Stephen Kinzer Doesn’t Get It

I do not often comment on the extracurricular activities of the professors in my department, but after coming across this Op-Ed today, I cannot help but speak out.

Democrats and Republicans alike paused last Thursday to remember the assassination of a great American politician, Robert F. Kennedy forty years ago, June 5, 1968.  A powerful voice for democracy, liberty, civil rights, and responsible government, RFK was gunned down by disgruntled Palestinian émigré Sirhan Sirhan for his passionate support of the State of Israel. 

One of our very own political science professors at Northwestern University, Stephen Kinzer, has taken this opportunity to very publicly draw an “eminently” wrong message from this tragedy in the pages of the UK’s Guardian newspaper.  His thoughts?

Foreign interventions and entanglements often produce unpredictable, even unimaginable long-term consequences. The murder of Robert Kennedy is one example. If Israel had never come into existence, or if the United States had not supported it, or if Kennedy had not reaffirmed that support, Sirhan would probably never have pulled his trigger.

Ah, if only we had not stuck our neck out to support the only democracy and reliable ally we have in the Middle East, than we would still have a great man among us.  Lesson learned: let’s draw this country into complete diplomatic and security isolation so that we never make the mistake of taking an unpopular position on anything. 

How dare Robert Kennedy stand up for such an unpopular country!  Clearly his insight gained from serving as a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe on the eve of Israel’s independence in 1948 makes Kennedy the fool here.  He deserved what he got, right Dr. Kinzer?

Yes, the Palestinian people have every reason to be angry, even furious, at the lot history has thrown them.  But the answer to international terrorism is not to concede to its demands, curl up in a ball, and hope the mean and angry people slink away.  American support for Israel is not to blame for the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan is. 

The moment we relieve these killers of their responsibility for their own actions is the same moment we give them complete rhetorical license to do what they will whenever this country takes a policy stand with which they disagree.   To me, Kinzer’s position is more concerning than all the “unpredictable” consequences of foreign intervention combined if only because the consequences of his position are all the more predictable.

8 Responses to Stephen Kinzer Doesn’t Get It

  1. Jeffrey Saul says:

    Superb Analysis of the prof . he does not undertand history /alternative histories.

    How is the campus handling yr blog?

  2. arielzellman says:

    Truth be told, I don’t think anyone actually knows it exists.
    Benefit: zero knowledge = zero blowback
    Cost: zero knowledge = pointless ranting of an upset but anonymous student
    So it goes…

  3. Cari says:

    I read your blog! Some of the IR stuff is a bit beyond me, but I like hearing what other people in the cohort are studying or working on, especially since we won’t have classes together (because we’re DONE with classes forever, hurrah!)

  4. Paul says:

    Certainly, Stephen Kinzer’s article does not absolve Sirhan Sirhan for the crime of murder. It is merely reflecting on the unintended consequences of US involvement in another countries internal affairs, especially when that country is underdeveloped and/or going through some kind of internal struggle.

    The way Kinzer portrays Sirhan is not to invoke sympathy from the readers, but to make the reader understand how Sirhans anti-Israel ideology came into formation, and how RFK’s support of Israel affected him.

    In his writings, Kinzer does not take the position of a completely isolationist foreign policy for the United States, but maintains a clear conviction throughout nearly all of what I have read of his. It is that during the Cold War, the nearsightedness with which the United States conducted itself, in that any government that proclaimed to be anti-communist was an immediate ally of the US, despite other criteria such as massive human rights violations, international law violations, etc, led to intense anti-Americanism in some parts of the world. Anybody can see how this comes in play when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

  5. arielzellman says:

    Paul, I respectfully acknowledge your argument. The United States has suffered numerous consequences for its meddling in the affairs of other states, and this I certainly do not deny.

    However, supporting the creation of independent states for peoples native to their lands along the line of decolonization and self-determination was a policy consistently supported by most of the developing and developed world. Support for the continued existence of Israel against those that would seek to conquer or destroy it following the country’s founding is also clearly consistent with maintaining an international prohibition on wars of aggression and conquest. While the territorial outcomes of these wars have not been to the liking of many in the region, they have been the product of Israel’s efforts to defend itself and not of attempts to conquer its neighbors.

    That Kinzer believes the United States should turn its back on its allies, in affect disallowing these two principles that have been the foundation of international law since 1945, is a highly isolationist move. Yes, Sirhan Sirhan would not have murdered RFK if the United States had not supported Israel, but to say that we should have denied or withdrawn this support because of the potential of something like this occurring is absurd.

    The US must have both a realistic and principled foreign policy. Certainly the support of Israel falls in the realist category as a staunch ally during both the Cold War and the current flareup of international terrorism. As a matter of principle, defense of a people to live in their land free from the fear of genocide and political obliteration goes to the very heart of America’s modern internationalist ideals. The upholding of these basic principles unavoidably presents an opportunity for fanatics to denounce and attack this country. I am inclined to believe that maintaining these “controversial” principles are worth the risk. Stephen Kinzer may disagree.

  6. Susan says:

    I have to disagree with this statement: “Ah, if only we had not stuck our neck out to support the only democracy and reliable ally we have in the Middle East, than we would still have a great man among us.”

    Iran was a real democracy until the US decided we didn’t like their legally elected Prime Minister Mossadegh using the oil revenues for the people of Iran (instead of letting Great Britain’s oil co BP
    go on siphoning it for their use). We (US gov/CIA) used our finely honed Coup skills to take out their legitimate leader and put in a puppet who would do our (I mean US/multinational corporations) bidding. It backfired 2.5 decades later when the oppression of the people of Iran by the Shah reached a tipping point and started the revolution that put Khomeini in power and ignited radical fundamentalism and anti-American sentiment throughout the M.E. – except for Iraq, because Saddam was our buddy back then, and Israel, because we needed one friend we could always count on and a place to park our weapons-including nuclear.

    I think we might have better served ourselves and the rest of the world by supporting democracies instead of destroying them-and I can unfortunately include the US in the list of destroyed democracies (if we ever were).

  7. arielzellman says:

    Susan, you are correct as both the previous commenter and Kinzer have been to highlight that efforts at regime change have often backfired. However, your comment has little bearing on my criticism of Kinzer’s piece.

    His message in the op/ed is precisely the opposite of yours. While you have written that the US should be “supporting democracies instead of destroying them,” the implications of Kinzer’s argument are that we should be providing no support whatsoever.

    We cannot expect all people all over to world to be happy with the foreign policy of this country all the time. Nor can we afford to blindly set foreign policy determined only by realpolitik. That said, we must not decide which states we support or condemn on the basis of the threat presented by fanatics.

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