Babbling Brooks

I have now and again cited David Brooks, whom I read in The New York Times and see on PBS news, for sometimes reaching absurd conclusions, such has his apparent approval of Donald Trump as a political gadfly, as well as other occasional rationalizations of pro-Republican idiocy. Actually, I have some sympathy for his analytic contortions as he bends over backward toward the social, economic and political right, since I must admit that the institutional left rarely offers much as an acceptable and/or practical alternative. Even the braindead leadership of Boehner and McConnell doesn’t make it palatable to endorse the likes of Reid and Pelosi (although she is the only one among them who shows any courage of an occasionally responsible conviction). What annoys me about Brooks is that while he seems very bright and well informed, he often lapses into pseudointellectual babble about psychological, neurological and sociological subjects, drawing illogical or at best “blue sky” conclusions.

But on Friday, he hit a very important nail on many temporizing, cowardly heads. I quote his column in its entirety:

By now you have probably heard about Hamza Ali al-Khateeb. He was the 13year old Syrian boy who tagged along at an antigovernment protest in the town of Saida on April 19. He was arrested that day, and the police returned his mutilated body to his family a month later. While in custody, he had apparently been burned, beaten, lacerated and given electroshocks. His jaw and kneecaps were shattered. He was shot in both arms. When his father saw the state of Hamza’s body, he passed out.

The family bravely put video evidence of the torture on the Internet, and Hamza’s martyrdom has rallied the opponents of President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime. But, of course, his torture didn’t come out of nowhere. The regime’s defining act of brutality was the Hama massacre in 1982 when then-President Hafez al-Assad had more than 10,000 Syrians murdered. The U.S. government has designated Syria a state sponsor of terror for 30 consecutive years. The State Department’s Human Rights Report has described the regime’s habitual torture techniques, including pulling out fingernails, burning genitals, hyperextending the spine, bending the body around the frame of a wheel while whipping the victim and so on.

Over the past several weeks, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has killed more then 1,000 protesters and jailed at least 10,000 more, according to Syrian human rights groups. Human Rights Watch has described crimes against humanity in the town of Dara’a, where boys have been mutilated and men massacred.

All governments do bad things, and Middle East dictatorships do more than most. But the Syrian government is one of the world’s genuinely depraved regimes. Yet for all these years, Israel has been asked to negotiate with this regime, compromise with this regime and trust that this regime will someday occupy the heights over it in peace.

For 30 years, the Middle East peace process has been predicated on moral obtuseness, an unwillingness to face the true nature of certain governments. World leaders have tried sweet-talking Syria, calling Bashar al-Assad a friend (Nancy Pelosi) or a reformer (Hillary Clinton). In 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy invited Assad to be the guest of honor at Frances’ Bastille Day ceremonies — a ruthless jailer celebrating the storming of a jail. For 30 years, diplomats and technocrats have flown to Damascus in the hopes of “flipping” Syria–– turning into a pro-Western, civilized power. It would be interesting to know what they were thinking. Perhaps some of them were so besotted with their messianic abilities that they thought they had the power to turn a depraved regime into a normal regime.

Perhaps some of them were so wedded to the materialistic mindset that they thought a regime’s essential nature could be altered with a magical mix of incentives and disincentives. Perhaps some of them were simply morally blind. They were such pedantic technocrats, so consumed by the legalisms of the peace process, that they no longer possessed the capacity to recognize the moral nature of the regime they were dealing with, or to understand the implications of its nature. In any case, their efforts were doomed. In fact, the current peace process is doomed because of the inability to make a categorical distinction. There are some countries in the region that are not nice, but they are normal — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. But there are other governments that are fundamentally depraved. Either as a matter of thugishness (Syria) or ideology (Hamas), they reject the full humanity of other human beings. They believe it is proper and right to kill innocents. They can never be part of a successful negotiation because they undermine the universal principles of morality.

It doesn’t matter how great a law professor or diplomat you are. It doesn’t matter how masterly you sequence the negotiations or what magical lines you draw on the map. There won’t be peace as long as depraved regimes are part of the picture. That’s why it’s crazy to get worked into a lather about who said what about the 1967 border. As long as Hamas and the Assad regime are in place, the peace process is going nowhere, just as it’s gone nowhere for lo these many years.

 That’s why it’s necessary, especially at this moment in history, to focus on the nature of regimes, not only the boundaries between them. To have a peaceful Middle Ease, it was necessary to get rid of Saddam’s depraved regime in Iraq. It will be necessary to try to get rid of Qaddafi’s depraved regime in Libya. It’s necessary, as everybody but the Obama administration publicly acknowledges, to see Assad toppled. It will be necessary to marginalize Hamas. It was necessary to abandon the engagement strategy that Barack Obama campaigned on and embrace the cautious regime-change strategy that is his current doctrine.

The machinations of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are immaterial. The Arab reform process is the peace process.

While I agree wholeheartedly with Brooks’ commentary in this case, it does however lack even a hint as to how to accomplish the list of “necessities.” Surely he is not suggesting that the way in which we got rid of Saddam (a preemptive war based on false pretexts and incompetent planning) was acceptable either in strategy or execution. And I have no idea (and I suspect neither does he) what it means to “marginalize Hamas.” Nor does he even mention Yemen. In any event, even if you don’t start from the premise of what Brooks calls “universal principles of morality” and rather accept that moral judgments can be relative rather than absolute, for all issues, there are nevertheless lines on the scale of moral acceptability that need to be drawn and that when crossed require certainty, courage and commitment to right the wrong.

Beyond the Western temporizing that has supported the depravity of Middle Eastern regimes, and its impact on the continuous ineffectiveness of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, that’s the larger message I took from the Brooks that yesterday flowed crisp and clear.