The Mystery of Judgment

by A. Jay Adler on May 24, 2010
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Too often, it can be hard to figure how some people can be so wrong. That’s why we have political parties, so we can put all the wrong people in the other party. That way we don’t have to put bells on them to know when they’re coming. As Graham Greene wrote in The Quiet American

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

Poor judgment is like Greene’s leper without his bell, the vital error that has strayed from the other side and sits with you supping with a smile.

Judgment isn’t intelligence, or maybe better said, intelligence isn’t judgment. We’re much involved these days in noting and naming the varieties of intelligence, the manner and boundaries of them, but the brainiac with no common sense, for instance, is an old conception. On more complex levels, thorough and coherent analysis of information – data, trends, actions, ideas – is one manifestation of good judgment: putting it all together, amid the myriad possibilities, in a way that most closely approximates reality. And reality? Well, one test is in a second manifestation of good judgment, the kind we seek in leaders – making right decisions, based on the analyses, to effect the outcomes we desire. If we can effect those outcomes, that’s evidence our analysis was correct.

Discourse into the Night

But judgment is a mystery. There is no telling, sometimes, where you’ll find it and when it will show up missing. Who would have guessed, beforehand, Truman? How shall we number, to look back to Greene, all of the mistaken judgments among the “best and the brightest” that went into the Vietnam War?

While poor judgment can be a mystery in the offing, however, once it is upon us, it leaves its marks to be read.

As soon as Peter Beinart’s NYRB piece appeared, Jeffrey Goldberg engaged him in a Goldblog discussion of his claims. In part II, Beinart said the following:

But over the long run, the best way to undermine Nasrallah and people like him is to give hope to those Palestinians and Muslims who do want a two-state solution. In Fayyad, and even Abbas, we have such leaders. Surely in those circumstances continued settlement growth, which simply convinces Palestinians that they will never have a state on most of the West Bank, is deeply self-destructive. I want the major American Jewish groups to say so, loudly. Instead, they deny that settlements are even a problem.

Now, I share Beinart’s displeasure with the West Bank settlements, always have, but they exist in a formidable complex of history and policy. It is a judgment to focus on the settlements above all else, and a bad judgment. I wrote to Goldberg suggesting a question to Beinart for part III of the discussion. Apparently, Goldberg is not yet letting me choose his interview questions for him, but I’m working on him. I suggested he ask Beinart why Beinart had not, instead of the above, written the following reformulation of it, which would, of course, have changed his entire article.

But over the long run, the best way to undermine Netanyahu and Lieberman and people like them is to give hope to those Israelis and Jews who do want a two-state solution. In Barak, and even Olmert, we had such leaders. Surely in those circumstances continued anti-Semitic education in Palestinian schools, Muslim calls for the destruction of Israel and rejection of every Israeli peace offer, which simply convinces Israelis that they will never have a genuine partner in peace, is deeply self-destructive. I want the major American Palestinian groups to say so, loudly. Instead, they deny the Palestinians are in any way responsible.

One can choose to perceive circumstances from either vantage point, from that of Israelis as active agents of events, of Palestinians as active agents, or – what seems most reflective of reality – of both. A supposition of the reformulation, were one to offer it, is that the Palestinians – the political and intellectual leadership, the people themselves – actually want a two-state solution. In fact, there is considerable evidence that this is not so, and that even when Palestinian leaders say they want it, they don’t mean it.

Critics of Israel who follow the general line of argument laid out by Beinart almost exclusively choose the first. Why? There are many motivations, many of them, we know, not good, but I attribute none of those to Beinart or to many other well-meaning liberals, with whom, on a host of other issues, I would otherwise be standing. Let’s look at another of Beinart’s statements, from part III of the interview, (The one missing my question, that Goldberg chose not to ask, though it was an excellent question. Jeffrey.)

I really think Israel and the U.S. botched the Hamas election victory–i think they should have supported, not torpedoed, a Palestinian national unity government even if it fudged acceptance of past agreements a bit (after all, Israeli governments haven’t respected all past agreements–Netanyahu said explicitly that he rejected Oslo when he was elected in 1996), and then dealt with the non-Hamas ministers as we do with the Hezbollah presence in the Lebanese government. That might have created an opportunity for calm, economic growth, and perhaps eventually new negotiations with a strong Palestinian government able to marginalize the rejectionists politically and impose control on the ground. The problem I have with the Gaza War is less that I think Israel used disproportionate force: it may well have, but war is always hell. It’s more that I think just wars must be last resorts, you have to exhaust the alternatives, and I think the Israelis and the Americans really didn’t. That’s not to excuse Hamas–which is a nasty movement–but it’s a way of saying that with a group like Hamas, which has deep roots in the Palestinian society, you can’t eliminate it through military force alone. You have to moderate at least elements of it by bringing them into the political process and investing them in non-violence paths to statehood. I think that was possible, or at least that more of an effort could have been made. Besides, think how much more leverage it would give Fayyad if he could show Palestinians that he got Israel to really stop settlement growth (as opposed to this sham “partial freeze,” which hasn’t really stopped actual construction at all), or even withdraw some far out settlements. If you hate Hamas, nothing would hurt them more politically.

The Discourse, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

There is a whole lot in there, including a factual error about Netanyahu and Oslo that has already been pointed out by Yaacov Lozowick. What I will point out is that the passage, like Beinart’s whole argument, and that of others who share it, reflects what in rhetoric is called a mixed discourse. What is Beinart doing – offering an analysis of statecraft or a moral critique? In fact, he is doing both together, mixing them up, confusing one for the other, the statecraft analysis for the moral critique.

Government agents of foreign affairs – ministry diplomats and top tier government officials – manage the state and manage its problems. Effective management involves constant review and assessment of policy to determine if the state, independent of what state parties are morally responsible for a situation, is serving its interests and achieving its aims. The Palestinians in general, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and Syria, and Iran, and so on are all threats the Israeli government has to manage. While I disagree that Israel mismanaged the Hamas election victory, one can reasonably argue, I think, that it mismanaged the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, in that by conducting the withdrawals unilaterally, Israel fostered the notion among its enemies that it had buckled at long last to their violent opposition, and that the enemies had gained victories. Such criticism is what I refer to here as statecraft analysis, and it is conducted among those, primarily Israelis, who share the same policy goals. But even if these withdrawals were badly performed, that does not make Israel morally responsible for the attacks on it, and its subsequent responses to the attacks, because its enemies chose to answer Israel’s disengagement with violence. And the withdrawals can only be judged critically to begin because of the enmity and bad faith of Israel’s foes.

Beinart here consistently analyzes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of Israel as active state agent and the Palestinians as the problem to be managed. Even Palestinian misbehavior is argumentatively presented as poor Israeli statecraft. If Israel had accepted the Hamas election victory

That might have created an opportunity for calm, economic growth, and perhaps eventually new negotiations with a strong Palestinian government able to marginalize the rejectionists politically and impose control on the ground.

The focus is not on Palestinian support for a theocratic terrorist organization, not a on the absence of “calm” created by the Palestinians, but on the hypothesized better conditions that might have resulted from, in Beinart’s eyes, better Israeli management of Palestinian choices and behaviors, which are treated like a natural disaster that has no moral agency.

The dangerous condition Israel now confronts is one in which various critical forces mix. Among the clear and not as clear anti-Semitic attacks, and the ideological rejections of Israel’s existence in varied covert formulations, enters now increasingly this mixed discourse, in which critical friends and supporters of Israeli confuse Israel’s decades-long management of a problem with moral responsibility for the problem.

One day – fifty years from now, two hundred – future historians will analyze this subject and this era, and how so many misjudged reality so badly (it isn’t like it hasn’t happened before) will make fascinating reading.

AJA

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3 comments

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sshender May 24, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Jay, thank you for putting into words what I, and many others, understand but have the difficulty to articulate. That was a top notch insight worth its place in the discourse about the A-I conflict.

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Kate May 24, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Mr Adler,

It’s not often that all I can say in response to something is “what he said”, but for this post, well… “What he said”. Thank you for once again demonstrating that common sense and reasoned analysis is merely rare, not extinct.

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