Obama the Philosopher, Netanyahu the General
In an off-camera aside following a recent television interview in which I discussed the respective Israeli and U.S. approaches to Iran’s nuclear program, the host turned to me and asked if I could help him understand what President Obama is thinking.
“I know I won’t agree (with Obama),” he said, “but I just want to understand.” At the time, I had little of substance to answer.
Weeks later, while reading the chapter on war from historians Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Lessons of History,” I came across their staged conversation between a philosopher and a general about how to deal with belligerent states.
Although the book was published in 1965, and the scourge of the day was the USSR, the arguments are uncannily similar to those that are being made by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the Iran issue.
The full exchange is too long to publish here, but I have taken the liberty of lifting excerpts and adding some contemporary tweaks to the Durants’ imagined exchange. My deviations from the original text are italicized.
“Even President Obama, if he knows history, will admit that a long peace may fatally weaken the martial muscles of a nation. In the present inadequacy of international law and sentiment a nation must be ready at any moment to defend itself; and when its essential interests are involved it must be allowed to use any means it considers necessary to its survival. The Ten Commandments must be silent when self-preservation is at stake,” Prime Minister Netanayhu would argue.
“Unless this spreading process is halted it is only a matter of time before nearly all Asia, Africa, and South America will be under Islamist influence, and Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Western Europe will be surrounded by enemies on every side,” he would insist.
“Should the leaders of Israel consider only the reluctance of this epicurean generation to face so great an issue, or should they consider also what future generations of Israelis would wish that these leaders had done?”
President Obama would respond: “Yes, and the devastating results will be in accord with history, except that they will be multiplied in proportion to the increased number and mobility of the engaged forces, and the unparalleled destructiveness of the weapons used. There is something greater than history. Somewhere, sometime, in the name of humanity, we must challenge a thousand evil precedents…
“Imagine an American President saying to the leaders of Iran: If we should follow the usual course of history we should make war upon you for fear of what you may do a generation hence.
“But we are willing to try a new approach. We respect your peoples and your civilizations as among the most creative in history. We shall try to understand your feelings, and your desire to develop your own institutions without fear of attack. We must not allow our mutual fears to lead us into war, for the unparalleled murderousness of our weapons and yours brings into the situation an element unfamiliar to history. We propose to send representatives to join with yours in a persistent conference for the adjustment of our differences, the cessation of hostilities and subversion, and the reduction of our armaments.
“We ask you to join us in this defiance of history, this resolve to extend courtesy and civilization to the relations among states. We pledge our honor before all mankind to enter into this venture in full sincerity and trust. If we lose in the historic gamble, the results could not be worse than those that we may expect from a continuation of traditional policies. If you and we succeed, we shall merit a place for centuries to come in the grateful memory of mankind.”
Netanyahu would smile and respond: “You have forgotten all the lessons of history, and all that nature of man which you described. Some conflicts are too fundamental to be resolved by negotiation; and during the prolonged negotiations (if history may be our guide) subversion would go on.”
While President Obama’s philosophical utopia is indeed alluring, it is not real. For me, reading the exchange brought even greater clarity on the issue of Iran. When the lives of Israel’s citizens are at stake “all the lessons of history” can’t be forgotten, and to dismiss “a thousand evil precedents” is a philosopher’s madness.