One on One: Desperately seeking democracy

Bemoaning the "lack of genuine nation-building," Henry Jackson Society Middle East director Barak M. Seener explains why a British think tank is adopting an American model, and why it's relevant to Israel.

Barak seener 224.88 (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Barak seener 224.88
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
'Israel is beginning to catch on to the need for serious research institutes that can both contribute to and affect the public debate, as well as governmental policy," says Barak M. Seener, the Jerusalem-based Middle East director of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a two-year-old "cross-partisan" think tank at Cambridge University's Peterhouse College and in Westminster, London. Seener cites what he calls the "important work being done" by the likes of the Shalem Center, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress to provide "professionalism and academic expertise" where it is "sorely lacking in this country." Indeed, it is this kind of void Seener claims the HJS (founded and run by Dr. Alan Mendoza, a Conservative councillor for the London Borough of Brent) is there to fill. It is a niche, says Seener, "that became evident after the United States invaded Iraq." According to Seener, an Orthodox Jew who made aliya from London last year, the West in general is not focused enough on nation-building as key to the spreading of liberal democracy. Not even the neoconservatives who supposedly shape White House strategy have got it right, asserts Seener, 29, who spent 2004-2007 first conducting research, and then at the American Jewish Congress. The less-than-glowing grade Seener gives to the neocons is more than a touch ironic. The HJS has been accused by left-wing critics of being a neocon mouthpiece, with a distinctly - some would say dastardly - pro-American, pro-Israel purpose. That the HJS is named after the late senator Henry ("Scoop") Jackson, a Cold War anti-communist Democrat whose political philosophy was espoused by the likes of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, only serves to strengthen this cynical attitude. Seener counters this by insisting that while "there are aspects of neoconservatism that we consider legitimate," others are "problematic." He also pooh-poohs the idea that bolstering Israel is his true hidden agenda. "Spreading liberal democracy throughout the globe is the goal," he reiterates. "And Israel is no exception." In an hour-long interview earlier this month, Seener - who holds a BA in history and politics and an MA in international security and global governance from the University of London, and who studied talmudic law and philosophy at a yeshiva in Israel - is at once passionate and pessimistic about the future of the West. "Style," he sighs, "matters in this world as much, if not more, than substance." Why does a British think tank name itself after an American senator? Because Scoop Jackson's was a novel view - one we espouse: a proactive foreign policy approach to the spread of liberal democracy, through a combination of military intervention and state-building. What is relevant is the difference between the United States and the UK. In Washington DC, there is a great deal of policy professionalism and a core community that cultivates and contributes to the debate and subsequent policy. In Britain, on the other hand, there is a dichotomy between politics and academia. In other words, in America, there's a fusion of academic research and policy, while in Britain, there is much suspicion of academia among politicians. Though you call yourself cross-partisan, you are clearly a conservative group. Has conservatism become more mainstream in Britain - or more acceptable among the elite - since former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's time? Did she pave the way for this in some fashion? It certainly has become more mainstream since her time, in the form of economic liberalism. In fact, Thatcher was the first person Tony Blair met with when he became prime minister. The Labor Party is no longer socialist - hence, New Labor. It no longer believes in having a rigidly state-run bureaucracy, and accepts free-market economics. This is why the Conservative Party had a problem, and wasn't able to present itself as a viable opposition. In our focus upon foreign policy, we take pride in being cross-party, rather than merely conservative, and have Labor and Liberal MPs supporting us. After all, no one party possesses a monopoly on the promotion of human rights and democratic values. Would you say, then, that Thatcher was given a bad rap in terms of how she was perceived? Yes, but personality has a lot to do with it, and she had a domineering one. Indeed, it's possible that she could have stayed on for another term had she taken the time to cultivate party members. Style matters in this world as much, if not more, than substance. Take, for example, the Baker-Hamilton report [the commonly used term for "The Iraq Study Group Report," by former US secretary of state James Baker and former member of the House of Representatives Lee Hamilton, released in December 2006]. Substantively it was awful, but, you know, its authors caused the hawkish administration to adopt their entire policy proposal, because they blitzed the media with a powerful PR machine. They even appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. Another example, relating to Israel, is Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Content-wise, he is a radical who denies the existence of a Jewish state. But, because of his demure style, even President George Bush, of all people - someone from whom you'd least expect it - views him as a moderate and a peacemaker. Furthermore, note how many times the US has stated that it would stand by Israel and not allow Iran to develop a nuclear reactor, without setting a firm time line to declare when negotiations will have been exhausted. Former secretary of defense William Cohen, at the 2007 Herzliya Conference, said that Iran must not be allowed to enrich uranium, and that the US would stand by Israel. He then said that the US must work closely with Russia and China on the Security Council, thereby neutralizing his first statement. Still, he got a huge applause. If style beats content, how can a think tank make any difference where policy is concerned? On an individual level, it is crucial for there to be intellectual integrity when researching an issue. And it is possible for a think tank with intellectual integrity to create paradigm shifts. Is there any evidence to suggest that this is possible? There is a lot of evidence that think tanks can make policy difference. When President Bush was governor [of Texas], he went to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he was given policy sessions. Subsequently, the Bush administration lifted loads of research fellows from AEI to become staffers in the White House. The same is true of the Heritage Foundation, which provided the intellectual background for the [Ronald] Reagan administration. Then there's the case of the Oslo process. It was started by a bunch of musty, boring intellectuals at a left-wing Jerusalem think tank. They created a paradigm shift. Previously, the idea of a Palestinian state was certainly not mainstream, and meeting with [PLO chief Yasser] Arafat was taboo. Today, it's politically incorrect not to speak about a Palestinian state. Though your worldview and references point to America, you favor a stronger European Union. Why? Look, the EU is a given reality. Our aspiration is for there to be a stronger EU that would complement - not act to counter - the US. We stress that this situation can only occur if the EU becomes more "British" in terms of its outlook on international affairs and its economic structure. If you look at the bilateral relations between Europe and America, you can see that America is light years ahead of Europe militarily - so much so that European forces are perceived as a sort of albatross around America's neck when it comes to the deployment of forces overseas. This even applies to the British failure to spend adequate resources on defense. Thus, in Iraq it's the US that has taken the brunt of the warfare, as British troops have been spread too thinly to achieve the results that a counter-insurgency strategy demands. Thus, Britain has more of a strategic "peace-watch" kind of role, because it simply doesn't have the adequate means to fight insurgencies. Our hope is to cultivate a robust European military machine, comprised of different European states collaborating with one another to create a multilateral force. Is that feasible? Well, there were discussions on that vis-a-vis Bosnia - you know, to look after what's happening in the Balkans, rather than having America step in. It's possible, though I'm quite skeptical about whether Europe has the resources to achieve it, given the current European mind-set. Because if you're focused on soft power, you have a lack of resources to create a robust military infrastructure. And if you can't do it on a state level, how are you going to be able to do it on a multilateral one? Is the fact that Silvio Berlusconi just won the election in Italy, that Nicolas Sarkozy is president of France, that Angela Merkel is chancellor of Germany, and that in Britain, the Conservatives just won 40 percent of the local seats, not indicative of a shift in the European mind-set you're alluding to? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, a year ago, when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown went to the US to have "full and frank discussions," he was abiding by the popular sentiment, which was quite anti-American, and he sought to distance himself from Bush. He did this by implying that he valued multilateralism more than bilateral British-American relations - whereas this year, he didn't make mention of that, because he feared he'd be eclipsed by Berlusconi, Sarkozy and Merkel. On the other hand, even Merkel doesn't represent a complete shift in the European mind-set. She might talk tough about the Iranian nuclear threat, for example, but at the same time, Germany's business ties with Iran are extremely strong - yet another example of style winning over substance. Are Europeans more concerned with local and domestic issues than they are with the spread of radical Islam? I don't think that Europeans actually appreciate the threat of radical Islam. Projecting their own way of thinking onto others, they cannot comprehend an ideology that would seek to undermine their security and delegitimize their way of life. So, they don't really grasp that there is a totalitarian mind-set in their midst that seeks to impose Shari'a law. Even though they witnessed 9/11 and the Madrid and London bombings, and see the proliferation of radical mosques throughout the continent? And even though they saw the spread of Nazism and communism, and the devastation that ensued? Most people don't think that way, particularly not the younger generation born after the Cold War. Their reality is one of an effective merging of East and West Germany, and an effective EU. Ironically, the same trend of transnationalism characteristic of the EU - that has led to greater peace within Europe and a smaller world with fluid borders with free-market agreements - is what enables organizations like al-Qaida to spread their ideology and threat across the globe. In other words, this greater prosperity of the EU has been mirrored by international terrorist organizations and their transnational philosophies. And one of the main problems - which also explains why Europeans don't quite get it - is that there is no serious PR operation explicating any of this to the public at large. So, for example, while the explanation given for entering Iraq was to take out WMD, no larger context was provided - no philosophical explanation of why autocratic regimes finance terrorist organizations that are belligerent toward their nation states, or why we ought to promote democratization around the globe. One encouraging sign is that there is talk in Britain of establishing a national security council. Until now, foreign policy in the UK has been incredibly ad hoc and amorphous, resting totally in the hands of the Foreign Office, which is why Britain has no long-term strategy, as is the case in Israel. If this is the case, are you saying it was by accident that London mayor Ken Livingstone - who repeatedly made anti-Israel statements - was ousted? It's hard to pinpoint why that happened. But it wasn't because of any Jewish pressure or lack of Jewish numerical power. I remember sitting at the Shabbat table of a very prominent Jewish religious leader in England, and he said that British Jews cannot emulate American Jews in this respect, by sheer virtue of their number. He said that whereas English Jews feel as though they are residing in the UK by the grace of a benevolent landlord, American Jews feel like landlords themselves. He recounted that after the head of the Board of Deputies [of British Jews] decided to sue Livingstone [for comments he made in February 2006 to Jewish reporter Oliver Finegold, comparing him, or the newspaper he worked for, to a concentration camp guard], he asked the board, "What are you doing? Livingstone's really popular, and if we win, we'll create an enemy, and if we lose, we'll make fools of ourselves." In response, I reminded my host that AIPAC is the second largest lobbying organization in the US after the National Rifle Association - the largest foreign-policy lobby - and its power does not correlate to its numbers. I told him that power doesn't necessarily have to do with size. His jaw dropped. It was as though this had never occurred to him. There was a reluctance to state, plainly and simply, that Livingstone is an anti-Semite. The 2007 State Department report on anti-Semitism says that disproportionate criticism of Zionism and Israeli policy constitutes anti-Semitism. This should be applied to Livingstone. I remember, during the second intifada, a huge rally in Trafalgar Square to support Israel. The banners held up there did not say that Arafat was funding terrorism - which was an objective fact - but rather neutral sentiments like, "Yes to peace, no to terror." Furthermore, when Bibi [former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu] got on the podium to express Arafat's autocratic style, he was booed. Here was a perfect association between pacifism and intellectual dishonesty. Can you tie this in to the boycott of Israeli professors at British universities and the British-Jewish response to it? That's precisely the problem - that there was a response, rather than a preemption. British Jews should have been proactive by preparing the cultural groundwork prior to the second intifada, when times were relatively good. Pro-Palestinian groups are robust and dynamic. They have continuously and unremittingly lobbied British trade unions and helped cultivate an anti-Israel cultural milieu. In contrast, Israel lobbyists on the whole amount to a couple of people in a phone box. British Jews should have strategized a whole program to promote Israel and reconcile Israel's national-security interests with those of Britain, the way American Jews do. But this is something British Jewry has never done. It has never thought in terms of national security. Instead, it does some poor hasbara [public relations] for Israel. But it shouldn't be engaging in hasbara for Israel per se. It should be conveying that Israel is the bulwark against radical Islamism for Europe at large, and that if Israel's security is undermined, so is that of Europe. If Britain moves away from America's sphere of influence and towards that of the EU, there's no guarantee that it will be pro-Israel. In fact, it is more likely that it would become more anti-Israel. Then, the editorials in the newspapers, and the activism at the universities, will reflect that. Rather than responding to such eventualities, British Jews have to be proactive in setting the trend. How does the work you're doing relate to Israel? In the sense that Israel has no long-term strategizing. It's all ad hoc, which is due to the nature of the political system. Proportional representation leads to backroom diplomacy. Indeed, the World Bank Report of 2005 on corruption placed Israel as the second-most corrupt country in the world, after Italy. The common denominator between the two countries is a multiparty system. Corruption accompanies systemic failure. Seventy percent of the government's decisions in this country do not get executed. This is due to the civil service's knowing that within a year there will be another minister with another director-general who brings a new agenda. So what they do, instead of implementing a decision, is claim that they are "studying the issue." This also hinders a foreign policy continuum. Look at what happened with Bush's previous trip to Israel [in January]. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made commitments to Bush, which a week later were undermined by Avigdor Lieberman's leaving the coalition. While the Foreign Ministry emphasizes a two-state solution and the need to cede territory, the Finance Ministry builds more houses beyond the Green Line. Another point is that, within a very short space of time, there were conflicting reports by different organs of government as to whether Israel was or should be negotiating with Syria. This is not statehood. It's dysfunction, which harms Israel's security and the US's strategic interests. If this continues, in the long term, the US may grow to perceive Israel as an albatross rather than an asset. Don't think that the Winograd Report that emphasized both the lack of coordination between organs of government and a lack of strategy was only read by Israelis. Our American allies also read it and weren't too impressed. Israel is only 60. How can you call its flourishing "dysfunction"? In which way has it really flourished? It still has a largely centralized economy, and a multiparty system, which reflects a lack of identity. Furthermore, growth in hi-tech is not necessarily a result of vibrant statecraft. A case in point is the Chinese economy, which is growing at an exponential rate. And in China, while concessions have been made at providing economic reform, you do not see the political freedoms that accompany free-market economics, and human rights there remain dire, and corruption rife. And no one can confidently predict that despite this, the Chinese economy will continue to grow over the next 30 years or so. Without systemic political reform, its economy could combust. Why, then, is a different standard applied to Israel when describing its own economic growth? At the Herzliya Conference two years ago, [conference co-founder Ronald Lauder - now the president of the World Jewish Congress] hit the nail on the head when he said that Zionism may have a state, but it doesn't really have a goal. Policy ought to be set up along the same lines as business. When you set up a business, you have to have a strategy. You have to know what your one-year goal is, your five-year goal and so on. And these must be tangible and quantifiable. Israel's only goal has been this amorphous idea of peace. It doesn't say what it wants and how it aims to achieve that. Its nebulous demands at the negotiating table - which are responsive to Palestinian demands - reflect an amorphous identity. They don't even reflect what the country wants its borders to look like. And a lack of strategy lends itself to constantly adopting a tactical approach. Take the precision strikes against terrorist leaders, for example. This also demonstrates a lack of strategy, as it does not offer a solution to the conflict, or even effectively manage it. To understand this, one can look at America's two doctrines: the "coercion" doctrine, drawn up and published in the 1960s, by Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf of the Rand Institute, and the "winning of hearts and minds" doctrine, published in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual - by, among others, [commanding general of the multinational forces in Iraq] David Petraeus. These doctrines are time- and geography-specific. Well, with the threats posed now from Gaza and the West Bank, it appears that Israel has never cultivated any strategy - neither the "winning of hearts and minds" model, nor the coercion doctrine, according to which there would be accountability between the alleged civilian population and the insurgents and guerrilla fighters - because there's always a great degree of complicity between the two, in order for guerrilla warfare to survive. An example of this is when, a couple of months ago, the IDF called off a precision strike against a Hamas terrorist leader in Gaza, when "civilians" surrounded his house in a gesture of support. The decision to call it off went against the grain of personal responsibility that Western leaders demand of their own citizenry, and therefore constitutes a double standard. [Historian and strategist] Edward Luttwak wrote: "The easy and reliable way of defeating all insurgents everywhere is to out-terrorize the insurgents, so that fear of reprisals outweighs the desire to help the insurgents." Instead, money was thrown for years at the PA leadership, both by Israel and the international community, and Israel never created a civil society or oversaw the creation of infrastructure that is so vital for a nation-building strategy. Is this not what you would call a neoconservative view? It might be called a neoconservative view, but also a liberal interventionist one, a pro-democracy one, strategic realism and many more. The truth is that most people have no understanding of what neoconservatism is, since it has become a trendy label to affix to the Iraq war. And neoconservatives themselves have diverged - and will continue to diverge - on aspects of policy. How, then, would you describe the Henry Jackson Society? Somewhere between neoconservatism and neoliberalism - hated by everyone. Seriously, though, we unite those wishing to endorse the principles of democracy promotion and support for liberty, freedom, human rights and a robust international security position. Whether they be neoconservative, neoliberal, New Left or simply believers in the power of activism to make a real difference to the human condition. Labels can only take you so far. It is ideas that inspire.