Monthly Archives: July 2016

Could Trump Cause a Political Realignment?


The recently concluded Republican and Democratic party conventions offered an astonishing role reversal in American politics.

Under Donald Trump, Republicans painted a dark and ominous view of the United States, almost entirely devoid of optimism, national pride and the familiar tropes of American patriotism. Astonishingly, it was the Democrats who seized control of the Reaganesque messages of American exceptionalism, national pride and these patriotic symbols.

Since the Vietnam War, it has traditionally been Democrats who have presented themselves as the party that says “yes, but” to patriotism. But now Democrats have embraced the American civic religion in a smothering bearhug.

Under Mr Trump, however, Republicans have presented their fellow Americans with an utterly dystopian perspective in which the country is facing an almost apocalyptic crisis and there is only one man who “alone” offers a way out.

Yet Mr Trump goes much further than any national Democratic figure has ever gone in criticising United States and embracing its international opponents. Most notably he encouraged Russia to engage in cyber espionage by hacking Mrs Clinton’s emails. He later tried to say that he was joking, but nobody believes that.

Unfortunately, what the comments demonstrate is that he simply has no idea what kind of line he is crossing and why it exists. He is a highly privileged, uninformed amateur who is used to saying anything he likes without consequences.

He said Washington is in no position to criticise other countries like Turkey for human rights violations, and called the American military “a disaster”. His consistent, fulsome praise of Vladimir Putin is not only astonishing, it’s inexplicable, except for the fact that he is posing as an American version of Mr Putin.

Mr Trump’s statements are not only un-American, in the sense that they are an unprecedented, radical breach of the country’s long-standing foreign policy consensus. They are downright anti-American, in that they are so willing to criticise the present American condition that they are sometimes actually hostile to the United States.

Republicans under Mr Trump are now the party saying “yes, but” to American nationalism, not the Democrats. This extraordinary role-reversal raises two key questions. First, although Democrats clearly won the battle of the conventions and have seized control of the symbols of patriotism, it might not matter. It is unlikely but possible that Mr Trump’s asymmetrical political warfare has so altered the political playing field that Democrats have just won a battle that no longer determines the outcome of the conflict. They are pursuing conventional political warfare, while he is using guerrilla tactics and sabotage. So it is just possible that what would normally be an unstoppable political victory could, bizarrely, prove irrelevant.

Second, not only could the Democrats win, but they also might win in a colossal landslide if the public fully comprehends what the dangerous and ultimately unacceptable risks of a Trump White House truly are. Moreover, there is the potential for a massive political realignment in the works.Many establishment Republicans are now reduced to hoping that Mr Trump will lose a close election without damaging Republican chances of retaining control of Congress. But they have taken such an extreme gamble that Republicans might end up losing it all, just as they did after the fiascos of Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown at the later stages of the George W Bush administration.

Large numbers of national security voters, internationalists, foreign policy hawks and neoconservatives are resigned to voting for Mrs Clinton in spite of their long-standing Republican affiliations. Many of them also bolted from the Republican Party and voted for Barack Obama in 2008 after John McCain selected the absurd Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

Now they are preparing to do the same thing and support Mrs Clinton. Is it possible that they will feel tired of continuously bolting from the Republican Party? In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many liberal hawks abandoned the Democratic Party and joined the Republicans, forming the nucleus of the neoconservative movement. The same thing may be happening in reverse today. We might soon see wide-scale defections of internationalist and national security figures from the Republican Party, which is consistently no longer providing an acceptable home for them, to the Democrats.

Of course Republican Party leaders are hoping that after he loses the Trump phenomenon will simply evaporate. But what about the countless millions in their base who have embraced Mr Trump and rejected them?

Even if he loses, putting that genie back in the bottle may be very difficult, if not impossible. The election and its aftermath will answer both questions. If normal American politics prevail and Mrs Clinton wins, Republican leaders will try to piece their traditional, recognisable party together again. And depending on how successful they are, they may not be able to retain the loyalty of many whose politics are structured around national security and patriotism, especially given that they keep having to vote for the Democrats anyway.

This is What American Authoritarianism Looks Like

Historically it’s rare that the public isn’t warned about a would-be demagogue well in advance of their actual rise to power. Typically, this work is done by the narcissistic aspiring strongmen themselves. And in the case of Donald Trump, by now no American can claim they haven’t been put on ample notice about his character and intentions.

Last week’s Republican convention – a festival of rage, loss, anger and hatred – said it all. It was driven by vicious, personalised hatred against the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, as delegates persistently chanted “Lock her up!”

One of Mr Trump’s campaign advisers suggested she should be shot for treason. Ben Carson accused her, literally and with a straight face, of being in league with Satan.

Hysterical outrage was compounded by the relentless cognitive dissonance of a movement that, no matter how brazen, is moving so far beyond the bounds of propriety that it has cultivated some deniability. Virtually every important message was shadowed by some twisted doppelganger lurking visibly in the background and contradicting it.

Mr Trump’s main appeal is his alleged competence. He claims the country is being run by crooks, losers and idiots, three of his favourite epithets, and suggests that not only can he do better, but that “I alone” can solve the apocalyptic “crisis” facing the country.

But the convention itself, and the Trump campaign more broadly, strongly suggest he can’t run a bath. From plagiarism to high-level defections, tedious programming, stunning no-shows and a reliance on the candidate’s own children, rather than national party leaders, to endorse him, one couldn’t have wished for a more thorough refutation of claims of minimal competency, let alone excellence.

After more than a year of unprecedented, systematic dishonesty, Mr Trump posed as a champion of truth. “There will be no lies here,” he promised. It’s easy to tell when he’s lying: his body language, penchant for repetition, and, above all, his insufferable catchphrase: “believe me” are his sure-fire “tells” (unconscious admissions of deception). Whenever he says “believe me”, he knows he’s brazenly lying.

Unfortunately, he says it a lot. He actually suggested that it would be an “easy thing” to banish violent crime and murder, and that all kinds of endemic human foibles would simply vanish from the American landscape the day he takes the oath of office.

Mr Trump’s campaign is based on fear and ever-shrinking concentric circles of exclusion and enmity. Globally, he casts Americans as being in bitter, zero-sum competition with everyone else. Internally, he promotes a gutter brand of faux working-class white ethnic chauvinism (branding himself a “blue-collar billionaire”), blaming almost all social ills on minorities, especially Latino immigrants and Muslims.

His daughter, Ivanka, described her father in almost entirely liberal terms. She emphasised his devotion to women’s rights, equal pay for equal work, respect for the gay community, and support for childcare and maternity leave. In her telling, he sounded much like Hillary Clinton.

Then an angry, hateful man bearing no resemblance to her description took to the stage and insisted that the United States is, simultaneously, pathetically weak, damaged and useless, and at the same time on the brink of unparalleled greatness, strength and glory. The key to avoiding utter devastation and embracing complete perfection is, of course, electing him in November.

Moreover, he pledged massive amounts of spending on every imaginable programme, from the military to health care, while simultaneously vowing to cut taxes and greatly reduce the deficit. All politicians play such games but few so insultingly to the intelligence.

In an interview with The New York Times, Mr Trump shredded the Nato treaty, insisting that the alliance is actually a protection racket and under his leadership Washington would only defend an ally if it has paid up to his satisfaction.

He no longer calls for banning all Muslim immigration, instead urging restrictions on nationals of countries “compromised by terrorism”. That’s so vague it could include the United States itself. But of course that’s not what he means.

Republicans, including Mr Trump, endlessly complain about Barack Obama “apologising” for American foreign policy (which he hasn’t done), but he told The New York Times that, “given how bad the United States is … I don’t know that we have a right to lecture” any other countries on human rights. Mr Obama never said anything like that, and it’s no wonder that the North Korean government and Vladimir Putin seem so delighted with Mr Trump’s campaign.

Their cognitive dissonance has become so severe that few Republicans seem able to process what Mr Trump said about “how bad the United States is”, or how they would react if a Democrat said anything similar.

Mr. Trump amply outlined his penchant for lying as long ago as his 1987 memoir The Art of the Deal (the book’s ghost writer painted a devastating portrait of the candidate in interviews with The New Yorker magazine). Any voters still playing catch-up have now been fully informed by the Republican convention. No one can say they haven’t been warned. This is what American authoritarianism looks like.

Embattled ISIL Targets Saudi Arabia

The appalling massacre on Bastille Day in Nice, France – in which at least 84 people were killed by a French-Tunisian man driving a 19-ton refrigerated truck and armed with an automatic pistol – capped off several weeks of virtually unprecedented terrorist carnage around the world. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) appeared to be the primary link between atrocities ranging from Nice to BaghdadDhaka to Istanbul, and perhaps most shockingly, especially to Muslims around the world, the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia. As the group appears to be modifying its strategy to cope with new pressures, the anti-ISIL coalition and NATO are due to meet at the defense ministerial level at a military base in Maryland on July 20. The recent attacks and a number of other developments reflect the growing centrality of Saudi Arabia’s role in the battle against ISIL.

In some cases, such as the attacks in Turkey, ISIL’s direct hand appeared to be at work as seasoned operatives were linked to the crimes. In other cases, the connection appears more tenuous, with ISIL having apparently inspired the violence, or, as in the case of Nice, merely claiming a connection to the attacks, which some still question. Regardless, ISIL appears to be adapting its strategy to cope with a new, and in many ways more challenging, environment. The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL recently claimed that the militant group has lost 45 percent of territory it had held in Iraq, and 20 percent of the area it once held in Syria. Moreover, the trend is running entirely against ISIL, and the group has not seized any new territory in well over a year.

Both ISIL and its opponents can see the writing on the wall: The territory in Syria and Iraq that ISIL has occupied since 2013, and in which it declared its “caliphate” in 2014, is rapidly being lost, and the group is preparing for the end of its quasi-statehood status. One of the primary reasons for ISIL’s break with al-Qaeda in 2014 was its adoption of the caliphate and statehood model, which al-Qaeda since its founding by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s has regarded as a long-term and distant goal. Al-Qaeda was founded on the grounds that “jihadists” need to target the Western presence (the “far enemy”) in the Muslim and, especially, Arab worlds, in preparation for overthrowing all the government in those areas (the “near enemy”). This is best accomplished, they have maintained, through a campaign of transnational terrorism that will sap the will and ability of Western powers, particularly the United States, to bolster the existing Arab and Muslim governments and state system. With the Western presence out of the way, they have argued, the Arab and Muslim worlds can then be reshaped in the “Salafist-jihadist” image. Emerging from the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq that rose to prominence during the U.S. occupation beginning in 2003, ISIL rejected this stratagem in favor of trying to secure a de facto state in war-torn areas. It sought to postpone any direct confrontation with Western powers, and even more secure regional governments, until the jihadist movement was greatly strengthened.

Since the U.S.-led attacks against ISIL began in August 2014, however, the organization has been increasingly forced out of its shell and compelled to lash out against many of the targets, both Western and local, that it would have been more comfortable attacking at a later stage of its development. And, two years later, as it prepares for the probable collapse of its founding model, ISIL appears to be morphing into a group that is adopting much of al-Qaeda’s transnational terrorism approach. The recent surge of terrorist attacks – directly organized, deliberately encouraged, or indirectly inspired – by ISIL is almost certainly a direct response to this crisis, as is chatter about the establishment of a “virtual caliphate” online, given that the brick-and-mortar, retail caliphate in the areas surrounding Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq may not survive much longer. Much of the debate has focused on whether this strategic adaptation is a sign of ISIL’s weakness, because its preferred stratagem appears to be failing, or its long-term strength, because of its continued viability and adaptability. It is both: ISIL is adapting partly because it can, which is an element of strength, but also because it must, which is a reflection of a degree of weakness. Even as it loses its territory and much of its income and power-base, ISIL remains a profound menace in much of the world, particularly the Middle East.

ISIL is thus altering its strategy to one much closer to that long promoted by al-Qaeda. This was reflected in its brazen attacks not merely inside Saudi Arabia, but in the Muslim holy city of Medina. The July 4 attacks included a suicide bombing in the parking lot outside the Prophet’s Mosque, one of the holiest sites in the world, sacred to all Muslims. The attacks also came during the holy month of Ramadan. ISIL knew that attacks in Medina, especially at the Prophet’s Mosque, would be particularly offensive to millions of Muslims around the globe. But there is ample evidence that these attacks were centrally coordinated and authorized, rather than loosely inspired. For ISIL, there was a calculated trade off, with the group concluding that whatever damage was caused to its reputation among Muslims by attacking such a holy site was a price worth paying in order to try to humiliate and undermine the Saudi government. The message is: “You, supposedly the ‘custodians’ of the holy places, cannot actually protect them.” The corollary is not just that ISIL can strike inside the kingdom when and where it chooses, but also that Saudi security and intelligence are seriously threatened by the terrorists.

This focus on Saudi Arabia – along with other key targets such as Turkey and France – brings ISIL closer to al-Qaeda’s long-standing approach, particularly as developed during the bin Laden era. Under bin Laden’s leadership, al-Qaeda never disguised that one of its main aims was to target and overthrow the Saudi state because of its central role as the guardian of key holy places of Islam, and as a crucial ally of Western powers, particularly the United States. As ISIL has grown into a potent global brand among Muslim extremists, it, too, has found itself increasingly at direct odds with Riyadh. The battle is essentially over legitimacy in the interpretation of Islam as a social text and the implementation of Islamic governance. The Saudi and ISIL models do share some starting principles, though their a priori assumptions differ at least as much as they coincide. But, much more importantly, their conclusions about how these ideas, insofar as they are shared, should be applied to society, governance, and international relations are almost entirely contradictory and fundamentally incompatible. Saudi Arabia and ISIL cannot coexist or accommodate each other. Therefore, the overthrow of the Saudi state is becoming a priority for the internationalizing ISIL, as it has long been for al-Qaeda. And the destruction of ISIL has thus emerged as a key national security imperative for Saudi Arabia.

Among the many ironies of the present situation is that as ISIL finds itself compelled to adopt an al-Qaeda-like approach emphasizing transnational terrorism, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra may be moving to establish an on-the-ground quasi-state “emirate” in northern Syria. So the two extremist groups may be exchanging strategic emphases as their situations and contingencies shift. This raises the alarming prospect that, at some future date and particularly if leaders who have come to prominence during periods of antagonism are killed or unseated, the two groups might find themselves suddenly sharing a vision and strategy for global “jihad,” and unify. As things stand, the rivalries appear far too great to allow for that. But since ISIL is increasingly behaving like al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria is contemplating adopting key aspects of ISIL’s approach, the prospect cannot be discounted.

Whether that happens or not, ISIL’s shifting strategic approach is likely to increasingly emphasize attacks against Saudi Arabia, while the Saudi government has no choice but to intensify its own battle against such extremism, in the kingdom and in the Middle East at large. Saudi Arabia cannot, and apparently does not, have any illusions about the crucial role it plays in the ambitions of jihadist extremism of all varieties, whether its adherents are pursuing a traditional al-Qaeda strategy or ISIL’s more recent, and apparently now failing, caliphate innovation. Riyadh’s repeated offers to contribute Saudi ground forces for combat operations against ISIL inside Syria have been consistently rejected. No doubt this is partly because of the ongoing disagreement between Washington and Riyadh about broader goals and strategies in Syria. But the United States and its Western allies have crucial, and increasingly committed, partners in the battle against the self-described Salafist-jihadists – whether of the al-Qaeda or ISIL variety – in the Saudi government and society that find themselves a consistent target of extremists purporting to act in the name of Islam.

Failed coup will hand more power to Erdogan, not less

On Friday night, the world watched the collapse of what seems an exceptionally ill-conceived and poorly planned coup attempt in Turkey.

While much remains undecided, several things are already clear. The coup has failed. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, who returned to Istanbul Ataturk airport in the midst of the attempted takeover, will emerge enormously strengthened, at least in the short run. And no good will come of the entire affair for either Turkey or its neighbours.

The military factions that attempted to unseat Mr Erdogan and his democratically elected but authoritarian-minded AKP government plainly did not do their homework.

Every single major Turkish political party, including opposition groups that detest the president and the AKP, even deeply alienated Kurdish groups, strongly denounced the attempted takeover within its first hour.

Moreover, early on it also became clear that key elements within the national armed forces, including the military, the police, and other essential groups and leaders – apparently including the army chief of staff and other senior officers – did not support the attempted coup either. Finally, there was an enormous and predictable outpouring of support in many parts of the country for both the government and, much more importantly, the democratic system itself.

Many Turks who passionately object to the increasingly anti-democratic tendencies of Mr Erdogan and his minions wisely and immediately realised that a military coup would only make matters worse, not better. Even if it got rid of a budding caudillo, a military coup, by its very nature, is such an arbitrary and top-down change in governance that it would undoubtedly do more harm than good.

Contrast this response with what unfolded in Egypt in 2013, and the relative success of the two efforts becomes evident.

In Egypt, the removal of Mohammed Morsi was the culmination of many days of massive popular protests against his growing authoritarianism.

He was given numerous opportunities to cooperate with his critics, but he simply wouldn’t budge in any direction to allow for an accommodation of popular discontent.

Moreover, Mr Morsi’s removal was supported by every single Egyptian political party other than his own Muslim Brotherhood. In this regard, the situation in Turkey was the precise opposite of the one in Egypt, with total rejection by the political system of the government’s removal contrasted with virtually unanimous support.

Without ensuring that they had the requisite popular and political backing, and without quickly seizing and holding the institutions and personalities (including Mr Erdogan) necessary for their success, the coup-plotters in Turkey never really had a chance of success.

Turks are roughly evenly divided on their current leadership. The half of Turkey that loves Mr Erdogan and his allies were never going to take this lightly. And much, and indeed apparently most, of the other half of Turkey, which cannot stand him, is not willing to chuck the democratic baby out with the AKP bathwater. As all successful coup plotters have always understood, the initial show of force and seizure of key symbolic institutions is merely a prelude to the necessary bandwagoning of social forces behind the uprising.

In this case, because they did not have the necessary backing among the public and key national institutions, even including opposition political parties, momentum quickly shifted away from the plotters.

Events are still fluid. But there does not seem to be any historical precedent for a military insurgency bouncing back from the litany of failures the Turkish putschists have already accumulated and suddenly succeeding. Their failure therefore appears to be irrevocable.

Had they succeeded, because the AKP enjoys so much popular support, particularly in the rural countryside, a protracted period of civil unrest would have been the likely outcome. But even given their apparent failure, Turkey will probably face a grim immediate future.

Mr Erdogan is already blaming followers of the exiled preacher Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, a former ally and now adversary of the AKP who has taken refuge in the United States. The government is now sure to intensify its continuing purge of his supporters in various sectors.

Moreover, the charge is implausible since Gülenists are not heavily represented in the military, and are more present in the police, which supported the government throughout the attempted coup, and other agencies.

The sad reality is that Mr Erdogan, who is already darkly talking about “traitors paying a heavy price” for their misdeeds, will use the opportunity to strengthen his grip on power, purge the military, media and other national institutions even more aggressively than ever, and try to finally crush the Gülenist movement once and for all.

Turkish society appears to have overwhelmingly, wisely and correctly rejected the idea that a military coup is the answer to their very real problems stemming from Mr Erdogan’s increasingly suffocating authoritarianism. Sadly, their commendable commitment to constitutional rule is not likely to be rewarded by its primary beneficiary.

The tragic irony is that this brave and principled defence of democracy by Turkey’s people, society and national institutions will only leave Mr Erdogan more firmly in control, and more autocratic, than ever.

America can’t exorcise its deadly racial divide

As the United States prepares to replace a relatively successful, and still remarkably popular, two-term African-American president, the nation has been seized by a terrifying spasm of racial violence.

Two separate videotaped incidents appear to show police officers unjustifiably killing African-American men. They have inspired further “Black Lives Matter” protests around the country. The protest in Dallas, Texas, became the scene of a mass shooting when a black sniper ambushed police officers, killed five and wounded seven others.

American society is deeply shaken by these convulsions. They are not like terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists, which are seen as intrusions from the outside, or by ultra- right fanatics, a familiar fringe in American society. They aren’t like violent rampages by deranged individuals either.

All of those are experienced as encroachments from fundamentally alien entities distinctly outside of, and opposed to, mainstream American culture.

Instead, the current paroxysm of racially-inflected killings seems to erupt from the very core of American society, culture and history.

In Barack Obama’s America – which not only aspires to be, but to many often feels as if really were, a post-racial society – this is a particularly nasty and unwelcome return of repression.

African-Americans, however, were never under any illusions. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged after the killing of several young black men, particularly Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

The retort from many sceptical white Americans has been that “all lives matter”, an irrefutable but fundamentally irrelevant and even supercilious response. The Black Lives Matter movement has been trying to communicate that young African-American men are regularly confronted with brutality, sometimes including deadly force, at the hands of law enforcement officers and vigilantes under circumstances that would simply never happen to other people.

Moreover, it is extremely rare that the culprits in these crimes, particularly police officers, are punished at all, let alone in an appropriate manner.

Obviously all lives matter. But it is specifically the lives of young black men that are, in encounters with American law enforcement, still routinely treated as fundamentally disposable and indeed irrelevant.

The videos of the past week stunningly illustrated the validity of this campaign.

A video taken by a bystander on July 5 appears to show police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, summarily executing Alton Sterling, 37, while he was pinned to the ground.

The next day, the second video, which depicts the death of Philando Castile, an unarmed 32-year-old man who was shot four times by police officers at a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, because his car had a broken tail light.

The footage, which is almost unendurably poignant, was taken by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was with him and her four-year-old daughter during the ordeal. She berates the police officers for killing him without cause, and says that he was merely reaching for his licence and registration documents as requested.

Such incidents are agonisingly familiar to African-Americans, who routinely express profound alarm about how quickly young black men can be killed in what should be inconsequential encounters with police. No other constituency in the United States can honestly say that it’s easy to imagine a routine traffic stop of an unarmed man with his girlfriend and a four-year-old child instantly degenerating into a brutal homicide.

Fears of such incidents are common among young black men. But, for almost all other Americans, they are just unthinkable. That is an almost unbridgeable gulf in experiences and perceptions.

However, with the rise of mobile phones and other technology, activists say they have crucial new tools to hold police accountable. The recent videos certainly convey the Black Lives Matter message to non-African-Americans with unparalleled potency.

However, the killing of police officers in Dallas by an African American sniper, Micah Johnson, a military veteran who said he wanted to kill as many white people as possible, threatens to deepen the divide rather than bridge it.

The presidential campaign of Donald Trump has provided an unprecedented platform for the public expression of overt bigotry and “anti-political correctness”. Explicit racism towards African-Americans and Latinos, white nativism and anti-Semitism – long driven to the disreputable fringes of American popular culture – have been re-legitimised by his campaign.

Yet anti-Trump sentiments at protests have also proven irrationally enraged and, at times, violent. Hate has been confronted by more hate.

The United States has never truly overcome its original sin of slavery and mutual suspicions between black and white Americans have never been fully exorcised, while large new Latino, Asian, Muslim and other growing communities have greatly complicated the ethnic and cultural landscape.

Americans can be proud to have twice elected Mr Obama president. There are very few countries that have elevated anyone from a similarly small, historically victimised and still often polarising minority group to national leadership. But there are also very few countries as racially charged as the United States, and even fewer in which such divisions are as central to the national essence.

In both its history and the present day, the United States has much to teach the world about race, including exactly what should, and precisely what shouldn’t, be done.

Elie Wiesel’s Moral Imagination Never Reached Palestine

The great writer’s humanitarianism knew no bounds — except where it met his nationalism.

Elie Wiesel’s searing prose and testimonial eloquence made him a living symbol of the Holocaust that he survived, and the moral obligation to never forget what happened to the Jews of Europe during World War II. As he passes away, most of the world will simply remember him as a beacon of hope that decency and humanity can survive and overcome the darkest abuses people are capable of at their worst.

For many Arabs, though, the legacy of their encounter with Wiesel is far more complicated. Tribal suspicions, on both sides, stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict, trumped the very humanitarian impulses Wiesel sought to exemplify.

Wiesel and the Arabs viewed each other across an impassable moat of mistrust and ultimately exclusionary group identification. Wiesel did not, and could not, ever really speak critically of Israel, which he saw as the embodiment of the Jewish people, and frequently expressed a refusal to criticize Israel. He did not see himself as a nationalist, but his identification with Israel was couched so strongly in ethnic and religious terms that one is obliged to conclude he was mistaken about this. The Arab resistance, and in some cases aversion, to the symbolic resonance attributed to Wiesel stems from an equally nationalistic affect.

For Palestinians in particular, their fraught relationship with Wiesel is a function of being in the philosophically, morally and politically untenable position of being, as Edward Said so precisely put it, “the victims of the victims” of modern Western history. The Holocaust was a culmination of centuries of European anti-Semitism that morphed from the folkloric and religious intolerance of the Middle Ages into the pseudoscientific racism and overt political agenda of the nineteenth century and ultimately led to the Nazis’ industrialized killing machine. For Zionists, and especially those who were Holocaust survivors like Wiesel, the birth of Israel in 1948 was an almost miraculous rebirth for people who had just faced near extinction as a culmination of centuries of persecution.

For Palestinians and other Arabs, however, the events of 1948 marked not the birth, let alone the rebirth, of a people, but the violent death of another community. However blame is apportioned, and according to whatever narrative, the society of the Arabs of the British Mandate of Palestine, who had come to define themselves as “Palestinians,” did not survive the conflagration that attended the establishment of Israel. Its population was largely displaced, its national institutions vanished, and most of its families – from the prominent to the obscure – spent the better part of the next two decades at least reconstituting their existence as exiles or refugees. What had been there was now gone, and something new and different had taken its place. And at every stage, from the U.N. partition debate of 1947 to the Israeli Declaration of Statehood of 1948, the catastrophe that befell the Jews of Europe was invoked.

In this context, the Holocaust — and therefore Wiesel’s testimony about it, from which he derived so much of his aesthetic and political authority — became exceptionally fraught and contested. As a number of crucial recent books, including The Arabs and the Holocaust by Gilbert Achcar and From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust by Meir Litvak and Ester Webman, have demonstrated, the range of Arab reactions to the Holocaust from the earliest days until now have run the gamut from compassion to dismissal and even, especially among Islamists, denial.

Wiesel, too, promoted narratives that negate established history. In 2001, he suggested in the New York Times that in 1948, “Incited by their leaders, 600,000 Palestinians left the country…” The historical record, including as established by prominent Israeli historians, debunked this myth long ago. The genesis of the Palestinian refugee problem was much more messycomplex and ugly than this comfortable fantasy allows. Just as mass dispossession is hardly the equivalent of mass murder, Wiesel’s denial of Israel’s role in the expulsion of Palestinian refugees is hardly the equivalent of Holocaust denial. But it is a retreat from a rather obvious and well-documented reality into reassuring fictions that protect ethnic sensitivities from unsettling truths. It is also a familiar pattern on both sides of this highly charged conflict.

One of the most common Arab responses to Wiesel’s attitudes towards the conflict with the Palestinians is a microcosm of a question that is asked more broadly of Jews in general: “How can a people who suffered this fate possibly be treating Palestinians so badly?” But the underlying assumption is irredeemably flawed. It presumes that people, whether individuals or collectivities, somehow learn from their negative experiences not to repeat them. In fact it’s more common for abuse to engender more abuse. Suffering is not ennobling. If it were, prisons would be epicenters of grace.

Equally unfair and invalid is another common Arab take on the Holocaust which holds that “Israel is doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews,” a hyperbole so indefensible it borders on calumny. There’s no denying Palestinian suffering, but comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is both ridiculous and, given Jewish history, gratuitously provocative. Palestinians have been dispossessed, exiled and occupied, not exterminated en masse – both are traumas but the chasm between them is immeasurable.

However, Israel and its supporters have a long history of flinging precisely the same set of accusations against the Palestinians and other Arabs, casting them as inveterate anti-Semites whose resistance to Zionism is a logical extension of Nazi genocidal mania. In particular, there have been persistent efforts to tarnish Arabs and Muslims in general, and Palestinians in particular, with the pro-Nazi affiliations of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, as if this one disgraceful individual can stand in for an entire people. Wiesel himself never explicitly compared Arabs with Nazis, but he did ground the Israeli national project, and wars such as 1967 and 1973, very firmly in the legacy of the Holocaust. Such rhetoric implicitly invites, if not mandates, precisely the sorts of perfidious analogies that recently reached their nadir with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to the outrage of historians, claiming Hitler was inspired and instructed to commit the Holocaust by Husseini.

Wiesel’s tendency to tribalism, and even ethnocentrism, in the context of Israel is perhaps most starkly illustrated by his attitudes on Jerusalem, perhaps the most hotly contested issue between Israel and the Palestinians. In his 2001 New York Times editorial, he strongly suggested Jewish primacy in Jerusalem and strongly implied opposition to any territorial compromise in the city because “to compromise on history is impossible.” In that editorial, and again in a 2010 open letter to President Barack Obama opposing U.S. efforts to secure an Israeli settlement freeze, he cited references to Jerusalem in Jewish Scripture and claimed it is not mentioned at all in the Koran, as if that were relevant to contemporary Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In his letter to Obama, he categorically stated that Jerusalem “belongs to the Jewish people,” and falsely asserted that “Christians and Muslims are allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.” And in 2014, Wiesel signed an ad in Israel warmly praising Jewish settlers who were aggressively seizing properties in the flashpoint Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in the occupied eastern part of the city. These settlement efforts are widely regarded as among the most provocative and destabilizing in all of the occupied territories.

Many Palestinians have allowed the conflict with Israel to embitter them to the point that not acknowledging, learning about or engaging with the history of the Holocaust becomes a social and political imperative. This was most tragically illustrated in the experience of Professor Mohammed S. Dajani, a Palestinian scholar with impeccable nationalistic credentials, who led the drive to teach Palestinian university students about the Holocaust and ultimately had to leave his university position because of the backlash against the simple teaching and learning of history. Many Palestinians do want to learn about and recognize the tragedy of Jewish history, but many more myopically can’t see past their own present-day suffering and recognize Jewish Israelis as anything other than their occupiers and oppressors.

The fraught relationship between Wiesel and his Arab contemporaries is characterized by a disheartening lack of compassion in the context of a conflict that often feels profoundly existential. Both Wiesel and his Arab detractors and antagonists all too often bought wholesale into tribal narratives, patterns of psychic and historical exclusion, and implicit, or even explicit, assertions of priority or privilege over their national and tribal rival.

This does not, or at least should not, undermine, tarnish or invalidate Wiesel’s humanist legacy, given the singular enormity of the Holocaust. It’s unreasonable to expect Wiesel, or his Palestinian counterparts for that matter, to have “risen above” the ethnic and nationalistic identifications that define the modern era. That he did not do so is no slur on his memory. Instead it should serve to remind us that he, and all of us, are human; all too human.

Is this the beginning of a new era in US-Saudi relations?

The recent visit to Washington, New York and Silicon Valley by Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, might, like most diplomatic missions, quickly fades into irrelevance. But this trip also has the potential to one day be recalled as a watershed moment in US-Saudi relations. That will depend entirely on the fate of the sweeping economic and social reform agenda Prince Mohammed is championing in an attempt to transform Saudi society from the top down.

The deputy crown prince is not a head of state, or even government, but during his American trip he was treated like one. Prince Mohammed met Barack Obama and his secretaries of state and defence. He and his large delegation fanned out across Washington, visiting key congressional figures and various policy-framing opinion leaders.

Prince Mohammed’s message was at least as economic as political, and he spent several days reaching out to business leaders in New York and high tech honchos in California. The restructuring agenda he is leading, known as the National Transition Programme (NTP), presents itself as a policy of economic revitalisation. Its centrepiece is Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, a blueprint for the post-oil era, including monetising a large part of Saudi Arabia’s energy resources and creating a $2 trillion (Dh 7 trillion) sovereign wealth fund.

But behind this economic programme lies an implicit yet unmistakable vision to radically overhaul key aspects of Saudi society, and even culture, and promote national competitiveness by bringing it more into line with the international norms of a globalising world.

An obvious case in point is gender relations. The plan calls for greatly expanding women’s participation in government and the economy, since it is impossible for Saudi Arabia to be competitive in a post-oil environment without tapping its female human resources. That, in turn, is impossible unless extraordinary and ultimately unmanageable restrictions such as “guardianship” laws, extreme gender segregation in most public spaces, and the prohibition against women driving, are eliminated.

Prince Mohammed and his allies plainly understand this, and communicating that was a key element of their message to their American audience. He and his delegation, particularly behind closed doors, stressed that they understand the fairly extensive transformation their country needs (much of which has been pushed by Washington for many years, to no avail), and that they are earnestly and energetically attempting to implement those changes.

The United States, they were suggesting, needs to support this effort through promoting trade and investment, diplomatic support (including regarding the war in Yemen, which is the subject of increasing international concern), and recalibrating Washington’s relationship with Riyadh’s archrivals in Iran.

The message was couched in a striking new tone of warmth and friendship, following several years of bitter complaints, threats of “going it alone” and sullen allusions to finding alternative partners.

In recent months Saudi Arabia has been replacing such vinegar with large dollops of honey, which reflects both a new approach and a recognition that – for various reasons, including a growing sense that Washington is indeed getting tougher with Iran – relations genuinely have been improving.

The immediate result was a somewhat mixed bag. Prince Mohammed apparently impressed most of his American interlocutors with his personal qualities and determination. He gave the impression of being a serious and dynamic young leader with a strong grasp of the challenges facing his country and a genuine resolve to try to meet them.

But there is still an entirely reasonable American scepticism about how much of his vision can be successfully implemented. The obstacles are considerable.

On the administrative front, this agenda will ultimately require unprecedented levels of performance and accountability from a bureaucracy that does not have a good track record on fulfilling even much less ambitious projects. The change of tone at the top is evident, but it’s going to have to be matched by an adjustment at a number of crucial administrative levels.

Investors will be torn between an attraction to the kind of profits the Saudi energy sector might yield versus the lack of international norms of informational transparency, scrutiny and corporate governance regarding several crucial opportunities such as Saudi Aramco.

The arcane Saudi legal system is another significant disincentive to certain kinds of investment, and the country’s strikingly inadequate educational system will be an obstacle to some others.

Perhaps most dramatic, and politically threatening, is the prospect of concerted resistance from social conservatives, especially religious hardliners, to the vast social transformation that will be required if the NTP is to be even partially realised. Such a pushback is virtually guaranteed, and will be a real test of the government’s willingness and ability to insist on fundamental social changes despite powerful opposition.

Washington is understandably sceptical but pleased and intrigued by the transformation programme. If it succeeds, even partially, Prince Mohammed’s 2016 trip could well be recalled as the beginning of a promising new era in US-Saudi relations.