with Israel and unproductive fights. Kerry's comments are gratuitous and serve no purpose. Indeed, picking a fight now -- when the process is, for all intents and purposes, on hold -- will yield no benefit whatsoever.

And third, Kerry is now in danger of being "Carterized." While the title of Jimmy Carter's book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, upped sales considerably, it didn't do much for the former president's reputation and credibility with the Israelis. Diplomacy -- like life -- is about addition not subtraction. And if Kerry ever wants a chance to be an effective broker of an agreement, he must not be perceived as fundamentally biased to one side or the other. Telling the Israelis that they are in danger of becoming like a racially structured South African state does nothing except piss people off. And it's simply wrong to boot.

Richard Goldstone, a former justice of the South African Constitutional Court who led the U.N. fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict in 2008-2009, knows a thing or two about apartheid.

As he wrote in his New York Times 2011 op-ed:

"In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute ... Israeli Arabs -- [who make up] 20 percent of Israel's population -- vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment. ...

The situation in the West Bank is more complex. But here too there is no intent to maintain 'an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.' This is a critical distinction, even if Israel acts oppressively toward Palestinians there. South Africa's enforced racial separation was intended to permanently benefit the white minority, to the detriment of other races. By contrast, Israel has agreed in concept to the existence of a Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, and is calling for the Palestinians to negotiate the parameters."

Granted, Goldstone was describing the situation as it existed in 2011, not speculating about the future. And who knows how bad the situation might get in the years to come. But the process won't be facilitated by the dire warnings or lectures of a clearly and understandably frustrated secretary of state. Indeed, that Kerry has issued a statement of apology on the eve of the very day -- today, April 29 -- on which he had hoped to reach an agreed framework to guide negotiations toward a deal is not only the cruelest of ironies, but proof enough that the secretary of state shouldn't have made the statement to begin with.

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Through the Fiscal Looking Glass

The latest plans for the Pentagon's budget present an alternate reality.

Gabriel García Márquez died this month and Lewis Carroll has been dead for decades, now. But the memory of magical and upside down thinking, which they captured so well, lives on in the Pentagon. The Pentagon planning machinery (and the congressional Armed Services Committee members) are working from that script, with no shame at all. They continue to walk through the looking glass, engage in magical thinking, and stand budgetary realities on their head -- all in the hopes that somehow new language and unreal numbers will lead Congress and the White House to decide that the August 2011 budget deal was just a big mistake, that all is forgiven, and that bigger defense budgets will be soon be arriving.

Once again, reality has been pushed aside in the defense budget debate. The administration transmitted a budget which, across the board, and especially when it comes to the Defense Department, departs from reality. A deal is a deal, however, so it asks the appropriate amount for defense this year -- $496 billion in FY 2015 -- in keeping with the Murray-Ryan agreement. But then the whole budget logic evaporates into magic and rhetorical excess. The administration wants another $26 billion for defense (and the military services want even more) this year, just in case anyone wants to throw the 2011 deal over the side right away. They even give this request a funny name: the "Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative," or OGSI.

Few members of Congress have the stomach to reopen the budget deal for FY 2014-15. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) introduced a budget resolution in the House that also sticks to the 2015 deal. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has no plans to introduce such a resolution; the FY 2015 deal is done. So there will be no more money for defense, not this year.

Oh, wait a minute, scratch that: the Pentagon has yet to send up its Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget request for 2015. Yes, that's the same OCO budget that added $85 billion to the defense budget this year -- outside the Budget Control Act Caps. Only DoD (and, on a smaller scale, the State Department) get that kind of extra money. And the Pentagon, and even the appropriators, hope the magic of OCO will be appear again this year. Both the White House and Congress hope that magic wand will continue to wave next year. The White House has sent up a budget that projects needing $115 billion more for defense between FY 2016 and FY 2019 than that pesky Budget Control Act (BCA) would provide. Not to be one-upped, Ryan's budget resolution -- called the "Path to Prosperity" -- projects adding $350 billion to what the 2011 deal provides for defense (while it hammers domestic discretionary spending to pay for the defense increase).

It's an election year; both sides are playing politics with their budget proposals, but neither is very realistic. The Congressional Budget Office projects that, given the growing costs of mandatory programs, the deficits that are currently shrinking courtesy of the economic recovery will start to turn around in 2015, growing to over $1 trillion dollars by 2023.

But clearly the folks running for office continue to think it is better to duke it out, to go yet another round and see who wins the Senate in November, rather than face the budget reality.

Furthering the theme of upside-down reality, the Pentagon continues to argue that anything less than the additional $115 billion it is asking for would mean the end of American national security as we know it. The latest version of this looking-glass vision is the report issued by DoD this month that purports to "estimate" the impact of BCA-level budgets on the military.

The logic of this analysis defies the Pentagon's own budget planning last year. It pretends that the additional $115 billion was itself the result of planning, which must now be cut, if the BCA levels continue. That flies in the face of reality: the Pentagon, I am assured by insiders, actually created a five-year plan based on the BCA level -- a plan it could live with. Then, playing politics, the White House gifted them with another $115 billion between FY 2016 and FY 2019, money they had not planned for. Thus, seeing the winds blow a different way, they re-scripted the plan in a hurry, throwing things back in (but, oddly, not including a larger Army and Marine Corps than projected in their BCA plan).

Now, by golly, they want their $115 billion. First, the scary language. The report calls the BCA levels "sequester" levels, because the nation already finds that word scarier than the agreed upon "caps." Then comes the demand for more. Undersecretary Frank Kendall says "it is extremely unlikely that we will ask for less money than the president thinks he needs to defend the country."

So the new report treats us all to a horrendous list of things they would now have to cut -- some of them, surely, things they had been willing to forego with the original five-year plan. (They must be tearing their hair out in the comptroller's office: first it's out, then it's in, now it's less, then it's more.)

The list of draconian impacts is a classic Washington Monument proposition: if we can't have this additional money, says the Pentagon, we'll lose a squadron of F-35s, seven Navy ships, be forced to eliminate our Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle fleets, and lose readiness by leaps and bounds.

But all planning and budgeting is about making choices. The Pentagon already made those decisions, carefully, in the BCA-level plan it did before the president gave them another $115 billion to play with. Even in the report, the choices are obvious. Lose all of the Predators and Reapers? Well, what if instead of trimming the F-35 by three planes a year, we trimmed them by five a year (leaving a healthy number still being bought), and used those funds to buy the Predators and Reapers after all?

The choices hidden are even more revealing. For many years, now, it has been clear that the Pentagon "back office" is way larger than it should be. But the DoD would rather cut training, exercises, and depot repairs for equipment (as the report warns), than tackle seriously the 1.8 million people who support 1.1 million on active duty. (That's 800,000 civil servants, 700,000 services contractor personnel, and 340,000 in uniform performing civilian or commercial functions.) These folks are doing central administration, financial operations, personnel management, and other functions in the back office. It's an important responsibility, to be sure, but these funds (called "Operations and Maintenance" money in Pentagon parlance), are enormously flexible and the infrastructure is way too big. A diet for the back office is the fiscal trade space for the Pentagon -- the savings here would provide the funds for the forces and equipment they think they require. And yet the report scarcely mentions the back office. The point of the spear and the misleading confusion between "readiness" and administration are much more effective ways of scaring Congress into providing the additional funding.

The White House should never have given the Pentagon that magic money; doing so only encouraged DoD to walk through the looking glass and imagine that the defense budget might magically grow even more than it would under the BCA deal.

"Drink me" the money said. So the Pentagon once again ignored budget reality. And we have an unreal, political defense budget once again.

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