J’Accuse - J Michael Cole’s ‘Both Sides’ Rhetoric Is Dangerously Wrong
In his latest piece for Thinking Taiwan, J Michael Cole uses the example of Israel’s offensive against Gaza as a vehicle for arguing that Taiwan cannot rely on the US for its defence and it must maintain a credible deterrent to discourage Chinese adventurism, bullying, and a brutal occupation. Whilst his conclusion ends up in the right place, it is depiction of the situation in Gaza, and particularly his use of ‘both sides’ rhetoric that ultimately provides an argument that legitimises Chinese colonial occupation of Taiwan:
As I write this, as many as 775 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, have been slain by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the 17-day campaign in Gaza. The war, which has sparked international condemnation, has also resulted in the death of two Israeli civilians and 32 soldiers. As a fellow journalist and occasional contributor to Thinking Taiwan who is now covering the latest conflagration in the Middle East wrote a few days ago, the place is “hopeless.” Both sides, embittered by decades of pain, broken promises and hatred, seem condemned to eternal cycles of violence. Both sides have legitimate claims, and both are equally wrong. Both peoples, their welfare held hostage by politicians and the seemingly invincible forces of “history,” have a right to security, dignity, and to a state.
First of all, the wringing of hands of western commentators decrying the situation in Palestine as ‘hopeless’ is as much symptomatic of a refusal to confront the underlying causes of the conflict as it is an evasion of western responsibility for it, and Israel’s agency in producing and maintaining the conflict. When Cole claims that ‘both sides have legitimate claims, and both are equally wrong’ he is, intentionally or otherwise, legitimising Israel’s occupation and ultimately invalidating Palestinian resistance to that occupation. He is, as many commentators in international media have done over the last sixty years, building a legal equivalence that reifies Israel’s existence almost as if the events of 1945~1948 had never happened. Israel didn’t just appear in 1948 on empty land, it was a state built on a deliberate and planned campaign of terrorism and colonisation that had as its objective the ethnic cleansing of Palestine to make space for European Jewish settlers. As a result, terrorist groups such as Irgun and the Stern Gang drove between 700,000 to 1,000,000 Palestinians from their homes and into refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and further abroad. This ‘inconvenient truth’ about an ‘inconvenient people’ is never discussed in international media because if it was Israel would find it increasingly difficult for its narrative of victimhood to gain traction.
Furthermore, it would be clear that the concept of Israelis having a ‘right’ to a state in Palestine is legally unsupported and morally offensive, a truism underpinned by numerous UN resolutions on the illegality of Israeli occupation of Palestine. To support Israel’s right to exist is ultimately to legitimise and morally sanction colonisation, ethnic cleansing, and theft. My sense is that Cole does not intend to infer this but in seeking to find a ‘reasonable middle ground’ he joins countless other western ‘liberals’ in ultimately sanctioning Israeli aggression. For all his criticism of Israel and his correct identification of the the hold of religious extremists over both the Israeli State and US foreign policy in the Middle East, Cole still can’t bring himself to take his argument to the logical conclusion but instead draws back at the crucial moment, perhaps in a vain effort to avert accusations of anti-semitism:
Israel has an undeniable right to defend itself against aggression, terror attacks, and rocket launches, but in doing so it should never abandon the rules of proportionality.
This idea of Israel having an undeniable right to defend itself against attack but demanding that the state use proportionality is only logical if you ignore the actual policies of the Israeli state since its inception, and particularly since 1967 when it occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is Israel’s policy to control the West Bank either directly or by proxy, to be the most advanced, fearsome, and disproportional military force in the region, and to be ‘the mad dog’ of the area, so extreme in its use of military that no neighbouring nation would conceive of attacking it again, or supporting the Palestinians in direct military action against Israel. Israel’s clear actioned policy of deterrence is to be so aggressive and so disproportionate that it extinguishes both the hope of Palestinians for a cohesive and functional State of their own and any hope that international forces will intervene to push back against this occupation and ethnic cleansing. Israel doesn’t care about proportionality, it only cares about winning the propaganda war internationally, and when it doesn’t, as we have increasingly seen over the past weeks, it resorts to inverting all criticism against it to make it seem like it is the victim and Hamas and other groups are acting disproportionately and are guilty of war crimes.
Cole seems cognisant of the underlying power dynamics but his lack of understanding of the history and politics of the region ends with him ultimately giving Israel the narrative space to ‘keep calm and carry on’, in effect giving Israel an ‘out’ that ultimately only serves to maintain the ‘cycles of violence’. Cole says Israel has lost the moral high ground without realising that Israel never had the moral high ground to begin with. It also dangerously suggests that if Israel just stops shooting and bombing Palestinian civilians then it will regain its moral status - an argument which morally legitimises the brutal occupation of Palestine and all the crimes of humanity committed by the IDF on a weekly basis by Settlers and IDF in the West Bank - attacks that more often than not then precipitate rocket attacks from Hamas and bombs on buses and restaurants. Of course that sequence of events and line of responsibility is never discussed. Hamas, we are supposed to believe, just attacks Israel out of the blue because it hates Jews and wants to erase Israel off the map. Also not discussed is the fact that Israel has attacked Gaza continuously since elections there put Hamas into power. Gaza has been under an inhumane siege and Israel has used cutting off water and electricity to punish Gazans for the their democratic choices, a form of biological warfare that is also illegal under international law. All this absented in Cole’s ‘both sides’ rhetoric.
Cole’s article is not without its merits though. He correctly identifies the disproportionality of force and casualties in favour of the state of Israel and how Israeli aggression, in the best tradition of Orwell, is justified in the name of defence, but which has only bred one intifada after another and alienated more and more international allies. In a recent vote on whether the UN should conduct an investigation into human rights abuses and war crimes by the IDF, only the US voted explicitly against it, illustrating the immorality of Obama’s ‘liberal’ administration when it comes to foreign affairs.
Cole’s conclusion is similarly well meaning and logically sensible but it ends with a lament that give the reader a feeling that he has resigned himself to Gaza and Beirut as unredeemable basketcases, an incredibly patronising and cold hearted conclusion that ignores the fact of millions of people still living in these places and with no-where else to go:
Rather than test that theory, Taiwan would have every advantage in making sure that China is not tempted into using force against it. In other words, it cannot afford to show the same kind of weakness that makes it possible for bullies like China and Russia — and to some extent Israel — to feel that they can engage in aggression with impunity. The key therefore lies in a military that would promise a prohibitive cost to Chinese adventurism in the Taiwan Strait.
Better, therefore, to prepare for the worse and to make sure that Taipei doesn’t become the next Gaza, or Beirut.
I am left here asking whether Cole would regard those countries supplying rockets to Hamas and Palestinians groups as terrorist enabling or helping build “a military that would promise a prohibitive cost to” Israeli adventurism? Are Hamas rockets and bombs fired as part of a prohibitive cost which Israel, in its disproportionality, doesn’t actually regard as much of a cost, or are they just evidence of the violence of ‘both sides’?
Whilst I agree that Taiwan cannot afford to show weakness, and here we can justifiably accuse President Ma of deliberately weakening Taiwan’s military as a way to coerce Taiwanese into a fait accompli, Cole perhaps fails to see that whether Taiwan has the capacity to defend itself is largely up to the US even though it could seek defensive weapons from a range of other countries (and perhaps risk the ire of the US it’s true - arms is big business for Washington). The US will decide who is empowered and who is not, as can be plainly seen from the case of Palestine. In addition, why is it that Cole firmly identifies China and Russia as bullies but modifies his statement when it comes to Israel? Again, Cole draws his punches and we are left with the impression of a man struggling to find a balance between criticising Israel but not doing so in a manner that would leave him open to charges of extreme prejudice, whilst at the same time shoehorning in an untimely comparison with an altogether different situation thousands of miles away.
If this is the case, Cole is making a simple mistake in that he assumes there is any ‘middle ground’ left in the polarised debate about Palestine and Israel. I can assure him now that his piece will be vociferously attacked by pro-Israel lobbyists, bloggers, and propagandists, many of whom of US origin are also pro-Taiwan and will balk at his comparison of the two. Strategically, his piece is a disaster of an attempted appeal to humanity which will be roundly rejected by the realpolitik hawks in Washington and Ottawa, many of whom, guided by the school of brutal and treacherous Realism, are probably calculating the cost of giving up Taiwan at the same time as they are lobbying for a harsher policy towards China. There is also a naievty here:
By no means should this constitute an arms race or an escalation of tensions with Beijing; in fact, dialogue and the normalization of relations remains the preferred course of action by far.
Cole should know better than most that for Beijing, even so much as a rifle round being sold to Taiwan is a provocation and an escalation of tensions, which China will then use to threaten the end of the normalisation of relations and dialogue. A rifle round sold to a DPP Government is even more provocative, engendering talk in Zhongnanhai of triggering the Anti-succession Act and outright conflict. Selling arms to a country which another country wants to annex by military force and which has been building its arms up for that express purpose is an arms race, regardless of how uncomfortable that might make one feel. I understand the need to be diplomatic so as to not needlessly empower hawks in Beijing but at the same time there is also a need and a time for clarity: Taiwan needs a deterrence and, short of letting it build nuclear weapons, that deterrence needs to be comprised of conventional and unconventional arms, and lots of them. When it comes to bullies, their chief priority is to maintain their power asymmetry and to cast any effort at self-defence on the part of their victim as an affront, insult, and provocation. A victim that tries to placate their bully by saying “we’re not threatening you’ whilst trying to defend itself paints itself, in the bully’s eye, as even more of a threat, requiring a greater effort to squash and disempower the victim. You cannot negotiate with bullies by suing for peace.
Finally, it is where Cole uses the example of the Palestinians as comparable to Taiwanese that he enters dangerous territory. In theory, the ‘both sides’ argument could, and has, been used to legitimise the crimes of Chiang kai-shek against Taiwanese during the 2-28 massacre and afterwards during the White Terror Period. Still today you can find ROC loyalists who argue, as did my Politics professor at NCCU in a typically ambiguous way, that those who opposed the ROC’s occupation of Taiwan at the time were communist insurgents, rioters, Japanese sympathisers, and gangsters looking for personal power and profit. The disingenuous and aggression-facilitating ‘both sides’ argument could also be used to draw a false equivalence between ROC loyalists supporting President Ma’s agenda of gradual unification with the PRC (less that 10%) and Taiwanese who want to retain de facto independence (over 70%). A ‘both sides argument’ would miss the well researched fact that only a small percentage of people in Taiwan identify themselves as nationally Chinese, and a growing majority as nationally only Taiwanese. If the PRC were to attack, many international media outlets would no doubt run stories about how people in Taiwan are culturally Chinese anyway, idiotic ahistorical left wing websites would shout about how Taiwan independence is a Western plot to divide and weaken China, and the both sides would quickly become identified as ROC and PRC, the Taiwanese and their history of being colonised for 400 years washed away by a tsunami of pro-Chinese propaganda, whilst the West looked on helplessly and the US put its investments in the PRC before the rights of Taiwanese.
This is the danger of ‘both sides’ rhetoric and it illustrates the need for a clear understanding of the history of both Taiwan and Palestine and the role, impact, and legacies of colonialism upon both countries and peoples. To ignore the reality of colonialism, ‘regime-change’, and other manifestations of imperialism and global hegemonic influence seeking, and the way they have directly or indirectly shaped almost every single conflict that is occurring today, is a dangerous oversight, one that ultimately only legitimises and facilities further crimes against humanity by powerful “by politicians and the seemingly invincible forces of “history.” J’accuse Cole: western liberals writing from a position of comfort and security are usually the ones who see history as an invincible force because their identity, nation, and children are not the ones being erased from the record.