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The Forgotten Diplomat Who Helped Lay the Groundwork for Israel’s Special Relationship with the U.S.

Feb. 22 2018

James G. McDonald came to the fledgling state of Israel in August 1948 as President Truman’s “special representative”; the next year, after official diplomatic relations were established, he became the first American ambassador to the Jewish state. Known to be sympathetic with Zionism even before his appointment, McDonald often communicated directly with Truman, bypassing the significantly less sympathetic bureaucrats of the State Department. Benny Morris reviews the recently published fourth volume of McDonald’s diaries, which deals with his interval in Israel:

Among the visitors [McDonald received] was Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born journalist and novelist, who had already lived in and reported from Palestine in the late 1920s and again in 1945. . . . McDonald characterized the meeting as “delightful and civilized.” Koestler avowed that his “chief interest in this country is its intellectual future,” by which he meant its cultural-ideological-political evolution, [about which he was less than optimistic]. . . . In his quiet way, McDonald sprang to the defense, arguing that Israel was “a pioneer country in which it was natural for a generation or two or three [that] the emphasis would be on material development and perhaps rather crude nationalism rather than on culture.” This had been the case with “pioneer America and pioneer South Africa.” Koestler “seemed inclined to agree.” Somewhat contradictorily, McDonald then added that Israel was sui generis, and that all comparisons were unreasonable. . . .

McDonald spent much of his two and a half years in the country meeting and entertaining people. But most of his time was devoted to matters of state and diplomacy—and this fascinating volume provides a wealth of information and insights about the forging of the American-Israeli “special relationship” and the foreign-policy deliberations inside the Truman administration about the Middle East. It also abounds with data and insights about young Israel’s (dour) relationship with the UN and its agencies and the failed secret peace talks between Israel and Jordan, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Egypt, facilitated in part by the United States. . . .

McDonald was born in Ohio to parents who managed small hotels. After a brief academic career and working for a foreign-relations nonprofit, he was appointed the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees from Germany, where he helped Jews attempting to flee Nazism. In 1945 and 1946, he served on the Anglo-American Committee on Palestine. . . . His [subsequent] years in Tel Aviv were marked by continuous military, political, and diplomatic crises. “There is never a dull moment in Israel,” he noted in December 1949. “Moreover, the Jewish people in proportion to their numbers cause more stir in the world than any other folk.”

Read more at Commentary

More about: Arthur Koestler, Harry Truman, History & Ideas, Israeli history, U.S. Foreign policy, US-Israel relations

The Future of a Free Iran May Lie with a Restoration of the Shah

June 25 2018

Examining the recent waves of protest and political unrest in the Islamic Republic—from women shunning the hijab to truckers going out on strike—Sohrab Ahmari considers what would happen in the event of an actual collapse of the regime. Through an analysis of Iranian history, he concludes that the country would best be served by placing Reza Pahlavi, the son and heir of its last shah, at the head of a constitutional monarchy:

The end of Islamist rule in Iran would be a world-historical event and an unalloyed good for the country and its neighbors, marking a return to normalcy four decades after the Ayatollah Khomeini founded his regime. . . . But what exactly is that normalcy? . . .

First, Iranian political culture demands a living source of authority to embody the will of the nation and stand above a fractious and ethnically heterogenous society. Put another way, Iranians need a “shah” of some sort. They have never lived collectively without one, and their political imagination has always been directed toward a throne. The constitutionalist experiment of the early 20th century coexisted (badly) with monarchic authority, and the current Islamic Republic has a supreme leader—which is to say, a shah by another name. It is the height of utopianism to imagine that a 2,500-year-old tradition can be wiped away. The presence of a shah, [however], needn’t mean the absence of rule of law, deliberative politics, or any of the other elements of ordered liberty that the West cherishes in its own systems. . . .

Second, Iranian political culture demands a source of continuity with Persian history. The anxieties associated with modernity and centuries of historical discontinuity drove Iranians into the arms of Khomeini and his bearded minions, who promised a connection to Shiite tradition. Khomeinism turned out to be a bloody failure, but there is scant reason to imagine the thirst for continuity has been quenched. . . . Iranian nationalism . . . could be the answer, and, to judge by the nationalist tone of the current upheaval, it is the one the people have already hit upon.

When protestors chant “We Will Die to Get Iran Back,” “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran,” and “Let Syria Be, Do Something for Me,” they are expressing a positive vision of Iranian nationhood: no longer do they wish to pay the price for the regime’s Shiite hegemonic ambitions. Iranian blood should be spilled for Iran, not Gaza, which for most Iranians is little more than a geographical abstraction. It is precisely its nationalist dimension that makes the current revolt the most potent the mullahs have yet faced. Nationalism, after all, is a much stronger force and in Iran the longing for historical continuity runs much deeper than liberal-democratic aspiration. Westerners who wish to see a replay of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 in today’s Iran will find the lessons of Iranian history hard and distasteful, but Iranians and their friends who wish to see past the Islamic Republic must pay heed.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Iran, Nationalism, Politics & Current Affairs, Shah