One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere

“Even-handed” is not a word to be uttered in polite U.S. foreign policy discussions

Over the past couple days, the president of the Anti-Irony Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, has sent liberal bloggers everywhere a-mocking, having rejected out of hand Obama’s pick as Middle East Envoy, the ‘roids-reportin’ George Mitchell, because of his (gasp!) “fairness” and “even-handedness.”  And while Foxman’s blunt assessment presents this kind of logic in its most starkly ridiculous garb, the sentiment is actually a de rigueur aspect of American foreign policy.

Jon Chait comes close to identifying the problem, but his sober explanation of why Foxman’s indignant sputtering should not come as a surprise veers — unsurprisingly, given his only marginal deviation from the Peretz orbit — too far to accepting this exasperating logic.

My point isn’t so much to defend this point as view as to explain that it isn’t inherently ridiculous to oppose an “even-handed” posture in the Middle East. You can look at the facts in a fair and even-handed way and arrive at a pro-Israel position — which, again, does not necessarily require support for everything the Israeli government does.

Now, opponents of the pro-Israel posture argue that the United States can’t broker peace unless it takes an even-handed posture. But that’s only true if you assume that both sides are equally at fault.

Chait seems to be making a dubious distinction between an even-handed approach — which could result, in his eyes legitimately, in a “pro-Israel” stance — and the generic “even-handedness” with which Foxman so awkwardly smeers Mitchell.  This amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy, though, as it assumes that Mitchell’s “even-handedness” stems not from an “even-handed” assessment of the facts (which, as Chait and Foxman see them, invariably weigh the scale in a conspicuously “pro-Israel” direction), or an “even-handed” outlook as an envoy, but from an “even-handedness” that is suspiciously, and automatically, “anti-Israel.”  By skewing the balance in this manner as a matter of course, Foxman’s instinctive antipathy to even the word “even-handed” demonstrates quite clearly how it has become a shibboleth of American foreign policy discussions.

“Even-handedness,” furthermore, does not amount to an excavation of blame, as Chait seems to imply with the importance he sets on establishing moral inequivalency to justify a “pro-Israel” conclusion.  The point of an envoy, and, it seems to me, particularly in this case, should be to look forward, to open up dialogue and find mutually acceptable solutions.  If s/he is to find one side’s claims more acceptable, one side’s points more worthy of defense than the other’s, then s/he relinquishes her/his “even-handedness,” and with it, her/his credibility as a negotiator.

I remember, as a young undergraduate, writing angry letters to my Senator after seeing Howard Dean pounced upon at a Democratic debate in 2004 for proposing an “even-handed” approach toward Israel and Palestine.  It’s interesting to see Foxman mocked from the other direction, though I doubt the extent to which it will make the word more palatable in discussions re: Israel-Palestine.

January 23, 2009 - Posted by | Middle East | , , , ,

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