In “The Right War” The Putz babbles that America can’t fix Iraq, but we can make a difference. Well, we’ve sure as hell made a difference there over the past 10 years… MoDo, in “Back to Iraq,” says once again, we are ensnared in our mess in Mesopotamia. Mr. Cohen has a question: “Will the Voices of Conscience Be Heard?” He says Israelis and Palestinians struggle to defeat fear. Mr. Kristof also has a question: “Is a Hard Life Inherited?” He wants us to meet Rick Goff of Yamhill, Ore. His life story is a study in the national crisis facing working-class men. In “Grief, Smoke and Salvation” Mr. Bruni says a trailblazing ambassador for Israeli food acknowledges his secrets, his struggle and how the violence of his homeland factored into it all. Here’s The Putz:
Three times before last week’s decision to launch airstrikes against the self-styled caliphate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, President Obama was urged to intervene in Middle Eastern conflicts: in Libya in the spring of 2011, in Syria from 2011 onward and in Iraq two short months ago, when Baghdad was threatened by the swift advance of ISIS.
In each case, there were good reasons to hesitate. In Libya, we had little to gain strategically from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fall, and more to fear from the vacuum that might follow. Syria was a more significant theater, and Bashar al-Assad’s downfall a consummation more devoutly to be wished — but there as in Libya, there was little clarity about what forces (liberals? warlords? jihadis?) we would be empowering and what would follow Assad’s rule.
A similar problem existed for the recent battles outside Baghdad. There was no question that America had an interest in seeing the southward advance of ISIS rolled back. But dropping bombs on behalf of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s thuggish, failing government was a possible fool’s errand: We would have been essentially serving as “the air force for Shia militias” (to quote David Petraeus, no dove) and by extension for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
All three situations were hard calls, and the fact that intervention in Libya and inaction in Syria produced similar outcomes — rippling chaos and jihadi gains — has allowed both hawks and doves to claim vindication.
But in all three debates, the noninterventionist position ultimately had the better of the argument. We were better off sending advisers but not warplanes when ISIS threatened Baghdad; we were wise not to funnel arms (or at least not that many, depending on what the C.I.A.’s been doing) into Syria’s chaos; and Obama would have been wise to heed the cautious Robert Gates on Libya, rather than Samantha Power and Bernard-Henri Lévy.
The latest crisis, however, is different. This time, the case for war is much stronger, and the decision to intervene is almost certainly the right call.
In the earlier debates, the humanitarian case for action was in clear tension with strategic issues on the ground. In northern Iraq right now, the two are much more closely aligned. Alongside a stronger moral obligation to act than we had in Syria or Libya, we have a clear enough military objective, a more tested ally in the Kurds and a plausible long-term strategy that could follow from intervening now.
The stronger moral obligation flows from two realities. First, this humanitarian crisis is one our actions directly helped create: The cleansing of Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities began in the chaos following our invasion of Iraq, and it has taken a more ruthless turn because ISIS profited from the fallout from our too-swift 2011 withdrawal. (Indeed, it’s often using American-made weapons to harry, persecute and kill.)
Second, ISIS represents a more distinctive form of evil even than a butcher like Assad. As the blogger Razib Khan argued last week, the would-be caliphate is “utopian in its fundamentals,” and so its ruthless religious cleansing isn’t just a tyrant’s “tool to instill terror” and consolidate power; it’s the point of gaining power, an end unto itself.
These arguments — a distinctive obligation, a distinctive (and thus potentially more expansive) evil — still do not compel action absent a clear strategic plan, which is why the president was right to hesitate to take the fight to ISIS around Baghdad.
But in this case, such a plan is visible. We do not need to re-invade or restabilize Iraq to deal ISIS a blow and help its victims, because Kurdistan is already relatively stable, and the line of conflict is relatively clear. And the Kurds themselves, crucially, are a known quantity with a longstanding relationship to the United States — something that wasn’t on offer in Libya or Syria.
So our intervention in northern Iraq has a limited, attainable objective: Push ISIS back toward the Sunni heartland, allow its victims to seek refuge in Kurdish territory and increase the Kurds’ capacity to go on offense against the caliphate.
But if this president is thinking strategically, instead of just conducting a humanitarian drive-by, this intervention could also set the stage for a broader policy shift. Swiftly or gradually, depending on political developments in Baghdad, an independent, secure, well-armed Kurdistan could replace an unstable, perpetually fragmenting Iraq as the intended locus of American influence in the region.
That influence will be necessarily limited: We are not going to stamp out ISIS on our own, or prevent the Middle East’s rival coalitions — Sunni vs. Shiite, oligarchic vs. populist — from continuing their brutal proxy wars. There is not going to be a major American-aligned model nation in the Arab world anytime soon, of the sort the Iraq invasion’s architects naïvely hoped to build.
But by protecting a Kurdistan that can extend protection to groups made homeless by the fighting, we can still help save something from the wreckage.
Not a model, but a refuge.
Next up we have MoDo:
It was exhilarating to drop a bunch of 500-pound bombs on whatstheirname.
Just when Americans thought they could stop trying to figure out the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, we’re in a new war in Iraq with some bad “folks,” as the president might say, whose name we’re still fuzzy on.
We never know what we’re getting into over there, and this time we can’t even agree what to call the enemy. All we know is that a barbaric force is pillaging so swiftly and brutally across the Middle East that it seems like some mutated virus from a sci-fi film.
Most news organizations call the sulfurous spawn of Al Qaeda leading the rampage through Iraq “ISIS,” short for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” or “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.” (Isis is also the name of an Egyptian goddess and the Earl of Grantham’s yellow lab on “Downton Abbey.”) Yet the White House, State Department and United Nations refer to the group as “ISIL,” short for “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”
The BBC reported that some people have also started referring to the jihadis as “Da’ish” or “Daesh,” a designation that the extremists object to because it is “a seemingly pejorative term that is based on an acronym formed from the letters of the name in Arabic, ‘al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham.’ ” Al-Sham, the BBC noted, can be translated as “the Levant,” “Greater Syria,” “Syria” or “Damascus.”
Adding to the confusion, ISIS a.k.a. ISIL engaged in a slick “Mad Men” rebranding in June, announcing that, in tribute to its ambition to establish a caliphate, it was renaming itself “the Islamic State.” So then Agence France-Presse began referring to the militants as “IS” or “the group formerly known as ISIS,” and The Wall Street Journal switched to “IS.” The Times, however, still calls our murderous new enemy “ISIS” while quoting administration officials and military officers using the acronym “ISIL.”
It’s a bit odd that the administration is using “the Levant,” given that it conjures up a colonial association from the early 20th century, when Britain and France drew their maps, carving up Mesopotamia guided by economic gain rather than tribal allegiances. Unless it’s a nostalgic nod to a time when puppets were more malleable and grateful to their imperial overlords.
If all that is not confusing enough, we also have to fathom a new entry in the vicious religious wars in Iraq: the Yazidis, a small and secretive sect belonging to one of the oldest surviving religions in the world. Their faith has origins in Islam and Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by the Iranian prophet Zoroaster in the 6th century B.C. As Time pointed out, though the name “Izidis” translates to “worshipers of God,” ISIS considers them “devil-worshipers” who must convert to Islam or be killed.
ISIS mistakenly torments the sect that has survived 72 genocides, The Telegraph explained, because the Yazidis worship a fallen angel called the Malek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel. But unlike Lucifer, their angel sought forgiveness and went back to heaven.
Fifty thousand Yazidis were driven by the jihadis to take refuge on Mount Sinjar in Kurdish-controlled Erbil, where they were trapped and dying of dehydration and exposure, which spurred President Obama to order Navy planes to drop food and water for them.
Although it felt momentarily bracing to see American pilots trying to save innocents in a country we messed up so badly that it’s not even a country any more, some critics warned that the pinprick bombings were a political gesture, not a military strategy, and “almost worse than nothing,” as John McCain put it.
The latest turn of the screw in Iraq also underscored how we keep getting pulled back, “Godfather”-style, without ever understanding the culture. Our boneheaded meddling just creates ever-more-virulent monsters. The United States has taken military action in Iraq during at least 17 of the last 24 years, the ultimate mission creep in a country smaller than Texas on the other side of the world.
What better symbol of the Middle East quicksand than the fact that Navy planes took off for their rescue mission — two years after Obama declared the war in Iraq over — from the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea?
Bush Senior’s war to expel Saddam from Kuwait — a gas station of a country chockablock with spoiled rich Arabs — would not have been necessary if Saddam, a tyrant first enabled by J.F.K.’s C.I.A., had not been given the wrong signals by our side. W.’s war with Saddam, the prodigal son’s effort at outdoing his father, ended up undoing Iraq and the neglected Afghanistan.
Caught in the Sunni backlash and the back draft of his predecessor’s misguided attempt to impose democracy, Obama is leery and proceeding cautiously. But what can he do? He has dispatched a few hundred advisers to Iraq to fix something that couldn’t be fixed with the hundreds of thousands of troops over a decade.
Some fellow Democrats are fretting that the pull of Iraq will be too strong, after Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The president has not laid out a specific end date.” Iraq, after all, is a country that seems to have a malignant magnetism for our leaders.
We now get to Mr. Cohen:
There are good people and bad leaders the world over, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Plenty of Israelis and Palestinians work to build bridges, but their voices are lost in the stampede of zealots schooled in hatred and cynics adept in the manipulation of fear for the consolidation of power.
I was reminded of this in recent weeks. An email from an Israeli woman, Ruth Harari, told me of how her parents arrived in what would become Israel from Ukraine and Poland in the 1920s, how they built a kibbutz, how she was educated there in “the values and principles of freedom, honoring human beings whoever they were.” Her forebears stayed in Europe, where they vanished in the Holocaust. Hardship in the Holy Land never diluted her parents’ commitment to Israel and justice, ideas indivisible to them.
“We still have values,” she wrote during the third and most deadly Gaza eruption in six years, with its almost 2,000 dead, most of them Palestinian civilians. “For that reason, I argue, it is more painful for me as an Israeli to hear and see the footage of the innocents, children especially, in Gaza, and to read about the suffering inflicted upon them not only by Israeli attacks, but by the ferocity of their leadership. We have to sit and talk. We have to live with one another.”
What do such words amount to? No more than confetti in a gale, perhaps, scattered by the force of Hamas, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the unblushing Jewish advocates of forcible removal of Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and even Israel itself.
The center, it seems, cannot hold. This little war has had about it something of the Salem witch trials, bookended by murky incidents of murder or disappearance generating mass hysteria. With each war, each tweet, even, vitriol grows.
Hannah Arendt warned of the dangers of nationalism in a Jewish state; she thought it might be redoubled by dependence on the United States. I find another thought of hers more important: “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”
Conscience and individual courage do count, even if they appear powerless, especially if they appear powerless.
In a different context, the words of the father of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy killed in the buildup to the war, count: “Whether Jew or Arab, who would accept that his son or daughter would be kidnapped and killed?”
I talked to Andy Bachman, an American rabbi and friend. He is just back from two weeks in Israel. “I hear vile stuff,” he said. “My job is hope.” Never, he believes, has it been more critical for moderate Israelis and Palestinians to raise their voices in common cause. If Hamas is to be disarmed, as it must be, the only way in the end is to win the hearts and minds of other Palestinians through economic progress and justice.
Bachman, reflecting on the war’s moral dilemmas, cited the biblical story of Samuel. As Samuel ages, people see that his bribe-taking sons are not leadership material. They ask him to find them a king. Samuel consults God, who laments that “they have rejected Me, that I should not be King over them.” If the people only followed God’s law, they would not need a ruler. Samuel warns the people of the future predations of any king, but they will not be swayed. They insist “that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” In the end, God acquiesces.
For Bachman, the tension between living in a divine world of perfect justice and the violent human realm of imperfect choices is captured here. Zionism was just that: the desire to be “like all the nations,” a normal people with a leader — but that also means, in Bachman’s words, “making pained and sometimes horrible choices.” He said, “As a parent, I mourn so greatly the loss of innocent life. And equal to that feeling is one of horror and shame that Hamas ran a campaign knowing that would happen, making it part of their strategy.”
In Israel, Bachman works with Rebecca Bardach on a project called Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. It now runs five bilingual schools with 1,100 students, children learning Hebrew and Arabic and, above all, how coexistence works. The aim is to grow to as many as 15 integrated bilingual schools over the next decade.
Like individual voices of conscience, such undertakings seem flimsy beside walls, blockades, bullets, bombs, rockets and the relentless process of separation and division that pulls Jews and Palestinians apart. They are flimsy but no less important for that. They make the stranger human. They are interceptors of fear. The most useful commodity for the merchants of war and hatred is fear.
It will take immense courage now for Israelis who wrestle with their consciences to raise their voices for a two-state peace — and just as much for Palestinians to engage in open self-criticism of disastrous choices. The next time hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets for cheap housing, they should draw a connection between that demand and the billions spent on the occupation. An Israeli zealot killed Yitzhak Rabin. He cannot be allowed to kill Rabin’s last endeavor.
And now we get to Mr. Kristof:
One delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence.
In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards and music lessons. They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes.
Yet many are oblivious of their own advantages, and of other people’s disadvantages. The result is a meanspiritedness in the political world or, at best, a lack of empathy toward those struggling — partly explaining the hostility to state expansion of Medicaid, to long-term unemployment benefits, or to raising the minimum wage to keep up with inflation.
This has been on my mind because I’ve been visiting my hometown of Yamhill, Ore., a farming community that’s a window into the national crisis facing working-class men.
I love this little town, but the news is somber — and so different from the world I now inhabit in a middle-class suburb. A neighbor here just died of a heroin overdose; a friend was beaten up last night by her boyfriend; another friend got into a fistfight with his dad; a few more young men have disappeared into the maw of prison.
One of my friends here, Rick Goff, 64, lean with a lined and weathered face and a short pigtail (maybe looking a bit like Willie Nelson), is representative of the travails of working-class America. Rick is immensely bright, and I suspect he could have been a lawyer, artist or university professor if his life had gotten off to a different start. But he grew up in a ramshackle home in a mire of disadvantage, and when he was 5 years old, his mom choked on a piece of bacon, staggered out to the yard and dropped dead.
“My dad just started walking down the driveway and kept walking,” Rick remembers.
His three siblings and he were raised by a grandmother, but money was tight. The children held jobs, churned the family cow’s milk into butter, and survived on what they could hunt and fish, without much regard for laws against poaching.
Despite having a first-class mind, Rick was fidgety and bored in school. “They said I was an overactive child,” he recalls. “Now they have name for it, A.D.H.D.”
A teacher or mentor could have made a positive difference with the right effort. Instead, when Rick was in the eighth grade, the principal decided to teach him that truancy was unacceptable — by suspending him from school for six months.
“I was thinking I get to go fishing, hang out in the woods,” he says. “That’s when I kind of figured out the system didn’t work.”
In the 10th grade, Rick dropped out of school and began working in lumber mills and auto shops to make ends meet. He said his girlfriend skipped town and left him with a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son to raise on his own.
Rick acknowledges his vices and accepts responsibility for plenty of mistakes: He smoked, drank too much for a time and abused drugs. He sometimes hung out with shady people, and he says he has been arrested about 30 times but never convicted of a felony. Some of his arrests were for trying to help other people, especially to protect women, by using his fists against bullies.
In that respect, Rick can actually be quite endearing. For instance, he vows that if anyone messes with my mother, he’ll kill that person.
A generation or two ago, Rick might have ended up with a stable family and in a well-paid union job, creating incentives for prudent behavior. Those jobs have evaporated, sometimes creating a vortex of hopelessness that leads to poor choices and becomes self-fulfilling.
There has been considerable progress in material standards over the decades. When I was a kid, there were still occasional neighbors living in shacks without electricity or plumbing, and that’s no longer the case. But the drug, incarceration, job and family instability problems seem worse.
Rick survives on disability (his hand was mashed in an accident) and odd jobs (some for my family). His health is frail, for he has had heart problems and kidney cancer that almost killed him two years ago.
Millions of poorly educated working-class men like him are today facing educational failure, difficulty finding good jobs, self-medication with meth or heroin, prison records that make employment more difficult, hurdles forming stable families and, finally, early death.
Obviously, some people born into poverty manage to escape, and bravo to them. That tends to be easier when the constraint is just a low income, as opposed to other pathologies such as alcoholic, drug-addicted or indifferent parents or a neighborhood dominated by gangs (I would argue that the better index of disadvantage for a child is not family income, but how often the child is read to).
Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failing to hit home runs. The advantaged sometimes perceive empathy as a sign of muddle-headed weakness, rather than as a marker of civilization.
In effect, we have a class divide on top of a racial divide, creating a vastly uneven playing field, and one of its metrics is educational failure. High school dropouts are five times as likely as college graduates to earn the minimum wage or less, and 16.5 million workers would benefit directly from a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
Yes, these men sometimes make bad choices. But just as wealthy Americans inherit opportunity, working-class men inherit adversity. As a result, they often miss out on three pillars of middle-class life: a job, marriage and a stable family, and seeing their children succeed.
One of Rick’s biggest regrets is that his son is in prison on drug-related offenses, while a daughter is in a halfway house recovering from heroin addiction.
The son just had a daughter who was born to a woman who has three other children, fathered by three other men. The odds are already stacked against that baby girl, just as they were against Rick himself.
This crisis in working-class America doesn’t get the attention it deserves, perhaps because most of us in the chattering class aren’t a part of it.
There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy.
And last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:
People who don’t know the full truth about Mike Solomonov judge him by his fried chicken at Federal Donuts, a cult favorite in this city, and by his hummus at Zahav, an Israeli restaurant here of national renown. They’re the signposts in a career that has burned bright in recent years and seems destined to burn brighter still.
But they’re not his real success. They’re not what his wife and best friends look at with so much gratitude — and so much relief. Those closest to Mike realize that his crucial achievement is staying clean. And it’s measured in the number of days in a row that he’s drug-free.
When he opened Zahav in May 2008, he was sleeping just an hour or two many nights, and the reason wasn’t work. It was crack cocaine. He smoked it compulsively. Sometimes he mixed things up and smoked — or snorted — heroin instead. There was also booze: Scotch, vodka, triple sec, whatever was within reach. His reputation was on the rise. He was on the skids.
“I was living a double life,” Mike, 35, told me. “I look back and I’m horrified.”
Until now he hasn’t gone into detail about this publicly. But with two new restaurants about to open and a PBS documentary about his culinary love affair with Israel in the works, he found himself haunted by the sense that he wasn’t being wholly honest, wasn’t owning up to how easily all of this might have slipped away, wasn’t sounding the warning and sharing the lessons that he could.
“Nobody expects somebody like me to be a recovering crackhead,” he said. “I felt I was holding back.”
So last week he told me his story, all of it. It has an added pathos right now, because the violence in Israel echoes a personal heartbreak that fed his addiction, the worst of which followed the death of his younger brother, David, in 2003, at the age of 21. He was killed by sniper fire on the border with Lebanon while he served in the Israeli army. He was just three days shy of the end of his military commitment.
The two brothers grew up partly in the United States and partly in Israel, although David spent more time there. Mike did the opposite, and went to college at the University of Vermont, although he lasted just three semesters. He partied more than he studied. To pay for all the pot he was smoking, he became a dealer.
“I was the guy who always did a little too much,” he said. And he was fine with that, at least until the night when he took a fistful of Xanax to counterbalance an excess of cocaine. He passed out and woke up in a hospital bed some 12 hours later, his stomach pumped.
For a while he straightened up. Buckled down. Learned to cook, graduating from a bakery near Tel Aviv to culinary school in Florida to work in Philadelphia. He had a job at the venerated Italian restaurant Vetri when he got the news about David. The call came as he drove a family car, a green Hyundai Accent, from Pittsburgh back to Philadelphia so that David, who was about to move to the United States, could claim it.
David hadn’t even been scheduled for duty on the day he died, but it was Yom Kippur and he’d swapped places with a soldier who wanted to go to synagogue. Mike couldn’t stop thinking about that or about his recklessness with his own life and how little sense any of this made.
“This is a horrible thing to say, but of the two of us, if one should have ended up dead at a young age, he didn’t deserve it,” he said, shaking his head.
He turned to drugs to blot out his grief, which also became the perfect excuse, the perfect cover. He was stealthy enough that his business partner, Steve Cook, didn’t catch on. Nor did his wife, Mary, whom he married in 2006.
Sometimes when he fetched supplies in the middle of a workday, he’d take a detour to buy crack and smoke it in the car: the green Hyundai meant for David.
And sometimes after Mary went to sleep at night, he’d quietly drive off to find more, and he’d cruise around the city high and drunk, returning at daybreak, he said, to “slither back into bed” before she woke up. The chirping of birds in the dawn stillness grew familiar. It was as if they were shaming and mocking him.
He grew thinner and thinner. Mary saw it, but not really. What opened her eyes was his sudden, strange illness during a vacation in Bermuda in July 2008. He was in withdrawal, because he’d gone too quickly through some heroin that he’d secretly carried with him. Back home, she consulted Steve and they confronted Mike one morning, telling him that they were taking him to rehab right then. He pleaded for a few minutes and walked into the yard.
He remembers thinking, “I could just jump the fence. I wouldn’t be the first junkie running around South Philly in my bathrobe.”
He went back inside. He did the program. Then he attended 12-step meetings, as often as every day. Steve and his wife handled the transportation, because they didn’t want him alone in that Hyundai.
“I was scared,” Steve said, noting that the restaurant Zahav had been up and running for only a few months. “We had almost $1 million that we’d signed for personally — investors, loans.” He needed Mike to be healthy.
Mary was angry. But, she said, “He needed help and support. And I remember my sister saying, ‘You don’t leave people at their darkest hour.’ ” She monitored Mike’s recovery by making him take random drug tests. After a lapse or two at the start, he passed each one, and she could see how hard he was trying.
The impulse to get high doesn’t completely vanish. It flickers back. Mike remembers that in the hours around midnight on July 23, 2011, he had the fleeting notion that he could easily sneak off and find drugs. It was a reflexive reaction to being all alone, with his wife out of the house, and the thought wasn’t squelched by the reason she was gone. She was in the hospital. She’d just given birth to the first of their two sons.
He doesn’t want to lie about these things. He wants to hold himself to full account.
In so many regards he’s lucky, he said, and one is that he’s found a better way to respond to losing his brother: through his cooking, which pays tribute to the country and the people his brother died for. The restaurant Dizengoff, officially opening on Monday, is a classic Israeli hummusiya, focusing on quick meals of hummus and small salads. Abe Fisher, which is scheduled to open early next month, will serve dishes of the Jewish diaspora, and its name is a mash-up of Jewish ancestors of his and Steve’s.
Last October Mike led a group of American chefs on a tour of Israel. They paused to cook a special meal on the 10th anniversary of David’s death. Mike made brief remarks, describing a painting by David that hung above his firstborn son’s changing table, a prompt for telling the boy about the missing man in whose memory he’d been named. Mike would remind his son, before they left the room: “Say goodbye to Uncle David.”