Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S5. EPISODE 4
Featuring Ian Bremmer
Will there be peace in the Middle East, or will the current conflict escalate? How can we understand the situation with moral nuance? And how do we parse information in the “fog of war”? On today’s episode, we talk with Ian Bremmer, foreign affairs analyst and president and founder of Eurasia Group, to examine the complicated crisis of Israel-Palestine.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and joined as always by my co-host, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast where we look at what is going on in the world, often from an eye and a perspective of yes, what could go right. But we’re in the middle of a week and weeks where what’s going on in the Middle East and what’s going on between Israel and Hamas and the Palestinians is clearly a glaring example of what can go wrong and what is going wrong.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today we’re going to talk to Ian Bremmer. He’s a political scientist who helps business leaders, policymakers, and the general public, for us here listening to the podcast, make sense of the world around them. He’s the president and founder of Eurasia Group, which is a political risk research and consulting firm, and also of GZERO Media, which is a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. They have a great number of newsletters and sometimes they even make videos with puppets. So check them out if you’re interested.
ZK: And just full disclosure, I’m old friends with Ian. I’m also the chair of the Eurasia Group Foundation Board, which is now called the Institute for Global Affairs at the Eurasia Group, so we have a long connection, but that’s neither here nor there for this particular conversation. So let’s talk to Ian.
EV: Let’s do it.
ZK: Ian, it’s a pleasure to have you on. I’m not sure it’s a pleasure to talk about what we’re talking about, but it is still good to have the conversation with you. There are a few people in the western world these days who are better placed to have difficult conversations about tragic things happening geopolitically and certainly what’s going on in the Middle East now. We’re having this conversation about a week before you are all now listening to this conversation. So unfortunately, things could have changed in all sorts of ways given how fast moving this particular situation is, but we will do our best to at least talk about those parts of it that are not gonna change in a week. Meaning this is a struggle, war, conflict in the Middle East that has been many, many decades in the making and is not going to dissipate in a week, regardless of how bad or good things get in the short term.
Ian Bremmer (IB): That seems a pretty fair assumption. Yeah.
ZK: Yeah. It’s funny, when I was growing up, and you know this ’cause you and I have been friends a long time.
IB: Friends for almost 30 years.
ZK: During which the situation in the Middle East has remained as unresolved as it is today. And one of the reasons I didn’t become a Middle East scholar 30 years ago was because I didn’t wanna spend the next 30 years arguing and debating in a really heated, emotional way about a conflict that did not appear that it was gonna be resolved at any time in my lifetime.
IB: That was a good call, by the way.
ZK: It was a good call, but I wish it hadn’t been. And look, I probably would’ve said the same thing about apartheid in South Africa, and that obviously— whatever the current issues in South Africa, I think it’s a better set of issues than apartheid, and that changed in ways that were positive. So I’m not suggesting—
IB: So did you just generally presume that things can’t get fixed? Is that your [inaudible]?
ZK: I presumed that that thing couldn’t get fixed in my lifetime.
IB: For two, you were one for two, but both of those, you’re taking the under is what I’m saying.
ZK: Clearly, but this one-
ZK: -has been— we used to joke growing up, like I’ll get to it when there’s peace in the Middle East.
IB: Oh, yeah.
ZK: So I guess the first question I have for you is, let’s just talk about the regional part. There’s been a lot of talk of the Israel-Gaza, Israel-Hamas will spin into a “regional war”, and I’m not sure a lot of people have given much thought to what that even means given that, unlike in the 1970s where there were actually a series of states with armies, including Israel, that were neighbors where you could fight an actual war, like troops, infantry, planes. Is a regional war the way people talk about it even actually a possibility given that it’s not like Iran can get troops to Israel?
IB: I guess it’s a possibility in the sense that the obvious major knock on escalation is the northern front opens with Hezbollah fighting against Israel directly. And Hezbollah’s vastly more militarily capable than Hamas. They are much more coordinated, closely coordinated with Iran. And that fighting can lead to proxy fighting that is Iranian-supported across the region to which the Israelis might decide to take a shot or two or three at the Iranians directly. If you wanted to look for a path of how you would get regional war escalation, that is the most likely.
I happen to believe right now that the likelihood of Iran getting involved directly in the war, directly in the war, is very low, is very low. I saw the Iranians just called for a worldwide Muslim boycott of oil against Israel, which is stupid and useless. Number one, most other countries won’t support it. It’s not like Iran has a whole bunch of close friends among the major OPEC producers. Number two, the Israelis get all of 200,000 barrels a day from export, from import, in other words, from other countries. And number three, the Israelis would easily be able to make that up from any of a number of other producers without bearing significant cost.
And so, like so many things, when people are taking Iranian sort of statements at face value, and the Iranians are making big statements, genocide against the Zionist regime, that is not a useful— it’s not a statement to be taken at face value. It’s a disgusting statement, it’s a despicable statement, but it doesn’t mean anything in terms of Iran’s likelihood of getting into the war. If you took them at face value, you’d think they’d already be doing it, right? The fact is, if Hezbollah wanted to take these guys out, if they wanted to get involved in the war, the right time to do it was gonna be right at the beginning when the Israelis were unexpected this conflict and when they hadn’t yet defended the border. They’ve now put huge numbers of additional security measures in place to prevent exactly that. They are now ready in a way that they weren’t ready when Hamas came in.
So I think it’s quite unlikely, but I think the much greater trajectory of escalation, which is one that will play out over years, is the far greater radicalization of the Palestinian population writ large and the Arab street more broadly. You cannot have the kind of carnage that we have already seen and will see on the ground in Gaza and not expect this to radicalize massively more people.
I am deeply sympathetic when the Israelis say “We will destroy Hamas.” And I don’t think that’s just Netanyahu. I think that is across the board of the Israeli political spectrum. This is a terrorist organization. They have every right to want them dead. What I do not understand is how do you kill 40,000 Hamas fighters in urban settings in Gaza without radicalizing to take up arms 120,000 more. I don’t know how you do that. I don’t think the Israelis know how you do it. I understand the emotional desire to kill these people, I get that. I understand the desire for vengeance, but if you assume that the Israelis are rational, and I do, and that long-term what they want is a safe place to raise their families and to create opportunities for themselves, then I don’t understand how destroying Hamas and a ground operation and a long-term occupation will serve Israel’s interest. I don’t understand.
EV: Meaning that they’ve stepped into the trap that Hamas laid, the prevailing narrative being that they wanted to trigger a massive Israeli overreaction, and we’ve now stepped into the worst-case scenario of that response.
IB: The great thing about the Middle East is it can always get worse, so I don’t think this is the worst-case scenario. But I mean, I do believe as an American that was living in New York on 9/11 and saw the second tower go down, that the United States massively overreacted after 9/11 domestically in taking rights away from Americans and particularly Muslim Americans and internationally in wars that we should not have fought in Iraq or in Afghanistan more broadly as opposed to Al-Qaeda more specifically. And the costs of that in terms of American credibility and influence around the world will be felt generationally.
And I’d like to believe that the Israelis would take some lessons from America’s post-9/11 failures. And I would say that so far, in the first two weeks of this conflict, it appears to me that Prime Minister Netanyahu is bent on repeating every mistake that the Americans have made and repeating those mistakes. At least the United States made most of those mistakes thousands and thousands of miles away, right? If you’re gonna make a huge mistake geopolitically, preferably do it to someone else way over there, right? That is not what Netanyahu is doing. And if you engage in an invasion in Gaza, if you have a long-term occupation in Gaza, and Biden has been warning Netanyahu privately not to do this, that, as Colin Powell once said, you break it, you own it.
ZK: It’s interesting, as we have this conversation, significant Israeli ground operations have not begun in Gaza.
ZK: Again, a week from now, at the moment you’re listening to this, that could have changed. But what will not have changed is that the immediate rush to rush in clearly was checked. Now it was either checked by the Israeli military, the IDF, saying, we’re actually not prepared to do this, whatever plans we might have had on paper we’re literally not between positioning of troops. But there’s also clearly a degree of recognition, even if it’s sotto voce and behind the scenes, of what you’re saying, that simply going in without a plan is not a wise move even tactically, whether it’s-
ZK: -stupid or not strategically. And bombing is easy, easy in the sense of it is something anybody with an Air Force can do. And certainly one of the mistakes of bombing has been it has yet to be demonstrated that an aggressive use of air power is sufficiently coercive of any political reality.
IB: But it gets you a lot of those negative consequences we were just talking about. Yeah.
ZK: So I don’t know whether I’m heartened or disheartened by all of that. Let me ask you and push you on the radicalization point, which is, we began this with, it is actually true that the Middle East writ large has become a much more stable place-
ZK: -over the past decades. And this particular area of the Middle East has not. It has looked stable, right? Sort of the long false peace of 16 years after Israel withdrew from Gaza and also the mass of settlements in the West Bank. I kind of wonder how much is actually radicalizing in Egypt or in Saudi or in any of these other places.
IB: I certainly feel that in a country like the UAE or Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, normalization of relations with Israel is not that hard because these countries are strongly authoritarian. They do not allow that kind of expression for any reason. And further, that economically, they’re actually producing for their citizens, socially, they’re producing for their citizens. I mean, much more important for a Saudi woman to be able to drive, get an education, get a job than it is for her to be in fealty with the Palestinians being treated well. And the fact that these deals were struck, or were about to be struck in the case of Saudi Arabia, while you had the Palestinian situation only getting worse, much worse, tells you an awful lot there.
So I think that the relationship between Israel and the Gulf states is relatively stable, despite them coming out fast and blaming the Israelis for the attack on the hospital, which was clearly premature and potentially very wrongheaded. But I’m not worried that those relationships are gonna suddenly break. In terms of broader, more militant sentiment among Shia populations, again, if Hezbollah gets involved, I think you’ll see that expand, and I think you’ll see that in Syria, I think you’ll see that in Iraq, I think you’ll see that more broadly.
Now, when you’re talking about the broad Middle East, you weren’t necessarily talking about the Shia populations, maybe you’re talking more about like where Egypt’s gonna be, where Jordan’s gonna be, but that’s still relevant. Then when you talk about Egypt and Jordan, you’re talking about a population with a massive Palestinian refugee sentiment. That’s also true on the ground in Syria, and it could be true in short order in Egypt. So if you talk about those countries, you are gonna get radicalization of the Arab street just because the Palestinians that are there are gonna be so incredibly pissed. If you’re asking me do I think you’re gonna see another Arab Spring in Tunisia? No, I don’t see that. But I do think that generally speaking, orientation of awful lots of people that matter towards Israel on the ground is gonna get a lot worse. And that the Palestinians, they are a throughway for that to be expressed.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
So, I mean, Israel is catching so much heat right now for a lot of different reasons, one of them being that obviously, Palestinians don’t have anywhere to go. Egypt being the other actor in that as you’re referencing just now. You seem to imply that you think that Egypt may open the border there. You think so? You think other Arab states will let in Palestinian refugees, or is that just something that despite maybe some public sentiment being pro-Palestine, they just don’t wanna deal with?
IB: So it’s interesting. So my understanding from the Egyptians is that their whisper number of what they would be willing to accept is up to 100,000 refugees. And if that’s what they’re saying, to me, that implies that it’s probably higher than that if they actually get a lot of money in support from the US, from the Gulf states. Having said that, the UN Secretary General told me he was skeptical, that he didn’t think the Egyptians were gonna take. And so far, he’s been proved right, and that’s also been true with Jordan. Again, Jordan already has a couple million. So I don’t know.
What I will tell you is the United States taxpayer pays a lot of money to the Egyptians for them not to open their border for humanitarian aid, for them not to take any refugees, and for them not to meet with President Biden when he makes a trip out to the region. That is unacceptable in my view, plainly unacceptable. And this is already a country that jails lots of journalists, has massive human rights challenges. This is already a country the Americans should have some trepidation about being so close to. And now the United States has something urgent happening in the region. The Egyptians like no, no, no, no, no, not acceptable not remotely acceptable. And, and I think they need to be hearing it from the US in a much more direct way in short order. I expect that by the time this podcast airs, that will have happened.
Audio Clip: Second convoy of trucks loaded with humanitarian aids crossed into Gaza from Egypt as the leaders of Israel and the United States promise a continued flow of desperately needed supplies. 14 aid trucks crossed the Rafah border from Egypt into Gaza on Sunday night, according to the United Nations. The day before, a convoy carrying medicines and food were allowed in for the first time since Israel tightened its blockade of the territory more than two weeks ago.
ZK: That at least seems likely to have changed by the time people are listening to this conversation, at least for humanitarian aid.
IB: But I would’ve told you it would’ve changed by now and it hasn’t.
ZK: But if you were Sisi in Egypt, wouldn’t you be having a much more cynical view of all this, which is, I have something the Americans currently need, how much are they willing to pay me to get it?
IB: Yeah. And if I were the Americans, I would tell them, we have been paying you a lot for a long time, and if you are going to view this as transactionally, so will we, my friend.
IB: I mean, their economy is not doing well right now. Of all the things out there, that is the one that has annoyed me the most.
ZK: Let me ask a bigger picture question, which I know you have thoughts about, and that is this particular conflict for a while with the Middle East in general and the Arab-Israeli conflict, and now it’s much more particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, although Hezbollah, we can add an asterisk into that as well, has a way of attracting a level of heat and emotion globally that is clearly disproportionate to either size or scope. I guess I wonder what your feelings are about that in real time where it’s not just the Israelis and the Palestinians and some of the Arab states. It’s UN representatives using incredibly hyperbolic language of like, this is the abyss, we are near the end. This is a catastrophe unfolding. It’s other countries doing the same. It’s the French wanting to ban all Palestinian protests in France. Whereas when the Sri Lankan army goes in and bombards 40,000 Tamil civilians in order to eradicate the Tamil Tigers or when Abiy in Ethiopia pursues a civil war with whatever Eritrean faction, these are equally humanitarian disasters, right? There’s massive loss of life, kids are getting killed.
ZK: It doesn’t seem like the same global agita attains to it, even in areas that are strategically important.
IB: Look, I mean, it’s the first thing that’s taken Ukraine off of the headlines. I haven’t been asked about Ukraine in two weeks, including on this podcast, and I have consistently for 20 months. By every measure, the Ukraine war actually matters more. By the way, it clearly matters more to the poorest people in the world, right? Clearly matters more becoming people say, oh, Ukraine’s white people. That’s why you care about it. If you’re Africa, the impact the Ukraine war has had on you because of food and fertilizer is bigger than any other conflict out there, not even close. So they should be really, really concerned about that, not the Israel-Palestinian issue. Unless Iran is involved in Israel-Palestine, the economic implications for the United States are de minimis, and that’s also true for Europe.
Clearly, part of it is the Holocaust, the fact that this is the worst violence against Jews that we’ve seen anywhere in the world since the Holocaust, after a lot of us have ignored the Palestinian issue for a long time. That’s a really big deal. That’s a really big deal. We’re kind of asleep at the switch. We kind of [inaudible] that we could pivot away from the Middle East and it would be fine. And well, what we saw on October 7th is not fine. It’s not fine.
Now, of course, the Israelis took their eye off the ball more than anyone else, and in that, I particularly focus on the person of Netanyahu who should not be running that country. And 86% of Israelis blame him for these attacks because one thing that you have to say is if you’re going to bottle up the Palestinians, if you’re going to ignore them, if you’re gonna steal their land, in the case of the illegal settlements they kept building, if you’re going to basically run the place into the ground, then you better focus on your border security. You better focus on intelligence. You do not suddenly say, I’m gonna focus on my corruption cases and it’s all judicial reform, and I don’t need to care about that anymore. And Netanyahu is, he was asleep at the switch. He’s accountable, he’s responsible, and he should pay the price for that.
And the other thing that kind of amuses me in all of this, and I give Biden credit for this, by the way, is Biden has now had these two massive foreign policy crises on his watch. Trump had none. Biden’s had two. And in both cases, Biden has needed to work in a very public and strong way to show clear unabiding support for two leaders that he really personally dislikes and mistrusts, Zelenskyy in Ukraine and Netanyahu in Israel. And in both cases, he’s done it well. He’s done that well. I would have a harder time doing that than Biden has had. And look, I mean, he’s been around the block a long time. He’s old, we all know. We think he’s too old, but this is something he is actually been good at.
EV: So from a de-escalation perspective, or I guess from a strategical perspective from the US, Biden is doing what we would like him to be doing.
IB: Biden, in terms of showing that Israel is the most important ally of the United States at this time, the decision to send two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Eastern Med, send Tony Blinken on a 15-stop and counting shuttle diplomacy across the region, and then Biden going to Israel and wanting to also go to Jordan and meet with those sets of leaders. In my view, those are exactly the right things to do. His pushing of the Israelis on the humanitarian support I think could have been earlier and a little more public, especially in terms of the initial siege that the Israelis illegally placed on all of Gaza. I would’ve been more public about that. If I were Blinken, I would’ve been more public about that. I already told you that I would’ve been pressing the Egyptians a lot harder than they have done in the first couple weeks. Biden also misspoke when he was asked about the hospital bombings when he said, it looks like it was the other team. That’s a little bit of the quiet part out loud.
Now, look, I mean, nobody wants to be on team Hamas, that’s a team of terrorists, but when he says other team, you can see how many people, including in the region would say, oh, you’re on Team Israel.
IB: The other team are the Palestinians. And that is not a position that the American president should be in. So I thought that was a mistake, but I guess I probably give him a B+, A- so far. But I’m doing that within the context of a crisis where American influence so far is at the margins. That can change, hopefully it will, but so far, what we are seeing is a path to escalation.
ZK: I might give him a lower grade than that, if only because one of the optics that came out of the meeting in Israel was a literal embrace of Netanyahu, a hug.
IB: Yeah. I don’t see how you don’t do that with the leader of America’s top ally in the region.
ZK: I agree. It’s hard not to, but then that raises whole question of the trip that was initially planned would’ve had [inaudible], Jordan. It would’ve been an Arab Summit as well, and that would’ve been great, meaning that would’ve been exactly what you would’ve wanted, and it’s troops. But when they pull out, it was probably a no-win situation.
IB: I think it was a no-win situation. I think you have to still make the trip, but it’s a no-win situation. I guess I just don’t blame Biden for the fact that the timing blew up in his face.
IB: You know, I mean, this attack on this hospital was unspeakable, irrespective of who is eventually found to be behind it and the disinformation amount— and by the way, the most important blame for this in terms of the coverage and the response is the American media. The New York Times ran on its front page, top cover, that this was an Israeli bomb.
ZK: That killed 500 people.
IB: And they got that information from Hamas. What the hell is that?
IB: Then you see Reuters and AP and everybody else running with that story. And so then the Saudis and the Jordanians and the Egyptians are running with that story, and it’s easy. New York Times then changed their headline. No consequences for them, but now you’ve got leaders from the region that have already blamed Israel and the bar for them to change is actually a lot higher, a lot more consequential. And this is just, it is unacceptable. And you probably saw, I went hard after Rashida Tlaib, who immediately blamed Israel. She’s a representative of the US government, and in the absence of any fact or evidence, she decides she’s gonna blame the side she doesn’t like. You do that writ large, that’s the end of democracy. It just does not work.
And look, this is the one conflict that we’ve had that I’ve gotten a whole bunch of death threats. So I get it. There are people out there that are really angry, that are serious, serious pro-Israel, serious, serious pro-Palestine. And the fact that I am actually raising more questions than I’m answering is not acceptable to those people.
ZK: And look, even in the hospital bombing, the one thing that maybe most likely in this is also the least palatable from a emotionally heated perspective, which is anyone who’s followed this conflict for a while knows that a significant number, not a majority, but a substantial percentage of missiles that either Islamic Jihad or Hamas has tended to go awry.
IB: They have. Yeah.
ZK: Meaning, the alternative is not that this was purposely done by Hamas and Jihad, it’s that it was a complete cockup, which doesn’t play well in a heated moment. Like, oh my god, we literally blew it. And I think that this is just not an easy part of the mix in these heated moments.
IB: I think people need to understand that there’s a bank shot on both of these narratives, right? I mean, look, lots and lots of Palestinians are gonna die, Palestinian civilians, and they’re gonna die because Israel is engaged in a military campaign in Gaza. That is the reality. But then there’s the second order reality that we need to understand, which is that Hamas is taking assertive actions to put those civilians at risk through bombs that don’t work but they’ll set them off anyway, through misinformation on sort of campaigns on they’re about to bomb, no, they’re not, you stay where you are, on putting your military equipment and your leadership right where the civilians are. You cannot say that the Israelis are bombing the Palestinians, and they’re the ones that are wholly responsible. You have to hold Hamas complicit.
Then you have the other bank shot, which is Hamas engages in terrorist attacks against Israel, which is completely unacceptable, and they must be condemned, and that’s absolutely right. But the reality is that Israel has refused to deal with the situation of basic human rights for Palestinians, especially in Gaza for decades now. They’ve been ignoring it. And that’s led to greater radicalization. And it’s not like the Palestinians have the weapons that would allow them to fight against the IDF. They don’t. So, yes, Hamas targets civilians, but the alternative to targeting civilians is surrender. And so there’s a bank shot there. When you’re involved in both of these second order meta conversations about Israel, in fact, nobody wants to have those conversations. We want a hero and we want a villain. And it’s very easy for me to say, Hamas is the villain because terrorists are villains, and I think Hamas should be destroyed. I believe that. I want them gone the same way I wanted Al-Qaeda gone. But that’s not the whole story. It’s not even close to the whole story. It might not even be 10% of the whole story.
EV: What’s your advice for just normal consumers of the news and social media who are navigating a context right now that most people are not deeply embedded in? There’s massive amount of disinformation and misinformation, as you said, and even major media organizations making enormous mistakes. What’s a normal person to do in this situation?
IB: Well, number one, if you are following accounts, social media accounts that are only presenting the victories of one side, the suffering of one side of this conflict, stop following them. Just stop. Just don’t do it. Those are not people to be trusted. Those are propagandists, right? They’re worse than partisans in this environment because all they’re doing is promoting disinformation. So just get rid of those accounts. They will drive you crazy and they will make you tribal. And this is not an environment for that. And second is spend less time on social media. Spend more time talking with and engaging with actual people. You really wanna spend three hours watching cable? Go to a town hall, go to a talk, listen to some people. I mean, you can definitely find— and if you’re in an urban center and you’re watching this, I live in New York, it’s so rich, and most places have environments where you can do that, that’s just such a much more interesting, engaging and human way to talk about this sort of conflict than to get your news from Fox or CNN or from talk radio or the blogosphere, or God forbid, Twitter, which is truly a disaster. Those would be the easiest things that I would say.
A lot of people ask me why I haven’t left Twitter, given all of the misinformation. And my point on that, and given that’s where all the death threats are, and my view is if I leave, they win. It’s precisely because it’s so toxic that you just desperately need to have a well-known few voices that are not that. So also, one other thing is just, and this is a kind of a simple thing, it’s a holistic thing, is breathe. I take my work very, very seriously. I don’t take myself super seriously. If some rando writes that I should die, or I’m a mental midget, or I’m a hypocrite, or whatever it is, who cares? That’s fine. It doesn’t bother me. And I think a lot of people, particularly a lot of men, take their public persona very, very seriously. Those feel a little chicken soup-like in terms of recommendations, but people forget that Jews and Palestinians are the same people. They grew up in the same homes, same place, same culture, and they all came from the same place. They’ve been thrown out at various times, various different times with different people. These are the same people, right? So, I mean, the idea that they hate each other that much, they have to be family to hate each other that much, right?
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: Now, look, those are— I mean, the chicken soup parts of breathe and try to— those are absolutely vital. Doesn’t matter whether they are not adequately inserted into all these debates and dialogues, but they’re absolutely vital as a way of not descending into the morass of the moment.
I do wanna talk about Ukraine for a moment because there too, you have two confluences that are completely unrelated, but are combining to push Ukraine off of the imperative top of the agenda in the United States. One is the dysfunctionality in the US Congress, which presumably will have been resolved in some fashion by the time this airs, whether it’s a temporary speaker or not.
ZK: But it means that Ukraine aid has been completely in limbo. And the current Republican party in the United States is deeply divided about whether or not to continue the same levels of aid going forward. And that preceded October 7th. The Republicans in Congress are probably more united about limited amounts of aid to Israel. Although I think there too, it would depend on how much they’re optically committed to the US-Israeli alliance. But I think if it were to become more than just several hundred million dollars of aid, you’d have similar pushback there.
But as you say, the repercussions of Ukraine descending even further into chaos or redounding to Russia’s benefit, we’re already seeing the incredibly negative effects, as you said, in terms of African crop yields because of fertilizer shortages, let alone rising grain and commodity prices for a lot of the world that can ill afford it, and a lot of that’s because Russia has sort of pulled out of whatever interim deal there was to allow for grain corridors and shipments. So again, what do you do about that issue being— I mean, do you think that this is like a blip and that two weeks from now there will be more attention? Or do you fear this is an actual, like Ukraine has now dropped off?
IB: I think that there was already a transition on Ukraine before this explosion. So the timing, I mean— these are two good weeks for Putin. And by the way, I don’t know if you noticed that Zelenskyy, a Jew, immediately denounced Hamas and said he wanted to go to Israel to see Netanyahu in solidarity. Netanyahu said, no, it wasn’t the right time, and then took a call from Putin a few hours later. And I haven’t gotten a readout yet, but I hope that Biden was sharp with Netanyahu on that ’cause that’s unacceptable. And the Israel did not join with the United States on sanctions on Russia, and the Israel provide military support to the Ukrainians. Again, Netanyahu is very far from Biden’s favorite, but the US has a lot of leverage on Israel right now, and some of that needs to be used.
A majority of Americans voting Republican now do not support significant further aid for Ukraine. And that has not yet translated into a majority of the members of the house and the GOP, but you’ve got a solid hundred members that wanna stop that. So you’d still get it through on a vote, but you need to have someone calling that vote. And McCarthy lost his speakership unprecedentedly in part because of his position on that. I think it is pretty clear that we have passed peak US support for Ukraine. Now, I mean, how fast that drops off will depend on many factors, some of which will be the nature of the fight in the Middle East, some of which will be Trump’s securing the nomination on the Republican side, some of which will be the result of the 2024 election. But either way, if you’re Ukraine, you have to now recognize that you are likely fighting a more defensive war going forward and will not have the capacity to engage in significant further counteroffensives in the coming year.
Now, what that means, even with more advanced weapon systems that will allow you to strike more deeply into Russian territory and into occupied Ukrainian territory, what that means is the 18% of Ukraine that Russia probably presently now occupies is gonna be, very, very hard, if not impossible for the Ukrainians to capture back. No one is gonna find a partition of Ukraine acceptable, right? It’s unacceptable to the US, unacceptable to NATO. It’s certainly unacceptable to Ukraine. But as you know, the US history, recent history is littered with things that are unacceptable that we manage to live with. North Korea, it’s unacceptable for them to have nuclear weapons, unacceptable for Syria to be governed by Assad. It’s unacceptable for the Taliban to run Afghanistan and on and on and on. And I fear that Ukraine is going to be added to that list. That is where I now am.
ZK: Well, thank you for your time today. Clearly, this is a fluid situation and unfortunately, it’s one that we’re going to be paying attention to for the foreseeable future, probably one that we should have been paying more attention to. We collectively, we internationally, whatever the we is, should have been paying more attention to. It may have been just because after decades of obsessive attention, the world was sort of taking a breath and going, wow, isn’t it great that we don’t have to pay attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? But it turns out that that was a false hope and probably a ill-considered neglect of a situation that was clearly much more unsettled than it felt. Anyway, thanks for your comment today, Ian.
EV: Thank you so much, Ian.
IB: Yeah. Good to see both of you.
ZK: Well, that was hardly an uplifting conversation, nor was it really meant to be, but it’s something that Emma and I felt was important certainly given the attention today. And also to reinforce by doing what we’ve often been saying, which is in no way does a podcast called What Could Go Right? or The Progress Network exist in blissful disregard for things that are going wrong. And it’s incumbent upon all of us to try to grapple with what’s going wrong. The point is, how do you grapple with it and in what way do you look at it?
Ian, who has made a career in highlighting risks in the world, is also fascinating in that he remains a relatively optimistic person who does call things as he sees them, but is not animated by outrage, is not a name caller, meaning there’s a way of looking at what’s going wrong and trying to figure out both a diagnosis and prognosis that is more likely to be constructive in the future. And there are ways, at least in our point of view, that looking at things that are going wrong is more likely to lead to things going even worse.
And this was not meant to be, hey, let’s look on the bright side of the Israeli-Hamas conflict because there is no bright side of the Israeli-Hamas conflict. And to do so would be to fly in the face of everything that is evident. But to only look at that and to look at that as a totality of what human experience is or is the only thing that is going on is a mistake. And to allow it to maximize all of our bandwidth, the point of talking about Ukraine at the end is if this maximizes all of our bandwidth, also, if we have so little bandwidth that anything can be maximized by it, then we’re also gonna be creating unintended harms that are not necessary. There are still other things going on in the world that require a high level of attention and a functional Congress, but we can talk about that at another point.
EV: Ian is a very clearheaded thinker, and that’s in part because he has an insane amount of information at hands, and he has the experience to be able to parse that information, and that just leads generally to an ability to make strategic or tactical not decisions ’cause he’s not in decision making power, but if he were, that’s what they would be, right?
The issue that he pointed out earlier with Netanyahu, what we pointed to collectively but didn’t really dive into, I guess, is that Israel is reacting from an emotional place. And the question is whether Netanyahu as a leader would have been able to not react that way based on the way that people in Israel feel right now. And the larger question for me, which you were just speaking about, is how do we get people to that place where they are able to withstand just the enormity of what happened with Hamas, its incursion into Israel, and then look at that and say, what would be the long-term best outcome for this? That does not rely on a very heated reaction that in all likelihood, as Ian is pointing out, lead to worse outcomes down the road.
ZK: Yeah. And unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, that’s why it’s the heat of the moment because people aren’t taking that greater picture and are not taking the deep breath, literally forgetting to breathe and acting on instinct and reaction and emotion. All totally understandable, but rarely produce the outcomes that anyone actually wants, including the people who— whether it’s Israelis who want both revenge and justice and peace, but that doesn’t mean that that’s all gonna lead in that direction if you just act on all the emotion of the moment.
And again, we will see how this all plays out in the next weeks and months ahead. But when people use these cliches about levelheads prevailing or people assessing the situation in a more levelheaded way, or learning from the mistakes of other countries that have not, all that seems kind of impossible in the moment, but that doesn’t mean that some of that doesn’t happen or can’t happen. And it happens in part because people say, hey, wait a minute, this is actually a vital ingredient in making decisions, and recognizing that there are lots of longer term consequences that also need to be attended to, even if the short term seems clearer.
So we’re not gonna offer pablum easy words here of, oh, it’ll all be okay, or this too shall pass. We’re gonna be clear about this is a global crisis, a regional crisis that has led to absolutely horrific death of many people who are entirely innocent insofar as they have done nothing to bring upon themselves this terror. So that’s just the reality, but how we deal with that is still within our control and in our capacity, and we’re gonna keep trying to focus on that.
And even so, there are other things going on in the world that are actually creative and positive that still should be paid attention to. As difficult as it may be to hold those two truths and realities simultaneously in mind, juggling the angels and demons on one shoulder and the other, or the yin and the yang, the pro and the con, that’s one of the great human struggles, is being able to hold simultaneous antithetical realities in your heart and in your hands and in your head without imploding or without short circuiting on the basis of that. But we all have the capacity to do that, even in moments that are incredibly dark, or especially in moments that are incredibly dark.
EV: Yeah, making the argument for that in these moments is very difficult to do without coming off just sounding completely like a A-S-S. So it’s not a plea to say that this doesn’t matter or that it’s getting undue attention or that we don’t understand the absolute profound emotions. I mean, I’ve been covering this and I have to watch these videos and I’m upset all the time. And I’m not Israeli. I’m not Palestinian. Just a human being, right? That’s not what we’re asking for. What we’re asking for is space, space to deal with the world, unfortunately, as it is.
ZK: So we will be back next week with an interview and not on this topic, and we will keep paying attention to it and we welcome your comments, especially if some of you feel like we’ve been, I don’t know, insufficiently attentive to what’s going on or insufficiently tonally respectful. Again, please share your critiques, your sentiments, your thoughts. Also share if you think it’s something that’s been worthwhile and if these words and these interviews are helpful. All of the above is welcome and we will engage it. So on behalf of Emma and myself and The Progress Network, thanks for listening, and we’ll be back next week with another episode of What Could Go Right?
EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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